Offended Atheist Gets Stupid Christian Billboard Taken Down

The Billboard in question (via The Daily Mail)

So this happened. I’ll summarise what I’m focused on in the blogpost itself if you don’t want to read all of that (oh no, reading! *hiss*!).

Basically, an atheist…

lodged a consumer complaint against a billboard for River’s Church located on its premises in Sandton [which is in South Africa, international readers].

The billboard features an image of a man holding his hands against the temples of his face. The following quote “An atheist is a man who believes himself to be an accident – Francis Thompson” appears underneath.

The complaint then:

In essence, the complainant submitted that the billboard offends him as an atheist as he does not consider his existence to be an accident. Secondly, the depiction of a man with an empty head communicates that atheists are stupid.

The following are my preliminary thoughts when reading about this ruling. (Note: the Christian respondent “smartly” – read idiotically – responded with Bible quotes. Nice move, guy. That’s really going to convince an atheist.)

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Are We Born Atheists?

A recurring rebuttal from some atheist thinkers, to convey ideas about atheism, is to assert “We are all born atheists”. This is used to show believers that we have all been at some point atheists. Perhaps, too, we are almost all of us atheists of most gods that have been proposed – and indeed of those that have not even been considered yet.  According to the definition of ‘atheism’ Paul Cliteur finds most important, however, we cannot be atheists of that which we haven’t considered, which means we cannot say we are born atheists.

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Stepping Over Graves

Image Courtesy of my great friend and creative partner Damien Worm

The year began with a life ending. My grandmother was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and died quickly – but, thankfully, painlessly – within a few weeks. Her bodily deterioration scraped down the iron exterior of her social self. I had grown up with her presence always filling any room or event that we attended. The gaps of silence between withdrawn family members forced to interact, the awkward distances moulded by time apart between once close siblings and cousins, were filled by her incredibly sharp – usually scathing – wit, creating a bridge on which interaction could take place. She was someone who was lucky enough to have more people love her than she loved; not through malice but through being unaware that so many did.

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Fritzl, Faith and Folly

1.

I recently watched a documentary on Josef Fritzl, the Austrian man who kidnapped, drugged, and raped his daughter for 24 years; forcing her to be his sex-slave and mother to incestuous grandchildren. What more evidence is required for us to postulate the non-existence of a loving, caring god? Certainly, the systematic extermination of nearly an entire race of people was not enough; the brutality of the world throwing up destruction – whether through volcanoes or hurricanes – does not dint the happy glaze in the faithful’s eyes; and now, a woman raped by her father and kept in his dungeon for a quarter of a century, does not appear to slow faith, either.

Ideally, I would like to stop there and say: The jig is up. There is no man behind the curtain. Praying is the still-frame of an audience slow-clapping for the arrival of their beloved stage performer. Yet this performance has ended, there is no one watching out for you. We are here to look after ourselves and, by definition, each other. Leaving it up to god to catch your babies, let your favourite football team win, get you that hot date, earn your promotion, get you through this terrible ordeal, cure your son’s incurable disease, stop your wife’s neverending pain as cancer destroys her from the inside, take grandma up into heaven, forgive the wrongs of murderers and pimps and drug-lords, proclaim what’s right or wrong, is not a viable alternative to facing this stupid, bigoted, terrible world we live in. This is not a place of happiness. It is a place filled with suffering, with stupidity, with bigotry, which, after our toil and struggle, ends finally in death. Continue reading

Ask the Atheists: Stones and Feathers

I was happily informed today that I am an answerer on the wonderful website, AsktheAtheists.com. I have answered two questions so far, but I’m intrigued and rather happy with the format of the whole website. The editor has specifically asked us not be nasty or dismissive of questions; it doesn’t mean we must answer every one of course, but, when we do, to try explain gently since the questioner has bothered to come to the website and deposit a nugget of curiosity.

I’m not sure what the site traffic is like, but frankly that’s not of interest to me. Having recently faced students asking me what to do with some new found doubts in their religious faith, I’ m attempting to learn methods of education that actually are efficient. This doesn’t mean being always gentle or always brutal, but learning to be sensitive to the environment, contender and context to know whether to use stones or feathers to get them to change their position.

Do have a look at the website and please provide feedback on what you think of the site. Now, my next aim is to one day be a panelist on this site.

