This “State Religion VIC blog, has, among its readers a fair fraction of “Atheist Activists”, I know this from reading who’s following the twitter feed … and it is clear that their interest of living “free from religion” is served by the agenda we’re pursuing. Some of the comments I’ve gotten though from people who have strong views about religion, have concerned me.
They reflect a desire to see a society not guided by “religious toleration” but one “free from religion”. The former I consider a matter that has legal implications and involves political principle which must find expression in policy. The latter, I view as a personal opinion, that can not and should not be advocated as public policy or law.
Pointing out these concerns to “Atheist Activists” triggers a variety of responses from them, few of which include, “You know, the way I say things does hurt my cause by making me seem dogmatic, intolerant, and unintelligent”. So there have been recent yelps registered against my concerns, but it has made me wonder, just what do “atheist activists” want? <!–more–>
One can argue with others about what is true or not but within the realm of law and human rights, the question of how to arrange society according to various preferences remains. Among people of differing opinions how we structure things so that one group’s convictions don’t trample on another’s is indeed difficult. The general formula that exists in democratic society is some kind of “state neutrality” combined with affirmative recognition of the special status of religion as a form of human expression. This “special status” is therefore, central to our society, yet at odds with the commitments of some atheists, who seem to be saying religion should have no special status in society.
The name of these core freedoms in our system of law is not easily reduced to a single word—for that reason, one often hears the expression “freedom of conscience, of convictions, and of religion.” However, for brevity we speak of “religious freedom”. “Freedom of worship” was also often used, but no longer is. In Australia (barring the issues surrounding Aboriginal religious practices) it fell to the colonists and their English Governors to navigate these issues and create a system of policy and law. Immediately, in the colony religious issues surfaced over whether the Catholics could worship (follow Rome) as they felt compelled by their beliefs to do. There was also a strong “anti clerical” feeling in the colony and this came to a head over questions of how to educate and train children – which, it turns out involve the religious identity of children, and ties into core issues of the boundary between church and state. Education policy has always been a core policy challenge in the area of “religious toleration”.
The word “secular” was adopted in Australian education laws to separate “religious” from “non religious” ideas (the state having say over the latter, and the church over the former). These questions were always, and still are discussed in the context of rights, what rights to conscience do people have? Does the state have a right to compel children to attend school? Does the state have a right to prevent church teachings?
If you accept that a person can claim special rights regarding their “conscience” or “beliefs” , which is something dealt with in human rights law … then you are no longer talking about whether religion is good or bad, right or wrong, but rather how the rules of our institutions should be arranged in respect of these rights.
It seems that “Atheist Activists” are not primarily interested in protecting freedom of conscience, but advocating for a system where religion does not exert any influence in law and policy. Advocating for state neutrality in matters of religion, exposes one to the criticism by people who feel religion is bad, of being too “accommodating” toward religion, and simultaneously of being accused by religious believers as being a front for atheism. Such is the peril of neutrality in a shooting war.
The other day I suggested on twitter and this blog that calling the people at ACCESS Ministry “awful people” was not as useful as saying something specific about what they were doing wrong and why it was wrong. Calling people “awful” wasn’t an objective or useful analysis of the people in question. I also said that the “insult” could be used against the accuser. To which I was told that the description of “awful” was perfectly accurate.
For people who like to think of themselves as guided by reason, and the view that other other people are “wrong” about religion, and exercise their freedom to insult the things others claim are “sacred” … the litmus of deciding whether speech is appropriate seems not “how will others perceive it” or “how it would work in practice” but whether it is true. The movie “The Invention of Lying” imagines a world like this where people only say things that are true, and have no ability to take into account other people’s feelings. This world is then transformed when the character played by Gervais, learns how to say things to get things he wants, and most critically to help his dying mother deal with her anxiety over the unknown.
However, turn this around on them and you see all too clearly the human emotional response. It is hilarious how touchy they can get when their own powerful idols are under fire. Among idols and “atheist activists” no one seems to inspire more “devotion” than PZ Myers, this is in part for his “followers” and his ability to direct eyeballs, one commenter here wrote of him:
PZ Myers is one of the highest ranking bloggers in the world. The demands on his time are onerous and he has been exceedingly generous since the Global Atheist Convention in taking up a number of Australian issues. PZ does more to disseminate arguments for reason and against religion than either you or me and to criticize him for failing to pick up on an issue *you* think is important overestimates your importance in the scheme of international atheist activism.
I’m not sure why the commenter offset *you* that way (of course I’m representing my views??), and definitely don’t see myself as having a role in “international atheist activism”. I just want to change a few policies in Australia (which I think are very important) … and encourage others to do the same. Those of you who are working on the international atheist program can you link me to its aims?
The idea that PZ Myers is “one of the highest ranked bloggers in the world” is depressing. Kind of in the same way that Paris Hilton is one of the biggest celebrities in the world.
