Holy Smoke, Alex – Don’t be a Dick!

When I woke up this morning, I found my elderly mother already up and watching the television.

“One of your mob’s been burning Bibles,” she said, faintly amused.

“One of my mob?  You mean an atheist?” I said.

“Yes.  It was on the news.”

“An Australian atheist?”

“That’s what they said.”

“Well it wouldn’t be anyone I know,” I said, confidently.  “Probably just some nutter.”

“Oh wait, here’s the news on now, come and watch.”

And there, on the television was someone I do know – Alex Stewart, a lawyer, and member of the Brisbane Atheists.

“Oh dear, Alex,” I thought,  “What have you done?”

What Alex did was to post a video on YouTube, showing himself in the midst of a tongue-in-cheek experiment to determine which burned better; the Bible or the Koran.

The news, in recent days, has been full of an American evangelist threatening to burn copies of the Koran.  This, apparently, was Alex’s response to the outcry.  Alex’s method of determining the burning properties of the holy texts was to use leaves of the books as cigarette papers to roll what appeared to be joints.

“Oooh, I think I just tongued Jesus,” says Alex, licking a page from the Bible.

“I wonder what Mohammed, would have thought about this?” Alex muses as he rolls a page from the Koran.

“Is this profanity? Is it blasphemy? And does it really matter?  I guess that’s the point with all this crap.  It’s just a fuckin’ book.  Who cares?  Who cares?  Like, you know, it’s your beliefs that matter … and, quite frankly, if you’re going to get upset about a book you’re taking life way too seriously. Where did I put that fuckin’ lighter?”

“The final point which I would like to make,” says Alex, “which I think a lot of people ignore, is that it’s just a book and, like, you can burn a flag, no-one cares, like, people get over it.  So, with respect to books – like the Bible, the Koran whatever – just get over it.  I mean it’s not as though they’re burning your copy – they’re burning someone else’s. That said, I don’t think it’s completely appropriate unless it’s done for a good purpose which, um, I’d say I’ve done today.”

A disclaimer at the end of the video clarifies Alex’s point in making the piece:  Why get upset when someone disrespects your beliefs?  It’s not like you lose the belief.

After watching the video I checked my inbox and found it bulging with emails from people asking, “Do you know this person?  What do you think about this?”

I have to admit that my first reaction was that I didn’t like it.  To me, it was unnecessarily provocative, slightly juvenile, and, above all, a monumental waste of Alex’s considerable intellectual gifts.  In short, I was disappointed in Alex.  Here is someone with the talent to be a future leader of the new Enlightenment and, instead, he opted for notoriety and 15 minutes of fame by taking a cheap shot which would inevitably make the rest of us look bad.

By mid-morning it became apparent that Alex’s stunt had gained national media interest.  He was even the opening story on Kerry-Anne Kennerley’s advertorial morning show.  By late afternoon, the video had been deleted from Alex’s YouTube channel.  Tonight, I assume, Alex will be on the news and the current affairs shows – unless his employer has issued an ultimatum during the day.

One has to give Alex credit, at least, for having ‘cut through’ to gain national media exposure about issues of free speech, the limits of religious tolerance, and the right to blaspheme.  He has given the country something to think about.  He has launched a discussion that will reach beyond the halls of academia and into people’s living rooms.  And, let it be said, Alex has made some very good points; principally, I think, the fact that someone burning a holy book is attacking only printed paper – they are not causing believers or their beliefs any actual harm.  Alex has made himself an object lesson for Phillip Pullman’s oft repeated injunction:   “… no-one has the right to live without being shocked.  No-one has the right to spend their life without being offended.”

Importantly, Alex’s video is part of a wider topical debate within the atheist and skeptical communities.  How do we best achieve our goals?  Should we engage only in calm, rational and respectful debate?  Or should we heap derision on ideas we believe are not only delusional, but dangerous?   Christians are hardly polite in dealing with atheists – should we respond in kind?

Former JREF president, Phil Plait recently sparked intense debate in the atheist and skeptical communities with his “Don’t be a dick”  talk at the James Randi Educational Foundation’s TAM8, convention.

“… there’s been some alarming developments in the way skepticism is being done,” says Plait, “ … the tone of what we’re doing is decaying.  And, instead of relying on the merits of the arguments … it seems that vitriole and venom are on the rise.

… The message we’re trying to convey is hard all by it’s lonesome … [it’s] a tough sell.

