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.
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