Thursday, October 30, 2014

Why Do Atheists Pick on Christians?

You’ve probably noticed that most of the time, when I mention a particular religion on this blog, it’s some form of Christianity. And, in America, most of the criticism and political opposition expressed by atheists gets aimed squarely at Christianity as well. This often prompts Christians to question why we only “pick on” them. Of course, some like to propose their own theories on why, which usually feature some version of claiming that it’s because Christianity is somehow special or unique. The most laughable extremes of these claims say that atheists pick on Christianity because we know it’s true. These theories tend to overlook the simple, obvious, and actually true answer: ubiquity.

The simple fact is that in America, Christianity as both dominant and domineering.

It’s dominant in that more than three quarters of the American population claims to be some variety of Christian. More than nine tenths of our elected officials do the same, with many of them openly pandering to Christian constituents. Even the rapidly growing category of “nones,” (people who claim no religious affiliation) mostly come from Christian backgrounds, and what vague residual spirituality they may retain is informed largely by a Christian outlook. Even most of us who firmly identify as atheists tend to come from Christian families. Christianity pervades Western literature, art, and culture. You can’t drive two blocks in most towns in America without passing the church of some Christian denomination.

This means that atheists in America, aside from encountering Christianity on a daily basis and therefore having more opportunity to argue with its adherents, are also likely to simply be more knowledgeable about it than other religions. I, personally, don’t feel I’m really in a position to make detailed criticisms of Islam, or Hinduism, or Jainism, or Sikhism, or Shintoism, or Buddhism, or any of the nigh uncountable other religions that populate the world. I don’t believe any of them, either, but I just don’t know enough about them to have the kind of detailed conversation that I might have about Christianity. So it would be awful presumptuous of me to write as if I could.

But Christianity is not merely dominant in America, it is domineering. Not content to merely be the dominant cultural touchstone of the nation, agents of Christianity are constantly seeking to control the institutions of society for the explicit purpose of promoting their religion and compelling those who don’t share their belief to follow its behavioral dictates anyway. If someone in America is trying to use public schools to proselytize to your kids, that person is almost certainly Christian. Trying to replace science with sectarian theology in public schools? Christian. Passing legislation to mark government property with explicit totems of their mythology, like a dog peeing on a tree to mark its territory? Christian. Compelling people with business before the government to sit through sectarian religious practices before they can be heard? Christian. Passing laws that compel government to interfere in the most intimate relationships of people’s lives? Christian. Demanding that legislators pretend climate change isn’t real because the science predicts increased floods and “my god promised not to destroy the word with a flood again,” or to ignore it because “my god’s gonna end the world before it matters anyway?” Christian. Christianity is simply the greatest threat to religious pluralism, secular government, and scientific literacy in America. Nothing else is even close.

That’s not to say that there aren’t people of other religions that might support any or all of these things, or other equally ridiculous agendas, if they had the power. But in America, they simply don’t have that ability. Christianity is the only religious interest in America with the numbers and the power to do these things with any kind of large scale success. And so Christianity necessarily gets the most pushback from atheists in America. It’s simply a practical reality.

It’s also not to say that all, or even most, Christians pursue such agendas. It’s just that the vast majority of the people that do pursue them, and virtually all of them that gain any widespread traction, are Christian.

By the way, did you notice how I keep throwing the words “in America,” in there?

In other parts of the world, where other religions dominate, those other religions are the ones that come in for the most criticism from atheists. On occasion I’ll read the blogs of atheists native to places like Iran or Egypt, and I can promise you that those atheists are not spending most of their time criticizing Christianity. They’re “picking on” Islam. Because it’s the religion they grew up with, the religion they know, and the religion that is negatively impacting their lives the most. Everything I said about Christianity in America is true for Islam in those countries, and then ramped up an order of magnitude by the fact that many of them are explicit theocracies.

And I’ll come right out and say it: those people are much braver than I am. You think I’m passionate about what I write? I don’t know that I’d have the balls to do it at all if I lived in a theocracy that gives explicit legal sanction to killing me for it. These people do, and my hat’s off to them.

