The most awesome thing to arrive in my mailbox in some time.
The most awesome thing to arrive in my mailbox in some time.
Yesterday, Texas governor Rick Perry appeared at a seven-hour prayer and fasting marathon in Houston called “The Response: A Call to Prayer for a Nation in Crisis.” Although some have characterized a sitting governor’s overt participation in such an event as “unprecedented,” it’s important to understand that the message of the rally, and the extreme mixing of church and state Perry’s participation represented, are absolutely mainstream, noncontroversial ideas in evangelical circles. Reliant Stadium was not filled with a fringe sliver of extremists. It was filled with the same people who fill evangelical churches by the millions across the US.
I used to be one of those people. And in my rural Indiana church, prayers for the nation were always bracketed with the conviction that we were a lost people, living in depravity, losing our way from the God who could guide us. That was 20 years ago. In the 2 ensuing decades, this kind of rhetoric has continued, but is now buttressed by historical revisionists declaring that the US was founded to be a “Christian nation,” a fusing of a political party and a religion that is so complete as to make an openly non-Christian running as a Republican laughable, and a 24-hour “news” channel willing to promote this worldview while willfully excluding any inconvenient facts.
One of the attendees summed up the hopes of evangelical Christians nicely:
“Yeah, I think it would be extremely beneficial to our nation to hear some of our top leaders, especially if he gets elected as president, to take stands like this,” [Jason Cole, who drove a bus from the Church of Glad Tidings in Austin] said, “and preach from the White House, ultimately from the White House.”
“Preach from the White House.” Those words should concern anyone who believes in secular government, because they are part and parcel of the single largest segment of American religious people.
Spotted this in a Philly shop that frequently features Christian kitsch aimed at an African-American audience in its front window. In case the imagery isn’t brutally clear, a wad of cash + gun = drug dealer. So, according to the artist, a young person’s choices are: (a) be a Christian, or (b) be a drug-dealing street thug. In a city with no shortage of churches in rough neighborhoods, it would be far more accurate to substitute a math book for that bible.
Every so often, something reminds me just how radically different an atheist mindset is in the US. Listening to NPR recently, I heard an ad for a conference on technology and religious faith. The tag line was something like, “exploring the role of technology in doing God’s work.” What an idea! Doing the “work” of a deity was treated like any other application — word processing, accounting, web surfing…saving souls. Naturally, the conference was aimed at a believing audience, but the sheer ordinariness of the ad was jarring. God, and that God’s “work,” was just assumed to be as real as cola or laundry detergent.
It triggered memories of my time as a believer when the existence and presence of God was just an assumption. I didn’t question it. I didn’t explore it or consider why I thought it was true. Daily experiences didn’t really confirm or disprove it, because it was a proposition beyond evidence. If pressed, I likely would have said I just “knew” God was real, maybe would have invoked the bible. If pressed further, “faith” would have been my only refuge. Push a little more and the conversation would stop. I was and am a very academic person, but my belief wasn’t buttressed by anything like the reasons I myself would have demanded of any other discipline.
It was not until I began questioning my beliefs that I could even step outside myself and see how I thought about God. Therein I see the starting point of my future dealings and debates with the religious — trying to help them see how they think about religion, and how different it is from how they think about anything else. Try to make their own cognitive dissonance apparent to them. I expect a quick retreat into defensiveness in most instances. But perhaps it will help someone at least start thinking about the God assumption. It seems like a productive path, at least. And I’m all for pushing God back into the ghetto of “faith,” where we can at least stop arguing whether there is evidence for his existence.
Has anyone has experience with this line of argumentation? Can believers be lead to view their beliefs as they view the rest of the world?
My little guy has recently started watching a bit more TV (before you stone me, he takes breathing treatments that are about 20 minutes long, and it fills the time). We’ve been watching a number of shows on PBS and another little-kids’ network, Qubo.
One of the Qubo shows is a silly sci-fi farce called 3-2-1 Penguins! Simple premise – 2 kids have a toy spaceship and penguin dolls, and imagine adventures flying through the galaxy. There’s always a nice message; yesterday’s show was about valuing people’s character more than their looks. And there are a number of in-jokes for the parents. So far, so good.
So imagine my surprise when, at the start of an episode, I overhear the little girl’s mother quoting the freaking Bible to her! And then the show ends, and the two little kids are kneeling at their bedsides saying prayers that encapsulate the lesson of the show!
It’s not enough to keep us from watching, but seriously?! You have to proselytize to children in a show about space-faring penguins?! At least we’ve still got Dinosaur Train (with Dr. Scott the paleontologist) on PBS to inject a little reality.
