Wednesday, April 4, 2007

A Bright Idea for Atheists

Today's edition -- Wednesday, April 4, 2007 -- of The Ottawa Citizen contains an op-ed piece by Robert J. Sawyer on atheism and the Modern Skeptical Movement, which the paper is calling "Unhealthy Skepticism" (my original title was "A Bright Idea for Atheists"). It takes up most of a page (page 17).

The Ottawa Citizen is the largest circulation newspaper in Canada's capital city; an op-ed piece is an opinion article that appears opposite the editorial, and is written by someone other than the newspaper's usual staff.

My piece is an expansion of the comments I made at the grand opening of the Centre for Inquiry, Ontario.

The full text of the article is online here.

Pictured above: The Flying Spaghetti Monster; the Citizen ran the full version of this picture, which also shows Adam off to the left, and is captioned "Touched by his Noodly Appendage," with the article in the print version, as you can see below.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


At April 04, 2007 10:39 AM , Blogger Simon said...

That's an excellent piece, Robert. I'm an atheist Englishman living just outside Philadelphia, so I get aggravation for being British and for being an atheist. Sometimes it gets to the point when it becomes really depressing, because I have no refuge where I can "fit in" for some sort of comfort.

I began looking around for organizations or groups that I could join, but nothing seemed to be right. The Brights movement seemed to offer a solution, but I found the name of the organization to be distasteful. I can only imagine what my wife would say, who believes in God. So I continue to drift in rudderless limbo because of, ironically, an atheist holier-than-thou attitude.

At April 04, 2007 2:07 PM , Blogger Jonny_eh said...

I read your article in the Ottawa Citizen and found it thought provoking. I consider myself a skeptic and an atheist (one does not necessarily imply the other).

I wrote a response on my blog to your article:

I would appreciate it if you had the time to take a look.

I have also read many of your books and think they're great. I'm about to start 'Hybrids' soon, can't wait. Keep writing!

At April 04, 2007 2:10 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Hi, Jonny. Interesting thoughts in your response. I'm not sure that ridicule accomplishes anything, especially when it's the minority ridiculing the majority (the reverse, though equally reprehensible in my view, at least accomplishes the majority's implicit goal of maintaining the status quo). But thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my thoughts.

At April 04, 2007 2:16 PM , Blogger wftl said...

I'm looking forward to reading the piece, Rob, since you and I have spoken on this topic many times. Sadly, (and by extension, the Ottawa Citizen), have gone missing. Host not found.

On a related note . . . I thought you might find this article interesting since it does come from your old Alma Mater, Ryerson. Seems the leader of the local chapter of the Freethought Association of Canada was beat up for, well, being an atheist. Some want it treated as merely an assault but he wants it investigated as a hate crime, citing that atheists should have the same protection as religious people.

-- Marcel

At April 04, 2007 2:20 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

My op-ed piece is back up, Marcel. Try here.

And, wow, that's AWFUL about Justin Trottier being beaten up. I know him; he's a great guy. I'm really sorry to hear this.

At April 04, 2007 7:24 PM , Blogger Chris McKitterick said...

Hi Robert -

Great story! Thanks for going out there and offering criticisms that might actually help people understand that atheists aren't necessarily the smug bastards they're often portrayed as being.


At April 04, 2007 8:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rob, before you criticize religion, the belief in afterlife and the belief in God as a great evil and danger to world peace, please be aware that the deadliest regimes in history (Nazi Germany and Stalinist USSR) were atheist by nature. Pol Pot was not a small potato either.

These historical lessons led me to believe that the problems in our world is not religion, but Human nature. :(

I conceder myself Secular and Skeptic. (Which is a kind of soft atheist...) The reason for that is not because I think it's better, but because it seems more logical.

Live long and prosper

Ron Friedman, Calgary

At April 04, 2007 8:20 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Ron, did you even read my article? Or are you just having a knee-jerk reaction to what you're guessing it says?

At April 04, 2007 10:46 PM , Blogger Jonny_eh said...

Can you think of any response other than ridicule to something like this?

