Tuesday, October 27, 2009

This video will stifle thinking

I'm sure some people will find the title offensive, but hear me out--or don't. I'm not sure I care at this point. If I don't lose a couple of friends on Facebook after this, I'll be surprised, but my hope is that I can tell my side of things without being limited to a few hundred characters on someone else's profile.


The above video offended me, but not half as much as the Facebook cause invitation that included it, nor as bad as part of the conversation with a friend of a friend after I commented the friend's post. Following me so far?

The cause that used this video as its rallying point was "Put Christ Back Into Schools". As an activist for the separation of state and church, this cause represents the opposition, and I definitely would never support it. The Founding Fathers saw religion as a matter of private conscience, not to be entangled with the state. James Madison, often called the Father of our Constitution, said on the subject: "Church and state must be kept separate to preserve the purity of both." He also labeled Catholicism the worst form of government, since religion and state were intertwined. He was not opposed to Christianity; in the same letter where he criticized the Catholic church, he labeled Christianity "the greatest religion"; he just thought it should be separate from government.

Many of our Founders were only nominally Christian--definitely not of the fundamentalist variety (Patrick Henry, a fundamentalist, was not invited to the Constitutional Convention, and Noah Webster had not yet converted), and the signers of our Constitution were overwhelmingly for separation of state and church. They only included mentions of religion in the Constitution to exclude it from government. In Article VI, they mandated that religious tests would be forbidden for "any office under the United States." They created the Free Exercise Clause, which must necessarily guarantee both the right to free exercise of religion and the right to opt out. They also included the Establishment Clause, which prohibits Congress from creating laws respecting the establishment of religion. The Fourteenth Amendment applied the Constitution's guarantees of rights to the States.

Schools are state institutions. As such, the state cannot use them to show favoritism to a particular religion. They cannot establish Christianity as the official religion to be taught in schools, and it would not be to the benefit of anyone to do so. There is no religious sect in the United States that represents a majority of citizens. Catholics represent the largest sect, but they fall short of twenty percent of this country's population. They used to exceed the numbers of Southern Baptists and nonbelievers, but given the loss of congregants after the pedophilia scandal in recent years, they may be closing that gap. Nonbelievers represented the third largest religious identity in the United States as of the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001, and follow-up surveys confirm that their numbers--our numbers, because I am among them--are growing. If we had the organization and enthusiasm of the religious folk, we'd be a political force in this country.

We nonbelievers pay taxes, just like the rest of you. Chances are, since we're statistically more likely to have college degrees and higher incomes, we're actually paying higher property taxes than you, as well, which means we are supporting the schools to a greater degree. Imagine our dismay when Christians want to put religion into the schools! My question to these Christians is: which religion do you teach? You do not believe the same way. Do you teach the contextualism of the Catholics, or the fundamentalism of the Southern Baptists or Pentecostals? There are several versions of the Bible; which one do you use in the curriculum? Any answer you give will displease someone, and chances are that the someone will be a Christian of a different stripe.

I live in the Detroit Metro area. This area has a large Muslim population, mostly to the south of the city. My part of the Metro area has a large Jewish population. Where do these populations fit into the picture of putting "Christ back into schools"? These aren't small populations of people, but they are much smaller than the population of nonbelievers. We nonbelievers represent one in seven people, most of whom will apparently only admit it to pollsters. We're coming out of the closet in greater numbers, largely due to socializing on the Internet, planning face-to-face meetings through email and various websites, and the courage of a few outspoken activists who don't mind being in the public eye. We have long been persecuted, and when we do speak out, the opposition often tries to shout us down. I was told by a Clawson, Michigan City Council member, "We don't need your particular brand of non-religion in our community." I had that message in email, and I kick myself daily for not printing it and handing it to the Detroit Free Press. After 90 minutes of deliberation and more atheist voices present than Christian, the Rochester Hills City Council decided to go forward with a religious display in one of their public buildings, based largely on a survey done by a fundamentalist Christian radio station, WMUZ (that couldn't be biased, could it?). We meet with all sorts of insults and demands for us to shut up, but I'm not shutting up. I have every right to opt out religion.

What bothers me most about this sort of campaign involves the expressions of persecutions Christians voice because they can't have their religion taught in public schools. Religious people have 350,000 churches (approximately) in the United States, representing 1200 Christian sects alone, let alone Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, and other sects in this country. Nonbelievers outnumber all but two of your 1200 sects, but since we're not as organized, we often find ourselves alone when challenging things that force our children into indoctrination.

