How to Stop Sucking at Non-Belief (Part 1)

Because this sort of thing bugs the fuck out of me, I’m going to start a guide to not being an absolute tool (i.e., idiot) in the name of Glorious Atheism. Now, this absolutely positively doesn’t mean “don’t go onto Facebook pages and mouth off” and “be respectful and leave people alone”. Far from it. Ideas need to earn respect, and ones that involve stamping on the rights of innocent people need challenged. Did anyone seriously expect that sort of thing from me?

No? Good.

This is just how to go about it without being an idiot.

As there was a bit too much to really ram into one post, here is Part 1. Each part will present a particular trope I keep seeing, and why you – yes, you – should either stop it or take people to task for using it.

So, on with Part 1, in which we see how an overly-simplistic “is or isn’t” actually gets us nowhere.

Religion is the worst thing in the world ever

People saying that “religion is bad, mmmm’kay?” is a pain in the arse. And yet it crops up constantly.

But the Crusades!

Why is this argument, that religion is entirely and unequivocally harmful, a bad argument? Because it immediately just devolves a conversation into a back-and-forth about which “side” has done less damage in history. It’s like a point of pride that people who think a little bit like you have murdered the least in all of history. It’s like standing up and proclaiming that you have some saintly nature because “hey, that guy gang-raped her three times, I only did it twice!” Horrible analogy? Yes. Yes it is. But it’s exactly what’s going on.

Why else is it bad? Because if you’re going to argue the truth value of something, then its desirability is irrelevant. After all, gravity is very true but falls kill countless people. It would be highly desirable to not have gravity. Conservation of energy is ultimately what kills people every day when they get shot. That’s awful, but it isn’t going to change the universe any time soon. It would also be highly desirable to not have biology, which is fundamentally responsible for 100% of all fatalities ever. In short, who has and hasn’t gone and killed a bunch of people in the past has absolutely no bearing on the subject at all.

Even if you just wanted to argue the sociological aspects of the situations, then it’s simply naive to think religion is 100% responsible for atrocities, and that the lack of it would fix everything. After all, consider the number of deaths attributed to Stalin. “But but but!!” I hear shouted, “But Stalin was an atheist, but didn’t kill in the name of atheism!!” – yes, indeed. That’s my fucking point.

Religions are bad. This is good. Therefore it is not a religion.

The above is just one level, though. What the “religion is bad” trope further assumes is a completely fucked-up worldview, that then leads to malformed questions that gets us zero progress. Specifically, it says: “all religions are bad; so what counts as a religion?” And this particular red-herring leads us down more dark and endless alleys of bullshit that the tit-for-tat described above ever can.

Asking “what counts as a religion” is a completely an arse-first way to go about things because it’s predicated on religion having a nature that is harmful (or, if you’re arguing for it, a nature that is inherently good – both approaches suck). This assumption is tedious bullshit at best. What about Zen Buddhism, is that terribly objectionable? No it isn’t (you can take that one up with Douglas Hofstadter). What about people putting “Jedi” on their census forms? Nope, that neither (even though it is religion). These people aren’t causing harm due to their religion or attachment to something labelled religion. How do you explain this if religion is inherently bad for society?

You see, there are many examples of religion where it a) isn’t harmful or b) is, in fact, helpful. But even that observation is totally beside the point – because it leads us down yet more endless oh-yes-it-is-oh-no-it-isn’t cycles.

The point is actually more about the fact that there’s no real coherent definition of “religion” that people are using when they pull this “religion is bad, mmm’kay?” argument out of their Bucket O’ Zingers. There’s little that objectively separates what you might call “religion” from things like superstition, i.e., being scared of walking under ladders or black cats. There’s even less that separates it from most of politics where you believe, in a fairly unfalsifiable way, that one particular way of life is better than another. Alternatively, if you go by style of behaviour rather than style of belief, then, under a purely resemblance-based analysis, there’s a lot more in common between “religion” and sports fans, or between religion and D&D nerds. Certainly, there’s more in common there than between mainstream organised religion and superstitions, or mainstream organised religions and casual, vague, “something-ism” beliefs in higher powers or spirituality. After all, the latter rarely (if ever) preaches, rarely (if ever) goes to church, and pretty much by definition isn’t associated with a group of murdering psychopaths because they’re not really associated with a group.