What is portrayed in that video is what skeptics are trying to battle, not your typical secular Canadian Christian. I think you've been attacking a straw man. Skeptics are often nice, smart, and funny. We enjoy the world for what it is, and try to share and promote the love of science with the world. If you want to live in a world where promoting science and reason, even if it contradicts a popular religion, is a good reason to not let your daughter marry someone, I think we have a different world view.

If you read the skeptical literature such as the Skeptical Inquirer that you referred to, you would see that most of the focus, when it comes to religious topics, is mostly concerned with evolution. Maybe it's because religion is holding back the teaching and understanding of this very important science? Without evolution, the Neanderthal Parallax wouldn't make much sense.

Is this concern for evolution that skeptics have exaggerated? I think not.

Whether it was your intention or not, you portrayed skeptics as a bunch of dour, juvenile, religion haters, and worthy of being hated themselves. that is why I am so angry.

If you want to be introduced to a bunch of fun and entertaining skeptics that hardly ever talk about religion (unless it interferes with science), I recommend this podcast.

At April 04, 2007 11:37 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Rob for publishing my knee-jerk comment. I did read the article, and I enjoy reading it just as I did with your latest six books.

The line that prompt me to replay was: "I, for one, certainly wish the guy with his finger on the button didn't think there was a better world after this one".

It imply as if the world will be a better place if the person who sits in the white house does not believe in afterlife. Though I myself don't believe in supernatural, and I have no objection if someone like Ponter (From the book Hominid... ) will run the world. - I don't think such (lack of) belief is morally superior. There are some negative examples of atheist leaders.


At April 04, 2007 11:41 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Well, you're certainly showing how fun and pleasant they can be, jonny. :)

And you are completely misunderstanding my article; see the comment preceding yours from Chris McKitterick, who DID get what I was saying.

I mean, heck, I wrote: "most atheists are good, happy, fun-loving people." You come back at me with "Skeptics are often nice, smart, and funny" -- as if you were contradicting me.

And then you write, "If you want to live in a world where promoting science and reason, even if it contradicts a popular religion, is a good reason to not let your daughter marry someone, I think we have a different world view" -- which is certainly not what I said. I want to live in a world where atheists can stand up proudly, rather than be reviled. I think I helped that cause today; I don't think you did.

At April 04, 2007 11:47 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Hi, Ron. Well, I explore that issue at length in HUMANS; in fact, I think the point is so important that I've posted most-relevant chapter on my website. We won't agree on this, but I am convinced that the most reprehensible things Bush has done are directly related to his simplistic fundamentalism.

At April 05, 2007 9:22 AM , Blogger Jonny_eh said...

It wasn't your intention, but I think many people have taken your article the wrong way. Most people that I have talked to here in Ottawa that read your piece took from it that Atheists and skeptics are insensitive pricks. Your suggestion at the end for more positive bumper stickers, and saying nice things about atheism, is nice, but it comes at the end of a long piece criticizing atheism/skepticism.

What was the point of the piece? I can completely understand and applaud what you wrote if it was in a skeptical publication, it's a nice call for skeptics to alter their marketing tactics. But why did you need to publicly embarrass a cause that you seem to support? I don't make fun of Christians, but thanks to your article, my family and friends now think I do.

Even if your article gets one of the few Ottawa skeptics to take a darwin fish off their car (I've seen 1, just 1, ever in Ottawa), it now has thousands of non-skeptics disliking a movement they probably never even heard of before.

I've been finding that the mainstream media hardly ever prints a skeptical story, just rubbish about Phoenix Lights (UFOs), and ghost stories. These things bring in readers. I'm not surprised they asked you to write a piece criticizing skeptics, the only people that catch them on sloppy journalism in those areas. Why do you think that you were the only one of the 20 speakers to be asked to write an article from the speeches given at the opening of the Centre for Inquiry in Toronto? Were there no other good speeches?

At April 05, 2007 11:31 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

You misunderstand. I was approached -- as I am every few months -- by the Ottawa CITIZEN, and asked if I wanted to write a piece for the op-ed page on anything I chose. I suggested turning my (very well received) speech into an article, and got the go ahead. Nobody from THE CITIZEN (or, as near as I could see, any other newspaper) covered the opening speeches; nobody was suppressing anyone else; in fact, the op-ed page of THE CITIZEN (and most other newspapers) is wide open to contributions; see the note at the end of the printed article.

