Category Archives: Popular Culture
There has been a lot of commentary on Pastor Ryan Bell, the minister whose full journey from Christian Pastor to Atheist (apparently – I’d put him in the pledge phase), was chronicled in his year-long decision to live as an atheist. At the end of this year, he has left Christianity and has come to think that atheism is probably the more proper stance. This story isn’t really remarkable, in and of itself, people trade “sides” in both directions all the time. Even life-long atheist Antony Flew remarkably went theist at the end of his life/career and conversions/de-conversions have been used as a cudgel from both sides. So Ryan Bell’s story isn’t remarkable in that respect and as an atheist I don’t take stories like this to hold them up as any sort of proof of atheism, or even support of it. I think the facts stand for themselves. But when stories like this reach the main stream culture, it’s interesting to watch them for the purpose of gauging where the culture’s response lies.
It could be wishful thinking on my part, but I feel like Christianity in the U.S. is on their heels somewhat in the battle to retain their dominance in American culture. I think the internet has a lot to do with it. And I also believe that — much to the chagrin of their Christian enemies and accommodationist critics — people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens put a large dent in Christian cultural impact in the last decade.
I personally left Christianity simply because I believe that Christianity in no sense of the word is “true”. But Christians who see guys like Ryan Bell leaving Christianity, cannot accept the answer that he simply thinks it’s wrong without entertaining the premise. So instead of taking guys like me and other ex-Christians at their word, they spend many hand-wringing hours trying to explain this exodus for different reasons.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many Christians out there honestly looking inward at Christianity to try and see what they can do better to retain Christians. But they miss the point also: it doesn’t matter how much you try and get hip, or re-interpret scripture, or reduce Christian hypocrisy, or soften doctrine to accommodate modern sensibilities, you cannot keep Christians who simply don’t believe it’s true. Truth is and always will be the Achilles heel to religion. There are atheists that have admitted they want Christianity to be true (I am certainly not one of those), but in the end, Christianity has nothing if people aren’t buying the premises in which the religion was built on. The only move – which many modern apologists and theologians are doing – is to change what Christianity means, and give would-be apostates a life line built on mythology. But liberal theology that mythologizes the core of the Christian message is just the last stop on the fast train to non-belief. Sure, people can get off on that last stop, but I highly doubt they can build a city there.
People want truth and whether it comes in the big “T” religious version of the little “t” agnostic/atheist version that’s where they are going to build their lives, so building a culture around apologetics and theology is a non-starter as far as I’m concerned. Theology and apologetics are inherently reactive to the internal and external criticisms of religious doctrine. I think Christianity has been effectively adaptive to date about indoctrinating the sheep and mollifying the would-be intellectual heretics. But critical mass of science, reason, technology, and information age is here and if Christianity continues to fight from their heels, they will lose the privilege of influence they have comfortably held in this country since its inception.
The reaction to Ryan Bell’s exit from Christianity has been interesting to watch. Christians are being downright fierce about his apostasy. The more thoughtful Christians will read about Ryan Bell and look to change the church from within. But at the end of the day Christianity isn’t true and that’s a tough fort to defend. But humans love their narrative and something Ryan Bell said in an interview struck me as a sliver of light for Christianity:
I’d just say that the existence of God seems like an extra layer of complexity that isn’t necessary. The world makes more sense to me as it is, without postulating a divine being who is somehow in charge of things.
Ah, good ol’ Occam’s Razor. Bell also said it was “provisional” where he is at in his thought, so that tells me if he is able to come up with a better Christian narrative than the one he has now then he can be got. More likely though, the word “provisional” is just a responsible word that I think everyone should ultimately be using about their current thought. I hope tomorrow, some belief I hold today is absolutely demolished. That means I’ve grown. Hopefully this hypothetical new belief also is more closely aligned with truth, but even if it isn’t, the value I hold to be open to new ideas means we as individuals have growth potential.
So, on and on we go, a little push here, a little tug there. But the needle has been moving slowly and steadily in America in the recent past away from Christianity and toward non-belief. The reason why is there’s “no there-there” when it comes to Christianity, but it will continue to be interesting the tactics which are used by the believers to try and keep their flock together. Those Christians who think they will be successful because they have Truth on their side are sadly mistaken. I used to think like that. I thought that Christianity was self-evidently true and something that was true could easily withstand any scrutiny. Truth accepted my challenge and Christianity folded without a fight. If we change the value of the Christian culture to believe in the pursuit of truth and knowledge, then Christianity as a major influence in this country will similarly fold. I believe the information age is pushing critical mass in that direction faster than could be hoped for in past generations. I look forward to the day when faith is no longer a virtue and social, cultural, political, and governmental policy is completely discussed, written, and enacted purely by good reasoning.
The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe is a weekly podcast dedicated to skepticism, science, and reason. In my nerdy fever dreams SGU would be the #1 ranked show on radio and television (they would have a TV show in my dreams of course) and everyone at SGU would be world-famous and they would be earning super-star dollars. The show is a team of skeptics headed by uber-skeptic, Steven Novella, and they talk about skeptical/scientific topics.
The show reflects the direction I would love to take my own personal “New World Order”: if everyone had just a little more critical thinking, a little more science education, a little more skepticism in their lives, then we could really get down to business and change the world for the better. If most people took on the the attitudes and values of the panel at SGU, then we could turn the tables of this mess we call a world. I often feel like I don’t need to speak: I could simply have a digital archive I carry around with me, and use a Steve Novella quote in lieu of talking, given that 99.5% of what is said by Steven Novella reflects my positions precisely — and he can always say it better than me anyway.
Someday I will write a blog post about the 0.5% difference (see Jamy Ian Swiss, atheism/skepticism, and tents), but of course today I want to talk about the big news that Rebecca Watson, after nine years, is leaving the show. It was announced yesterday on her blog that she was leaving SGU and her final episode as a skeptical “rogue” was posted to the webs.
Putting it mildly, Rebecca has been a polarizing figure in the atheist/skeptical “community”, sometimes simply due to her brand of witty snark, but more often (and with more vitriol) due to her feminist advocacy. She has one of those personalities that usually either endears her to or repulses her from people. This same love/hate relationship she has among the skeptical/atheist community has been warring inside my own head for years. I like to think that my extremes on any specific issue, makes me an amalgamated centrist, but it probably doesn’t work that way. That’s why Rebecca Watson is so fascinating to me as a barometer for my own views: at any given moment, I’m endeared to Rebecca Watson, and repulsed by her — sometimes simultaneously. Does this constitute a net/net ambivalence toward her? I don’t think so. I think that makes her someone who has that really special ability (especially if one strives to be a public figure) to generate reactions in people — both good and bad. Ambivalence and indifference is death to someone who aims to self-promote.
Rebecca has naturally (and purposefully I believe) had that ability to strike just the right note (or wrong note depending on your perspective), at just the right time, to elicit strong reactions from people from all sides. For Rebecca, I imagine this comes as both a gift (notoriety which can be used for self-promotion) and a curse (notoriety from psychopaths). Elevatorgate had so many ripples through the atheist/skeptical community, I do not think its impact can be overstated. Discussion from her video and her comments afterward were largely or tangentially responsible for a schism that is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. I’m not being flippant when I say this is a real talent. Most people seeking to affect change would give multiple appendages and/or organs to have this ability. I would never say there is a single cause for all the controversies, in-fighting, lashes, and backlashes among skeptics, atheists, feminists, freethinkinkers, etc.; but I would say that where there are such controversies, you don’t need 6 degrees of separation to get to Rebecca Watson – probably just a binary system would suffice.
I don’t want to cop-out and not say specifically where the love falls and where the hate falls in my love/hate relationship with Rebecca Watson. First, I want to make it clear that love/hate is just an expression. I don’t know Rebecca and I want to preface this by saying I like Rebecca as far as it goes. I like her as a public figure, I like her on the SGU and — even though she brings out strong reactions of disagreement in me sometimes — I even like her when I “hate” her. So here are my thoughts for what they’re worth:
Rebecca Watson is a feminist. Rebecca Watson is a Skeptic. Feminism is an ideology. Skepticism is a tool for reasoning. I think that these two can inhabit the same person at the same time, but much like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, depending on how you are looking at a person and their goals and values in any given situation, you can examine either their ideology or their skepticism, but you cannot evaluate ideology and skepticism simultaneously.
This is further complicated because there is no such thing as a universal Platonic ideal of “feminism” or any other ideology. “Feminists” are a group of individuals with individual ideologies loosely coalesced around some nebulous goal concerning women’s rights. For every single “feminist” (I’m using feminism here, but you can insert any ideological position), there is a “feminism” unique to a certain individual that espouses feminist beliefs. In this sense saying “Rebecca Watson has a feminist ideology” is saying something, in that it puts her in a set of people that would advocate for women’s rights, but it still says almost nothing about where she falls on the very broad (if you think I mean that as a pun, shame on you!) spectrum of feminist ideology. In this sense, when we speak of Rebecca’s “feminist ideology” we really can only speak of Rebecca Watson Feminist as a set of one and draw no further conclusions about what her feminist advocacy entails.
I say all this to make two points:
1) A person’s ideology can (should) be instructed by their skepticism, but belief is antithetical to skepticism. We need beliefs to “put on pants” and go out and live our lives, and sometimes our beliefs bring us to adopt certain ideologies. At this point, we are hopefully still using skepticism to continually inform our beliefs, but the action of advocacy necessitates leaving a skeptical mindset. Ideology involves positive momentum, and skepticism by definition is an exercise in doubt and irreducibility. Even though groups like SGU try to sneak in science and reason as part of the definition of modern skepticism, this is only a practical move to be able to engage in meta-skepticism which allows advocacy under the name “skepticism”. The statement, “skepticism is the best tool to obtain logic and reason”, is itself an ideological position, but a necessary axiom to be able to “put on pants”.
2) I believe that Rebecca Watson’s ideological feminism has become more important to her than her skepticism. Or, I suppose put a better way, feminism and her ideology are apparently driving her more than skepticism. Put even a better way, I suppose that it appears to me this is the case. But I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. But I also actually don’t have a problem with her shifting her focus from skepticism and into feminism. I support all forms of feminism — even if I disagree with some of the individual expressions of feminism — because at its core, feminism shares my goal of making women equal in value and force in society (if not giving women a greater role!). I believe that the world is inherently better when women are given a full voice. I do believe that some forms of radical feminism are irrational and illogical and taken to their logical conclusion would be highly detrimental to society — but I still find value to that: it shifts the center and makes rational, progressive feminist arguments seem tame and much more digestible to the general public. We need people to kick down the door whether or not they are being reasonable. I don’t believe Rebecca is always being reasonable when it comes to feminism, but I also don’t really care. Go after it! I don’t think Rebecca leaving SGU and throwing in with ideology is necessarily a bad thing, nor is it necessary for her to choose one or the other. I think she could continue to juggle the two, but unlike some of the Social Justice Warriors, I don’t believe one entails the other. So if it makes sense for Rebecca to focus on one over the other, I fully support the decision.
Finally, I’ll mention some specific points of disagreement with Rebecca’s actions over the years, as I believe these are examples in support of my position that she is more ideologically driven these days as opposed to skeptically driven. Again, I’d like to preface this by saying that for the most part (and certainly in relation the general public) Rebecca Watson is a thoughtful, reasonable person, but I believe she has moved away from the skeptical movement and toward feminist ideology in her advocacy. Perhaps that is necessary. Rhetoric really is effective even if it is seemingly contrary to skepticism.
- I do not think calling D.J. Grothe a “monster” is reasonable.
- I tend to think that there is something to what Abbie Smith and Stef McGraw said on the way Rebecca Watson behaved.
- I think her ideology causes her to have a blind spot for sussing out real hatred for women from people merely criticizing her views or behavior.
- I disagree with her specifically about her advocacy for conference policies, and generally about the infantilization of women that these types of policies promote.
- I think the paradox of using the term “privilege”, is that only people with “privilege” would think of using the term “privilege”. Also, “privilege” is almost always used as an ad hominem and I have yet to hear any actual analysis of how one would determine a scale of privilege or how we could possibly use it as an evaluation tool of fairness or justice.
- Speaking of privilege, I think Rebecca Watson et. al. use only the most uncharitable interpretation of their opponent’s positions.
- I think she overreacted and made an enemy of Richard Dawkins.
- I also think that the high maintenance monitoring of commentary at Skepchick is more ideologically driven, than skeptically driven. I think ideology has put her (perhaps necessarily) in an “us vs. them” situation, where dissent is not acceptable.
- I don’t think she is necessarily a hypocrite for the nudy Skepchick calendar and her current feminist positions – anyone can grow and change positions – but I do believe it is hypocritical for her to so harshly judge those that don’t share her current positions.
- I think there was something really off-putting about her sock-puppeting behavior at the JREF forums – if not completely nefarious, then her actions were certainly self-serving.
- Boycotting TAM was another overreaction, and attacking DJ Grothe during that time seemed pretty out there, and maligning him seemed uncalled for.
A lot of these examples of Rebecca’s behavior over the years seem ideologically driven and not those of a skeptic. Which is okay, I don’t point out these things to vilify her, but I also think that ideologues should not be so quick to condemn people with a “you are either for us or against us” attitude, because they will find their own behaviors reflected back from their perceived enemies. We all make mistakes, but one of the worst attributes of bad ideology is giving harbor to bad behavior for those who agree with you and viciously attacking those who disagree with you for the exact same behavior. This is where critical thinking goes out the window in favor of ideology, and I think Rebecca has engaged in this from time to time.
