The secular boogeyman

Hide your bibles and lock up your crosses! Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye, and Neil deGrasse Tyson are comin’ for ’em! They want to jam secular theories down your throat and force you and your children to deny your Christianity! And there’s a whole wing of militant atheists out there who stand by, waiting for the command, to bully Christians until their religion is stamped out from the face of the earth and everyone blindly pledges allegiance to evolution! At least that’s the narrative some Christian groups would have you believe.

Except that this is patently false. Nothing of the sort is happening. In point of fact, I would argue that even the most extreme atheists and scientists out there have done much less to impose their will upon society than the most fundamental of Christians.

A lot of the focus of this narrative rests upon Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. They’re portrayed as radicals who want nothing more than to make everyone an atheist and to replace all Christian beliefs and values with science, and they’re the leaders of this radical wing of militant atheism. They’re all over the airwaves, the internet, and your local bookstore’s shelves trying to convert you and your children to Godless, evolution loving heathens.

But what’s the worst we can really say about them? Dawkins openly and publicly mocks people of faith. Nye and deGrasse Tyson travel the country promoting science and encouraging people to question religion. So? Why is Christianity above the reproach of skepticism? But more to the point, none of these men have actually done anything that even begins to diminish or take away your freedom to practice whatever religion you want to. I can’t emphasize that enough. Despite these ‘radical’ atheists and their secular views, not a single one of them is spearheading a movement to deny you religious freedom.

There isn’t a single piece of atheist legislation in existence. There isn’t a single atheist proposal on any government dockets. Atheists aren’t running around trying to mandate that Sunday schools teach evolution so that students “can hear both sides of the story.” Atheists aren’t proposing a constitutional amendment banning freedom of religion. Atheists haven’t proposed any laws limiting how many churches can be built. And atheists don’t go door to door distributing literature by Dawkins and Darwin.

Sadly, we cannot say the same thing about some Christian groups. Because some Christians ARE trying to mandate that their beliefs be taught in public school–because apparently it’s bad to ‘cram evolution’ down a Christian’s throat, but perfectly acceptable to cram Genesis down the throat of Hindu or a Muslim or a Native American student. Some Christians ARE trying to pass amendments to the constitution of the United States that defines marriage how they want it defined and banning abortion, which they morally oppose. If you don’t believe it, look up the “Human Life Amendment” and the “Federal Marriage Act.” All very clear examples of Christians trying to legally impose their will over others. There is no atheist equivalent to this.

The teaching of evolution in a science classroom has no tacit moral or philosophical statement in it. Creationism is not scientifically testable, and therefore has no place in a science class. You CAN, however, scientifically test and observe the fossil record, DNA mutation, adaptation, and natural selection–the central pillars of evolutionary theory. The idea that there is no God is NOT a part of evolutionary theory. You can look in any textbook on evolutionary biology you can get your hands on and nowhere will you find a statement about whether or not a God exists. Christians are injecting philosophy where it doesn’t belong.

Because there are plenty of people out there who believe in evolution AND a God. There are multitudes of people who find no contradiction between a deity that created the universe and Darwinian evolution. For crying out loud, that’s even the official position of the Vatican! I know that I’ve blogged about this in the past, but it bears repeating that several Popes have publicly stated that evolution is a perfectly valid explanation for the biological processes of life, while the Christian God is a valid explanation for the human soul. So how on earth could evolution be pushing a Godless agenda? If you choose to interpret the issue that way, I guess that’s your right. But it doesn’t mean that your interpretation is correct.

And what about the vitriol? You hear that a lot in this narrative. That atheists are bullies, and they mock and ridicule Christians. That may very well be in some cases. It certainly is the truth when it comes to Dawkins. And that’s why I don’t like the man. I hate Dawkins. He’s abrasive and shows people little or no empathy. Luckily, Richard Dawkins doesn’t speak for me. And he doesn’t speak for anyone else but himself. Atheists of the world didn’t hold a secret meeting and elect him to be our spokesman. Just like I know that Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh do not represent the entirety of the republican party, so too should Christians realize that Dawkins does not represent atheists. And, just like those political talking heads, Dawkins is a squeaky wheel in the public conversation trying to peddle his books.

