Monday, September 14, 2009

One last post about the FFRF ad controversy

I had not intended to say anything more about it, but judging by comments to many of the blogs that complained about the ad, and a couple blog posts supporting it, it appears to me that the nature of the offense and the complaints were not universally understood. Goodwolve, for example, in two posts- I am not changing my mind , and One more time - is there room in the UUA (or how fear is ruining everything) seems to believe that the entire issue is that theists hate atheists, want them to either shut up or convert, and want to insert the church into the government.

Steve Caldwell, in his post Anti-Atheism Ad in UU World That Criticizes Bishop Spong , seems to believe that theists can't take any criticism: "As one of my favorite bloggers (Greta Christina) has said in the past, people are so used to whispering around religion that an everyday voice sounds like a shout." (as a quick aside, I can understand how one might want to say that to a Christian, but we Pagans are kind of used to being shouted at. By Christians and atheists both.) Steve and Goodwolve are both misunderstanding the issue.

Let's look at the quotes so many of us found objectionable. Clarence Darrow: "I don't believe in God because..." So far, so good. I have no problem whatsoever with that; half- possibly more than half- of my friends are atheist or agnostic*, I have no problem with anyone stating their beliefs in a positive way. The problem comes in the second half of the quote: "... I don't believe in Mother Goose." To understand my problem with this requires a discussion of a distinction that has been largely discarded in modern discourse, especially politics: the difference between a mistake and a lie.

To make a mistake is to say something that is untrue, but you believed it was true when you said it. There was no intent to deceive yourself or others; you were simply wrong. A lie is saying something that you knew was wrong when you said it. The same distinction can be made between a mythical character and a fictional one. An example of a mythical character is the Urban Legend about the guy who bolted a JATO rocket to his '67 Chevy, flew off the high side of a turn, and crashed. It never happened... but it's very believable; JATO rockets do exist, and daredevils have in fact bolted them on cars and attained very high speeds. Foolish people really do try to duplicate stunts they're not experienced enough to pull off. There is no obvious reason to doubt the story, unlike a fictional character- say Mr. Spock- who there is no reason to believe to be an actual person, and the author never intended for you to believe to be an actual person. Thus when Darrow finished his statement with "... I don't believe in Mother Goose.", he was saying that God is as obviously fictional as Mother Goose, that those writing about God never intended their tales to be believable- but then asked us to believe them anyway. That is worse than saying that those who believe in God are gullible- I don't mind that, of course that's what an atheist believes- but he is saying that those who wrote about God are liars, and we who believe are dupes of the silliest kind.

The same thing is true of the Twain quote. Had he said "Faith is believing what ain't so.", I would have no complaint at all. His "truth" is that there is no God- of course he's going to say it ain't so. But that's not what he said- the quote is "Faith is believing what you know ain't so." He is calling people of faith liars, or worse.

Dawkins does Twain one better. He, too calls God fictional, but then adds another insult on top of that: "... is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction." And he goes even farther than that, he takes a step neither Darrow nor Twain took in his insult. Steve said, "However, I don't see either ad as a personal attack on any person but rather a criticism of different opinions about theology. From my perspective as a reader of both ads, I can see that criticism of a religious idea isn't the same as criticizing the person who may hold that idea." But Dawkins wasn't speaking in the generic; he was very specific- "The God of the Old Testament". That's saying, "Hey, you, Jews- YOUR God, the one you have a covenant with? HE is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction."

Goodwolve asked, "Why can't you let an ad that is defending your right to promote your religion in the confines of the law be part of our Unitarian dialog?" What about the ad is defending my right to promote my religion? It says not one word about defending my right to promote my religion- and it does insult me and my ancestors. One cannot even use the small-print boilerplate to establish that intent- it reads, "a 501(c)(3) non-prophet organization of atheists and agnostics working since 1978 to keep church and state separate." They clearly don't want me as a member; they specify atheists and agnostics, even to the point of making the pun "non-prophet". Given that, and they insults they quote- and the complete lack of any mention of the Constitution, or any church-state issues- how on Earth was I supposed to understand that they're defending me?

She also asks, "If personal experience is what really changes us I doubt it will happen that a theist will convince me that there is a god. I also doubt that I will convince them there isn't. And yet we feel the need to defend our position." This is a very important point that comes up in all the theist/atheist debates, and deserves attention.

Goodwolve, I'm not trying to convince you. I'm not trying to convert you. My faith is not evangelical; in fact, my beliefs say I couldn't convince you if I tried- the experience of the Divine (or the lack of it) is intensely personal, and can rarely translate from one person to the other; I have often said that in truth there are six billion religions. Nor am I defending my position, not to you or anyone. I do not need or desire your belief in my vision of the Divine. Nor do I need your belief to fellowship with you- Hell's bells, many of my fellow Pagans have deep differences with me. I treasure differences and new perspectives; one cannot learn anything by talking to a mirror. I love reading your blog, and Steve's. Driving you out of the church is not what i want.

ALL I WANT IS TO NOT BE CALLED A LIAR OR A DUPE AT CHURCH. That's all. It really, really is. Tell me God does not exist, and we're still friends; those are your beliefs, and I will defend your right to hold them. State your reasons for believing so if you wish, and I'll happily examine them- I don't know everything. I love hearing positive statements of a position to study. I want to hear it. But statements that do nothing to advance your position but merely denigrate mine I'll complain about.

Is that really so hard to understand?
*I'm using the terms in the commonly understood forms: atheist- there is no God, agnostic- I don't know. Yes, I know atheists say it isn't that simple, and the dictionary definitions are wrong, but the fine distinctions are not germane to this discussion.


