One thing appeasers need to stop saying

by Henry McQuale

[Note, in case anyone cares: this was supposed to be published during Christmas eve, the day the criticized article was itself published… but I forgot to publish the saved draft. In any case, I think it is still worth posting, lateness aside.]

The Christmas season is, supposedly, a time for peace and jollity.  I don’t agree with that nor do the several people that commit suicide with Christmas carols in the TV as their background music. But my holiday misanthropy and the excruciating depression that only this festivity can bring are arguably minority approaches to what the day is about. So fair enough, let’s accept the majority’s beliefs for granted, no matter how corny, and say that Christmas is all about peace and joy and presents, and family and overeating, and in some cases, believe it or not,  about God.

Consequentially, for some of those who believe this, seeing people of different religious  beliefs being nasty to each other during these days is an invitation to try to do something to make that stop. That is a very noble thing to do, I guess, and if the feeling is sincere, I don’t have the slightest intention of making that feeling disappear. However, in this case there are people who want to help but do it wrong;  and also people that pretend to want to help, when in reality they want to get something else out of it. Not that they are exhaustive possibilities… there are also those that kind of want to help but that also want to get something out of it, for example.

And I’m not sure where to put a guy called Gladstone, who writes for Cracked, the humor website. I’m sure he is not in the group of those who are sincere and helpful, but I am still unsure if I should place him with those that are sincere and unhelpful, or those that are insincere and want to get something else out of it. I am not a mind reader anyway,  but I am in this dilemma because today he published an inane piece of  appeasing babble with the (at least) explicit purpose of narrowing the distance between believers and atheists regarding the way they express themselves about each other by telling them what they need to stop saying. And I am in a dillema because I cannot figure out if he really wants to help or if he wants to smugly tell the nasty fundies and the angry atheists how above he is from all their crap to feel diplomatic and to make people think of him as a very humble and kind person.

But let’s take a look at what he says. Maybe after dissecting his arguments we will be able to place him where he belongs. He starts with this:

For a moment, take a step back and forget all the ideas that come to mind when you hear the word “God.” Forget about organized religion and everything that flows from it. No Jesus or Buddha. No corrupt religious figures abusing their positions to raise money or shelter sin. No holy wars or persecutions based on humanity’s flawed understanding of divine intent. None of it.

Kind of hard to do, you know? Even as a matter of mental experiment it is pretty difficult for me or for anyone with a tiny bit of moral consciousness to forget about all the evils that have been committed in the name, not only of religion, but of God himself. But lets try, for his argument’s sake, and let’s also grant him that there is such a thing as a non-flawed understanding of a non imaginary divine intent. He urges us to think of God as:

Just a force in the universe, not only more powerful than humanity, but greater than anything we have known. Something beyond mere biology with the ability to create worlds and predetermine tomorrow’s history. By definition, it’s almost too much to comprehend, and, not surprisingly, I have trouble accepting the existence of such a power. But that’s not the same as saying God doesn’t exist.

After all, God — like the Loch Ness Monster or that Canadian girl I lost my virginity to junior year — can neither be proven nor disproven. And given that, it always seems to take an act of both extreme faith and arrogance to mock the very notion of a God or to tell others you know precisely what He is thinking.

I don’t think he understands what “by definition” means, but let’s ignore that as well.  What we can’t ignore is the astonishing assertion -well, astonishing for a wooly minded appeaser- that God, the Loch Ness Monster and his immaginary Canadian girlfriend are basically the same from an epistemological point of view: they are all impossible to prove or disprove, and this, of course, makes atheism just as arrogant and as blind in its faith as the religious individuals that claim to know the mind of God. It is astonishing because, like I said, it puts God, the Loch Ness Monster and his made up Canadian deflowerer on the same epistemological level, but unfortunately for him, it is not the level a person like him would like to put God: if he wants to show, contra “arrogant” atheists, that belief in God is not unreasonable, it is completely puzzling why he would put it next to a well known hoax and a facetious sexual fabrication. Is he saying then, that it is as reasonable to believe in God as much as it is reasonable to believe in the Loch Ness Monster? Really? However you try to interpret this he comes up as careless at best. Or well-mindedly stupid, you choose.  This, whatever he pretended with it, does not help the case for faith.

