On Secular Arguments and Conservative Atheists

As you may have heard, David Silverman, President of American Atheists, made a splash by attending the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this past week. The publicity was done for Silverman even before he arrived, since the invitation to American Atheists was revoked after outcry by religious conservatives, resulting in the “atheists unwelcome at CPAC” story he was no doubt expecting. Done and done, right?

Not so much, since Silverman apparently went to CPAC anyway, and gave interviews. He seems to think that there’s a hidden enclave of closet atheists in the halls of conservatism, and he’s just the man to draw them out (and also, presumably, to make them dues-paying members of American Atheists).

On one hand, this shouldn’t be a surprise. American Atheists’ outreach under Silverman has been focused not on convincing people of the atheist position, but on convincing people who are atheist-but-closeted to come out and be public with their disbelief. It’s a laudable goal.

Silverman’s also been vocal about making atheism a big tent, and less willing, on that front, to explicitly exclude some of the more hostile wings of the atheist movement. To Dave, as long as we’re all agreed that religion is generally wrong and bad, we’re all working together (or at least, we’re all willing to donate to American Atheists so they can accomplish tasks that we generally agree are important).
Silverman identifies himself as a conservative:

He describes himself as a “fiscally conservative” voter who “owns several guns. I’m a strong supporter of the military. I think fiscal responsibility is very important. I see that as pretty conservative. And I have my serious suspicions about Obama. I don’t like that he’s spying on us. I don’t like we’ve got drones killing people…” In the final analysis, “the Democrats are too liberal for me,” he says.

And he’s got some particular ideas about what conservatism is and means, and how conservatism and atheism can be compatible:

“I came with the message that Christianity and conservatism are not inextricably linked,” he told me, “and that social conservatives are holding down the real conservatives — social conservatism isn’t real conservatism, it’s actually big government, it’s theocracy. I’m talking about gay rights, right to die, abortion rights –”
[…]
“I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion,” said Silverman. “You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”

And looking at all that really makes me want to donate to American Atheists, so that maybe they’ll have enough money to buy Dave a clue.

Let’s start with the “secular argument[s] against abortion.” When I first saw that quote, my response was incredulity. What are these secular arguments for abortion? The ones I could remember hearing were really just the usual religious pro-lifers’ arguments, but with “human DNA” or some other such nonsense copy-pasted where a Catholic might say “soul.” They were as “secular” as Intelligent Design.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that most of the arguments I’ve heard from anti-abortion activists have been secular in nature. I was conflating “secular argument against abortion” with “argument against abortion from a secularist.” Sure, there are all the appeals to Mother Teresa and the Pope and that bit of the Bible where God says he knew you before he formed you in the womb, but once you get past that, it’s mostly nonreligious reasons. Those big signs of misleadingly dismembered fetuses aren’t making any kind of religious argument; that “Abortion stops a beating heart” bumper sticker isn’t making a religious argument, “If she wanted to have sex she should accept the consequences” isn’t a religious argument; “just because the father was a rapist is no reason to punish the child” is not only not a religious argument, but it flies in the face of the whole “sins of the father” notion that’s central (in one form or another) to most Christian denominations. Most of the arguments fall into one of those categories: “ewww, icky,” “it’s murder,” “sluts need to learn a lesson,” or “it’s a person!”

The problems there, then, are twofold: one, those arguments are crap, and two, the vast majority of atheists would agree about their crappiness. Now, recruiting some folks from CPAC into American Atheists might skew those numbers a bit, but the movement as it stands now isn’t exactly welcoming to the notion that abortion is some terrible wrong (and for good reason). Saying “there are secular argument[s] against abortion” and then suggesting that those arguments are better than the secular arguments opposing school prayer or supporting right-to-die and gay marriage1, is at best profoundly misleading.

It is, as I argued elsewhere, exactly the same kind of disingenuous misleading that accommodationist skeptics and the NCSE have engaged in with respect to science and religion. They’ll say “skepticism and religion are compatible,” or “you can be a Christian and still believe in evolution,” but both of those statements are misleading to the point of being insulting. The kinds of religion that are compatible with skepticism are either the ones that are so abstracted into deism or pantheism that they hardly resemble “religions” in any sensible use of the term, or the ones that are almost completely compartmentalized from skeptical criticism. The kinds of Christianity that are compatible with evolution are the ones that are so withdrawn into metaphor that they can square a loving and merciful god with a system of biology where progress is primarily driven by death, and that can accept a savior dying to remove a sin committed by people who never existed.

Similarly, the kinds of conservatism that are compatible with atheism are the ones which reject the social conservative platforms (except ones they can support through bad secular arguments), reject the religious right, and are mostly concerned with fiscal responsibility and personal freedoms (except the freedom of women to control their own bodies, because chicks amirite?). In other words, libertarians. Atheism and libertarianism are compatible? Color me shocked.

The thing is, if Dave Silverman wanted to find those fiscally-conservative-but-socially-liberal(ish) conservative atheists, it seems like CPAC isn’t the place to do it. Sure, they’ll put Rand Paul up on stage, but the rest of the time? This year’s program featured presentations like “Fossil Fuels Improve the Planet,” “Inventing Freedom: How English-Speaking Peoples Made the World Modern,” “More Guns, Less Crime,” and “Healthcare After Obamacare: A Practical Guide for Living When No One Has Insurance and America Runs Out of Doctors”2. Speakers included religious ideologues like pro-school prayer Jim DeMint, anti-gay Ben Carson, and creationist-if-the-money-is-right Ann Coulter. And Michele Bachmann and Ted Cruz, of course. This isn’t a libertarian convention full of Eisenhower Republicans outlining reasonable positions to maximize personal freedom and minimize government spending. It’s a convention of rich ideologues who want to be richer, even and especially if it means gutting programs that help the poor. And also, let’s go to war with anyone and everyone3.

Dave Silverman thinks that there are lots of closet conservative atheists, but he’s engaging in a bit of equivocation there. Dave Silverman’s definition of “conservative”–fiscal conservatism, gun rights, personal freedom, supporting military–is not the definition being employed by the first “C” in “CPAC.” CPAC skews more toward the social conservative theocracy that Silverman No-True-Scotsman’d as not real conservatism.

Which kind of brings us to that particular brand of Silverman cluelessness: where has he been for the last thirty years? How does he square his belief in “economic conservatism” with a party that started two off-the-books wars, wants to start more with Iran and Russia, and has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars on meaningless votes to repeal Obamacare, countless anti-abortion bills, and fighting gay marriage? Where is the economic conservatism there? Where is the military support in opposing bills to prosecute rapists in the ranks, or fighting against benefits for veterans? How much personal freedom does a person have when they’re working two jobs and still living below the povery line? When their food stamps benefits get cut over and over because the social safety net, and not corporate welfare, is a drain on the country’s resources? When their right to vote is eroded by classist, racist regulations designed to keep Republicans in office?

We either have to believe that Silverman is so blinkered in his politics that he’s bought into a series of mostly meaningless, mostly traditional buzzwords that the GOP likes to throw around as their platform because they sound better than “consistently trying to screw over 99% of the country,” or we have to believe that he’s a savvy, selfish asshole who thinks his right to own as many guns as he wants and his distaste for taxes trumps other people’s right to a living wage and personal security.

The more I try to think he’s one or the other, the more unconvinced I am by either option. The latter suggests that maybe he’s decided that going after rich donors in the bush is worth alienating the women and minorities already in the hands of American Atheists, but if that’s the case, then surely he recognizes that those donors aren’t both going to take the PR hit of associating with atheists and relinquish the control mechanism provided by fundamentalist religion. But if he really believes that “real conservatives” would support atheist causes, why make the appeal to anti-abortion arguments, which is a socially conservative issue?

The fact that it came as news to Silverman that there are anti-gay atheists makes me think he’s probably just profoundly out of touch. He doesn’t have clue one about most political issues that don’t directly affect him, and he doesn’t understand that by actively courting a group that promotes racist, misogynist, classist, homophobic, transphobic, and xenophobic policies, he’s going to alienate a lot of people who otherwise agree with him. Unless those racist misogynist homophobes are bringing tons of money to the anti-religion organization, then he’d probably be better served by trying to make the movement more welcoming to the people who are actually in it. Pandering to assholes while ignoring the complaints of members makes it look like your priorities are less in fostering community among atheists and more in gaining donations for your organization.

The organization should serve the members, not the other way around.


1. They’re really not, by the way. There are lots of people who argue that government shouldn’t be in the marriage business anyway, and that government shouldn’t be expanding, but reducing, its participation in private relationships. You could argue for school prayer on free speech grounds, or point to the fact that there’s no sharp line between “prayer” and other moment-of-silence type activities, or that there’s not always a clear distinction between student-led and staff-led activities, and that school prayer should be subject to the same equal-time principle as religious displays on public land, or interfaith ceremonial prayers at the beginning of public meetings. Frankly, I don’t see how you can assert bodily rights to make a pro-right-to-die argument and reject them when it comes to abortion. Are these arguments good? No, but they’re no worse than the secular arguments against abortion–and in the right-to-die case, they’re essentially the same. Except, you know, men get terminal illnesses too.

2. In case it’s not clear, let me outline briefly the problems that the generally science- and fact-friendly atheist community might have with these presentations. 1) Not according to all climate science; 2) Historians are likely to disagree, and even if true, it happened on the back of slavery and genocide; 3) Not according to all the evidence from the rest of the world; 4) How will an insurance mandate result in fewer people having insurance, and where are doctors going to go to find a more conservative healthcare system?

3. The one exception to all this seems to be that the attendance at CPAC leans more personal-freedom-libertarian than the leadership and speakership, based on the polling results that CPAC has on their main page. But given the stark contrast between what those people cite as priorities (drug decriminalization, isolationism) and what the party’s actual priorities are (attacking abortion, starting wars wherever possible), they look an awful lot like useful idiots, prized by party establishment for their votes and their unwillingness to take said votes to any particular third party, despite not being served by this one. But then, getting people to vote against their own interests has been the GOP platform for decades.

Bigots Ruined It For You

[Trigger Warning for rape, misogyny, racism, assorted bigotry]

Let’s say you’re an enthusiastic Jain or Hindu, wanting to express your desire to be good, wanting to evoke Shakti with a clear symbolic representation as a flag or tattoo or something. You find the perfect symbol, one that has been used for that purpose since ancient times, the swastika. But you can’t use it. Bigots ruined it for you. A whole army of racists and supremacists claimed that symbol as their own and flew it over a campaign of genocide. It’s tainted, possibly forever. Try to adopt that symbol, and you’ll be mistaken for one of them, for a racist, a white supremacist, a Nazi, a bigot.

Let’s say it’s Halloween. You’re hosting a party for your friends, and you want to put together a costume that’s kind of ironic, something that you put thought into but looks like you just kind of threw it together. You settle on a classic ghost costume–white sheet, head to toe, with eye-holes cut out, like all the kids in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” You could flair it up a bit with a point toward the top, like the little tail bit on heads of those ghosts from Casper. But you can’t wear that costume. Bigots ruined it for you. Dress like that, and you’ll be mistaken for one of them, for a racist, a white supremacist, a Klansman, a bigot.