But I also think that there is much more overlap in mine and Rebecca Watson’s worldview than not. I simply think that she has chosen to focus more strongly on certain parts of her advocacy than skepticism in the past several years and I compliment and encourage her effort — even if I don’t always agree with it. I do think it is time she moved on from the SGU, because while I don’t think she has left skepticism, I do believe she has drifted in her advocacy focus over the years toward socio-political ideology. SGU has clear, stated goals of scientific-skeptical advocacy and education. These goals are antithetical to political movements and they are apolitical, sometimes to the degree of annoyance of some listeners. I think Rebecca struggled with her desire to be an ideological/political advocate and the role she had on SGU.
In the end I hope it works out great for everyone. I hope Rebecca continues to find her socio-political voice and affects the change she desires, and I hope SGU continues to kick ass. I will put in my two cents here and say that Rebecca needs to be replaced by not one, but two women (or three, or four). Perhaps it “shouldn’t matter” if they replace her with women or not, but I say it does. I think more women voices everywhere are called for and until women are equally represented, I see no reason not to specifically seek them out for vital roles. I think female voices make everything stronger. Give credit where credit is due, Rebecca made SGU stronger. She made it stronger from a production standpoint, and she made it stronger by growing the audience. It was in no small part because she had a different voice, and different voices usually complement more than they detract.
So, good luck Rebecca and “so long” and hopefully it’s “good riddance” from the perspective of both you and SGU.
As I’ve stated before, and I will undoubtedly state again, I’m a hack blogger, not an “author” or “journalist” and as such, I’m pretty lazy about sourcing. I just write opinions in this online diary rant, so I don’t feel overly compelled to meticulously source everything I say. I do what I can, but this is just a hobby that hopefully puts my voice out there to whatever degree it matters (probably none). That being said, here is a list of sources (by no means exhaustive) of background information relevant to this post.
- Rebecca’s Blog Site
- Richard Dawkins’ “Dear Muslima” letter in response to Elevatorgate, contained in the following link:
- Rebecca’s Response to Dear Muslima
- Site dedicated to crushing all things Rebecca. Example of love her or hate her, she creates sparks.
- Another article not particularly in the pro-Watson camp
- Freethought blogs (pro-feminism) and Slymepit (anti-feminism). Not equating these two places, simply showing where you can get what I think are extreme views on either side of the feminist schism within skepticism. Slymepit came out of a thread from Abbie Smith’s ERV site who I really like. She seems to have disappeared from the fray and is actually doing real science. Damn you Abbie for eschewing drama and actually working. In the end I think both sides are right and both sides are wrong. That doesn’t make me a fence sitter, given any specific topic or question I will have an opinion one way or the other, those individual opinions just so happen to agree with parts of one side and parts of the other.
- You can also check out Freethought blogs to get a healthy dose of Atheism+, a group that represents my point about once advocacy kicks in, one has adopted an ideology and left skepticism. As a matter of fact PZ Myers did just that: he turned in his skepticism card, and I believe rightfully so given his values as a Social Justice Warrior.
- Here’s a good primer on Atheism+ written by Richard Carrier. Atheism+ which has much overlap feminism and is a movement that in no small part is due directly and indirectly to elevatorgate and the fallout afterwards. This article can also serve as a rabbit hole for links and a history of Atheism+ and SJW. Like with most players in this theater, I like Richard Carrier, but also simultaneously find him to be an arrogant twit. Unlike, much of the A+ crowd, I can like and respect a person, but disagree (sometimes respectfully, sometimes not), without banishing them. I enjoy Richard’s books, but find him rigid, dogmatic, smug, and arrogant in much of his public persona. But so what? If we had to approve of and like 100% everyone’s thoughts and actions to be able to share space with them, then no one would like anyone. Judgment to this degree is for religious zealots, and I left religion in part because I value everyone, even if I disagree with them, even if I despise their views. At its root, I cannot support these movements because I believe ultimately they 1) undermine their own goals by excluding people that could be their allies (not an accommodationist argument!) 2) They don’t want people like me in their movement, so I respect their decision to exclude me. 3) While their goals actually reflect mine very closely, we disagree on fundamental definitions of what “feminism”, “atheism”, “justice”, and “fairness” are and also the best way to achieve the similar goals we have.
There are many, many more links, but if you pull the thread a little of any of the above links, you’ll be able to go down a rabbit hole that could entertain and/or repulse you for weeks.
In the end, I support everyone who uses skepticism as a foundation to inform their lives and ideologies even if I disagree with their conclusions. I believe that’s okay. Politics, social policy, fairness, justice, and other human constructs are instructed by individual values and no one has an objective claim to the ultimate answer. That’s reserved for the religious and for extreme ideologues, not skeptics. I believe some ideologies are abhorrent, but individual people rarely are.
I love it when I find agreement with Christians, even if it is for completely different reasons and from polar opposite viewpoints.