But that doesn’t stop people. And while I can accept whatever’s in people’s hearts, there’s no reason the rest of us have to keep hearing about it. Here are the four things about God I’ve heard enough of from both atheists and the devout.

Oh, poor him. He is tired of having to hear from “in your face” atheistic people like me or from “quit that shit or you’ll burn in hell” religious minded folks not necessarily telling him what we believe or disbelieve in, but of merely expressing it where he might stumble upon our unsophisticated and hateful views. Of course that won’t stop him from telling us what he believes about us.

But let’s read what bothers poor Gladstone, from bad to worst, as is usual with Cracked articles:

#4. Devout: God hates X

He starts in a sensible tone, criticizing the devout who don’t waste time in telling the world how much their God hates something or someone and that therefore that something or someone should be banned/killed/stoned/sent to hell etc.:

[…] there’s another problem with defining your faith by who your God despises: How do you know? Some of you would say, “Because the [INSERT HOLY BOOK HERE] tells me so.” […]

But even giving you and your Holy Book the benefit of the doubt, there’s still a problem: You’re still you. Just some dude. Are you so impressed with yourself or so intellectually uncurious that you think you perfectly understand the will of God just by reading a book?

The point is simple and I won’t disagree with it, it is, basically: how the fuck do you know that is true? And if faith tells you that, why the fuck do we have to take you seriously? A fine point atheists have been making for a while, by the way. The problem is that, for Gladstone’s purposes it doesn’t work. If he wants to save  faith, he can’t criticize what people, by faith, ultimately, believe that their God tells them to hate. He can’t have it both ways and if he wants to argue that there are good faith statements and bad ones, he should offer a criterion for making the distinction. He sort of does that when he says that:

Having a one in four chance of being wrong about God is not that big a deal if you’re telling people God loves them, but you don’t really want to throw stones with those kinds of odds.

We can call that the “criterion of no damage”: if some statement informed by faith or by scripture says something that causes happiness or pleasure it is permissible, but otherwise it is not. Therefore it is not permissible to say “God hates X”. And that is a ll well and good (and can actually be generalized in ethics for normative judgments), but the problem is that if we grant faith a real knowledge status (as opposed to a “you just pulled that out of your ass” status) we have no way of stopping people who claim to know things by faith from saying things like “well, sure, the criterion is nice and all, but my God tells me that it would be  for the greater good of mankind if the jews and the heathens were exterminated”. And Gladstone, most likely unwittingly, seems to concede:

Unless, of course, you think the New Testament, the Koran or whatever other holy text you follow is impervious to misinterpretation. Then, of course, carry on with your God-sanctioned hatred.

And of course the religious have never said that, right? There have never been interpreters of holy texts self-proclaimed and accepted by the religious, by faith, as inerrant, right?

#3. Atheist: God is not great

He starts, predictably,  with  an attempt at clever snark directed at the recently departed Christopher Hitchens:

God Is Not Great was the 2007 anti-religion book by popular atheist and author Christopher Hitchens. Last week, Hitchens — known for his intellect, eloquence and insufferable arrogance — achieved his life-long goal of becoming God by ceasing to exist.

Hitchens might have been arrogant now and then, and insufferably so mostly to those he targeted, but at least he had something to be arrogant about. In any case, he was always able to defend himself, and even in his post mortem non-existence one could find pages of actually clever arguments that would make anyone realize that Gladstone, on the contrary, is the arrogant and insufferable twit,  so let’s not make a fuss about that. What is interesting is his incomprehensible “witticism” about Hitch becoming God by ceasing to exist. Is inexistence exclusive to gods now? Did Hitchens turn into a fairy and a chupacabras too? I’m seriously doing my best to find sense or humor in that, but I can’t find any. But more aggravating -and slanderous- is the idea that Hitchens wanted to become God by denying his existence. Anyone who read or listened to him with a minimum of care would know that his attack was not only directed at God as a metaphysical reality, but, famously, to the very idea of the God-like if it meant having supernatural or earthly dictatorial or totalitarian powers over even just one single and lowly person. Hitch knew very well that he was going to die and that it was going to be it -if “he” was going to become anything, it was lifeless matter and nothing more.