You are also now drawing an artificial distinction between "ridiculing" -- which you said you do, and approve of -- and "making fun of" -- which you've now decided is a bad idea, because you're family doesn't like to think you do that. Bah.

You also are completely wrong, in my view, in thinking that this article should have been confined to a skeptical publication. The Modern Skeptical Movement represents a tiny fraction of the atheists and nonreligious in society, and a great many of them are dissatisfied with it. Atheism and skepticism has been damaged by the (often fractious and non-representative) self-declared official representatives of the lifestyle, and it's high time atheists and those sympathetic to the cause who feel disenfranchised by the way atheism is presented by its highest profile practitioners speak out in public.

As the Freethought Association of Canada says on its homepage today, "You've got to hand it to Sawyer for criticizing the prevailing atheist/skeptic culture and providing a fresh perspective on the old us-versus-them science-versus-religion routine."

Anyway, you've had your say, here, in your blog, and elsewhere, and I've had mine. We're certainly not going to change each other's minds.

At April 05, 2007 4:59 PM , Blogger Josh said...

Rob, speaking as a Christian and a skeptic--in the sense that while I'm not sure everything is knowable, I think that application of the scientific method is the best way we have of determining what is--I really liked your piece, and I'm baffled by the criticisms in the comments here. I thought you were perfectly polite, and that it was very clear that your point wasn't at all to denigrate atheists, but to suggest that the movement would catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

It's always been interesting (and saddening) to me that so many of the most vocal atheists and Christians present themselves as such unfriendly, angry people. It's interesting because I've read a lot of your fellow Canadian, Mr. McLuhan, over the last decade, so it strikes me that maybe this is a perfect example of the medium being the message--the content doesn't really matter, but on both sides of the argument, you have people basically acting identically. Anyway, that's all a bit deep....

Ultimately, we'd all be better served if we focused more on just getting along than on pushing our worldviews -- we have so much more common ground than we have differences. You do a lot toward getting us there, man. Thanks so much!

(Oh, and speaking as an American, I think you're right about Bush--except that I'm not quite as convinced of his faith anymore, and more worried just about his not being that, well, bright.)

At April 05, 2007 10:20 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Rob, for forcing me to examine and confront my own prejudice.

I live in a small town where the vast majority of folks do not share my skeptic views. One of my best friends here, with whom I share a passion for SF, fantasy and gaming, is an evangelical Christian who graduated from a Bible college and almost became a minister. I don't feel superior to this man and his family, and certainly am not contemptuous of him!

And yet I have occasionally toyed with the idea on slapping a Darwin fish on my car. I don't actually display anything on my vehicle, for the same reason I don't cut out editorials I agree with and tape them to my butt. Still, if I were going to display anything, it might have been a Darwin fish.

But now I won't, because you're right. When I see a fish on someone's car, I tend to stereotype them as smug, self-righteous Christians who think they can tell me how to live my life. However, this doesn't square with my experience of the religious people around me, except for a few isolated instances. I cannot rightly assume that these displayers of fish want to burn the works of Darwin in the public square.

When I first heard of the FSM, I applauded it. I thought it was a novel way to respond to the tactics of the Creationists in their assault on the teaching of biology. Actually, I still think the FSM may have value in that context. But if there are people out there using Pastafarianism to attack religion in general, then I can't approve. Belief in a higher power is not inherently bad, though it is not a belief I share. I simply object to using that belief to attempt to force everyone to act or not act in a certain way.

So thanks again. Your piece was just the sort of thing I would expect from the atheist who wrote Calculating God.

John F
Turo, NS

At April 05, 2007 10:47 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Many thanks, Josh and John F. -- much appreciated!

Josh, one of the themes of my novel Calculating God is that very thing: that, in terms of behavior, it's often impossible to tell the militant atheists and the militant religionists apart, and I agree with you about the scientific method, as I detailed here.

