Bondi Beach, Sydney, NSW c. 2002

Mon, 19 Oct 2009 8:56 PM (GMT+0000)

Well, I missed International Blasphemy Day by a few weeks with this post, mostly due to being caught up with my day-to-day heresy. I also missed the opportunity years ago when I denounced the original sacred cow to my supposed Hindu friend Varun and he responded by suggesting that my mother was practicing the original profession. I guess it's always good to wait until one has something good to say before saying anything at all.

I've had a probably common experience with religious-themed debate in semi-public fora: eventually there arrives a point when these people admit (privately) to me that they're more interested in arguing than it is actually the case that they believe what they're saying. I assume that this was especially true of Varun given that he was on the debate team growing up, that he was in med school at the time (medicine is incompatible with faith), and his Friendster (where this 'debate' occurred) profile plainly emphasized his tendency toward the histrionic (his word).

I wouldn't say that his calling my mom a whore was a strawman argument or incendiary tactic; I imagine that he was trying to expose my own hypocrisy in saying there are no sacred cows by showing me that I thought my mom's reputation was one. I also don't imagine that he was lashing out in retaliation or that he really did think that the Bhagavad Gita was a True Source, but I tend to try to think the best of people at least until they prove the worst. When I read what he wrote, I did experience a sort of profound revelation: I really didn't care that he had said it. I remember wondering if I was broken somehow for not caring, or if it meant that I didn't care about my mom, but eventually I realized that I was long since callused against that particular brand of juvenile callousness.

One of my dad's arguments for wanting me to experience public school was that I needed to experience the 'real world'. His reasoning was that people can be pretty ugly to each other and it's best to learn how to navigate social dysfunction before the stakes get too high. I heard a counter-argument recently from another parent who quite reasonably explained that he didn't wish to subject his child to any unnecessary pain. Well, I think that sort of thing is necessary pain, in the same way that it's necessary to let your kid eat dirt and germs and fall down and make mistakes: to build up immunity and to eliminate fear. "Sticks and stones may break my bones" is only a trite saying if you haven't internalized the lesson.

The intent behind International Blasphemy Day is to poke holes in this artificial insulation around religion; to destroy the idea that somehow religion gets a free pass from scrutiny and judgment. Religion needs to go to public school. (I never thought I'd say something like that, even metaphorically, given my adamant First-Amendmentism.) The sick little boy's life has been artificially extended for far too long by this protective bubble. The fact that Muslims can commit violence and it is the newspapers that are blamed for it for besmirching sacred Muslim cows is a sick and twisted state of affairs. Rage, rage against the dying of the light!

I've heard the term 'card-carrying atheist' a few times recently, and I think one understanding of this term is that 'evangelism' is a membership duty. There is the argument that to engage in a discussion about lunacy is to legitimize the lunacy, but with a worldwide population of lunatics pushing 5 billion, I think that it's a little early for 'ignore' to be a successful tactic. While the average lunacy may be shifting more toward sanity, the problem is that passive support of most of the mildly delusional gives too much freedom for the criminally insane. So I'm thinking about getting a membership card.

I borrowed Trey's copy of Blue Like Jazz a few years ago. There are some good personal and relatable stories in there, but if there are any apologetics, they boil down to the idea that faith is always personal and experiential. I don't think atheist evangelism means denigration of personal experiences. In fact, quite the opposite - all of these personal experiences that people attribute to a god should rightly be attributed to the real actors - credit where credit is due. Unfortunately, what happens is that people attribute so much significance to having been touched by their god that by trying to take the gods out, to them it feels like having something taken away, rather than being given an even greater gift. It is a gift that takes a long time to recognize.

Since this isn't my story to tell, I'm going to change the names. My friend Rich spent his early adult life self-destructing after a pretty nasty breakup. I'd hate to cheapen this story by enumerating cliches, but as with many religious experiences there came a seminal moment when his life turned around. In X-Anonymous they try to force this change by telling people to surrender to a higher power. In Rich's case, that moment came in the form of a job offer from someone highly-respected in his field, which came with the requirement/opportunity to move across the country (and away from the old circle of enablement). Both Rich and his boss talked about this as something that happened as a part of "God's Plan". Maybe there were other events that reinforce Rich's faith, but as I understand it this was the biggest seed.

There's an episode of South Park when a statue of Mary is discovered to be bleeding out of its ass. Religious people flock to the statue to witness the "miracle". Stan's dad visits the statue after being forced to attend AA because he thinks the statue can cure his alcoholism. Well, after getting drenched with "anal blood", he finds out he is right, and goes five days without drinking. Later in the episode, the Pope comes to investigate, only to discover that the statue isn't actually bleeding from its ass, but from its vagina (which is no miracle, since "chicks bleed out their vaginas all the time"). After hearing this, Stan's dad relapses, because he thinks God didn't cure him after all. Stan finally makes him realize that since God didn't help him, he must have quit drinking for five days all by himself.

Well, Rich and his boss think it's God's plan that saved him. I think modesty is something to be respected to a point, in that his boss probably shouldn't be running around telling everyone he saved Rich's life. However, Rich and his boss both need to accept some responsibility for their own roles in this life-changing event. It was Rich's choice to stop self-destructing, his decision to make that U-turn and road trip out here to the Best Coast. And Rich's boss is responsible for throwing out the lifeline.

Suppose Rich's boss had surrendered his role to God, thinking that if God meant for Rich to be saved, He would do it Himself. Suppose Rich had surrendered his responsibility to God: if he had waited for God to end his self-destruction, he might not be alive today. This kind of surrender of responsibility allows religious people to absolve themselves of the evil they do as having been God's will. With this kind of belief system, everyone should expect the Spanish Inquisition.

It's harder to see the harm caused by Rich and his boss's transference of their responsibility for good (which can be viewed as admirable humility), than the harm that is caused by abdicating ownership of misdeeds. It is hard in the same way that it was hard for Karl Marx to see the harm in an economic system where need was rewarded and production was surrendered. These beliefs idealize a view of our humanity and make a false idol of selflessness. The reality is that everyone needs a system of reward and punishment.

Society cannot function without a rational system that enforces personal responsibility. If we want a world where people do good deeds, people need to be rewarded for those deeds; they can't have their reward stolen and given to some non-existent deity that contributed nothing to the enterprise. Conversely, people need to be punished for their bad deeds; we can't blame our fourth estate for publishing ideas or Allah for stirring up the crazy in His followers - the crazy needs to be punished for what crazy does.

So it is in this spirit that I'm going to try to earn my card now, because I think the damage done by smashing people's cows is less than the damage people do to themselves with their own faith, which by definition means flying by the seat of their own irrationality.


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