Monday, July 27, 2009

Surprise Debate @ the Farmer's Market

Last weekend, some friends and I went to the Salt Lake City Farmer's Market. After we'd browsed around for a bit, we grabbed some food and sat down in the shade to eat and relax.

The four of us were chatting about labels. You may have seen my post recently on the same topic. We were discussing the meaning and qualities people might assign to you if you labeled yourself, for instance, a secular humanist versus an atheist.

Out of nowhere, a guy laying on the grass about ten feet away decided to join our conversation, yelling over at our small group:
Atheism is a religion like any other! Atheists are destroying this country and militantly trying to push their views on everyone else and [details lost in a haze of illogic]."
Um. Okay. Who invited this guy to the conversation? We were having a rather abstract philosophical discussion on nature of words and categories, and I was using my religious identification as an example (which happens to be more or less shared by the three people I was with). This guy feels he has an obligation to set us straight on what, exactly, we believe.

This guy shot into a long monologue about why atheists are bad and evil and we're all conspiring to destroy the world or something. At this point, two women on a nearby park bench stand up and leave. I can't say I blame them. Then I spoke up.

Did I make a mistake in engaging the guy? Possibly, but the discussion (which, needless to say, was fruitless) was such a shining example of the sorts of slurs and nonsense I hear hurled about against the nonreligious all the time right along utter falsehoods presented as facts.

Allow me to share some tidbits and quotes, as best as I can remember them. (I'll note that my text intercut here is probably a more fleshed-out discussion of the issues than I originally said, but his text should be fairly accurate.)
Jerk: Atheists are trying to push their views on everyone! They're trying to prevent me from worshiping the way I want. Atheists are trying to infringe on my free speech!

Me: No they're not. Most atheists are for a secular government, but would be vehemently opposed to limiting anyone's religious freedoms. Are there atheists who want to ban all religion and prevent people from practicing as they choose? Probably. I've never met one, but there are extremists in every group.
Jerk: But they're infringing on how I choose to worship! A church in New York had to take down their cross. Some atheist sued them because the shadow of the cross hit public property.

Me: If that happened, which I doubt, then that is wrong. [As expected, that story appears to be bullshit.] Like I said there are extremists in every group. Everyone should be enabled to worship -- or not -- as they see fit. That's exactly why we need to keep our government secular: to protect your religious freedom!

Jerk: Well, this country was founded as a Christian nation.

Me: That couldn't be more false! Many of the founders weren't even Christian: Franklin, Jefferson, Madison--

Jerk: Madison was a strong Christian who believed in Christian principles in our government!!!
Of course, in the real world, Madison more vociferously opposed any religious intrusion into the government than maybe even Jefferson, and said so just about any time he opened his mouth. Lots of other awesome Madison quotes at that link.

Jerk: If they didn't want it to be a Christian nation, why did the founders make "In God We Trust" our national motto.

Me: Uhhh... They didn't! That became our national motto in the 1950s during the Red Scare. The founders were pretty strident secularists, even most of the religious ones.

Jerk: Show me where in the Constitution it says "separation of church and state."

Me: Yeah, those specific words don't appear, in the 1st amendment. But it's clear that was the intent, particualrly since that specific phrase, "separation of church and state," originate from Jefferson's explanation 1st ammendment. How about the first ever legal US government document that makes any mention of Christianity whatsoever, the Treaty of Tripoli, which was written by President Thomas Jefferson and ratified unanimously by the senate, which states that the "Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." That seems pretty unequivocal to me.

Jerk: Well, our laws are based on Christian laws.

No they're not.

Name one that isn't.

Name one that is.

Thou shalt not kill.

Laws against murder long predate the Hebrew Bible and exist in every society. What about the Sumerians? The Code of Hammurabi?

I don't know where you've been learning your history. Maybe you should go back to school.

Um, my degree is in anthropology and I primarily studied Middle Eastern archaeology.

Oh yeah! Well, I have a Ph.D!

Um. Okay...

How old are you?

That's not important.

No, really, how old are you?

That's not important.

My friend: Actually, we were having a private conversation that didn't involve you. Why do you think you have the right to intrude into it.

Jerk: Because I live the United States and I have the right say whatever I want, a right atheists want to take away!
And it went on like this for a while. Eventually, the four of us stood up to walk away from this nonsense, and as we sauntered off, I murmered "Jesus Christ" to myself.

Me: Why? I thought we lived in the United States, where I'm free to say whatever I like! That's the difference I'm talking about: I think that everyone should be able to say what they like, and you think some people, like me, should be excluded.

Jerk: ... Well, at least I said please.


Justin said...

I can't remember who is credited as saying it first, in response to the "atheism is just another religion" line, but the idea has been picked up and tweaked a bit over the years. My favorite versions are "Atheism is a religion, like baldness is a hairstyle" and "Atheism is a religion, like barefoot is a type of shoe."

[kɹeɪ̯ɡ̊] said...

I'm impressed at how rational you were. I would have probably started shouting blasphemous epithets at him. Well maybe not, but I sure would have thought about doing it.

GreenishBlue said...

Ugh.. It was hard not to at some points, but I honestly think I saw a moment, right at the end where he knew I was right. When I said he wanted to exclude some people from having the right to free speech, I think it hit him and made him think, before he responded with a much more timid "... well, at least I said please." I think he knew he was in the wrong, and I think he even felt a little ashamed.

I could be totally wrong, but that's what it looked like.

Rose, Tiff and Ben said...

Good on you! I am quite sure that the best I could have responded with would have been something along the lines of "Oh, yeah?". You are so esoteric and I am jealous. Also jealous of the conversation itself. The most interesting conversation I've had lately was about if horses like tomatoes or not. Not the same mental stimulation, especially considering I was conversing with a Deaf preschooler, but it was, in fact, at a farmer's market.