Monthly Archives: November 2016

What Obama’s Conversation With Bill Maher Says About Privilege

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

Recently, our current president Barack Obama held an interview with Bill Maher to discuss a range of topics, from smoking to the nuke-happy carrot with corn hair that is running for president. Among the things brought up by Maher, an outspoken and famous atheist, were the rights of atheists and agnostics in America. He mentioned some of the current statistics on atheists in congress, and how we deserve more representation. As a supporter of Obama, the president’s response somewhat disappointed me.

“You know, I guess — my question would be whether there is active persecution of atheists. I think that there is certain… well, I think for a candidate… I think you’re right, that there are certain occupations — probably, most prominently, politics — where there would be a bias against somebody who’s Agnostic or atheist in running for office. I think that’s still true. Outside of that arena, though? You seem to have done alright with your TV show… I mean, I don’t get a sense… to the extent that they’re boycotting you, it’s because of your other wacky views rather than your particular views on religion…

…I think the average American, if they go to the workplace, somebody’s next to ’em, they’re not poking around trying to figure out what their religious beliefs are.”

This is an excerpt. You can read and watch the entire exchange on the topic here, it’s well worth your time. Obama definitely advocates some good ideas regarding religious culture and how we should curtail it. It’s just that… I’m disappointed with this particular statement.

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[Image: Barack Obama and Bill Maher have a conversation seated next to each other]

Obama certainly had good reason to acknowledge that at the very least there is some discrimination against atheists in the political arena. Maher’s statistics aside, discrimination against atheist politicians hit the mainstream this year when it was revealed that a member the Democratic National Convention had conspired to out Bernie Sanders as an atheist. It’s clear that merely being a member of the “atheist” category in politics is perceived as smear-worthy. In fact, according to Gallup, atheists are a religious category (within the categories polled in the survey) that the least amount of people would vote for in America. 40% of respondents stated that they would not vote for an atheist, which was a higher rate of disapproval than Muslims, gays/lesbians, and women (38%, 24%, and 8%, respectively). The only group that had it worse than atheists was the socialist category, which 50% of respondents said they would not vote for.

Political statistics aside, the rest of Barack Obama’s statement leaves a sour taste in my mouth. He comes across as dismissive to the concerns of nonbelievers, and the best evidence he has to support what he says is merely Maher’s success. I find this to be a remarkably empty response. This is almost to say, “Well, atheists can’t have it so bad, since you did so well!” This is incredibly ironic, coming from a president of African descent. I live in his country where people on the right will often state that there is no more racism in America since, after all, we have a black president. This is a terrible argument for anyone who thinks about it for more than a second, and it’s disheartening to hear it not only used against me, but it’s also disheartening to hear it from the first person I voted for president.

Obama’s words here lack substance in the same way that there is faux-skepticism regarding how other marginalized groups are treated. Like the laypeople who insist that racism no longer exists, there are those who will flat-out assert that there’s no discrimination against women anymore. In August, the Pew Research Center released a poll asking people whether they thought women still had obstacles for achieving equal access to society. 63% of women polled stated that they felt that there were still obstacles, while only 34% of men agreed. Such is often the case when members outside of a marginalized group are blind to the everyday sub-par treatment of those who are in that group.

In fact, it’s not hard to find evidence of discrimination against atheists in society, even outside of the political sphere. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) regularly protests violations of  the first Amendment’s separation of religion and government, and a large proportion of these violations are within public schools. Looking just at the examples FFRF provides, this includes prayer by school boards, disallowing freethought clubs while allowing religious clubs, the teaching of creationism, Bible distributions, Church meetings at public schools, prayers at graduation, forcing children to state the pledge of allegiance, mandatory prayer, overtly religious music in schools, religious fliers being sent home, “See You at the Pole” gatherings, and promotion of religious baccalaureate services. In every one of these cases, teachers in public schools across America overwhelmingly tend to side with those who are religious over those who are not. And for those nonbelievers who do challenge these violations, they face severe social consequences. Such was the case when in 2012 high school student Jessica Ahquist challenged a poster hanging in her public school making explicit references to a “heavenly father”. She was subsequently bullied by her school and her hometown, to the point of receiving death threats.

Atheists are judged as untrustworthy and immoral in general. It has been demonstrated through multiple studies that atheists are frequently viewed as people who would engage in immoral acts. Another Pew Study finds that in the United States a majority of people believe that someone has to believe in a god to be moral, which  is not true of any of the other developed nations within the study. A study by psychologists at the University of British Columbia and University of Oregon found that atheists are one of America’s most mistrusted groups, and in certain situations are roughly as trustworthy as rapists. Is it any wonder that there are atheists that are afraid to be out, particularly within the Bible Belt?

These are a couple of examples, but I could go on. I could talk about young atheists getting kicked out of their parents’ homes for expressing nonbelief, which Dogma Debate has set up a fund for. I could talk about atheists losing custody of their children. I could talk about how atheists aren’t trusted to do charity, such as when a soup kitchen turned down atheist volunteers or when a Children’s Home refused to accept over $28,000 from an atheist. I could talk about atheist advertisements getting turned down from billboard companies. I could talk about the atheist leaders I’ve watched who have had difficulty getting the right job because they were public figures associated with atheism. These and more forms of discrimination happen regularly in the United States. As someone who keeps up on religion based news regularly, I see this a lot. But as a Christian who is keeping his mind busy by running a country, Barack Obama is likely completely unaware.

In that case, could we attribute Obama’s ignorance on this issue to his privilege as a religious person? To be clear, while he certainly lacks white privilege (unlike me), he has the distinction of being a Christian just like 75% of the country he leads. No matter where he goes in America, people will value his faith*. He will never be discriminated against for having the “wrong” religion. While people will say terrible, awful things about him and threaten to have him assassinated, it will never ever be because he is a Christian. Were he a middle-class worker in America, he would never be treated poorly in the office because he’s a Christian, and in a job interview his faith would likely be seen as a bonus if he were to bring it up. He would never feel the fear that I and many other atheists have felt in disclosing their nonbelief in the office environment.

Privilege is sometimes hard to recognize if you have it, and it’s not a problem that only Obama has. It’s difficult to recognize that you may have unearned advantages in society, especially if despite these advantages you have everyday difficulties. If you aren’t part of a group that is marginalized, you don’t see the effects your privilege has on everyday life. Even if you are someone who is willing to recognize that you have privilege, it’s hard to know where that privilege lies unless someone brings it to your attention. I suspect this is the case with Barack Obama. It’s hard for me to blame him when he has the entire country on his mind, but his ignorance still exists, and that’s still a problem.

Barack Obama is not going to read this blog post, and that’s fine. The people who will read this blog post, however, are atheists, and they are likely aware of these many forms of discrimination they could potentially face. I would like them to consider how dismissed they felt when Obama said these things. If his words bother you, then maybe this is a chance to look at yourself in relation to other marginalized groups and how you view them. If you’re white, consider what it means to a black person when someone says “Black people have equality now, we have a black president.” If you’re male, consider how meaningless it is when someone says “there’s more women in college than men.” If you’re an atheist who is aware of the discrimination and bias we face everyday, then you should be more sensitive to the disadvantages of others, not less.**

Part of being a humanist and a skeptic is recognizing our human biases, and correcting them. If you can recognize Obama’s ignorance in his statement, then you should recognize that you likely have similar ignorance for other issues as well. I’m frequently appalled at how terrible many atheists are about speaking up for other marginalized groups, considering that atheists as a group also lack certain privileges. Perhaps Obama’s mistakes here can help inform us. From there we can move forward.

While I have been very critical of this one mistake that my president made talking to Maher, this was one problem in an overall positive message. In the rest of the segment, Obama did emphasize that we should not value people because of their religious beliefs or the lack thereof.  Not only does our president speak well of the separation of the church from the state, he makes it clear that in America that people of no religion at all should be treated as equals in social situations, not just legal ones. I appreciate that he mentions that here, and I’m happy that he has mentioned us in past speeches to the nation when he wasn’t talking directly to a left-leaning figurehead. I thank him for that. And because of that, I will end this piece on what I think he did get right.

“We should foster a culture in which people’s private religious beliefs, including atheists and Agnostics, are respected. And that’s the kind of culture that I think allows all of us, then, to believe what we want. That’s freedom of conscience. That’s what our Constitution guarantees. And where we get into problems, typically, is when our personal religious faith, or the community of faith that we participate in, tips into a sort of fundamentalist extremism, in which it’s not enough for us to believe what we believe, but we start feeling obligated to, you know, hit you over the head because you don’t believe the same thing. Or to treat you as somebody who’s less than I am.”

