Reading over the various responses to Ross Douthat’s piece on celestial teapots and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it occurs to me once again that there is a very obvious difference between a Flying Spaghetti Monster and god (of whatever denomination): the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a construct designed specifically to ridicule, and god is not.
I’ve been accused of sweeping too many atheists into the ranks of those who are insufficiently respectful of the people they disagree with (that is, the religious). There’s some truth to that, and its a particularly lame failing because I am myself an atheist who tries hard to avoid the language or tenor of ridicule and derision. But things like the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I think, do lend credence to my belief that the public face of atheism is concerned primarily with a discourse of derision. There are plenty of ways to invoke the idea of a being that has no evidentiary basis for believing in it; choosing “the Flying Spaghetti Monster” is not an accident, and it’s not unclear what the intent is. Flying Spaghetti Monster is a way to invoke ridicule. I defy anyone to assert that it isn’t. If the point isn’t to disparage the people with whom you disagree, then why not simply call it “an unobserved being” or something similar?
This is one of the more frustrating philosophical failings of contemporary atheism: the refusal or inability to confront the fact that there is a fundamental difference between all of the various constructs erected as analogies for god, and god– no one believes in the former, billions believe in the latter. That is not a difference that is dispositive of the existence of god, but it is a difference nevertheless, and in fact an extraordinarily important one for any kind of pragmatic or political discussion of the issue.
I’m left with three possibilities when I consider the atheism of disrespect. Either people like Richard Dawkins, PZ Meyers, Bill Maher, and assorted don’t know that the way they are confronting these issues is disrespectful, in which case they are tone deaf to a frankly absurd degree; or they think that, tactically, the way to get the kind of change they say they want is to ridicule people into believing as they do, in which case they have a dramatically underdeveloped understanding of human psychology and sociology; or they are more interested in producing ridicule than in producing change.
I really try to avoid readings like option three, I really do, but it can be hard. I make it my policy to avoid assuming bad faith whenever possible. I just can’t quite wrap my head around what, exactly, a film like Religulous is supposed to accomplish, besides box office success. Maher and his producer both have said that they wanted their film to generate discussion and change. But how? Is there anyone out there reading this who has been able to change the opinion of people with whom they disagree by resorting to ridicule and name-calling? Basic knowledge of the human condition tells us that people, when threatened and demeaned, reinforce their position and become entrenched. So what’s being accomplished?
I think the temptation among aggressive atheists is to think that they are just a few converts away from the great crumble, that if they could just move a few more people closer to their position, they’d win the day. This is folly. There are more people who claim a religious devotion than not, in this world, by billions. There are more in this country by millions. You don’t argue your way out of niches by constantly thumbing your noses at the people who you’re trying to convert. The question then becomes, are they converting at all? Or are they merely asserting superiority?
Part of the reason I am accusatory of atheism, more often than fundamentalism or extremism, is that I am more likely to encounter the former than the latter. It’s easier to be annoyed by atheism than Christian fundamentalists when you live in a very blue section of a very blue state in academic, liberal circles. Were I to live in some Bible-thumping enclave in Kansas, things might be different. But at the end of the day, there is content to the way that the most vocal and visible atheists speak and argue, and as much as I don’t want to sweep up atheism as it stands into a too-broad indictment, I don’t particularly feel guilty about calling a spade a spade and accurately reflecting on the general tenor of Christopher Hitchens et al.
The Flying Spaghetti Monster, in other words, is great for giggles from the converted and terrible for outreach and education. Which am I to take as its primary mission?