Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The North Carolina billboard campaign

My question of the day is:  When it comes to discussions of religion (or lack thereof), should we be obliged to refrain from criticizing other belief systems?  Is criticizing another person's religion always off limits?

The whole topic comes up because of an advertising campaign by the Triangle Freethought Society and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has put up a dozen billboards in Raleigh, North Carolina.  These billboards have images of smiling individuals, with captions like, "I'm saved... from religion!  -- Curtis Clayton, Raleigh, Truck Driver... Atheist."  Another says, "Free thinking moves America forward! -- Robin, Parent... Nontheist."  One with the face of Chris, a Raleigh artist:  "Your faith feel wrong?  It's OK to leave!"  And Dale, a writer and agnostic:  "I write fiction.  I don't believe it."

For many people, criticizing another person's religion is verboten.  You can tell someone her political beliefs are wrong; you can say a guy's way of running his business sucks; you can even tell someone he dresses funny.  All are, depending on how they're phrased, considered acceptable behavior.  But religion, somehow, is considered outside of the realm of criticism.

Well, sometimes.  It seems like Muslims these days are fair targets for a lot of folks, and there are frequent posts detailing the bloodthirstier passages in the Quran (often authored by people who conveniently forget the equally bloodthirsty passages in the Old Testament).  But other than that... it seems like you can say, do, or believe almost anything, and if you say, "It's my religion," you have an automatic Get Out Of Jail Free card.

Interesting, though, that lack of religion is not accorded the same respect.  Although I have many times passed billboards with religious slogans (including some fairly threatening ones, of the "The Wages Of Sin Are Death!" variety), even fairly low-key atheist billboards have resulted in a whirlwind of angry response by believers.  The billboard that showed up in New Jersey last December that said, "You know it's a myth.  This season, celebrate reason" was greeted by howls of anger. 

Atheism, it seems, is considered critical of religion by default; which, I suppose, it is.  As such, it is automatically relegated to being offensive simply by virtue of its existence.  In polls, atheists rank consistently lower than other groups often targeted by discrimination -- gays, Muslims, minorities -- and in fact, in one particularly telling poll, responders said they'd vote for a convicted felon for public office before they'd vote for an atheist.

In response, most atheists are pretty quiet about it.  There are exceptions -- Dawkins and Hitchens inevitably come to mind -- but most of us try to fly under the radar.  I'm of the medium-loud variety -- I don't go to especial pains to hide my views, but I see no particular need to flaunt them, either.  Being that I live in a small village, I expect most people figure out what I think eventually.

Some take a while, though.  I was once asked, in my Critical Thinking class, what my religious views were.  This was fairly late in the semester, and although I was a little surprised that my reputation hadn't preceded me, I was delighted that some of the students still hadn't figured out where I stand.  My goal, in that class especially, is for students to leave without really being sure what my political and religious beliefs are, with the feeling that I prodded and questioned and needled everyone to refine their thinking.

My first question was, "Why is that relevant?"  The student responded that she was simply curious and interested.  I said, "I'm an atheist."  And another student said, "Are you allowed to say that in school?"

At first, I though he was somehow under the impression that because we're not allowed to preach to students, or try to convert them, that we couldn't mention religion at all.  But no, upon being asked to clarify, he meant atheism in particular.  "Isn't that saying that other religions are wrong?" he asked.

"If you don't mind my asking," I responded to him, "what are your religious views?  You don't have to answer if you would prefer not to."

He shrugged and said, "I don't mind.  I'm a Methodist."

I said, "Isn't that saying that other religions are wrong?"

Then he got it.

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