… Right now in this movement … hubris is running rampant and egos are out of check … What I’m … concerned with is our demeanour … remember, the odds are against us, there are more of them then there are of us … we have to admit that our reputation amongst the majority of the population is not exactly stellar”

Plait asks his audience to consider how best to achieve the goal of ‘selling’ rationalism.  He continues:

“The key, is obvious to me, at least … it’s communication … [therefore] our demeanour – how we deliver this message –  takes on crucial, crucial importance …”

Using insults [and make no mistake, Christians and Muslims alike will find Alex’s video insulting], says Plait, is like using a loaded weapon.

“ … we need to be exceedingly careful where we aim that weapon … when you’re dealing with someone who disagrees with you, what is your goal?  … it may rally the troops, it may even foment people to  help you and to take action … but is your goal to score a cheap point, or is your goal to win the damn game?

.. When somebody is being attacked and insulted they tend to get defensive.  They’re not in the best position to be either rational or self-introspective … in the skeptic movement we have our share of people who are a bit short in the politeness department … Taking the low road doesn’t help.  It doesn’t make you stronger, it doesn’t make you look good, and it doesn’t change anyone’s minds.”

“In times of war,” says Plait, “we need warriors.  But this isn’t a war … we aren’t trying to kill an enemy, we’re trying to persuade other humans.  And, at times like that we don’t need warriors.  What we need are diplomats.”

Before engaging with our opponents, he concludes, we must first ask ourselves, “What is my goal?” and then ask, “Is this going to help?”  Secondly:

“… and not to put too finer point on it, don’t be a dick! …  But, Seriously, OK, don’t.  Don’t be a dick.  All being a dick does is score cheap points.  It does not win the hearts and minds of people everywhere and, honestly, winning those hearts and minds, that’s our goal!”

Plait’s “Don’t be a dick” speech sparked a rash of debate on the internet.  Even Richard Dawkins joined in the fray, saying:

“ … Plait naively presume[s], throughout his lecture, that the person we are ridiculing is the one we are trying to convert. Speaking for myself, it is often a third party (or a large number of third parties) who are listening in, or reading along … I am amazed at Plait’s naivety in overlooking that and treating it as obvious that our goal is to convert the target of our ridicule. Ridicule may indeed annoy the target and cause him to dig his toes in. But our goal might very well be (in my case usually is) to influence third parties, sitting on the fence, or just not very well-informed about the issues.  And to achieve that goal, ridicule can be very effective indeed.”

PZ Myers, perhaps one of the most successful, and tactless, campaigners for disbelief and skepticism backs Dawkins:

“I’ve been totally unimpressed with the arguments from the side of nice, not because I disagree with the idea that positive approaches work, but because they ignore the complexity of the problem and don’t offer any solutions   …  We don’t need to be trivially abusive, but on subjects we care about deeply, we should express ourselves with passion.”

Curiously, even Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, while not exactly condoning atheist attacks,  concedes that the rhetoric of some evangelical leaders has been so strident they have invited an in-kind rebuke from non-believers.

“We have done a terrible job of presenting our perspective as a plausible world view that has implications for public life and for education, presenting that in a way that is sensitive to the concerns of people who may disagree,” he said. “Whatever may be wrong with Christopher Hitchens’ attacks on religious leaders, we have certainly already matched it in our attacks.”

I have two views on Alex’s video.  My personal or ‘gut-instinct’ view is that I wouldn’t have done it, I don’t ‘approve’ of it, and I don’t think the cost, either to our community or to Alex personally, is worth the brief, if intense, amount of publicity it will elicit.  But, my intellectual view as a historian and sociologist is somewhat less emotional and more tempered.  I have learned that every social movement needs both intellectuals and radical agitators.  No social movement has ever succeeded without both – and both usually work in tension with each other.  The Civil Rights movement was advanced by both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.  The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer’s brilliant intellectual treatise on feminism was equally supported by ‘strident’ feminists burning their bras in the street.  The Vietnam War was halted by diplomatic efforts and by university students marching the streets with placards.  I’m also pretty sure that many quiet campaigners for gay rights were horrified and not a little concerned about their credibility when that movement exploded into parades featuring gay men in fishnet stockings and pink feather boas!  But, in each case, the two-pronged strategy has worked.

So, while I would not have chosen Alex’s approach, I defend his right to take the path he has chosen.  I also concede that my ‘gut-instinct’ in this case is very likely wrong.  While I’m not the type of person to burn my bra, ride on a float in a skimpy outfit, argue with the bellicosity of Malcolm X, or march through the streets (I attended my first, quiet protest this year at the age of 51!), that doesn’t mean that those choices are not valid.  Alex is not me, so Alex doesn’t have to conform to my choices or sensibilities.  I accept that I don’t have the right not to be offended by Alex’s video.  And I agree absolutely with his point, that those who take offence at something with does not materially effect either them or their faith, only gives fuel to the fire being stoked by their detractors.  As one wit on Twitter posted today:

“News” : copies of The God Delusion burnt by Muslim/Christian groups.