Besides, there is plenty of vitriol to go around, and a lot of it comes from Christians. Take, for instance, the Louisiana schoolteacher who mocked a Buddhist student in class and told them they were “stupid if they didn’t believe in God.” Now, I might be willing to chalk this up to one lone nut of a teacher…if it wasn’t for the fact that the superintendent of the school district backed up the teacher. When the family complained, they were told that since they live in the south they should just expect this kind of thing and if they don’t like it to move somewhere with more Asians. Say what you want about Bill Nye, at least he’s never been racist to someone’s face.

And that’s the difference here. Perhaps Dawkins is a jerk who mocks people of faith. But nobody is forcing you to read his books, tweets, or watch his interviews. You can tune him out of your life if you wish. That wasn’t the case of the student in Louisiana, who had no idea that they would be mocked in front of the whole class by a teacher. That student didn’t have a choice in that instance, unlike every Christian who hates Dawkins. And say what you will about how hateful Dawkins is, his words and his beliefs are not institutionalized, unlike the Christian beliefs in that Louisiana school district are apparently.

Encouraging people to be skeptical of religious claims is NOT the equivalent of an all-out assault on God. There is no atheist Gestapo coming to force evolution on you and wipe all traces of Christianity from our society. Encouraging people to learn more about science is NOT the same thing as religious persecution.

And certain groups of Christians should know a thing or two about persecuting people for their beliefs. They’re quite good at it. Did you know that in seven states it’s illegal for atheists to hold a public office? Who’s really persecuting who in this country?

In the end, this narrative has nothing to do with Dawkins or Nye, bur rather a secular boogeyman. This is about the demonization of science. That’s what this narrative seeks to accomplish. The more we can explain the universe and life through science, the more unnecessary religion becomes. And the numbers reflect that, as we move through history, people are becoming increasingly less religious. I’ll freely admit that there are a lot of atheists out there who straight up do not like religion and think that the world would be better off without it. But even the very worst of those people aren’t trying to pass laws enforcing their beliefs. I wish I could say the same thing for Christians.

Sure sounds like he's coming to cram evolution down your throat...
Sure sounds like he’s coming to cram evolution down your throat…

29 thoughts on “The secular boogeyman

  1. Unfortunately, people discriminate. Atheists, Christians and everybody else, you and I included. While Richard Dawkins doesn’t speak for all atheists, many atheists do agree with him. As for science, it too is far from perfect (since scientists are not perfect, because man himself is not perfect). For example, Steven Jay Gould has described the fact that the fossil record does not support evolutionary theory as “the trade secret of paleontology.” Of course, science is an excellent path to discovery but you can’t always take everything scientists say at face value. After all, even scientists don’t always agree amongst themselves.

    1. Fair points. I wouldn’t try to argue that science is unified about all the models and theories out there. And everyone does have biases, granted. But I just don’t see atheists attempting to legislate those biases.

      I’m perfectly fine and comfortable with people believing in something that I don’t subscribe to. It’s when a group of people seeks to make their beliefs law that I have a problem. And there’s this narrative out there that atheism is some force trying to change the fabric of society, when there is no proof of that whatsoever.

      1. Fair enough. However, I’ve known so many atheists who try to brow beat people to get them to believe that they, and only they, know the truth. To be fair, I’ve also known many deists who have tried to do the same thing. Ideology and belief systems are a wonderful thing. However, as Einstein observed, “The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe” though it doesn’t seem to keep them from trying (and proclaiming that they’re right).

      2. I’m all for letting people believe whatever they want. And I’m all for dialogues between those with different belief systems. Brow beating never gets anyone anywhere no matter who is doing it. Different people accept different types of evidence. There’s no way around that, and throwing “facts” around won’t change that. If someone is going to change their beliefs, it has to be driven internally.