Ecklund’s big error is to suppose that religious people have unique and constructive insights into morality not shared by atheists or agnostics. She doesn’t say what these insights are, and no wonder: there aren’t any. The moral insights that are unique to religion, as opposed to secular morality, are harmful and stupid.
– Jerry Coyne, whyevolutionistrue.com, on a book arguing that scientists should consider religious moral insights regarding their work.
We suffered a small tragedy in our household this week. Our second pregnancy ended in a miscarriage after 10 weeks. We’re sad but coping relatively well. Raising a toddler we adore helps the healing process significantly. Friends and family have also sent nice messages, including this one from my wife’s aunt.
I got an email from your mom telling me about your baby. I am so sorry to hear this. Just know each baby is precious little works from God and apparently this little one was called home sooner. I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers and be sure to take good care of yourself.
This is where I struggle as an atheist. There is nothing but kindness intended by that email. But that kindness is wrapped up in religious nonsense that I find downright offensive. Without the third sentence, I’d get nothing but warm fuzzies. With it, I get the churning heavies.
I drafted the following response, but am not sure I’ll ever send it. Nevertheless, it does help me organize my own thoughts and emotions a bit.
Dear Aunt Gertrude,
Thank you for thinking of us with your email. This is a somewhat difficult time for us, and we genuinely appreciate the well wishes of friends and family.
Having said that, I also have to tell you that we don’t agree with the religious content of your message. It’s long overdue for us to say this clearly, but we don’t believe that God exists. And we find the idea that God “called home” our fetus both silly and offensive. (Please understand that’s directed at the idea, not you. We know and appreciate that you’re responding out of love. It’s the idea you’ve been taught by the church that we object to.) It’s silly because, according to the doctors, our fetus stopped developing around 6 ½ weeks. At that point, it was the size of a lentil, which looks like this:
Although the fetus was beginning to develop many of the features of a fully-formed human at that point, it still had a long way to go. It looked something like this:
What possible reason could a god have to “call home” a fetus at that stage of development? It hadn’t even formed eyes, let alone relationships or life experiences. Even if you believe it had a soul, I’m trying to imagine what that soul would say in heaven. “Well, that was an interesting 6 weeks. Would have liked to try out seeing or hearing, but hey, those arm buds were pretty spiffy.”
It’s the standard religious answer to this question that is offensive. If you’ll forgive me for a bit of mind-reading, I’m guessing your answer would be something along the lines of “well, we can’t always understand it, but God has a plan.” And I respond with another question – what kind of God makes plans that include killing other people’s children? That would be the height of cruelty. I wouldn’t worship a god like that, even if I believed he existed. Especially if the “purpose” behind his “plan” was to punish us, draw us back to him, teach us a lesson, or even to somehow make us better people. If God thinks I’m lacking somehow, he could build me up in any number of ways that don’t involve snuffing out my children. Send a stray puppy my way to teach me sympathy. Burn Jesus into my toast to prove his existence to me. Make me botch a contract to teach me humility. The non-homicidal possibilities are endless. But we’re asked by religion to accept that our suffering in this instance is actually for our own good. Forgive my language, but fuck that.
The real truth is much more comforting to us. Anywhere from 10% to 25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage. For women between 35 and 39, the rate is around 20%. That means there’s a 1 in 5 chance that any pregnancy will end in miscarriage in our age range. What happened to us happens to many people. And when it does, more often than not it’s because there was something about the pregnancy – a genetic problem, poor development of the placenta, something – that simply wasn’t working out. That “precious little gift from God” was never going to be born healthy. Unless you can admit that your God is even crueler, creating pregnancies (and their attendant excitement and hopes) that are doomed from the start, the most reasonable response to a miscarriage is to accept that it’s nothing more than an unfortunate but common biological event.
This kind of acceptance is not callousness. It is not despair, or resignation, or nihilism. It is acceptance born of understanding. Knowing what we know about miscarriage, it’s easier to deal with the emotional ramifications. Now we can heal, focus on taking physical care of her, and focus on our existing son. I don’t know how we’d cope if we were sitting around wondering why God allowed/caused this to happen to us.
Thanks for reading this. I hope you understand that we don’t mean to attack you or rebuff your sympathy, for which we’re very grateful. But we’re so often confronted with religious statements that we felt it important to explain our very different perspective, and why those religious statements aren’t comforting to us. We look forward to seeing you next time we’re down visiting.