Okay, I'm going to go back to the video for a second and get it out of the way. The video is a flash representation of an email that began circulating on the Internet in 1996, according to Snopes.com. I first received it in my inbox in 1998. The story contained in the video has some additional comments at the end, and I'll get to those, but basically, the video is the classing straw man fallacy. It creates a scenario that wouldn't happen in reality, then knocks it down with faux inspiration. There is an evil atheists professor, or at least a right bastard, whose "goal" is to make everyone into a nonbeliever by the end of this required course. It's a philosophy class with 300 people in it, which is amazing to me, given the size of my philosophy classes at Kent State, which doesn't have a small student body. I had that many in my Biological Principles class, and more than that in both my Psychology and Sociology courses, but in Philosophy? It's a general education elective that not as many students take as the alternatives. In any case, the "hero" of the story is this Christian freshman who has to take the class for his major. That's also amazing, since a core course at the freshman level is usually just a prerequisite, and won't go into anything like apologetics or metaphysics, other than to go over them briefly to get students acquainted with the material.

So our "hero" basically prays every day of the semester that his faith won't be shaken, no matter what anyone says. What bothers me about this behavior is that even well-known apologists (e.g., Thomas Aquinas) encouraged people to think about their beliefs critically--to question everything. If this course was required for this freshman, chances are that his major was actually Philosophy (forgetting of course that it's an urban legend with roots that go back many years before the Internet), so going into the major with no desire to think critically about faith seems like an exercise in futility.

