Monday, July 28, 2008

An Open Letter to Patrick Greene

Background info: I'm a frequent viewer/listener of The Atheist Experience, a public access call-in television program in Austin, Texas, sponsored by the Atheist Community of Austin. For those curious, I watch the pre-recorded programs on Google Video, links to which you can find from the show's website. On this week's program was one Patrick Greene, an atheist (worth points in his favor, but not enough to save his reputation from the spanking Matt Dillahunty handed him on the show) offended by a bumper sticker.

Perhaps I should explain. It all started off innocently enough. While driving, he saw an anti-atheist bumper sticker, and later discovered it was sold by Ray Comfort's ministry (to whom I will not link you, because they deserve no free publicity). He wrote a letter of complaint to the ministry:

Your Item #500 Atheist Day bumper sticker is a very un-Christian insult to all atheists. Just because your Bible states something, does not mandate that you use this information to insult atheists like me.

I am not a fool, and I want you to change the wording of your sticker. The average driver can easily read the words:


But the words of Psalm 14:1, which are below these words, cannot be easily seen by any motorist.

My life as an American Atheist has been unalterably changed by your bumper sticker. I would never be elected to any political position in our country, because your bumper sticker has poisoned most believers minds.

I demand that you use your own savior's command to Love your neighbor as yourself, and change your bumper sticker to read something like this:


I understand that the U.S. Constitution guarantees you freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press. However, that does not give you unlimited license to publicly insult those who do not share your beliefs.

If, by August 23, 2008 your bumper sticker has not been changed on your web site, I will file a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, Western District of Texas, in San Antonio, and have a restraining order issued to order you to change your sticker.
Yeah, I'm sure they're running for the hills, right? I mean, even Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron, as stupid as they are, are intelligent enough to realize they've got the Constitution on their side in this case. They read that letter on the show (and I dug it up on the Internet later, to get the wording right). As it turns out, he almost had some success. They took that particular bumper sticker off of the online website, apparently, but they're now giving it away for free!

On the show, he requested that both believers and non-believers should send him an e-mail (his address was provided on the air, but I will not provide it here) with their thoughts on the matter. I've decided to post mine publicly.


Since you requested feedback during your segment on The Atheist Experience, I feel no hesitation about joining in the inevitable choir of viewer/listener backlash.

Your actions, as I understand them from listening to the show, are completely unjustified. They betray not only an ignorance of the Constitution but a blatant disregard for the Constitution, the rights of the individuals you find offensive, and the rights of all individuals to speak freely. I feel confident in assuming that if a Christian threatened to sue you for displaying an atheist friendly bumper sticker on the back of your car, you would be as outraged at their actions as I am at your actions. Yet, do you not see the hypocrisy here? One can only be assured that he has freedom of expression if he is willing to allow the same freedom to everyone, including those he finds offensive.

You are right that the freedom of speech has certain limitations, but you are incorrect in your assessment thereof. Your cliched example of shouting "fire" in a theatre does not illustrate the point I assume you wish to make, because this illustration is an example, essentially, of inciting a riot and endangering the lives of the occupants of said theatre. This limitation does not apply to shouting fire if there actually is a fire, nor does it apply to the performers on stage shouting the same as part of their performance. It has nothing, in fact, to do with the actual action of shouting that there is a fire. The limitation is not on the word, but on the intended or actual consequences of the shouted word or phrase. The limitation is on endangering the public, and nothing more.

A bumper sticker, obviously intended simply to be humorous, endangers no one, and in fact, causes no harm whatsoever. I will repeat Mr. Dillahunty's challenge from the show: demonstrate how you were harmed by an individual expressing himself through a bumper sticker that agrees with his own opinions. The bumper sticker did not assault you, rape you, murder you. It did not take or damage your possessions, and it did not have an impact on your income. The only effects the bumper sticker apparently had upon you were not the fault of the bumper sticker, but the fault of your own inability to take a joke and move on. Any damages, real or imagined, were self-inflicted, and certainly not grounds for a lawsuit.

There was a brief mention of a lawsuit related, I believe, to a city displaying a nativity scene during the holiday season. We have similar displays where I live, and I have mixed feelings about them. On the one hand, a city displaying religious symbols as part of a holiday display is a violation of the Constitution--UNLESS they display icons, in equal numbers and of equal prominence, related to ALL religions (a ridiculous notion, which can be dismissed on grounds of practicality), and a lawsuit on these grounds is Constitutionally justified. On the other hand, it's not a battle I'm inclined to fight, because I think there are more important things to do that won't make atheists look petty (for instance, fighting the tax exempt status of religious institutions). I think the best solution to this problem is to keep the holiday displays, but remove religious symbolism, but again, it's not a high priority for me.

