November 29, 2010
So the group American Atheists has put up this billboard outside the Lincoln Tunnel in New Jersey:
I’m not even going to get started on the billboard’s implications that faith and reason are mutually exclusive conditions of being. Or that only atheists are reasonable people. Or that all religious belief is literal and simpleminded. Or its smarmy pretenses to intellectual superiority. Or the fact that–though it’s sadly true that atheists have for many years endured inexcusable insults, abuse, and persecution from believers–lumping all Christian believers together into a stereotype, insulting their intellectual capacity, and spitting on the significance of their holiday is probably not the greatest way to win friends, allies, respect or acceptance.
What I do want to critique is the billboard’s chief assertion–which I hear from some atheists quite frequently–that religious beliefs amount to nothing more than myth, or even fairy tale. (And I say SOME atheists, because most I know do not go around insulting other people’s beliefs just because they don’t share or understand them. Just like most of the religious people I know don’t believe, or go around telling atheists, that they’re amoral devil worshipers who are all going to hell unless they’re saved by Jesus.)
Yes, I know it’s a myth, thanks very much. I’m a Christian, and I know that the Christmas story is a myth.
But atheists who condescendingly call religious stories myths and fairy tales actually aren’t succeeding in insulting religion. They’re showboating their own ignorance and shallowness by belittling the cultural and emotional importance of myth and fairy tale.
When we think of “myths,” most of us probably think first of the Greek and Roman myths, which maybe we learned in school, and were probably told that they were the way that ancient people explained natural phenomena like the seasons because they didn’t have science yet. So we got the impression that myths are simplistic stories that ignorant people make up for themselves to explain what they otherwise can’t.
And “fairy tales” now carry a strong connotation of “Disney” in American culture–sweet and fanciful stories to comfort children with, which always have happy endings.
But neither of these is historically accurate. Most people know by this time that the original fairy tales of medieval Europe were not at all what Disney later made of them; they were dark and frightening and contained more than ample murder, rape, child abuse, grinding poverty, evil, and sorrow and suffering of every kind. And they didn’t sugarcoat or dumb down the reality of these things for children. They weren’t told to distract children from the horrors of their daily existence, but to illustrate, symbolically, how to confront and cope with them.
And to really be familiar with the Greek/Roman, Scandinavian, Celtic, ancient Japanese, or any other culture’s collection of myths, they’re not superficial or simplistic little stories about why we have seasons; they’re incredibly multidimensional, psychologically rich narratives about a culture’s conceptions of its relation to morality, fate, death, nature, birth and renewal, eternity, and love.
And we’re still telling and retelling those stories, every day, in every possible medium–in movies, books, music, theater and dance. In comic books, even. We’re still moved and educated and entertained by them. Not because we think that they’re literally or factually true, but because they have powerful emotional and intuitive resonance with timeless human experiences that can be hard to articulate or accept in literal ways. Not because we unquestioningly believe them, but because they make us question. They are supposed to make us think more deeply about our own lives, not stop thinking.
So it doesn’t offend me when anyone calls religious experiences and stories myths. Because they are, in the best sense of the word. They give common voice to the most difficult and intimate of human experiences. What’s maddening is when people hurl “myth” as an insult, without any apparent understanding of what they’re saying. It reveals much more about their own disdain for what they don’t understand than it does about the significance of religious celebration.
November 28, 2010
For your Sunday newspaper-reading pleasure….
“I wasn’t in a pie-eating contest, I was racing ducks, says mum who bottled man in pub toilet.” –Herald.ie, 7/23/10
“Eviction notice goes to owner of Ohio killer bear.” –AP, 8/28/10
“Victoria Beckham: Is she for real?” –New York Times, 9/3/10
“Jehovah’s witnesses mad that atheists won’t keep their views to themselves.” –Alternet.org, 9/8/10
“FOX calls for repeal of the 20th century.” –Media Matters, 9/8/10
“Klingon opera makes debut in the Netherlands.” –Christian Science Monitor, 9/11/10
“Tensions linger between Pope and Anglicans” –New York Times, 9/22/10
“UK proposes all paychecks go to the state first” –cnbc.com, 9/20/10
“Pantless stand against authority is a mere blip in Boulder’s long culture war” –New York Times, 9/22/10
“GA leader: Boring names will stop rural sign theft” –AP, 9/25/10
“Abstract Expressionism is so overrated.” –Newsweek, 9/25/10
“Philosophy Day raises questions before it begins.” –New York Times, 10/24/10
“Radioactive rabbit trapped on nuclear reservation.” –Tri-City Herald, 11/5/10
“Kanye denies Illuminati membership rumors.” –Hip Hop Weekly, 11/5/10
“Underground grilled cheese dealer to become high-end restaurant manager.” –NYPost, 11/4/10
“Police arrest 20 who tried to sneak into unused subway station filled with art.” –New York Times, 11/12/10
“Picture books no longer a staple for children.” –New York Times, 10/7/10
“Florida boy donates pet turtle to aquarium, watches it get eaten alive by alligator.” –New York Post, 10/13/10
“Missing Irishman found down [at] his local pub.” –Irish Central, 10/12/10
Thanks to Emily #2, Matt, and Joe for contributions.