Here are my several problems with this video:
  • No professor should ever belittle the religious beliefs of students. At the very least, it invites lawsuits; at worst, it violates not only university policy, but also state laws.
  • A student whose beliefs have been belittled should stand up for himself or herself; I would go right to the Dean if a professor had been belittling atheists for choosing not to believe.
  • It's a completely unrealistic story that's being passed off as true. "Thou shalt not bear false witness" comes to mind here.
  • After the video is where the real problems begin. First, it tells people to pass it to everyone they know, which makes it a chain letter, and therefore undesirable on email servers everywhere. Second, it asks people to pass on a blatant LIE as fact.
  • The video asks: "Isn't it funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world's going to hell[?]" I found this statement offensive, because this video is essentially blaming nonbelievers for everything wrong with the world. It's also claiming that the "world is going to hell", but there has never been a time when it wasn't, really. Things were worse during the Great Depression. Children who went to school for the first several decades after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki lived in fear of nuclear holocaust. Nazi Germany and Communist Russia were no picnic. The Dark Ages were full of war, persecution of everyone the Church didn't like, disease, famine...every time had its disasters and problems. We live in the most exciting--and scary--time in human history. We have a choice regarding whether to make things better or not--and it's not the Atheists getting in the way of it. Scientists are overwhelmingly in the Atheist or Agnostic categories, as are college professors. These aren't people who make war or plot to steal from unsuspecting first-time homebuyers. These are the people who educate others and invent things.
  • Next, we get: "Isn't it funny how we believe what the newspapers say, but question what the Bible says?" Well, no, that's not peculiar at all. Newspapers have pictures to back up what they say, and I'm still skeptical of the print. Newspapers do get it wrong sometimes, but they are reporting on what's happening in the here and now; they're not our only source, after all, and we can check their information against other newspapers, online sources, and television. I prefer to rely on NPR, C-SPAN, and the actual words of the named sources for my information. If I read a report on a major court decision, I can read the actual decision online after a simple Google search. As for the Bible, we're talking about different versions (the Catholic, the King James, or the NIV? Which one?), and we're talking about self-contradictory, Bronze Age myth, full of magical, mystical, miracles. Am I supposed to believe that a virgin gave birth to a baby boy, that a man walked on water, and that another man survived a few days in the belly of a sea creature without being digested? Am I to believe that there was no other way to get rid of all of the wicked humans in Noah's time than flooding the entire planet, taking all of the innocent animals with it? Am I to understand that all of the babies of all of the wicked adults were, themselves, wicked? We could go into my many issues with the Bible, but I need more than a blog entry--unless it's a novel-length blog entry.
  • "Isn't it funny how everyone wants to go to heaven, provided they do not have to believe, think, say, or do anything the Bible says? Or is it scary?" Okay, there is a law someone just brought up to me today regarding rape victims. If a girl who is not already engaged is raped, the rapist (if caught) must pay the girl's father a fine, then marry the girl and never get divorced. That's in the Bible, along with a large number of laws we don't follow today. There's another law that says if you have a drunken, unruly son, you are to take him to the elders and have him put to death by stoning. There is still another law that makes women unclean for three weeks out of the month, basically. Women are unclean for twice as long when they have female babies as when they have males. In the New Testament, women aren't allowed to teach in the church. Do you really want to go there? I'm not saying there's no good stuff in the Bible--Jesus had some good things to say (none of them original to his teaching, except the doctrine of hell)--but even Jesus commanded his followers to hate their families if they don't believe. I'm so glad my family doesn't hate me. By the way, those of us who don't believe in the concept of heaven don't have a desire to go there.
  • "Isn't it funny how someone can say, 'I believe in God,' but still follow Satan?" Huh? I don't say I believe in any god, and I definitely don't follow Satan--I don't have a believe in him, either.
  • "Isn't it funny how you can send a thousand jokes through e-mail and they spread like wildfire, but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people think twice about sharing?" Yeah, well, sometimes you get these emails in your inbox at work, and you don't think it's very professional to pass them on--or, at least, that's what should cross one's mind when receiving emails like this at work...but that's where I first saw this message. Even if you're not at work, you should understand that not everyone believes as you do, and you may offend someone who had no quarrel with you in the past. You have a right to your beliefs, but your right to believe ends where it gets pushed onto me. Do you think I've never had Christianity shared with me? The person who sent me the invitation went to Catholic school with me. What she doesn't know is that I gave up Catholicism even before I entered college, and that I sought out Christianity in different forms until I realized that it was all myth, no different from any other mythology I had studied in the past. I did tons of research, and I read the Bible twenty-seven times, cover to cover, in a few different versions, with thousands of references back to various verses over nearly two decades of discussion and debate with Christians. Reading the Bible for comprehension was probably the single biggest contributor to my rejection of faith.
  • "Isn't it funny how the lewd, crude, vulgar, and obscene pass freely through cyberspace, but the public discussion of Jesus is suppressed in the school and the workplace?" Now, this argument represents the logical fallacy known as the "red herring"; it misdirects the attention of the reader away from the real issue. News flash: the "lewd, crude, vulgar, and obscene" do not circulate at work or school--or they shouldn't. You can get in big trouble circulating material like that through either of these places. By the way, if you think the Bible is free from these things, you have not--HAVE NOT--read it. There's sex, genital mutilation, incest, genocide, animal sacrifice--it's full of blood, violence, and mature sexual content. Reader discretion is advised. It's not what you've seen on television.
  • "Isn't it funny how someone can be so fired up for Christ on Sunday, but be an invisible Christian for the rest of the week?" Wasn't there something in the New Testament that went something like, "Pray not on the street corner as the Pharisees do; nay, pray ye in the closet, that is in secret." Also, wasn't there something about living by example? In any case, I have no problem with you living the example of the Jesus character in the Bible, but I do have a problem with you shoving it in my face constantly, as if no one has ever done that before in my 19 years as an Atheist (16 out of the closet--well, 9 to my immediate family, but 16 to my friends and co-workers).
  • "Isn't it funny how when you go to tell someone this, you won't, because you're not sure what they believe, or what they will think of you for telling them?" Okay, here's the deal: if I was bashing your religion, which I haven't before this invitation came to me, I could understand you standing up for it, but what this video is asking you to do is some unsolicited, unwelcome preaching. That's very different from standing up to persecution (and you Christians are so very far from persecuted in this country--try walking a mile in an Atheist's shoes--and an outspoken, out-of-the-closet one, not someone hiding in the closet). Never mind that what you're passing on is a complete fabrication.
  • "Isn't it funny how I can be more worried about what other people think of me than what God thinks of me?" And here's where we come to why I don't like evangelical Christianity: there is no empathy involved here. You have no consideration whatsoever for other people; you can't live and let live. You could very easily live the example of Jesus, only sharing when people ask you about your faith, or you could post your profile comments and inspirational (to you and other friends of yours) messages, but to actively pursue me to join a cause that you know--or should know--that I won't support, then proceed to tell me how we all need faith, how our children need faith--that's another thing altogether. I live fine without faith, thank you very much.

