Monday, March 28, 2011

Atheists and Theists - A Personal Reflection

A few days a friend forwarded to me the following story, one many of you have doubtless received, and maybe chuckled about:
In Florida, an atheist created a case against the upcoming Easter and Passover Holy days. He hired an attorney to bring a discrimination case against Christians and Jews and observances of their holy days. The argument was that it was unfair that atheists had no such recognized days.

The case was brought before a judge. After listening to the passionate presentation by the lawyer, the judge banged his gavel declaring, "Case dismissed!"

The lawyer immediately stood objecting to the ruling saying, "Your honor, How can you possibly dismiss this case? The Christians have Christmas, Easter and others. The Jews have Passover, Yom Kippur and Hanukkah, yet my client and all other atheists have no such holidays."

The judge leaned forward in his chair saying, "But you do. Your client, counsel, is woefully ignorant."

The lawyer said, "Your Honor, we are unaware of any special observance or holiday for atheists."

The judge said, "The calendar says April 1st is April Fools Day. Psalm 14:1 states, 'The fool says in his heart, there is no God.' Thus, it is the opinion of this court, that, if your client says there is no God, then he is a fool. Therefore, April 1st is his day. Court is adjourned."

You gotta love a Judge that knows his scripture!
The story is a politics-cum-humor item that purports to be true but that is false and has been circulating through the Internet since at least 2003. I suspect that my friend who forwarded it didn’t know or care that it wasn’t a true, but sent it as a joke. The friend had also forwarded the story to several of our mutual friends.

I didn’t find the story funny. Those of you who know me, know that I have little patience with political, religious, or any other stories that purport to be true but aren’t. My thought about such stories is that if you need to make up a story and circulate it as true when you know it isn’t, then there is something wrong with the cause you are trying to bolster. My friends would also tell you that I love jokes so much that I die laughing at my own jokes which interrupts the telling of the joke. I didn’t love this joke.

So, I hit the “Reply All” button and sent this response:
Apart from the fact that the story about the Florida judge is not true, I do not chuckle at it as a joke. Maybe my sense of humor is lacking, but I take little delight in the caricature of people who do not believe in God, even as I do not delight in the caricature of people who do believe.
No sooner than I had hit the “Send” button than I began to have second thoughts. Has that ever happened to you? I said what I thought, but I wondered if I weren’t too harsh with my friend, who is about the least bigoted person I know. The story touched a nerve deep inside me, and I wasn’t sure why.

At breakfast, I talked to Connie about the forward, my reply, and my second thoughts. She asked if my response had anything to do with my new friend in Taiwan. The light went on! “Yes, no doubt!” I replied, and began to think again.

I have a lot of friends in Taiwan, but this one I’ve known only about twelve weeks and have only talked to on the telephone.

After breakfast, I went back to the computer and began to write a letter back to my friends. I said that my initial response had been too abrupt, and I apologized. These friends had all heard something about this friend in Taiwan so his existence was not news to them.

I explained how I met this friend in Taiwan. In late December (2010) I posted a description of Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan’s White Terror on my blog in hopes that someone might see it and help me find a publisher. At the time, my manuscript and proposal were on the desks of half a dozen publishers collecting dust. Within a day or two of my posting, he came across my blog.

This person, I went on to the friends, sent a comment to the blog saying that he was an atheist and chastised me both for believing in God, and more, for having been a “missionary imperialist” imposing western cultural values in the name of religion. I hadn’t a clue who he was. I had responded with this message:
Thanks for your candid response. In my time in Taiwan I saw much that would fit your description, but I also saw those who resisted the imperialism of government and our faith.

I resist the dogmatism of your "there is NO God" as much as I resist the dogmatism of religions. I think modesty in the face of both is appropriate.
In response, this unknown person in Taiwan read through my old blogs (all of them) and wrote me back that he was really amazed that I believed and practiced what I said. He apologized for his harsh language and removed his comments from my blog. (If you go to the site, you can see where the comments were “removed by author.”)

His response, I explained to my friends, began a daily dialogue (and that is indeed what it has been) about matters of faith and non-faith. Only last week, I received from him this powerful (and I believe true!) statement:
"I find that almost any system can theologically and intellectually produce "authenticity" in terms of creativity, humanity, social consciousness and individual freedom in healthy balance. But the institutionalization tends to destruct the values of this authenticity. This is true whether one is an atheist or a spiritualist, or a convert to religion. The tension is always there. The magnetism of an institution which provides legitimacy, power, and authority is both seductive and enriching (financially and in terms of power). The lone individual is like Odysseus (sp) fighting against all temptations."
I had to do a little research on Odysseus to fully appreciate his statement, but when I did, I wished I could have stated what he and I both believe as well as he did.

