Rank Your Offendedness

atheist-sign This is the Atheist sign being displayed in Washington State’s Capitol building alongside various religious displays… it has been stolen — and returned — and is now being picketed… 

I can see how, if one was keen to be offended, one could be offended by such a sign… it doesn’t offend me at all, but does it offend you?

Please rank your level of offendedness on a scale of 1-10 (10 being absolute, unspeakable outrage!)

I should rush to add, however, I fully agree that if the government is going to allow religious ornamentation on public sites, atheists have a right to post such signs. If religious organizations don’t like it, then they shouldn’t seek to have their displays on public grounds.

I lay in bed last night thinking, “Hmm… how could atheists do it ‘better’?” Could they find some sort of wordless symbol to represent them — to put a more positive spin and avoid the controversy. And I realized — no, they can’t. And if they could, they shouldn’t. That is to say, the more atheists bend their message to appear like a religion, to follow the methods and traditions of religion, the more atheists are going to be accused of “having just another religion.” And as any regular reader of this blog will know, that is something I am keen to avoid. 

Atheists stand in rejection of the predominate, theistic (“religious”) worldview. For me, it is a position outside of the cycle of the creation of new gods and faith-based “ways of knowing.” And while we could certainly debate the finer points of what constitues faith, suffice it to say, I am eager to avoid a labelized “Atheism” that coopts symbols and/or consolidates it’s “tenets” in any fashion.

And yes, I realize this is a great marketing deficiency for atheism. I am told with great regularity that people, “need somethign to believe in.” 

But atheism should not be that “thing.”

13 Responses

  1. 0

    Firm believer in what’s good for the goose aught to be good for the gander.

  2. 1

    I dont care what others think/dont think about my beliefs and I think they should have every right to post the sign.

    But (along the lines of what Ty is saying) perhaps a more positive spin would be better served here. What was the sign posters “goals”? was it simply to upset someone coming to see a religious display? I find it hard to believe that someone coming to a see a religious display would be spurred to think deeply about their beliefs after seeing such a sign. more than likely the sign poster has done the opposite and destroyed any chance of having that person think openly.

    basically what I am saying is that I dont mind offending people if thats what it comes to but I dont necessarily set out to offend anyone either. For instance although well within my rights(barring any fire codes), I wouldnt go and burn a US flag at a Arlington national cemetery on veterans day to protest the war in Iraq.

  3. Yes, I find it offensive, but not all of it.

    I’m an ardent believer in free speech and think that if other groups are able to display their statements, this group ought to be able to do so as well. I have no problem with its metaphysical statements (i.e. that spiritual beings or dimensions don’t exist, and that only the ‘natural world’ — presumably, only what can be verified by science — exists).

    However, I find it offensive because beyond affirming its own metaphysics (fine by me) the sign goes on to say that people like me do not let reason prevail, that we believe falsehoods, that our hearts are hardened and that our minds are enslaved.

    Do you think I’m being overly sensitive?

  4. P.S. I think Tom Clark’s site (naturalism.org) does a great job of expressing atheist views in positive ways, including discussing naturalist spirituality. Sample positive statement:

    “Appreciating the fact of our complete inclusion in nature can generate feelings of connection and meaning that rival those offered by traditional religions, and those feelings reflect the empirical reality of our being at home in the cosmos. “

  5. hmmmm. my initial reaction was actually the opposite of outrage. I actually found myself delighted … wanting to do the happy, snoopy dance.

    but after reading anna’s comment i had to think again.

    are there situations where some sort of display would send me into a rabid, frothing rage. Well. yes. And I’ll get to that.

    Secondly, I wondered. What exactly was the source of my delight?. Well that one’s easy. My inner naughty, nine year old surfaces whenever I think about poking a sharp stick in the eye of fundamentalists. But do I want to do that to all my faithful friends–many of whom approach faith in what I actually consider a thoughtful, sensitive way?

    Well. No. I don’t.