Here’s an article by a Christian, properly placing blame on Christians for not keeping “Christ” in Christmas. It’s pretty typical “reason for the season” drivel and admonishing Christians for allowing so much commercialization of the holiday, blah, blah. There is a lot about the article that isn’t relevant to me as a non-believer, but in the spirit of the season, I’ll point out an area of major common ground: Christians’ “war” with non-believers during this time of year is small potatoes compared to the worldview-war they should be having in their own community concerning the “true” meaning of Christmas.
For whatever reason, the Bill O’Reillys of the world think they are in a battle with secularists over the holiday. To some small degree that is true, but not in the way they think. Bill’s culture war should be with his fellow Christians, because the war with non-believers is mostly on constitutional grounds — and much less so about the culture (although I certainly wouldn’t mind convincing the culture not to be Christians).
The culture war surrounding the holidays is a much bigger “war” in scope, but that’s a battle that Christians need to have with themselves, not with secularists. It’s really easy for a non-believing 1st Amendment-lover like me: I don’t believe any tenets of the Christian faith, the Bible holds no value for me, and I certainly don’t think that religion of any sort should be anywhere near the state, the government, nor any public policy. Christmas, or any celebration around the solstice, is simply a celebration of humanity and a recognition of the good things in life. The line for those who are religious gets a lot fuzzier. Christians are confused and disjointed as a group as to where religious/secular line lies, and how it should be toed.
Christians lament the fact that Christ is a minority role player in the theater and pageantry of Christmas. I agree, Christ has almost nothing to do with the modern celebration of Christmas. Christmas is better for it. So, in this very narrow way, I absolutely agree with the author of this article: Christians should whine to each other and try to keep each other in line about “keeping Christ in Christmas”–just keep it off my lawn, away from the courthouse, and leave me out of it — you’ll find much greater disagreement amongst yourselves than you will with me as to what Christmas means to Christians.
Half the time when you meet people who say they are churchgoing Christians, they don’t know what they’re supposed to believe, they don’t believe all of it, they have a lot of doubt, and they go to church largely for social reasons.
~ Christopher Hitchens “Christmas with Christopher Hitchens,” A.V. Club 12/20/07
Bill O’Reilly considers himself a culture warrior. Grossly overstated metaphor aside (subtlety does not exist in the No Spin Zone), he definitely engages in battles of words daily. A particular battlefield during the month of December gets him going like no other, his beloved “War on Christmas”. You can Google it to find over a decade’s worth of clips and commentary on his Christmas Crusades. Recently he declared victory for his side. He is literally on the side of the angels and baby Jesus (non-existent as they may be) – it is the little tot’s birthday after all. So in the spirit of the season, I’ll cede the war to Bill, so all that is left is to draw up the treaty.
Bill and Baby Jesus get to have and celebrate the following Christmas items:
Creepy nativity scenes, gold, frankincense, myrrh, crosses (burning optional), church, Herod, donkeys.
The “losers” of the war on Christmas are stuck with the following to celebrate only if they so choose:
Decorated trees, pretty lights, PEACE [Bill doesn’t want this because a) he’s a warrior and b) Jesus came not for peace but with a sword], presents, stockings, Santa, reindeer, secular Christmas songs, Dickens, candy canes, eggnog, snowmen, holly, wreaths, merry bells, snowmen, feasts, JOY, family (Jesus ain’t too big on family values), cookies…
So to Bill and other Jesus warriors: I promise not to go to church but we get Rudolph and for Kris Kringle’s sake keep your hands off my figgy pudding!
Happy Holidays Everyone!
The anniversary of his death has recently passed and I’m reminded daily that his voice is needed more than ever. Fearless yet eloquent, I’m sure if he were here he would take pleasure in eviscerating lazy thinkers on the subject of ISIS and North Korea. I want to witness the verbal assault he would inflict on authoritarian regimes and those that would defend or apologize for their disgusting anti-humanitarian, anti-freedom world views. I know humanists, atheists, secularists, et. al. are not big on “leaders” nor “heroes” nor “representatives”, but he was all those things, not by fiat or by design, but by virtue.
I miss his writings and his repartee on television. He was a visible, accessible representative of many of the thoughts in my head, and while there are still those on my “side” who manage to make it on TV and press now and again, he was a rare intellectual public fixture and put the “vocal” in “vocal minority”.
Luckily he was prolific and admirably worked until his dying breath, and I often go to sleep to my “Hitch-a-by”: my nightly reading of his brilliant writings and sometimes the soothing lullaby of a YouTube Hitchslap of what is always an unworthy debate opponent.
Here’s a particularly noble performance of Hitch smacking down the Catholic Church:
I think I found something that both an atheist and a fundamentalist Christian can agree on (not that I was looking). That is: wishy-washy, a la carte, hippie-dippie, half-assed Christians throwing around Jesus all the time but not really practically following the tenets of Christianity… well, they’re just annoying. Give me a gool ol’ fashioned Bible literalist any day of the week. At least they’ve usually read the Bible and know what that abomination says. I believe that if the a la carte Christians were actually forced to live by what the Bible says, then we’d very instantly have a whole lot less people calling themselves Christians running around. I say as atheists, we quit playing the “moving target game” that is Christianity. They have plenty to duke it out amongst themselves what they actually believe. None of them can make sense of the Bible and they all believe different things about it. They don’t need us telling them it’s wrong (although that can be fun), let them fight it out and sort it out among themselves. Atheists should start using a divide and conquer method.
So since this blog is somewhat of a popular culture blog, I’m going to call out some popular believers to take a stand for Christianity or not. I suppose they need to dump or get off the proverbial Christian pot. So here goes, since I’m sure the following people read my blog, I’m going to ask for clarification about their beliefs:
Katy Perry: She kissed a girl… and she liked it! But she has a very unfortunate Jesus tattoo on her left wrist. So Katy Perry, which is it? Are you down with Leviticus and think same-sex folk are an abomination to be killed, because Jesus was (you know the whole jot or tittle thing). Katy Perry: shit or get off the Christian pot.
Bill O’Reilly: Has demoted Jesus to simply a philosopher instead of, you know…. God! I’m guessing there are a lot of Christians out there that would take umbrage with that. Like this one here. Pretty sure Aristotle never turned water into wine and I’m almost positive I’ve never heard anywhere that David Hume walked on water. So, Bill O’Reilly, which is it? Did Jesus come to wipe away the sins of mankind, or is he simply another guy sharing some opinions? Bill O’Reilly: shit or get off the Christian pot.
Ke$ha: She’s got “Jesus on her necklace” and she wears cross earrings. Hey! Don’t wear the blingy Christian icons if you are not going to walk the path of righteousness!!! Sayeth the lord. Ke$ha: shit or get off the Christian pot.
Not since Madonna has an artist used such religious symbolism in their music and performance. Lady Gaga seems to pretty much come out against organized religion, but where does she stand against non-organized religion? Is she a believer in belief? Lady Gaga: shit or get off the Christian pot.
I’ve often thought that there isn’t any criticism of Christianity that comes from atheists that doesn’t also come from within the belief itself. I think it has more teeth coming from believers and I think we should separate the wheat from the chaff so to speak. I don’t care to argue with Christians, they don’t even cross the threshold of reasonable discourse for me (although it can be fun sometimes I suppose). I would rather turn Christians on themselves. They have a lot to sort out before any kind of meaningful dialogue can be had with me or other atheists.
Several sites have posted blurbs about Ray Comfort’s new blog taking on a new popular atheist every week, and last week it was Billy Joel. Here’s a link to Pharyngula, because I don’t want to link directly to Comfort’s place.
Basically, Comfort argued that the song “Piano Man” was authored by Joel, all art has an artist, therefore nature has an author and by the way it’s the Christian God. Pardon the ridiculous paraphrasing, but that’s essentially what Ray Comfort said – it’s what Ray Comfort always says. I don’t really find it necessary to go over that old, tired ground with Ray, it’s so played out and beyond futile.
I think what more interests me about this “story” is that Billy Joel seems to be a non-believer and that he might not be the right kind of non-believer. Based on some comments from atheists about the epic Comfort/Joel battle, I infer that a lot of people think Joel doesn’t have the atheist credentials to be taken seriously, or even engaged in a debate by Ray Comfort. PZ’s somewhat dismissive tone of his description of Joel as “that giant of the atheist movement” would be one such dismissive comment. I’m not admonishing PZ and others for this sort of insular atheistic attitude. I actually support it and have defended it to others that say that Freethought Blogs and PZ Myers’ type of atheist “fundamentalism” is hurting the cause.
But there is an enormous “BUT” in there. I think this type of insular attitude is a necessary but not sufficient aspect in non-believers gaining access to the social/political culture at large. Exclude no one. If non-believers are going to have a “voice”, then I believe that voice needs to have the opportunity to be as varied and representative as any other group of people. I don’t think one can categorize any group of people as having 100% overlap in ideology, approach, opinion, etc. Is that kind of not what we want to avoid in society?