Of course, it should go without saying that we don’t believe in any other religions either. And that if laws were going to be passed justified solely on the religious precepts of Islam or Native American shamanism, or if our kids’ public school teachers and coaches were setting aside class time to pray to Cybele or Ra, or if our legislators were trying to mark government buildings with “Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn,” we’d be opposing those things too. But most of the time it can go without saying because none of those things are a danger in this country.

For that matter, if atheist public school teachers were taking up class time to tell students that their gods don’t exist, I’d be opposed to that as well.

This is kind of similar to the reasoning on why atheists speak out about religion at all. It’s because it affects our lives. Not because any of the religions seem to be true or special, but because of the actions that their followers take in society on behalf of those beliefs. American atheists speak out most about Christianity because Christians are the actors that most affect our lives. Atheists in Muslim countries speak about Islam because Moslems are the actors that affect their lives. It has nothing to do with “picking on” a religion; it’s simply the cultural and geographic realities we have to deal with day-to-day.

That’s really all there is to it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Are Christians Homophobic?

I’m going to start out by saying that this is probably directed more at fellow atheists and liberal theists than anyone else: the kind of people who are likely to end up in arguments with more fundamentalist sorts regarding the topic of homosexuality. I suspect that there’s a distinct possibility that it may come off as condescending toward people who hold the beliefs I’ll be discussing, but that’s not my intent and I apologize in advance if it does. I just think it needs to be said.

We hear all the time about people taking stands against homosexuality based on their religious beliefs. In America, of course, it’s generally Christians we hear about, but many other religions take similar positions for similar reasons (e.g. Islam). Often, these stands can be pretty emotional and extreme, even violent. And it is tempting to label Christians hateful and homophobic for these positions.

But I don’t really believe that.

Well, for the most part. I’m sure there are some for whom the driving emotions really are fear and hatred. Some people really are just assholes, and that kind of transcends religious beliefs. But for many, when they say their actions at suppressing, humiliating, abusing, and rejecting homosexuals – however hateful and mean-spirited they may seem to those of us on the outside – are motivated by love, I tend to believe them.

How can that be?

Well, you have to really consider the belief system and have enough empathy to imagine what it would be like to believe it. Because make no mistake about it: the god of the Bible is violently homophobic. He does call homosexual acts an abomination, and he does demand the death penalty for them. It’s rather strongly implied in passages that allowing people to become gay is something God inflicts on them as a punishment in and of itself, as an outward sign of their separation from him. The Yahweh character really, really hates himself some gay.

And in Christianity, people that God hates go to hell. I’ve talked about hell a little bit in the past, and suffice to say that it is supposed to make all possible earthly suffering look like a walk in the park. And it goes on for eternity.

Now try to imagine what it would be like to really believe that this is actually the way the world works.

What would it mean to you to have someone tell you that they’re gay? If you really, genuinely loved that person, and you really, genuinely believed that they were going to burn in agony for all of eternity, how desperate would you be to save them? What would you be willing to do, if it offered even the smallest hope of saving a loved one from that fate? Could any amount of suffering you might inflict on them in an effort to deflect them from that path possibly compare to that from which you hope to save them? What tactics would you be willing to employ? Would you be willing to lie? Berate? Ostracize? Even torture? Can you honestly say that if you really and truly believed that the alternative to “conversion therapy” was “eternal agonizing torture,” you wouldn’t still advocate for it no matter how abysmal its success rate or how much psychological damage it caused? After all, you believe that no suffering you could possibly inflict can hold a candle to the suffering your loved one is in for if they don’t change.

Imagine, also, that you encounter others who are trying to stop you from “saving” your loved one. For all intents and purposes, could you say you wouldn’t see those people as an active threat to someone you love? Could you say you wouldn’t hate someone who, from your perspective, is trying to send a beloved family member to a torture chamber?