    Ok. Back to that issue of what would turn me into a rabid, frothing lunatic. Unfortunately, to understand I have to give you a little history.

    You can’t really call me a firm believer in much. But, there are actually things I hold sacred. My family/ancestral history for example. You see, I was raised in a secular-humanist-atheist-Jewish household. Even still, we celebrated the holidays … ok, not all of them. But family traditions, honoring the passage of time and the growth of the next generation … those were the things my parents held most dear. At the time, all that stuff just annoyed me. But my parents must have worked their magic cause here I am trying to figure out how to pass on this sense of identity to my girls.

    So, how does this all relate? Well, here’s what would offend me. And just know I’m not making an equivalency. My example will outline evil. But I need to give this example for the sake of understanding.

    So, remember that event in Skokie, IL a few decades back? I think it was the 70’s or early 80’s. When a neo-Nazi group wanted to march through a Jewish neighborhood? Well, that was about poking a stick in MY [speaking in the collective “my”] eye.

    So, here’s my point. At least to Christians, Christmas is one of the two most sacred holidays of the year. Do I think the sign is as disrespectful as the neo-Nazis marching in Skokie? Well, no. I don’t think it goes that far. But some might FEEL it does! And while it would be nice to only deal with reason in the public sphere, I think we need to honor some feelings to be humane. And to me, the sign, at best, strikes me as insensitive to post next to all the other religious expressions.

    So, here’s a question, Ty. What in your life do you hold sacred? And could you imagine becoming enraged if someone denegrated those things? I mean you’re a culturally sensitive guy. Do you need to point out to friends all parts of their cultural history you find illogical? I don’t think you do.

    So, I’m wondering, can expressions of atheism be displayed with some level of sensitivity? Which is not to say that atheism, as a movement, should completely try to avoid offending people. But it shouldn’t go out of its way either.

    I really don’t have the answers, but it seems to me–again–that religious and non-religious people need to negotiate difficult waters. Negotiation can never happen if one or both sides is relegated to opposite ends of the ocean … just to keep the metaphor going.

  6. Science and Atheism

    Science is different from religion. It does not pretend that it knows everything. There are even now deep questions about the origins of the universe that we don’t have answers to now though it is possible we may be able to answer some of them in the future.

    But the inability of science to provide answers to these questions does not prove that religious faith, tradition, or an ancient holy text has the ability to answer them. Science cannot prove that God does not exist, but this in no way establishes that God exists. There are millions of things whose lack of existence cannot be established.

    The philosopher Bertrand Russel had an analogy. Imagine that there is a teapot in orbit around the sun. It is impossible to prove that the teapot does not exist because it is too small to be detected by our telescopes. Nobody but a crazy person would say “Well, I’m prepared to believe in the teapot because I cannot establish that it doesn’t exist.” This means that maybe we have to be technically agnostics, but really we are all atheists about teapots with orbits around the sun.

    But now let us suppose that everybody in our society including our teachers and the sages of our tribes all had faith in a teapot that orbits the sun. Let us also suppose that stories of the teapot have come down to us for many generations as one of the traditions of our own society and there are ancient holy texts about the teapot. In this case people would say that a person who did not believe in the teapot is eccentric or mad.

    There are infinite numbers of things like celestial teapots whose lack of existence we are unable to establish. There are fairies, for example, and there are unicorns and goblins. We cannot prove that any of these creatures of the imagination do not exist in reality. But we don’t believe they exist, just as we don’t believe that the gods of the Scandinavians, for example, have any true existence.

    We are all atheists about almost all of the gods created by societies in the past. Some of us, however, take the ultimate step of believing that the god of the Jews and the Christians, like the gods of the Greeks and the Egyptians, also do not exist.

    Now here’s a version of this text in Interlingua. (For more information about Interlingua, use a search enging to search on the title “Interlingua in interlingua” or go to http://www.interlingua.com.

    Le scientia es differente del religion. Illo non pretende que illo sape toto. Il ha etiam nunc questiones profunde sur le origines del universe al quales nos nunc non ha responsas ben que il es possible que nos potera responder a alicunes de illos in le futuro.

