Don’t Pass Go(d): Giving Religion a Get Out of Jail Free Card?

July 20, 2010


If I wear this to the next Atheist conference, maybe then I'll fit in!

Cambridge Broxterman, she of “Burkagate” infamy, has made another YouTube video about me. I’m not surprised this time — I guess I was kind of asking for it when I recalled that we had agreed to post our email exchange and, you know, finally got around to posting it. Her tone was a lot friendlier this time, which is encouraging because it gives me hope we’ll be able to have a non-awkward conversation when our paths finally cross again (which is great because I want to talk to her about her awesome body modifications… okay, sorry, tangent).

Anyway, she raised a legitimate point in her video — one I’ve been meaning to address again for some time now. (Thanks for the reminder!) In her video, Cambridge introduced who I am by saying:

He’s a nice guy — he seems to be nice and willing and open for discussion. But his view of himself within the whole Atheist community is just really strange to me… I don’t know what he’s trying to accomplish and it’s frustrating… He’s very vocal about his… wanting to be on the side of the religious, and he’s very vocal about his political correctness, but then he saves all of that energy that he could be putting towards an area where I think would help the Atheist cause… [and he’s] turing on the Atheist community… He has no problem criticizing the Atheist community, but the religious community is just taboo to him it seems like, they’re just off limits. It’s really weird and I don’t think I understand what he’s trying to accomplish and I don’t really think he does either.

This is the second time this week I’ve been called nice with a caveat by someone online; earlier this week, Jesse Galef of the Secular Student Alliance wrote over on the Friendly Atheist: “we disagree on a lot of interfaith issues, but he’s a nice guy.” (Thanks, folks! You’re nice too.) But Cambridge’s critique — that, no matter how nice I might be, religion is “off limits” to me — is one I’ve heard time and time again from other commenters on this blog, so I’d like to take this opportunity to address it.

I’ve tried to be clear on this blog that I am not some self-loathing secular pandering to religious others in an attempt to curry favor. I’m as proud to be godless as I am anything else about me. I suppose it requires a certain amount of bravery to live a publicly godless life — the idea that one can be good without God is still fairly radical in certain circles. But personally it just isn’t something I struggle with. I’m perfectly content with being a Secular Humanist, and I don’t spend a lot of time fretting about whether others think I’m a moral person or not for not believing in God.

Yet — and here’s where I may sound a bit, um, heretical — I also believe that the religious should be as celebratory about who they are as I am, and I suspect that if they are as comfortable with their identity as I am mine then they will embrace pluralism, as I have. I am then, for both of those reasons, more concerned with the way other secular folks approach the religious as across-the-board bad. I cannot help but suspect that our negative obsession with mocking religion is rooted in a lack of confidence in what we as a community have to offer, and wish to devote my energy toward working against such self-defeating antagonism. As I said in a post back in March:

NonProphet Status does not exist to give religion a “free pass” or needlessly criticize vocal atheists in an attempt to win over the religious; it does, however, advocate for something that is a step beyond tolerance – or, as Fish proudly trumpets in his post, merely saying “I have [religious] friends” as if, by allowing religious people into his life, he is somehow going above and beyond the call of atheist duty – by moving into a mode of collaboration across lines of religious difference. And, unfortunately, what that sometimes entails is taking to task those who are either intentionally or inadvertently working against this cause, including atheists who discriminate against religious people. Just as pluralistic Christians do of the fundamentalist members of their community, pluralistic Muslims of the fundamentalists of theirs, and so on, I feel compelled to identify the problematic voices of my community that are working against pluralism. I don’t aim to be soft on religion, but I would much rather allow religious pluralists to criticize the fundamentalists of their communities and do the same in mine. Atheists indiscriminately bad-mouthing religion is a very real problem because it obscures our larger aims – making the world a better, more rational place – with a distracting and alienating narrative. It isn’t that I particularly enjoy critiquing the claims of fundamentalist atheists – ultimately, I actually find it disheartening to have to do so – but I believe without reservation that these voices cannot go unchecked.

Religion isn’t off limits to me, but tackling the difficult issues in religion isn’t really within the scope of NonProphet Status. I may think that religion has created a lot of problems in the world — as a former “Born Again” Christian and a queer person, I’ve experienced many of them firsthand. But point blank: this blog isn’t about critiquing religious beliefs or speaking out against harmful religious practices. It has a very specific purpose and I try my best to stick to that. NonProphet Status exists to name what I see as problematic components of the secular community and offer alternative perspectives of positive (instead of oppositional) secularism; to identify the behaviors of my fellow secularists that oppose pluralism (see a quick and helpful definition here) and to point to alternate modes of secularism that support it. I’ll let the Christians call out members of their community working against pluralism, the Muslims theirs, and so on. Ultimately, if I as a secularist condemn fundamentalist Christianity, it has a lot less power than if another Christian does it. So I want to put my energy where I believe it is best spent. And it is simply that: where I believe it is best spent. This is all just my opinion. So take it with a few grains of salt, if you will.

chris looking up

"Hey God, what's up? Oh, nothing?" - Get it?! See, I have a sense of humor... I swear to God. Oh, there I go again!

