Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Letter To The Editor

It seems the recent demonstration by the local Non-Theist Society on campus has stirred up a hornets nest. So far there have been three or four letters in the Exponent about the demonstration, some respectful, some not. I sent in a letter to the editor responding to the first of these, found here, written by Josh Phillips, and to the NTS as well. In case you did not click the link to Josh's letter, summarized, it describes the NTS as a "club of whiny brats" and "bigoted assholes". However, I doubt my letter will get published as it has been two days so far and the Exponent has yet to call.
Religion and Criticism
With the recent “Pastafarian Preaching” demonstration, the appearance of Jed Smock, and then the Gideons, I have a few observations I would like to share. First, could we raise the level of discourse to a slightly more intellectual level? I completely agree with the Non-Theist Society’s main message that everyone should be able to criticize religion. But, going about criticizing religion by comparing other people’s religious beliefs to a cartoon character comprised of two meat balls, spaghetti, and two eyes, is not going cause theists to take what you say seriously. If you wish to promote atheism as a valid belief system, then by all means utilize the FSM. But using the FSM as a legitimate criticism of religion, instead of a satirical symbol for atheism, is not going draw any kind of intellectual discussion. To those such as Josh Philips, who wrote a response to the FSM demonstration on 09/28, responding to such demonstrations by calling the Non-Theists “whiny brats” and “bigoted assholes” adds absolutely nothing to the discussion. It only serves to cast you, and those you represent, as angry, bitter, and intolerant. If you have problems with their actions then list them, specifically, and state why you disagree in respectful terms. Responding with name-calling only serves to give the impression to other readers that your behavior is on the same, “kindergarten”, level that you accused them of.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Criticism vs. Ridicule: Recent demonstration by local non-theist student group

Criticism vs. Ridicule: Recent Demonstration By Local Non-theist Student Group
This past Friday the local student group of atheists held a demonstration meant to “criticize” religion. I put criticize in quotes because I question whether their actions actually led to a valid criticism of religion or merely ended up only ridiculing it instead. Criticism and ridicule are not the same things. A page on TvTropes effectively explaines the difference with the usage of “trolling” in place of “ridicule”.
"Okay, I've read your script, and I have a few things to say about it. It needs work, but you've got something going here. I wasn't impressed by the car chases, but those aren't my thing. But I do know that cheesy one-liners aren't really done anymore, unless you're spoofing those kinds of movies, and this isn't a parody. I did like the romance scenes. You should probably expand that relationship. These kinds of movies don't do relationships well, and this would help your movie stand out." "Okay, I've read your script, and it's retarded. You should just use it for toilet paper. Nobody likes car chases anymore, and your crappy jokes make Arnold look like Shakespeare. You thought that **** was funny? Oh, the love scenes were good. I always knew you were gay." The above two paragraphs aren't quotes. They're to illustrate the difference between Trolling and Constructive Criticism (hopefully, you know which is which). While trolls want to put people down, constructive criticism is meant to help an artist improve his/her work. It's rarely shown in fiction, but it's important to it, since it's meant to help people improve their writing.
An article in the campus newspaper gave a description of their demonstration. You can find it here. In the article it explains that,
Members chose to dress as pirates to satirize religious teachings that certain followers are better than everyone else by sarcastically saying that pirates are the chosen people.
While this may be a valid criticism against some specific religions, it is not valid against religion as a whole as their demonstration was publicized as. Here they make the mistake of placing religion in a box of their own design to make religion fit certain restraints.
The article goes on to explain their main purpose by quoting their president,
Our main message is that everyone should be able to criticize religion just like every other idea, especially if it is silly or hateful.
The first part is something I completely agree with but am slightly puzzled at. The only people who try to claim religion is above criticism are generally fundamentalist extremists. Also, the only people who claim that society sees religion as above criticism are generally the militant atheists. Taking a trip to your local book store can show that religion is not considered to be above criticism. I went to my local Borders this Saturday and looked through the religious section. I saw many books meant to criticize religion such as The God Delusion, God Is Not Great, God: The Failed Hypothesis, Letter to a Christian Nation, The End of Faith and many more similar titles. If the book store has these titles on the shelves and not only available through online orders then there is, at least, a sizable demand for them.
The second part of their message is also puzzling. I can find nothing wrong with criticizing hateful messages within religion. I know they exist and they deserve to be corrected. However, criticizing something because you find it “silly” seems a bit much. Simply because you may find something to be silly does not automatically make it worthy of criticism or ridicule. The following is a rule posted by on a website I frequent that explains this very well.