But this has nothing to do with your threatened lawsuit. An individual's right to free expression is much, much, much more far reaching than the government's. Because the government is public and tax funded, it must remain religiously neutral. Individuals are not public and not tax funded and are not so limited. These ideas are quite clearly expressed in the First Amendment, which I strongly suggest you read again until you understand it.

Legally, your threatened lawsuit is unjustified and, I believe, unjustifiable. Morally, it is also unjustifiable, as it is an act of shameless censorship (or attempted censorship), which I can never support. Free societies can only prosper in conditions under which there is a free and open exchange of ideas--and this includes the bad ones! The moral action to take against offensive ideas is to rationally counter them. Use your own free speech, don't censor theirs.

And it is also tactically misguided. It diverts attention from real issues, such as faith based initiatives or tax exemption of churches. It paints a picture in the public mind of atheists as humorless, litigious bullies with nothing better to do with our time than to put unjustified pressure on private citizens for exercising their free expression. It proves the bumper sticker's point, by demonstrating the atheist (in this case, yourself) to be a damned fool. And it emboldens the enemy. Already, they've started giving the stickers away for free (clearly just to prove that they will not be bullied). And if you do attempt to file a lawsuit (which will either be dismissed or lost, I assure you), I'm confident that Christians will reciprocate. Unfortunately, their target will not be limited to only yourself, but rather, they will attack the atheist community as a whole, thus making us all suffer for your lack judgment.

Whenever an atheist rightly sues over the inclusion of god in the Pledge or on the money, the media portray him or her as a villain. I agree with those atheists (but not you) in principle, but question the tactical decision (again, it seems there are more important battles to be fighting). If you do file a lawsuit, the media will portray you as a villain. Though the media's portrayal of someone as evil does not necessarily make it so, they would be correct in this case. Unfortunately, the media, always eager to please the Christian majority, will wrongfully include the rest of us in the same category.

Am I glad that the bumper sticker has been taken down? Of course not. While I find the message objectionable, as do you, I will defend to the death their right to display that message. Furthermore, all that has now happened is further proliferation of the same bumper sticker, at no cost, to even more gullible Christians. All you have accomplished, is to worsen your own perceived problem--and, perhaps, to create real problems for all of us.

You, sir, have only proven these Christians correct. Your actions have indeed been foolish. I strongly urge you to reconsider them.

As requested, I've copied this e-mail to the hosts & crew of The Atheist Experience.


Robert Lewis

Since I sent this e-mail, I've discovered that my fears have indeed been confirmed. Ray Comfort, one of the most cynical, uneducated, and notorious creationists currently polluting the intellectual culture, is making fun of Patrick, and using his failures against all of us.

Of course, Comfort's not very good at making fun of people. Indeed, his response to Patrick's letter is little more than repetition of all of his discredited creationist arguments. Still, it's a testament to just how powerful a single atheist's lack of judgment can be. One man with a bug up his butt about a bumper sticker attracted the personal attention and insults of one of the most famous and most idiotic men in the world.

Congratulations, Patrick. You've made me take Ray Comfort's side on an issue. Happy now, god damn it?


1 comment:

Truth Seeker said...

My dear Mr. Greene,
What a sad commentary on a life. To come this far in your life in a final act of desperation. Yet it is sometimes in that very desperation that we come to the end of ourselves. I lost my son of only 30 years old who had a 3 year old son he adored and his son adored him. It was a horrible car accident. I prayed God to restore him. He did not. But unlike you my hope lies in the fact I still have my faith in God. I do have the hope that one day I will be with him in eternity forever. You have no hope. In your belief you have only now. What if she is healed without divine intervention? One day she will die and so will you. Then where is your hope? What then? Forever separated and nothingness according to your belief or lack of a belief. Eternity together forever, can you imagine that? No more death, no more pain. This life is brief and fleeting, filled with pain and misery. God offers an eternal life of love and beauty forever. He didn't ask you to do anything for it but to believe in His son who died to free you. It's a free gift and you can't earn it. It's so simple but we are selfish beings and think we should not be answerable to anyone or anything. You spend your whole life answering to others, parents, your boss the authorities. Why not the creator of the universe? He offers love, peace and joy. What has your authorities have to offer? Think about what your life is as compared to what you could have. There is plenty of evidence but you actually have to look at it and be open to it to see what it is. I pray for you and your wife. Discover what you really seek. God Save and Bless you both.