Saturday, June 09, 2007

Atheist vs Culture Warrior

Last month, I had an online argument with a Christian culture warrior, Janice Crouse. Crouse is from the DC Christian think tank, Concerned Women for America where she is a senior fellow for the Beverly LaHaye Institute.

Crouse is also a columnist at who advocates for abstinence-only sex education, against homosexuality, against condoms to prevent AIDS, and was a leading critic of Mary Chaney's decision to have a child. (Crouse is the one who famously called Mary Chaney's choice "unconscionable.")

The new controversy was over PBS airing the documentary "A Brief History of Disbelief" by Jonathan Miller. (Available online)

She was angry that public money was being spent to show what she sees as anti-Christian propaganda. In a recent article on the subject, she made this statement:

"airing the program gives credibility and cohesiveness to individuals who seek to undermine the beliefs and values on which democracy and the American dream are founded."

I thought that was pretty outlandish. That line of talk makes me mad. After finding her email address (pretty difficult, considering her media presence) I sent her a message. I tried to be polite but forceful.

I wrote to Crouse:

Recently, you criticized PBS for the upcoming airing of "A Brief History of Disbelief."

"airing the program gives credibility and cohesiveness to individuals who seek to undermine the beliefs and values on which democracy and the American dream are founded."

I don't question your sincerity in saying this. But I hope to explain how rude it is.

You are making a political argument against a sizable segment of the population. 10-15% by recent accounts. We are people who have asked the question "is there a God?" and you don't like our answer. So you paint us as a threat to America.

I personally know atheists who are models of morality, honesty, generosity and patriotism. So it gets very tiresome hearing people's knee-jerk reactions against non-believers.

I would also like to point out that there is no mention of democracy in the Bible. In fact, the Bible advocates very explicitly for a "kingdom." As a proud American, I prefer that we remain a democracy.

-- Pat McComb

Crouse responded quickly:

Your note is terrific. Let's see ... It is rude for me to complain about a propagandistic and demagogic piece against Christianity. It is OK for you complain about Christianity (history of DISbelief) in a 3-part series -- a political statement against the majority of Americans (not 10-15%)---- paid for by public taxation and presented as a "documentary."

I was surprised that a public advocate and a columnist would choose to express herself this way.
OK, I wasn't that surprised. But it reminded me of why I don't watch much TV.

I could have gone in any number of directions on this:
- Dispute whether the show is propaganda (it's available online, see for yourself)
- Enumerate the many shows PBS has presented about Jesus and Christianity
- Distinguish between fact claims and political claims (valid, but not a productive route)
- Or I could have explained that I neither produced nor appeared in the documentary

I decided to stay on point.

I responded to Crouse:

No, it's not rude for you to complain about that.

It's rude for you to portray atheists as a threat to America.

-- Pat

Crouse responded (this time easing up on the facetious condescension):

It is a truism that American was founded on Christian principles; Judeo-Christian ethics and values permeate the founding documents of this nation. Anything that threatens those principles is a threat to America. Those who repudiate those principles (more non-believers who are self-centered and disregard anyone else -- they don't adhere to any positive values because it is all about "me" -- than those who, as a matter of ideology, disbelieve but have their own code of conduct that is ethical for secular reasons). BTW, I think there is a logical inconsistency is adhering to a code of conduct when you don't believe in an "authority" outside yourself. What makes one person's code of conduct more applicable than someone elses in that case?


Early America was very Christian. However, the Constitution is a very secular document for an open society. Invocations of God were purposefully left out of the Constitution and it was a tough sell to the states. It only mentions religion in the ban on religious tests for judges and the ban on laws respecting an establishment of religion. This is a worthy line of argument, but it's one of those that can go off the rails in varying interpretations and heavily propagated falsehoods.

I could have pointed out that non-believers are disproportionately un-represented in the prison population. But that probably wouldn't mean much to her.

I avoided mentioning Pat Tillman. The NFL star and non-believer left pro football to fight in Afghanistan and died in friendly fire. I have a lot of respect for Tillman leaving his millions for military service. But trotting him out as a poster-boy for atheism is in pretty poor taste, so I refrained. In another context, he might be worth mentioning, but not this time.

Her main claim about atheists got lost in the parentheticals, but I think I got her basic idea.

I responded to Crouse:

I think you are talking about ethical egoists -- people who are just "in it for themselves." I don't know any. I know a lot of atheists but I don't know any real egoists.

If you assume atheists are egoists, I can only guess you don't know many atheists.

You and I both share values that do not appear in the Bible. We can agree that rape and child abuse are morally wrong, but the Bible never forbids these acts. On the other hand, the Bible says that working on the Sabbath is punishable by death. We can probably agree, it's good that that rule is not enforced much anymore.

The good news is, we can talk and reason about morality. Empathy, generosity, alleviating suffering, the Golden Rule, we can grow in those moral aspects without needing to invoke a supernatural referee.

According to your argument any threat to Judeo-Christian principles is a threat to America. Does that mean contrary religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, tribal gods, etc. also pose a threat?

-- Pat


She didn't respond after this. Perhaps I was so persuasive that she is now leaving Washington DC and pursuing a fruitful career as a secular humanist. Ya think?

Some people think it's a waste of time to argue with some people. Maybe.

But as I hear some people's preconceived notions about atheists, I become more convinced that non-believers should speak out.
People need to get to know us.
People need to know we're generally nice and smart people.
And if anyone claims we are any less American, any less human, or any less moral, people should know why we can get righteously pissed off.

Daniel Dennett says, "...the idea that 'belief in God is a requirement of morality,' you hear this all the time. ... I think it is false. And I think it's very important for those of us who believe it is false to start saying it is false at every public opportunity. [Applause]. Stop being polite about this. And just draw to the person's attention that there are many excellent, engaged, moral individuals leading fine, meaningful lives who don't have God in their lives. And that this is simply a lie that should not be promulgated further. Don't let people presuppose this." [Applause].
-- Daniel Dennett at Center for Naturalism lecture

No comments: