Thursday, January 10, 2013

Not the Right Kind of Atheist...

Pseudo-Historian David Barton
This evening I am going to be at the Cox Cable local access production studios to appear for the fifth and sixth time on Chapter & Verse, an evangelical Christian television series that has been broadcasting for something like 29 years. I'll be on as the president of the Humanists of Rhode Island and a leading local atheist, doing my best not to let the cause down.

I am always treated exceptionally well on the show. The host, Ray Dempsey, is a genuine and open person, and has always treated me and my opinions with the utmost courtesy and respect. That said, I can't help but feel that I let Ray down when I do his show, because I'm not the kind of outspoken, angry atheist he might like me to be.

My impression, and this is my impression only, I don't want to speak for Ray, is that I don't neatly fit the religious stereotype of atheists who hate God and hold nihilistic views on morality. Instead, I try to give thoughtful responses to ethical questions, listen patiently when others on the show talk about their God beliefs, and shy away from extremism.

For example: Shortly before my third and fourth appearance on the show (they film two episodes, back to back, so this would actually be my second time in studio) Ray sent me a link to a piece in the Journal of Medical Ethics by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva entitled "After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?" The paper argues that:
Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus' health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.
I was familiar with this piece because it has been used in the religious right blogosphere as an example of the extreme consequences of allowing the practice of abortion in our secular society, the bottoming out of the slippery slope. A piece on Creation.com, a religious anti-reproductive freedom website, used the article to portray atheists as moral monsters on par with Hitler, concluding:
This recent promotion of infanticide is just a logical outcome of an evolutionary world view. Far from being a progressive step forward, it’s really a regression to the world view of the Nazis and of the most debased pagans of antiquity—debasements cured by the Gospel.
Now Ray Dempsey is a good guy, but he's also a pro-life evangelical Christian, so his world view and his reading are going to mostly conform along those lines. His usual interview is with believers like himself, some moderate, and some extreme, like pseudo-historian David Barton. So when Ray asked me about after-birth abortion I don't believe he did so out of malice or as a "gotcha." It is quite possible that he read some stuff online about atheists and abortion and naturally assumed that I would be on board with this idea.

I wrote back that though I would be happy to share my views on reproductive rights, including abortion, I was not going to defend the paper by Giubilini and Minerva, because I think their position is nuts. Not only that, but I think the authors floated the idea not out of genuine ethical considerations, but out of a desire to spark just the kind of outlandish reactions it did. I have no interest in advocating for positions that are not my own, so we did the show without bringing up this needlessly inflammatory subject.

In advance of tonight's filming, Ray sent me a collection of quotes from renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, some cute, like "People who boast about their IQs are losers" and some provocative, as in, "The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet…"

However, I bet the quote we talk about, if we do, will be, "What I have done is to show that it is possible for the way the universe began to be determined by the laws of science. In that case, it would not be necessary to appeal to God to decide how the universe began. This doesn't prove that there is no God, only that God is not necessary."

Now there's a part of me that feels as though I don't need to be on a tiny cable access show defending statements by Stephen Hawking, but I agree with Hawking, and feel fine discussing his take on the universe. I don't know what we'll be discussing, because Ray also sent me a short piece by Gallup on the so-called "Rise of the Nones," those who have no religious affiliation.

That's okay. I really don't care what we talk about on the show, as long as we are talking. Ray gives me the chance to air and advocate for my beliefs in a respectful forum. In return, I listen to Ray and the other guest (usually my friend Don Anderson, head of the RI Coalition of Churches) as they advance their beliefs. It's a quiet, thoughtful show that probably sees no more than a thousand viewers a week, if that, but the discussion is real, and that makes it worth it.

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