This is not an accommodationist argument I’m trying to make here. On the spectrum of “militant atheist” to “accommodationist” I personally and unequivocally fall well on the side that is not-accommodationist in nature. This isn’t even an argument that falls somewhere in between those two groups (the accommodationists and not-accommodatists). The main point I want to make is that coming to the philosophical and/or practical decision to be a non-believer comes in so many varieties, it’s best not to assume anything about anyone and certainly not exclude them from what I see as a process.
I have personally made the very long journey from believer whose life revolved around my Christian beliefs (it wasn’t my fault, I was a poor kid!), to an atheist who believes that religion is intellectually, socially, psychologically, and culturally destructive. But that didn’t happen over night, and I’ve heard atheist testimony after atheist testimony that they had to make a similar journey. All along the way to make that journey, I was in a different place in my thinking. Some people stop short of where I landed, some perhaps go beyond where I landed, and still others may unfortunately retreat back to religion.
I, for one, am glad the atheist and/or skeptical community even has enough people and voices to have such a spectrum and diversity. I’m glad for all the following people (and more!), even if they do sometimes (often) shit on each other: *PZ Myers, John Loftus, Rebecca Watson, Chris Mooney, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Victor Stenger, Chris Rodda, Abbie Smith, Jerry Coyne, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Steven Novella, Hemant Mehta, Paula Kirby, Michael Shermer, Massimo Pigliucci, Reginald Finley, Ophelia Benson, Sam Harris, Jay Novella, D.J. Groethe, Penn Jillette, Bob Novella, Dan Barker, Evan Bernstein, Derek Calunduno, Phil Plait, Daniel Dennett, and yes… Billy Joel also. Especially Billy Joel.
I’m guessing Billy Joel doesn’t have the same flavor of atheism I have, but I think that’s okay. The guy is such a superstar (150 million albums!) and reaches such a broad audience, the fact that someone, anyone of his magnitude is out there even willing to commit to atheism in a public way has value. Yeah, so he may or may not make sophisticated, philosophical atheist arguments (I don’t know that he doesn’t or can’t it’s a preliminary assumption shared by some of us based off these comments in an interview). Guess what? Popular culture isn’t sophisticated and the reality of the situation is atheism needs a deep and wide reach into popular culture if it is eventually going to have an impact on that culture. I’m not concerned if Billy Joel isn’t sophisticated in his atheism we’ve got other folk for that. There are valuable cultural roles to be played by everyone. People live and travel at different times and different places on the belief spectrum and different flavors of atheism can speak to different people at different times.
Again, I’m appreciative of all the voices and all the diversity we offer. No exclusion.
*Note: This list totally quick and off the cuff, apologies for all the omissions. There are dozens and dozens of more names I could have listed off the top of my head, and dozens more if I actually thought about it for awhile. That’s the point! We have people now, we have numbers, we have diversity, that’s something to be celebrated!
I remember being a kid and the passion I had for music. Everything was new to me. I loved pop and rock music of the current time (’80s) and spent countless hours listening to top 40 radio where the diversity was fantastic. To hopefully prove my point, I’m going to right now open up a random page from my Billboard charts from 1984 and give you a list of the diversity of artists you could then find on top 40 radio (before the evil segregationists formatted radio in the 90’s).
Here is a list of artists that were in the top 40 for September 15th, 1984. Notice the diversity in music, not only stylistically, but also the ages, and cultural backgrounds of the artists.
- Tina Turner – R&B singer who reinvented herself for 80’s pop. Showed the world that it wasn’t only men that could be sexy as they aged. Love her!
- Cindy Lauper – At this time no one was going to be sure who would be the top female pop singer, Cindy or Madonna. I think we know who won out, but Cindy Lauper was really popular. She was quirky, wildly accessorized and wrote great pop music with lyrical depth and a lot of heart.
- Lionel Ritchie – He went from the wildly popular Commodores to being even more wildly popular solo artist. A great pop balladeer and songwriter.
- Huey Lewis and the News – I mention them for even more diversity. I rock band in the 80’s, but stylistically they were a throw back to 60’s R&B and Doo Wop. You think they are old-school now, they’ve always been old school!
- The Cars – The Cars are almost a category by themselves, they are new wavy, they are synthy, they hung out with Andy Warhol so I’m sure they had underground pop art cred. They were just different.
- Patty Smyth – Rock singer who happens to be female.
- Bruce Springsteen – Pure rock and roll heart on this guy. Wanted to take the visceral energy of Elvis and mix it with the social conscience of Dylan. If there is anybody who could pull off such a Herculean task, it is possibly the Boss.
- Prince – Holy “power” everything, Power Funk, Power R&B, Rock, Pop. The guy had/has it all and can do anything musically. Needs to drop that Jehovah’s Witness garbage, but other than that this guy is as good as they come.
- Stevie Wonder – Does anything need to be said about this guy? He’s a genius. Again, too bad about the religious thing.