I find his commentary often puerile and analogous to junk food for atheists, washed down with the swill of language selected to piss off people who find meaning in the tenants of religion. While it is empty calories it has a kind of “cultural revolution” feel to it.
Like eating junk food a diet of PZ does affect your health. It fills you up, but leaves you empty, or worse, convinced that you are right, religion is just “superstition”. Like junk food filling up on it means you don’t have an appetite for good and nutritional writing. It is no mistake that a literary talent like Christopher Hitchens did not choose to include anything from PZ Myers when he compiled “essential reading for the non believer”. Nothing PZ Myers has said would amount to essential.
While as a form of humor or sporting blasphemy PZ has his moments, I confess, his popularity bugs me, and, I think in the spirit of “what is good for the goose”, does “poison everything” (aw not fair!).
I say this because PZ Myers seems oblivious to central role that religious tolerance plays in a pluralist society. Religious tolerance involves, by necessity, some deference to the category of thought called “religion”, and on this count, the “non-accomodationist” seem a bit like prohibitionists, no amount of religion is healthy, or conducive to human welfare.
In his eagerness to exercise his freedom to caricature and ridicule the trappings and ideas found in religion, Myers fails to be self critical and thoughtful. Amidst the grand cathedral plazas and history of Mexico, he tweets, “more bleeding Jebi, they are everywhere” We are not going to hear Myers reflect on why these expressions hold value for people, or what how this culture understands these things. Ironically, the photo adjacent to this one on Myers’ “twitpic” list is a photo of a Norwegian style church, presumably taken in his home state of Minnesota. Myers is fascinated by ecclesiastical expression, but can’t seem to accord it any “respect” and heaven forbid should he be moved by the emotional power of these things as his ancestors and fellow travlers clearly are. That would be “irrational”. Like Paris Hilton, his fans reward him for unreflective observations and saying undignified and provocative things.
While I think there is a role for the “enfant terrible” in any movement (this was my original message regarding him), it becomes ever more incomprehensible to me what the aims of the so called “atheist movement” actually are. Unlike suffrage or civil rights or gay rights movements – where the aim is “rights”… in the west at least, atheists long since won the right to be atheists (there aren’t any laws in AU against being a non believer … right?). It appears then that what atheists want is to be accorded some kind of “respect” in the political arena and not thought of as lacking ethical and moral seriousness because they are “non believers”.
Given this then, what motivates Atheists to celebrate people like PZ Myers? Is it his willingness to charge whenever someone waves a crimson robe at him?
Is it his willingness to publicize college pranks? Myers whole m.o. is “confrontationalist” crossed with “science nerd”. I suppose that this identity appeals to lots of people because you don’t need expensive suits, or the weight of uncertainty or self doubt to be like this, anyone without much effort can manage to model themselves on PZ. He is the “volksatheiest”.
A common complaint one hears in the US, at least, is that you can’t get elected if you say you are an atheist. Given this, it would seem that acting “morally and ethically serious” which I would take to include being respectful and courteous, while also being explicit about one’s atheism would be in order, not a celebration of a man who uses polemic and overstatement to get the “cheers” of the crowd.
Like I said, every movement can use the “terrible child” … but they can’t accord this child the status of “leader”.
In the course of my comments on the school religion issues, I pointed out that I thought PZ Myers would be useful to point out how ICCOREIS statements about evolution exposed their explicit anti science bias, and that the St. James crew didn’t want to confront them on this … so this was an example of how PZ could be “useful”, to use his “courage” to call attention to an issue where a group of religious activists were asserting privilege in Australian schools, and doing it on terms that were clearly undermining the educational process.
These are just examples of the things I keep tripping over as I find myself increasingly annoyed by what I think is best understood as “tone deafness”, but may actually be outright cluelessness by people who profess to advocate atheism.
What is more surprising to me is that I’m finding the complaints about the “Gnu Atheism” from the religious, who until recently I thought were just examples of thin skinned victim card playing, more and more plausible. The more uncompromising atheist appeals are the more intolerant and ugly they seem.
On the issue of religion in schools I find myself continually begging people who are against the current rules and policies, to use language that makes more sense to people who are not anti religious, and I keep getting treated like I’m a traitor to some cause (the international atheist cause) or not sufficiently respectful of the prerogative atheism … or something.
I am completely supportive of the “non religious outlook” but when I see it how it is expressed by Myers and those who accord him deference and admiration, I begin to wonder of its pedigree, usefulness, even its sanity and definitely about its intellectual rigor.
Just thought I’d share this thinking, and give you a heads up if you hear me saying increasingly critical things about people who profess to be motivated by atheism … Cults of personality definitely can happen with or without a “faith basis”.
Here are two links to the two previous posts about this FYI
interested to hear your thoughts and where I might be not understanding what atheists want and how they plan to go about getting it?