Topics covered (& reference links, when applicable):
Belief and a Bigger Bloody Nose
Snorkeling in the Forest
If behavior is a set of inkblots, Sigmund Freud seems to have found sexual content in almost all of them. A number of his contemporary fans continue the trend.
Why does a man smoke a cigar? Well, it could be an oral fixation or evidence of latent homosexuality. Why would a woman? Penis envy. Why would a single guy buy a speedboat? To impress the ladies with his slick phallic symbol. Why would a woman buy speedboat? Call it sexual confusion.
To these folks, human behavior is all about sex and mating, all about libido in its many wildly disguised forms.
Even before becoming more consistently scientific in my orientation, I had doubts about the sexual-concerns-reside-beneath-everything generalization. In fact, and somewhat ironically, as I’ve studied some primatology over the past decade, my perspective has actually shifted away from seeing our kind as less-hairy but just as horny apes with mating always on our minds. Instead I see a social animal very concerned with “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” To put it in the words of the title to Dale Carnegie’s famous book.
We are social creatures who display a great proclivity for generating implements and inventing behaviors that help us thrive in our social environments: achieving and defending status (and undermining competitors’ as well), in forming and maintaining alliances that are presently strategic or more of an investment in a potential future social pay-off, AND raising, protecting, and best providing for our children.
A recent, loosely scientific study got me thinking about this. Particularly about the children part. Yes, we do a lot for them. Why? Well, sure, they carry our genes. The how, however, is perhaps the more interesting question. And it may shed some light on the why.
Consider the semi-corny title, subtitle and first paragraph of this Eurekalert news release –
Evidence from Disneyland suggests that human creativity may have evolved not in response to sexual selection as some scientists believe but as a way to help parents bond with their children and to pass on traditions and cultural knowledge, a new study published in the inaugural issue of the International Journal of Tourism Anthropology suggests.
Of course, the why of creativity is not an either-or proposition. Either it is to entice the ladies and gentlemen into getting down or dirty, or it’s a means by which parents pass on cultural learning and perhaps greater social fitness of children.
But the article does shed light on what is very evident in contemporary society: Trips to Disneyworld, piano lessons, soccer league membership, outings to museums, toys galore–parents do a lot to educate their children and excite their minds. Why? Not just to give them a leg-up on their future competition at getting their genes in the proverbial gene-pool. To set them on their way to being successful members of their social groups.
Yes, part of that is to assure they one day will be attractive to members of the opposite sex. But there is more to it than that. Quite a bit more.
Should the scientifically-minded, skeptical community grant religion an exemption from outspoken criticism? In the least, should the touchy subject be treated with careful diplomacy? There’s been a significant amount of discussion about whether or not a person should refrain from “being a dick” and pushing their skepticism — their religious skepticism, specifically — into the face of otherwise skeptical believers. Before I begin to explain why I come down on the side of pro-dickishness, so to speak, allow me to make a confession. I am a Gnu Atheist of sorts — one of the supposedly original brand of heretics who regularly ventures beyond the bounds of traditional academic manners and forums. I freely criticize religion and publicly point out how I think it is wrong and bad. (For proof, check out my book, The Naked Bible.) I don’t always put my napkin in my lap, either.
As you can imagine, when high profile non-believers — such as Chris Mooney in his book Unscientific America and at his blog The Intersection, and Phil Plait in his provocative talk, “Don’t Be a Dick” from the Amazing Meeting 8 — have indirectly chided me for speaking out in a manner they view inappropriate or too harsh, I beg to differ.
My reasons? There are three: 1) intellectual consistency, 2) the importance of the issue, and 3) social equality.
1. Intellectual Consistency
It strikes me as odd that it is fully acceptable to flag individuals for being under the spell of unseen forces and agents, provided those forces and agents are unique. Has he or she gone off their meds? And yet, when a person is under the spell of shared conceptions of invisible forces and agents, we are to let those people go on their sometimes merry, yet nonetheless equally deluded ways. That is what you call a double standard.
When met with truth-claims, as a skeptical, scientifically-minded person, my inclination is to ask, “What evidence do you have for making the claim?” Is homeopathy a valid medical treatment? Show me the evidence. Do vaccines cause autism? Show me the evidence. Is it then a character flaw that I believe it important to grant no exemptions? Am I missing out on the opportunity to enlist others in a fight against one form of bologna because I neglect to refrain from challenging every form?
