The argument from solace

girl-15599Some time ago I linked to an article on Jezebel about atheism and dickery, and Matt Dillahunty’s response to it. One of the issues that article brought up was the issue of the solace many people derive from religion, and accused movement atheists of attempting, somehow, to take away religion from people who use religion as a source of comfort.

In the Jezebel article, Lindy West, who identifies as an atheist (in fact, goes to considerable length to establish her atheist cred in the opening of the article), winds up by discusses a woman named Angela who, along with her sister, was the victim of rape in her teenage years, and understandably, has had difficulties coping with her experience, and seeks solace in religion and eating. She goes on:

You’re going to tell that girl that she’s an idiot for believing in god? You’re going to laugh in her face and trot out one of your big logical trump cards? You’re going to pat yourself on the back for being “smarter” than this person whose humanity was violently stripped from her when she was just a child? Are you also going to tell her that she’s a disgusting fatass who should go on a diet because of your insurance premiums? Who the fuck are you to tell her how to survive?

There are a lot of people in the world who have nothing. Faith in a higher power gives them one thing. You know what we call people who try to take away other people’s one thing?

A fucking dick. Don’t be one.

Well, in an article on the UK Guardian website, Chris Arnade, who also identifies as an atheist and who, after getting a PhD in physics and twenty years working on Wall Street and currently works with and photographs homeless people in the South Bronx, including addicts and prostitutes, discusses his conversations with people among whom he had expected to find “the same cynicism I had towards faith. If anyone seemed the perfect candidate for atheism it was the addicts who see daily how unfair, unjust, and evil the world can be”, and found instead strong believers, “steeped”, as he puts it, “in a combination of Bible, superstition, and folklore.” He cites crosses and rosaries carried by these people, the ever-present worn copy of the Bible amid the litter of crack-houses, the print of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper that has accompanied one addicted and homeless couple from squat to squat, and poses a similar question to Lindy’s:

They have their faith because what they believe in doesn’t judge them. Who am I to tell them that what they believe is irrational? Who am I to tell them the one thing that gives them hope and allows them to find some beauty in an awful world is inconsistent? I cannot tell them that there is nothing beyond this physical life. It would be cruel and pointless.

In both articles we have atheists attempting to dissociate themselves from a stereotype of atheists as privileged, soft-handed, too-clever-by-half, and smug, who take pleasure in seeing other people’s delusions crumble; in other words, a straw-man atheist. Chris draws a self-deprecating picture of his experience before walking into the South Bronx as “(a) life devoted to rational thought, a life devoted to numbers and clever arguments”, and extends that self-deprecation to the atheist movement in general, and especially to everyone’s favorite atheist lightning-rod, Richard Dawkins.

I saw some of myself in him: quick with arguments, uneasy with emotions, comfortable with logic, able to look at any ideology or any thought process and expose the inconsistencies. We all picked on the Bible, a tome cobbled together over hundreds of years that provides so many inconsistencies. It is the skinny 85lb (35.6kg) weakling for anyone looking to flex their scientific muscles.

More to the point, Dawkins is also patrician, affluent, and an Oxonian, whose high-handed style makes him a good embodiment of the straw-man, aggressive atheist.

Well, in the case of “who am I to question your faith, when that is all you have?”, the answer seems clear to me: you don’t approach a person who is highly vulnerable, whether through personal tragedy, lack of education or lack of sophistication, start trying, without being asked, to undermine their religious beliefs, and expect to be considered anything but obnoxious. Every atheist knows someone who clings to religion for comfort: whether it’s a recovering alcoholic who adheres to the 12 Steps or a grandmother who goes to church every day, and believe it or not, it’s not business-as-usual for an atheist to interfere with how other people live their private lives. And neither Lindy nor Chris cite any evidence that atheists as a group do such things. Atheists leave that sort of behavior to believers, many of whom are well-known for using periods of personal tragedy, stress, or difficulty as a means of proselytizing, whether it’s charities who serve up a sermon with the hot meal and the bed, hospital chaplains who attempt to preach to terminally ill patients, or some well meaning person who asks “Have you tried the Man Upstairs?” when one is going through emotional or personal problems. That’s not compassion, that’s opportunism.