 


*Granted, not the conspiracy theorists who still think he’s a Muslim from Kenya.

**Keep in mind, the struggles of atheists are not the same as those of women or people of color. There are certain aspects that we can compare and contrast, and we can learn from each others’ struggles, but to draw equivalence between them would be a mistake.

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“That’s Just, Like, Your Opinion, Man!”

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

I’m going for a short one today, in an attempt to get back on schedule for two posts a week!

It’s become apparent that one of the things this blog addresses is discourse, whether it’s conversation between two skeptics, or between a skeptic and a non-skeptic. You can find plenty of disagreement everywhere, but I certainly hold a higher standard for the skeptic side of any conversation, which is why I’m more likely to nitpick the skeptic and point out the flaws in their discussions. Even if the non-skeptic is way off base, I expect that out of someone to be more off base if they aren’t basing their worldview on evidence based methods.

One of the worst rebuttals I see between skeptics is something that should be referred to from now on as the appeal to “that’s just your opinion, man!” This is not an omnipresent rebuttal, but it is common and inane enough that it’s somewhat worth spending a few paragraphs discussing.

Usually this comes in the comments of an opinion piece, after a strong stance has been vigorously defended. Yes, opinions are subjective, and a position that benefits the person making their case may not be beneficial for someone else. But after this, some random passerby will feel that it’s necessary to point out that it’s merely the author’s position, and that not everyone will agree.

Fucking duh.

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[Image: The Dude from the Cohen Brothers’ film, “The Big Lebowski” gives a sour look in a bowling alley]

We live in an age of information and the average person now has an unprecedented social reach. Not only can we instantly shout out everything on our minds to hundreds of people at once on a variety of social media platforms, we now have media such as blogs and YouTube channels for spreading our messages far and wide. It’d be nonsensical if we didn’t. The problem appears to stem from the idea that in front of every blog post or in every YouTube video there is an implied statement that says “based on my best information up to this point, I would like to make my case here.” And some people aren’t charitable enough or they are too dense to overlook that and state the obvious.

This also often goes for calling people “posturing” when they share their positions online, to smear someone as narcissistic or as an idealogue who thinks they have all the answers to everything. I can see why it’s easy to fall into that trap. Whenever I come across someone that I violently disagree with in a post, it’s easy for me to slap the “arrogant” label and leave. Even if that’s true, my problem seems to evaporate when I add the implied addendum to their statement. This benefits both parties, as they aren’t dismissed thoroughly, and if they are truly wrong about some things I am able to take them seriously and point out any actual flaws I see.

Even on this blog, some people might think of me as some self-important millennial who has all the solutions to the world, and I assure everyone reading that this isn’t the case. I know I have a lot to learn, and I encourage any legitimate rebuttals in the comment sections (I have yet to delete any comments). However, I do think I’m capable of making points that people will learn from and share. I’ve had people thank me for the things I’ve written that have encouraged them, and sometimes people I greatly admire will share something I’ve said. But this doesn’t mean I think I’m particularly important. Anyone reading my posts (or anyone else’s) should simply see each platform as a space for certain ideas, where it’s a given that they’re going to share their opinions.

So if something lacks substance, that’s fair enough. If someone doesn’t have evidence to support their case, that’s fair as well. If an idea is just shit, that’s fair game to point out, though I’d encourage constructive criticism. But if the best thing you can say to someone is “that’s just your opinion”, you’re just stating the obvious and wasting someone’s time.

What is More Foundational: The Bible, or Faith?

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

I try not to get hung up on theology with fellow atheists. That is, I don’t really enjoy arguing with other atheists over which doctrines were more theologically correct than others, such as Catholicism versus the teachings of the Southern Baptists, for example. After all, we already agree that the religious beliefs are wrong. It doesn’t seem to make sense which of the beliefs are the correct wrong beliefs. I could see the appeal some people have in it, much like how Star Wars fans might argue over canonical differences in the Expanded Universe or which superhero film adaptation was closer to the original comics. But for me, I have other things to think about.

That being said, I’ve also pushed against the idea of holding all Christians to Biblical literalism. Atheists will often make the assumption that a Christian must take every word in the Bible literally. This is not always the case, as there’s a wide variety of beliefs between denominations. Plenty of the more liberal denominations (as well as Catholicism) do not adhere to things like Young-Earth Creationism, for example.

