Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer

Life is Not a True/False Exam

Filed By Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer | December 12, 2010 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media
Tags: American Atheists, Catholic League, War on Christmas

This blog post (which Andrew Sullivan linked to this morning) says succinctly what I've been thinking, what I've been trying to put in words, regarding the billboard that some atheist group put up near the Lincoln Tunnel ("You Know It's a Myth. This Season Celebrate Reason") and the counter-billboard put up by some Catholics: "You Know it's Real. This Season Celebrate Jesus":

"Myth" is not the same as "falsehood." Myth is a narrative structure used to convey some of the deepest truths we humans can glean. Myths are not believed in but unpacked and lived.


I get irritated to no end by the asinine "Jesus is the reason for the season" garbage we have to listen to this time of year. But I am just as irritated by a lot of the public atheists' responses, which are every bit as asinine. Though this organized atheist effort to rid the public sphere of Christian propaganda is inspired by writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, I don't like how Dawkins' and Hitchens' more distilled, acerbic statements along the lines of "Christians are stupid" get pulled out to support the exasperated atheists -- because both writers obviously are much subtler thinkers and have a lot more than that to say.

Which is to say that I find it unfortunate that the atheist statements in response to the literalist Christmas stupidity are often just as thick-headed. It's ridiculous to justify your Christian faith by insisting that all those stories relate events that really happened. It's just as thick-headed, in this context, to use the word "myth" to mean "lie."

The heart of my objection to this argument is that it cheapens, it disregards, it erases the value of what, as an artist, I do. Artists are myth-makers. Artists are storytellers. The work of an artist lives in that realm where a standard of literal truth or falsehood makes no sense, does not apply. Where the whole point is to be truthful, to say what is real, yet where stories are constantly told which are not objectively verifiably true. The story of Jesus's birth is no more actual than the story of Dorothea and Casaubon's marriage or the story of Mary Richards' job interview, but they all have the power to transform at the molecular level one's very being in this world.

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.

True. I just think of it as the season of charity and goodwill. And for good reason as this month is the beginning of the toughest part of the year for a lot of people. The stories just compliment it... and I don't mean just the story of Jesus.

I'd agree that both "sides" have been reduced to caricatures of themselves. But I'd also argue (and admittedly as an atheist) that "myth" in this case doesn't refer to the kind of myth-making you mean. Rather, I think it directly refers to a story *as* history and, ultimately, as a lie - your point about the power of myth-making is well taken, but that's not where the majority of the Christian League is likely to be coming from. I think it's important to remember that the myths/stories pointed out by atheists are also being used to undermine scientific education and research. In that context, the myths do play out as outright lies.

As an atheist, my problem isn't with whether or not these religious stories are myths. Honestly, people can believe that the world was created from the pimple on the bum of an ant, and I wouldn't care. My problem is with the way religion is allowed to creep into the basic infrastructure of our life - starting with the last few Presidents who have declared that a "faith-based approach" to life here and abroad is legitimate and needs to be upheld. It's not and it's dangerous. I'm thinking here of war as a proselytizing device (as in soldiers encouraged to think that wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are required to convert the heathens) or of social services become contingent upon moral conditions, and even being increasingly parceled out to religious institutions.

That being said, most public atheists have failed to make that simple argument and choose, instead, to berate their perceived opponents as dimwits for supposedly believing in "myths." That's fairly typical of American public discourse, which is at its shallowest these days and relies on the construction of cardboard opponents - and that's fairly typical of the gay community where the goodies support a conservative gay agenda and the baddies are people like the Family Research Council/Westboro Church. Myths abound all around us.

Solstice is the reason for the season.

Regarding Christmas myths, what I find amusing is the way that the traditional Christians celebrate Epiphany, the coming of the Magi to the baby Jesus, without any thought about who the magi were. They obviously were not Jewish, they were too early in history to be Christians in any meaningful sense, and they were probably librarians and scholars of religious texts from many different cultures, residing somewhere in Mesopotamia -- people that today most conservative Christians would call "pagans" ...

So, supposedly, the Wiccans are "bad pagans", Harry Potter and his troop are "bad pagans" ... but the Wise Men are "good pagans" ...

... go figure.

theflyingarab | December 13, 2010 1:19 AM

Strangely enough, all the atheist propaganda seems to do is reinforce compulsory Christianity. There is no mention of or comment on any holidays other than Christmas, so you have, presumably, two options: celebrate Christmas, or celebrate "reason." Absurd dichotomy, no?

Well...Jesus IS the reason for Christmas, so why bitch about it? The word Christmas is derived from the words "Christ's Mass", so to take religion out of the holiday is absurd. Yes, I know many Christmas traditions are not Christian based, and some are even "pagan" based...but the name and the celebration that brought such world wide popularity is still based on the story of Christ's birth. To many millions of people, the story DID happen, and who are any of us to say that it didn't? Last I checked, none of us were there so nobody can know for sure.

I agree to an extent.