I take issue with how deliberately and needlessly provocative the phrase [“God is not great”] is.

Well, too bad for Gradstone, but that’s not our fucking problem: no one has a right not to be offended. If we choose to be deliberately provocative and offensive for stylistic or any other reasons religious and appeasing people will have to learn to grow a thicker skin.

Also, how illogical. “Hey man, this God you believe in that I totally don’t believe in? Yeah, well, he sucks!” Kind of tries too hard, y’know? I mean, after all, if chicks think you’re a badass for saying your old man or your High School principal sucks, then, wow, imagine what a rebel you are for saying God sucks.

This is just stupid. First, even if an idea is false, its content can be criticized. Of course we atheists don’t believe in the actual existence of a God referred to by any notion or idea of “God”, but we can still tell those who believe in him how false, stupid, incoherent and immoral that idea of God is without unwittingly affirming his existence. No contradiction there, if that is what he meant when he said it was “illogical”.  Second, it is a strawman if he thinks Hitchens or even most atheist say things like that because we want to impress “chicks”. We don’t say them because we want to seem “badass” but because we believe them to be true. The fact that it is indeed a badass  thing to say and that smart “chicks” agree with that is a bonus.

But my main complaint is that most purveyors of this sentiment don’t really have a beef with God. Even Hitchens’ book mostly tears apart the abuses of organized religion, particularly Judaism, Islam and Christianity. I’m surprised how often atheists conflate the two things. […]

Well, duh, of course that our main beef is not with an actual existing God, since we don’t believe he exists. We can still have a beef with the concepts of God, regardless of his existence.  Also, what is left of the disagreeable concepts of God if we remove all religious elements? Most definitions of God are completely intertwined with the religions that worship them. If you remove all dogma you are only left with something so abstract that it would barely pass as a recognizable God for anyone. I suspect that what he means is that by targeting religion we miss God. That would be a fair criticism if God really existed, because a real God and the religion that worshiped him would indeed be different things. However, we cannot grant him that without accepting that God is real, so his complaint begs the question in favor of the theists. Another thing is, like I said,  that even if we don’t grant their God real existence, we can still attack it as if it were real, by what the different concepts of God imply: if we are interested in the problem of evil, we can imagine a scenario where God exists and question why an omnibenevolent and omnipotent  God -if he really deserves to be called such, as a good portion of the religious believe- would permit such a thing to exist. If we cannot solve the problem in a favorable way, for example, we can call him either impotent, if he cannot do anything to eradicate evil; or evil himself, if he doesn’t want to.

And given how much we suck, why shut the door completely on the possibility of something in this universe being better, stronger and wiser? Something we could strive to be more like? It’s always seemed to me that the most virulent atheists — not mere nonbelievers, but those who claim to be positive about God’s nonexistence and openly hostile to anyone who could think otherwise — are incapable of believing there could ever be something greater than they. Not a lack of faith so much as humility.

Yawn. The old and tired idea that atheists want to deny God because they want to be Gods themselves. Let me repeat it in a very simple way that even a third rate comedy writer would understand: we do not fucking envy your (or anyone else’s, since he claims to not be sure of its existence)  fucking God; if we don’t believe in him it is because we don’t see any reason to think he fucking exists. So it is not about ego or power as much as it is about what is true. Humility and open mindedness is one thing and gullibility is another. Get it?

#2. Devout: God helps those who help themselves

Basically, Gladstone tells the devout to shut the fuck up about their beliefs because he finds them pretty stupid, callous and offensive. And telling those that are in pain or under serious difficulties that God won’t do anything to help them unless they help themselves is offensive, callous and stupid, don’t get me wrong, but again: he gives absolutely no reason to them as to why they should keep that to themselves, since he, again, wants to defend faith. If they believe that their God is such a callous bastard by faith, I don’t see how that would not stump him.

