Sunday, January 9, 2011

You Want To Bet?

I was recently directed toward an article by a gentleman by the name of David Wong (author of the novel, "John Dies At the End," which has been sitting on my reading list for quite a while) entitled "10 Things Christians and Atheists Can (And Must) Agree On." Mr. Wong seems like an agreeable enough chap. His message basically boils down to "can't we all just get along," and that's a message worthy of hearing from time to time. But occasionally, no we can't, and there are some things I resent being told to agree with.

So you can follow along with what I'm on about this time, you can read the original article here.

In his introduction, Wong begins by arguing that if you celebrate someone's death, you're pretty much a prick, and makes the case that just about all of us can agree on that one. Well, okay...he then talks about atheists celebrating the death of Jerry Falwell. Well...okay...actually celebrating his demise may be a bit of a dick move, and if so then I'm guilty as charged. But the fact of the matter is, Falwell had nothing but venomous bile to spew, and the world is better off without his hateful message clogging the minds of his followers (some of whom, no doubt, could easily be moved to commit actual acts of violence against homosexuals, abortion providers, atheists, pagans, or anyone else who doesn't fit into the neat little Christian box Falwell and his ilk want to force us all into). I don't so much celebrate his death as I do his being silenced. And I'll be perfectly clear, because there are still people like him around (**cough**patrobertson**cough**), I don't advocate violence, and I certainly wouldn't celebrate his death, say, at his funeral. He did have a family who, despite their obvious faults in not disowning that goon years ago, should be respected in their grief. But for pete's sake, don't tell me I can't be glad he can't shout his message anymore.

Now, on to his ten points (the introduction was just a little freebie).

1. You can do terrible things in the name of either one.

Okay, this is the point at which he tips his hand. This man is not an atheist. He's revealed a complete lack of understanding of what atheism actually is already, and he's only just begun to make his first point. Atheism is not a belief system. It's a lack of one. You can't do terrible things in the name of a LACK of a belief.

The larger point he's trying to make, that both Christians and atheists can and have done terrible things is certainly valid. On the one hand you've got the Crusades, the troubles in Northern Ireland, Hitler, the 9/11 terrorists, those who would bomb abortion clinics, and their ilk. On the other side...well...Stalin. So yeah, both sides have some bad apples. We're agreed that both Christians and atheists are mostly good people and that there are murderous fucks in both camps. But the point is not quite that simple.

We realize that a murderer who happens to be a Christian or a murderer who happens to be an atheist does not reflect on the entire belief system or lack thereof. The only question is whether or not the belief system (or lack thereof) actually leads someone to commit these acts. In the case of, say, the Crusades or the 9/11 attacks, it was a religious belief that caused these people to act as they did. One cannot say that about atheism, because it's impossible to do anything in the name of nothing. Atheism isn't even a thing at all. It shouldn't even be an -ism. It's just a lack of a belief in a god. And while you can kill in the name of a god, you can't kill in the name of no god. Can't be done.

He also postulates that it's impossible to calculate whether the volume of violent events would go up or down if either side were to "win" (meaning one or the other side completely goes away). Of course, if we're talking about absolute certainty, he's correct. But we don't need absolute certainty. We can look at prison statistics and find that Christians overwhelmingly outnumber the atheists in the prison population (even accounting for their larger representation in the population at large). We can look at the history books. But most importantly, we can just sit down and use our heads. Let's imagine Christianity away for a minute. What changes? No more killing in the name of the Christian god. Now let's imagine atheism away. What changes? Well, we don't lose any potential motives for violence as we do in the previous case. Instead, we gain however many atheists there are as potential "murderers for Jesus." So yes, we do have a pretty damn good idea which way that turn of events would swing.

2. Both sides really do believe what they're saying.

Mostly, I'll give him this one. He seems to take the Christians to task at least as much as we atheists (for which I give him much credit), because they seem to think that we're all just lying about our lack of a belief out of some stubborn sense of rebellion. Nonsense, and he's right in calling it so. And I generally do assume that the Christians believe what they're saying to...up to a point.

I do think that many simply parrot arguments they hear from the pulpit without actually bothering to think for themselves about what they really believe. It doesn't mean they don't really believe it, but it does mean they haven't thought about it. Generally speaking, I think if you put much thought to it, the god thing just sort of collapses under the weight of its own stupidity.

3. In everyday life, you're not that different.

He had me 100% (or at least 95%) until he actually started trying to explain it. Then he goes into talking about morality and thinking we live as if there were some magical skydaddy lawmaker deciding what is or is not justice. Bullshit! Biblical morality is barbaric and obscene. It's true, Christians and atheists have mostly the same morality, but it ain't from the Bible, it ain't from a God, and it sure as hell ain't Christian. We're mostly the same in everyday life because we're a product of the same culture(s). We share evolutionary and cultural history, and our morality comes from that. Not from a god.

