Total Drek

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Monday, April 02, 2007

The view from a petri dish

In a recent series of posts Jason Rosenhouse of the excellent Evolutionblog described his experiences attending a creationist/intelligent design rally* in Knoxville. The entire series is interesting (beginning here and ending here with part 5) but I want to particularly focus on the fourth installment. In this edition, Dr. Rosenhouse is standing in line during the lunchbreak and overhears some attendees talking. What happens next is, however, quite interesting.

The woman was talking animatedly to the kids. “Did you see those people with the Happy Atheist shirts?” she said. “They were handing out leaflets.”

I perked up. Sadly, I had noticed no such people. If I had I would have gone over to lend them some moral support.

The woman continued. “I wish one of them were here. I can't imagine how they can respond to all the evidence for design.” I won't swear those were her exact words, but it was something very close to that.

How could I resist?

“Well, I'm an atheist,” I said. “Why don't you ask me?”

I have to applaud Jason here as actually standing up in such an environment takes some guts. It's also, in my view, a startlingly useful exercise. Not only do atheists need to be more open about their faith, if only because hiding makes it too easy to stereotype us, but our presence at these events helps deflate the notion that we're closed-minded. Perhaps Jason was debating these folks but at least he appeared as a conference attendee and not a sign-waving protester. Getting back to his narrative, it's interesting to consider what he has to say about talking with the young folks versus the adult:

The woman was less impressive. I think she was still caught off guard by having her bluff about being interested in what atheists have to say called by my inconvenient presence. When she spoke up it was mostly to insert one strikingly dumb remark after another. At one point, while we were discussing the Bible, she asked me, snottily, whether I believed in history.

Since I consider myself fluent in fundamentalese I was rather surprised by this question. I couldn't fathom what she was getting at. So I replied that I didn't think we were created five minutes ago complete with memories intact and asked her to clarify her point.

“Well,” she said, “then you should believe in the resurrection of Jesus. That's history.”

“Is that so?” I asked.

Then, like I were the crazy one in this conversation, she said, “More than five hundred people witnessed it! How can you deny it!”

Oh, wow. I think the business about the five hundred witnesses is based on Paul's account in Corinthians, where he mentions that number. Keeping my cool, I replied that five hundred indpendent accounts of a resurrection would impress me, but one person telling me what five hundred other people saw is pretty thin gruel. Somewhere in here the college student whipped out the old liar, lunatic or Lord argument (the idea that someone saying the kinds of things Jesus is reported to have said could only be a liar, a lunatic or precisely what he claimed to be (that would be the Lord option.) We have C.S. Lewis to thank for this ridiculous chestnut.) As it happens, both liar and lunatic strike me as acceptable options in that trichotomy. But my answer to the college student was simply that there is a fourth option. Specifically, that the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life may not be accurate depictions of what he actually said and did.

This is interesting to me because while we might expect young folks to be more open to alternative views** we would also expect the adult in the group to have the high-ground in terms of politeness. Sadly, this does not appear to be the case, particularly as random bystanders begin getting into the act:

Somewhere around here a new player entered the game. I was in the middle of one staggeringly eloquent point or another when the woman immediately behind me on line, I will call her Mary though that was not her name, decided she had heard enough. In an act of staggering rudeness she cut me off and started speaking directly to the three teenagers. Without making eye contact or even acknowledging me in any way she said something like, “I just want to say that I think you three are beautiful children and that it's very important that you read the King James Bible and that you beware of people who have been educated beyond their intelligence.” The emphasis on being “beautiful children” and the importance of reading the “King James Bible", were points she made repeatedly.

As for the part about people being educated beyond their intelligence, it's possible that was directed at me.

Now, we might legitimately observe that Jason was a random bystander, but he at least simply offered to talk about his atheism with someone who seemed to be genuinely curious. He did not barge into a conversation where he was more or less unwelcome. So, in short, it's interesting the kinds of examples that are being set for the younger folks in the evangelical community. Politeness can, apparently, be answered with rudeness so long as you're answering someone of another faith.