Let’s say you’re an enthusiastic southerner in the United States. You want to represent your heritage with a symbol of the South, something that proclaims in bold, primary colors your love of the land of barbecue and hospitality and Molly Hatchet. There’s a flag you can fly to do just that, except…except it was designed in a bloody war over (among other things) the right to treat some humans as less than human. It’s a well-designed flag, but bigots ruined it for you. It’s been tainted, by the war that spawned it and the continuing centuries of racist policies that followed. Fly that flag over your house, in your garage, on your trailer hitch, and you’ll be mistaken for one of them, for a racist, a segregationist, a bigot.

Let’s say you heard a funny joke recently. It’s kind of offensive, because it plays on stereotypes that you know aren’t true, but it’s a well-constructed joke nonetheless. You know you could tell it with perfect timing and get a roomful of hearty belly-laughs. Besides, you don’t believe those stereotypes are true. They’re absurd! But you can’t tell that joke anyway. Bigots ruined it for you. You may recognize that those stereotypes are false exaggerations, and you may know that everyone who hears you tell the joke knows that, but there are people who still believe those things, and there are people who are still hurt by those stereotypes, still affected by their presence in our culture. Tell that joke, and you’ll be mistaken for one of those people, for a racist, a misogynist, a homophobe, a bigot.

Let’s say that you’re a Christian. You follow Christ’s teachings and recognize that the most important thing–like it says in First Corinthians, like Jesus said to the scribes–is love. You want to express your Christian love by standing up for family values, because families–of any shape or size or configuration–are the purest example in this world of God’s unconditional love, and you value that. You see love as the most fundamental part of the Christian message, the foundation of Christ’s teachings, and so you would call yourself a fundamentalist Christian to express its importance to you. You define sin as that which is opposed to love, acts of jealousy and hatred, and see such acts as the worst crimes that one can carry out against their fellow humans. Despite that, you recognize that no person is truly evil, that those sins of hatred and jealousy come mostly out of ignorance, and that they can be corrected and defeated with love. You would advise people not to get angry at the hateful, but to hate the sin and love the sinner. But you can’t use those phrases–“family values,” “fundamentalist Christian,” “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Bigots ruined it for you. Use those phrases, and you’ll be mistaken for one of those people, for a homophobe, a fanatic, a bigot.

Let’s say you want to talk to a stranger in an enclosed space, like an elevator or a bus or subway car. After all, people end up in those things together, and it’s really awkward to just sit around staring at the wall silently or pretending other people don’t exist. Besides, a stranger’s just a friend you haven’t met yet, and you’re a friendly person. So you’d like to seize the opportunity to make small talk. But you can’t. Bigots ruined it for you. Rapists and sadists committing what are, effectively, hate crimes against women, along with violent misogynists and a culture that ignores them and dismisses the concerns of women, that blames victims and makes rape and harassment costly to report, have ruined it for you. Try to strike up that conversation, and you’ll be mistaken for one of those people, for a rapist, a violent person, a misogynist, a bigot.

Bigots suck. They make life shitty for lots of people. They make life shitty for the people who are targeted by their bigotry. They make life shitty for people who have to endure the inequalities built into a culture that rose up on bigoted foundations, even as more enlightened people recognize the mistakes of the past and try to dismantle that bigotry. And they even make life shitty for people who, in their innocent cluelessness or lack of empathy, might be mistaken for bigots. The solution is not to lash out at the targets of that bigotry, at the people who’ve suffered the most because of it, for being unable to look into your heart and your past and see that you’re not a bigot at all. The solution is not to lash out at people for being unable to discern whether an action is motivated by bigotry or ignorance. The solution is to realize that bigotry makes things suck for everyone. If you’re going to lash out, make sure you’re lashing out at the bigots. They’re the ones who ruined things.

An interesting experiment

A friend of mine and fellow vocal atheist has started up a new blog as a sort of religious exchange program. He agreed to read the Bible if his friend agreed to read The Blind Watchmaker. Both are blogging about it, and I’m interested in how it all turns out. There’s not much there yet, but I know that steady comments and regular readers are a pretty good impetus to keep writing, so please go check it out:

Understanding the Christian
And the Christian counter-blog is at:

Understanding the Skeptic
Enjoy!

It’s that time again

The only kind of tree that's ash before it's burned.
Think he's ever caught an Easter Bunny in one of those?
That'll put crosses on a lot of foreheads.
Wow, I'd forgotten about this one.
I come not to bring peace, but a chainsaw.
Happy Wednesday, everyone!

UnbELIevable

If you’ve been to movies recently, you’ve probably seen the trailers for the upcoming film “Book of Eli,” where Denzel Washington plays a kung-fu monk walking across the post-apocalyptic wasteland with a copy of the Bible that Gary Oldman’s character wants to use as a weapon…somehow.

I was actually optimistic about the movie when I saw trailers that played coy about what the book was. I mean, a plot that focuses on a book as some kind of all-important weapon-thing is totally primed to be a preachy “Bible is Awesome!” message, which also makes it a perfect twist to have the book be something–anything!–else. I suppose it’s a better setup for a “Twilight Zone” episode than a movie, really, but all that focus on a book that some revere and others want to use for evil would be great fodder for a twist where the book turned out to be “Utopia” or “The Republic” or the U.S. Constitution or the Collected Works of Shakespeare or a book by Galen or Hippocrates or Pasteur or Salk or Gray’s “Anatomy” or any number of books that would be worthy of such focus thanks to their utility–and would do what post-apocalyptic stories are meant to do: comment on modern society.

Instead, the filmmakers have apparently taken a route that makes almost no sense, by playing the whole thing straight with the Bible. I don’t know about anyone else, but if I were struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, I’d be much more interested in “Survivalism for Dummies.”

All this would be somewhat forgivable if the filmmakers were trying to present some sincere message on the nature of society or faith or religion or humanity or something, but apparently they haven’t put that much thought into it. Seriously, take a look at this hilarious, enlightening interview with the directors. It’s a thing of beauty. Some highlights:

Q: I’m just curious. For you, why was it more important to have a character carrying a book with a message of spirituality, versus a message of “This is how you purify water?”

Albert: I would say it’s the same thing nowadays. Why is it important that people are holding that book in such high regard, or thinking that it should be spoken from, or told to others as opposed to building a church talking about irrigation? You can pose that question to anybody in any time period, post-apocalypse or now, about any religious text, or any text of any sort. “Oh, it’s more important to survive. We need food. So why not build churches about survival and food?”

You shouldn’t have to explain anything — poetry, art on the wall, a movie, whatever it is. You shouldn’t have to explain yourself. But here I am, being a hypocrite.

Q: I read an interview with you guys in Maxim, where it mentioned that a lot of audience members might think that this is Mad Max meets The Passion of Christ, and that that is a wrong assumption to make. Why?

Allen: Yeah I don’t think that [describes] the movie at all. I don’t believe you can even make comparisons. First of all, Passion of the Christ is an anomaly, it’s a one all. That will never happen again. That was a situation that no one ever would have foresaw. I don’t think you can compare any movie to that movie. Whether you loved it or it wasn’t your cup of tea. As far as Mad Max, I prefer Road Warrior. Our movie has a bit of Road Warrior in it.

And my personal favorite:

Q: If religion didn’t help the people of Eli’s fictional past, why do you guys as filmmakers think it will help their future?

Albert: You have some very deep, profound psychological questions there! You’re applying logic to something that there is no logic in. That’s part of my struggle. If you apply logic to a faith based religion — any of them — it will slowly start to fall apart. If you apply logic to Star Wars or Lord of The Rings, it will slowly start to fall apart. But if you go into it as a movie experience, as entertainment, [as] a mythology, and you don’t look for the holes, and you go and believe then that’s a different experience.

It’s not often that you see a filmmaker outright stating that the movie falls apart if you examine the plot with logic. I have to hand it to interviewer Meredith Woerner for asking all the right questions–with follow-ups, even!–and getting the most laughably inept, inane, and incomprehensible answers from the directors. Go read the whole thing; it’s a gold mine.

As to “Book of Eli,” I’m actually looking forward to seeing it even more, but I’m now fully expecting it to be a Schmovie.

Crossposted at Movies Schmovies.

Christmas Musings

Jeremiah 10:1-4 has been making the atheist rounds recently as another bit of irony for the holiday season. If you’re not familiar with the passage, it’s the one that goes thusly:

10:1 Hear ye the word which the LORD speaketh unto you, O house of Israel:
10:2 Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.
10:3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.
10:4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

It’s always entertaining to find these little bits of dissonance between what the Bible teaches and what the “keep Christ in Christmas” crowd believes and practices. Oh, naturally there’s an apologetic to explain this away (‘the passage clearly refers to the making and worshipping of wooden idols which are covered in silver and gold plating,’ (from here. Go ahead and read Jeremiah for yourself; KJV is very different from NIV on this matter), but that really doesn’t make it any less entertaining1.

Nor does it make the practice of putting up a Christmas tree any more Christian. I don’t need to go on about the pagan origins of Christmas, how festivals like Saturnalia and Yule and Sol Invictus got rolled up into Christian traditions over the centuries. Such information is readily available (and I’ve just spent about half an hour Googling it…interesting stuff).

What boggles my mind is the abject ignorance of a great many Christians with regard to all this. Sure, there’s an apologetic for Jeremiah, but I guarantee that most Christians don’t even know the passage, let alone the explanation for why it doesn’t mean what it says. I recently followed a Twitter conversation between Neil Gaiman and some appallingly ignorant Christian, stemming from Gaiman’s promotion of Tim Minchin’s excellent godless Christmas song, “White Wine in the Sun.” The conversation had some real highlights, notably Gaiman’s suggestion that if the word “Christ” puts God in Christmas, than doesn’t the word “Easter” put Oestre in Easter? The obtuse kid apparently misunderstood and thought “Easter” was the name of the person who decided to make Easter a holiday.

And then there’s Garrison Keillor, who has made me decide that Lake Wobegon Days is now several notches lower on my “to-read” list. Somewhere beneath Ender’s Game in the “books written by pompous religious bigots” section of the list2.

All this, plus the litany of “keep Christ in Christmas” bumper magnets I see (year round, like tacky Christmas decorations left up in April) and witch-hunt websites tracking which retail stores dare to prefer an inclusive phrase like “Happy Holidays” when greeting guests, makes me wonder: what the hell is wrong with these people?

Why would you find an event so important that you think everyone should think about it the same way you do, but not care enough to actually find out about its origins? Why do you require underpaid cashiers and greeters to validate your beliefs and customs? Why do you feel the need to exclude people from a celebration?

I just don’t get it. I don’t understand why people would effectively say “this is our party, and if you’re not like us, you’re not invited. And we’re going to trash any party you try to throw, because today is our party day.” It’s silly and petulant; getting upset that the greeter at Wal-Mart said “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is as asinine as being offended that they said “have a nice day” instead of “happy birthday.” Why is it somehow offensively impolite to not make assumptions about a stranger’s religious beliefs? Why is it so important to dictate how other people conduct themselves in private?

What makes this all the more inane is that it’s the secular parts of the holiday–days off, giving gifts, spending time with family and friends, etc.–the things that are most commonly celebrated, that make the holiday popular and heavily anticipated. Would Christmas be as popular as it is if it only had the Christian religious aspects? If there weren’t these pagan and secular trappings attached to the holiday, it’d be another Good Friday or Ash Wednesday or Rosh Hashanah–significant to the observant, just another day to the rest of us.