People probably think I shouldn't be offended by this video, and you know what? I would have ignored it completely if it hadn't been for the invitation to join the cause. In any case, it got worse after I commented. I sent a private message to the person who invited me, but then I posted a reply to another friend's post. Here are the points brought forward, and the counterpoints to them:

"This was a video to give people the chance to think about what they believe in...real or not, it makes a good point."

If the point is to stand up for yourself when others put you down, fine, but that's not the only point that was made, and some of the other points were quite offensive to me.

"...that is fine we all have our own beliefs..."

And yet, you posted a video that invites people to preach to others, not bothering to care at all what they think--that's the same kind of bullying the fictional atheist professor was engaging in during the story.

"My beliefs are VERY STRONG, as I'm sure everyone elses are...no matter what they are!!! MAY GOD BLESS YOU ALL."

Actually, I live without faith. I don't find it to be a value. It's arbitrary. Some people have faith that includes discrimination against homosexuals. Some have faith that interracial marriage is a sin. I can't respect that kind of faith, and I don't see faith itself as a value. I consider the actual values you practice as the measure of your character, not simply what you state your faith to be, because faith not only is it as varied as believers are, but it is also not always consistent with a person's actions. The parting shot wasn't exaclty welcome, either, but it wasn't offensive as, say, blaming Atheists for the "world going to hell".

Enter a friend of the friend, to whose post I replied. She finds the video unrealistic, too, but still thinks it's a video to get people thinking. I disagree wholeheartedly; I think it's a video to get people to act without thinking. I think the main message of the video is to tell people to preach their Christianity to other people without consideration of the beliefs of others--even the differing beliefs of other Christians.

The friend of a friend goes on: "This country was founded by Christians, who believed that people have the right to practice their personal beliefs and religions without persecution...and to protect you in your beliefs as an atheist."

Atheism isn't a belief, but a rejection of it. I digress.

"The majority of the people of this country do believe in a god, so why should the majority suffer because of the minority?"

Suffer? Suffer?! Are you kidding? You have strong social networks, you have churches, you have your own houses; you can meet anywhere outside of work or school; you could preach from the streetcorner legally, and yet you want to have a captive audience to whom to preach your beliefs. That's what you have in the workplace and in the schools. Why should I be subjected to your preaching where I work? I'm there to do my job, not to worship with you. Why should my child be indoctrinated into your faith, or even bother learning about it, when she's only five and can't understand it? You are welcome to teach your own kids what you want, but leave mine alone.

Also, as I've pointed out, you are in a minority sect, no matter which sect is yours, from Catholic to Seventh Day Adventist, from Lutheran to Pentecostal, from Episcopalian to Presbyterian, you are in a minority. Whose religion do you propose we put into the schools? It's either going to be some generic, watered-down version that trivialized what you actually believe, or it's going to offend more than just the Atheist parents. Most separation lawsuits--I may be repeating myself here, but it bears repeating--have been brought forward by religious parents of students who were part of a captive audience at school.

"Maybe it shouldn't be taught at school, but kids should not be punished for praying at school either!!!"

Um...if they are disruptive to the learning process, they most certainly should be. They can pray silently at any time. "Pray not on the street corner..." They can pray at home, they can pray at church, they can pray before and after school, and at during lunch. Why do you want them to pray aloud and have everyone join in with their ritual? News flash: students who want to do this are in the minority. We had them in two of the three high schools I attended, and they were a small group in both cases. Most people thought they were too self-righteous to hang around.

"I know my next comment will upset you and I truly mean no disrespect, but what is so wrong with your children being exposed to spirituality?"

My child has autism. Exposing her to spirituality is like exposing her to nuclear physics; she won't understand it and won't bother with any part of it, except as part of maybe a scripted act. Even if she was neurotypical, I would not want her exposed to religion any more than she already is. I don't care if she sees someone praying, but getting her to join in is reprehensible to me, until she can comprehend what's going on and decide for herself. If she does decide to embrace faith, I want her to be thinking for herself, not having someone else do the thinking for her.

"They should be able to make their own decisions, especially when they become adults."

Do your children live without rules? I doubt it. In my house, no one is exposed to religion unless they can first comprehend it.

"I am not mad at you for being an atheist and I would never insult you, I just feel sad that you do not seem to be open-minded regarding it. You don't have to believe, but I am tired of the minority wanting to have God's name removed from so many things because of the minority!!! That is not right, either. Maybe next time, just delete, if you are tired of seeing it...that is what I do, or turn the channel, etc. God Bless you."

