Rieux (dr_rieux) wrote,

A Conversation with Rev. Ford

Over the past few days, I've been involved in yet another conversation on my usual topic--that is, UU treatment of nonbelievers.

I'd rather not spend too much time recounting the entire course of the conversation, but if you'd like to get up to speed, here are some links to follow.
First, a mysterious blogger calling him/herself the "UU Enforcer" posted the following as the one and only post on his/her blog:
I have never seen Atheism dry the tears of a widowed bride. I have never seen Atheism comfort the single mother. I have never seen Atheism calm the spirit of a distressed father. And I have never seen Atheism offer hope to the hopeless, forgiveness to the sinner, and grace and mercy to all who ask it. Atheism indeed denies humans of the one thing our souls so long for; an answer. I have found the answer! The One and Only Answer. - Logan McAdams

UU Rev. James Ford, a self-described "nontheist" who blogs as "Monkey Mind," responded to the Enforcer's post here. Rev. Ford's post was critical of both the sentiment attributed to McAdams and the tendency of "[t]he atheist position [to be] deeply colored by anger"; for example, "[w]itness the tone of so most of the recent collection of atheistic books. Too often atheists are disagreeable."

In turn, UU LiveJournalist ferndalealex, a frequent interlocutor of mine, posted an entry on chalice_circle, the UU LiveJournal community; the entry linked to Rev. Ford's post and added a brief comment about the McAdams quote.

Up to this point, I knew nothing about these exchanges--and perhaps I never would have noticed any of it, except that Alex's post on chalice_circle invoked my name, suggesting (correctly) that McAdams' "is the sort of attitude that Dr. R rails about."

I felt obligated to respond (even though I was days late to the party), so I contributed two comments on Alex's thread, confirming his suspicion that I found the quoted passage inappropriate and defending Rev. Ford from another commenter's allegation that he'd mistreated theists in his blog post. (I also pointed out that there is evidence that Logan McAdams' original remark was substantially different--and a little less crazy-sounding--than the altered one "The UU Enforcer" posted.)

Next, I left a comment on Rev. Ford's blog, informing him of the chalice_circle discussion and challenging the portion of his post that deals with atheist attitudes.

Finally, then, Rev. Ford has responded, both on Alex's chalice_circle thread and on his own comment thread.
Thus far, I've enjoyed my exchange with Rev. Ford; I think there are interesting and valuable things to be said here regarding our cultural discourse regarding atheists. What follows here, then, is my attempt to continue the discussion with Rev. Ford. If that sounds like it could be worth your time, read on....

In his most recent comment to me, Rev. Ford wrote:
I really wanted to address your suggestion of righteous anger. I agree there are situations which arise for which the appropriate response is anger. But I think that's situational.

What I too often feel I encounter among the atheist community isn't a specific response but a general one.

Yes, atheists get a raw deal in our country. Lots of opportunity for offense.


To the atheists I can only say that while anger is an appropriate response to specific situations, generalized anger (which for purposes of this discussion I'd rather call hatred) is a poison.
Okay--but I'm very resistant to the notion that mistreatment of atheists is "situational" rather than "general," and that we atheists should be expected to treat it that way. I think the reality is all too often the contrary; in the sermon I delivered at my church several months ago, I explained some of the grounds for that conclusion:
American society doesn't think much of atheists. This has been true for a long time: in 1793, Thomas Paine was imprisoned by the Revolutionary government in France, and the American administration let him rot there for more than a year because they considered him "a filthy little atheist." He'd just written a book that harshly criticized the Bible, and that made him a political liability.

More recently, the Gallup Organization and the Pew Research Center have polled public attitudes about minorities. In the most recent Pew poll
[this is the site I had consulted], only forty-nine percent of respondents answered that they could bring themselves to vote for an atheist for President, even if the atheist were a member of their party and generally well qualified otherwise. Forty-nine percent is a substantially lower trustworthiness number than any other minority group addressed in the poll--much lower than Catholics, Jews, Muslims, women.... and gays and lesbians, who used to bring up the rear in these polls until they passed us by in the 1980s. Looking at numbers like these, University of Minnesota sociology professor Penny Edgell wrote that atheists
offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years. ... It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as every one shares a common 'core' of values that make them trustworthy--and in America, that 'core' has historically been religious. ... Our findings seem to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good.
This antipathy toward nonbelievers has real consequnces. A few of the atheist friends I made during college had been thrown out of their homes--one was even disowned--when their families learned that they didn't believe in God. I had it a lot easier in a liberal mainline-Protestant church.