Response from atheists –  “Meh”.

I don’t like Alex’s approach – it makes me uncomfortable, and embarrassed.  I fear for the consequences.  I don’t like seeing Alex being called ‘an idiot’ on television.  Although the wisdom of his actions may be debatable, he is far from an idiot.  But, despite my misgivings, Alex has my support and I trust that he will similarly give others in the movement, who may make choices he doesn’t agree with, the benefit of the doubt, and support them in their choice  to take a path he wouldn’t.

Chrys Stevenson

Related Posts:

Brisbane Atheist embarrasses fellow non-believers in lame stunt – by Jayson D Cooke

One way holy books can alter your brain – by PZ Myers, Pharyngula

Hero or Villian? Neither. He’s an idiot. – by John Birmingham, Brisbane Times

Offend the religious and you may lose your job – by Sean the Blogonaut

17 thoughts on “Holy Smoke, Alex – Don’t be a Dick!

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Holy Smoke, Alex – Don’t be a Dick! « Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear -- Topsy.com

  2. Jim McDonald

    Book burning is distinctly unfunny and, if not fascist of itself, reminds me of Nazi mobs, idiotic backwoods pastors, and crowds whipped up by Islamists. There is nothing particularly atheistic about the stunt and it offends secular humanist sensibilities. Indeed, in a truly secular state the burning of books regarded by large numbers of people as sacred would offend the basic principle of freedom of belief. One of the contradictions of Alex Stewart’s stunt is that such actions are more at home in fundamentalist religious states where the other is the infidel, the apostate, the heretic, the non-believer, the anti-Christ and the atheist.

    Reply
    1. Danny Stevens

      “Indeed, in a truly secular state the burning of books regarded by large numbers of people as sacred would offend the basic principle of freedom of belief.”

      Rubbish. The principle of freedom is not a principle repressing criticism or stupid behaviour, and burning a book that you own represses nobody’s belief in any way, shape or form. All it does is waste your own resources.

      In a truly secular society some dumb pastor can go right ahead and destroy any of his own possessions, and some bunch of other folks are welcome to be as pissed off about it as they like. What neither group is allowed to do is violently repress one another or invoke some government legislation to do it.

      Forcing people to act “nice” is just another attempt at mob rule.

      Reply
      1. Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear: Assorted Rants on Religion, Science, Politics and Philosophy from a bear of very little brain Post author

        With respect, Danny, I’ve been reading many responses to Alex’s video and not one, as far as I’ve read, from Christian, Muslim or atheist has suggested that he should be ‘violently repressed’ or even in any way prevented from burning books. But, as you say, if people are to be allowed to burn books, other folks have a right to be pissed about it – in fact, one might say, if no-one got pissed about it, Alex was just pissing in the wind.

      2. Danny Stevens

        I wasn’t talking about Alex being repressed. Although Google have done just that.

        I was talking about the Muslim reaction to the US pastor. They expect the government to intervene and stop him from burning Korans.

  3. Andrew Finden

    Great article Chrys. The Plait video is excellent, and I concur that bullying tactics that I often see are counter-productive – and it is a kind of bullying. He says that skeptics / atheists are in the minority, which may be the case in broader public, but in the context of the internet and such discussions, I think is not generally the case, particular where much of the kind of vitrol happens (think PZ Myers’ and Richard Dawkins’ blogs). As you point out, Dawkins says that ridicule is for the benefit of those following along – but that’s no different form the MO of schoolyard bullies who pick on other kids for the entertainment of his posse. In blogs like theirs where the majority of responders are like-minded skeptics / atheists / anti-theists it’s very easy to ‘get away’ with ridicule as a substitute for an argument and have everyone laugh and pat you on the back. I do of course realise that some theists can be just as guilty (though I’m sure we’d agree that “she / he did it first” is no excuse!).

    I agree with the point that no one has the right to not be offended (though I think purposely offending someone else is a petty and selfish thing to do) but I don’t necessarily agree with the justification of:
    “it’s just a book and, like, you can burn a flag, no-one cares, like, people get over it. So, with respect to books – like the Bible, the Koran whatever – just get over it. I mean it’s not as though they’re burning your copy – they’re burning someone else’s.”

