An atheist’s guide to wrestling pigs

Pig WrestlingRichard Bandler, one of the co-founders of NLP, points out rather smugly that the word “generalisation” is just five syllables wrapped around the word “lies”. We all know that generalisations are false, but still we make them. What bugs me immensely about atheists who are anti-religion, rather than those who are just indifferent, is their tendency to see all christians as prejudiced zealots. Takes one to know one, of course. No projection there.

The thing is, there are as many kinds of Christians as there are kinds of people. Yes, some are bigoted, narrow-minded and spiteful, but not all. Not all, at all. There is a specific kind of Christian that I find compelling and attractive; the ones who are intelligent and questioning, funny, socially sensitive, tolerant of others and who quietly get on with making surprisingly substantial changes in the world. I’ve known rather a lot of them and I’d quite like to be one myself. In my dreams. They put me into a cognitive spin because I find the whole premise of Christianity so illogical that I simply don’t understand how anyone with two brain cells and a synapse can find it makes sense. How can anyone so bright be so dumb, I ask myself. They probably feel the same way about me.

When rabid anti-religionists start attacking Christians, I don’t recognise the form of Christianity they attack. I’ve known a few creationists, fundamentalists and people who have a personal relationship with their saviour and lord, and the internet constantly reminds me that they aren’t actually that unusual. I guess in the UK we are blessed with agnosticism and are spared the lunatic excesses of religious tv, evangelism and fundamentalism. I once visited the Bible Society head office in Swindon, though; it was like walking through a toothpaste advertisement made in Stepford.

They say you should never wrestle with a pig: you get muddy and the pig likes it. Put like that, it sounds kinda fun. And that’s the problem. The best responses to bigoted fundamentalists are ridicule and education, and the best responses to powerful bigoted fundamentalists (like the lunatics who’ve been running the asylum in the USA for the last years) are still ridicule and education. But in the US the Scepticism and Sceptical Humanism movements are getting sucked in to point-scoring and pig-wrestling, when it should in fact be poking fun at the pig. And then ambling off and doing something more interesting instead.

Advertisements

20 responses to “An atheist’s guide to wrestling pigs

  1. It is an entirely different world here in the States where so many religionists are not content to simply practice their various forms of worship at home and in their “not for profit” churches. They want everybody to obey their lord or else. It’s downright scary here. Be glad you are where you are.

  2. It’s not agnosticism we have here, so much as indifferentism. And this is dangerous. Chesterton said that when people stop believing in religion, they don’t believe in nothing – they believe in anything. The real enemy is credulousness, and there are as many credulous non-believers as believers.

    Like you, I’ve known many benign and socially responsible Christians. But these days, they are increasingly being elbowed aside by the bigots. The C of E’s stance – if it can be said to have one – on homosexuality is much more regressive now than it was in the 1960s and 70s.

    Unfortunately, you can’t educate bigots.

  3. I must admit, Village Green, that I am regularly glad I don’t live in the US. I decided some time ago that the nationality I’d most like to be is Danish, but their country is too darn flat! More seriously, I think I’ve no idea how it is in the US, and the glimpses I get via the internet do creep me out, rather.

    Anticant, as always you make me think. You are bang on the money that you cannot educate bigots, and I’ve certainly failed to persuade my bigoted athiest friends that not all Christians are stupid.

    What worries me the most is the increasing polarisation that I see: an attitudinal arms race of bigoted atheists vs bigoted believers. The greatest curse of the Abrahamaic religions is polarisation: God vs Satan – Good vs Evil – Us vs Them. This gives rise to all sorts of nonsense: “If you are not with us, you’re against us” which led to “Freedom Fries”. And of course to “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” which led to the US funding of the Taliban in the first place. It’s so stupid and so dangerous and so entirely unnecessary.

    Sceptics vs Believers should not become just another polarity. If we do that, then we’re wrestling with the pig, and we’ve lost the battle, and that’s my point. Bigotry and black-and-white thinking is the enemy, whether we’re talking about arrogant and dismissive atheists, fundamentalist christians or muslims who are also terrorists.

    I think the question that I’m lurching towards is “what is the best response to bigotry?” I’m really not convinced it’s the shrill and dismissive assertiveness of Richard Dawkins. In fact I am sure that it isn’t, though I’d rather live in a world with Dawkins than one without him.

    What really gets rid of bigotry is for it to become either irrelevant or unfashionable. I suspect that the UK and the US both have similar proportions of actual believers, but that in the UK there is no social pressure to go to (or “belong to”) a Church. Maybe. Maybe not. If there were a god, I guess only he would know. What I am trying to work out, though, is how to make bigotry both irrelevant and unfashionable; how to make the pig unimportant to anything without getting in there and wrestling.

    I don’t know. I wish I did.

    Thanks as always for helping me hone my thinking.

    Aphra.

  4. Aphra, I’m not sure where all these “bigoted atheists” are, although you evidently know some. Have you actually read Dawkins? I find him assertive, but not “shrill”. His tone is essentially reasonable. I agree with you that not all Christians are stupid – some are highly intelligent – but they do have a “no-go” area in their mentality, just like Communists. Crooked thinking is not an all-or-nothing state; people can be perfectly sensible over some matters, and totally dotty about others.

    What is upsetting the religious people who have been accustomed to ruling the social and intellectual roost for too long is that unbelievers are at long last actually challenging their hegemony. The reason why both sides are increasingly shrill is that everyone is –quite rightly – frightened these days, and each incorrectly sees the “wrong thinking” of the others as the sole cause of the predicament we are all in. Stupid and dangerous, yes. But how do you convince them that it’s unnecessary? That would be to undermine their ingrained view of the world. I don’t think you are right about there being a similar proportion of believers in the UK and the USA. Over there, they are far more contaminated [which I think is the right word!] with religion than we are.

    I agree with you that black-and-white thinking is bad – all cats are grey in the dark – but sometimes pig-wrestling with bigots is necessary and unavoidable if they are not to sweep the board. I fear that bigotry will only become irrelevant and unfashionable when we are once again living in a much safer world – which I don’t foresee happening for a long time yet.

    When I was young [1940s – 50s] a quiet, unassuming Anglicanism was taken for granted as the national religion [except by Roman Catholics and nonconformists], even by those who didn’t believe. Public atheism was unthinkable. When a humanist, Margaret Knight, was hesitantly allowed to give a talk on the BBC on “Morals Without Religion”, there was public uproar. In the ‘60s, the churches were far more liberal, both theologically and socially, then they are today. Leading clergy of all denominations – including both Anglican Archbishops – supported the 1967 decriminalisation of homosexuality. Would today’s church leaders have done so? Judging from the turmoil they are still in over this issue, I doubt it.

    I have said for a long time that ‘coming out’ as an atheist is more hazardous and fraught with personal adverse consequences than ‘coming out’ as gay. That is certainly true in the USA, where a declared atheist has little if any chance of being elected to public office. The reason why today’s more fundamentalist religious believers are so indignant is that at long last non-believers are actually having the temerity to declare their position. As the French say, “Those animals are wicked. They defend themselves.”

  5. In my experience, atheists, agnostics, humanists, and secularists aren’t seeking to impose their views on anyone. We simply want to get religionists off our backs. Unfortunately, this won’t happen by burying our heads in the sand and saying “If only they’d all go away”. Sometimes – most times – one has no option but to fight for one’s freedom. My formative experience was being a little boy in the 1930s, when there were plenty of people saying “If only those Nazis would calm down and be friendly, we could stop worrying and get on with our lives”. But things weren’t – and aren’t – like that.

  6. See “The need to be right” in Anticant’s Arena.

  7. You say: “There is a specific kind of Christian that I find compelling and attractive; the ones who are intelligent and questioning, funny, socially sensitive, tolerant of others and who quietly get on with making surprisingly substantial changes in the world.”

    Yes, that’s all well and good, but you have to ask: would these people still be this way even if they were NOT christian? Were they drawn to “nice” christianity because they are kind people, or have they become kind people because of christianity?

    Personally I cannot take any christian 100% seriously, no matter how nice they are. There is a certain walled-off section of their brain that I cannot penetrate and will never understand.

  8. Hi aphra,

    Liked the article up until the point when you said ‘I find the whole premise of Christianity so illogical that I simply don’t understand how anyone with two brain cells and a synapse can find it makes sense.’
    C’mon, you can’t dismiss the whole theological/philosophical/athiestical argument that has been raging for the past 2000 years in one sentence like that. That’s just lazy. I agree with Anticant that christians should aruge their position and should not assume that they are always right, so give me a chance to debate it. If you vanquish me, I will accept it gracefully, I promise.

  9. Hey, I enjoy a bit of a pig wrassle every now and then. Although my opposition to God and his botherers is the danger they pose to humanity!