But we're all vulnerable. This past Spring, the UCLA Law Review published an article examining the role of religious skepticism in child custody disputes. The author found more than seventy published cases from the past thirty years in which an atheist, agnostic or religiously apathetic parent was denied custody in favor of a more religious parent. In each of the seventy-plus cases--which included one or more from our area--, the court cited as one basis for its decision that the skeptical parent could not be trusted to provide a proper religious upbringing for her children.

In this church, I don't think I need to explain how terrifying it is to know that I could be denied custody of my children because a public official has bigoted ideas about who and what I am.
For reasons like those above, any open atheist in the United States lives, twenty-four hours a day, as a despised minority, a person who is commonly considered not to be a full member of the American community. She knows that every piece of currency in her pocketbook, as well as the Pledge on her children's lips every morning at school, blatantly lies about her and denies her that community membership. She may be at direct risk of losing her job, her apartment, and (as noted in the UCLA study above) custody of her children because of what she does and does not believe.

I can't agree that those are "situational" concerns, any more than the pains of living in a racist or homophobic society only exist or matter during specific instances of virulent discrimination. The underlying dehumanization that comes from all of these forms of prejudice is a noteworthy burden on many people's lives, even if they aren't being gay-bashed at this very moment.

My basic point in your comment thread was that it's understandable that people who have to live under this threat, this denial of our "inherent worth and dignity," get angry. For liberals, at least, I think this shouldn't be a subject for surprise or tut-tut-tutting. I know I wouldn't have had the chutzpah to tell Malcolm X to clam up with his angry rhetoric about "white devils"; I doubt too many liberals would, either. But no one seems to notice the widespread social antipathy toward open nonbelievers, and as a result everyone and his uncle (especially if they're UU ministers) sees fit to lecture atheists about how we have no business being angry. I'd like to raise UUs' consciousness about how that act furthers, and is based on an unconscious acceptance of, our society's bigotry toward open dissent from religion.

In short, you and I disagree about the proper attitude to take toward atheist anger. (In exchange for your link to "an intriguing blogger," I'll match you: this post, on the specific topic of atheists and anger, is perhaps the most widely beloved essay ever posted anywhere in the atheist blogosphere. The blogger, Greta Christina, is one of my favorites--and I think her comments (especially in the final passage, beginning with "But perhaps most of all") are strongly relevant to our discussion here.)

It doesn't matter if you're right in some abstract sense if you present as hateful. No one will like you and, more importantly, no one will listen to you.
Well, I disagree that any meaningful proportion of atheist "presentation" is hateful. I think that reaction stems to a significant extent from the double standard that our society applies to the discussion of religious ideas. Too often, the most innocent critique of, or even statement of dissent from, mainstream religious conceptions is treated as "hate." I think that's incorrect, unjust, and unwise--a free marketplace of ideas (or "free and responsible search") is substantially less "free" when several favored ideas are protected from any and all criticism.

Given the free pass that mainstream religious ideas get in our society, atheists' very existence, to say nothing of our expression, is broadly considered "hate"ful. Many of us (e.g., Greta Christina) think that that injustice needs to be met directly.

In a specifically UU context, I'd argue that a large proportion of the most famous actions and statements in UU history--Channing's "Unitarian Christianity," say, or Beacon Press's decision to publish the Pentagon Papers--"present[ed] as hateful" to the people who were opposed to them. But I think we can agree that accusations of "hate" ought not prevent us from speaking and acting in ways that we think justice and integrity require. (The same goes for "disagreeable," which I'm sure was a word that (for example) Channing's opponents would readily have used to describe his sermon.)

I think in general atheistic arguments about the likelihood of a creator are persuasive. I treasure atheistic perspectives as a valuable contribution to human thought. I embrace much of the atheist position.

