March 17, 2009

Jeff Dee and Appropriately “Angry” Atheism

Posted in Atheism tagged , , , at 12:04 pm by Andrew

One of the longest-running discussions in the atheist community is one of tone. On the one hand, we have people like Hemant Mehta, the “Friendly Atheist.” That’s sort of the model I’ve tried to follow here. The other end of the spectrum is occupied by people like PZ Myers of Pharyngula, who is in what I would call the “take-no-prisoners” camp.

The principal arguments against “angry” atheism are that it reinforces negative stereotypes Christians already have about atheists, and that it inhibits dialogue and discussion and turns people away. As I’ve said, I find those arguments pretty persuasive, and it’s why I’ve taken the approach I have here. That isn’t to say that the take-no-prisoners folks are wrong; I love Pharyngula and visit it daily. I just think PZ’s goals are different from mine.

With that in mind, I think this video is an excellent counterexample; it’s from co-host Jeff Dee in last week’s episode of The Atheist Experience, a public access call-in show. Watch:

Obviously, Jeff is being aggressive with the Christian caller, and I don’t think he changed that person’s mind that day. But on reflection, I think this was exactly the right approach to take — even if it was not the one I would have taken. The caller (John) probably hung up a little bit miffed, and certainly no more positively inclined towards atheists. But John called in the first place to argue that atheists shouldn’t take offense at public Christian displays such as Ten Commandments monuments in courthouses; Jeff wasn’t going to change his mind in a single phone call, anyway.

But I think Jeff did succeed in placing a stone in John’s shoe (and perhaps other Christian viewers) by forcing John to confront the unpleasant nature of his beliefs. You can hear it in John’s voice and in the content of his answers; he doesn’t want to admit that Christianity says that unrepentant atheists get tortured for eternity. And good for him; that’s a horrible belief! So I think Jeff Dee shows us that atheists can engage in positive outreach by shocking Christians who would otherwise not have questioned their underlying beliefs.

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12 Comments »

  1. Anselm said,

    Certainly there’s nothing wrong with expressing anger if it is done out of concern for the other person’s well-being, but too often such expression (by both atheists and Christians) deteriorates into a self-indulgent display of anger just because it feels good to berate the other side. As a Christian, I know I am embarrassed when I see other Christians communicating in an angry way with atheists, and believe they are doing the cause more harm than good. (Of course, I slip up and express anger myself sometimes, as I did in a comment on another post in response to Ben when he was critical of me. I want to take this opportunity to apologize to Ben–I should not have responded with the tone that I used).

  2. Andrew said,

    Anselm, I obviously agree with you regarding “tone” and in particular the goals that discussion serves. And kudos to you for apologizing to Ben; I think the comments have been pretty high-brow for both sides (at least, as far as blog comments usually go!) and I hope it stays that way.

    With respect to anger — I do think there is a place for the kind of engagement that Jeff Dee took on during that video. Belief in a literal Hell of eternal torment is something that should give a thinking person serious pause, and for people to hold that belief uncritically while at the same time berating atheists for being offended is, I think, worthy of a poke or prod.

  3. anselm said,

    Andrew,

    Thanks, I appreciate your comments. I personally do not embrace the “eternal torment” interpretation of hell, and agree that it should give John serious pause; I believe the best biblical and theological warrant supports Greg Boyd’s “annihilationist” view – see http://tinyurl.com/c44qws

    However, I also have to say that even though Muslims believe that, as a Christian, I am destined for fiery torment in the afterlife, it doesn’t really bother me as long as it doesn’t affect their treatment of me in this life (and I realize that last caveat is crucial).

  4. Felix said,

    Anselm,
    I think it would be correct to say that people whose beliefs about others don’t affect their treatment of them at all do not really believe what they profess. They might (very likely) believe that they do, but in fact they just believe in the belief.
    It will in most cases be unnoticeable for all but the most skilled observer, but if you really believe that your destiny will probably be a better/happier/more fulfilled one after death, there will necessarily be a little pity or condescension in how that affects your attitude. In my experience, this level of condescension is often monstrous but still incomprehensible by the one holding it; he fills it into his ‘compassion compartment’ along with all other thoughts and emotions about the one destined for hell/separation/annihilation.

    • Anselm said,

      Felix,

      That is probably true, but there is also likely a little pity by the atheist for the Christian for being so deluded and foolish as to believe in a nonexistent God. I have worked with some atheists and gotten some indication this is what they thought of me. But we still had a good working relationship.