        And I know that this isn’t a problem with Christianity as a whole. I know that there are a lot of “live and let live” Christians out there. As usual in this country, the national conversation is just hyper-polarized and the fringes get the most air time.

        Thank you very much for the insightful comments!

  2. If you want to hold onto power and insure the donations flow in, nothing works like keeping the flock in constant fear (see Fox News, right-wing radio, et al).

    1. The irony there, of course, is that the vast majority of the politicians and judges who create the policies in this country are God fearing Christians. They already wield tons of power.

  3. I never really get the dislike for Dawkins. Is it solely based off The God Delusion and interviews/debates since then? The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving the Rainbow, and The Blind Watchmaker are really good books, which no one seems to mention.
    As for his public persona, I think it’s a result of being treated like garbage so often. I’ve watched many debates and interviews where people (the interviewer, and even moderators) plainly insult him. If you’ve seen him talk about evolution/science, any time he’s not being attacked, he’s happy, excited, and fun to listen to.

    1. His credibility as a scientist certainly isn’t in question as far as I’m concerned. I will admit that I don’t know much about what Dawkins was like early in his career. And perhaps it’s true that his boorish behavior now is a direct result of being treated so poorly by people of faith in the past.

      But his poor attitude and oft times poorly chosen words don’t really do anything to further his ideas. As the saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Dawkins has some great ideas and information, but his attitude makes the people who need to hear it–people of faith–instantly throw up walls, and then nothing gets through to them.

      1. Fair point. This is just my view, but I think his feelings today are the result of 30 years of doing just what you suggested. All his books prior to, maybe the Devil’s Chaplin, were science with a touch of religion/philosophy (his first book being published in 1976). Treating them with kids gloves, perhaps, or catching flies with honey. And while he was well known in the world of science, it wasn’t until he openly went after religion that anyone else started to pay attention. So I wonder, is being nice, but ultimately only preaching to the atheist/scientific choir better than being aggressive and letting people know there is a conversation to be had? Who were the faces of atheism/rationalism/humanism before the “neo-atheists” started getting as confrontational as they are now?
        There may have been plenty of people before Dawkins that I don’t know about, but I’m not aware of many books that go after religion, outside of philosophy, in the 90’s. And not many became as well known as The God Delusion and opened up the door for atheism/secularism to enter the conversation. Now that the door is opened people seem to be happy to leave Dawkins behind.

      2. I’d say that before Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris and everyone else today there was Carl Sagan. He was probably the most well known scientist and atheist before them, especially at the apex of his career in the 1970s.

        The difference, though, is that Sagan very much had a Mr. Rogers air about him, right down to the cadence of his voice. Back then his television series, “The Cosmos” (the original one that inspired deGrasse Tyson’s) wasn’t nearly as inflammatory as the remake is today. I think part of that is due to Sagan’s “nice guy persona” or whatever you want to call it.

        One thing that Sagan did that a lot of atheists who have continued the cause today don’t is presenting information in a very non-threatening way. Sagan was very adept at simply stating facts and then letting them sit there for consumers to pick up on their own time. He didn’t try to wrap philosophy up in scientific observation (for the most part). Even his writings were presented to the general public in a sci-fi format, as a sort of “what if?” which is a much gentler invitation than the top-down, authoritative approach that a lot of modern day atheists take.

        And I think that’s certainly the hardest part for atheists–we can’t make people change no matter how accurate our information. It’s almost like the harder we try, the more we expose the cognitive dissonance, the more reactionary people become. And that reactionism isn’t at all productive to exploring science, logic, and reason. I applaud people like Nye and deGrasse Tyson for bringing science to the national stage. But even deGrasse Tyson and Nye are quick to admit that they don’t care what people believe personally and in their own homes, that they’re only concerned with what science has to say about reality.