#1. Atheist: God is a fairy tale for morons

First the obvious:

There have been atheists of significant intellect: Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, and the aforementioned Christopher Hitchens. But in what may come as a surprise to the Internet, not believing in God will not, in itself, make you smart.

Oh, If it wasn’t for Gladstone, I would have kept on believing that I’m smart because of my atheism and not the other way around. I think other atheists should be thankful too, since it is one of atheism’s most widespread beliefs that disbelief in God is the cause and sign of an intelligent mind… except that no atheist that I know believes that -and no intellectually respectable famous atheist believes that. So it is just another obvious strawman. It is not written  in any of our “holy books” that “The fool said in his heart: ‘there is no God'”, by the way.

And by the same token, faith need not be a sign of a feeble mind. But just mention God online and you’ll be mocked as a mental deficient awaiting the second coming of the “flying spaghetti monster.”

Sure, smart people can believe false and stupid things. We don’t deny that. If they think there is  any relevant difference between believing in the God of the Bible and believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster they are free to point it out. So far none of them has done it.

In support of this intellectual elitism, some atheists will say that skepticism is the sign of an active and curious mind — traits consistent with learning. Fair point. They will point to creationists and stem cell research protestors as people placing obstacles in the path of progress, and I’ll agree with that too. But there is a difference between questioning the stupidity of dogmatic, close-minded zealots perpetrating institutional abuses and simply mocking sincerely held religious beliefs by equating faith with stupidity.

Again, we care about truth, not merely about progress-compatible beliefs. If a false belief could bring great benefits to a society we would still bitch about it because we care about what is true, regardless of its consequences. And again, the fact that moderate Christians don’t simply reject most of what science and the theory of evolution say doesn’t mean that we cannot mock the rest of their beliefs, if we find them ridiculous and false, regardless of how sincerely and dearly they hold them.

The perversion of the Spaghetti Monster meme is a good example of how some, particularly on the Internet, have destroyed the distinction between thoughtful protest and mere mockery. In 2005, in reaction to the decision of the Kansas State Board of Education to permit the teaching of creationism as an alternative to evolution in public schools, Bobby Henderson wrote an open letter espousing his religious belief in a divinity known as the flying spaghetti monster. He demanded belief also be afforded equal time in the school system. The letter went viral and spawned a faux religion called Pastafarianism. An effective protest pointing out the ridiculousness of people’s subjective religious beliefs as a basis for scientific education. But now, for many, citing the spaghetti monster means only that religious people who are stupid enough to believe in God may as well believe in spaghetti monsters or leprechauns.

Again: who the hell said mockery is not permitted? The beauty of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is that it was not only effective as a  hilariously eloquent protest against the unconstitutional  stupidities of young-mind-poisoning creationists, but also as the perfect satire of religious beliefs in general. And the challenge still stands: name one relevant way in which belief in the God of the Bible is more reasonable than the belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You cannot absolutely disprove its existence, and as Gladstone himself said (how was he unable to notice this was going to bite him in the ass?), that would put His Noodliness in the same epistemological level as God and the Loch Ness Monster.

And that was it. That was his list and those were his arguments. When they were not blatant strawmen or obvious and uninteresting remarks any thinking atheist knows, they were pure condescension towards the kind of religious people he finds objectionable. In general, tone trolling of the worst kind: the kind that whilst riding on a very high horse, one pretends to take the role of the savior peacemaker, all in the name of humility and openmindedness itself, of course.  So right now I think that putting Gladstone in the smug and unhelpful side of the Christmas appeasers spectrum is the right thing to do.

So there: Gladstone is a smug and unhelpful wooly minded appeaser.

I suppose this is what happens when low brow humor websites try to get insightful and semi-serious about shit.With that being said, I can now, as the title promised, make my not so humble but not quite as smug suggestion about what appeasers like Gladstone need to stop saying:

#1. They fucking need to stop telling me what I (or for that matter, anyone) can or can’t say.

Just that.

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