And maybe that’s part of the anger–the fear that the little bits of Christmas which actually have something to do with Christ will be somehow supplanted with the secular parts, and so Christ has to be tacked onto the secular parts in order for the religious justification to survive. And there’s really nothing wrong with that; maybe you have an angel on top of the tree instead of a star, maybe you sing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Silent Night” instead of “Deck the Halls” and “Frosty the Snowman,” maybe you watch “The Nativity Story” instead of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”…but I still don’t understand why it matters to anyone what anyone else does on the holiday.

It all seems to come down to what Christmas is “about.” For me, Christmas is usually about family and songs I only want to hear for maybe seven days out of three hundred sixty-five and classic movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Die Hard” and presents and awkward moments in the closet. This year, it was about stupid-induced injuries and a broken-down car and forgetting my hard drive with all the Christmas music on it and a veritable overload of Doctor Who. And a bunch of other things. But it seems like some people can’t quite handle the idea that Christmas has different meanings for different people at different times. They have to find the true meaning of Christmas, for everyone. And their true meaning is “Jesus.” Everything else falls by the wayside, including values like togetherness and inclusiveness, which other people might even associate with that “true” meaning.

Or to put it in terms that even the most myopic, self-absorbed ideologue should be able to understand, there’s room for everyone at the Christmas Inn3.

Happy Holidays, everyone.


1. At the very least, it’s a prime example of how different translations influence interpretation. I defy anyone to read the KJV version and get “metal-plated idols carved out of wood,” though that’s a clear implication in the NIV. The other half-dozen or so versions I looked at varied in between.

2. Ender’s Game is higher largely because I feel somewhat obligated as a sci-fi fan to read it, and because I’m told I’d enjoy it. Also, to be clearer about Keillor, he’s in the subsection of “writers who may or may not be pompous religious bigots, but who write pompous religious bigotry and occasionally pass it off as satire, even when it’s neither funny nor particularly satirical.” It’s a small subcategory.

3. Alternately: “Maybe Christmas isn’t what’s said at a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

Alphabetical Blasphemy

Since today is International Blasphemy Day, I thought I’d take a few minutes to quickly blaspheme against as many religions as I can think of off the top of my head. So, here goes:

  • Ásatrú: I’m not sure how to feel about Ásatrú. I mean, on one hand, it’s got to suck to have other people casually citing your gods as the silly mythological ones that no one believes in anymore, but on the other hand, you’ve got fucking Thor. Plus, your canon is huge–once you’ve finished the Edda, you can start working on Journey Into Mystery. Even Catholicism doesn’t have regular monthly updates. Or continuity editors, for that matter.
  • Baha’i: I’ve read about Baha’i half a dozen times, but any information about them just kind of slides off my brain. I’m pretty sure their schtick has to do with letting the dogs out.
  • Christianity: I realized today that I’d really like to do a comedy version of the Jesus story. Not “The Life of Brian,” but an actual, accurate adaptation of the gospel stories (inasmuch as you can call any mash-up of those four contradictory stories “accurate”) done in a wacky slapstick style. It occurred to me while reading Jesus, Interrupted that Jesus gets run out of town and stoned quite a few times. I can just imagine the scenes of Jesus and his crew running with huge crowds of angry Jews chasing them with stones and stuff, while Ciaphas (or someone) shouts “JEEEESUUUUS!” in a Mr. Slate/Dean Wormer style. The more I think about it, the better I think it would be. I just need to figure out how to funny up the downer ending. Much as I’d like to, I can’t steal this idea:
  • Deism: Deism is kind of like the bathtub drain of religious belief; it’s almost totally empty, and so many things seem to end up sucked down it. Every major argument for the existence of gods ends up getting as far as Deism and no farther; people who aren’t quite ready to give up religious belief altogether seem to get caught in it like clumps of hair, Antony Flew fell in from the other side of the tub, much though Christians would like to claim that he made it across the Deistic divide; and American government has spent so much time caught in the gutter that it’s started using it for ceremonial purposes.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is “Deism sucks.”

  • Ellinais: All the lameness of Ásatrú, but without the awesomeness of Thor. Sure, Hercules and Zeus are cool and all, but there’s so many also-rans–the Legion of Substitute Olympians like Iris and Eris and Nike and such. I don’t know, I just can’t imagine Odin turning into a golden shower to impregnate someone.

    Oh, and as long as I’ve mentioned Eris, I might as well mention Discordianism. Either it’s a parody religion with its collective head up its own ass, or it’s a real religion based around trying way too hard to be funny. I can’t tell the difference, and I’m convinced that its followers can’t either, and most of them are just playing along so they don’t look like they don’t get the joke.

  • Freethinkers: When people accuse atheists of being smug and superior, this is the kind of stupid bullshit they’re talking about. “Freethinker” is even worse than “Bright” in this regard; it’s effectively calling everyone else a slave-thinker or restricted-thinker. Any organization with cute derogatory terms for everyone in the outgroup has its head way too far up its own ass. Can we please resign this elitist term to the dustbin of history?
  • Gnosticism: Hey, look, an entire religious movement based around being super-special elites who know secret things that make them better than you. It’s the religion equivalent of high schoolers with an in-joke.
  • Hare Krishna: A religion known mainly for hanging out in airports, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (which sounds more like an organization that James Bond would fight against) peaked with a mention in a George Harrison song and had officially jumped the shark by the time they started denying the moon landings on religious grounds. Yeah, let’s teach that controversy. Bald assholes.
  • Humanism: You know, there’s not a lot I disagree with when it comes to Secular Humanism, but something about the tradition kind of squicks me out. I think it’s the adherence to a specific set of ethics, or something. I guess I’m technically a Humanist, but it’s not a term I really use. So, yeah, Humanists…stop being so squicky.
  • Islam: I thought about just putting a crude cartoon of Mohammed here, but then a new thought occurred to me. See, like my “Laugh-In of the Christ” above, I think the life of Mohammed would make a fun movie. See, the Hadith has this bit about Mohammed flying up to heaven on a magic donkey that my brain connected to the end of “Grease,” where Danny and Sandy fly into the sky in their car, and I thought “it’d be awesome to do the story of Mohammed like ‘Grease’!” See, you start it with “Allah (is the Word),” then there’s “Sunni Nights,” “Look at Me, I’m Aisha B.,” and “Madrasah Dropout.” By the end, Mohammed will be all clean-cut and wearing a sweater, and Aisha will be sewn into her leather burqa. I know she’s only supposed to be six years old, but given Hollywood’s proclivity toward casting older people as younger people, I suspect that we might get an actual teenager in the role. I recommend Miley Cyrus.
  • Jainism: You know, if the Jains were serious about their commitment to not killing any living things, they’d all take medication to inhibit their immune systems. You guys are so careful that you sweep bugs out of the sidewalk in front of you and avoid root vegetables since they kill living plants, but what about all those living bacteria that your body’s killing all the time? Bunch of hypocrites.
  • Kemetism: Why resurrect Egyptian mythology as a religion if you’re not going to mummify the dead and build pyramids? Neopagans ruin everything.
  • Libertarianism: Because substituting “the market” for “God” is still a religion.
  • Mormons: Mormonism is religion as done by fanfic.com. It’s a mishmash of Christianity, 19th Century science fiction, Masonic ritual, American patriotism, wish fulfillment, and really awful pseudohistory. “So, this guy discovered some magic stones, which may or may not have been in a breastplate of some sort, then used them to translate a book of golden plates (though the book wasn’t in the room at the time), written in ‘reformed Egyptian’ by Indians who were actually Jews who sailed across the ocean to America, where Jesus went on walkabout once. Apparently, there’s no such place as Hell (but somehow there’s still a devil), so everyone gets into Heaven, but some people get better rooms, and if you’re really good and wear your magic underpants and never drink coffee, you get to be the god of your own planet when you die! Oh, and God is from another planet, which orbits a star called Kolob, and there are Puritans living on the moon! And black people will turn white if they start behaving, and God and Jesus had bunches of wives, but we don’t talk about those things anymore.” Joseph Smith was fucking Harold Hill, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it started as a drunken bet that just got out of hand. In fact, I would be very surprised if it didn’t start as a drunken bet that got out of hand.
  • Newage: Ah, newage, less a religion, more a smorgasbord of stupidity. There is no dumb idea that newage hasn’t adopted, embraced, and woefully misunderstood. If Deism is a shower drain, then newage is the trap pipe underneath that collects all the gunk and detritus that gets past the screen.
  • Objectivism: What kind of cult of personality outlives their personality? One with the personality of a petulant junior high student, I guess. It’s a shame that Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard are both dead; I’d really like to see a definitive decision on which cult leader was the bigger hack.
  • Pantheism: Pantheism saw Deism’s non-interventionist, impersonal prime mover god, and said “that god’s not useless and superfluous enough! I can do better.” And by George, they did at that. Way to set the bar high, Pantheists.
  • Quakerism: The graph of Quaker popularity drops off significantly after the end of the 18th century, and has a short, sharp resurgence in 2003 or so, when everybody took the Belief-O-Matic Quiz and found out they were “Liberal Quakers.” In between, it’s all oatmeal.
  • Rastafarianism: I think if you actually did the demographics, Rastafarianism comprises equally Jamaicans and pretentious college stoners who want to give up shampoo.
  • Satanism: I don’t know what’s worse: that Christians repeatedly get panicked over an effectively nonexistent religion, or that they get panicked over an effectively nonexistent religion that they think is made up of Dungeons and Dragons players and KISS fans. Never has there been a sweatier, hairier nonexistent religion.
  • Taoism: ‘Nuff said.
  • Unitarian Universalism: All the uselessness of Deism with all the boredom of church! UU is the best argument for good atheist meetup groups.
  • Voodoo: The only group who has contributed more easy plot devices to horror movies than the gypsies. It’s almost a shame that no one knows anything accurate about them.
  • Wicca: A fifty-year-old ancient religion made entirely out of pale skin, fishnet sleeves, awkward body fat, pretentious teenagers, and lesbians. No religious tradition in history has ever needed a harder smack with the cluestick.
  • X-Files: I know it’s not a religion, I’m just using it as a handy term for all the conspiracy theorists out there who aren’t adequately covered by the rest of the list. The X-Files was basically “Left Behind” for the Coast to Coast AM crowd. Which explains why the show ended up being totally incoherent, ridiculous, empty, and raising far more questions than it was poised to answer.
  • Yoga: As I understand, this religion gives you the ability to stretch across the screen and breathe fire. And according to the manual, it supposedly allows you to teleport, but that’s, like, 12th-level Yoga or something.
  • Zoroastrianism: Spanish for “the foxastrianism.” Extant since somewhere around 600 BCE, it’s like the little religion that could…worship a god who answers phones on the Enterprise and drives a Japanese car.
  • Everyone else: chances are, you’re too lame or tiny to merit notice. I mean, come on, I picked Kemetism over you? Yeah, sucks to be you. With the exception of Scientology (aka Mormonism with a higher page count): it’s okay, Scientology, someday you’ll catch Nicholas Cage for killing John Travolta’s kid. In the meantime, enjoy being 4chan’s bitch.

And that’s the end of it. Happy Blasphemy Day, everyone!