Where we have the most agency as a community is in how we behave, both internally and in how we approach those outside our walls — and, for those in our community who are concerned with how others perceive us, the most effective way to change hearts and minds is through relationships. And we won’t be able to have relationships with religious folks if our top priority is mocking the things they hold dear. I believe that such behavior will fundamentally limit who our movement will appeal to and will distract us from focusing on cultivating our own uniquely secular ethics. For those and other reasons — and not simply because I have an open appreciation for select religious insights — I see such antics as lose-lose for us. That is why I critique “blasphemy” so frequently and with such, erm, fervor.

I try to walk a fine line, and perhaps I err too heavily on the side of critiquing my own community. If I’ve hurt feelings, I apologize. My aim in doing this is to push my fellow secularists to reconsider how we engage the religious other, not to alienate. I appreciate the feedback I get and try to factor it into my approach, so keep it coming. And, as always, thank you for reading.

For some past examples of explanations of why I do what I do, please check out some of these posts:

Respecting Religion, Staying Secular

Picture This: When We Draw Muhammad, We Draw a Line

What’s Wrong With Happy Smiling Rainbows and Unicorns?

Speaking Up, or How Mo’Nique Showed Me the Light

Talk the Talk, Don’t Chalk the Chalk: Drawing a Divide With the “Draw Muhammad” Campaign

What Are We Fighting For?

11 Responses to “Don’t Pass Go(d): Giving Religion a Get Out of Jail Free Card?”

  1. Cyndi said

    Well said, and so in line with my feelings. What we need is not more criticism and alienation, but more dialogue and understanding. Let each community of (non)belief discipline their own.

    I yearn for the day we are all past the us/them divide, when we can embrace all points along the belief spectrum and respect each other as individuals in the company of ‘we.’

  2. Hitch said

    “NonProphet Status exists to name what I see as problematic components of the secular community and offer alternative perspectives of positive (instead of oppositional) secularism; to identify the behaviors of my fellow secularists that oppose pluralism (see a quick and helpful definition here) and to point to alternate modes of secularism that support it.”

    I think that is spot on. that’s the impression I got. Unfortunately my critique is and has been that you do not understand pluralism. I know very few atheists who oppose pluralism.

    Pluralism is inclusive not exclusive. You are largely exclusive of most of what is outspoken disbelief. That are some world views that are not permissible. You label them non-pluralistic, but they are not. Again check SSA and other student groups on DMD. These were pluralistic and inclusive. Yet you still continue to bash it.

    Take Cambridge, she basically just asks that her style of humor be permissible. This is no different than a religious person asking that their view and expression be permissible.

    I have friends I strongly disagree with, yet we more than coexist. We do not pretend to be in agreement and avoid all jokes to be pluralistic, in fact if we give up out identity to not be in disagreement, we give up pluralism and arrive at silence over differences.

    That is an impoverished kind of pluralism and I really think you should open your eyes some and allow difference, diversity etc in all corners.

    Yes and I critique that you make yourself the judge of how people ought to be. Why you have that authority I do not know.

    But let me go one step further. Atheists have some of the worst images of any group. This is not deserved. Overall we are good and productive and friendly people. Yet I see so many blogs of atheists pointing finger at atheists it’s disheartening. And there is way too little reporting of all the good that is going on and all the really bad atheists still experience. Atheist kids still get bullied in schools, called satan and stuff. People still lose their jobs if they “come out”.

    It is perfectly fine for an christian to say that atheists should not be american citizens, but it’s not OK to put up billboards that show the original pledge of allegiance.

    Yet you think the most important thing to do is critique the atheist identity unless it conform to a standard that is very close to self-denial. The queer movement wouldn’t accept this (“no drag guys, it offends people”) and atheists shouldn’t either.

    Basically you are supporting the negative stereotypes of atheists and yes, I am sure you are aware that I don’t like it.

    But no matter the difference, what I most dislike is that you don’t even engage in the views that people hold. I have asked you many times to consider how SSA behaved on DMD. No go. They are still all bigots and haters. Even though they do not deserve it. Yes you stereotype people and it’s wrong.

    • Rick said

      Wow dude. You are seriously slandering and misrepresenting what he said. He never called people who did the draw Muhammad thing bigots. Also, why don’t you actually read what Chris has said about pluralism, it’s anything but silent. Don’t put words in people’s mouths. Why don’t you stop making low blows against Chris, accusing him of things that aren’t true, and try to actually listen. Then maybe you’d get it.

      • Hitch said

        Here is what Chris wrote, verbatim, in his post on the student chalking smiling stick figures.

        “This is not simply exercising an inalienable right. This is hatred and bigotry.”

        I accuse nobody of things that are not true. In fact I read what Chris says and that is exactly what I react to.