Atheism has never been a question of taking things away from people. Unless you happen to have grown up in a secular home, if you are an atheist, you shed your religious beliefs, not had them taken away. That’s why I like to refer to atheism as a journey or a process, a way of deprogramming oneself out of the habits of mind which lead one to unfounded beliefs which result in irrational and harmful actions. Dropping my science on someone when they are dealing with personal trauma or vulnerability is like discussing the physical phenomenon of combustion with someone whose house is on fire. You keep calm, rescue the occupants, put out the fire, offer material assistance, you help rebuild the house, and later, if you are both inclined, you can ponder the science of fire. Anything as important and as complicated as reconsidering one’s position on something requires a stability in one’s life that is usually lacking when one is homeless or grappling with a personal problem or tragedy. For many of these people, religious belief provides that sense of stability. I get that. Most atheists get that. And not just atheists either. Anyone with a sense of proportion gets that.

But in both of these articles, Lindy and Chris’ picture of desperate and vulnerable believers is as patronizing as their picture of privileged atheists is misrepresented. Apparently, we shouldn’t expect people who turn to religion for solace in desperate circumstances to see their lives improve to the extent that they have the time and the opportunity to grow emotionally or intellectually, let alone question the beliefs which may have sustained them in bad times, but may be less relevant to them in good times. This is akin to the assumption many Americans hold that individual character, not social forces like wealth, privilege, economic change, and systemic inequality, is the reason why some people are poor, homeless and desperate and others are comfortable, secure, and successful. It’s probably no accident that the countries with the best all-round standards of living are the most secular, such as Denmark and Sweden, countries which have made significant efforts to be economically equitable and socially just. So when we ask “why should we take away the one thing which makes these people’s lives tolerable and meaningful?”, perhaps we should also be asking, “what are we doing wrong as a society that so many people have only that one thing in the first place?”

If solace is what we want from life (and we all do to some extent), religion is not the only source of it. If we also want truth and justice in life, we might do well to examine the argument from solace and ask if what it actually amounts to is a reconciliation to untruth and injustice.

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MN school bus driver fired for leading students in prayer

schoolbus-81717A half-century of legal precedent forbids any school-sponsored prayer, whether led by teachers or students, in the school setting, while protecting the right of individuals to pray privately.  Students in a public school have to be there: they are what is called a “captive audience.”  However, we can’t always expect persons who work in public education to support the law or even be aware of it.  There is a case working through the courts in Mississippi right now in which mandatory school assemblies were called for the express purpose of Christian prosyletizing to students.  And this particular instance involved a literally captive audience — one of the plaintiffs, among other students, were physically prevented from leaving by school officials.  As anyone who has passing familiarity with the atheist blogosphere will attest, this happens much, much more often than people think.  It even happens in my neck of the woods.

A pastor and bus driver working for a private company contracted to the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage public school districts has been fired for leading students on his bus route in Christian prayer, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Forty-nine-year-old George Nathaniel, of Richfield, who is a pastor at Elite Church of the First Born and Grace Missionary Baptist Church, both in Minneapolis, received a separation letter from his employer, Durham School Services, on Oct. 30, after having received a warning and a reassignment to new routes.  Undaunted, Nathaniel, who drove buses in Wisconsin and Georgia before coming to Minnesota and claims to have led prayers on buses in both places, reportedly said, “I let them know I am a pastor and I am going to pray.”   After the last student was picked up, he would lead the kids in a song, offer a prayer, and then invite the kids to pray with him.  “Just give them something constructive and positive to go to school with,” he said.

He said there was no pressure on students to pray with him.  “If they don’t want to pray, they don’t have to pray.”

“There have been more complaints of religious material on the bus as well as other complaints regarding performance. In accordance with the previous final written warning you received, your employment is hereby terminated” said the separation letter from Nathaniel’s employer.  A spokesperson for Durham said that while the company has no policy on the subject of prayer, the company’s contract with the school district does provide for the removal of employees the district deems unsuitable for the job.

Ruth Dunn, communications director for the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school district, did not comment on the prayers but did say that “(w)e do consider the school bus to be an extension of the school day when it pertains to student behavior and support.”  But according to the Strib, Nathaniel considers the firing to be a violation of his right to free speech.