Of course, you might point out that even if any of this were true, that torture comes about solely due to the arbitrary whim of their god. He declares the restriction, and mandates and enforces the punishment, and all for no justified reason. Shouldn’t he be the one to hold responsible for the eternal torture of your loved ones? But then, you have to remember that in religions like Christianity, that is a prohibited belief. You are literally not allowed to hold beliefs critical of your god. You are, in fact, subject to constant reinforcement of the idea that your god needs to be loved and praised not only in spite of his clear dedication to inflicting arbitrary suffering and his literally infinite cruelty in doing so, but because of it. And even if you were to be so bold as to object, there’s nothing you could do about it anyway.

Are you absolutely sure you wouldn’t lash out? If you really, really believed that, can you be sure you wouldn’t?

So yeah, when I hear anti-gay Christians tell me that their bigoted behavior, however hateful it may seem, is motivated by love I tend to believe them. And yes, after going on at length about how I believe they’re being honest when saying their actions are motivated by love, I have reintroduced the “b” word to the conversation. And that’s because it is still bigotry. Their love is forced to manifest in hateful action because their god hates with infinite abandon.

It’s easy to forget that, when we consider said god to be a fiction. It’s easy to lay that hate squarely at the feet of those who are forced by their beliefs to act it out, and to respond in kind. And it can be hard, at times, to separate those whose love is twisted by fear of the cruel dictates of a made-up desert specter from those who really just revel in hatred itself. But I think it serves us all a little better to try and have some compassion for them. To try and acknowledge the fear and pain it must cause to truly believe that you must savage those you love in order to save them from the infinitely greater savagery meted out by a power you have no hope of opposing.

And remember, also, that most of them didn’t choose to believe these things. The vast majority of people express the religious beliefs of the community they were raised in; they’ve been indoctrinated with these beliefs since they were too young to remember. Steeped in these beliefs, often constantly reinforced by others who were also raised in the same, they never really perceived an opportunity to make a choice about them.

Many forms of Christianity are not homophobic. But many of them are, and they compel their followers to act on that homophobia in spite of themselves; twisting feelings of love and compassion into actions of hate and cruelty. And it’s not merely limited to homosexuality – I use that as a jumping-off point for this discussion only because it’s a topic that is so much a part of the modern social landscape and is so clearly condemned on religious bases.

Atheists who speak out are often asked why we care what people believe. For me, this is a major reason why. It is painful to me to see the suffering many religious people seem compelled to inflict not only on others, but on themselves because of something I see no reason to believe is real. It just doesn’t have to be that way. And, in writing this, I not only hope to remind fellow atheists to be a little more understanding when confronting people who hold these beliefs, but to remind myself. I know that sometimes I fall into the trap of condescension and anger. Hopefully, having taken the time to think about this and write it down will serve as a reminder of why to keep the conversation going, and also to try and show a little more care in doing so.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Was I Unfair?

In a recent Facebook post, I posted a link to an article about a Catholic priest who barred a gay couple from receiving sacraments and volunteering at their church because they had gotten married. The Bishop of their diocese then required them to sign a document asserting the sinful nature of their relationship as a precondition to being allowed to resume membership, but the priest was insisting on adding further conditions (including the initiation of divorce proceedings). I accompanied that post with the comment “…*fuck* the Catholic Church!”

A number of respondents to my post pointed out that this was a case of the priest being a jerk, and that it was unfair and offensive for me to condemn all Catholics for his behavior. I tried to clarify what I was saying in the comments, but Facebook is really not the best medium for that sort of conversation. So I thought it might be worth a blog post.

First and foremost, I want it to be absolutely clear that I was not condemning all Catholics. That’s why I said “the Catholic Church,” and not “Catholics.” While I understand that there are many who would interpret the phrase “Catholic Church” to encompass the institution itself, the priesthood, and every person claiming membership in the Catholic faith, I was in this case referring only to the institution. I have nothing against Catholic people, or even Catholic priests. In most cases, I believe them to be better people than their church would have them be.

