Hemant Mehta Gets Interviewed, Defends Reality

by Jesse Galef

My friend Hemant Mehta (FriendlyAtheist) had a great interview with blogger Nancy Duke on the Chicago Coalition of Reason billboard, atheism, and religion.  The questions gave away her semi-hostile position, but I feel like Hemant did a great job answering in a positive way:

ND: What is ChriFSMas?
HM: Christmas for the Flying Spaghetti Monster followers.

ND: Are you equating Jesus to a Flying Spaghetti Monster? That doesn’t sound like a “Friendly Atheist.” In fact, it sounds a little mean.
HM: Well, the ChriFSMas thing is just a play on words, but there is a FSM movement where the argument is: There’s as much evidence for a Flying Spaghetti Monster as there is for any other God. So, why not worship the former and not the latter? It’s tongue-in-cheek, but I think it makes a good point. In any case, I think Christmas is a good time for everyone to give presents and spend time with loved ones. It’s not limited to Christians.

Oof.  She’s clearly looking for a fight.  An interesting exchange came near the end:

ND: One more question and then a few quick hits to wrap it up. You mentioned that after research, you couldn’t find evidence to support any of your previous religious ideas. But isn’t that the point? Isn’t faith supposed to be based in a belief of not needing evidence, not needing proof? It wouldn’t be faith if you needed evidence and facts, because that’s called science. So, why use science or atheism or anything else to debunk religion when religion is based on embracing something you cannot prove, i.e. faith?

HM: Yes, relying on faith is the opposite of relying on evidence. However, I was always taught my beliefs as if they were facts. I don’t know of any Christian churches that say, “We believe Jesus resurrected after three days but we don’t actually know that for sure.” No, they say it as if it were true and proven and factual.

I discovered at 14 that my beliefs, which I always believed were factual, were just ideas that people of my faith shared and there was no good reason to believe any of it was true. I guess I discovered that my faith was indeed faith. And I decided I wanted to rely on things that were evidence-based and actually factual. That led me to atheism. It doesn’t say that God doesn’t exist, but atheism says that there’s no good evidence for God’s existence, so why bother believing in one. To me, that’s honest.

Bewildering image and caption:

Facts are fun! …

This meme is what we need to combat in America, and Hemant does a good job explaining why he dismissed faith.  It’s not a reason to belive something is true.  It’s funny that both sides are saying “there’s no evidence for this belief!” but meaning it in completely opposite ways.  It is central to our arguments that people need reasons to assert something as true.  If they don’t accept that basic tenant of thinking, literally any belief is acceptable.

A big distinction that I make time and time again is that we’re never looking for proof – we’re looking for a reasonable amount of evidence to support the level of belief.  It would be a positive step if churches did what Hemant suggested – admit their own uncertainty and instead use stories as non-authoritative metaphors about life.

I’m a bit puzzled – and concerned – that Duke had a small clipart of someone pointing to a chart with the caption: “Facts are fun! … Sometimes.”  What in the world is that supposed to convey?  In context of the discussion – it was right next to the above blockquote – it wasn’t saying that sometimes the world isn’t as we wish it to be.  No, it seems to be dismissing the very value of facts when assessing a worldview.  “Facts are great unless they contradict my beliefs!”

How do you respond to such brazen disregard for logical thinking?

[Update:] You raise the point that this might be a Poe, especially given the “Keeping democracy intact since 1912″ slogan. If it’s satire, it’s remarkably subtle. I’m looking into it. What do you guys think?

Atheists at CPAC
Trying On Atheism
So Much Wrong, So Little Time
Atheists in the Evangelical Mind
About Jesse Galef

Jesse is a career atheist, and is currently Communications Director for the Secular Student Alliance. Before that, he worked for the Secular Coalition for America and the American Humanist Association. He also blogs about science, philosophy, and rationality at Measure of Doubt with his sister Julia.
(The views expressed are not representing the Secular Student Alliance or any other organization.)

  • Francesc

    “It would be a positive step if churches did what Hemant suggested – admit their own uncertainty and instead use stories as non-authoritative metaphors about life”
    Some (a lot?) of the religious people out there want to be sure. They don’t know (yet) how to live without a reason for their existence and for their morals.
    Probably a church who admitted “maybe Jesus’s miracles where only metaphores, we don’t know if he ever did something to prove his deitiness, but we still believe” wouldn’t be the most popular…

    • Custador

      ^ +10

    • Elemenope

      Episcopalian churches sometimes (in my experience, anyway) act in this manner.

