Sunday, December 16, 2007

Child-Friendly Atheism

If one is interested in seeing the movie, "I Am Legend", then be warned that this post contains spoilers.

If (1) you do not wish to see the movie, (2) have already seen it, (3) do not mind spoilers, or (4) hate spoilers but suffer from a compulsive curiosity as to why I am mentioning this movie, then feel free to continue.

The spoiler is that this movie sets up a "tense" situation, then brings God into the movie to make a magical solution at the last minute.

The original book, by the way, was a "science fiction" book in the classic sense. It attempted to offer a scientific explanation for everything and shunned supernatural explanations.

I can rant about what type of God would take steps to stop a plague after it had nearly killed everybody when he could have taken action much sooner. I could go on a rant about how the hero's sacrifice to find the cure becomes meaningless once the cure is handed to him by God and, we may assume, God would have done some magic, somewhere even if this hero had done nothing.

However, the purpose of this post is not to offer these types of complaints.

The thought that came to my mind concerns the fact that there is a call to boycott The Golden Compass on the grounds that it is a part of a stealth campaign to introduce children to atheism. Yet, a stealth campaign arguing for theism is not subject to question. There is a bit of hypocrisy going on here, but that is not the worst of it.

The boycott has almost certainly cost the movie some money. Movie companies are going to take this into consideration the next time that somebody produces a movie. The author will be vetted for atheist sympathies. If you are an author with atheist sympathies, then you are going to have a little bit harder time getting that movie made. They will amost certainly gut it of any atheist message. However, they will not be able to divorce the movie from the fact that you (the author) is an atheist. So, your hopes of having a movie made out of that book depend not only on your refusal to put an atheist message in the text, but on your own refusal to "come out" as an atheist.

Stewert Lee, who created the play "Jerry Springer: The Opera," said that he would not do another work like this, "because 'idiots' could too easily close it down."

It's the same story - worry over revenue after the religious right targets a product means that companies involved in these projects simply are not going to consider products that the religious right does not approve of.

Imagine having a censorship board, where all works of art need to first be submitted to a fundamentalist board, and only those that the board approves of are allowed to continue. Well, actually, these projects can be made. However, one has to keep them small and inexpensive with no expectation that the will be mass marketed to the general public.

As a result of these two events (and others like them) expect the entertainment industry to be particularly skittish about releasing anything that puts atheism in a positive light. After all, we must remember that anything that portrays atheism positively is militantly anti-theist and, thus, not to be permitted in civil society.

(Though a movie like "I Am Legend" could never be thought of as militantly anti-atheist; as if that could be thought of as a bad thing.)

So, this brought a simple question to my mind.

Where can one go in this country to say that no God exists?

Contrary to popular lies that are spread by hate-mongering bigots, teaching evolution in the classroom is not the same as teaching atheism. If it were, then explaining what is wrong with the car without mentioning God would also be an example of atheism. Every day, even devout Christians explain real-world events without reference to a supernatural force without claiming that the answer is atheistic.

So, when I ask where a person can actually say "No god exists," the classroom does not qualify.

I am also not talking about some work of fiction with some dysfunctional drunk or perpetually depressed individual who hates God because his or her spouse and/or child died in some tragic event.

I am talking about a case where a well-adjusted individual can argue against the existence of God on its merits - a case where the character can turn to another who is cowering in prayer and say, "That's not going to help you. The only way you're going to get through this is to work for it."

A character who can complain, "Don't go giving the credit for what I do to God."

I am particularly interested in asking this question, "Where can one go and say, 'No god exists'," in the presence of children?

Another think that I am not talking about is identifying oneself as an atheist. There is a difference between saying, "I am an atheist," and saying "God doesn't exist." This is closely related to the shows that I mentioned above.

There is a clear difference between a show in which a character declares himself to be an atheist and one in which no God exists. Just as there is a clear difference between a show in which a character declares himself to be a theist and one in which God can be heard whispering a message or creating a miracle at the last moment to save humanity.

I am talking about a show in which "No god exists" is stated as clearly as "god exists" is stated - as clearly as it is stated in the Pledge of Allegiance and on the money, and everywhere else a child may look. Where can a child look and see the message, "No god exists?"

It is socially prohibited to tell a child (other than one's own child) that no God exists. So, the vast majority of children in this country grow up thinking that the claim is unchallengeable.

Sure, children are aware that there are some people 'out there' who do not believe in God. However, they are always perpetually depressed people angry at God for taking away their spouse/child in some tragic accident. They are people we should feel sorry for - not people who have actually adopted their position based on thought and reason.

The result of this prohibition is that we have one generation after another that views religious claims to be unquestionable. Which is exactly how this nonsense perpetuates itself from one generation to the next - because it is set up to prevent any alternative from even taking root; poisoning the ground so that only the fewest number of seeds can ever take root.

Why do the boycotts such as that on The Golden Compass exist? Precisely to enforce a social prohibition on making the statement, "No god exists" in the presence of a child. Many other statements can be made in the presence of a child, but not this one.

What was that charge used against The Golden Compass again? Oh, yes. It was charged with "stealth atheism to kids."