4. There are good people on both sides.

Agreed. Just one thing to say. Atheists don't claim our own good people as being good because they're atheists. They're good people because they're good people and they happen to not believe in a god. Christians would do well to do the same. Martin Luther King, Jr. (mentioned in the article) was a great man. One of the best. And though he painted his speeches with a Christian brush, he was good because he was good, not because he was a Christian. Religious beliefs or lack thereof are largely incidental to whether or not someone is good. They only seem to play a role when some religious people (and I hasten to add that it's and extreme minority) kill in the name of some god.

5. Your point of view is legitimately offensive to them.

Well, I'll give it to him. People shouldn't be so damned easy to offend, but it is the case. He's very careful not to let this point intrude on the area of which side is factually correct, so it's pretty agreeable. Christians and atheists do piss each other off. And in day to day life, I think we can all do a lot better to get along. But there is definitely a place for ranting debate. Like in our books and blogs. This is a debate we need to have before the bombs start falling in another holy war.

6. We tend to exaggerate about the other guy.

Absolutely true. I do think the Christians tend to exaggerate more than the atheists do, which makes sense, since all the science and data are on our side--all they're left with is exaggeration. But yes, we all do exaggerate. I do it, too, but I attempt to make it clear in my own writings when I'm exaggerating, and when I'm using the more extreme examples of Christianity in order to make my point. I do realize that most Christians aren't as stupid as the Jerry Falwell types, but I tend to write more about that type because a) I want to make a point, so I use the extreme examples to illustrate what I'm talking about and b) I fear those types more than the average Christian you meet in day to day life.

7. We tend to exaggerate about ourselves, too.

Again, I agree. I think he takes his examples too far (I would think this was intentional, to further make his point, but I don't think, based on some of his other examples, that he's doing so). And again, I think the Christians are more guilty than the atheists. But whoever does it more or less, we all do exaggerate about ourselves and the other guy.

8. Focusing on negative examples makes you stupid.

Bullshit! Granted, it is asinine to focus on negative examples as if they were representative of everyone on the other side. But we're having a debate here. We're going to call the other side on their shit. It's part of the game. So yes, I'm going to talk about Fred Phelps. No, I'm not going to say all Christians are like that (that really would be stupid), but I will talk about him as one possible negative outcome of Christianity. And that's a fair point. I'd welcome Christians to come up with a negative outcome of atheism if they can find one, but so far they've been unable to do so.

9. Both sides have brought good to the table.

It depends. PEOPLE from both sides certainly have. But Christianity itself has never really done anything for us except "bad" things. Atheism, being nothing more than a lack of a belief, hasn't done anything good or bad. But Christians and atheists have both done lots of good, and some have done bad. Talk about people, you've got me on your side. Talk about beliefs, you're going to lose me.

He does go on to lose me by talking about religion making humanity sacred and giving us morality and other nonsense. And it is nonsense. Religion hasn't done jack or shit for humanity. Just because religious people have, doesn't mean the religion gets the credit.

10. You'll never harass the other side out of existence.

I agree, as long as the point is phrased precisely this way. Being vile and harassing people isn't going to win the war. Yes, there's a place for it. Yes, it's important to point out how silly those Christians are from time to time. But the real place we need to have this war is in the debate halls. We need to have an open dialogue. When exposed to the light of reason and open debate, religion withers and dies. It can only fester under a cloud of ignorance.

Wong's point is to lead by example. I agree with that too. We should all strive to be good people, to be rational people, and to make the most of our lives. Lead by example, debate the points, and try to be respectful rather than harassing. I do think that's one point we really can all get behind.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

On Censorship

This week, the Internet's been all a-twitter about Huckleberry Finn. Under normal circumstances, I would be pleased to know that people are talking about a wonderful classic work of literature. This time...not so much. You see, what they're really screaming about isn't Huck Finn. It's censorship.

So, what's this really all about? It's pretty simple. Racial issues play a major role in Huck Finn. By no means is it a work of racist literature, or the work of a racist author. Quite the opposite, in fact. But it takes place during a time when racism was the norm, and hence, the word "nigger" appears repeatedly throughout the text. And, same as it ever was, people who are not content to be offended on their own have taken it upon themselves to be offended on behalf of the rest of us and file complaints against the book in the schools. More and more, school districts have been giving in to the whiny little bitches and pulling it from their required reading lists, relegating it to the optional reading lists, or banning it outright from their libraries.

Seeing this as an opportunity, publisher NewSouth Books plans to release an edited version of Huck Finn, in a single volume with Tom Sawyer, in which all instances of the word "nigger" are replaced with the word "slave." Sure, their intentions are honorable enough. They see that this word is causing schools to ban the book, so they've decided that it is better for students to have access to a censored version than no version at all. For myself, I see their point. It's definitely a valid one. But it is also one I very strongly disagree with.