  5. Jeff Eyges said,

    Andrew, I followed you here from the Atheist Experience blog. I agree that this is a topic that most people avoid. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard atheists, liberals and secularists in general say, “I don’t care what they believe, as long as they don’t try to impose it upon me.” I do care about what they believe. Eternal damnation is the vilest concept ever devised; it should be considered beneath the dignity of a human being to believe it. I’m tired of our collective laissez faire attitude; I’m in favor of hammering Christians very hard on this. Those who insist upon clinging to it should be regarded with contempt.

    Granted, the caller was easy prey, as he obviously wasn’t very bright and, like most Christians, hadn’t thought about the implications of his beliefs (or, perhaps, had thought about them and was embarrassed, but didn’t have the strength to give them up). Hopefully, Jeff or someone equally as willing to be aggressive will have the opportunity to go on the offensive with an evangelical leader.

  6. Ben said,

    Anselm, my apologies to you too. I was lumping you in with Nathaniel and I think I should have been on a shorter fuse.

    Annihiliationism is nicer than Hell, of course, although if it’s “more biblical,” I’m curious as to why 99.99999% of Christians throughout the first 1,9000 years of Christianity have rejected it.

    And don’t kid yourself that annihiliationism isn’t still a bucket of scorpions. Your God gives out an infinitely wonderful present to 1/6 of the world but withholds it from the other 5/6ths on the basis of their theological beliefs? That seems kind of petty to me. (And yes, I know the “ratify your choices” argument. The response is that it makes no sense to ratify a temporary choice made with imperfect information for all eternity.)

  7. Anselm said,

    Annihilationism has definitely not been the majority view throughout Christian history, although some early church fathers embraced it. However, while tradition informs the interpretation of Scripture, reason and experience also play a role (Scripture, tradition, reason and experience are known as the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”, a widely used biblical hermeneutic).

    But perhaps you can help me understand why annihilationism is still a “bucket of scorpions” to the atheist when the “wonderful present” the atheist is denied is the opportunity to worship and praise God for all eternity in heaven (I mean, do atheists really desire to do that?) and the withholding of the present involves ceasing to exist, which if the atheist view is correct is going to happen to all people anyway?

  8. AV said,

    Anselm has a point. For billions of years we didn’t exist. Why should the concept of our post-mortem non-existence bother us?

    I’m not going to watch the YouTube until I’ve listened to the episode, which I gather would have aired more recently than my last bulk-download of podcasts. I became an Atheist Experience listener after Jeff D stopped hosting, but have since seen a few of the Google Videos from his era. I thought Matt D could get a little fiery, but he’s a harmless kitten next to Jeff!

  9. donaldsullivan said,

    I think you are all looking at it from a very illogical standpoint. As a Christian, my beliefs are that God is loving enough to give EVERYONE exactly what they wanted. Nothing could be worse for the nonbeliever than to have to spend eternity with this God who otherwise would lay claim to their life. Therefore, I don’t believe in annihilationism because that would be ridiculous to posit that it could be more loving for God to destroy His own creation than to give it exactly what it wanted.

    C.S. Lewis said it best when he said that “There are some who say to God ‘Your will be done,’ and others to whom God says ‘Your will be done.” I don’t believe that there is a literal fiery pit waiting for those who don’t accept Christ. However, say you believe that this God thing is true. Wouldn’t it be kind of hellish to look across and see a world where there is a God, and all this cool stuff going on, and you left to your own devices. You can’t make anything, or do anything. God is the one who creates things and enlivens our existence to begin with. I think that in the eternal state, those who want nothing to do with God don’t have to do anything with Him. But, it will take precious little time for them to realize the distance between themselves and God.

    • Jeff Eyges said,

      You’re merely looking for a way to have eternal damnation and not feel squeamish about it.

      If God were loving enough just to give everyone what they need (forget about what they want), there would be far less suffering in the world. And don’t bring up human free will; it’s completely irrelevant. If your belief system is correct, we’re basically imbeciles – giving us free will would be like giving dynamite to an infant.

  10. Kourou said,

    Thank you. I really enjoyed that video, and I think it’s an excellent argument.

    It’s one of the things that I’ve never been able to get my head around. How can Christians really believe that we are going to hell, and yet still live in the same world as us?

    It must be some kind of doublethink. And, to be fair, I do it as well – I don’t spend much time at all worrying about the people who are begging on the streets or dying in poorer countries, or about the animals who are killed for me to eat.

    Great video. Excellent argument.


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