Now, I could go on in this vein a bit, but I won't. I could also recount some of Jason's arguments against the design conjecture, but that's unnecessary. You can read them yourself and, in all likelihood, are familiar with a few already. Instead, let's consider something else Jason said:

I've attended quite a few of these creationist gatherings and at virtually every one of them I have found myself involved in a conversation of this sort. As long as there is only one atheist among a large number of creationists, they tend not to feel threatened and instead treat you like some sort of zoo animal, or perhaps someone from a different planet. I'm still uncertain as to the best way to handle the situation. My instinct upon being peppered with ignorant creationist talking points from people utterly convinced of their own erudition is to unload with both barrels. Generally, though, I think that's counter-productive. However temporarily satisfying it may be to fire a real zinger, I think if there's any hope of doing long-term good it comes from being scrupulously polite. I suspect that a lot of the fire-breathers, like Mary, live in very insulated communities and simply don't often come into contact with people who think differently from her on these kinds of issues. So let them see an atheist who on the one hand is completely unafraid of any challenge they might throw his way, but who also has no desire to be insulting or aggressive.

I think Jason is absolutely correct about the need to be polite. Often a very good point will be entirely overlooked if it's embedded in a load of hostility or contempt. So, difficult as it may be, polite civilized discussion is best. However, that said, I think we need to consider his "zoo animal" analogy a bit more. I, myself, have spent a great deal of time feeling this way. I grew up in the south and have been an open atheist since middle school. I have routinely fielded questions about my beliefs, objections to my beliefs and efforts to alter my beliefs. Quite frequently I felt completely and utterly alone. One particularly uncomfortable period involved a local church group regularly confronting me in my high school and encouraging me to attend their services. So, Jason is absolutely right about being made to feel like a zoo animal.

However, I have to wonder whether evangelicals don't feel this way sometimes as well. Recently prospective grad students were visiting my department and I became involved in a discussion of fundamenalist religion with an agnostic, a Unitarian Universalist and a devout Catholic.*** Now, I think we were very polite but, really, if the prospective grad student looking on happened to be fundamentalist I think the experience would have been very much like what Jason describes. Perhaps even moreso- we scientists trained in analytic methods might make a nearby evangeical feel less like an animal in a zoo and more like some sort of weird creature in a petri dish awaiting dissection. Further, I'm forced to wonder how often evangelicals feel this way when confronted with the products of science and education. Perhaps they spend more time in that petri dish than we usually recognize.

I don't want to be unnecessarily sympathic to evangelicals- they go beyond merely wanting to avoid persecution into tireless efforts to impose their morality and factual beliefs on the rest of us. That said, though, it does no good to accuse them of sins that we all share. Perhaps sometimes they make atheists feel like alien creatures but sometime we do the same to them.

And the view from the petri dish is the same no matter who put you there.

* Technically they call it a "conference," but it resembles an academic conference little, if at all, so I use a more appropriate term.

** In my experience it's often quite the opposite, but that's beside the point.

*** I know, I know: that sounds like the lead-in to a joke. "An agnostic, a unitarian and a catholic walk into a bar. The bartender asks 'Whaddya want?' The agnostic says, 'I don't know,' the unitarian says, 'A little of everything,' and the Catholic says, 'Water. I'll transubstantiate it later.'"****

**** Yes, this is why I will never be a professional comedian.

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Blogger TDEC said...

I greatly admire the attitude described here. I try very hard to enter any debate of the sort with my arguments in order and a cool head. Frankly, though, at the end of the day, while I manage to keep up that politeness, I generally walk away seething and deeply upset. Any tips for staying calm and zenlike?r

Monday, April 02, 2007 1:15:00 PM  
Blogger Plain(s)feminist said...

Me, too. And, oddly enough, my tips for staying calm and zenlike come from my brief incarnation as a feisty Christ-y: that parable about the sower and the seed works nicely for any sort of education. I like to think that people will hear what you have to say eventually, though they may not at the time you say it. It's the same principle by which we look back at our undergraduate education and appreciate what we missed then.

But also, I wanted to add that my favorite take on the Lord, liar, lunatic C.S. Lewis-by-way-of-Josh McDowell crap is this one, which maybe I've posted here before:

And Drek, as someone raised entirely without any religious tradition (beyond secular observations of Santa and the Easter Bunny), I know just how you feel. And I felt that way as a fundie, as well. It all depends on whether you're outnumbered, I think.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007 10:54:00 PM  

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