You might think it’s hysterical

So, Bronze Dog had a recent post riffing on the apparent problems woos have with humor. I think a lot of it stems from lacking a sense of irony and self-awareness, since those are key elements of a great deal of humor, but that’s another post in itself. In the comments, Valhar2000 pointed us to a brief and really lame website called Jokes About Atheists. It’s not just that the humor is not really humorous (although some of the images are funny–I particularly liked the “There is probably no cod” bus), but the website uses Comic Sans as its font. Comic Sans? Really? Yeah, maybe if I were twelve copy-pasting Internet jokes onto my Geocities page, Comic Sans might seem like a good idea. For (presumably) adults to go use it really speaks to the lack of awareness we’re talking about here.

Anyway, among the half-dozen or so “jokes” (which, by the way, make some glaring omissions–where’s the one about the Marine who punched the atheist professor in the face? Or the one where the atheist is eaten by a Christian bear? This site is far from comprehensive) is a list in the style of Jeff Foxworthy’s “You might be a redneck” jokes. It’s an interesting look into what some Christians consider humor, and seemed like some easy post fodder while I continue working on the more in-depth posts (I promise I haven’t quit writing!). Without further ado:

You MAY Be a Fundamentalist Atheist if….

Yep, off to an auspicious start.

…you became an atheist when you were 10 years old, based on ideas of God that you learned in Sunday School. Your ideas about God haven’t changed since.

Converting to Christianity in childhood and never questioning or improving upon your beliefs, however, is a-okay!

Incidentally, I think someone who based their atheism on Sunday School God alone would be a pretty bad (and pretty easily reconverted) atheist. Most of the atheists I know–those in the more skeptical, scientific camp–base their disbelief on the lack of evidence for any god, whether Sunday School or Theology Class, and generally have done some research on the matter. Not that it’s necessary–if Sunday School teachers provided evidence instead of cutesy stories, this wouldn’t even need to be on the list.

…you think Christians are narrow-minded for believing in only one religion, but atheists are open-minded for believing in absolutely none.

I don’t know anyone who thinks either of these things as stated here. I think many Christians are often narrow-minded or closed-minded for refusing to consider other points of view, refusing to acknowledge evidence, and refusing to question their beliefs. Consequently, those who do question their beliefs, acknowledge evidence, and consider other points of view are what I’d consider open-minded. I’ve known lots of open-minded Christians; I haven’t known quite as many closed-minded atheists (except perhaps on political and economic views).

…you think the USA government is a theocracy.

I think there are people who are trying to move it that way, does that count? I think it’s a bad idea to mix religion and government, and I’d like to see a stronger separation between the two. I’d especially like to see a public open-minded enough to see the religious beliefs of political candidates as less cause for concern than policies and platforms.

…you refer to C.S. Lewis as “that traitor.”

C.S. Lewis was an atheist?

…you think George Carlin was the greatest comedian of all time.

He’s certainly up there. Who did you have in mind instead?

…you spend hours arguing that a-theism actually means “without a belief in God ” and not just ” belief that there is no god” as if this is a meaningful distinction in real life.

I don’t know that I’ve spent hours arguing this, but it is a meaningful distinction, whether or not theists want to accept it.

…”thinking for yourself” means adopting an atheist viewpoint.

Thinking for oneself doesn’t mean that one comes to a completely unique conclusion.

By the way, what’s an “atheist viewpoint”?

…you believe that nativity scenes should be banned from public view, but that anyone objecting to pornography only has to look the other way.

I’m not sure if this is more a strawman or a false dichotomy; I don’t know anyone who thinks that “nativity scenes should be banned from public view;” it’s certainly not a point of view of most atheists, even if there are some asshats who might advocate it. Most atheists who have any opinion that even resembles what’s stated here (and many others who value church-state separation) want nativity scenes removed from public property, since the secular government is supposed to remain neutral on matters of religion. There are two ways to enforce that neutrality on state grounds: the first is to allow any religious group to put up any display (within whatever secular guidelines the state sets) on the public land for any holiday. So we could have light-up plastic Jesus and the manger on Christmas, a light-up plastic Buddha for Buddha’s Birthday, a light-up plastic Flying Spaghetti Monster for Talk Like a Pirate Day, a light-up plastic Wookiee for Life Day, a light-up plastic Raelian UFO on August 6th, a light-up plastic angel killing light-up plastic Egyptian children for Passover, and a light-up plastic maypole with light-up plastic naked pagans dancing around it on May Day. If we’re going to allow the light-up plastic nativity scene, then this is the only fair option.

On the other hand, rather than allowing the courthouse lawn to become a constant rotating showcase for every religion’s chosen kitsch, the government could maintain neutrality by disallowing any religious displays on public property, which is the same policy used for political campaign signs, another point of government neutrality. For the government to declare the courthouse lawn (and other public properties) religious display-free zones does not stop religious groups and individuals from using church grounds or their own private lawns to erect their electric shrines. There’s no “barring the nativity from public view.” You could put a nativity on every lawn in town, provided that the owners of those properties want nativities on their lawns. Why is it such a big deal, why is it so necessary to put your decorations on the town’s lawn as well?

…you assert that “faith is believing things which you know aren’t true”.

It’s “faith is believing what you know ain’t so,” and it’s a Mark Twain quote. Get it right.

Incidentally, while this is a nice pithy and humorous phrase, I can’t imagine anyone actually using it seriously. A more serious variation would be “faith is belief without evidence or in spite of evidence to the contrary,” or “faith is the excuse we give to believe things without good reason.” The latter’s pretty close to something Matt Dillahunty is wont to say, the former is just a basic definition of faith as used in this kind of context.

…you think you descended from apes.

I’ll do you one better: I think I am an ape, and a great one at that.

I wonder how Francis Collins, Ken Miller, and every other theist who accepts basic biology feels about suddenly being a “fundamentalist atheist.”

…you get angry if someone implies you’re going to a place that you don’t think exists.

Yeah, it’s a little upsetting to know that there are large swaths of people who think I deserve to be tortured forever because I disagree with them. I don’t get angry about it, I just feel sad that people can have their basic empathy and compassion so twisted and contorted by irrational beliefs. I’m also frustrated that people can look to this sort of improportionate punishment, where actions are equated to thoughtcrime, and where all violations of arbitrary rules result in infinite penalty, and call it “perfect justice” and “merciful.”

…you think marriage is an obsolete fundy institution — except for homosexuals.

This conflates two (possibly three) different positions, I think, which you can see battled out in any Pharyngula thread on same-sex marriage. On one hand are people who think that marriage is a (primarily) religious institution and that the government shouldn’t be bothering with marriage at all, and advocate the replacement or dissolution of civil marriage. On the other hand are poeple who see marriage as a civil institution (or see civil and religious marriage as separate institutions, which is my position), and on that basis see no justification for allowing straights to marry and denying that right to gays. Religious institutions can do whatever they want with their religious marriages, and the government is not required to recognize or endorse religious marriage rites, just as religious groups are not required to recognize or endorse civil marriage contracts. Both positions are reasonable, stemming from different premises on the purpose and benefits of marriage.

…you become upset when a Christian says that not everything in the Bible should be taken literally.

I suppose this might be a sign of an inexperienced atheist debater, but I can’t imagine most “fundamentalist atheists” getting upset by this sort of thing. Now, when a Christian takes an explicitly literalist position (whatever that means), then interprets passages in a figurative way in order to smooth over obvious contradictions and uncomfortable implications, or when a Christian claims that their obviously subjective figurative interpretation of passages is the “literal” interpretation, that’s frustratingly hypocritical. I find it laughable, though, that Christians can claim “not everything in the Bible should be taken literally,” without providing any justification for which passages should be taken literally, and which ones are figurative.

…you call a view held by less than ten percent of the American public “common sense”.

Why use “the American public” here? Is “the American public” somehow the ultimate arbiter of “common sense”? Let me turn this around: Ray Comfort calls Christianity “common sense,” despite the fact that it’s a view held by less than a third of the Earth’s population. “Common sense” is worthless; it’s context- and culture-specific, and it’s certainly not a method of reliably determining truth.

…you have, at least once, phoned, emailed or written the ACLU.

I guess there are no non-American fundamentalist atheists. And I guess all those religious people who have been defended by the ACLU are fundamentalist atheists.

…you’ve ever called a Christian a “Paulian”.

Guilty as charged. Of course, it was in response to Christians who, when faced with contradictions between Jesus’s words and Paul’s words, chose the latter. I guess when I see “Christian,” I assume it means “follower of Christ” or “Christ-like,” not “follower of some guy who never actually met Christ but is apparently more of an expert on Christ’s views than Christ was.”

…you just can’t see any difference between Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, etc, and Osama bin Laden.

Sure I can: Osama has a beard.

…your first inclination when purchasing the Darwin fish for your car was the hope of being offensive.

This only barely makes sense. First, so what? If I want to have offensive decorations on my car, that’s my prerogative. I don’t see how it makes one a “fundamentalist” anything, any more than “My pit bull could eat your honor student” makes the driver a “fundamentalist dog owner,” or a knock-off Calvin pissing on a Ford emblem makes the driver a “fundamentalist Chevy driver.” Second, believe it or not, it’s not just atheists who accept evolution, though it does seem to be primarily Christians (of certain stripes) who would be “offended” by a decoration supporting good science. Third, if my “first inclination” was to be offensive, there are much better car decorations I could have picked. There’s the T. rex eating the Jesus fish, there’s the one where the Darwin fish is fucking the Jesus fish, and there are countless pithy bumper stickers. Incidentally, how many Christians’ first inclinations are to offend people when they pick out bumper stickers like “One Nation UNDER GOD” or “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”?

…you use one or more of the following alternate spellings: GOD-“gawd” JESUS-“jeeezus” “jayzus” “jebus” “jeebers” BIBLE-“bibble” “babble” “wholly babble” “buy-bull”.

Yeah, this is pretty immature stuff, and I’m a little embarrassed when I see other atheists do it (though I am partial to “Jebus,” just for the Simpsons reference). It’s about as childish as “evilution,” “Darwinist,” “DemocRAT,” and so forth.

…you insist that science is completely partial to all ideas, is not dogmatic and researches all possibilities.

Science isn’t dogmatic, that much I will insist. You don’t see Nobel prizes going to people who strongly reaffirmed the status quo and found nothing new or surprising or paradigm-shattering. As far as “partial to all ideas” and “research[ing] all possibilities,” it’s certainly possible for science to do those things, but it’s usually not necessary. Most ideas are, frankly, stupid, and most possibilities aren’t worth the time, effort, and grant funding to investigate. I don’t need to investigate whether or not clouds are really the cast-off tails of giant invisible floating rabbits; the idea has no evidence behind it and contradicts things we already know about the universe–particularly rabbit physiology and cloud formation. Science researches the possibilities that have some probability given what we already know is possible (or given areas where we don’t know what the possibilities are). We don’t need to research those possibilities that are rendered highly improbable or nonsensical by what we already know, unless there’s some evidence that those possibilities may be true. Take homeopathy, for instance: there’s no reason science should investigate homeopathy, because it’s internally inconsistent, it lacks provenance, and there is no physically plausible mechanism for its operation. The only reason science does investigate it is because so many people believe it works, and only science can determine whether or not it actually does.

Point being: science can and will be open to all ideas and has the capability to research all possibilities, but your possible idea needs to be accompanied by a compelling reason for scientists to spend time, money, and effort on the research.

…you think that if schools teach the Intelligent Design theory of creation, they should also teach the “stork theory” of where babies come from.