The simple fact of the matter is, I would much rather if people would go to bat for the book, instead of caving in to the small-minded morons who would see it banned because of the presence of a single word. Yes, yes, it's an offensive word to many people. But why should it be so? I've never understood this fear of words. Words are sequences of letters or sequences of sounds and nothing more. Yes, there are words that express offensive ideas (to some, "cocksucker" or "motherfucker"--to me, "faith," or "god"). But is it not the idea which is offensive, not the sequence of sounds we arbitrarily use to describe it? You can say "freaking" all you want, but if you don't mean anything different that when you say "fucking," all you're really doing is cowardly giving in to the myopic thought police. I'm not saying there's no place for "freaking," but I am asking you to think about the way you use your language.

"Nigger" is an offensive word, because it reflects racism. Racism is a disgusting topic, but it is also a real topic, and Huck Finn deals with racial issues. The word only has power because people find it offensive, and the book is powerful because it makes use of that word, with all its baggage, to deliver its point to the reader. By replacing the "offensive" word with a "less offensive" one, we deprive the author of his intended meaning. Nevermind the point that "slave" is not only NOT less offensive, but also less accurate to the story.

Getting back to the question no one seems willing to answer, though: is it better to have the censored version than no version at all if they're going to be banned from school libraries otherwise? My kneejerk reaction would be to say that yes, it would be better. But honestly, upon a bit of thought, I'm not so sure. Putting aside the truly proper course of action (which may involve taking legal action (or at the very least, sparking community outrage) against schools who remove the book from their libraries), we're still leaving these students with a half-assed (at best) literary education if we teach them that it's better to accept a censored version of a classic work when parts of that work are deemed offensive than to accept the work as it is, and to learn to intellectually explore the work, good and bad, and form one's own opinions. Is the point of literature (or one of the points of literature, anyway) not to spark an internal dialogue in the reader? To explore new ideas? To rethink old ideas? If we censor any work of literature, we're sending a message to these students that some ideas cannot be explored. Well, news flash folks! Racism exists. It existed more in the time period in which Huck Finn takes place, and it still exists today. Sweeping it under the rug and pretending everything's okay won't make it go away. It will only make it fester.

Here's a little thought experiment. Let us imagine that some day, the word "raven" is deemed offensive to certain ornithological communities. What is a level-headed school board (or publisher) to do but to replace the word with the far less offensive "cuntpickle" in works of classic literature?

The Cuntpickle
by Edgar Allan Poe
(Edited by Bob Lewis)

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
`'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.'

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
`'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door -
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; -
This it is, and nothing more,'

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
`Sir,' said I, `or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you' - here I opened wide the door; -
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, `Lenore!'
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, `Lenore!'
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
`Surely,' said I, `surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore -
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; -
'Tis the wind and nothing more!'

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately cuntpickle of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door -
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door -
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
`Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,' I said, `art sure no craven.
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the nightly shore -
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!'
Quoth the cuntpickle, `Nevermore.'

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning - little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door -
Bird or beast above the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as `Nevermore.'

But the cuntpickle, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only,
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered - not a feather then he fluttered -
Till I scarcely more than muttered `Other friends have flown before -
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.'
Then the bird said, `Nevermore.'

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
`Doubtless,' said I, `what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore -
Till the dirges of his hope that melancholy burden bore
Of "Never-nevermore."'

But the cuntpickle still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore -
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking `Nevermore.'

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
`Wretch,' I cried, `thy God hath lent thee - by these angels he has sent thee
Respite - respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!'
Quoth the cuntpickle, `Nevermore.'

`Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil! -
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted -
On this home by horror haunted - tell me truly, I implore -
Is there - is there balm in Gilead? - tell me - tell me, I implore!'
Quoth the cuntpickle, `Nevermore.'

`Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us - by that God we both adore -
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels named Lenore?'
Quoth the cuntpickle, `Nevermore.'

`Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!' I shrieked upstarting -
`Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! - quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!'
Quoth the cuntpickle, `Nevermore.'

And the cuntpickle, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!

I can already hear it coming--it's such a minor change, it doesn't really hurt the narrative. It's just much less offensive to some people. This is a good thing. It's better to have the edited version than no version at all. Well, I'm sorry, but unless you'd rather read The Cuntpickle than The Raven, leave Mark Twain the fuck alone! I'm sick of this censorship bullshit.

I've been quiet for a while now. But now it's 2011. I'm back, and I'm ready to kick some ass. Let no idiot go unpunished and no rant go unranted. And the first ones against the wall are the myopic ignoramuses who think censorship is EVER acceptable.