Misunderstanding Nonbelief: Cracked.com’s David Wong Gets it Wrong, Part #1

Unable to relinquish my love of Cracked.com, I find myself constantly perusing it to the detriment of many other projects (like my thesis, assignments, girlfriend and life in general). This is not completely without merit, considering its basis in knowledge-generation and our shared dislike of all things Gaga, Palin and Scientology. When Cracked writers touch on religion, however, they make noises that harmonise all too well with bad apologetics and a simple-minded “Cant-We-All-Get-Along” attitude, which, I think, is dripping with a juvenile, optimistic and, unfortunately, ignorant assessment of the matters at hand.

David Wong, one of their best writers, wrote an article with the dewy-eyed title of “10 Things Christians and Atheists Can (And Must) Agree On”. In it he outlines 10 simplistic foundations which are aimed at making both sides drop their eyes, rub their necks and mumble apologies. He targets primarily Christians and atheists. He claims that both have got it oh so wrong in their “approach”.

Let’s get some preliminaries out the way: there are, undoubtedly, good and terrible ways to engage with people of the opposite metaphysical and moral persuasion. By this I mean groups of people who either believe morals come from divine sources or natural ones (even a mixture of the two, as in theistic evolution, falls into the former since the source remains divine). Sure: there are fence-sitters and swingers, who dance between because their feet are on fire from heated aggression or heated argument or burning reasonable truth from either side. But, arguments for agnosticism are very boring and, really, can also be bifurcated. You can be a staunch agnostic because of atheistic arguments but not be a complete atheist yourself.

I agree with Wong on this point: there are bad arguments for my side. But from there his train of thoughts goes off the rails of rationality. Let us look at his arguments.

His first subtitle is: “Celebrating the death of somebody you disagreed with pretty much makes you a dick.” As he explains: “I doubt anybody reading this has ever waved a snarky sign at a funeral, so I think we’re pretty much all in the same boat still. See? Common ground.” Using this as a template, he says it’s possible to find more and perhaps controversial places to find firm ground for both sides.

But why does this make you a dick? Firstly, consider the death of Jerry Falwell.

Hitchens, in this famous clip, talks about what a horrible, little man Falwell was. Calling him a toad and a fraud, Hitchens makes an important point: Hitchens said these things about Falwell while Falwell was alive. Hitchens is celebrating his death, I think, because Falwell cannot continue his fraud and cause suffering to any more people. This, to me, is reason to celebrate. Is anyone saddened when dictators die? Sure, a dictator’s death is not the immediate recreation of a country into a proper functioning liberal democracy, but it is a good first step if there are those willing to do so. What is wrong with celebrating a people finally being freed from a tyrant? This is a good emotion. Should we have a moment of silence for the death of mass murderers in jail? This is silly.

Secondly, as Hitchens highlights, just because someone dies, does not mean we change our tune. If you do change your tune, suddenly talking about what a wonderful person s/he was, then you are being inconsistent and, it seems, a “dick”. But, if you are playing the same tune at their funeral that you played at their birthday, I don’t see a problem. Wong is wrong, here.

Wong then launches into a series of arguments for common ground, having failed to establish what his first one could possibly mean.

“1. You Can Do Terrible Things in the Name of Either One”

According to Wong, “All I need from you is agreement that it’s entirely possible for either an atheist or theist world to devolve into a screaming murder festival. The religious leader sends his people into battle because he thinks God commanded it, the Stalins and Maos of the world do the same because they see their people as nothing more than meaty fuel to be ground up to feed the machinery of The State. In both cases, the people are equally dead.”

Yes, he opens with the Stalin-card. This should strike anyone even vaguely read in the various literature as a bad start.

Wong doesn’t tell us what he means by “atheism”. As I have said elsewhere, atheism is a useless term. It means, merely, a lack of belief in deities (or a belief there are no deities, though this latter definition is somewhat controversial. I certainly have no problem with it, however. I am as certain there are no supernatural gods as I am there are no pink unicorns). Wong falls into the same mistake as so many others, by making atheism into something relating to one particular deity – that is, the deity of the theism, particular Christianity. Perhaps this is what some people mean by atheism (which is why I think the term ‘atheism’ problematic) – but how insulting to all the other religions and deities that have existed! There is nothing special about the Christian god to us nonbelievers. We don’t believe in him any more/less than Zeus or Loki.

