This week on Facebook, someone I care about told me to shut up and pray.
It started with a post.
A relative (whose posts almost always brighten my day and bring a smile to my face) shared what appears to be a chain message on his wall. I assume that it came from an email. The story was about God. Or rather, GOD. (If you are reading aloud I think you’re supposed to shout the all-caps bits). But who cares, right? I see religious stuff from family members and friends all the time, and I shrug and move on with my day.
But this post was different. It was titled “If you don’t know GOD, don’t say stupid things”. And it was about atheists.
The story is about a Canadian soldier whose atheist professor stands up in front of the classroom and demands divine intervention as proof that God exists.
Here’s the story, in full:
If you don’t know GOD, don’t make stupid remarks!
A young Canadian paratrooper was taking some college courses between
assignments. He had completed 3 tours of duty in Afghanistan. One of the
courses had a professor who was an avowed atheist and a member of the
Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA).
One day the professor shocked the class when he came in.
He looked to the ceiling and flatly stated, “GOD, if you are real, then I want
you to knock me off this platform… I’ll give you exactly 15 min.”
The lecture room fell silent. You could hear a pin drop. Ten minutes
went by and
the professor proclaimed, “Here I am GOD, I’m still waiting.”
It got down to the last couple of minutes when the soldier got out
of his chair, went
up to the professor, and cold-cocked him; knocking him clean off the platform.
The professor was out cold.
The young soldier went back to his seat and sat there, silently.
The other students were shocked and stunned, and sat there looking
on in silence.
The professor eventually came to, noticeably shaken, looked at the
soldier and asked,
“What in the world is the matter with you? Why did you do that?”
The young soldier stood up and calmly replied,
“GOD was too busy today protecting soldiers, who are protecting
your right to say stupid shit and act like an idiot. So He sent me.”
The classroom erupted in cheers!
Okay, you might say, so it’s just an entertaining little story where someone who acts inappropriately gets their come-uppance. So what?
I’ll admit, the atheist in this story acts inappropriately. Unless he’s trying to teach evolutionary biology to a group of creationists (his frustration would be understandable and his actions quite excusable), or to give a dramatic example of a redundant argument in a philosophy class, his demand that God strike him down as proof that God exists is made in an inappropriate setting and is ineffectual as an argument. Inappropriate because there doesn’t seem to be any reason for him to be up there demanding proof of God instead of teaching; and ineffectual because theists don’t claim that God will come down and intervene to prove his own existence. A better test of divine intervention might be, say, to study the effects of intercessory prayer in a double-blind study using a control group. But I digress.
The atheist in this story serves as a straw-man who is easily refuted. The whole thing is built on false assumptions about atheists. It’s assumed that the atheist will ask his questions in an inappropriate setting. It’s assumed that his membership with the CCLA is important.* It’s assumed that he is unpatriotic. It’s assumed that he’s always combative and never understanding of someone’s belief in God.
Anyways, I commented. I pointed out that the story seemed to be based on
“a completely false dichotomy. It assumes a) that it’s okay to beat up atheists when they ask for proof, even though the burden of proof is on theists, and b) that if you are an atheist you are automatically unpatriotic and disrespectful (effectively a straw-man argument).
I find stories like this insulting because they deliberately misrepresent atheism and present touchy-feely “arguments” that only serve to make believers feel superior.”
I then stated that “I just see these kind of stories a lot and it sort of hurts that so many people share them with good intentions, not realizing that the stories insult a good chunk of the population.”
Perhaps I could have worded these comments more clearly, but they do, in general, get my point across.
My intention was to point out that although the story might initially seem fun and heartwarming and like an affirmation of faith, it is also hurtful and does not represent atheists fairly.
I felt the need to point this out because I think it’s important to cut through this kind of stereotype of atheists if we want to live in a society where people can co-exist, regardless of their faith.
In my comments, I said nothing about whether God exists or not (I don’t claim to know—I just have strong suspicions he doesn’t) and I did not say anything negative about belief in God. Just that the representation of atheists in the story was a stereotype based on false premises, and that the story is formulated not to affirm belief but to make believers feel superior to non-believers.