John F., I think the big eye-opener for me was my first major contract as a freelance writer, which I got in October 1983. I spent ten months working as the writer for The Rosewell Group, which was the little consulting group that spearheaded the effort to get Vision TV, Canada's multifaith TV channel, off the ground.

I got the job because I was a recent graduate in Radio and Television Arts from Ryerson (where I'd studied the Broadcasting Act, and other Canadian broadcast regulations), and because I'd sold some articles to BROADCASTER, the trade journal of the industry.
Nobody ever asked about my own (nonexistent) religious beliefs.

At 23, I'd smugly assumed that the people I'd be working with -- representing all the major and many of the minor faiths in Canada -- would be simpletons or charlatans. And although one or two did strike me as rather thick, several more turned out to be very intelligent, very thoughtful people -- who happened to have a belief system I didn't share (one of the sharpest was the media guy from the Salvation Army).

As with your own experience of your neighbors, my eyes were opened to the fact that religious people could in fact be very intelligent. I'm glad I learned that lesson. :)

At April 06, 2007 10:14 AM , Blogger Shannon said...

Hey Rob, I'm trying again.
I live in N. Carolina, which is a state where religion really holds a cult status. There is, not one, but three churches on every corner and nine out of ten cars proudly displays the christian fish symbol.
I must confess I am one of those people that have a different version of that symbol on my car--it's a fish in the form of a rocket with the word 'science' in the middle. Your article made me examine my motivation for displaying this on my car. I wondered, was I really being arrogant, ridiculing even? When I thought about it, my motivation was maybe a push back. Religion here is not about being a "moral person". It's about judging others, pushing guilt and fear on your fellow man. I've always tried to be tolerant of other's beliefs but here's an example: I let my daughter go to church with a friend and she came back crying with a pamphlet that said she wasn't worthy of God's love, that none of us are, that's why we need a savior. I was horrified. This isn't an isolated case. Whenever someone here finds out you don't go to church, you can see the look of fear fill their eyes. It then becomes their job to "save" you and they are relentless. You are treated as a clueless outsider that just doesn't know any better. To me, this is arrogance.
Anyway, the question of whether people can "do the right thing" without having the fear of a punishing God backing their decisions has been an on-going conversation in our house lately. I personally feel a society would work better if people would obtain their own moral code from layers of rational thought instead of accepting rules because someone said so (aka: religion).
But, I guess I should be more careful not to let my tolerance levels fall, even if I feel like I'm suffocating from religion being shoved down my throat here. Thanks for the provoked thought!

At April 10, 2007 11:34 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Thank you for your very thoughtful comment, Shannon!

By the way, ToadPark has an interesting discussion of my op-ed piece.

At April 13, 2007 2:58 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there somewhere else to read this article, as you have to be a subscriber to the Ottawa Citizen to read it now?

At April 13, 2007 3:02 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Hi, Tammy. At the moment, I'm afraid not. The Citizen had it for free to anyone until just recently. I will get it up on my website at some point, though, and will post a note here when it's available.

At April 18, 2007 7:15 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Considering the skepticsguide podcast, which Jonny Eh linked to, features a very aggressive and abusive atheist female calling herself the 'skepchick', it isn't a good representative of what American skepticism is like. I would suggest if you want something that is more balanced and certainly less purile.

Otherwise, both articles give much to consider - I hope that the Humanist conference this week will demonstrate some more debate along the lines you have both proposed. Certainly what is common amongst both groups in terms of caring for the greater good of humanity should be a guiding force, rather than differences.

At April 18, 2007 9:20 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

I've just been invited to be the "key speaker" at a meeting of Skeptics Canada. Sadly, I can't do it until the fall, but it should be fun. Some people in the skeptical movement are lost causes, but the movement itself is not. :)

At May 09, 2007 11:49 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

The Ottawa Citizen's exclusive window for publication rights to my op-ed piece have expired, and I now have it up on my website here; I've also changed the links in the main blog posting to point to the version on my site, rather than the version at the Citizen site, which you now require a paid subscription to read.


Post a Comment

<< Home