    Ma le incapacitate del scientia de provider responsas a iste questiones non proba que le fide religiose, le tradition, o un texto sancte e ancian pote responder a illos. Le scientia non pote probar que Deo non existe, ma isto non establi de ulle maniera que Deo existe. Il ha milliones de cosas cuje existentia non pote esser establite.

    Le philosopho Bertrand Russell habeva un analogia. Imagina que il ha un theiera in orbita circum le sol. Il es impossibile probar que le theiera non existe proque illo es troppo parve pro esser detegite per nostre telescopios. Nemo excepte un folle dicerea, “Multo ben, io es preparate a creder in le theiera proque io non pote establir que illo non existe.” Isto significa que forsan nos debe esser technicamente agnosticos, ma vermente nos es omnes atheistas sur theieras con orbitas circum le sol.

    Ma que nos nunc suppone que omnes in nostre societate includente nostre professores e le sagios de nostre tribos habeva fide in un theiera que orbita le sol. Que nos anque suppone que historias del theiera ha venite usque nos trans multe generationes como un del traditiones de nostre proprie societate e que il ha textos sancte ancian sur le theiera. In iste caso le gente dicerea que un persona qui non credeva in le theiera es eccentric o folle.

    Il ha numeros infinite de cosas como theieras celestial cuje manco de existentia nos non pote establir. Il ha fees, pro exemplo, e il ha unicornios e gnomos. Nos non pote probar que iste creaturas del imagination non existe in le realitate. Ma nos non crede que illos existe exactamente como nos non crede que le deos del Scandinavos, pro exemplo, ha ulle existential ver.

    Nos es omnes atheistas sur quasi omne le deos create per societates in le passato. Alicunes de nos tamen prende le ultime passo de creder que le deo del judaeos e del christianos, como le deos del grecos e le egyptianos, anque non existe.

  7. I agree with Mike/Miriam that this sign was almost certainly designed, if not to offend, to provide a bit of shock to the system… And I can hardly see what good it does to offend someone like Anna, who is one of the smartest, most sensitive people I have come to “virtually” know…

    But (damn, there’s always a “but”!), I would like to challenge Anna in a small way… she states, “I find it offensive because beyond affirming its own metaphysics (fine by me) the sign goes on to say that people like me do not let reason prevail, that we believe falsehoods, that our hearts are hardened and that our minds are enslaved.”

    On the first, metaphysical point, I think you are saying you believe in the existence of beings/realms/stuff that is undetectable by “science”… Is this non-detectability one of principle (permanent indetectability), or is it a matter of sophistication/understanding? Is it truly an “un-natural” world that you believe exists?

    To the second point, the “hardened hearts and enslaved minds” characterization of religious thinking. Do you not agree that many (especially on the political right) have this problem? I suspect you will say ‘yes,’ but that it is not the “fault” of religion. However, if I read the Bible and attempt to remain true to the words I see printed (to the best of my potentially limited ability), couldn’t a rather barbaric and closed way of thinking result? Again, not for everyone, not for those with subtle and nimble minds — but, you know, there are “others”…

    And finally, back to Miriam, I can see the offensiveness, the stick-in-the-eye meanness of the parade — because real people died, actual living humans were sucked up in a torrent of violence and suffered horribly… to embrace such a thing is offensive.

    But the sign is criticizing a worldview, a set of beliefs… it seems to me a “sticks-and-stones” vs. “words” problem. I don’t know that there is any tenet or way of thinking that you could offend me by criticizing… but again, I could be offended by celebrating the suffering of others…

  8. yeah, i find it annoying. i see it as the warning on my delicious styro-foam cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.

    Caution: This Beverage is Extremely Hot.

    we all know why it’s there….some dummy had to make it all about themselves and sue McDonalds. it’s a testament to stupidity and it annoys me to see it, but i’m not going to raise a stink to have the words, “…you dumass!” added to this warning, even though it would make me smile and feel good about the world.

    oh, and hkyson…there may not be a teapot in space, but there is a bag full of tools out there.