Believers have yet to tell us what makes disbelieving in their particular god, of their particular denomination, of their particular religion, so much more threatening to our souls (which they must also still prove) than not believing in all the others. (For an excellent list that illustrates this point, see here)

There is nothing to be done with atheism: it tells you almost nothing about a person’s morality, politics, personality and so on. Yes, there’s a lot to be said if we think someone believes she is here because of divine or natural reasons, but branching out from that is difficult if not impossible. Believers and nonbelievers support abortion policies, no slavery, women’s emancipation. What is more interesting, and I think fair, in the Great God Debate (stifle the yawn, please) is what both sides do “believe” in.

My apologies for those (very) few who have read my previous piece on this, but I must reiterate. I cannot speak for all atheists – only one may do so and even he does it in three voices – but my focus is based on what some call “Enlightenment values”. Valuing reason over faith, evidence over authority, ethical deliberation and reflection over Papal rules and regulation, beauty for its own sake, the reduction of suffering, and so on. The works of Paine and Jefferson, Kant and Bentham, Leonardo and Galileo, Darwin and Einstein, Russell and Neiman, Schopenhauer and Hume – and so on. Show me how a society, founded not only on these types of works, but also on these types of values – of reflection, evidence and reality – fall prey to the very things they all oppose – despotism, dictatorship, genocide, unjustified authority – and we will be on firmer ground.

It is simply idiotic to say we can talk about what Stalin didn’t believe in but what the Catholic Church did believe in – and somehow say both can lead to suffering. As I say, we should base our judgements in these debates on what both sides do believe in to make headway. There are millions of things we do not believe in, but play no part in the discussion. For example, it is an almost certainty that Stalin did not believe in the dancing fairies at the edge of my fingers. Similarly, Christians do not believe in it – does that mean that Christians will end up causing suffering because they share a disbelief with Stalin? This is a terrible argument and one that needs to be done away with. This is what the faithful claim when making the “Stalin move”: that we nonbelievers share a nonbelief with Stalin, and therefore, will end up endorsing regimes of death. Yet, we can easily pull the same card by saying: Stalin disbelieved in, say, Muhammad narrating the Final Word of God. Most Christians disbelieve this, too – therefore, Christians again are likely to be Stalinists. This is a bad argument.

So, no, Mr Wong. You are again, wrong.

Whereas we can point to the Magic Books of the three monotheists which include licences to murder and massacre, we cannot do the same for nonbelievers. After all, we nonbelievers do not think any of our favourite thinkers are anything other than fallible human beings (Jefferson endorsed slavery, Aristotle thought woman an incomplete man, Paine was too talented as a writer, etc.). We do not claim our books are magic or are written or inspired by deities. Fallibility is not a word recognisable to faith. And indeed nonbelievers can also treat thinkers as automatic authorities (as seen with some philosophers claiming Hume’s “is/ought” gap is impassable and, therefore, it is taboo to say science can say anything about morality); but when nonbelievers do this, they would be defeating what I see as a fundamental value: giving in to authority without critical reflection and a willingness to admit fallibility.

But, as I highlighted, atheists might very well do this because there is no unification principle of any interest with atheists save our shared disbelief in deities. They might very well give into various views I find idiotic or abhorrent, like The Secret, The Law of Attraction, etc. It only highlights that you cannot speak of any unification of atheistic views on matters of morality or politics. I might be a utilitarian and an atheist but someone else might be a Aristotelian-Communitarian and an atheist. Not realising this important point makes any argument against the Straw Man Atheist boring and impotent, as seen here.

“2. Both Sides Really Do Believe What They’re Saying”

This is a description which is perfectly unhelpful. So what? Wong justifies his point by highlighting people willing to die for their beliefs. This, Wong, proves people really believe it (for God, country, and freedom. People will kill themselves over anything and are willing to do the same to others) Here Wong makes one of the worst arguments – and there are plenty throughout this bad piece – I’ve encountered. Here is evidence Wong really is quite myopic and ignorant in his thoughts. Addressing us nonbelievers, he says:

If there’s no God, then there is something in the human brain that can and does present an amazingly realistic impression of one. A gland, an artifact of environmental pattern recognition, whatever you want to pin it on, the result is, at certain times and in certain moods, as tangible and real and distinct as the person sitting across from you on the subway.