And that should give everyone a hint about what the real question that needs to be asked. It shouldn’t be “what is a religion?”, it should be “what aspects of human interaction and grouping is constructive, and what is destructive?” Because that’s what we’re actually looking for. That’s what actually causes the harm. We can see that putting Jedi down on the census doesn’t really cause harm. We can see that ostracising others does cause harm.

Does the group show any signs of: prejudice against out groups? Demanding unquestioning obedience? Pandering to the leadership? Quashing dissent?

Sure, a lot of religion ticks a lot of those boxes. But certainly not every religion or instance of religious-esque woo does, and you’ll quickly note that far more things that aren’t found inside the commonly accepted definition of “religion” also tick those boxes. Once you get that into your head, it becomes clear that “all religion is all bad” is, at the very most, totally misleading and meaningless as a concept.

So fucking well stop with that one already. If you think only “religion” is harmful, and that not being “religious” stops you from causing harm, then you’re pretty much setting yourself up to be suckered into being the next persecuting elite.

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Satire

Hands up who thinks satire is supposed to be funny?

Anyone? You at the back? Yes? Yes.

Okay, you’ll just have to imagine the sirens and flashing lights from QI, as they don’t really work in text-only format.

Sure, it can be funny, and it helps when some of it is funny – but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it tends to be at its most emphatically powerful when it isn’t funny. But these unfunny bits need to be put in context, otherwise satire would be as dry as a news report and it wouldn’t have a niche. Laugh-out-loud segments within and throughout satire are there because it puts us in the frame of mind to spot complete and utter absurdities. When we’re rolling along with it thinking this is just so fucking stupid, it puts us in a particular frame of mind. For fans of The Thick of It, you’ll know that Malcolm Tucker’s “colourful” language and insults, and Glenn Cullen’s repeated threats of mental breakdown are funny, because they are. They’re written humorously. And with satirical troupes like Bremner, Bird and Fortune, you can see the comedy oozing from every minute, with sketches and stand-up segments. It puts you in a particular mindset, one conducive to laughing your arse off at everything.

But then something happens. Something doesn’t make you laugh. They’ve just said something that isn’t funny. Normally, you’ll accept that sort of thing and brush it off, but you were expecting a punchline. Your brain was prepped and ready to hear a joke. The joke never came, but because of that pre-conditioning (where you’ve expected a joke) you see it differently. It’s no longer ignored, you think about it differently. Was I supposed to find that funny? But it isn’t funny? But it is… because it’s satire. But it isn’t, because they didn’t make it funny. But it must be funny, because it is absurd… right? I mean, it’s totally bonkers… but isn’t funny.

That confusion is the point.

Take an old Bremner, Bird and Fortune sketch from a while back. Spoofing the format of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, they asked “How much would the Northern Rock bailout cost the UK?” A) £100,000 B) £1,000,000 C) £100,000,000 or D) £1,000,000,000? It’s an easy set up to play with. After fooling around with a few jokes for a couple of minutes, the contestant finally gives in and says “I don’t know, it could be anything…”

“That’s the right answer! It could be anything.”

Cut to ad break.

It’s not funny. Because a government gambling on a private-sector bailout to the tune of an unknown sum of money isn’t funny. But it is absurd. Frequently, we need reminded that it’s absurd, that it’s stupid and that it really shouldn’t be happening. Some of this stuff you can’t convert to a joke, and most of it wouldn’t resonate for a moment in a dull and dry news report. We’d just take it, and ignore it. Satire takes these dry absurdities and, because it surrounds it in the context of laughter, makes us sit up and take note.

So when the cast of The Thick of It are hauled in front of an inquiry, you have four series of absurd situations, jokes, foul language and character development informing you and making you look at it in a different light. What the characters are like, what they have to hide and what they can reveal is all known to you in advance. You look at the interviews and the entire concept of an inquiry into a government scandal differently – because you spot the difference between this “public” image and can compare it to all the “private” behind-the-scenes stuff you’ve experienced before.  And you can see that it’s absurd. This isn’t something standalone drama can do, this isn’t something the news can do. But it is something satire can do.

If you think satire is supposed to be funny, can only be funny, and must all be poop and fart jokes and sitting on pork pies to appeal to the lowest common denominator for making everyone laugh, then you’re setting yourself up to miss the most important lessons you can learn from it.

So, a couple of years ago or so, The Onion made this. If your first thought is to lament that it isn’t funny, or if you think it’s a subject that shouldn’t be joked about, then you have simply missed the fucking point.