        I will admit that Dawkins certainly has made the conversation louder, so to speak. And the old saying is that any publicity is good publicity, I suppose. I’ll have to go back and take a look at some of Dawkins’ previous works now that you’ve brought this to my attention.

      3. Sagan is interesting. He was open about not being an atheist and seemed to avoid discussing anything that could be offensive, but he was the best science educator ever.
        I agree with all the points in your post. I just see so much Dawkins bashing lately that I thought I’d respond to that with my opinion of the good he’s done to raise awareness. And the fact that he has only written one book on religion, yet it’s all anyone associates him with.

      4. Dawkins is arrogant. But then again he is actually right about a lot of stuff. People who are right a lot often seem arrogant. The fact that he is provocative when it comes to religious ideas goes against this societal conventions of being respectful to people’s beliefs. Were he challenging people’s political beliefs nobody would bat an eye at him.

      5. Interesting observation about arrogance. I hadn’t really thought about it in those terms. I do agree that he is right about a lot of stuff, it’s just unfortunate that his message seems to be muddled by his attitude and words.

      6. LOL!! He’s only missing the the glass of wine.

        Well, maybe he’s more playful and cheeky in private. I get that he’s spent years of his career being attacked. And maybe he has some right to be angry about that. I guess at the end of the day I haven’t walked a mile in his shoes.

        At the end of the day, though, I still can’t bring myself to be associated with a lot of his comments and attitudes.

      7. I understand. I guess I don’t want a world full of Richard Dawkins, but I am glad there is someone there stirring the pot a little, because has “raised atheist consciousness” as he puts it, he has helped a bunch of people who are highly individualistic, organize a little to fight against the natural oppression there seems to be of people who are atheists, agnostics, and humanists, and most importantly he has started many dialogues by challenging ideas that nobody challenged before.

  4. Brilliant! Everything you say here pretty much reflects my views as well.

    Count me as an atheist that feels like the world would be better off without religion. One good look at the history of religion will plainly demonstrate what they have been capable of. And one look around the world today shows there has been no relent in the atrocities attributed to religion.

    I would not give a drunkards piss what people want to believe, or worship in their private lives. But when that belief becomes a push to legislate, or that belief becomes a handy excuse for murder, punishment, torture, terrorism, and brutality, it is time to draw a line. Religion has gotten away with far too much for far too long, and the river of blood behind them is there for all to acknowledge. Ignoring that fact does not make it go away, nor does it help with the blood being spilled today. I wish that not watching the news would equate to less loss of life, I wish that ignoring all of the hate would bring about a peaceful solution to the worlds problems, I wish people could see past their own noses far enough to see what it is that looks back at them in the mirror… My wishes will go unfulfilled.

    We need science to shed light upon the superstition that drives religion. We need science and science educators to show that there is no boogeyman under the bed. We need science to illuminate all of the falshoods, misconceptions, and lies that the professional creationists so dearly love to cling to. We need people to wake up to reality. Science is the fucking alarm clock. Science is the path to liberty from the chains of the dark ages, otherwise known as religion…

    As far as Dawkins, meh, I have never really been a follower of his work or criticisms. One day I would like to catch up on his publications.

    Great post Ryan, if I could like it 5 times I would.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, my friend!

      I just wish that the Christian moderates of the world–and I know that they exist!–would rise up and do something. The whole thing reminds me of politics. The Tea Party does not represent the majority of people in this country or even the majority of republicans. But since they’re the loudest, they get all of the attention. I feel like it’s the same way with religion.

      I know there are Christians out there who believe you don’t need to subscribe to a literal interpretation of the bible to be a good Christian. I’m friends with these people! Christians who believe in evolution and that the earth is a lot older than 6,000 years. Christians who really DO think it’s about the personal relationship they have with Christ, NOT the literal words on the page.

      And that’s why I don’t like what Dawkins has become…he tends to alienate those people of faith who can have a rational discussion about science. And we need those people to join the conversation if we’re ever going to make any progress toward showing people what science does know about life and the universe and how it can be used to answer various questions we all have.

