In my recent post on the need to stop giving the ‘benefit of clergy’, I argued that we should not allow the notion of ‘respect for religion’ to be used as a shield to protect religious ideas from the scrutiny that any idea should deserve. For example, I suspect that some atheists, even when the topic of religion comes up, shy away from even saying that they are atheists out of a misplaced sense that this mere statement of fact might ‘offend’ the religious people around them. I know that I used to think this way, but not any longer.
As an example of how my attitude has changed, here is an incident that happened a couple of weeks ago. I am a subscriber to a listserv of physics teachers where the topics usually deal with how to teach physics better. Just before Christmas, one person sent the following message to everyone:
The following was written by Ben Stein and recited by him on CBS Sunday Morning Commentary.
My confession :
I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees, Christmas trees. I don’t feel threatened. I don’t feel discriminated against. That’s what they are: Christmas trees.
It doesn’t bother me a bit when people say, ‘Merry Christmas’ to me. I don’t think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn’t bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu. If people want a crèche, it’s just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.
I don’t like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don’t think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can’t find it in the Constitution and I don’t like it being shoved down my throat.
Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship celebrities and we aren’t allowed to worship God as we understand Him? I guess that’s a sign that I’m getting old, too. But there are a lot of us who are wondering where these celebrities came from and where the America we knew went to.
In light of the many jokes we send to one another for a laugh, this is a little different: This is not intended to be a joke; it’s not funny, it’s intended to get you thinking.
Billy Graham’s daughter was interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her ‘How could God let something like this happen?’ (regarding Katrina). Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response. She said, ‘I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we’ve been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?’
In light of recent events… terrorists attack, school shootings, etc. I think it started when Madeleine Murray O’Hare (she was murdered, her body found a few years ago) complained she didn’t want prayer in our schools, and we said OK. Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school. The Bible says thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself. And we said OK.
Then Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn’t spank our children when they misbehave because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem (Dr Spock’s son committed suicide). We said an expert should know what he’s talking about. And we said OK.
Now we’re asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don’t know right from wrong, and why it doesn’t bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves.
Probably, if we think about it long and hard enough, we can figure it out. I think it has a great deal to do with ‘WE REAP WHAT WE SOW.’
Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world’s going to hell. Funny how we believe what the newspapers say, but question what the Bible says. Funny how you can send ‘jokes’ through e-mail and they spread like wildfire but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people think twice about sharing. Funny how lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene articles pass freely through cyberspace, but public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace.
Are you laughing yet?
Funny how when you forward this message, you will not send it to many on your address list because you’re not sure what they believe, or what they will think of you for sending it.
Funny how we can be more worried about what other people think of us than what God thinks of us.
Pass it on if you think it has merit. If not then just discard it… no one will know you did. But, if you discard this thought process, don’t sit back and complain about what bad shape the world is in.
My Best Regards, Honestly and respectfully,
I don’t know if this purported statement from Stein was genuine or not but the forwarder clearly thought that this farrago of nonsense was meaningful enough to send to an entire listserv of physics teachers. Maybe he was prodded into doing so by the clever implication in the last three paragraphs that if he did not do so he was a coward, not having the courage of his beliefs.
There was a time when I would have kept my disagreement with such a message to myself, out of a misplaced sense of ‘respect for religion’, despite the fact that my silence lent credibility to such absurd ideas. The ‘respect for religion’ mantra says that even if I think the sentiments are absolute rubbish and even despicable, the sender probably sincerely believed in them, and his tender religious feelings should not be hurt or his beliefs shaken by my challenging them.
But I no longer agree with that stance. Since the sender had put his ideas out into the public sphere, I felt they were open for criticism and this is what I wrote to the entire listserv in response:
So let me see if I got the point of this message: God is ticked off at America because the founders inserted the Establishment Clause into the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution. He is so thin-skinned and touchy that he got mad about this and so is not lifting a finger to help all the poor and helpless (and even infants) who are killed and devastated by things like Katrina. And Ben Stein and Anne Graham know all his because God explains his actions by whispering his reasons only in their ears.
Sure makes sense to me!
Was my response harsh? Yes, but I think the message and the sender merited it. What particularly annoyed me was that he would not have dreamed of sending a message to a group of physics teachers advocating some crackpot physics theory for which he had no evidence or which made no logical sense. But he felt free to do so about some crackpot religious theory, presumably because he had got accustomed to those ideas being either actively supported or met with a respectful silence that he could interpret as tacit support, thus reinforcing his belief in the correctness of his ideas. I no longer let such things pass unchallenged.
It is not that I am always a curmudgeon. There are occasions when I think you should let things go, as when people are using religious ideas as a psychological crutch to cope with some personal difficulty. And if a person had said something similar in the private sphere, I would have framed my disagreement more gently. But when people (like the sender of the above message) use the public sphere for no other purpose than to advance their own religious views, the gloves come off.
POST SCRIPT: “Ask an Atheist” forum
CWRU’s Case Center for Inquiry is holding an open forum where people can ask a panel of atheists any question they want. This is part of their effort to create a better understanding of atheism. I am the faculty advisor for the group and will be one of the four panel members.
When: Thursday, February 5, 2009 7-9 PM
Where: Strosacker Auditorium, CWRU campus