Only if we’re going with the “equal time” argument for teaching Intelligent Design Creationism, in which case we should be giving “equal time” to any alternate ‘theories’ of accepted science, regardless of how invalidated they have been by the evidence, or how little actual evidence they have supporting them. There are plenty of arguments proffered by cdesign proponentsists; in many cases, equal time being one of them, they open the door wide to teaching all manner of debunked, discarded, and discredited alternate ‘theories’ in classes throughout the curriculum. Hell, Michael Behe himself said that a definition of science which included Intelligent Design would also include Astrology. I guess he must be a “fundamentalist atheist” too.

…you have any “bible contradictions” website saved in “favorites”.

The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible is more than just a “bible contradictions website.”

…you insist on capitalizing “atheist”.

Why would anyone do that? I generally make it a point to not capitalize “atheist.” I don’t capitalize “theist” either; they’re not institutions, they’re positions.

…you think that “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” are more believable than the Bible.

I’ve given this one some thought, and yeah, I think I have to agree. “Harry Potter” is set in a world that actually bears some resemblance to the real world, and is generally internally consistent. There aren’t large swaths of “Harry Potter” that contradict other parts of the series, and the characters have human personalities and understandable motivations. There are lots of fantastic, impossible elements, to be sure, but at least they make sense in the context of the story. “Lord of the Rings” is even more internally consistent, and the world is far more fleshed-out; while Middle-Earth doesn’t bear much resemblance to reality, the characters’ relationships do. More than that, the magical aspects are generally fairly understated; there isn’t the same kind of flashy wizardry one finds in “Harry Potter,” but a much more subdued magic that one could almost accept as real.

Contrast this with the Bible, which is not only inconsistent with itself, but is inconsistent with the reality it purports to be describing. The characters, when they are given any development at all, often come across as unhinged or disturbed in how their demeanor, statements, and actions change from one scene to another. Jesus, being the character who receives the lion’s share of development in the story, is the best example of this–sometimes he’s inclusive and insightful and patient, other times he’s cursing fig trees for being out of season and being intentionally obtuse so only the right kind of people understand what he’s saying. God is right behind, seeming like an entirely different character from the first half of the book to the second. It’s as though at the start of “Order of the Phoenix,” people had started talking about how loving and benevolent and forgiving Voldemort was. That kind of abrupt, unbelievable diametrically-opposite shift in characterization won’t fly in decent fiction, in large part because of how unrealistic it is. Unless God had an iron rod shoved through his frontal lobes between Malachi and Matthew, his dramatic demeanor change just isn’t believable.

Naturally this is all apples and oranges; neither “Harry Potter” nor “Lord of the Rings” is seriously claimed by anyone to have actually happened, while there are plenty of Christians who look to their favorite novel as an accurate record of history and science.

…you think if a Christian won’t argue when challenged, they are too frightened or can’t answer; but if they do address your arguments, you think it’s a sign that they are “threatened” by your argument.

I can’t respond to this one: I don’t think I’ve ever had a Christian actually address my arguments.

By the way, “threatened” sounds an awful lot like projection to me–as do about half of the rest of these items.

…when someone says ‘God bless you’ when you sneeze, you take it as an open invitation to express your non-belief.

Once you’re stealing jokes from Dane Cook, it’s a real sign that you should stop trying to be funny.

Incidentally, expressing one’s beliefs (or lack thereof) in inappropriate situations or unwanted circumstances, taking any opportunity to bring up their convictions in conversation? Yes, the atheists clearly have that market cornered.

…you have actually calculated the number of people drowned in The Flood you don’t believe.

Can’t say I’ve done the math on this one. It’s really only an interesting figure if you’re comparing God’s death toll with others, or if you’re trying to demonstrate how absurd it is that so many living things could die and no one but the Jews would notice.

…you feel guilty whenever you use the word faith and have decided to remove it from your vocabulary.

Sorry, I look at that word between “word” and “and,” but my eyes just kind of slide off it. Looks like there’s an SEP field at work here.

Seriously, I can’t say that I’ve removed the word faith from my vocabulary, nor do I know anyone who has, nor do I even really know what that would mean. I am a lot more careful with how I use “faith,” and I try not to use it when I actually mean “trust.” It’s the same with “theory,” “believe,” “prove,” and several other words. I care about what words mean, and I try to be as precise as possible when I’m communicating, particularly when it comes to difficult concepts.

…you think religious tolerance does not include Christianity.

I think religious tolerance includes more than just Christianity, despite what so many Christians seem to think.

(This partial list was originally compiled by “GakuesiDon” and “Tekton” and various contributors)

Quoted for credit.

I find it interesting how few of these are actually atheist-specific. I imagine it has a lot to do with the fact that there’s no central atheist doctrine or dogma, which tends to limit how much atheists actually have in common with one another. Consequently, these Christians have to make jabs at science (via evolutionary theory), church-state separation supporters of all stripes, liberal Christians (who I have also seen drawing parallels between Falwell and bin Laden), fundamentalists of other religions (I suspect that a fundamentalist Muslim’s idea of “religious tolerance” might not include Christianity either), people who support the ACLU (which defends believers and nonbelievers alike, contrary to conservative propaganda), and of course a veritable squadron of strawmen. It’s also very specific to American Christianity (and then, to a particular non-literalist-but-still-creationist form of American Christianity), where no thought whatsoever is given to the rest of the world. They posit two camps, one of which is there specific brand of “Christian,” and the other is the “fundamentalist atheists,” who somehow encompass an awful lot of people who claim to be religious.

I’ll admit, I’m tempted to do a “you might be” list of my own, since it would be so easy to turn these around on the believers (and not just Christian ones, either), but I have slightly better taste than that.

Armageddon It

Quick note: I wrote the vast majority of this post back in February. Lest you think I’ve been slacking off on the posting, I’ve actually been writing quite a few…they just take a while. So don’t be alarmed by outdated references or anything, I assure you this was all topical when I wrote it.


So this guy posted a letter to the Atheist Experience blog. No one there seemed to think it was worth any time or effort, but it seemed like a blast to me, so I’m tackling it here. Note, though, that I’m not taking this too seriously.

Armageddon Thru To You

Like I said, I thought this was actually fairly clever and funny. It reminded me of the bit from “History of the World Part 1”:

Torquemada – do not implore him for compassion. Torquemada – do not beg him for forgiveness. Torquemada – do not ask him for mercy. Let’s face it, you can’t Torquemada anything!

Classic.

If you’ve been wondering why it seems like the world around us is unraveling, it’s because the last days as foretold in the bible are now upon us.

I don’t really think it seems like the world around us is unraveling. Things are moderately crappy, largely due to massive destabilization of the Middle East and eight years of Republican financial policies, but unraveling? I think it was Matt Dillahunty on a recent Atheist Experience or Non-Prophets episode who talked about what a lame, wussy position this is. I mean, look at the generation who grew up in the first half of the 20th Century: they lived through the greatest war the world had ever seen, where chemical warfare was common and the bloodshed was horrendous. They lived through a time of great prosperity and widespread debauchery in the 1920s, where legislated morality led to the rise of organized crime and amoral speakeasies. They lived through times of great disease, where polio and smallpox were widespread even in the richest nations. They lived through a Great Depression, which left the vast majority of people in dire financial straits for years. Then another war broke out, dwarfing the previous one, where six million of God’s chosen people were systematically exterminated, and the atom–the very building block of God’s creation–was rent asunder releasing so much destructive power that it was actually a threat to every living thing in the world. They saw the rise of two global superpowers, opposed to one another, each with the power to destroy the world many times over, one thriving on godless oppression and the other on freedom and (supposedly) Christian values. The generation born in 1900 saw all this unfold in their lifetimes, and you can claim, without any sense of irony, that now the world is unraveling? What temporal hubris, what cultural myopia you must have. You think this is bad, talk to a centenarian. Otherwise, this argument looks precisely as arrogant, self-centered, and blatantly stupid as it is.

Just as it was 2000 years ago, many were unable to discern the signs of Jesus Christ’s first coming (Mat 16:3),

Well, it’s his fault; he should have said something, or at least tapped them on the shoulder.

as will many concerning his second coming, which will occur very soon. Yes many have proclaimed a similar sentiment many times in the past, but their errors have no bearing on today other than to lull you into spiritual apathy, and that too was prophesied to occur in the last days.


Translation: “Sure, everyone who ever said this in the past was wrong, but that doesn’t suggest that we’re wrong this time too. This time, there really is a wolf it’s the real last days.”

If you’re not a believer in Jesus Christ because you’re an atheist,

This falls just on the outskirts of “not even wrong.” I mean, I suppose since I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in Jesus Christ as a God figure; belief in him as a historical figure is a separate question and is not necessarily contrary to the definition of atheism. But I think you’ll find that this is backwards; most of the ex-Christian atheists, anyway, have it the other way around: they’re atheists in part because they don’t believe in Jesus Christ. They tested their beliefs and held fast to that which was good, and Jesus didn’t make the cut.

Naturally, being an atheist is a sufficient but not necessary cause for disbelief in Jesus; non-Christian religions share that particular disbelief, and even some Christian sects have beliefs regarding Jesus that could qualify as one or another sort of disbelief (denying his divinity, denying the Trinity, denying that he existed in the real world, and so forth).

consider that the underlying impetus for your disbelief is most likely borne of pride and here’s why:

Pride? I suppose, after a fashion. I’m proud of my ability to use reason to examine the world around me, and it would be a shame to deny those faculties in favor of a comforting delusion.

When we die, if you as an atheist were right, then there is no upside or downside for anyone regarding the afterlife. We will all simply cease to exist
However if we Christians were right about our belief in the afterlife, then we will be given eternal life and you as an atheist will receive eternal damnation

Oh my goodness, you’re right! I’ve never thought of that before! Why, now that you put it that way, in this way that I’ve never heard before in my life, this argument that certainly isn’t old and common enough to have a name, I’m totally convinced. In fact, I’m going to drop down right now and choose to believe in God because otherwise I might face some terrible punishment. Why, that argument is so valid as to be airtight, it doesn’t employ any fallacious false dichotomies, arguments from adverse consequences, or really insultingly stupid theology. Praise Jesus!

Given the choices, the position held by an atheist is a fools bet any way you look at it because the atheist has everything to lose and nothing to gain. It is tantamount to accepting a “heads I win, tails you lose” coin toss proposition from someone.

Yes, I have nothing to gain by not going to church. Except, you know, a life free of unnecessary guilt and anxiety; an additional ten percent of my gross income; sleep time on Sunday mornings; the freedom to associate with whomever I choose; the freedom to make up my own mind on issues in politics, society, and science; meat on Fridays between Mardi Gras and Easter; a worldview that encourages me to focus on matters that affect real people in the real world rather than supernatural matters that affect no one; the knowledge that I should make the most out of every second I have in this life, since once it’s over there’s nothing else; and a mindset free of backward superstitions. Other than that, I’ve got nothing to gain.

And that someone by the way is Satan (see Ephesians 6:12).

Thank goodness he doesn’t exist either.

The only way to explain the attitude held by an atheist is pride, pure and simple.


I have the sneaking suspicion that you haven’t actually considered the other explanations. There are purer and simpler ones, I assure you.

And, of course, there’s no pride involved in presuming to lecture a whole community on their internal motivations for their beliefs, none whatsoever.

The intellectually dishonest and/or tortured reasoning used by atheists to try and disprove the existence of God is nothing more than attempts to posture themselves as superior (a symptom of pride).