  10. Osama bin Laden and Dubya Bush wrestling naked in mud?

  11. Hi Guys

    Very briefly, while I gulp my tea and before I go in to work:

    Anticant, I do indeed know bigoted athiests, but they aren’t activists. “Some of my best friends…” etc. I’ve probably been listening to too many Point of Inquiry podcasts back to back, which is the podcast for the Center For Inquiry which is an activist organisation, but not overtly bigoted.

    I went to see Dawkins speak at the Cheltenham festival about 5 years ago and found his arguments shrill, but not his tone of voice. I’ve also heard interviews on other occasions. I’ve read the Selfish Gene, but not his books about belief. It is evangelism I find offensive, and Dawkins is essentially an evangelist. I happen to think he’s right, but that’s another matter. I take your point about the Nazis, but I am – possibly foolishly – trying to find an approach which doesn’t radicalise me. I’ll drop by the Arena later today.

    Paddy, I’m with you, 100 percent. You can’t take them seriously, they send me into a state of congnitive confusion. You say tomAYto and I say tomAHto.

    Julie, no, I won’t argue with you. You are entitled to your own beliefs so long as they don’t impinge on me. I was reporting my experience not seeking to persuade anyone that christianity is either wrong or right. I happen to find it illogical, but I am absolutely not going to chop logic with anyone on their beliefs. I’ll happily tell you the path I trod to reach where I am now – in fact I have already done so here – https://aphrabehn.wordpress.com/2007/07/06/farewell-to-flakiness-or-why-im-not-entitled-to-my-own-opinion/ – but that is a different thing altogether.

    Yes, Archie, that’s what scares the bejayzus out of me.

    But that’s exactly what they are doing, anticant. We should hose the buggers down with very very cold water if you ask me.

    Thanks all for your comments. It is just another thing I’m trying to understand, and these discussions help me reach an understanding.

    Cheers

    Aphra.

  12. Aphra, you are understandably reluctant to be radicalised, but sometimes the only alternative is to be pulverised. I fear we are living in one of those times now. Do you really think that at 80, and in poor health, I relish blogging almost incessantly in defence of rational thinking and free speech?

    Let me remind you of my comment to your February 4 post, ‘On the Cusp?’ I said: “The future of science depends upon its continuing cultural acceptance as mainstream thinking. With such a strong surge of religious anti-rationalism in Western countries as well as other parts of the globe, we shouldn’t be overly optimistic unless all those committed to the accumulation of knowledge through scientific method rally strongly to its defence.”

    Believers in religious and other irrationalisms and nonsenses aren’t merely laughable zanies – they are hideously dangerous. If they get their way [and I’m thinking especially of Muslims and Roman Catholics], disbelievers will be persecuted, freedom of thought and speech will be at an end, and the Enlightenment will be effectively over – just a passing gleam amid the enfolding ongoing clouds of obscurantism and tyranny.

    “Shrill” is a very subjective adjective. I haven’t heard Dawkins speak, except on the air, and I find his writing eminently reasonable and balanced, considering the urgent threat to rational society he is so aware of. Anyway, I think it is a red herring – deliberately introduced by religionists – to single out Dawkins for attack as a “militant atheist”. It’s high time a lot more of us were militant; so come and join us!

  13. (muffled cries) Lemme out of this box!

    Guys, you want rid of the bigots. So do I. Whats more, I know how you can do it.

    Take the f***ing mike off them and give it to the moderates.

    Ask yourselves this. When did you last see a religious person on tv who was any way sensible? Who wasn’t jumping up and down yelling? Who had anything sensible to say? When did you last see a tv drama that didn’t portray a religious person as stupid, weak, ineffectual or a child abuser? Does it not bother you that sensible religious people never make an appearance on tv?

    Next question. Is this because there is noone sensible or intelligent that the Beeb can speak to from religous backgrounds? No. There are plenty of sensible and intelligent people who are religious. So why doesn’t the Beeb speak to them? Because the fundies are more entertaining? Because they are afraid of mature argument from someone who is (shock, horror) religious?For example does nobody want to hear the moderate Muslim’s voice? Is it not important in the present climate, that this voice should be louder than the others? So why are they shut out?

    Let me give you an example of this from my own church. A couple of months ago, the Human Embryology bill was on the news. This is a complex and contraversial bill and my church is opposed to certain aspects in it. Now, the Beeb could have picked any one of dozens of Lords and MPs who have been dealing with this bill for months, know it inside out and have taken our position on it. Instead they brought in a woman who had a bad hairdo and makeup, was badly briefed and who was obviously several intellectual cuts below the interviewer. He proceeded to push this straw woman over with the greatest of ease.