Put explicitly, I don’t buy the, “You are pushing away someone who is mostly on your side” argument. We human beings are fabulously adept at compartmentalizing our alliances. I full well know, for example, that one of my close friends considers me an adversary on the topic of religion, yet he recognizes, as do I, that we are close allies when it comes to environmental issues. Okay, so we can’t work together in this one area, but on others — no problem. And it really is no problem. At least for those with adequate degrees of intellectual sophistication and emotional maturity.
Neither intimate nor public relation dynamics are of the black or white variety. Don’t fight them on issue x, for you could completely alienate them. Our system of government is a perfect example of the ability of people on “different sides of the aisle” to work together when it suits their interests.
Most importantly, I believe in openness, dialogue and integrity. Aside from the domain of exchanging small-talk, why should I hide what I believe? Tacitly agreeing to honor a barrier consisting of what another person designates as sacred is to play by their rules. Sure, the rules may be traditional and custom-ary, but are they fair and helpful?
One of my all-time favorite quotes is by Salman Rushdie. It goes:
“The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks to turn other ideas — uncertainty, progress, change — into crimes.”
Which brings me to the next reason I fail to see benefit in accommodating religious belief.
2. The Importance of the Issue
Sorry, but believers in Sasquatch and anti-vaxxers aren’t the biggest deniers of reality. Their claims have at least small analogues and minute plausibilities of being true here on Earth. Similarly, ghost-hunters and homeopaths are not holders of the greatest social and political clout in our country and thus aren’t the greatest threat to progress. Religion is. You might say that religion is the elephant in the room that some people are hushing others to quit drawing attention to.
If there is a skeptical movement, why dabble with relative inconsequentials? Compared to the pedicure-level intervention of critically evaluating alleged alien visitations, working to excise supernatural entities from public thought is akin to a performing a surgery for social betterment.
When, I ask, was the last time a paranormal group blocked legislation on ideological grounds?
The religion question is more important then the topics of UFOs, ghosts, and homeopathy combined. Furthermore, vocal disbelievers in the Abominable Snowman have never had a Jihad aimed at their necks.
3. Social Equality
As a freethinking skeptic, it seems highly ironic to me that some skeptics want to appease the privileged majority and their claim, “My beliefs are off-limits.” Okay, the more so-called progressive believers may cry instead, “Treat beliefs of the religious variety with special care.” Why is this ironic? How does a group of supposed intellectuals not understand that it isn’t the holders of a majority position that need to be advocated for?
Egalitarian civilizations tend to grant members of minorities greater room for social complaint. Consider stand-up comics. A black comedian is freer to poke fun at “white folk” than white comedians are to poke fun at “black folk.” In truly egalitarian societies, checks and pressures are not equally apportioned to the powerless and the powerful; they are not equally applied to the disenfranchised as they are those already clutching the reins of power. For good.
It seems to me that of the two — believers and nons — it is the minority position that should be granted greater leeway in the freedom of expression. Yet here’s the odd thing: It is the majority-block believers who are customarily granted greater leeway in their speech about non-believers.
Consider these three anecdotes, although somewhat dated, fully telling –
1. While on the campaign trail for president in 1987, George Bush Sr. said this in an interview:
I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots.
The heck with illegal immigrants, maybe our borders should be sealed off from non-believers. Atheists need not apply for citizenship.
George Sr. later recanted that statement. Then came Junior. How far had the apple fallen from the tree? In January of 2005 The Washington Times reported, “President Bush said yesterday that he doesn’t ‘see how you can be president without a relationship with the Lord.'”
At least to a degree, the American public seems to agree with our ex-president George Jr. In a Gallup survey conducted in 1999, 59% of the respondents said they might vote for a homosexual for president. But only 49% said they would vote for an atheist.
Want to be president of the United States? Outspoken religious skeptics need not apply.
2. The third largest city in Florida is Tampa, population roughly 300,000. It’s no backwoods settlement. As reported in the St. Petersburg Times, in July of 2004, an atheist attempted to give the opening invocation of the Tampa Bay city council meeting. He had been invited by a council member, who thought it was important to allow any citizen the opportunity. Three council members walked out before the atheist uttered a word. One of Tampa’s elected officials said –
I just can’t sit here and listen to someone that does not believe in a supreme being.
Another said –
We have never had people of an atheist group represent Americans, and I don’t think it is appropriate in this setting.