As opposed the the intellectually dishonest and tortured reasoning used by Christians to try to prove the existence of God, which is far more than an attempt to posture themselves as superior. Look, if you’re going to do this much projecting, the least you could do is sell popcorn.

And as anyone who has read their bible knows, this is precisely the character flaw that befell Lucifer, God’s formerly most high angel. (Isaiah 14:12-15).

Yeah, Lucifer had the gall to suggest that maybe he could do better than God, who spent the entirety of the Old Testament screwing up and then hitting the global reset button to make up for his mistakes. What a terrible crime. “Hey, I could do that without global genocide. Whoops, guess I’m in Hell now.”

Is it any wonder then why the bible is so replete with references to pride as the cause of mankind’s downfall?

Actually, I’d say curiosity is more often mankind’s downfall in the Bible (Eden, Babel, Lot’s wife etc.), which says an awful lot about the Fundie mindset. Then again, an even more frequent cause of mankind’s downfall is God.

Pride permeates our lives and burdens us in ways that most of us seldom recognize. Ironically, pride is the one thing that can blind someone to things even the unsighted can see.

No, faith can do that too, and more efficiently.

And sadly pride will blind many with an otherwise good heart, to accepting the offer of eternal salvation that Christ bought and paid for with his life.

And pride can likewise blind many to the fallacies on which they base their belief systems, chief among them a sense of personal infallibility regarding interpretations of various holy books and prophetic signs.

In any event, if you’re an atheist, I wish you only the best for every day of the rest of your life because for you, this life is as close to heaven as you’ll ever get,

This is about as close to reasonable as the letter gets. You’re right, this world is the best we can hope for, which means we should do everything we can to make it live up to our hopes. But this is true for everyone, regardless of their beliefs. This world is as close to Heaven as any of us knows we’ll be getting. It is pride of the highest sort to presume that you know who is worthy of Heaven and who is worthy of Hell; your Bible says that only your God can make such judgments. Would you really presume that God agrees with you on the matter of who to save and who to damn? Would you really presume that your understanding of the mind of God is perfect and complete? If so, then I submit that your accusation of pride among atheists is made from a glass house under rocky assault. If not, then shut the hell up, because you’re talking out of your pious ass.

but for believers in Christ, this life is as close to hell as we’ll ever get.

What a deplorable sentiment. Okay, so this world is as close to Hell as you can get. Which makes more sense: waiting it out pouting in the damn corner, or working to make it a better place? The conclusion for atheists and Christians ought to be the same: regardless of what you think lies after, you should be making the most of your time before.

If you’re not a believer and follower of Jesus Christ because you are of another faith, please take the time to very carefully compare your faith to Christianity and ask yourself, why is the bible the only religious book with both hundreds of proven prophecies already fulfilled as well as those being fulfilled today?

If you’re a believer and follower of Jesus Christ, please take the time to very carefully compare your claims to other religions and ask yourself if they aren’t also claiming to have fulfilled and fulfilling prophecy. Then, you might examine whether or not their claims are valid. Then you might examine whether or not your prophetic claims are just as fallacious, vague, self-fulfilling, or interpreted after the fact as theirs are.

No other religion can claim anything remotely close to this fact.

Neither can yours. They all rely on the same silliness as Nostradamus and Astrology. Unless you care to point out specific examples.

Many Christians who are serious students of bible prophecy are already aware of the role and significance of bible prophecy in foretelling end time events.

Yes, and many Trekkies who are serious students of Star Trek continuity are already aware of the role and significance of Star Trek technology in fortelling future technological advancements. What’s your point?

God gave us prophecy as evidence of his divine holiness to know the begining from the end (Isa 46:10). God also believed prophecy to be so important that to those willing to read the most prophetic book in the bible, the Book of Revelation, he promised a special blessing (see Rev 1:3), and this is the only book in the bible that God gives its reader a special blessing for reading. Something to think about.

It’s also the only book in the Bible that reads like “I Am the Walrus.” Something else to think about. Goo goo g’joob.

Also, God didn’t sit down and write the book himself, you know. It’s John (allegedly) who says that the people reading the book will be blessed.

Don’t risk losing Christ’s offer of eternal life by not accepting him as your savior and by thinking that the bible is nothing more than a compilation of unrelated and scattered stories about people who lived 2,000 plus years ago.

But I’ve no reason not to think that the Bible is nothing more than a compilation of loosely related and scattered stories about people who may or may not have lived 2,000-plus years ago.

If you take the time to study (not just read) the bible, you will literally be shocked to learn things you would have never imagined would be revealed in it.

Literally shocked? Like, with electricity? Aside from your misuse of the word “literally,” I agree. I’m often shocked by the things I learn from the Bible, from scientific absurdities to divine atrocities to descriptions of guys with big floppy donkey dicks that ejaculate like firehoses.

Did you know that like parables, God also uses particular months and days in the Jewish calendar, Jewish Feasts and customs, solar and lunar phases, celestial alignments, gematria (Hebrew numerology) early bible events and more as patterns and models to foretell future events?

Wow, a book written by Jews and Jewish offshoot sects employs months and days in the Jewish calendar, Jewish feasts and customs, and Jewish number magic innumeracy numberwang numerology? I never would have imagined! How surprising! And solar and lunar phases, you say? Why, that makes it totally unique among religions, because no other societies thought that solar and lunar phases were significant!

Consider the following interesting facts about the bible that testify to its God-inspired authorship:

“The dedication page says ‘To Me, who makes all things possible'”?

Did you know that in Gen 12:2, God said he would bless Israel?. How else can you explain the grossly disproportionate level of success achieved by Jewish people as a tiny minority in the world, especially after all they have gone through?

Yes, the grossly disproportionate level of success achieved by this tiny minority, totally ignoring also the disproportionate level of suffering they’ve faced. And totally ignoring how social customs and rules in various time periods have contributed to that success–you know, like how after the terrors of the Holocaust, the Allied nations said “these people need a haven,” carved one out, and then gave them alliance and protection in perpetuity thereafter. Or how religious and legal rules in the Renaissance prohibited Christians from lending money to one another or working as bankers, leaving the job (and thus, the stigma of being greedy) to the Jews. None of those real-world things would account for the “grossly disproportionate level of success” achieved by Jewish people as a tiny minority.

And how can you explain the success achieved by the tiny nation of Israel, surrounded by enemies outnumbering them 100 to 1 and yet still they remain victorious in all their wars?

Outnumbered is not outmatched. The Jews have powerful allies and better weapons than their neighbors. If God were protecting them, I think we’d hear of a lot fewer bombed discotheques.

Did you know that as evidence to indicate that Israel is the epicenter of the world from God’s point of view is the fact that languages to the west of Israel are written and read from left to right as if pointing to Israel, and languages from countries to the east of Israel are written and read from right to left, again as though pointing to Israel. Just a coincidence, you say? I think not.

I think not too. In fact, I think that it’s simply false. First, it ignores the origins of these written languages (i.e., that most European and central/western Asian languages developed out of Proto-Indo-European…in Russia). Second, the Earth is spherical; shouldn’t some of these languages be read top to bottom, or bottom to top, by this logic? Shouldn’t Hebrew be a spiral instead of a right-to-left format? Last I checked, Russia was east of Israel, and yet Russian is read left-to-right. I guess it’s because they’re godless commies, right?

Did you know that the six days of creation and seventh day of rest in Genesis is a model for the six thousand years of this age (ending very soon), that is to be followed by a 1,000 year millennial reign by Christ (see 2 Peter 3:8)? Adam was born sometime prior to 4000 B.C., therefore our 6000 years are almost up.

“Did you know that the Bible supports a chronology that we took from a particular interpretation of the Bible?” Great, now try explaining it in light of the real facts–a 13.7 billion-year-old universe, a 4 billion-year-old planet, a two million-year-old species, and so forth. My guess would be, based on your logic here, that we’ve got a good four million years left in “this age” before a thousand years (or a thousand million years?) of reigning Sons of Men (Hallelujah).

Did you kow that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is hidden in the meaning of the Hebrew names listed in the genealogy of the book of Genesis (Research it online)?

What the hell does this even mean? Is this Bible code “word search” insanity? I guess “cherry picking” and “law of large numbers” really mean nothing to you, then.

To deny this was God-inspired, one has to instead believe that a group of Jewish rabbis conspired to hide the Christian Gospel right inside a genealogy of their venerated Torah, which is not a very plausible explanation.

Nope, it isn’t. Which is why we have a more plausible explanation: you’re seeing patterns where none exist, and cherry-picking evidence to fit your claims. And ignoring the fact that the people who wrote the Gospels knew the Old Testament; if there were a correllation, it would say nothing more than that the Gospel writers wrote Jesus’s message according to the Hebrew genealogy. But I think that’s a less likely explanation than the verbal pareidolia one.

Did you know that solar eclipses, which the bible describes as the sun being black as sackcloth, and lunar eclipses, which the bible refers to as blood red moons, have prophetic meaning? Research it online.

I know people have long interpreted eclipses and comets and other cosmic events to have prophetic meaning. I also know people have long believed that thunder came from angels bowling and that volcanoes erupted in anger at receiving too few virgins. Every time I think we’ve made some serious progress as a species, someone comes up to remind me that we’re only a few short centuries removed from thinking that drilling holes in skulls to release the demons was the cutting edge of medicine and that the Earth might topple over if one of the elephants sneezed. Really? Eclipses are prophetic? So, what about people in the regions where the eclipse doesn’t happen (you know, like over half the planet during every solar eclipse), or is only partial? Does the prophecy not apply to them?

I do believe that annular eclipses have prophetic meaning, specifically that seven days after you see it, you’re going to die.

God showed Adam (and us) his plan for man’s redemption through the use of celestial alignments. (research Mazzaroth online)

How does this prove anything about the Bible’s authority or accuracy?

Did you know that much of the symbolism in the book of revelation refers to planetary alignments that will occur when certain events occur as prophesied?

Did you know that much of the symbolism in the Book of Revelation refers to political events happening at the time it was written?

These planetary alignments also explained the birth of Christ, just search out The Bethlehem Star movie on the Internet.

*Headdesk*

Did you know that the references in Eze 39:4-17 and Rev 19:17-21 in the battle of Gog/Magog and Armageddon respectively, in which birds of prey will eat the flesh of the dead in battle from two enormous wars is based on fact? The largest bird migration in the world consisting of bilions of birds (34 species of raptors and various carrion birds) from several continents converge and fly over Israel every spring and fall. Coincidence? I think not.

I’m not going to check out the facts on the bird migration for this; whether or not it’s true is immaterial. Assuming it does happen, what we have are people who are used to seeing lots of carrion-eating birds writing about lots of carrion-eating birds eating carrion. That’s neither amazing nor prophetic, it’s common fucking sense. If I were writing a prophecy about a large number of dead people, and I wanted to include some graphic details, what am I going to write? Bodies rotting, animals consuming them, maybe survivors working to bury or burn the corpses…you know, the things that happen when lots of people die. It’s not prophetic, it’s realistic.

Did you know that Hebrew numerology, also known as Gematria, and the numbers with biblical and prophetic significance are hidden in the Star of David? Google the video called “Seal of Jesus Christ”

Did you know that numerology is bullshit, and that you can cherry-pick numbers from anything to fit any predetermined conclusion?

Did you know that the seven Churches mentioned at the beginning of the Book of Revelation describe the seven stages the Church will go through?