If we lived in a society where people can speak openly about atheism - where atheists are permitted to be as open (in the presence of children) as Jews and Muslims, then the very idea of "stealth atheism" would be laughable. "Stealth" only makes sense in a context where being open and direct is assumed not to be an option. We only worry about people sneaking into a house where they do not have permission to walk in the front door.

Yet, we do live in a society where speaking openly about atheism in the presence of children is prohibited. And, so, those who guard these boundaries (the church officials who like their monopoly on access to children so that they can brainwash children into their way of thinking) then need to worry about atheists 'sneaking in' to a child's mind where all opportunities for direct exposure have already been blocked.

The best way to deal with this problem is to insist on the right to present atheism in a way that is friendly to children in just the way that theism is too often presented in ways that are friendly towards children – to do so deliberately and unapologetically.

Addendum: Monday, Dec. 17

This morning I woke to news of yet another boycott. Some Christians are offended because Border advertised to those who purchased Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion with a card that read, "Oh Come All Ye Faithless".

These Christians say that the card is an insult to Christianity.

The Evangelical Alliance's Thacker added: “I think the atheists will love it because it's bashing Christians around the head. It's another thing to take a Christian festival and abuse it.

Of course, if this card is an insult to Christianity, then "Oh come all ye faithful" is an insult to atheists, right?

Of course not. However, these people who claim that their religion gives them a perfect conduit to immoral behavior and a perfect incentive to be moral could not recognize The Golden Rule if it bit them on the fact. They are so in love with lies and hypocricy that they seem perpetually driven to provide us with new examples of both.

The fact is, they view the very existence of a belief that no God exists as an insult to their religion, and will not be content until the mere mention of this 'insult' guarantees economic ruin (or worse) on the part of those who mention it.

Their economic power is great enough that they just might succeed, unless and until those who do not wish to see such a world are willing to speak all the more loudly in response.


Josh said...

The fox tuesday night line-up of 'Bones' followed by 'House' is a pretty good atheistic duo. Bones stays dedicated to depicting the Scientific Method better than any show I've encountered.

In both, apparent miracles have occurred, to always eventually be explained rationally.

Considering that it's Fox, it's sort of surprising that they are on there.

Anonymous said...

The only problem I have with "Bones" is that the writers usually follow up her most insightful atheist statements with a sort of "sad puppy" moment where she doesn't get included in some warm, fuzzy element of religion, but has to look a little like she'd like to be included.

The whole show has the character written as if she were outside (in the cold), looking in to the "warm hearth" of religious community.

None of the other characters ever envy her for her confident atheism, some even get camera-time to throw pitying glances at her.

This makes me wonder what the writer's real position on atheism is. Do they view it as one of the character's flaws, or one of her strengths?

Josh said...

crosius, I can definitely see that. I see one of the main character conflicts of the show is Bones trying to find personal connections, which can be seen through her interactions with booth, her family, and her dislike of psychology. The character has been evolving into more comfort in those areas. So I see the 'wanting to be included' as a part of that, and not specific to religion.

The other 'out' atheist in the show, Zack Addy, is another example. Socially inept, scientifically amazing, but in contrast to Bones, seemingly not interested as much in those personal connections.

I think it's a pretty good depiction of real life. I certainly don't understand theists very well, even though I was one at some point. I tend to look at religion in the same way she does. I don't know the writers positions towards atheism, but it could be a lot worse.

Consider another one of my favorite shows, Law & Order: Criminal Intent. That show is openly hostile many times towards atheism and atheists. I still enjoy it, mainly because Goren is fricken awesome, but I keep cringing during certain episodes, especially where the 'stereotypical' atheists are presented (every time, they've also been the murderer in the end).

Bones gets the atheism part right, I think. There isn't the stereotypical presentation, but an accurate portrayal, which makes me think that at least one of the writers is an atheist, or at least a good listener.

Beyond that, Bones is without a doubt one of the best portrayals of the scientific method in a fictional television program. The heavy reliance on evidence, thorough testing, independent verification, reluctance to jump to conclusions, openness to where the evidence may lead, and to change the conclusions when the evidence changes. It's fabulous. Admittedly, in the later episodes, there's been a slight move away from some of that, but I think that's more of a plot device than a change in the attitude of the show.

Plus, anything with Steven Fry in it automatically gets a bump up a level or two :)

Doug Indeap said...

Thank you for highlighting this aspect of the taboo on atheism. I particularly like the practical "standard" of sorts by which you would recognize or measure it, i.e., whether one feels okay to say "no god exists" (to be distinguished from "I do not believe god(s) exist) in the presence of children (who are not your own). Brilliant! I can readily use that simple image to assess my own conduct (and perhaps reflexive self-censorship) in various social settings in the future.

To the extent theists take offense at the prospect of someone saying such a thing to their children, it is easy enough to point out that theists typically feel no compunction about touting their belief in god(s) to anyone, including the children of others, and indeed often feel quite satisfied and justified in doing so.

Anonymous said...

So "I Am Legend" has a Deus Ex Machina ending? I'm going to avoid seeing it then...

Cham F. said...

Never really got into "Bones." But I do love "CSI: Vegas" and, of course, "House."

People tend to think that atheism is such a terrible thing. What's so terrible about thinking for ourselves?

My husband just bought the entire "Golden Compass" trilogy for my birthday. I plan on reading it to our son when he's older. :-)