If you interpreted me to be insulting Catholics, then I apologize unreservedly. My phrasing was created in anger and ill-considered, leaving open the interpretation that I was condemning people who might in no way agree with the behavior I was attacking. I am sorry for that.

But that still leaves open the question of whether my outburst was fair to the intended target: the institution of the Catholic Church. So let’s examine that in greater detail.

When I say “the Catholic Church,” I refer to the body of rules and theological interpretations that make up official Catholic doctrine, along with the official structures that enable the transmission and enforcement of that doctrine. And yes, that does include some people: the people who developed and wrote those doctrines, and who created and occupy the structures that transmit it.

So why should the actions of this priest and his immediate superior prompt me to exclaim “fuck the Catholic Church!?” After all, it’s the priest being an ass. It’s the Bishop being an ass. Why does this reflect on the institution?

Because their actions are fully supported by the doctrine of the Catholic Church. The doctrine of the Catholic Church teaches them that anti-gay bigotry is, in some cases, not only acceptable but mandatory. The structure of the Catholic Church gives them the authority to penalize gay members of their flocks with ostracism from their faith communities.

To see what I mean, let’s look at the body of Catholic law – the Catechism – as displayed on the Vatican website. On the subject of homosexuality, it says:

“Chastity and homosexuality

2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity,141 tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered."142 They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.”

(Emphasis mine)

There is a separate section in the catechism discussing the Sacrament of the Eucharist, also known as Communion. This is the specific sacrament being denied to the couple in question. The description is pretty long and at times vague, but it does state a couple times that parishioners who are not “in a state of grace,” or in “full unity with the church” may not participate unless they complete a Sacrament of Reconciliation. The full text is located at and I invite you to read it rather than rely on my interpretation here. However, the FAQ on the site summarizes the relevant portions thusly:

“The Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist cannot be administered to those who voluntarily continue to live in grave sin.”

Yes, there is a line in the discussion on homosexuality about avoiding “unjust discrimination,” but if you read the whole thing and digest it, you’ll see that this would not regard the priest’s actions as being “unjust discrimination.” It takes the tack that being gay is ok, as long as you suffer for it and live a life of self-denial as a result. If you accept it and act on it, well, then you’re a bad person. Taken together, the discussions on homosexuality and the Eucharist make it clear that the priest’s actions are wholly justified by Catholic doctrine. The Catholic church defines homosexual acts to be gravely sinful (and a disorder), and states that people “…who voluntarily continue to live in grave sin,” can be denied the Eucharist (and, by extension, full unity in Catholic congregations). The gay couple got married voluntarily. Ergo, the priest was fully justified in denying them Communion, and the Bishop was fully justified in demanding they repudiate their relationship as part of their reconciliation.

You can say that they might have been jerks to actually apply the rules of the Catholic Church in this way. But you cannot say that, by the doctrine of the Catholic Church, they were not right to do so.

I don’t even doubt that the priest and the Bishop in this case actually think they’re doing the good and compassionate thing. Sure, they uprooted an elderly couple from their community for the crime of loving one another, and used the threat of permanent ostracism from full inclusion that community in the waning years of their lives to force them to deny their relationship. But in their mind, they probably think are doing a good thing. And if they do, then it is because the Catholic Church trained them to think that. If they don’t believe that, and are just assholes, then it is the Catholic Church that gave them the doctrinal cover and the authority to act on it.

Either way, yes, “fuck the Catholic Church.”

And I do get that the Catholic Church does do a lot of good things. It provides comfort to people, it does charity work, it funds hospitals and relief organizations the world over. For those things, I applaud them. But it also pressures people into not using contraceptives, thus encouraging both overpopulation and the spread of deadly sexually transmitted diseases. It provides cover for pedophile priests because it is more interested in protecting its reputation than its children. It is neither wholly good, nor wholly bad.

But on the specific position of homosexuality, I think it is poison. It comes back, once again, to the tendency of religions to tie bad ideas to good ideas, and demand that they all be accepted together as good.

So anyway, that’s my argument. Do you think I’m being unfair?