That’s some literalism there. I can’t imagine it would refer to seven churches or anything. Especially since it says “to the seven churches which are in Asia.” Are those seven stages that the church will go through in Asia? So, what’s the significance of the seven Asian locations listed after the colon after “the seven churches which are in Asia,” namely Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodiciea? I suppose those are all metaphors for the different ages that the church will go through, right?

Did you know that you can interpret any text to mean just about anything? It’s true. Search “literary analysis” online.

Holy shit! I just realized that the Seven Dwarfs are metaphors for the seven ages that the church will go through! I’m pretty sure the current one is Dopey.

There are literally hundreds of hidden messages in the bible like these that testify to the fact that the bible was God inspired, and statistically speaking, are all exponentially beyond the likelihood of any coincidence.

The same can be said for every book of sufficient length. I don’t think you understand the words “statistically,” “exponentially,” “likelihood,” or “coincidence.”

You can find them yourselves if you only take the time to look into it. Remember Proverbs 25:2 “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings”.

What does Proverbs say about finding patterns in a matter where none actually exist, or reading into a matter the conclusion you decided ahead of time?

And finally, if you are Catholic, or one who subscribes to the emergent Church or seeker-friendly Church movement, please compare the doctrine taught, advocated or accepted by your Church, with the actual bible, notwithstanding some new-age version of the bible.

“Please compare that doctrine with my Bible, particularly my metaphorical, prophecy-centric, exclusivist interpretation of the Bible.”

And remember that although the bible is often referred to as the living bible, the word “living” was never intended to imply in any way that the bible “evolves” over time to meet, or be consistent with, the standards of man. It’s just the opposite.

Here Lies Tom’s (newest) Irony Meter

b. January 2009 d. February 2009

Requiescat In Pace

“Poor bastard never saw it coming.”

As long as you’re exhorting people to do their own research, why not do a brief search on “Council of Nicaea.” That’s a pretty decent place to start disproving your baldly false claim here.

Well, am I getting through to you?

Not in the way you’d hoped. Also, the pun was better when you didn’t make it explicit.

If not, the answer might be explained in the response given by Jesus Christ in his Olivet discourse when he was asked by his disciples why he spoke the way he did (in parables, etc.) in the book of Matthew 13:10-16. What Jesus said could have easily been paraphrased more clearly as “so that the damned won’t get it”. Why did Christ respond the way he did when asked why he spoke this way? Is there something about pride (the bible says there is) that closes one’s heart to seeing or hearing the messages supernaturally hidden in bible parables, models, typologies, and similes, etc.? That should give you something to think about, but don’t take too long. Time is now very short.

Yes, it gives me something to think about. And what it makes me think is that Jesus was an elitist bastard, and not nearly the kind of orator that he’s made out to be. “I’m going to be intentionally obtuse so only the people who are bright enough to sort through my bullshit and lucky enough to pull out the right message are able to escape arbitrary eternal damnation. To everyone else: sucks to be you!” Some message of unconditional, universal love there. Looks to me like Heaven is a gated community, and the good ol’ boys in charge of the divine housing association don’t want the “wrong sort of people” to get in.

And yet, the people who are most certain that they’re getting in, the ones who are so sure that they’re smart enough to crack the code of Jesus’s opaque message, are the folks like you, Armageddon, who accuse atheists of being prideful and elitist. But despite their pretenses, they also seem unable to notice the blatant logical fallacies, errors of fact, scientific illiteracy, and profound innumeracy on which their interpretation is based. I guess Jesus’s “right sort of people” doesn’t include particularly rational ones.

If it sometimes seems like there are powers at work behind the powers we know, remember what it says in Ephesians 6:12 “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” If you study the bible, it will become clearer.

On one hand, I want to bring out 1 Peter 2:13-17 to counter your claim about authorities and rulers. On the other hand, I realize that you’re talking about a supernatural, metaphysical evil, and that the world is somehow tainted by original sin. I suppose if you read the Bible–with a particular sort of bent–that sort of thing might become clearer. It also might not–there are plenty of Bible-believing Christians (probably a large majority, actually) who not only deny your exclusivist gnostic interpretation of the Bible, who not only deny your reading of the book as though it’s nothing more than a newspaper horoscope, who not only deny your mix-and-match ransom letter approach to the text, but who call it out as anti-Christian heresy. I don’t really have a horse in that race, but I can see that they’ve got a point, and even a fool can see how you have to twist, torture, and completely decontextualize most of the book in order to reach the conclusions of Scofield his progeny of Premillennial Dispensationalists. It’s not difficult to see the neo-Gnostic attitude of “I know the real truth, which you can’t know unless I give you the secret True ChristianTM Decoder Ring.” Your “Bible that doesn’t evolve over time to be consistent with the standards of man” explicitly omitted several books that supported that sort of reading, as part of the church declaring that particular attitude a heresy.

But no, I’m sure you’re right. The people who put together the Bible, which you seem to believe is unchanging and perfect, were utterly wrong in describing your sort of interpretation of its teachings as a heresy. I guess God was only inspiring them some of the time.

And by the way, if you are a scoffer, this too was prophesied to occur in the last days. See 2 Peter 3:3.

I love this; I have to remember it when I go to write my books. I’ll just include this in the epigraph: “This is the greatest book ever. This book is so great that people will be in denial about how great it is. After it’s printed, they’ll say that it’s not the greatest book ever, just to mask the fact that they realize it really is the greatest book ever. Just watch, when people say this book isn’t the greatest ever, they’ll just be proving my point that it is.” If I preempt the criticisms of my books and theories and whatnot by acknowledging them and saying they just prove my theories correct, then I insulate myself from any and all criticism ahead of time! It’s a foolproof plan!

Thank you and God Bless you!
Armageddon.thru.to.you (at) gmail.com

You’re welcome, and may the Force be with you!

Church bulletin

So, I went to church last Sunday, and I’m almost glad that I did. It was a very entertaining service, which at least once tipped toward giggle loop territory.

First, my brother and I left for church after everyone else, neither of us really having any desire to go to Sunday School/Bible Study. I’m pretty sure he’s seen me in the closet, so to speak, mostly because I accidentally left my list of Podcasts open on iTunes the other night, and saw him looking at it. Curse you, “The Atheist Experience,” for coming so early in the alphabet! Anyway, after a fallout between him and my mother a few years back, I suspect he’s got about the same mindset. We listened to The Lonely Island on the way to church, and arrived just before the service started.

Things began with the teeny-tiny choir walking up to the stage from the back of the church, singing “Rejoice in the Lord Always” a capella. Now, maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s some impulse from some forgotten passage in my youth when I was involved in a church chorus, but the song felt incomplete. I felt the difficult-to-resist urge to add in claps where they would be rhythmically appropriate, i.e.:

Rejoice in the Lord a-always, and again I say rejoice. (Clap clap)
Rejoice in the Lord a-always, and again I say rejoice. (Clap clap)
Rejoice, rejoice, and again I say rejoice. (Clap clap)
Rejoice, rejoice, and again I say rejoice. (Clap clap)

I don’t know, it was like taking the claps out of “Jack and Diane”–without them, there really wasn’t much to the song.

The first Hymn ended up reminding me of this passage in its layers of double-entendre. It wasn’t quite as hilarious, but with all its talk of “raising” and “stones” and “let the cry be heard across the land,” my gutter-mind was rapidly filling. When it got to the last bit, about “prais[ing] him with 10,000 tongues,” I shot a glance at my brother, and we both almost lost it.

Things were uneventful through the brief announcements and the offering and the special music and whatnot. Then the sermon started, and boy do I wish I’d had a tape recorder. It started with standard Easter clichés–it’s a beautiful morning, Jesus is risen, what a wonderful sacrifice, etc. But about two minutes in, it got fun. The pastor explained why Jesus died for everyone’s sins:

As Spock would say, “the good of the many outweighs the good of the few, or the one.”

It took me a second to realize that, yes, he actually said that. My brother groaned, and I just kind of sighed and shook my head. In the absurdity of the moment, I didn’t even realize that he messed up the quote (it’s the needs of the many).

Now, this might have been a moderately good segue into a sermon explaining Christian theology in terms of Star Trek. There are better openings for such a sermon, and I don’t think it would have been appropriate for Easter Sunday, and there’s the absurdity of using atheist Gene Roddenberry’s frequently anti-religious series to frame Christian beliefs, but such a sermon would have been interesting. This wasn’t that sermon; Spock would not be mentioned again.

  • After some more talk about how awesome Jesus’s sacrifice was, the pastor* said that he sometimes wondered what it would be like if Christ came today–then clarified that he meant the first coming, or what if Jesus had waited until the modern day to do his thing.

    Now, I’ve often thought about this very question myself, though obviously not from the same perspective. Given the lack of evidence for Jesus’s existence and the likelihood of much of the story of his life being exaggerated, mythologized, and fabricated, I don’t think there’d be a whole lot of difference, if any. But what if Christianity had never taken hold? What if, like all the other contemporary messianic Jewish spinoff cults, it had fizzled out or never even existed in the first place? What would the world be like?

    That’s usually about as far as I get. For one thing, I don’t have the requisite historical knowledge to be able to imagine that scenario with any kind of detail. For another, say what you will about the Christian church (and I do), but they have been fairly efficient at amassing power, prestige, wealth, and influence in the last 1700 years or so. Without Christianity, what religion would Constantine have chosen? Would that have filled the vacuum left in the absence of Christianity? Would some other religion be able to fill the same niches, spreading to and assimilating from other cultures with the same ceaseless alacrity? One of the key innovations of Christianity, which I credit for much of its success even today, was ease of conversion: all you have to do to become a Christian, as so many preachers will tell you, is hit your knees and accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior. Other religions require you to be born, married, or conquered into the fold, or ask you to go through lengthy, painful, or difficult conversion rituals. Christianity doesn’t even require you to remove your foreskin! Would the replacement religion of Rome have this same flexibility? Would a religion without that trait spread as easily?

    By the time I begin considering a Middle Ages without a Catholic church to fight the Crusades and fund the Universities, I realize that there’s very little chance that a world without Christianity would bear any resemblance to the world with it, except perhaps in those regions where Christianity never flourished.

    That would have made for an interesting sermon, and a far more interesting history lesson or book (in fact, if such a book exists, I’d like to read it). This was not the direction that the pastor chose to go on Sunday. Instead, he paused after that brief “what if” introduction (just long enough for someone to strum some harp strings and for the screen to go all wavy) and then began to read:

    Peter Pumpkinhead came to town,
    Spreading wisdom and cash around
    Fed the starving and housed the poor,
    Showed the Vatican what gold’s for.
    But he made too many enemies
    Of the people who would keep us on our knees.
    Hooray for Peter Pumpkinhead.

    I perked up after the first two words, far more shocked than I was at the Spock reference. Was a pastor, in a church–a Christian church–actually quoting XTC’s “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead”? He was. And he continued to do so.

    Peter Pumpkinhead pulled them all,
    Emptied churches and shopping malls.
    When he spoke, it would raise the roof:
    Peter Pumpkinhead told the truth.
    But he made too many enemies
    Of the people who would keep us on our knees
    Hooray for Peter Pumpkinhead

    At this point, under my breath, I said (quite incredulously) “Is he going to sing the whole song?”

