Saturday, February 9, 2008

What That Word It Means To Me

If you have been privileged to travel the highways of these United States, you’ve probably seen the billboards with cutesy quips from God. (And if you haven’t, read on: I have video!) White text on black background, featuring bon mots like:

Don’t make me come down there.
-- God.

Which is funny, you know, because Christians are supposed to want God to come down here. “Even so, come, lord Jesus!” Christians in the mainstream churches stopped praying for the speedy arrival of the Kingdom over a thousand years ago; only the fringe sects still keep that part of the traditional faith. But really, you’d only want to put off the judgment if you were, maybe, a bit nervous about your prospects of salvation, wouldn’t you?

I find these billboards no more obnoxious than most, and superior to most religious roadside advertising. They beat “It’s not a choice, it’s a child!” hands down. And some of them were witty enough to make me look forward to the next one.

But of course, not everyone agrees with me. Once I stumbled on Bill Maher ranting about them on some TV show, though I don’t remember his exact objections. And then Greta Christina, bless her heart, put this video on her blog:

“Comedian and videographer Mario DiGiorgio shows what his billboard replies would be if he had the money.... and his replies are freakin' hilarious,” writes Greta Christina. I beg to differ: I wouldn’t advise this comedian to give up his day job. “Eye-for-an-eyesore” is as good as it gets. Especially revealing was the author’s claim to have written his material with “love,” just like a conservative Christian would claim, and his closing admonition, “it doesn’t matter what you believe in … just keep it to yourself and we’ll all get along handsomely.” Freedom of speech (and religion too, evidently) for me, but not for thee. As a faggot, I’m used to hearing the same thing from liberal straights: Do whatever you want in private, but why do you have to broadcast it to the whole world?

The comments were educational too. One commenter was apparently pleased that “somebody actually burned one [of the 'God' billboards] down during rush hour about 2 years ago”, and another wrote, “The desire to take a road trip with a bucket of white paint is alarmingly strong.” I’m sure they’d be just as tolerant if a Bible-thumper were to burn down or deface a secular-humanist billboard. But that’s why we don’t have such things, right? Because we don’t want to offend others by stating our beliefs in public? I do love the smell of hypocrisy in the morning. These folks aren’t as different from their religious opposite numbers as they like to think, and that’s why the human race is doomed. Getting rid of one’s religion, or exchanging one’s Koran-belt fundamentalism for a kinder, gentler sect doesn’t seem to change the dynamics of discomfort with different beliefs.

DiGiorgio begins by lamenting the lack of “reverence, recognition and tolerance of everyone’s beliefs”, which I think is overreacting just a tad, but where’s the reverence, recognition and tolerance of everyone’s beliefs in this video? He admits the contradiction in putting a video on the Internet that tells other people to “keep it to yourself,” but a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, so just shut up, awready, you narrow-minded intolerant bigots out there!

And then there's the question of why I, an atheist, would be interested in showing “reverence” to anything?

A good many people confuse “respect for another person’s right to free speech” with “respect for the content of another person’s speech.” They are not at all the same thing. Of course you’re entitled to your own opinion, but I’m not required to agree that it came from God’s mouth to your ear, any more than you are required to agree the same of my opinion. But like it or not, the First Amendment guarantees your (and my) right to be offended; if you don’t like it, I hear that other countries (Canada, Iran) are more concerned for the tender sensibilities of the thin-skinned.

I don’t respect Christianity, but then I don’t respect Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam either. (Well, I admit to having a soft spot in my heart for Judaism – cute Jewish boys, y’know – and a remarkable number of the writers who’ve influenced me most have been Jewish: Walter Kaufmann, Ellen Willis, Bob Dylan, Paul Goodman, Joanna Russ, Noam Chomsky right off the top of my head; but none of them have been observant, so if I respect anything, it’s the absence of religion in their work.) But lately I’ve come to realize that many of my fellow atheists get so worked up over stuff like these billboards because they don’t get respect, and they want it bad. I don’t respect atheism, let alone demand “reverence, recognition, and tolerance” for it, and I’m an atheist.

The philosopher Michael Neumann wrote an interesting essay on respect, in the wake of the furor over the Danish ‘Mohammed’ cartoons. It reads like a rough draft, written at white heat, but Neumann makes some worthwhile points, like: really flies in the face of reality to hold that all persons or cultures or religions are worthy of respect. Is this supposed to be some absolute truth? What is inconceivable about the notion of a contemptible person, culture, or religion? Not long ago, and not only in Western culture, the great sin was pride, and self-esteem was considered quite inappropriate to so insignificant and paltry a thing as a human being. You need not go nearly so far to the surely reasonable idea that some people really haven't done or been anything of which you should stand in awe.
…Respect is not a duty; it is not even desirable in many cases. Where ‘respect’ means not beating people or putting them in jail or driving them from their homes, it is a fine idea. But you shouldn’t do those things even to people you hold in contempt. To call this sort of restraint ‘respect’ is to disguise clear moral values in gummy slush.
Worse yet, it seems that many of my fellow atheists really want to act like the Bible-thumpers they despise so vocally. They want to work themselves into a frenzy of indignation over other people’s perceived misconduct, to try to silence those who disagree with them, to demand that the landscape be scoured of any messages that could conceivably offend them, and to see themselves as normal, decent, respectable citizens of the Greatest Nation in the World.

Eeeeuuuw. Thanks, but no thanks. I’m reminded of the old joke where a man asks a feminist, “Are you a lesbian?” and she comes back with “Are you the alternative?” These folks are not the alternative to theism. It’s hard for me to see them as being on the same side as me (dividing up into “sides” isn’t a good idea anyway), let alone as the Great Rational Hope of Humankind’s Future. I mean, how can they demand “tolerance”, let alone “reverence,” from theists if they go around having conniptions over freakin’ billboards on the public highways?