  9. I swear I’m a nice person (even though I dismally fail all the tests) but I kind of feel like a big “Give me a break”. I mean, if you don’t believe that “Religion is but myth and supersition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds” then who cares what someone else may say or think. I spent the better part of highschool and college being called a lesbian but I wasn’t one so what did I care. It was annoying to be sure but I’d maybe have been more upset if I was one but was desparately trying to hide that fact because I wasn’t comfortable in my own acknowledgment of it.

  10. Ty wrote: “But (damn, there’s always a “but”!), I would like to challenge Anna in a small way… she states, “I find it offensive because beyond affirming its own metaphysics (fine by me) the sign goes on to say that people like me do not let reason prevail, that we believe falsehoods, that our hearts are hardened and that our minds are enslaved.”

    On the first, metaphysical point, I think you are saying you believe in the existence of beings/realms/stuff that is undetectable by “science”… Is this non-detectability one of principle (permanent indetectability), or is it a matter of sophistication/understanding? Is it truly an “un-natural” world that you believe exists?

    To the second point, the “hardened hearts and enslaved minds” characterization of religious thinking. Do you not agree that many (especially on the political right) have this problem? I suspect you will say ‘yes,’ but that it is not the “fault” of religion. However, if I read the Bible and attempt to remain true to the words I see printed (to the best of my potentially limited ability), couldn’t a rather barbaric and closed way of thinking result? Again, not for everyone, not for those with subtle and nimble minds — but, you know, there are “others”…”

    — I don’t think the world is unnatural; I also don’t think that all of reality is encompassed by what science can get its mitts around. The scientific way of examining things is just one way of encountering reality. I think we can consider matters like scientific/epistemic standards, numbers, information, consciousness, love, and past historical events to be real even if they can’t be verified by scientific methodologies. Luckily we have more tools in our (orbiting?) toolkits.

    Are they in principle non-detectible by science? Well, I’m a retired science geek who has designed and conducted research studies, and has published peer-reviewed research. (For whatever that admission is worth from an anonymous poster on the internet.) So that colors my opinion of what is and what isn’t detectible by science. I would want to see falsifiable hypotheses and quantifiable controls. I think prayer studies are stupid because I don’t know how one would randomize or ‘dose’ prayer or control for the alleged actions of an allegedly omnipotent, omniscient invisible force who sets its power aside to allow for free will and whose goodness is also said to be beyond human comprehension. I can’t think of ways to set up controlled quantifiable tests to validate the existence of, say, numbers, or love. I think we can use tests for things like numbers or love, but they’re not properly scientific tests (i.e. if my sister says her husband loves her, but he beats her up, belittles her and takes her money, I can say, “That ain’t real love,” even if I couldn’t run a double-blinded randomized clinical trial to determine degrees of love. We have to use means other than scientific ones to test for things like the existence of love.)

    I have no idea whether the spiritual aspect of the world is ultimately detectible by science. Currently, however, science is autistic – mind-blind. We can test for physical properties (i.e. fMRI images of brain states in, say, nuns and monks in prayer or meditation) but we cannot test for mental content outside of self-reports, and basically when people deal with spiritual issues they are dealing with things which manifest as mental content which have some but not complete overlap with physiological states. Science can look at the physical properties of brains and still have no idea of what people’s minds are thinking outside of subjects’ self-reports. We still must rely on subjective accounts when it comes to mental content; and spiritual events happen on the level of mental content.

    Re religious thinking and the political right, religion and science are human inventions which can be used or abused. Science done well leads us to discover more about reality, as does religion done well. Science used badly leads us to spend time and talents perfecting thoroughly evil inventions like napalm and weapons-grade anthrax; religion used badly leads us to rationalize abuse and oppression (and perhaps even authorizing the use of scientific creations like napalm). Also, remember that the political left is no stranger to terrorism and violent oppression (though historically it has favored atheistic ideologies as opposed to religious ones).