- Chicago – Started as a rock band with great horn arrangements and interesting songs, ended up a tool for Peter Cetera’s schmaltz. Still ads diversity to this collection of artists.
- Julio Iglesias – Don’t know much about Julio other than when I was a kid he seemed like he came from the Barry Manilow School of Boring to me. But if anything proves my point about the musical diversity of pop music back then, I suppose it’s the fact that this guy could crack the top 40.
- Madonna – She was still building her empire in September of 1984, but I think even back then everyone had some idea about her power to thrill, entertain, create controversy, and make great music wasn’t really just a flash in the pan. She had it all.
- Ratt (L.A.) and Twisted Sister (Long Island) – Hard rock with screaming electric guitars. If you can find anything less than 12 degrees of separation between bands like Ratt and Twisted Sister on one side and Lionel Ritchie and Julio Iglesias on the other, you’re a better mind than me. And as I point out these two bands couldn’t be from farther parts of the country from each other, making the diversity of music back then not only different stylistically, but also regionally.
- Donna Summer – 70’s disco queen was still able to chart at a time when the country hated disco.
- Rick Springfield – Contrary to popular belief this guy was not a one-hit wonder, pretty-boy, soap star. He could actually rock and had a fistful of top 40 hits. And he wrote them all too (I think with the exception of “I’ve Done Everything For You” which was written by Sammy Hagar).
- Rod Stewart – Rod kept up with the ’80’s and scored a lot of hits. The guy was kind of like a musical chameleon and was able to keep his pulse of the musical times from the Faces counter-culture folkish rock, to his skin-tight disco pants of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”, to his skinny tie days of the 80’s. Amazingly the one constant for Rod was the spiky hair.
- Billy Joel – One of the great American songwriters in my opinion. But aside from my opinion he adds diversity to the list. When a lot of rock was guitar driven, he and Elton were sitting down rocking (much like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis bucked the trend in the 50’s).
- Elton John – Speaking of Elton John, ironically he happens to be right next to Billy Joel on the charts in September of 1984.
That list does not even include the diversity of hits that week from second tier stars and one-hit wonders. Here’s a short list of honorable mentions: John Waite (quasi-rock guy, power ballad singer); Sheila E. (80’s funk rock and lead singer/percussionist who added some Latin stylings to the music); Corey Hart (Canadian one-hit wonder rocker); Peter Wolf (lead singer of the J. Geils Band that started as a blues-based combo); Bananarama (British? girl group); Billy Squier (thought he was a rocker, but danced around in his underwear for a video and lost all cred); Night Ranger (rock); Lindsey Buckingham (Fleetwood Mac guitarist); Spandau Ballet (British, New Romantic perhaps?); Billy Idol (punk-pop).
That is from one random week from 1984 in the top 40 (well random insofar as I picked 1984 to look into because I knew it would prove my point, but it’s random within that year 😉 ). When I was a kid listening to top 40 radio, I didn’t really make a distinction between the music of Lionel Ritchie, Tina Turner, Huey Lewis, or Bruce Springsteen. They were just all great artists making great music.
While, I’m not trying to make some grand statement how music could be the elixir for all complex social issues and race relations, I do believe there is a universal component about music that has the ability to shed some discrimination. Musicians have a long, proud history of desegregation, well before the rest of the country caught up (i.e. Jazz combos, big bands, Alan Freed mixed race events, etc.).
Perhaps also, there is a Universal Law of Diversity, where diversity is a necessary component to the health of an organism. Genetic diversity certainly is an important component to the health of species; as I hopefully have shown, diversity makes music at least more interesting and I would claim “better” (one example is that rock and roll comes from the blend of several genre influences and has continually evolved since its inception); I believe there is some evidence that diversity in work environments create more for more creative, effective results; and finally culturally diverse environments I believe are healthier, more interesting environments. I know that for me personally, I grew up in a relatively diverse suburb of Chicago and my white suburban boy life was made far richer from the multi-cultural interactions I had. So there, my personal anecdote proves it!
Luckily the top 40 these days is simply musically segregated and not racially segregated, but it continues to disappoint me that the richness and depth that comes from musical diversity is nowhere to be found in popular music these days. And that is coming from a guy who actually is enjoying pop music again for the first time in 20 years – an idea I will explore in my post Belief in Belief Part II: Jesus as an accessory.
So my hope is that popular music becomes more diverse and people playing music from all genres and backgrounds once again have a chance to make the big time. This hope is also a little selfish to my agenda with Skeptical Music, because perhaps if popular music regained some diversity, then there’d be room for some skeptical and maybe (gasp!) even some atheistic songs to gain mass popularity.