I see that Rush Limbaugh has dived into the latest climate nontroversy. That makes this is a good time to post this, which I wrote several months ago. Sorry to make this Global Warming Week. I hate that debate. But with the way the Daily Fail’s nonsense is propagating, I have no choice.
I have frequently heard this argument from atheists:
Ricky Gervais argues that “there shouldn’t be a word for atheism: it shouldn’t exist, it’s ridiculous. If people didn’t keep making up supernatural deities, I wouldn’t have to deny they exist.”
While I understand that point of view, it crosses me as, frankly, condescending. What Gervais is trying to do is define atheism as the default human condition with theism as the anomaly. Really, when you dig into it, it’s another attempt to define atheism as normal and rational while theism is seen as some kind of mental defect. It’s relate to the idea, frequently sideswiped by Dawkins, that people are born atheists and don’t become religious until someone imposes religion upon them.
But that “mental defect”, depending on whom you listen to, affects 90-98% of the population. Theism and supernatural beliefs have been around, as far as we can tell, since homo sapiens began to wonder where the world came from. And we don’t have to buy into some ridiculous behaviorist psychology nonsense to explain it. In my opinion, religion fits just as naturally with the way we evolved to think as the scientific method does. Human beings are born asking questions. And if we don’t have adequate information, we will invent it (you should hear my daughter’s theories about where babies come from). In science, that’s called a hypothesis. In religion, it’s called faith. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the instinct that drives scientific enquiry comes from the same fount that produces religion: a desperate aching need to explain the world around us.
However much someone may wish it otherwise, atheism is not the default human condition; theism is. However much someone may wish it otherwise, atheists are not anywhere close to even a significant minority among the human population. And, seen in that light, “why should I call myself anything” comes across as trying to pretend that human beings are something other than what the are: semi-rational animals who don’t like an unanswered or unanswerable question.
Growing up in Atlanta, I was, of course, exposed to some degree of anti-semitism. A cross was once burned on the lawn of my synagogue. I was frequently approached by people who wanted to save me. A friend of mine went to a school in rural Georgia and was beaten up frequently and harassed endlessly just for being Jewish.
The astonishing thing, however, was that this was a gentle breeze compared to what Atlanta had been like just decades before. Most of what I encountered was polite ignorance: people who wondered where we made sacrifices; a Boy Scout troop that had never had a Jew before, classmates who wondered why I was out of school so often in the fall. I never faced the kind of threats and mistreatment that, say, my grandparents did. The Dead Shall Rise is an excellent chronicle of the Leo Frank case, which was a watershed event and not a good one. Not only did an anti-semitic crowd lynch a likely innocent Leo Frank, the despair this produced in the Jewish Community could be felt seven decades later. My grandparents, who were in Atlanta when Frank was murdered, refused to talk about it; refused to talk about any of the treatment they’d endured.
And, as an academic, I’ve never encountered anything close to what my parents’ generation experienced. This week, Emory University apologized for some of the awful things that went on in their School of Dentistry in the 1950’s. Emory was the worst bastion of academic anti-Semitism but they were not alone. Every doctor of my dad’s generation encountered it: quotas on Jews, professors who would tell them Jews were unsuited to medicine, patients would refuse to see Jewish doctors. It was pervasive.
I’m glad to see — six decades after the fact — Emory acknowledging this. And I am personally pleased because one of the dentists recognized — Perry Brickman — is a friend of my father’s and my uncle’s, pulled my father’s wisdom teeth and mine and is an all-around good doctor and a good man. To see him vindicated after all this time is wonderful and a reminder that things can change for the better.
Update: Related — maybe it’s a generational thing, but I’ve never held to the Wagner thing. Wagner was anti-semitic; Hitler liked Wagner; both have been dead for a very long time. Neither invented anti-Semitism. And I do not judge art by the behavior of its maker or the vileness of its admirers.
Well, the rapture failed to happen and we all had a good laugh. There’s been some pushback against the laughter and some calls for mutual understanding and so forth. But while it’s true that it’s not nice to laugh at the misfortunes and humiliation of others, I think it’s a reasonable substitute for what we might otherwise feel: unadulterated rage.