Paul Oakley said...

My reply was too long-winded, apparently, so I posted it on my own blog: Literalism, outrage, and imagined victimhood.

Jess said...

You hit the nail squarely on the head. Thanks.

Chalicechick said...


goodwolve said...

Here is my question... and please don't take offense... why are you in the UU church if you believe in god? I will write more about this later, but it seems to me there are other places for you... why sit here with me? I am all for you believing what you want to believe... I just wonder why you would WANT to do that with me (when you know I don't think god exists). Thanks for the conversation - J

Joel Monka said...

Goodwolve, I don't take offense at your question at all- I understand it. To take your last point first, why wouldn't I want to fellowship with you? It doesn't matter to me what people believe, only what they do. And from all your writing, you're a decent, honest, and more importantly courageous person who writes well to boot. Sounds like someone I'd like to hang out with.

As to why I'm in a UU church, I thought it was a non-credal church. Isn't "Thou must not believe" just as much of a creed as "Thou must"?

As to there being other places to go... well actually, no, there aren't. The Christians sure as Hell don't want me, (I've heard Exodus 22:18 quoted quite enough, thank you), Muslims think less of Pagans than they do of Christians and Jews, and the Pagan groups that can most nearly be called nationwide are Dianic or Satanist. So if I'm out of town, and we travel often, there is no other place to go.

Chalicechick said...

I find that question sort of funny given that "Why do you want to go to church if you're an atheist?" was a question I got a fair amount when I was one. (Yes, Goodwolve, I was an atheist for awhile, I assume this means that by your terms I've gotten stupider.)

I wish we could all accept that people of lots of different religious inclinations want a place where we can come together and focus on something greater than ourselves while finding fellowship and community without all this theological drama.


Tom said...

I don't know if was deliberate, but it is interesting that half of the six people quoted, Dickinson, Twain, and Darrow are regarded as saints by many UUs despite the fact that the religion they were rejecting was, in fact, Unitarianism. All three had many Unitarian associates. Dickinson's publisher was Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the Unitarian minister and close ally of Theodore Parker. Twain socialized with Unitarians who lived near him in Connecticut. Unitarians were prominent allies of both Twain and Darrow in their political work.

If any of the three had decided to set foot in a church, it probably would have been Unitarian. But they didn't. They knew all about us and rejected us. Of course, they join a long list of UU heroes who rejected Unitarianism, Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, Parker, S.B Anthony, Margaret Fuller, Margaret Sanger, M.L. King etc. etc.

So I suggest we start canonizing actual UUs. Let's hear it for Millard Fillmore!

Mickbic said...

When I joined a Unitarian Universalist Church for the first time in 1992 I was told by the minister that there were three kinds of UU Churches: theistic, Christian, and secular humanist. From that standpoint it would appear that many attend a church that is less than a perfect fit for them and there is going to need to be some need for agree to disagree for there to be order, which Will Durant discovered in his life work to be the fundamental prerequisite for human freedom.

fausto said...

Goodwolve, a good number of UU churches are theist rather than atheist in orientation, and some of those, including some of the oldest ones in the denomination, are even quite traditionally Christian (though practicing, of course, a distinctively Unitarian or Universalist doctrinal variety of Christianity). For examples, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Many of these churches are among the very oldest in our Association, and were among the founding congregations of the Unitarian or Universalist denominations. They still practice the same liberal Christianity today that they always have.

Your question suggests that either you aren't aware that the breadth of theological orientation among our membership still includes such churches and such believers, or else you are indeed aware of them but feel they have outstayed their welcome. I hope the former is the case, but if it is instead the latter, why?

ms. kitty said...

And of course we haven't even factored in this long, checkered journey--the evolution of the concept of God. The word doesn't mean what it used to mean.

I'm a theist, sort of, I guess, but my "God" is natural law, not an old guy who pulls marionette strings. There is power beyond human power, that's all I know.

Jess said...

why are you in the UU church if you believe in god?

Jacqueline, you ask if there is "room" for an atheist in Unitarian Universalism, to the point where you want to throw out all of the theists?!

Unitarian Universalism has its roots in Protestant Christianity, roots that go back a thousand years or more. Our tent gets bigger, not smaller, as time goes by -- it was expanded to include humanists and atheists right alongside the theists and others who were already there to begin with.

Why are you in the UU church if you don't believe in God, or religion, even? (see how obnoxious that is?)

Chalicechick said...

I don't understand why the ad quoted Dickenson or Twain at all. Neither of them were atheists as far as I know and both quotes were things that lots of people have said.

I don't recall anyone claiming they were UU. I think that UUs mostly like them because they were good writers who said cool things.

I think UUs mostly like Darrow because "Inherit the Wind" is lots of people's introduction to humanism and Darrow makes a compelling case for it in the play/movie.


fausto said...

Goodwolve, when you say, " it seems to me there are other places for you," I would like to know what other places you have in mind. In particular:

Where are the other places for theists who perceive the presence of a transcendent or immanent divinity that is beyond material existence, but is not necessarily a personal being and not adequately portrayed by the God of the Bible?

Where are the other places for Universalists who believe that Christ's death on the cross redeems the sins of the entire human race, and not only of a select few?

Where are the other places for Unitarians who see in Jesus the supreme archetype and example for what it means to be human, replacing the fallen archetype of Adam and serving as mediator between God and humanity, but who do not see him as identical with or one of three "persons" comprising the one true God?

Each of these views was once dominant in Unitarianism and/or Universalism before either denomination had many atheists. Some UUs and some UU churches still affirm them. Where else can they do so?