      I don’t know how we get people like that involved in the conversation. You mentioned the news, and I have the suspicion that our media cycles wouldn’t be conducive to it. It would have to be a grassroots movement of sorts. I don’t know.

      1. I have known, and still do, x-ians who are good upstanding folks. Quiet, non invasive, true to their values, and while not at all supportive of science and evolution, still decent people at heart. I have no problem with them. Though at the time I was trying to do the church thing and heard/saw a lot of things from these people that really made me stop and wonder. Things like saying “all atheists should be lined up and shot.” You see so much potential, then bam! You get slapped upside the head with stuff like that.

        …or “wimmen should be barefoot and pregnant lol lol.” …and the inconsistencies do not stop there. Being able to twist some of the most horrifying acts in their magic books into some grotesque wonderment always struck me as slighlty insane.

        I know at heart they are good people, but they leave these little cracks into their souls that allow you to peer into their culture. A culture that belies their projected personna.

        The fact that you know people with which you can have an honest discussion of science is alien to me. None of the people I know here would ever stretch quite that far. At least so far, perhaps the day will come when I meet that particular person, ain’t happened yet…

        Guess I’m saying you can forget that grassroots movement starting here. Even if it began somewhere else it would take 15 years for it to crop up here, and then only grudgingly.

        I swear upon all that is good in the world, there is a small town not far from here that to this day wallows in their racism. It is commonly heard that (insert N word here) had better be out of town by sundown. A hanging long ago being their proudest achievemnet. Good x-ian folks…so yeah, if you know some that can openly discuss science appreciatively you really have something there that hasn’t quite yet reached this far into the boonies.

      2. I’m guessing you live somewhere in the south?

        I live on the left coast, where liberalism exists enough that science is fairly rooted in the culture. I suppose I should count myself lucky in that respect. I suppose liberalism also naturally begets an open mindedness or tolerance that you don’t get with other ideologies.

        Or maybe it’s that these people I know are personal friends. We grew up together, long before we cared about science or faith or religion, and so we don’t let our beliefs color our personal histories.

        Maybe it’s generational. I think younger generations (I was born in 1986) tend to be more relaxed and open minded than the generations that came before. Certainly we see that with political issues like gay rights, abortion, environmentalism. Perhaps scientific acceptance also follows a similar generational trend.

      3. …well by that logic if I live to see 90, maybe the awakening will begin here. Maybe it is in its infancy, and I just can’t see it. And yes, the south…

        I know I have done my part. Of the 5 kids that have lived under my roof 4 are atheist. The one that took to religion has the same mental problems that overtook her mother. Go figure.

        I do not preach atheism to my kids, never have.They were however never brow beaten with religion. Always taught to think for themselves. When they used me to answer their questions, I would help them along until it got to the point where I knew they had to LEARN how to figure things out, then I showed them how to use logic, how to investigate, how to weed out the things that do not apply. The 4 that do not follow religion, I patiently await the day for the “thank you” I know it will come.

        I spent many a night under the stars, with a plethora of telescopes, I showed them the Milky Way, the planets, many many objects in the sky. I let them use the telescopes, and the binoculars to find things on their own. Again I answered questions like a tome of encyclopedias.

        I chose to educate them with facts. I chose to eliminate that dreadful killer of thought, religion. But I also told them each one, the decision whether to take in religion was theirs to consider. The right to choose was and is theirs to make. I will not hold it against them if they choose religion, that is their right.

        Religion had its opportunity, it got 1 of 5. Again the one it snagged has mental issues. I am disappointed I did not get the clean sweep. But I still feel pretty good about the ratio of thinkers I have turned loose upon the wilderness.

      4. 80% is a pretty good success rate! And who knows, maybe that fifth one will change their mind someday.