These, by the way, were not the actions of Billy Bob and his cousin and spouse, Daisy Jane, spouting off from the front steps of their trailer. These were the elected representatives of a sizable city.
Is it inappropriate for atheists to represent Americans? Heck, there probably aren’t more Jews in Tampa, yet they are welcome to give the invocation. And what are Jews but a walking/talking reminder that not every religious person accepts Jesus as the answer? But no, we atheists get singled out. The Christians who left the room refused to respect a person they supposedly represent. The atheist’s message, by the way, was about tolerance.
The next day the St. Petersburg Times reported that the city council’s phone lines “lit up.” E-mails poured through the city’s Web site. Many vilified the speaker. A message on the atheist’s home answering machine included the words, You need to be exterminated.
Want to give the opening address at a city council meeting — at least in here in the Sunshine State? Atheists need apply with caution. You simply can’t assume an audience will deem you worthy of being listened to, worthy of being handed the microphone. Though hopefully that is changing of late.
Nonetheless, through the millennia, how many millions of the ranks of the non-believing have been silenced? The intolerance continues in our times.
And we, the relatively oppressed minority, should mind OUR manners?! Are you kidding me?! Of Phil Plait and Chris Mooney, and others who have made the “don’t-be-a-dick” argument, I ask: Please provide examples of atheists behaving similarly in a supposedly neutral, public setting.
If you can’t, maybe you should direct your ire where it better belongs. Give atheists more room to speak, as a maligned minority deserves. Otherwise, turn in your humanist badges. Perhaps you should quit congratulating yourself for your high-minded rationality as well. All things considered, your stance doesn’t make sense.
3. On Sunday mornings years ago I used to watch the news magazine, This Week with George Stephanopoulos. I thought it covered international politics fairly well, featuring an in-depth interview with a power broker in our government or some other nation’s, and a round-table discussion with knowledgeable and usually well-behaved talking heads. They closed the show with “in Memorandum.” With a background soundtrack of solemn music, the names of recently deceased celebrities and soldiers scrolled the screen. It seemed to be a fairly classy show. As a light touch, there was a segment called the “Sunday Funnies.” They rolled clips of the late-night-comics poking fun at some recent political development.
On March 28th, 2003, after viewing clean-cut George Will and a number of others wearing thousand-dollar suits discuss serious issues, on came the Funnies. First I watched Jon Stewart point out the absurdity in the phrasing of a White House press release. Then Jay Leno gave George Bush Junior a ribbing about something or another. I don’t remember because I was so startled by the next piece it erased from my mind what came before. Jimmy Kimmel, newcomer to the late night talk-show field, introduced a video clip of his own. He said, There’s this Jew bringing a case before the Supreme Court, and then the doctored footage rolled. As the Jew spoke about his case on the steps outside the court, he was hit by multiple bolts of lightning, caught fire, and then his head exploded.
Had it really happened, the Jewish Anti-defamation League would have never stood for it, and were ABC dumb enough to show such a clip, someone would have lost their job. No executive from a major network would be so clueless as to depict a Jew getting burned on the steps of the Supreme Court. The same could be said about a Muslim bringing a legitimate case to the highest court, or even a Catholic priest (though a lightning bolt to the gonads might be in bounds).
What the sketch did depict was “some atheist” — Michael Newdow, to be precise — getting hit by lightning, catching fire, and exploding. And this was considered funny enough, and within bounds of good taste, to be broadcast during a Sunday morning news show.
An atheist getting hit by lighting–I guess I can see some humor in that, if it weren’t cliché. And if depicted on Saturday Night Live or a late night talk show, I’d have little problem with it. You’ve got to give comedians room to be funny. And you have to be able to laugh at yourself. But that sketch at that time was not funny. It was both revealing and upsetting.
Has our nation substantially changed in the years since?
Yes, I am an atheist. But more importantly, as a humanist I believe it is time to fight to level the proverbial playing field upon which ideologies compete. For the good of the entire world.
Sometimes polite fighting is an oxymoron.
Personally speaking, skeptics who embrace religion seem to me something akin to a post-lunch business associate with a piece of spinach stuck in his/her teeth. Um…You missed something there.
In terms of the wider world, peaceable change has never been easy. It relies on many people opposing social inertia and standing up and speaking bluntly for what is true, what is right. Yes, the stand-ers tend to get yelled at, or worse. But the honorable continue standing. To more cowardly skeptics I say: If you are going to remain seated, at least you could refrain from hissing at those standing up for what’s right.