    Now ask yourselves this; how do you think the moderate people in my religion felt about that? Humiliated? Sorry for the woman who was led into a trap? Concerned, that nobody wanted a serious debate about crossing the species barrier(which this bill is proposing) with a serious person?
    In doing this, the Beeb created a martyr of someone who shouldn’t have had air time in the first place. She would have been cheered on by similar fundies who would become more entrenched in their ways. And they alienated people like myself by their intellectual bullying.

    By contrast if they had invited on someone like Lord Brennan, who is a QC, they would have had an interesting and informative debate. Even if people did not agree with him, they would understand his point of view and they would also understand that not all religious people are raving mad. Who do you want on your screen?

    Dawkins did the same with his Enemies of Reason series; he lined up a series of straw men and proceeded to kick them all down. I lost all respect for him at that point- I expect an Oxbridge don to be fencing with someone who is his intellectual peer, not a load of crystal gazers and tarot card readers. There’s plenty of us could take him on in an argument and do so courteously. But again, what Dawkins actually succeeded in doing was feeding the troll. He was so obviously picking people that were no match for him, that anything serious he had to say about the real threat of fundamentalism got lost.

    Let the moderate voice be heard, and we will happily flatten the fundamentalists for you; we hate them more than you do, because they are destroying our religion. But if you only deal with fundies, fundies is what you will get. As I say, take the f***ing mike off them.

  14. It’s no use bleating “let the moderate voice be heard”. You must shout for yourselves – if you’ve anything interesting to say except “oh dear, oh dear”, some people will listen.

  15. Julie, the media is only part of the problem. As I said above, it is up to the religious ‘moderates’ – if there are any left – to assert themselves and see off the bigots. It’s no use portraying yourselves, as you have just done, as victims. It’s YOUR fight.

    In the 1960s I had a lot to do with, and greatly admired, Christians of the “New Morality” school who espoused ‘situational ethics’ based on doing what was right in the circumstances regardless of the rule book. They were very socially concerned and aware people who didn’t stop to enquire whether others’ beliefs were identical to theirs, but just got on with the common task of tackling the ills of society. The Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson, whose book ‘Honest to God’ caused an uproar among the traditionalists, died tragically young. Otherwise, he might well have succeeded the saintly Michael Ramsey at Canterbury and would have been a far better Archbishop than the dreary nonentities who actually were.

    Of course, the reactionaries predictably dismissed the whole “New Morality” enterprise as “merely the old immorality writ large”, and in the 1970s and ‘80s the churches, the politicians and the media paid far too much deference to the strident clamourings of Mary Whitehouse and her narrow-minded ilk, who succeeded in monopolising the public arena far more than their numbers or lack of intelligence warranted.

    What we have today is an Anglican church riven with dissension over the minutiae of sexual behaviour, and entirely ignoring the main thrust of the gospel message, presided over by an equivocator who is privately liberal and publicly a mugwump.

    It’s no wonder that Christians who aren’t Anglicans, and those of us who are no longer Christians, believe it’s high time the C of E was disestablished and left to its own self-funded devices.

    But as I said, that’s your battle – not ours. We are against totalitarian-minded bigots of all stripes, religious and non-religious, and have more than enough on our plate without embroiling ourselves in internal church disputes.

  16. Julie, the media is only part of the problem. As I said above, it is up to the religious ‘moderates’ – if there are any left – to assert themselves and see off the bigots. It’s no use portraying yourselves, as you have just done, as victims. It’s YOUR fight.

    In the 1960s I had a lot to do with, and greatly admired, Christians of the “New Morality” school who espoused ‘situational ethics’ based on doing what was right in the circumstances regardless of the rule book. They were very socially concerned and aware people who didn’t stop to enquire whether others’ beliefs were identical to theirs, but just got on with the common task of tackling the ills of society. The Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson, whose book ‘Honest to God’ caused an uproar among the traditionalists, died tragically young. Otherwise, he might well have succeeded the saintly Michael Ramsey at Canterbury and would have been a far better Archbishop than the dreary nonentities who actually were.