You can say they’re wrong. You can say it all day, you can etch “YOU’RE WRONG” into the surface of the moon with a giant laser. But you’ll have a lot less angst if you remember that the thing they’re wrong about is something they honestly believe, down to their roots. I guess you could just call them crazy, but it’s a little silly to use that word when believers are the norm in human population. (Italics added.)

Reread that second paragraph. Our immediate thought should take us right back to Robert M. Pirsig, in his best-selling Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where he famously says: “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion.”

Unfortunately, Mr Wong, reality is not dependant on majority opinion. In one USA poll, in 2005, the majority of respondents rejected evolution as a fact. Does that mean we should accept their view because it is the majority? Similarly, it is highly likely great parts of the world thought our planet flat centuries ago. Did our planet alter its shape over time? Of course not. As Philip K. Dick so beautifully put it: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

So, if tomorrow, everyone except David Wong has a momentary revelation that states: “Everyone named David Wong is a blue cow” would that mean they are right? Would it make them sane because the delusion is dispersed? Spreading a bad belief does not make its statements any more real, any more true, nor any less insane, any less stupid. It only makes idiocy unafraid to display itself. No matter how many people believe David Wong is a blue cow, it is not true. And Mr Wong would be perfectly right to call everyone except himself insane.

As to the first paragraph, I am uncertain what his point is. I don’t think he fully thought out that paragraph. A gland? It is certainly thought that our incredible pattern-recognition is the basis of all superstition. The derivation of false-positives resulted in our ancestors being the ones to survive the dangerous landscapes of the past (movement in the grass = lion hunting me > movement in the grass = just some wind. The former more likely to survive.).

People believe all sorts of things are real because of this adaptation: Loch Ness, UFO’s, ghosts, spirits, elves, fairies and so on. It does not make it real. Just because we know why people believe in these things does not make it real. And this is important – if we maintained Mr Wong’s view that because it part of our adaptation, we must simply accept it, we would never bother curing ailments with medicine, since people really, really believe prayer would work. Because the sick little girl hasn’t got some bacterial infection, she has a demon. So what if we can describe where all these bad ideas come from? The point is, we know they are false, we can prove they are false and, more importantly, we have better explanations. Mr Wong ignoring this makes a terrible move.

(I also ask Mr Wong, in talking about god representation to contemplate Shermer’s First and Last Law: Any significantly advanced intelligent alien being is indistinguishable from god.)

I will continue my discussion of Wong’s post over the next few days.

Why it’s better that life is ultimately meaningless

There is no god

Without god, there is no fairy-tale ending to this life. Life, filled with glory and suffering, heart-filled wonder and atrophied passion, comes to a sudden end with a flat-line: a monotone ending to a symphonic life.

And being human, we can’t help but have rhapsodic variations on the theme of this ‘condition’. Dylan Thomas rightly warned his father to rage, rage against the dying of the light. But his assertions apply to us all and not only toward the end of life – to ‘not go gently into that good night’ is not merely about the end of existence but apathy, too. Indeed, as the French define the moment after sex as ‘the little death’, so giving in to apathetic nihilism is itself a kind of self-destruction – though not one that follows pleasure like la petite more.

 

Thomas knew all about self-destruction

One difficulty in cleaning the fairy-dust off the collar of maturity, before we straighten it and head out into the world with all its indifference and difficulty, is precisely this: to not give into the apathetic nihilism that calls to many. Of course being a complete nihilist is an almost impossibility, which is something Nietzsche highlighted quite often in his writing. The passion Nietzsche called for – as opposed to what Mel Gibson yelled for – recast in Anglo-Saxon eloquence by Dylan Thomas, is something we need to set straight our sails. Nihilism is not only counter-productive, it is also boring. Life’s ultimate meaninglessness is enough without trudging through it with dreary abandon and the heavy boots of banality, finally caught by a sense of fatigue, only to drop without pause into the grave. This will not do.

But remember, we don’t need fairy-dust to fly (we have planes), we don’t need gods to be moral (we have ethics), we don’t need heaven to find meaning (we have reality), and we don’t need myths to position ourselves (we have the ground). This is what it means to straighten the collar of maturity; we have no super best friends by our shoulders guiding us through our life.

 

Would you want these Super Best Friends following you around?