Too much Comfort…

Subscribing to Ray Comfort on Facebook was probably a bad idea. There are nearly half a dozen posts on his page a day, ranging from longwinded rants to fairly short and meaningless phrases designed to just make people feel better about believing his own brand of Christianity (aka, the stupid, unthinking variety). There is so much wrong coming out from him that each posts makes me want to go racing to a blog, or comment section, and then dissect it.

Then I realise that it’s probably pointless to do so.

With 100,000+ followers, Ray’s page is the kind where conversation moves fast. By the time even I see the post, it’s amassed 1,000 comments already. A good proportion of them are his followers blinding saying “AMEN”, which I’m sure used to be a nice way to end a prayer, but in this context seems more like a chant of “OBEY, OBEY, OBEY!”

And clearly, his supporters simply are obeying and unthinking, because much of what he says is easy to refute and easily shown to be fallacious. Even a brief moment to stop, step out of a bubble of belief (you’re free to step back into it afterwards), and think about what he says proves it to be stupid.

He tries to defend slavery in the Bible by focusing on debt-slavery (which, apparently, “doesn’t count”, but is certainly in there) but glosses over all other mentions of what the Bible endorses doing to non-Hebrews. He claims that someone using the word “belief” in the context of the phrase “believe in evolution” somehow means it requires faith – but, frankly, saying what’s wrong with that would go well over the heads of anyone involved in the conversation. He also tries to say that someone mentioning that they “hate God” because “God is clearly vile” proves that they think God is real, because, you know, me saying “Joffrey Baratheon is a right cunt” implies I think Joffrey Braratheon is a real person in the real world where real things reside. His most recent jaunt is saying that a US Supreme Court ruling that atheism “is a religion” proves that it is a religion – there’s so much Not Even Wrong about this assertion that I’m not quite sure where to start. Needless to say, it’s probably beyond Comfort and the people (“And the sperm and egg came from where first?”) who follow him.

He has no respect for, or even concept of, the use-mention distinction – any “foul” language, which includes using the acronym “BS” will result in an immediate ban. That, and also the immediate assumption of you being an atheist. I don’t know how many Christians he’s caught in his indiscriminate net, but maybe a good portion of the 700+ people he’s proudly banned.  When he raises the number of people banned, he mentions “posting pornography” as a reason – rather rudely implying that such a thing is a common occurrence, whereas in reality 90% of his blocks are probably for posting nothing more obscene than the word “fart”. By golly gosh.

He will ban people for using the word “banana” – because his most famous video claiming that the banana was an perfect example of intelligent design has been so widely mocked and refuted (yes, the modern banana is, in fact, intelligently designed, because it’s been selectively bred by humans over thousands of years) that he’s resorted to claiming that it was “a joke” or “a stand up routine”. Except the original video is still available online to watch; there’s no sense of “stand up” about it, the original was serious, and there’s even a video attacking atheists for taking it out of context (you can see this “apology video” in here). Ray Comfort repeatedly lies about the nature of that original video, and his followers lap it up and accept this revisionism.

His understanding of atheism and evolution can hardly be called understanding at all. He makes no attempt to even try to understand these completely unrelated ideas, instead conflating them and then making up his own assertions about what they mean. He regularly ignores everyone who tells him otherwise. Instead, when he does find time to respond to someone calling out his bullshit he cherry picks the most minute wording of the least-informed responses and focuses on them instead – managing to make even more simplified straw man arguments out of arguments that weren’t that great to start with (and yes, there are bad arguments for atheism and evolution). I know this because I’ve dropped in very direct questions while he was in the middle of responding to ones around him and been ignored. Perhaps he missed me, or perhaps the word “naturalistic” had too many syllables in it for him to process without having to have a long sit down and a cup of coffee first.

So, in all, Ray Comfort isn’t that bright. I wonder why people bother with him, because although time consuming it’s not difficult to point out the myriad flaws in everything he says. Then you notice; 100,000+ followers; millions of YouTube views; thousands more he speaks to and addresses when invited to speak. People take him seriously. Seriously.

He’s considered one of the best that his “side” has to offer.

He is taken seriously, and referenced by others, like Eric Hovind and Ken Ham, as someone to respect and pay attention to.

A man that demonstrably stupid and dishonest is considered, amongst his followers, a go-to guy for his religion. This isn’t just some random twerp going derp-a-derp into a webcam, to his brand of evangelical Christianity, he is as Dawkins is to evolutionary biology and Hawking is to physics. That’s the single scariest thing I’ve thought of for a while.