Really, it appears that all Christians pick-and-choose to some extent what teachings of the book they value. It’s obvious throughout the Bible that it is not a good thing to be rich, yet there are plenty of prominent politicians, millionaires, and televangelists who claim to hold strongly to their faith. Nobody today follows the Old Testament teachings such as bans on shrimp and mixed fibers. And really, sometimes Christians are forced to pick and choose as there are teachings that appear to conflict with each other. The important part, though, is that any given religion is not simply just what the Holy Book says. Besides holy books, religions are made up of doctrines, rituals, church hierarchies, teachings, and traditions that didn’t originate anywhere in the text.

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[Image: a wooden crucifix lays upon the pages of a Bible]

However, I’m biased. I didn’t come out of a fundamentalist background as many of my peers did. They were taught that every part of the Bible happened literally as it was stated, keeping in mind that some parts are obviously poetry or parable, and should be treated as such. Each command in the book should be followed to the letter. I hold a fantastic admiration for my fellow atheists who got out of the fundamentalist mentality, where they were taught that they couldn’t question a single word of the book. I cannot put myself in their position, and I can’t say for certain that I would have been able to escape from the effects of their indoctrination had I been born in their situation.

However, I could not ever merely take the Bible at face value, and I definitely held some parts as certainly false. People tell me that I was being more intellectually dishonest at the time, and I hope to get into that in a future post, but I don’t think I was. I knew as a child that dinosaurs had existed 65 million years ago, and there was a big bang event that “started off” the universe long before that. I could not take the words of the Bible at face value, at least in Genesis, based on my knowledge. From a very young age I began to see the early parts of the Bible as either folk tales from early tribes that would eventually become Jews, or as records of laws that these ancient people attributed to their god (whether it actually came from a god or not). I simply couldn’t reconcile the history of the Bible with the natural history of the universe, nor could I take seriously many of the laws against people such as gay folk and women, I could not agree that they were moral in any sense.

This is puzzling for my ex-fundamentalist atheist friends, as well as never-Christians who make the assumption that whatever the Bible says goes for every Christian. After all, Christians must have a foundational source for the beliefs that they hold. It’s necessary for Christians to believe the gospel stories, so what justification should they have for accepting that part of the Bible but nothing else? Christians rely on the word of their god, which apparently manifests in the form of the holy book. After all, “Man does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Furthermore, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). While it may be circular, the Bible supports inerrancy, since “the words of the Lord are flawless” (Psalm 12:6) and “Every word of God proves true.” (Proverbs 30:5). It wouldn’t be very coherent for a Christian to accept certain parts and reject others, therefore it makes sense that the Bible is the foundation of Christianity.

This has problems, though. How can Christians justify following the Bible in the first place? What reason do Christians have for accepting that the Bible is the true word of their god?

There are a few approaches that Christians often take to justify the Bible as foundational. One approach is through evidential means. They will often try and tie the Bible to historical events, and though many of their claims are questionable, there are of course some historically accurate people, places, and events to be found within the holy pages. Another form of this appeal to evidence is claiming that prophecies in the Bible came true. They will look at prophecies found in the Old Testament and claim that they came true in the New Testament even though the books were by different authors. Both of these are used as an attempt to show that the Bible has been accurate in certain areas, and therefore we can extrapolate to assume it’s accurate in general. This is poor epistemology, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make right now. What’s important is that if an apologist tries to verify the Bible’s accuracy by these means, then their worldview is not based entirely on the Bible. Rather, they are basing their worldview on evidence from the world around them, or at least they are attempting to do so. If that’s the case, then the Bible cannot be the foundation of their Christian beliefs.

A Christian could also appeal to personal experience. They’ve gone to Church and “felt the presence of God”. Or they’ve witnessed a miracle. Or they’ve heard a voice speak to them. Or perhaps they went the intellectually rigorous route of Francis Collins and saw a frozen waterfall that was super duper pretty (and therefore, God). While this is weak justification, it is still justification. And if this demonstrates why the Bible is important, then this is the foundation of their beliefs, and not the Bible.

What I suspect is most often the case, though I cannot possibly speak on behalf of any Christian, is that it is not the Bible that is truly the foundation of the Christian’s belief. Rather, it is their faith. They have been taught the Biblical stories from Birth, and know in their heart of hearts that Jesus Christ died for their sins. They know when they pray that their god is there for them. Even when they are apparently being tested through a trial in their lives, or when a doctrine doesn’t make sense to them, or the Bible seems nonsensical, they can rectify it through faith.

This was certainly the case for me. I had plenty of skeptical tendencies even as a Christian, and I knew that I should have a good reason for my beliefs. I knew that I simply couldn’t justify the Old Testament stories of the Bible, as they didn’t match historical and scientific evidence. Furthermore, I know that my good feelings from prayer and singing at Church weren’t very good reasons for justifying the existence of my god. For me, I would struggle trying to come up with good evidence for my religious position, and I would be disappointed when my reasons were weak. However, without fail, I would eventually remind myself, “that’s why they call it faith.” Since I had been raised to believe that faith was a virtue, this was satisfactory enough for me. My thoughts were always able to quickly move on to something else once I came to that conclusion.

However, I recognize that to many people, we know we have faith because of the Bible. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).

For many Christians, faith is also acceptance that Jesus Christ died for their sins and gave them salvation:

“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

 

“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” (John 1:12)

 

“Because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” (Romans 10:9-10)

Under this model, faith is a gift from the god of Christianity, and is given once the Christian accepts Jesus’ gift. You cannot have this faith unless you accept the words of The Bible, since this is the word that tells us of Jesus’ gift of dying on the cross for our sins. Therefore, since many fundagelicals adhere to this worldview, it is actually faith that is based on the Bible, not the other way around.

While some of this may be perfectly coherent for some Christians, it will be completely backwards for others. That’s fine by me. I don’t claim to be a theologian or a Christian scholar, and I reject it altogether anyway no matter the details of the doctrine. As I stated from the beginning, I don’t care to argue over which belief is the “correct” wrong belief. The Christians are still welcome to share the ultimate foundations of their worldview in the comments below, and make their case for why it’s a good foundation.

However, I’d simply like to urge my fellow atheists to not make so many assumptions about what a Christian believes. If you’re having a conversation about their beliefs system, making assumptions hinders a productive conversation, and you should ask on a case-by-case basis. While it may be far easier to lump all Christians into the category of anyone believes the Bible literally and word-for-word, that’s not how the world works. There’s a whole spectrum of Christianity. There are even people who believe in Jesus who don’t really accept much else of the Bible, and as atheists we don’t have any ground for saying that they’re not true Christians. We are not Christians, so we don’t get to decide what a Christian is. Therefore, we can’t know what someone’s “true” justifications are for their worldview. Instead of assuming their justifications, ask about their justifications and how they go about navigating their beliefs.

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[Image: A meme featuring a person in a black shirt stating, “I’m an Atheist. Debate me”. The meme caption states, “Makes fun of people who take the Bible literally. Takes the Bible literally.”]

Perhaps this will lead to less confusion in the future. I remember one episode of the podcast where all four hosts were talking to dear friend of the show and Episcopal Reverend Alex Moreschi, who is about as far from a fundamentalist Christian you can get. His form of theology quite mapped quite closely to my former beliefs, and his beliefs seemed just as viable to me as any other form of Christianity (though, obviously, I hadn’t dedicated my education to those beliefs like he did). However, the other three hosts of the show come from a thoroughly fundamendalist evangelical background, and as such it didn’t make sense to them that a Christian could hold certain passages as non-literal. It was frustrating for them, because while Alex held the Bible as true, he didn’t appear to accept that it was literally true. They’d ask him about parts of the Bible that when I was a Christian I never would have accepted, such as the creation story, and become more and more baffled when Alex didn’t hold too much credence in them either. My other three cohosts left the episode entirely confused, but my experience of the ordeal was fairly routine, and I was just hearing yet another perspective on the Christian faith.

Were I to have that conversation again, I would like to ask Alex what he believed and why, rather than holding him to a preconceived model. Instead of asking him what he felt about evolution or Creationism, I would like to ask him what was important to him. From there, I would follow up based on what he says, and learn about his worldview based on him. I would love to have another recorded conversation to ask him about the foundations of his faith, and why he holds those foundations, instead of assuming a foundation and sticking to it the whole time, regardless of his position.

At the moment, I don’t know his foundations, and I don’t know the foundations for the beliefs of almost any other Christian. Is it faith, or is it The Bible? Or is it something else? The answer is going to be different from person to person, and that’s just how humans work. Let’s take the time to ask, and really listen, as we learn about each other.

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