But Teresa Nelson, legal director of the ACLU of Minnesota, said that while Nathaniel has the right to pray on his own time, “when he has a captive audience of kids on a school bus, that would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

The article goes on to quote other perspectives: Gayla Collins, a thirteen-year veteran bus driver in the district, said that while she considers herself a Christian, she considered leading prayers on a school bus inappropriate: “That belongs at home, the teachings.”  She also cited the diversity of the district, including a marked Muslim presence.  One Muslim parent, Sanaa Hersi, voiced concern about prayers being said on the bus without parents’ knowledge and the confusion of students who are being taught to pray in the Muslim fashion.  Another parent, Nikki Williams, is quoted as saying, “If they don’t like it, they can just ignore it.”

And there’s the rub.  While proponents of open and public displays of religious piety in government-sponsored settings like to portray them as harmless, purely voluntary and inclusive actions, prayers led by authority figures in such settings are by nature exclusive and impossible to ignore, which is ultimately why people do it.  The quote from Nathaniel that closes the Strib‘s write-up admits as much: “We got to get Christians to be able to be Christians and not have to be closet Christians,” he says. “You have something good, you are going to share it with somebody.”

In MA, a new tactic in Pledge “under God” language challenge

poaweb3msPrevious challenges to the language “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance were based on church-state separation issues.  A new challenge, being argued before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on behalf of anonymous atheist parents in suburban Boston, attempts to frame the issue as a violation of that state’s constitution’s Equal Rights Amendment.

“It validates believers as good patriots and it invalidates atheists as non-believers at best and unpatriotic at worst,” said David Niose, attorney for the plaintiffs, former head of the American Humanist Association, and now head of the Secular Coalition for America, according to NBC News.  Defendants, who are being defended by attorneys from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, are maintaining that the pledge is voluntary and is not an affirmation of religion, but a statement of American political philosophy.  “It’s the founding thing upon which our country was founded. Our rights did not come from the king or the tsar or the queen. They come from something higher.”  This from Becket Fund attorney Geoffrey Bok, according to HuffPo.

He is, I believe, referring to the consent of the governed, I mean a higher, supernatural power.

Niose is making a tough case to prove, since the Pledge has been held to be voluntary since 1943.  He needs to prove that there is some form of compulsion going on with saying the Pledge.  He is arguing that kids generally want to participate in patriotic actions, particularly when they are being participated in along with the rest of their peers.  Students do not always want to be exposed as different from their peers, and be in danger of ostracism or retaliation from teachers, administrators or peers.

Meanwhile, over on Fox News’ The Five, Dana Perino complained how “tired” she was of such complaints.  “If these people really don’t like it, they don’t have to live here,”  she said, sort of confirming everything that advocates of a secular pledge have been saying.

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“From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty…. In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.” — President Dwight D. Eisenhower, on signing legislation adding the words “Under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance, June 14, 1954

Dana, its’s actually very simple.  “Under God” was not in the original language of the Pledge, and had not been for over fifty years until it was put there during the height of the McCarthy era.  If it’s not a prayer and it’s not an affirmation of religion, what is the language doing there, aside from telling kids who don’t believe that they are not as patriotic as their believing peers?  And if the language were taken away, what would the damage be, except to some believers’ sense of religious privilege?  Look at Ike’s quote at right and try to interpret his words as being anything other than a defense of establishment of religion.  Try substituting the word reason for “the Almighty” and “religious faith” in that quote, along with “intellectual” for “spiritual”.  As an atheist, I would still find that too favorable to one side.

Secondly, the mere fact that the majority of Americans identify as believers does not give them the right to make determinations concerning the rights of the minority, particularly when it comes to matters of conscience.  Stop acting as though believers “own” the country, Dana.  They never have.  Neither do non-believers.  There is no reason why, in a country as religious as we always have been, that state institutions need to affirm religion, especially as it seems to be accepted wisdom that the state does everything badly.  Why does it then seem so important that the state affirm your faith at the expense of our lack of faith, or would affirm it as well as the “private sector”, i. e. your church or home.

The first dated post

Hello all.  This is the Plastic Exploding atheism blog, companion to my Blogspot blog, which I have had for several years and is mostly about films and my cultural interests.

The main reason for the blog are the permanent pages you see up there on the menu, though I expect I will be occasionally doing some dated posts on atheism and related subjects.  The main reason for this post is to get the ball rolling (after an interminable time of preparing my material, I uploaded everything today, so everything is brand spanking new) and to get rid of the “Hello World” sample post.

I hope the work is good, and if not, I hope to improve.  Try not to shatter my illusions of literary competence too quickly.