        Oddly enough, I was never really exposed to atheism or agnosticism even though we had one in the house growing up. My mom and grandmother made my brother and I go to church and shipped us off to Sunday school, but my Dad has always been a staunch agnostic. I remember he never really explained to us why he didn’t go to church with us growing up, or what he specifically believed.

        As I got older I came to my own conclusions as more and more information was made available to me. Nobody ever sat me down and explained atheism to me. I just concluded one day that it was unlikely that God existed, and that there were better explanations out there.

        So I have hope for people. The more information they absorb, the more likely they are re-evaluate what they value and believe in. The problem, of course, is that people absorb, digest, and understand information differently.

      5. I am just a little pleased with myself 🙂 I never had to diss religion with the kids like I might on the blog circuit, there was no need. I just gave them the right kind of information to absorb. The one I lost to religion, I still love, and stay in touch with. She has been dignosed with Schizo Effective disorder which basically covers a lot of ground as a catch all diagnosis containing a plethora of issues. When she stays on her meds she does allright, when she goes off the meds, problems ensue. I love her, but I am damn glad she has her own apartment.

        “The problem, of course, is that people absorb, digest, and understand information differently”

        …I see the problem as the kind of information they are getting.

        The big war here is against the misinformation, the nonsense, illogical conclusions, fallacies, unsupported assertions, the ignoring of their own religions history, and outright lies. There is so much of it, and that ain’t no coincidence.

        If we can guide the young past that minefield, they have a chance to come out the other side able to think and evaluate for themselves.

        That minefield what science has to overcome. The Ken Hams and the ICR’s and the DI, they know this as well as we do.

      6. That’s certainly a fair point about The ICR and DI and the Ken Hams of the world. I don’t really know what we can do about that. If we become aggressive in the presentation of our information–or aggressive at all–we elicit these gut-based knee jerk reactions in the very people we’re trying to reach.

        We’re also selling a much tougher message. It’s easy to sell an idea when your propaganda is that you’re special, your life has a meaningful purpose, and when you die you’ll enjoy an eternity of happiness.

        It’s much harder to sell the message that there is no control, there is no point, and there’s nothing after this.

      7. You are right of course, it is much easier to sell the sugar coated crap than the cold hard reality.

        I would much rather have an idea what the hell is really going on around me, than goddidit.

        I much prefer reality. It gives me the perspective needed to enjoy life on a daily basis.

        I think it takes a little bit of it all, the crass, the crude, the understanding, even the goddamn accomodation. People are all at different levels of understanding out there. Some firmly entrenched, some on the fence, some already leaning towards reality. The nudging has to be done at all levels.

        I think many of us had to wade through the creationist nonsense, and finally through our own curiosity or the slow understanding of the hypocrisy on display, to get where we are now.

        I know I was a creationist wannabe, I tried, I just could not sell out my individuality, my fucking mind, my ability to reason, for the sugar coated pie in the sky. I went through phases of develepment. A wannabe believer, to a guy that said, “wait a minute, that doesn’t make sense” To a hopeful deist, to a pissed off agnostic, to an atheist leaning agnostic, to finally shedding the crap once and for all.

        People out there are in those phases too. I really think it takes a little bit of all of us, the calm and rational to the fact displaying educator, to the atheist with an axe to grind to make headway.On any given day i can be any of the 3. 🙂

  5. Honestly, I kind of like it when people take stabs at religion. Then again, I like it when people take stabs at anything.
    More in relation to the post, though. I don’t think I could ever put myself in the shoes of the Christians who actually go door to door. The Scathing Atheist had a story where a couple of people they hadn’t seen in a decade caught wind that they were atheist and went to their house to tell them about baby Jesus. I honestly can’t see any atheist do that at all. Hell, even the people who flat out say religion shouldn’t exist in any form wouldn’t do that. Why are they allowed to get away with this shit?
    And I’ve just realized I need to start interacting with idiots more. I can’t crank shit out like I used to.Either way, ready to start planning for this year’s war on Christmas? I think we can finally take it down if we start now. I propose egg nog smoke bombs.

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