Are American Christians Really That Easily Offended?

From an article by the American Institute of Physics about yesterday’s Creation Museum field trip led by PZ Myers:

William Watkin, a chemist living in Indiana, challenged one exhibit’s suggestion that the Grand Canyon could have been carved in hours by a process similar to how volcanic mudslides can rapidly create canyons in softer rocks. “Everything they said about sediment deposition, about Mount St. Helens … anyone in first year geology would say ‘wrong from top to bottom,’” said Watkin.

The field trip featured PZ Myers, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Minnesota, Morris. He writes the blog Pharyngula, one of the most popular science blogs on the Internet, with over a million readers each month.

Over. A. Million.  Wow.

In the most noticeable moment of noticeable conflict, Derek Rogers, a computer science major at Dalhouise University in Nova Scotia, Canada, was detained by guards for wearing a shirt with a slogan recently plastered on buses by activist groups that read “there’s probably no God, so get over it.” He was escorted to the bathroom and ordered to flip the shirt inside-out.

“One family of religious people told me that I had ruined their trip, and they drove all the way from Virginia,” said Rogers.

The idea that someone else’s t-shirt disagreeing with you could “ruin your trip” somewhere is ridiculous.  How thin-skinned do you have to be?  It’s like the recent bus nonsense in Iowa.  When Marcus Brigst0cke laid into Christianity, Judaism, and Islam equally for each being filled with thin-skinned people,  I only thought that particular charge was fairly leveled against the Muslim world after its infamous persecution of cartoonists and more recently Indian editors who published a critique of religion, etc.  At the time, I focused only on the authoritarian dimensions of religious thought and practice when I piece piggy-backed on Brigstocke’s remarks to lay out my objections to religious moderates and intellectuals.

But these increasing reports of aversion by religious people to the mere existence of atheists is increasingly troubling me and heightening my awareness of the extent that there really is hostility to atheists out there.  And it makes me think that this is the real mindset behind charges of “militant atheism” which would label Daniel Dennett intolerant to believers for writing an article not to or about believers but specifically encouraging non-believers to embrace their unbelief, unafraid of injuring believers’ delicate minds and sensibilities. Apparently it is our very existence or our very articulation of disagreement that for a shockingly sizable portion of the populace is itself threatening.  I can see some of the reason for that in that atheism is inherently defined as an opposition to theism and so when we identify as atheists we are identifying ourselves, and finding commonality, precisely around the major point of disagreement with theists.  Therefore, no matter what we do constructively, it is viewed with suspicion as anti-theistic, even in those times when what we are doing is not at all limited to opposing anyone else, but about constructively doing something pro-atheist.

  • jrq

    Of course they’re offended by dissent. We’re talking about a religion that explicitly teaches people that doubt is unvirtuous and is to be feared.

    Fundamentalist christianity survives in the modern world today not because its tenets make particular sense to anyone, but because it combines those tenets with the instruction to fear doubt and avoid skepticism as much as possible. The risk of doubt increases whenever one encounters an alternative position. Of course, the level of risk would be a lot less if Christianity was supported by the balance of evidence or made any bloody sense. But it doesn’t. And whether they realize this consciously or not, Christians perceive the risk of doubt as being very high.

    Even Liberal Christians, who have rationalised thier beliefs to be more in line with the evidence and therefore reduced the risk of doubt, still get offended by atheism somewhat because their fear of doubt hasn’t disappeared — it is still threatening. Liberal Christianity doesn’t modify the magnitude of aversion to doubt much beyond fundamentalist Christianity.

    • Dan Fincke

      I guess I can partially understand this psychologically, as I’ve written about before, http://http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/02/17/apostasy-as-a-religious-act-or-when-a-camel-picks-up-a-hammer/2009/07/02/moral-integration-or-the-pros-and-cons-of-moral-absolutism-and-ethical-pluralism/ I think that thinking in absolutistic terms gives many people an ability to confidently act in life, rather than constantly have to hesitate. The more assured people are that they know for certain what the good life is, the less anxiety and indecision they suffer from. The problem is that any thinking that is that rigid is inherently threatened by the processes of doubt involved in critical thinking.

      The trick then is how do we train ordinary people not to need certainty but to be comfortable with challenge and the possibility of major reshuffling of their conception of the universe? How does one overcome the inherent conservatism of most human minds to make reconsideration a welcome, rather than viscerally feared, process?

    • “Christian” Doubter

      @ jrq:

      I’ll agree that even many Christians in more liberal circles, writers included, still struggle with a suppressed fear of doubt, whether or not that is accompanied by a concomitant fear of atheists. There is all-too-often an eagerness to “resolve issues prematurely rather than delving in deeper. But not all “Christians”–a word so loaded with connotations that it is becoming progressively more obsolete as a means to refer to actual followers, curious or committed, of Jesus–are afraid of doubt. I’m up to my neck in issues I have with my interpretation of the Judeo-Christian scriptures, which incidentally would be considered pretty “liberal” by those who think that said scriptures were written in a state of zombie-like of “inspiration”–God moving the pen, the whole bit–by multiple peoples whose drastically flawed and/or morally reprehensible worldviews could not POSSIBLY have influenced or, heaven forbid, skewed their understanding of what this God was actually saying to them or doing among them. Even as someone who stands outside of such a view, I have all kinds of questions/beef with scripture as I understand it. But I haven’t given up on it either. So yes, in a loose sense of the word I am a “Christian” and no, I’m not afraid of doubt, insofar as that means trying to somehow avoid it. And while they’re not coming out of the woodwork, there are others of the same vein. Believe it, no pun intended.

      To critique the approach of what you call liberal Christians, let alone fundamentalist ones, is to attack a caricature that speaks nothing of a significant faction, if minority, of people who are riddled with doubt but are also really searching these things out.

    • “Christian” Doubter

      @ jrq:

      I’ll agree that even many Christians in more liberal circles, writers included, still struggle with a suppressed fear of doubt, whether or not that is accompanied by a concomitant fear of atheists. There is all-too-often an eagerness to “resolve issues prematurely rather than delving in deeper. But not all “Christians”–a word so loaded with connotations that it is becoming progressively more obsolete as a means to refer to actual followers, curious or committed, of Jesus–are afraid of doubt. I’m up to my neck in issues I have with my interpretation of the Judeo-Christian scriptures, which incidentally would be considered pretty “liberal” by those who think that said scriptures were written in a state of zombie-like of “inspiration”–God moving the pen, the whole bit–by multiple peoples whose drastically flawed and/or morally reprehensible worldviews could not POSSIBLY have influenced or, heaven forbid, skewed their understanding of what this God was actually saying to them or doing among them. Even as someone who stands outside of such a view, I have all kinds of questions/beef with scripture as I understand it. But I haven’t given up on it either. So yes, in a loose sense of the word I am a “Christian” and no, I’m not afraid of doubt, insofar as that means trying to somehow avoid it. And while they’re not coming out of the woodwork, there are others of the same vein. Believe it, no pun intended.

      To critique the approach of what you call liberal Christians, let alone fundamentalist ones, is to attack a caricature that speaks nothing of a significant faction, if minority, of people who are riddled with doubt but are also really searching these things out.