      • wintermute

        Indeed, there’s a movement within the Church of England (and maybe other Anglican churches?) that ordains atheist vicars and bishops, and treats all of religion as metaphor, myth and social glue. They seem to be doing pretty well.

        • Francesc

          Interesting. I won’t have anything about those believes, then (a priori). I’m wondering if they get their followers from hard religious believers or from those who are yet doubting about the existence of god.

      • Sunny Day

        I think a comedian called that Catholic Lite. 1/3 less guilt than the normal religion.

        Curiously when I asked my mother what religion I was supposed to be, we’ve never gone to church except for weddings, the reply was Episcopalian.

  • JT

    How to confront them? (I didn’t come up with this strategy, but it works well.) Ask them specifics of what they believe, then make them defend it. Do you believe that the Earth actually stopped spinning during a Bronze Age battle? How did that happen? Why didn’t things on the surface follow the law of inertia and go flying off into space? Why do no other cultures around the world report the sun not setting or rising for many hours? Certainly that would have been notable to ancient cultures that relied heavily on the stars and the sky. Do you believe that a donkey spoke Hebrew with a man who was beating it? Donkeys don’t have vocal cords or structures in their mouths that let them even form the sounds that humans make. Why haven’t other abused animals spoken up in their own defense? Etc. Christianity and other religions make very specific, factual claims about the physical world. Claims of fact must be explained factually, not by faith. That’s what led me to atheism: eventually it all collapsed. If there were no factual claims in the bible that could stand up to even a slightly rigorous investigation, why trust anything about the supernatural or the afterlife?

    • trj

      The answer to each of those qustions is very simple to someone who holds the Bible to be true: “God performed a miracle”. This is not a problem to True Believers, just the contrary – it simply confirms to them how awesome God is that he can do such things.

      • Janet Greene

        I think Santa is pretty awesome too. He goes to EVERY CHILD IN FIRST WORLD COUNTRIES on Christmas Eve (not sure why he excludes millions of children in poor countries, but I’m not Santa in his infinite wisdom), goes down the chimney, and provides gifts.

        And what about the tooth fairy? Don’t you consider that pretty miraculous too? Changing teeth into quarters – that does not correspond to anything resembling facts or reality but it’s so TRUE that it must be a miracle. I know it’s true – it happened to me! Several times!!!! That may be what you call “anecdotal evidence”, but c’mon. Have a little faith.

  • José

    I was raised in a strict Pastafarian household, but was excommunicated when I grew to tall. When I was a boy, a church elder inappropriately touched my noodly appendage. When will people stop ignoring the dark side of this religion?

  • Custador

    I’ve tried to comment on Nancy Duke a couple of times, but she seems to have a 100% comment moderation rule. Also, in her version of the atheist billboard story, she quotes Jesus as a dissenting opinion – and uses quotes from a member of Westboro Baptist Church to support that opinion. I think that we should be careful how seriously we take this person.

  • Cletus

    I used to argue the point. Now I just avoid the person. I avoid a lot of people. Oy.

    Churches are founded on dishonesty. They count on their adherents to accept and internalize this dishonesty — to willingly participate in the lie. Once the lie is shared, the church ca get anything it wants, regardless of its ostensible creed.

    • Leah

      You know, maybe this is true in some cases, but it certainly is not true in a lot of them. I’m thinking of my church back home, and what I see there is a pastor who truly believes in Jesus and everything Christianity says about him, and who legitimately loves his congregation and desires to serve them and the community. I see a congregation that also believes in Jesus and also desires to serve each other and the community based on that belief. I can’t think of anyone who is “willingly participating in a lie.” Instead I see a lot of people who are struggling and need solace, a lot of people who are full of love and want to spread it, a lot of normal people who don’t have sinister, “dishonest” motivations. At least this is true of every church I’ve attended and been a member of.

      Sorry to dissent. Maybe you’re referring to actual church bodies or denominations, but I still don’t see that as being the case.

      • Unladenswallow

        I have to agree with Leah for the most part on this one. The majority of Christians I know are as Leah describes. Not all of them just most of them.