    He was. He went through the whole song, more or less. He fouled up the last line of the third verse (saying “Any kind of law with love’s all right” as opposed to “Any kind of love is all all right”), and I realized after the service that he’d abbreviated the chorus (even when, at the end, he repeated “Hooray for Peter Pumpkin” twice, as it sort of does in the song). The actual lyric is “Hooray for Peter Pumpkin / Who’ll pray for Peter Pumpkinhead?”

    I like the song enough that I picked up the album it’s on (“Nonsuch”) at a used CD store a month or two ago. Here’s the video:

    After finishing the song and the citation, the pastor said something like “Is that what it would be like if Jesus came today? Would we miss the point like that?” Pastor, if your sermon is any indication, then we’d miss the point by a wide, wide margin.

    Now, perhaps I’m way off, but I don’t think “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” is a pro-religious song. In fact, I read it as the story of a secular messiah, who “tells the truth” against religion, consumerism and probably government. He “empties churches” with his speeches, which makes enemies of “the people who would keep us on our knees”–i.e., religious leaders. I suppose tyrannical governments would fit in as well, but the line has always seemed to have the connotation of prayer to me. The Christ imagery is certainly intentional, and the video makes that even more explicit, but it reads to me more a criticism of the church message than a validation of it.

    Then again, my interpretation is also informed by one of XTC’s other well-known songs. Given “Dear God,” I kind of have an inkling as to what XTC’s thoughts on religion are. Furthermore, I have a hard time believing that anyone in the United States could be familiar with XTC’s version of “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” (as opposed to the Crash Test Dummies version off the Dumb and Dumber soundtrack) without also being familiar with “Dear God,” which I’d think was the much more popular song. Similarly, I have a hard time believing that anyone would be familiar with either of those songs without knowing “Mayor of Simpleton,” much to my chagrin.

    It’d be like knowing The Beatles for “The Long and Winding Road” and not knowing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Come Together.” Point being, I don’t know how you could pull a positive message about religion out of “Ballad” if you were at all familiar with the band’s other songs, and if you paid any attention to the lyrics, and if you had any sort of moderately orthodox religious views. Either this pastor is very oblivious, very dense, or very keen on irony, and I’m almost certain that the latter isn’t the case.

    So that was pretty entertaining. And while it would have been schizophrenic and borderline disrespectful to hear someone make a sermon out of such a (blatantly, from my perspective) atheistic, anti-religious song, the pastor didn’t follow through. After briefly touching on the meaning of the song (mostly just asking a couple of questions about whether or not it would be like that today) he shook his head and said something to the effect of “let’s get out of that nightmare.” Unfortunately for him, he’d done nothing to characterize his “what if” scenario as nightmarish. In fact, he’d really done nothing to characterize his “what if” scenario–all the characterization was original to the song, and there’s nothing really nightmarish about the story. I could see coming up with a nightmarish scenario where the congregation is made to consider how they would feel as the modern-day Pharisees and Pilates responsible for crucifying the modern-day messiah, but this wasn’t that sermon.

    After this, the pastor went on about various themes related to the day–we’ve all both succeeded and failed in life, we’ve all stepped off the path, and we gather together in part to help each other back onto said path, we all believe in God, we have to practice our faith–you get the idea. He had a tendency to lead down a path with a thematically repetitive series of phrases, culminating in some pithy, obviously telegraphed punchline, after which he would stop and smugly beam as though he’d said the most profound thing ever. The example that really sticks out is the “practice” thing, how we have to practice our faith, and the word “practice” came up so many times in the rambling sermon that it was the closest thing it had to an overarching theme, even though most of the sermon had nothing to do with it. But after one string of phrases about practicing, he said “and practice makes perfect,” and stopped, and grinned this smug grin. Okay, great, not only was it patently obvious that you were going there, but it seems like you’re suggesting that as long as we’re diligent in going to church and following the rules, we can be Jesus.

    I can’t really stress this point enough: in order to be an effective speaker, you really have to have some awareness of what message your audience is getting from your speech. This pastor didn’t have a clue, and it really showed. There were several occasions where I could tell that he expected the audience to be feeling some specific emotion or sensation, but he hadn’t done anything to make them feel that, and so the moment fell entirely flat.

    Anyway, somewhere along the line, he descended into something that I can only describe as the Glurge Gallop. He started telling a story about a pastor who told a story to a congregation–very meta.

    To digress a moment, I suspect that if Jon and I were to come up with a list of rules for bad movies and music to follow, based on our long and storied history of consuming bad media, one of them would be “Don’t make references to better movies/songs.” It pops up an awful lot, actually, where some terrible movie or terrible song will make a throwaway reference to some much better movie or song, either demonstrating that the artist thinks they’re really clever or that they think they’re actually as good as the object of the reference**. If the song or the film is good, then the reference serves whatever purpose is intended–satire, homage, jarring juxtaposition, etc. When the work is bad, the reference only serves as a reminder of how bad the work is. Moreover, it shows that the artist is familiar with better works, which means they don’t even have ignorance as an excuse for the poor quality.

    That’s what this meta-sermon did: by giving a sermon about another pastor giving a better sermon, the pastor really only underscored how bad his sermon was by comparison, and showed that he’d at least been exposed to better sermons, which should have given him some idea as to what makes for a compelling speech.

    This is not to say that the story he told was all that good. A quick Google search turned up many versions (as I’d expected) that have likely been forwarded around in e-mails with tags at the end exhorting believers to forward this message to everyone in their address book, an act for which they will be doubly blessed***. Here’s the closest version I could find with minimal effort. The jist of the first half of the story is that the pastor comes into church and sets an empty birdcage on the pulpit, then proceeds to tell the congregation the story of how he met a small child who had the cage full of birds. He asked what the kid planned to do, and the kid responded that he’d play with them, then when he got tired of them, he’d feed them to his cat. The pastor bought the birdcage from the boy (who named his own price–$2 in the version I heard) and set the birds free.

    On its own, that would have made for a decent start of a sermon, either from the pastor at the church or the one in the story. It’s a parable, and it would make for a decent sermon about how Jesus paid the price to set us free from sin. It would, that is, if not for the last half of the story. The probably-fictional pastor then goes on to tell the exact same story, except with Jesus and Satan in the roles of the pastor and child, and humans in the cage instead of birds. Now, it’s one thing to use a story as a metaphor for what you’re trying to teach, it’s quite another to belabor the point by telling a metaphorical story, then telling the same metaphorical story in a slightly different fashion so that the metaphor smacks you in the ass with its obviousness. The good sermonizer would take the parable of the caged birds and relate the various elements to the story of Christ’s sacrifice; the poor sermonizer writes bad fanfic about Jesus and Satan having a little chat.

    One of the more interesting features about that story was that it included a Jazz interlude of sorts, a place where different people telling the story could be creative and add their own touches to it, much like the chapters of “The Iliad” about the various sorts of boats in the fleet, or the vast majority of The Aristocrats. In this case, it’s the passage where Satan outlines his plans for the caged humans. I can’t recall exactly where the pastor went with this, though I definitely recall “divorce” being in there, and I seem to recall war-related stuff as well. The latter, I’d think, betrays a pretty staggering ignorance of all the places in the Bible where God orders war (and worse). The former just strikes me as odd–I have a hard time seeing divorce as a purely negative thing; certainly happily divorced couples are better than unhappily married ones, right? It seems like the real “devil’s work” there would be causing incompatible couples to fall in love with one another, or pressuring people to marry prematurely or for bad reasons.

    But there I go again, the bleeding-heart liberal godless atheist, wasting time on the reasons why people do “bad” things, rather than just attributing it all to sin and Satan.

    But despite how condescending, repetitive, ham-fisted, and sappy the full story ends up being, I suppose you could craft a decent sermon around it. I don’t know why you’d want to; it seems like the best option for that idea would be to cut out the last half and let the parable stand on its own. Such sermons can work very well; I quite liked the one about gossip in “Doubt,” where the priest told a story about another priest using a parable (though it was a little less meta) to teach a lesson. But again, that parable wasn’t immediately followed by a pedantic retelling where the meanings of all the symbols were made explicit. Regardless, none of these was the sermon that the pastor preached on Sunday.

    No, instead of tying this story into the apparent theme of “practice,” instead of really elaborating on the story, instead of making any connection to “Peter Pumpkinhead,” the pastor whipped out another glurge. This story starts with a dark night in Chicago****, where a homeless boy peddles newspapers on the street. I don’t know if it was the mumbling or just my lack of sleep, but when the pastor started, I thought he said “In ‘Dark Knight,’ in Chicago…” (since that’s where much of the movie was filmed). I thought it would be odd to pull a religious message out of The Dark Knight, but after Spock and XTC, nothing was going to surprise me. Rather than comparing Harvey Dent to Job, though, the pastor went on to relate the linked story, where a boy uses “John 3:16” as a secret password to get food, shelter, and comfort for the night. Go ahead and read the story, it’s sappier by far than the previous one, and this post is long enough without a recap. If you want, you can find it here on the Snopes forums, with some amusing comments.

    Back? Okay, so a small child gets hospitality and charity by citing a chapter and verse. Now, I understand what the point of the story is, but it still seems like the better verse would be Matthew 25:40 (“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me”) or Matthew 19:14 (“But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven”) or Deuteronomy 15:11 (“Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy”) or any of a dozen other verses about charity, hospitality, and cute Dickensian ragamuffins, rather than just the summary verse of Christianity.

    I honestly don’t remember if the pastor did any follow-up on that story. I remember him saying something at some point about how we haven’t been able to eliminate war and hatred and blahdey blah in 2000 years, and for shame and so forth, but beyond that, the rest of the service is kind of a blur.

    So Spock, XTC, and the licorice whiplash of non sequitur glurges, all connected only by the fact that the same guy was saying them in the same place in the same block of time. I’m not exactly astounded that such a sermon could get made and presented–I’ve seen the same problems in college writing–but I’m a little astounded that a pastor could be complimented for the sermon afterward (admittedly, I don’t know how many people did that, but at least one did). To my parents’ credit, they found the sermon just as inane as I did, and suggested that a lack of self-awareness was a feature of that pastor’s character (“he thinks he can sing, too,” my dad said, or something along those lines). By any reasonable standards, this was a terrible speech, with no overall theme, no single point, just a bunch of half-formed unrelated ideas. At least it was entertainingly bad, I suppose.

    Look, far be it from me to tell Christians how to write their sermons; I’m not their intended audience (or, then again, maybe I am). All I know is that I’m not interested (or swayed) even the slightest bit in sitting on an uncomfortable pew for an hour having someone read me the e-mail forwards they’ve received in the past week. From my perspective, the vast majority of the justification for religion rests in emotion, and a large portion of apologetics arguments are appeals to pathos. I don’t expect sermons to be logically valid or based on sound evidence–then they’d just be lectures–but I do expect that a sermonizer have some awareness of emotional appeals. If you don’t have that, then there’s not a whole lot left–kind of like that song, sans clapping. There’s content, sure, but it’s repetitive and shallow, and there’s no way to get into it.


    *I’m reasonably certain that this church would use a different word. The concept is essentially the same though.

    **Good examples: Gwen Stefani mentions (and uses the bass line from) “Another One Bites the Dust” in “Hollaback Girl,” Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long” is about “Sweet Home Alabama” (and samples “Werewolves of London”), Rihanna’s “SOS” samples “Tainted Love” and name-drops several other ’80s songs, and so forth.

    ***Particularly if they happen to be barely seventeen and barely dressed.

    ****On the Dickensian London side of the city, apparently.