        If Chris stops making low blows against people he disagrees with, calling them bigots or comparing them to white suppremacists, I will stop critiquing him for it. And if he continues to claim that he is a bridge builder and seeks interfaith at the same time, I will also continue to critique him for that, because negative branding is not bridge building.

        And for people like yourself who claim that I lie, well I’ll happy to quote him at length.

        I think you should check into what slander means.

  3. Rick said

    Dude double check before you quote from something. At the very top of that entry it says: “It’s “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” — today’s guest post is from Nicholas Lang, and it addresses this controversy.” Chris didn’t even write that, he posted what someone else wrote. Therfor you can’t attribute it to Chris. You say “Here is what Chris wrote, verbatim, in his post on the student chalking smiling stick figures” when at the very top of that entry it says it is a guest post by someone else. I think you should check into what quoting means. When Chris wrote about drawing Muhammad, he didn’t call people bigots but said “we can find a better way” which is a very positive message.

    Anyway your tone is super negative and I’m not interested in a flame war with you, especially when your not even actually listening. If you can’t see what Chris is saying is a message promoting positive dialogue that’s not my problem. But I’d recommend taking your blinders off and stop approaching what’s on this site with your mind already set before you even read it.

  4. Hitch said

    Alright I apologize for the quote attribution, but note how my original did not claim that Chris said it but that that impression stands (without attribution). But yes, I am upset what is going on here, and how Chris threats atheists.
    The correct way to frame it is to say that Chris gives voice to the view and does not distance himself from it.

    I do not apologize for my message. It is correct. People act positively but they get no credit for it. Instead things are cherry picked and interpreted negatively, in fact hidden behind supposed humor.

    Chris did do the white supremacy thing:

    “I couldn’t help but wonder if what I felt in that moment was akin to what it must be like to be a non-racist white person at a community meeting who suddenly realizes she or he is in fact attending a Ku Klux Klan rally”

    And he did engage in the standard stereotyping if atheists as having an intellectual superiority complex and being emotionally deprived:

    “she addressed the fact that Atheism is fraught with an intellectual superiority complex”

    “NPS: When did our community – Atheists – decide we wanted to be emotionless robots?! [Laughs]”

    No, I stand by what I say. This is not a possitive message and bridge building. It’s negative stereotyping of atheists.

    If you think that standing up against negative stereotyping is a flame war then I am sorry. It is not. Yes I am upset and I dislike how Chris does things. In fact right he hides behind his negative labeling calling it a joke:

    “My friends started referring to the strong reaction my piece elicited from the Atheist community as “Burkagate” after I jokingly coined the term.”

    I’m sorry, nobody understands a “-gate” to be positive and when it was originally coined it was not clear at all that it was a joke. So rather than own up to his negative labeling he now hides behind the claim that it too was a joke.

    I am against the negativity, but I’m sorry it will not go away if it is not pointed out. I think Chris is right to feel the way he does about “burkagate”, but he is not right to put in negative labeling. He hs the right to think that atheists are emotional robots, but he has to accept that people like myself will resist it as a negative stereotype (which it is). He is entitled to host posts that call participants of DMD bigots, but he will have to understand that people do not want to be called bigots for having a different perspective.

    So yes, I exactly critique the negative that is mixed in with the good. I have no doubt (and said many time) that I think Chris has good intentions. But having good intentions and doing good are different things.

    Alientating and negatively branding people is not bridge building. I want pluralism, interfaith and bridges built and positivity. If someone, like Chris, burns a bridge to people I will say so, because it hurts the cause.

  5. AfrikanerCanadian said

    Chris, I appreciate and salute your efforts.

  6. Katie said

    Wow, what an interesting blog! Frankly, I don’t understand atheists any more than I understand religious people. I guess that makes me agnostic, since I freely admit that I have no clue what (if anything) is out there. How can anyone? It often seems that atheists can be just as closed-minded as the strictly religious. I’d like to think there’s something more… more than what science or a church can try to explain. I think my body has a soul, and I’d like to think that soul has someplace to go when my body can no longer carry it, but who knows? No one but the dead. 🙂

  7. I get what you’re trying to achieve, Chris. As a christian in christian circles, I have been trying to get my friends to THINK about how they treat secular folks for years. Unfortunately, no dice. I guess people are more concerned with being right than trying to foster positive dialogue and harmony? I dunno, but it can be downright depressing at times. 😦

  8. […] We then got into an exchange that prompted her to post another video about me, which I then responded to here on NonProphet […]

  9. Hi Chris. Given the plentiful quantities of disrespect floating around out there, I think that your critiques of the more exclusionary and mocking approaches of some atheists are quite apt (and I say that as someone who identifies somewhere between atheism and agnosticism). Many of the world’s religions already practice forms of prejudicial disrespect toward those who are outsiders. Why add to the existing problem?

    Thanks for the thoughtful, well written blog. Rock on!

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