    I have to wonder what Bible hard-hearted people are reading, though. Maybe they’re missing two thousand years’ worth of passages throughout the Hebrew Bible and New Testament about how God calls on us to bring justice to the oppressed, fight corruption, feed the hungry, care for the poor, comfort the grieving, heal the sick, welcome foreigners, and liberate prisoners. There’s a reason so many of the world’s most daring and prominent human rights advocates have been influenced by the Bible.

    Megan wrote: “I swear I’m a nice person (even though I dismally fail all the tests) but I kind of feel like a big “Give me a break”. I mean, if you don’t believe that “Religion is but myth and supersition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds” then who cares what someone else may say or think. I spent the better part of highschool and college being called a lesbian but I wasn’t one so what did I care. It was annoying to be sure but I’d maybe have been more upset if I was one but was desparately trying to hide that fact because I wasn’t comfortable in my own acknowledgment of it.”

    — LOL, Megan, you have a gift for reality checks. If you ‘dismally fail all the tests’ for being a nice person, maybe you’re a good person instead. 😉

    I do think the sign is offensive because it stereotypes a whole group of people and a whole way of thinking. I also found it offensive (and objected) when a relative said: “Mexicans are lazy.” And I found it offensive (and objected) when my neighbor said: “Atheists can’t be moral.”

    And if someone directly asks for opinions, as Tyson did in this post, will I supply mine? Yep. I’m desperate, you see . . . Since I have teenagers, no one listens to me any more at home. :-O

    Miriam – I always enjoy reading your thoughtful comments. re Skokie, which I am old enough to remember the news stories about, I think it was utterly repugnant for the Nazis to march in Skokie but I do not think they should have been banned from marching. The law does not preserve us from being deeply offended. However, though the law requires free speech, I think moral witness requires MORE free speech. I think that that kind of event calls on moral people to stand publicly against the haters.

    A few years ago I read about vandalism (in Pennsylvania, I think??) against a home displaying a lighted menorah during the holiday season. In reaction, the neighbors – non-Jewish – collectively bought and displayed menorahs, so that every single house on that street displayed a menorah. It didn’t solve the problem of some jerk going out and vandalizing a Jewish family’s home, but they felt less alone after their neighbors stood with them. I think this display of protest and solidarity was what the Hebrew prophets would have considered a righteous action.

  11. Thanks, Anna…you’re right. Nice is perhaps not the right adjective for me. Of course I believe that everyone will feel how they will feel and be offended or not by what moves them to be so. What gets me ramped up, I guess, is the idea that atheists have to do something different or they should try hard not to upset people who believe in God but I don’t think that Theists are sitting around trying to figure out how they can not offend people who don’t. Christians so sit around thinking about how they can not offend Muslims or Jews and on and on the circle goes. I think I was 12 years old when I had a talk with Tyson about affirmative action (maybe 14) so hopefully I don’t get what I’m about to say completely f’-ed by relying on my child interpretion and memory but…when I was parroting views I had heard at home about how affirmative action was really not necessary because blacks and minorities were given the same rights as “us” now that it really only made it harder for whites to make any advancement. Well, Ty said to me (or at least I hope this is what he meant) that blacks and been so prejudiced against and held back for so long is such a downward pull of the justice scale that only when they were given opportunities and treated as equals in an equal and opposite upward pull of the justice scale, only then could we really all be equal then. So in a world where theism has been the rule and atheism the exception, I don’t really think that atheists need to cushion their thoughts and ideas to make the theists comfortable…at least until they all get treated equally.

  12. I think any communication depends upon what one’s goal is. Who is the intended audience? What is the intended result?

    If people want to bond over dehumanizing those they think are wrong, then those who identify with the in-group will feel affirmed, but at the cost of cutting off chances for new alliances with those they’ve denigrated. This goes for religious people who assert that people who aren’t like them are evil or are going to hell, just as much as for atheists who assert that people who aren’t like them are stupid or deluded (going to intellectual hell, I suppose).)