Peterson's Rule I remember going with a Muslim friend of mine to visit a chemistry professor at the University of Cairo. And this is a very educated man, obviously, holder of a doctorate, I think European educated, as I recall, and we got to talking about what I was doing there, that I was studying Islam, and so on, and he asked me, "Are you a Muslim?" and I said "No." And he asked me the question that I always dread, "Why not?" which can get you into a very awkward position. Well, I tried to answer it positively and said, "I'm a Christian, I believe in the divinity of Christ and, therefore, I can't be a Muslim."     He said, "How can you possibly believe in that? Everybody knows that God doesn't have a son. God can't have a son. 'He nether begets nor is he begotten'," he quoted from the Koran. And then he said, "And let me tell you something else. Is this what you believe? Do you believe that God had a son and that to buy himself off because he wanted to destroy and damn everybody, he had to send his son down and make sure he was tortured to death so that he wouldn't have to damn all of humanity?"     I said, "Well, that's not quite the way we typically put it but that's a relatively fair statement of the idea."     He said, "Well that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Everybody knows that's not true. It's absolutely inconceivable."     Well, what struck me about that was that religions often look silly to people outside. He said no intelligent person could possibly believe in a doctrine like that. Well, besides the fact that it was somewhat personally insulting, I thought, "But intelligent people have demonstrably believed in that doctrine, whether you think it's right or wrong." I mean, St. Augustine wasn't stupid. Thomas Aquinas wasn't stupid. Calvin wasn't stupid. Kierkergaard wasn't stupid. There are a lot of bright people who have accepted a doctrine much like this.
Dr. Peterson makes an excellent point. Outsiders view particular religions as just plain silly, one that no person in their right mind would believe. But, in fact, there are many people--good intelligent people--who believe in that particular religion. I'm sure you have had times where you have asked yourself, "how can they really believe that? I just can't believe it."
So, what is Peterson's Rule?
So the principle that came to me on this was that if you are looking at a religious tradition that has a large number of adherents...then there must be something in it that appeals to different people. Mormonism, for example, has clearly lasted long enough and has clearly appealed to a wide enough cross section of people that you don't have to concede that it's true to say there must be something there that appeals to people; bright people, practical people, highly educated people, uneducated people; all sorts of people in all sorts of cultures have found something appealing in this movement. The same is true of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity in general.
The article continues with explaining that the group carried signs with depictions of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and read verses from the Gospel of the FSM. Referencing the Gospel of the FSM the article states,
The book challenges religious teachings and contradictions the Non-theists find absurd.
Peterson's Rule applies here as well. Simply because one may find something to be absurd or silly does not, by itself, make it worthy of ridicule or criticism. Something extra is required to push it into the realm worthy of criticism. This is also the point where I think they went from attempting to criticize religion to ridiculing it. Most theists are not going to take criticism of their belief system seriously by involving the FSM. Many also consider it, in most uses, to be a thinly veiled attempt to mock religion. The Law of Charity explains this very well.
The Law of Charity When presenting any material that is negative about another's beliefs. Be sure to present it in the most positive light. That way you can critique from a position of strength without being cast as polemic. If you can explain the beliefs of another person to their satisfaction, then you are in a position to critique those beliefs.
Casting someone’s belief system as comparable to belief in a cartoon character consisting of two meat balls, spaghetti, and two eyes, and then proceeding to criticize the persons beliefs from that comparison will almost never result in positive results. Generally, the person whose beliefs are being criticized will merely ignore the criticisms as too childish or too simplistic and possibly, in more extreme situations, become severely offended and be put off from listening to anything more the criticizer may have to say.
Continuing with how I believe they did not offer criticism, but ridicule. This is a picture from this same event last year (It appears to be a yearly occurrence). In the picture you see a central figure reading from what is most likely the Gospel of the FSM surrounded by people mocking religious adherents bowed in prayer. I assume this is most likely one of those things the president was referring to when she said “silly”. Again, Peterson’s rule applies here. Simply because one may find religious ritual, or prayer, "silly" does not make it worthy of criticism.
Not to be misunderstood I am not attacking this group or their right to protest. Nor was I actually offended by their demonstrations. Their actions appear, to me, to possibly have good intentions but have become stuck in the current fad of the FSM among college students.