        However these are the same people that take the bait that the far right fundamentalist are throwing out there. Not out of malice but out of ignorance. A perfect example of this is the Fall Festivals and “Hallow Him” programs these Churches put on as an alternative to Halloween. Some of them do it out of a irrational fear of Halloween but a lot of them just like having yet another church sponsored social event. So the nutters on the right get these poor bastards to help them change the perceptions many young people have about a fun semi-secular non Christian holiday they are trying to demonize. To me they aren’t all in the same boat as all the right wing nutters. To extend the metaphor they are in the boat behind them willingly being towed by the nutters largely ignorant of the motivations of ones who are towing them.

        • http://www.thinkatheist.com/profile/Johnny Johnny

          The moderates of any religion failing to oppose the extremists, lends credit to the extremists, and allows their views to remain and propagate.

      • Sunny Day

        “I see a congregation that also believes in Jesus and also desires to serve each other and the community based on that belief.”

        Then ask that community if it’s ok for 2 men to marry and see what happens. Then get in your time machine, travel back 80 years and ask them if its ok for a black man and a white woman to marry. Travel back a few more decades and ask them if its ok for a Christian woman to marry a Jew. Ask them about a 40 year old man to marry a 13 year old girl.

        Nothing protects bigotry and lies better than religion.

        • Felix

          For the Christian marrying a Jew question, you don’t even have to travel back far. Remember the phone prank that a Jewish girl pulled on her religious parents just a few months ago? She pretended she was marrying a Catholic man – her parents flipped out, threatening everything from disowning her to committing suicide to killing her boyfriend, all within a space of five minutes or so.

          Goebbels was excommunicated by the Catholic Church not because he worked so hard on exterminating the Jews but because he had dared to marry a Protestant.
          It’s not like religious groups reflect upon and respond to changing societal norms guided by reason. They respond when they are forced to, always taking the smallest possible steps to meet the minimal requirements of tolerance and rationality. Only this pressure has put the RCC, for example, in the position where it is today, boasting about how reasonable their faith was.

          Where the pressure is taken off, the movement in an opposite direction follows swiftly and radically – see how the Taliban in Pakistan responded to being granted autonomy in Wazhiristan province. Instead of finding a basis on which to communicate and deal with the Pakistan government, they right away started executing and torturing people for religious violations, and sent an unprecedented number of assassins and suicide bombers into Pakistan’s cities and towns.

          Groups in all three Abrahamist faiths seek to dissolve and destroy secularism from within, relentlessly issuing public statements about an imagined collective deterioration of societal morality and loss of sense. Some of these people are easily dismissed as kooks, but the movement goes all the way to the top. It’s just that people like the Pope or the Chief Rabbi are more versed at veiling their thorny meanings and razor-sharp intentions in flowery language. Occasionally they slip, and let the world take a brief glimpse of the horrendously ugly face beneath the veil.

          Apologists of faith, the common believers, like to make excuses for those so-called ‘human failings’ of high-ranking clergy. Which is exactly what that clergy wants them to believe – that what is revealed is an aberration and not the system itself. Every moral consideration by a believer that comes to a reasonable and humane conclusion puts him at more distance to his faith’s actual dogma, while he continues to delude himself that it was this faith that informed his thinking.

    • Baconsbud

      Leah I have to say that because people appear to be believers, doesn’t make them believers. I know of a few within fairly fundie denominations that mainly go to keep the peace at home not because they believe. You also need to listen to what a preacher is saying and how he is saying it to know if he really believes in the bible. If you look around the internet you will find that there are people who still preach that no longer believe but do it because they feel it will do more good then to quit.

      • Leah

        Baconsbud, I know what you’re saying is probably the truth in a lot of cases. But I also know what I’m talking about on this one. There are folks out there who are out to scam, and there are those who go to church to keep the peace at home, and there are those who go to church and maybe don’t believe but WANT to believe. But at the same time, again, I have a whole lifetime’s experience of church-attending and membership within the Christian community. I have been a member of a few different churches and have regularly attended several and visited dozens more. I attended a Lutheran college. I was a theology major and received instruction from pastors, theologians, professors in church history, etc. I know there are people out there to scam and who don’t actually believe, but I can assure you that the VAST majority of the Christians I know (and I know a lot) actually DO believe in Jesus. Especially the pastors, theologians and professors, believe it or not. The vast majority of the many Christians I know could honestly say they are not “willingly participating in a lie.”