But assuming a moral superiority because of this stance doesn't appear to stand up to close examination. The litany of nasty things done by adherents of religions is pretty rotten. But in the twentieth century when there were two mega states that embraced atheism, their track records of good behavior were no improvement.
Okay--but do you understand how shallow a critique of atheist arguments that that seems to us? Your lone reaction (that I've seen) to the "recent collection of atheistic books" has been to complain that their "tone" is "disagreeable"--but those same books present a vastly subtler and deeper critique of religion than the distillation you've just presented. None of them (and no atheist I know) "assum[es] a moral superiority" on the basis of a laundry list of "nasty things done by adherents of religions." That's a strawman atheism (or anti-religionism); it isn't close to the actual arguments that Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Hector Avalos, Victor Stenger, Julia Sweeney, PZ Myers, etc., have presented. The failure of our critics (UUs perhaps more than most) to pay much if any attention to what we are actually saying multiplies our frustration; we are accused of "hate" and ordered to tone it down by folks who don't seem to be listening to our ideas at all.

To pick one of the above authors more or less at random, anthropologist and religious studies professor Hector Avalos has written several books; one recent one, Fighting Words, argues that supernaturalist religion, by creating illusory scarcities that arrogate power to the faithful, inevitably causes violence. He's not self-evidently correct, but he's saying something (and has marshaled profuse evidence) that I've never seen defenders of religion even notice.

Then, the age-old "Stalin and Mao" point that you raise here is treated at great length in several of the recent atheist works, most prominently Dawkins', Harris', Hitchens' and Avalos'; here's a passage from Harris:
Genocidal projects tend not to reflect the rationality of their perpetrators simply because there are no good reasons to kill peaceful people indiscriminately. Even where such crimes have been secular, they have required the egregious credulity of entire societies to be brought off. Consider the millions of people who were killed by Stalin and Mao: although these tyrants paid lip service to rationality, communism was little more than a political religion. At the heart of its apparatus of repression and terror lurked a rigid ideology, to which generations of men and women were sacrificed. Even though their beliefs did not reach beyond this world, they were both cultic and irrational.
Again, contentions like these are arguable, but they're at least considerably subtler and more substantial than the "moral superiority" point that you've presented as a failure of atheist reasoning.

I suggest the atheist argument has no necessary moral consequence. Theists are good and they are bad. Same thing for atheists.
Perhaps so--but there is much, much more that real-life atheists have said in critique of religious ideas (and we've been broadly attacked for saying it); I think our real perspectives and arguments deserve fairer and broader treatment.

The problem, as I said, and as you, at least got, is certainty.
I don't think I'm as troubled by certainty as you are. There are in fact a few things that we can know for certain (such as "there is no highest prime number" and "the universe exists"), which is a point worth making. More importantly, I think there are a significant number of things that human endeavor has proven beyond any reasonable doubt; in those areas, I think a fixation on our lack of certainty can do great damage to values we hold dear. One obvious example is our current environmental crisis: the title of Al Gore's movie just does not admit of postmodernist waffling. There are not "many truths" when it comes to the realities of global climate change; there's only one ("An"), and our survival may well depend upon our realizing that it is, beyond any sane standard of doubt, true. But the corporate forces who are opposed to the changes that we desperately need to make are taking exactly the postmodernist "it's dangerous to know without doubt" tack you describe, and to a significant extent it's working. (If you can't tell, this is a major problem I have with postmodernism; I think it inevitably degenerates into elevating truthiness at the expense of truth.)

So I think there are lots of things, some of them crucial ones, that we can be certain about. Or certain enough, at least, and I wish people were somewhat better educated about how to tell between reasonable doubts and unreasonable ones.

The objection that I took you to be making about the "McAdams" quotation was that "McAdams" didn't appear to care at all whether what (s)he believed was true. That, to me, is a moral failing; if you'd like to interpret that as a "moral superiority" stance, go ahead, though I certainly know lots of theists who do care. What's most important to me in this area isn't so much avoiding inappropriate "certainty" as it is making sure that my beliefs are anchored in the reality of the world around me. Sometimes that's very hard, and I can't claim to be successful all the time--but I try.

Anyway, that's enough for one day.

Rev. Ford or anyone else--what do you think?
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