This is the friend who within two weeks of our first cyber encounter decided that my book was worthy of publication. It was he who knew a publisher and persuaded him to publish it and to do it quickly. The rest, they say, is history, except that it is not over. He has also been the driving force to get publicity for the book and to get it into a Chinese edition. Over these twelve weeks, he and I have become friends.

To my friends here, I went on about how this friend comes from a Jewish family in Massachusetts. While he is non-practicing and more of an agnostic than an atheist, he has respect for his heritage.

His first hot words to me about “missionary imperialists” were an appropriate reminder that in much of the world (perhaps most of the world) “Christian missionaries” are viewed the same disdain as many in this country regard “Muslim extremists.” This was not news to me. There is sufficient historical truth to the charge of “missionary imperialism” for us not to disregard it. At the time, he didn’t know that my book acknowledged the truth in that charge.

My long note to these friends concluded with recognizing Connie was right (she usually is); it was because of my friend that I am more sensitive to the way many Christians view atheists. The story about the judge seems a good example of how we shouldn’t deal with each other. The dialogue with my friend is an example of what can happen when theists and atheists take each other seriously without feeling the need to deride or belittle each other. As I wrote in the conclusion of my book, the most “real Christians” I met in Taiwan (those who genuinely practiced what I had learned as the “Christian way”) were three men who had no affiliation (or interest) in the Christian religion.

There is great need for serious conversation between theists and atheists so together we can discover what gifts we have for each other. What do you think?

- Milo


OhioTex said...

Agreed. Wholeheartedly. Thanks for posting this.

dan said...

Very well said, and all sides covered I think. Yes, nobody is a fool here, on Earth, and there are many ways to live a compassionatte, caring, loving life, without necessarily following one of the many god-beliefs that we humans have created in our quest to come to terms with life and, especially, death. If there was no death, do you think we would even been talking about God or gods?

Which reminds me, why do Western newspapers in North America and Europe, CAPITALIZE the word God when they write about the so-called God of the Hebrews, the Christians or the Moslems, but NEVER when they write about the equally important and spiritual gods of Japan or Taiwan or Vietnam or Cambodia. The Asian gods get the lowercase treatment, but the Hebraic-Christo-Muslo "god" gets the UPPERCASE G.

Why is that? Not fair. All gods should be capitalized. So the NY Times should write, for example, to be fair, and to be compasssionte and loving and caring to all people on Earth, not just white Caucasians, for example...."Jesus, who was the Son of God...." ...and....."many Taiwanese people celebrate the Lunar New Year with a visit of the Kitchen God as well as the Bedroom Goddess (protector of children)." But no, the NYTimes and all Western newspapers spell the Asian gods with a small g.

To get a sense of what this must feel like to Asian readers, try spelling jesus was a small g and see how that feels, or christ was a small c, how does that make you feel? Or imagine a NYTimes article that says "jesus was the son of god".... would you like that?


So stand up for the GODS of all peoples. I mean it. Something is very wrong in the Judeo-Christian-Muslin "western world." Not onlu white supremacy, but also religious supremacy. It's wrong.

In 2011, that is. Before, we were not so aware of the rest of the world and human conciousness. Now we are.

As for the Aprils Fools joke in the post above, well, yes, it was not a true story, of course, but the very fact that this arrogant story is told by some people as a way to show how FOOLISH atheists and agnostics are -- shame on those who think that atheists and agnostics are FOOLS. They are just as good and loving and caring and smart as religous folk. Look at Christopher Hitchens for example, dyring now of throat cancer. A very spendid man with a very good IQ and EQ, and okay, so he is an atheist. But he is no fool. NOR should atheists or agnostics MOCK those people East or West who DO believe in a god or many gods.

The biggest problem with religiou, all religions, in my book, which has not been published yet, is that the so-called "elected" look down at those they think to be damned to hell and damnation. We need to stop that kind of tomfoolery and learn to respect and learn from -- repeat LEARN FROM -- the intellectual and spiritual traditions of others, even those we disagree with. It's okay to disagree, sure. But not to mock.

April's Fools Day serves a very good purpose, for practical jokes and what not, to spread good humour around the world. But it is not a day to mock those who follow different faiths or intellectual traditions than we do.

I rust my case.

PS: ...and... I am not so much an atheist or an a realist. I'm from Missouri, you see, the SHOW ME state. Show me, and I will believe you. That should be the litmus test for all ideas and religious "truths". IMHO.

Milo Thornberry said...

Thanks much, Dan!