Our lives are perhaps the ultimate expression of Ecclesiastes 1:18: ‘For in much wisdom is much grief; and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.’ As nonbelievers, we care about what’s true. What the religions teach, or rather, preach, is not true. Our conclusions as to the veracity of religions’ claims might initially sadden some; for others, like myself, it can be ecstatic. Or, as Bertrand Russell said, exhilarating.

So, whilst we might increase our knowledge about the world, finding religions’ claims lacking, we respond in different ways. Ultimately, however, we cannot escape the sorrow that our lives will end – indeed, for some of us, painfully. Others might be glad to see it end (and not for reasons that would legitimise euthanasia), but then, this discussion does not apply to such people.

It is easier to perhaps not think of future non-existence (death) than to truly face his haggard grin. To think on life is itself to think on death. As Cicero put it: ‘To study philosophy is nothing but to prepare one’s self to die.’ We often hear the phrase that death is a part of life, as if that somehow is consoling. Instead, we must learn to not ignore death. But, because of our strong ties to finding out what is true, we cannot let our future corpses force our current passions to stagnate. We are not wormfood yet, we are not ash in the wind today.

So, if life is ultimately meaningless, if death is the end for our individual life, if no tawdry reward awaits us after – which turns us all into a choir-slaves if we’re good and satanic playthings if we’re bad – what are we to do? It seems obvious from this that our brief splutter of life now, our little light of current realisation, should ignite a passion to live fully, greatly, wonderfully – but, most importantly – freely. Enclosing flames puts them out. As we rage, we must rage for good reason. And there are plenty – primarily they should be about others lives, other fires. We should aim at bettering the lives of others, since overall, we benefit ourselves.

Truly it is magnificent that life is ultimately meaningless. Firstly, I would feel enormous responsibility and, therefore, fear if my actions had cosmic repercussions. I don’t know how people who are guided by The Secret and astrology manage to live everyday without going mad from the echoes of their failures and over-indulgence and solipsism. Secondly, it means I am not special to anyone other than those who can directly appreciate my meaningfulness. This is not an ultimate meaningfulness, but a protracted one, in which loved ones come to orbit my tiny life. We need no more than that. We are, indeed, lucky if people know us and appreciate us beyond our immediate circle. But a greater gaze means a greater scrutiny: for this reason, we all are forced into knowing the sexual goings-on of B-list actors. Yet, ultimately, it leads back to my first point: that kind of responsibility is terrifying. Finally, living a life that has no ultimate meaning seems to indicate freedom – I am not tied to ancient scripture into maintaining a cosmic balance, I have no need to consult sexually-repressed, old men about what a deity needs from me, personally, in order that he doesn’t wipe out the species. I am free to be an adult, to face the slings and arrows of this outrageous fortune of living but not asking for it, facing suffering that in the end has no meaning. The price-tag on freedom, in this sense, is high; what we had to go through, as a species, so that I might pen these words, is something too awful and too incredible to at once consider.

Schopenhauer, in his magnificent The World as Will and Representation, asks the following: if you compounded all of a person’s suffering and hardship that he will go through in his life into one long act, an act of suffering bleeding into another, we must ask this person: ‘Do you want to live this life?’ For Schopenhauer, the answer was an obvious no. Schopenhauer does not ask about the opposite: what if we took all the joy and wonder in a person’s life and showed her? It seems obvious the person would then take it. If we showed both, which would we let the person experience first? Pain or happiness? Suffering or security? Schopenhauer was not myopic in leaving out the corollary to his question. He was particularly sensitive to the suffering of the world as a whole; a feeling, he stated, that we could all feel quite sharply. We all could feel the horror of the world, of differing lives; but we rarely could, to the same level, be affected by joy and wonder. No matter how many rainbows or Megan Foxes, for Schopenhauer, nothing can eliminate the universe’s cruel nature in its ‘natural disasters’ nor man compounding such evil with his own innate hate of anything that is different, strange or unknown.

Certainly it is cruel and hard; and you might disagree with Schopenhauer. But we have to begin a new conversation, because answering with gods and fairies will not change that the world really does not care about us being here and that our brief flash of life will be smaller than dust in a cosmic gas cloud. As we, even now, swirl around, let us not be tempted by the sirens of apathy or the barks of dogma. Because, as Plato reminds us, ‘Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a man.’