    Ignoring the point that actually, people do care if you burn a flag, I just don’t think that this defence cuts it. I don’t mean to invoke Godwin’s Law, but the whole talk of book burning brings the Nazi book burning to mind (there’s a memorial to this event in Berlin, right near the Staatsoper). I don’t think such a defence would cut it for that – it’s not just a matter of ‘well, it’s not your copy, so what?’ And if that were so, if it were merely about a copy and not symbolic of derision of the contents, what’s the point? No doubt Alex’s motivation was completely different from the Nazis (though I couldn’t necessarily say the same about the US preacher) I think it’s hard to separate the issues.

    I suppose the great thing out western democracies is that we have the freedoms to burn books and to speak out mind about how offensive it might be.

    Reply
    1. Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear: Assorted Rants on Religion, Science, Politics and Philosophy from a bear of very little brain Post author

      I mostly agree with you, Andrew. Unfortunately, as the video has been deleted it’s hard to prove, but my suspicion is that Alex didn’t actually burn pages of either book. As far as I could see from the video, the paper he was using was blank. I do realise that for many, the representation is more important than what actually happened. This is an issue on which I have very mixed feelings.

      I must say, though, that as someone with a deep respect for books – any books – I agree with Jim, Jayson and you that book burning is anathema in a free society.

      Reply
    2. Danny Stevens

      It won’t do to compare Alex’s action with Nazi book burning.

      The Nazis confiscated and destroyed all copies of books they did not like that they could get their hands on, in order to suppress their content, as well as the ridiculous mob bonding that the actions allowed.

      The American Pastor is intentionally trying to upset the Muslims to try and prevent the Park 51 complex from being built. It is a sad indictment of the Muslims that react so badly to this that they are willing to take offence instead of shrug their shoulders and say “meh”.

      Alex is only demonstrating that the proper reaction should be “meh”, he is not “bullying” anyone.

      Reply
  4. Pingback: Brisbane Atheist embarrasses fellow non-believers in lame stunt. « Griffith University Society for Skeptics and Freethinkers Weblog

  5. Sean the Blogonaut

    Well I put warning stickers on Gideons bibles so maybe I am a little dick.

    Maybe not the best thing he could have done but was he intending to become infamous? Could he have done things better?

    I see the response from the religious apart from the Anglicans entirely ridiculous, but not unexpected considering the reaction to the GAC.

    Reply
  6. Danny Stevens

    This reminds me of an old saying “no one can offend you without your permission”.

    Now it is very possible to be hurt by personal remarks. I have been hurt by remarks people have made and they didn’t even know they offended me. In those cases my best response is just to let them know that I was hurt and that I knew that was not their intention. They are then aware of my sensitivity over whatever it is about me that they touched apon.

    In the arena of ideas on the other hand, there is danger in placing “that will offend me” barriers around how your ideas are treated. Intellectual discourse in fact grinds to a halt once that is done. That is why at many rationalist websites the rules are “attack the idea as much as you like but not the person”.

    Ridicule is very useful in the face of someone who is intransigent but charismatic. It is necessary to poke fun at their ideas before you can then discuss them. Ridicule must have underlying reason though, and it must be arrived at or hinted at by the ridicule.

    Reply
  7. Robert Tobin

    What really is the “Holy” Bible?
    It is the worst book of fiction ever written. It should be classified Horror/Fiction, not suitable for under 18.

    Reply
    1. Andrew Finden

      Well, strictly speaking ‘The Bible’ is only ‘a’ book in a physical sense, in the same way that the hard-bound yearly collection of a journal is ‘a’ book. In reality it’s a collection of many books, written over a period of some 2000 years, by an assortment of different writers in a variety of historical contexts in an array of genres. There is some fiction in there (e.g. parables, prose, poetry) but there is also history, narrative, law, genealogy, prophecy, biography, apocalyptic, sermons and probably a few others that I forget at this point.
      You see, it’s one thing to conclude that the narratives are not true, but quite another to conclude that the writers were wholesale writing the genre of fiction – anyone who’s actually critically studied the documents will realise that is simply not the case.

      But what does that have to do with Chrys’s point?

      Reply
  8. Simon Miller

    Just a note for those who are upset at the whole concept of ‘book burning’ here. You should realize that thousands of books are pulped and destroyed every week just because they don’t happen to sell. We are not talking about book burning as an act of censorship here, only a few pages of cheap mass-produced copies. It was clearly not Alex’s intention to prevent anyone from being able to read these books if they want to. I’d say his intention was much more to encourage people to question the whole notion of ‘holiness’.

    Reply

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