    Of course, the reactionaries predictably dismissed the whole “New Morality” enterprise as “merely the old immorality writ large”, and in the 1970s and ‘80s the churches, the politicians and the media paid far too much deference to the strident clamourings of Mary Whitehouse and her narrow-minded ilk, who succeeded in monopolising the public arena far more than their numbers or lack of intelligence warranted.

    What we have today is an Anglican church riven with dissension over the minutiae of sexual behaviour, and entirely ignoring the main thrust of the gospel message, presided over by an equivocator who is privately liberal and publicly a mugwump.

    It’s no wonder that Christians who aren’t Anglicans, and those of us who are no longer Christians, believe it’s high time the C of E was disestablished and left to its own self-funded devices.

    But as I said, that’s your battle – not ours. We are against totalitarian-minded bigots of all stripes, religious and non-religious, and have more than enough on our plate without embroiling ourselves in internal church disputes.

  17. Anticant,

    I totally agree with you that it’s our fight and you’ll be happy to hear that I and other people are engaging in that fight, but the media has a great deal to answer for in giving these idiots air time. They will not listen to moderates, no matter how loud we are shouting. They are only interested in freaks and it’s doing us a lot of damage. They are totally uninterested in the social work that the church does, and concentrates only on areas of sexuality. I find this distressing, because a lot of the people that I am friends with are doing all kinds of good and risking their lives to do it. It would be newsworthy as well, but noone will help them.

    Let me give one example. A friend of a friend of mine set up a scheme called Mary’s Meals. The idea is simple but brilliant. He worked out that to feed someone in Africa for a year on rice buying locally, costs a fiver. So he set up this scheme where a child goes along to school and gets a meal of rice at the school. This does several things. Firstly, it gives the child a meal a day. Secondly, they attend school and get an education, when normally they would be working to try and earn money to buy that meal. Thirdly, it breaks the vicious circle of HIV infection, because what these kids do to earn money is they go into prostitution, especially those who have been orphaned through AIDS. Now, he got coverage in a broadsheet magazine, but that’s been it. And I’m like – why the hell is this not being broadcast everywhere? It’s brilliant. But noone wants to know, because it’s a good news story and because its religious. The end result is that this will spread much more slowly by word of mouth and will take longer to establish itself.

    Again, this is not religious, but typical of the kind of thing that the media do. I’m involved in health campaigning as a result of the health board trying to shut our local hospital and have become more involved. A couple of months ago I was invited on a radio programme to discuss telemedicine and whether or not it could replace local A&E departments (the answer is obviously no!). The chap who was selling the telemedicine was allowed to speak uninterrupted for the first 25 minutes of the programme and then I was brought in to speak. I was rather puzzled at being the first to be brought in to counter him, because there was a well known health campaigner with me who is a GP and has worked in hospitals as well. Anyway, I did my best and started to counter the arguments, whereupon the presenter started to interrupt me. She left the GP until the last ten minutes of the programme, and tried to interrupt her all the time as well. It occured to me later, that the reason that I had been brought in first, was that I was to be a straw man to be knocked down, only it didn’t go to script because I knew more about the subject than she had expected, so that was why she started to interrupt me. The GP had been left until the end, because that was the opponent that was feared. And this is how the media operates. I speak the truth when I say that moderates are completely shut out of the media just now, we cannot get any airtime, and I think the question has to be asked is; why?
    Anyway, I think I’ve said enough on this and taken up enough of your blog space ,Aphra. i’m away to do something about it.

  18. I just read a rather good book by Michael Shermer, entitled “Why People Believe Weird Things”, “weird”, (or “wierd” if you prefer ;-)) here defined as something other than accepted mainstream thought and not conforming to normal standards of evidence – he includes UFO abductions, religion and Holocaust denial.

    The final section is specifically about why *smart* people believe weird things – how can people with PhDs espouse creationism?

    His answer is this: clever people are very adept at defending beliefs they arrived at for dumb reasons. It’s not 100% convincing to me, but it’s an interesting argument.

  19. Anticant, I think Julie’s got a point, that the media love extremists, and that it’s hard for moderates of any flavour to get heard. I also think that the Anglican church is proving my point, that if you start dealing with the pig on the pigs terms, then you end up being manoeuvred into extremist positions you’d never normally have espoused.

    Sounds an interesting book, SoRB, and one with a plausible point. I’ve thought for years that most of the time we use logic to defend our positions rather than to arrive at them.

    Thanks all for your contributions to the debate.

    Aphra.

  20. Pingback: If you are so critical, why don’t you think? « Aphra Behn - danger of eclectic shock

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s