    As someone who is in favor of free speech, to the point of offensiveness, I don’t think anyone should cushion their thoughts when it comes to the law. (Have at it, I say; and don’t be frustrated when somebody who thinks 180 degrees differently feels free to blast back. Hee hee — If that isn’t a definition of much of the internet, I don’t know what is.)

    Atheists aren’t obliged to make theists comfortable; nor are theists obliged to make atheists comfortable (frankly, I was surprised that religious statements were posted at all in the venue Tyson posted about — they’re not allowed downtown in my town, and I’m in the Bible belt, for fear of offending atheists, I guess). The same law that permits me to be offended, permits me to express my opposition.

    But what do flame wars accomplish?

    It gets back to goals; and one of the major frustrations I have with many in the contemporary atheist movement is how much they behave like religious fundamentalists (who also feel persecuted, by the way, by the media and by the political system, believe it or not).

    Martin Luther King Jr.’s strategies of nonviolence and publicizing white violence against blacks revolutionized support for civil rights because he appealed to the best in white people in ways that awakened consciences instead of defenses. He used a very conscious strategy of shining a light on abuses, and using nonviolent responses to unite people around a common vision of the good, around a shared notion of what it means to be American. He held up a mirror and the nation didn’t like what it saw, and began to change. He didn’t say, “You white people are evil racists,” he said, “We Americans are better than this.”

    Just about all of the atheists I know are idealists. I think potentially atheists and religious people could build alliances around shared visions of the good. However, as long as groups put more importance on dehumanizing those whom they think are sinning theologically or sinning intellectually, rather than finding ways to pursue what is good here, now, in our communities together; then they are both betraying something, I think.

  13. I rarely use my full name on the internet, but I do want to stand firmly with Anna. While part of the statement we are discussing will stand up to the principal of scientific objectivity, it does not meet the the standard of being a reasonable and humane statement.

    As has been said *the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.* One may think and assert that *God exists,* but this is a non-falsefiable hypothesis. If *God* is omnipotent that he can make any experiment designed to verify his existence come out anyway he pleases. Neither atheists nor theists can assert proof of the objectiviness of their statements. Nevertheless under our political system all are free to think what they will and to assert such in the *public square.* While atheists are free to state their view, we must take it as an opinion and not a scientific fact..

    Is religion *but myth and supersition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds?* Well, this is at least a question that can be subjected to evidence based examination.

    There is a lot to support this statement. Today religious fundies go a long way to suppress the teaching of the scientific fact of evolution with virtually no evidence to support their own opinion that *God* created all the species in 4004 B.C.

    But the *hardened hearts and enslaved minds* condition is to be found more in conflict between religious denominations and sects than in conflicts between theists and atheists. And in the actions of relgious leaders against their own people. Both Mosaic and sharia law support brutal and fatal punishment of those that violate tribal norms of sexual conduct. Roman pagans persecuted the Jews and early Christians. While Christianity arose out of the sometimes bloody conflicts bewteen the Jewish sects that existed during the Roman occupation. When Christianity finally became the predominant religion in the West it burned Jews (including my ancestors, probably) at the stake and rose crusading armies that sacked Muslim occupied Jerusalem and made the streets run red with blood. And we all remember 9/11. Not a history to be proud of.

    Yet if one reads the scientifically *invalid* texts in their entireity, one finds the story of an emerging, increasingly loving God and the oft dishonored commandment to *love thy neighbor as thyself.* This does not obliviate the bloodshed referenced above, but did Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa have *enslaved minds and hardened hearts?* Did not many of our own parents work hard to raise moral and loving children while practicing those religions that *enslaved minds and hardened hearts.*

    This last statement is an unreasonable and inhumane overstatement and should be altered or removed. In the name of my parents I am offended. What’s next re-education camps for those whose minds dsiplay the *religious fallacy.*

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