Being offensive: a religious double standard

By Don Severs

Last Christmas, the American Atheists put up a billboard by the Lincoln Tunnel that said, “You know it’s a myth”.  In response, the Catholic League erected their own that said, “You know it’s real”.  Later, the American Atheists ran another one in Alabama that said, “You know they’re all scams”.  Bill O’Reilly had David Silverman on his show and asked him, “Why the insults?”

Is it an insult to say someone’s religious belief is untrue?  I think many people would say yes.  But these same people don’t even blink at the Catholic billboard, which makes the positive claim that the Jesus story is true:

http://www.nj.com/hudson/index.ssf/2010/12/catholic_league_buys_ad_space.html

What does the Catholic claim entail?  Nothing less than that all the other world’s religious claims are untrue.  The key is that they stated it positively rather than negatively.  This seems to make all the difference.

Suppose I say, “The God of the Bible is a fictional character”.  If you believe in Yahweh, you may get offended.  Getting offended is a subject-changer and a conversation-stopper.  It doesn’t move discourse along.  It is an angry sign-off.  But what is offensive about disagreeing with someone?  Does it matter how we phrase it?  Suppose I said, “I don’t believe in the God of the Bible”.  Is that better?  To many people, it is, because it is not declarative.  English speakers are very sensitive about such things.  No one likes a know-it-all making pronouncements.  It diminishes others.

Back to the Catholic League:  “You know it’s real”.  If you don’t believe in Jesus, you should be as offended as Catholics were by the atheist billboard, but you’re not.  If you’re a Muslim, for example, you’re likely to just ignore it because you know it’s irrelevant to you.

So we have a double standard at work here.  Because freedom of religion is celebrated in America, it is always ok to shout your own belief; as long as you do it in a positive way, which only obliquely insinuates that everyone else is wrong.  But if you come out and say a given belief is wrong, you end up sounding un-American, as if people who hold that belief should not hold it.

This is the decorum that the New Atheists are breaking.  We want to restore intellectual honesty and speak plainly about the most important matters in our society.  Americans have evolved a vaguely Victorian fussiness about what it is permissible to say about religion.  The New Atheism is about applying standards of evidence we use in almost all other areas of our lives to religious claims.  This extends to language.  Talking about religion in an unexpected style shakes things up.   Our goal is not to tear down, but to let in the fresh air of plain speaking in an area that has grown dangerously stuffy.