Do you realize that "God Bless you" is actually insulting to Atheists? In any case, I do not have an open mind to exposing my five-year-old daughter to something she cannot possibly understand at her age and with her special needs. I did approach religion with an open mind, and I came to the conclusion that it's not for me. If and when my daughter does get to the point where she is an independent thinker, I hope she learns everything she can about everything she wants to learn about--I'm not going to restrict her exposure then. At this point, it would just be imitated acts and scripted speech--does that qualify as spirituality in your mind? I doubt it.

As far as having your god's name removed from things: do you realize that the Pledge of Allegiance and our paper currency didn't have "God" until the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s? That's right: in 1954, when McCarthyism was in full swing and religiosity was equated with patriotism, "God" was added to the Pledge ("under God" was not part of the original) and to our paper money (it was added to the coins in the latter part of the 19th century, but by a stealth maneuver on the part of two members of the National Reform Association, a group that failed to add an acknowledgement to Jesus to the Constitution).

This post wasn't as insulting as the next from this friend of a friend. I'm not going to go through the whole next post from the person who sent me the invitation. I just want to comment on one part of it:

"...for those who don't believe that's fine too...just don't try and change my beliefs either..."

Have I ever sent you an invitation to an Atheist event? Have I ever tried to go over my problems with the Bible before now? Have I ever posted a link on my profile that indicated that I thought religion should be abolished, that you're a fool for believing, or anything of the sort? Have I ever invited you to join a cause that had to do with Atheism? No. Why? Because I figured I'd respect your right to believe as you do. It's obvious that you find your faith important in your own life, and I can deal with the posts regarding your own opinions or feelings on the matter, but when you invite me to join a cause that clearly rolls over atheists and their children, how do you expect me to react?

This next bit is where it gets really offensive to me. The friend of the friend steps back in:

"Greg, is there a particular reason why you don't believe in God? Is that to [sic] personal to share? Sometimes I am ashamed of myself, because I do not proclaim Christ as my savior enough. I resent people thinking that my belief in Christ is some sort of crutch, or an ignorance...or that I am a 'sheep' in a herd of blind mind control, fairytale, etc. I believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, and no I do not think anything was lost in translation, the Dead Sea Scrolls prove that. Greg, please do not be offended, I am not trying to change you...it's just tha tI have found most people that don't believe were 'abused' by someone with religion, etc. and of course being a Chrsitian, I would love for you to find the joy and love of God! plus, you kind of started it by disproving the truth in the video! :) Isn't this fun? lol"

I'm sure some atheists have insulted you, especially if you've argued with some online. I try to tell my fellow Atheists that ad hominem (personal) attacks do not help our reputation or help us to make our points; they only serve to make people angry and make us look angry ourselves. I have not insulted you. I have only pointed out that a video posted by two of my Facebook friends--that I would have, again, ignored if it weren't for an invitation to join a cause--was nothing but an urban legend. I find it incredibly odd that anyone would support the distribution of a video that passes off as fact something that is demonstrably false, but that aside, I did not, at any time, call any Christian a fool, part of a herd, ignorant, or anything else as part of the posts I made.

No, this is not fun for me, but I am making a stand because I want to make it clear why I'm offended. Telling me that most atheists you know have been "abused" by religion in some way belittles the intellectual journey many of us have undertaken to get to where we are, philosophically. It took many readings of the Bible, a great deal of research, a great deal of reflection, and many, many civil debates and discussions before I finally let go completely. I didn't want to reject my faith when I first understood the Bible to be fiction. I went to Bible studies. I sought preachers and people I found to be good examples of Christians. I went to various churches. It was inevitable, though: the more I read the Bible, the less believable it became, especially in light of extrabibilical research I'd done. The religion of the Hebrews was no different from that of any other surrounding culture, which made me wonder why the Hebrews considered them to be pagans or Gentiles. I found many contradictions, even within the same books of the Bible. I came to understand that even the evidence for a historical Jesus is flimsy at best. I don't go around trying to destroy the faith of others because of what I've found, but I expect others to leave me to my intellectual freedom.

The most common follow up questions are these two:

1) Then how did we get here?

I don't know. The difference between you and me is that you've created an answer or accepted an answer; you don't really know, either.

2) Where does your morality come from? The assumption here is that there can be no morality without gods--or, more specifically, the Christian god. I consider all gods to be myths.

My ethics come from empathy, which is innate in humans, as is altruism. We're an empathetic and altruistic species from an early age; we learn to go against this nature.

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