  • Barry

    Nancy Duke’s appeal to fideism shouldn’t be taken as the default view of Christians. Many people on both sides of the debate do think that this is the line in the sand though, faith vs reason, religion vs science. This type of thinking only breeds further ignorance no matter who is propagating the idea. Though you may disagree with their conclusions people like Bill Craig, Polkinghorne, and John Lennox can’t be painted into the fideistic box that some believers and non-believers think they should be in. Better to deal with men and women of this type that debate a brick wall that says reality doesn’t need to be related to their vision of the truth.

    • Custador

      Absolutely, and I think most atheists would be content with a world where religious people accepted that their religion was personal to them and didn’t try to force their beliefs on other people (the US government abounds with examples of this). Problems occur when atheists get outraged that you can believe a thing without physical evidence, and when theists get outraged that people don’t believe in their version of the “truth”.

      • Barry

        I think that theists who get outraged miss the point, as do those who play the victim card. You never saw Jesus beg people to believe HIm in the gospels, either they did or they didn’t. Too often Christians try to drag people into the kingdom, but that’s not how it is suppossed work.

        • Custador

          Because they’re not Real Christians (TM) if they do? Sorry, but branding everybody else’s brand of Christianity as inferior to your own makes no more sense than supporting the Jets over the Bears because you happen to have been born in New Jersey.

          • Barry

            I never siad they weren’t real Christians, just confused or misguided. It’s similiar to those people who are functional atheists but who haven’t spent the time that most on this site have thinking through the issues. It doesn’t make them not atheists but they’re not as thoughtful or informed as many of you are.

  • http://www.thinkatheist.com/profile/Johnny Johnny

    Slightly sidebar and-all, but how old is Nancy Duke? Or is this lady not the original Nancy Duke, and just carrying on the name?

    Because on the about page is says she “started as a features writer for the Des Moines, Idaho daily newspaper in 1912.”

    So what… About 115 years old minimum? Why isn’t she listed then?

    • Custador

      I think her site may be Poe… Missed it, but I guess that’s why they call it Poe’s Law.

      • http://www.thinkatheist.com/profile/Johnny Johnny

        She does link to ‘Best* Church of God‘… So maybe you’re right…

    • Frank Clasp

      I can assure you this fine lady is indeed real and I’ve had the honor of being in her company on several occasions.

      As to why she isn’t listed in wikipedia as one of the oldest living people, think about it, she has editing rights and as a lady simply refuses to give her age.

    • CoffeeJedi

      It also says that she’s the widow of “Raoul Duke” which was an alias of Hunter S. Thompson (and the name used for his character in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”)

  • http://www.masksbyjen.com Shrubber

    “If they don’t accept that basic tenant tenet of thinking, literally any belief is acceptable.”

    There. Fixed.

  • Olaf

    I read the blog some feedback:

    * As an athehist I would probably say something like bless you when someone sneezes. Not because I believe but just some automatic reaction because I heard it so much said by others. The words itself has no religious menaing in my case.

    * The weakest point in any religion is that they refuse to accept that their religion might be wrong and another religion might be true or no religion at all. Jezus mght ever have been existe but the Indian gods might, or the pygmee gods or maybe the Greek Zeus.

    * As an atheist I don’t care if you believe or not, just don’t try to convert me or anyone else. People should have a choice if they want to believe. As an Atheist I hate fanatic extremists.

    * I never think about religion during my day, except when I read a blog like this or some creationist nut is putting some spam messages again. If these creationists were not trying to inflitrate then I would probably never think about religion at all.

  • Lee

    “…relying on faith is the opposite of relying on evidence. However, I was always taught my beliefs as if they were facts. I don’t know of any Christian churches that say, “We believe Jesus resurrected after three days but we don’t actually know that for sure.” No, they say it as if it were true and proven and factual.”

    Such a good point. It’s funny how christians will say they “know” what they believe is true, but turn right around and say it must be taken on faith!

  • http://blogs.myspace.com/eatingcannibal Matthew Gezewich

    Could there be a more defective anchor for something as substantial as the existence of God would be than, “There doesn’t need to be any real evidence for this proposition”?

    The weight of God, not just initiating our situation and organizing our habitat, but in fact sticking around and meddling in our own human affairs; minding who we go to bed with and when; minding what we eat and when; minding not just how we behave, but actually how we think: this is all to be carried on faith? I’m to consider that I might depart into an infinite inferno (or at least miss out on Paradise) for thinking the wrong thoughts, for applying a mind which — so I’m told — God created me with, and I’m to assume this fantastic and cruel potential for punishment on faith?