November 27, 2010
This is sort of a Thanksgiving post.
In his New York Times column this week, Bob Herbert asserts that “However you want to define the American dream, there is not much of it that’s left anymore.”
This is something I’ve thought a lot about for months now, and I still can’t decide whether I agree. With the essentials of Herbert’s column, or with the notion that the American dream is over.
I agree that however you look at it, we are in deep, deep trouble, and that we need a clear and realistic view of what kind of trouble if we’re ever going to address it effectively. But it does matter very much how we define the American dream when we’re questioning whether not there’s any of it left or whether it’s worth reviving. A lot of Herbert’s conception of the American dream has to do with economic security and standard of living. And I’m not saying those things aren’t important benchmarks of a country’s well-being, or that we don’t have severe problems in these areas right now. I don’t disagree that “the U.S. needs to develop a full-employment economy that provides jobs for all who want to work at pay that enables the workers and their families to enjoy a decent standard of living.” But I’m not convinced at all that that’s what the real promise of America consists of, or should, or ever did. Everything he says is true, is real, is a big problem, but I’m just not sure any of it defines the essential crisis that we’re in.
Here is what the American dream means to me: that America is a place of ever-renewable hope and individual opportunity. Where we have confidence in our Constitutional protections as the inviolable law of the land. Where we know that we are our government, and it is answerable to us. Where we can trust that every single one of us will be treated fairly and equally, whether seeking employment or education or redress in the courts, without regard to our color, religion, gender, sexuality, disability, or wealth. Where we defend the rights of others as our own.
Of course my version of the American dream is as unreal and elusive as Herbert’s. It has never actually been the case for probably the majority of Americans. It has always and only ever been an ideal, an aspiration, which we’ve lived up to with progressive but extremely inconsistent degrees of success. A dream. There has never been a golden age of fairness and prosperity for all that was stolen from us.
What I see is that we don’t just lack any confidence or trust in our leaders and faith that we matter to our government; we don’t believe in each other. We don’t see each other as contributors to the solutions we need. We don’t only lack a clear and accurate view of what our problems are; we don’t even have a common vision to work and share and sacrifice for.
We need to pull together somehow, for ourselves and for each other. I’m just not sure how.
November 16, 2010
One of the latest video messages to have gone viral in the last few weeks’ public fight against anti-gay rhetoric is of openly gay 14-year-old Graeme Taylor speaking at a school board meeting in defense of a teacher who had apparently ejected from class two students who said that they “did not support gay individuals” during a discussion, on Anti-Bullying Day, that erupted after he’d asked another student to remove her Confederate flag belt buckle. The teacher was then suspended without pay for a day.
Sound like a First Amendment quagmire yet?
Graeme eloquently defends his former teacher, saying he was driven to a suicide attempt at age nine in large part by anti-gay slanders by classmates that long went accepted and unchallenged by teachers. The teacher says that he ejected the students for being disruptive, not for their stated opposition to supporting gay people, and I tend to believe him.
But…suppose that the students were telling the truth, that they only expressed their personal opposition to support for gays, calmly, non-threateningly and non-disruptively. Would their ejection have been a violation of their free speech rights? How should the teacher have handled the discussion?
Doesn’t the First Amendment protect even–especially–the most unpopular of speech?
Yes, I would say, IF the students in question merely expressed a position, as vile and unfortunate a position as I find it, then the teacher did wrong to punish them rather than guiding the conversation to a useful and potentially enlightening conclusion…even though he was right, doubtless in the eyes of some of his most vulnerable students, to oppose the sentiments as strongly as he was able to in the moment.
As much as I despise the opinion that gay people (or black people, Gypsies, Muslims, whoever) are morally inferior, in my understanding, the right of free speech applies equally to these sentiments. We don’t allocate the First Amendment’s protection based on the popularity of the content of the speech. So long as the speech does not constitute an explicit or implicit threat, well, people have the right to dislike whomever they dislike, whether or not their reasoning sucks.
But students also need to learn that the right of “free speech” does not mean the right of unchallenged or consequence-free speech, that just because their prejudice may be a religious belief doesn’t disallow opposition to it, and that if they choose to express their bigotry, they should expect to be strenuously challenged. Banning or punishing such speech (again, as long as it’s not actually a threat) will only give the bigots confirmation for their whine that they’re being oppressed by the fascist liberal homosexual agenda or something. Simply suppressing it doesn’t allow us to openly challenge it, to reveal its ugliness and violence for what it is, to discredit it with facts, or to show that the positions of acceptance and respect are stronger. Teachers are in an optimal position to do these things, and more importantly, to show their students how to do them.
Graeme Taylor has eloquence, grace, and self-possession of which I could only be passionately envious at his age; there will be no one more suited to take up the task than he will be. I’m sorry that he’ll have to. I shudder for his opponents to think of what he’ll be like to oppose in debate in a few years.
November 1, 2010
A Michigan prosecutor believes that the school system ought to own adults’ time now, too, not just the lives of their kids.