Why? Consider this article from the NYT:
With their doomsday T-shirts, placards and leaflets, followers — often clutching Bibles — are typically viewed as harmless proselytizers from outside mainstream religion. But their convictions have frequently created the most tension within their own families, particularly with relatives whose main concern about the weekend is whether it will rain.
Kino Douglas, 31, a self-described agnostic, said it was hard to be with his sister Stacey, 33, who “doesn’t want to talk about anything else.”
While Ms. Haddad Carson has quit her job, her husband still works as an engineer for the federal Energy Department. But the children worry that there may not be enough money for college. They also have typical teenage angst — embarrassing parents — only amplified.
“People look at my family and think I’m like that,” said Joseph, their 14-year-old, as his parents walked through the street fair on Ninth Avenue, giving out Bibles. “I keep my friends as far away from them as possible.”
The NYT (and other stories) talk about children pressured to spread the word, about family members not talking to each other, about college savings being burned. If these are the people who will talk to the Times, you can imagine how much worse it is out there for families who won’t. Growing up in the Bible Belt, I’ve seen friends wounded in the battle between True Believer parents and Heathen children. It’s only made worse when the end of the world is at stake. Imagine all the small children — 10 or under — who’ve been hearing about this for months. As a kid, I sometimes had nightmares about a nuclear war. Can you imagine what it’s like when your grandmother is talking about the End Times every damned day?
That’s not to mention the clearly mentally ill people this tipped over the edge, like the woman who tried to kill herself and murder her daughters to avoid the tribulations. Or those who ruined themselves financially:
Keith Bauer, a 38-year-old tractor-trailer driver from Westminster, Md., took last week off from work, packed his wife, young son and a relative in their SUV and crossed the country.
If it was his last week on Earth, he wanted to see parts of it he’d always heard about but missed, such as the Grand Canyon. With maxed-out credit cards and a growing mountain of bills, he said, the rapture would have been a relief.
Others had risked a lot more on Camping’s prediction, quitting jobs, abandoning relationships, volunteering months of their time to spread the word. Matt Tuter, the longtime producer of Camping’s radio and television call-in show, said Saturday that he expected there to be “a lot of angry people” as reality proved Camping wrong.
Another man blew $140,000 of his own savings spreading the good word.
Now we might be happy to say, “Hey, these gullible idiots got what they deserved”. After all, we’d never follow a doomsday cult and ruin our lives. Only, as — of all places — Cracked pointed out:
Studies show cult members are just as intelligent, if not more so, than the general public. And around 95 percent of cult members are perfectly sane (when they join up, anyway), with no history at all of real psychological problems. They’re not stupid, and they’re not crazy.
As social animals we are hard-wired to want to belong to a group. It’s a need as basic and real as hunger or sex. When we get cut off from our group–say we lose a job, or move to a new city, or break up with our girlfriend–we go a little crazy. Cults are very, very good at finding people in that exact moment of weakness, and saying exactly the right things. Those pamphlets that sound so corny and transparent to you, read like a glorious breath of fresh air to somebody caught in one of those rough spots.
So sure, when we’re in our normal, stable state of affairs we like to imagine ourselves coolly shooting down all of the charismatic cult leader’s stupid-ass claims with the power of pure critical thinking. But remember that the next time you’re drunk dialing your ex-girlfriend in the middle of the night, or stalking her new boyfriend, sneaking into the parking lot where he works and pooping on the hood of his car.
It’s no accident that televangelists target lonely seniors or that weirdo cults target young people in the early and difficult phases of their careers. In times of stress — and if you hadn’t noticed, our times are pretty stressful even for those of us with families, jobs and houses — there’s comfort in hearing that it all makes sense; that it’s all part of a plan.
So when I laugh a the rapturists, it’s because it’s the only thing keeping me from punching Harold Camping and his fellows in the face. At best, they are charismatic lunatics who got people to act stupidly. At worst, they’re cynical charlatans who got decent but vulnerable people to turn their lives upside down.
So no, I’m not prepared to be understanding about this. And I’m not prepared to be understanding about the next End of the World panic — this one coming mostly from the non-religious — about 2012. You can bet that the above stories will be repeated all over again in about 2 years.