The response I got was extraordinarily hurtful for me to hear from someone I care about. Here it is in full:
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion and beliefs ,this story represents a single example of my opinion and belief in a God, and that that God watches over all . To try and rationalize God’s action’s is futile and a sign of a need to pray to God for faith in him .God does many things or allows us to do many things to each other ,to test our faith. I happen to believe that there is a God and the foundation of my faith , is to have faith and believe what cannot be explained ,for it is God’s will . Amen +++ . I have replied ,” reluctantly ” to your comments, and respect your right to your own opinion I hope that as a Christian you will respect my opinion ,and not further this argument .Thank you and God Bless !!!”
On the surface, that seems nice. But try reading it from a non-Christian perspective and you might feel differently.
First off, it’s not a response to my comments. It’s a response to what the author read into my comments, and clearly he felt threatened. I’m sorry for that, but I can’t take responsibility for how someone responds to the news that their faith is not the only game in town.
I’m not sure if “this story represents a single example of my opinion and belief in God” is supposed to include the “opinion and belief” that atheists deserve to be physically hurt and then ridiculed, but if it does, that’s not a belief to which a person is entitled without criticism: it’s bigotry, and framing it under the guise of a “religious belief” does not give a person a get-out-of-jail-free card. This view is not above criticism or questioning.
But I can’t be certain that that is what is being said. So why so hurt? Well, there’s the “I hope that as a Christian you will respect my opinion, and not further this argument.” In other words, shut up. And then there’s the “to try and rationalize God’s action’s [sic] is futile and a sign of a need to pray to God for faith in him,” in other words, don’t question, don’t tell me you have a different opinion, just pray. That, it seems to me, is the exact opposite of respecting my right to my own opinion. That, it seems to me, is telling me that my opinion is okay as long as I don’t state it.**
Nonetheless, I apologized, “…if I inadvertently offended you. You are, of course, entitled to your beliefs and my comments are not meant to dissuade you from those beliefs but merely to point out that atheists are people too, and we have feelings.”
That’s more than what was deserved. I have not yet received an acknowledgement of that apology, nor have I received any indication that this person wants to associate with me.
That really hurts.
It really hurts that someone I know and care about thinks that it’s totally fine to post a story in which violence against atheists is okay (because you know, we’re totally inhuman and have had our emotional and physical feelings surgically removed). That this person thinks there’s no need to apologize once the offense and hurt have been pointed out. That this person thinks it’s okay not to acknowledge my apology, and perhaps (jury’s still out on this one and I hope I’m wrong) even to shun me because I do not believe in God.
It’s not okay.
It’s not okay to perpetuate stereotypes. I could do the same thing to Christians or Muslims or Buddhists and that would be wrong. You would probably tell me it’s wrong. So suggesting it might be wrong to perpetuate stereotypes about atheists…that’s not something I should have to apologize for.
So…sorry, but I will not shut up, I will not cease to pursue this argument, and I will not respect your opinions or your beliefs if those opinions and beliefs include silencing non-believers, advocating violent acts against non-believers, or ridiculing non-believers.
I could have responded to the story with something incendiary and disrespectful…it was tempting. But you know what? That’s not productive. It does nothing to engage with the real issue here, which is respect for fellow human beings. Instead, I chose to point out that the story was offensive because it contained straw-man stereotypes, advocated violence against a person because of his beliefs, and was based on a false dichotomy. I stated that I found it both offensive and hurtful.
And for saying that, I feel like I’ve been cold-cocked.
And that is not okay.
*By the way, if you’re wondering, the CCLA is an organization dedicated to human rights and social justice. As far as I can tell it is mentioned in this story because it was a key player in the decision to take prayer out of the public school system. If that automatically makes it a bad, evil, or stupid organization in your books, please try to consider that you are making that judgement based on one issue only, and understand that the CCLA has likely also advocated for human rights and social justice issues that you may agree with.
**Greta Christina has a brilliant post dissecting these kind of arguments, which she has termed “shut up, that’s why” arguments.