There are important distinctions between the myths and lies that underlie the demented beliefs of the abrahamic cults and the less horrific myths produced by artists, especially socially conscious artists.

The problem with these ads (these must be liberal atheists) is not their attack on myths and lies, but that they don't take on the absolute and endlessly reactionary nature of cultism in all societies, historic and modern.

When the cults infest a society the results are predictable and awful. Witch burnings. Imperial conquests to spread the 'faith' and steal the wealth. Persecutions. Excuses for slavery and wage slavery. Rape and torture of women and children. Excuses that promote wars and prop up reactionary regimes (gawd bless the United States, gawd save the queen and similar tripe). Excuses for discrimination and persecution of LGBT folks (gawd's in the mix).

If atheists merely argue that cultist myths and lies are wrong or bizarre they miss the boat. They should be addressing the connections between the cults, the rich, the right wing and questions like misogyny, the rape of children, the murder of GLBT folks here and around the world

When US society changes fundamentally then we can launch a real anti-cult campaign, closing their seminaries, forbidding the propagandizing of children and forcing priests, imams and rabbis to do productive work that contributes to society.

Right On, Bill!

I saw this ad on the bus when I was going into Manhattan and I have heard about the controversy around it. Considering how often Christians put up billboards to the effect of "We're right and you're stupid/going to hell" and no one says anything I think it's a necessary rejoinder that'll probably be lost on most people who see it.

Still, billboards like this make you wonder if whoever put it up actually wants to convert people or if they're satisfied with just being smug.

We atheists don't want to convert people, Alex. One can't be converted to non-belief: it is reasoned out by oneself.
We ask them to think.

And, here in the US, with over 75% of people identifying as christian in some form, only 12% to 13% as non-religious, and less than 3% identifying as atheist; we're hardly a threat.

The threat is the hate-filled christianist fundamentalist cults that have body-snatched politicians and others who control policy, gobbled up market share from kinder, gentler forms of christianity, and the silence of these liberal christian denominations (in general - i know there are exceptions)in condemning the grotesque anti-GLBT, anti-womens rights, anti-science-progress-and-reason, pro-theocracy garbage of their brethren.

Non-belief of Christian stories is also a belief.

Nobody can prove or disprove the existence of God or a supreme being or even a flying spaghetti monster. That's why it takes a leap of faith to be an atheist. It is a presumption, too.

Nobody knows. Understanding that enables a person to fully live their lives in possibility or the simple idea that many things are possible and "now knowing" is fine.

So you believe in the flying spagetti monster then? The default position when you do not have evidence is to not believe either claim. So, someone who says "I do not believe that god exists" can also say "I do not believe in god does not exist". The default position with a lack of evidence is to neither disbelieve or believe a claim. This postion, as it lacks a beleif in god, meets the definition of atheism.

Also, I am uncertain what definition of knowledge you are using. Do you apply that standard to other factual claims around you? Also, even if you use a strict logical certainty definition of knowledge, that still leaves the issue of rational belief (is rational true belief knowledge is a great and fun question). Given the evidence we have about the world, the failures of religious claims, etc. the rational belief is that there is no god. This is distinct from faith which is by definition irrational (believing without/in spite of the evidence). Don't play foolish epistemology word games with me, I have a bachelors in philosophy and can play and win this game all week.

There is no "game" Cat. Humans struggle to know the truth - there isn't any. Honesty requires us to admit "we don't know." The "lack of evidence" argument is weak, because they don't have any "evidence" for the non-existence of something.

I think it's very simple: I don't "know," neither do you, and that's okay.

Human beings wanting to "know" is their biggest limiter. Life is best when unencumbered with stories, myths, or other false "explanations." I fully support the idea that atheists can claim "there is no God," but they also lack evidence or proof. I don't think they are more enlightened than the believers-of-god they disparage.

There is nothing to argue about. I don't "know" and nobody else does, so I live my life as an unknown journey. I am curious, grateful and always interested in what tomorrow may bring. Each day I live defines my life, not some story or hope about afterlife or rules or anything else. I define my life and I enjoy as much as I can without guilt.

I appreciate your comment.

Now Andrew I have asked you before to not be either insulting or presumptuous about what I know. You can state what you know but you can not state what I know or don't know. Perhaps when we finally get around to having brunch you will able to discern with more reliability the validity of my knowledge of God. It may startle you. Until then.

What you "believe" is different that what you "know." Faith is the ability to believe something you cannot prove, not "know," but believe.

You believe we will go to brunch. I know we will.

This has been interesting reading. Facts? OK here are a few for you.
1. 2010 years ago there were many births.
2. None of the authors of any of the books in the New Testament were present at the birth of Jesus and therefore the information contained in those documents is second hand at best.
3. Millions of people celebrate the birth of Jesus and many millions do not.
4. All the people born 2010 years ago have died. Some died "naturally" and some were killed by other people.
5. I don't really care if other people put up decorations, exchange gifts and make lots of hoopla on December 25th. I also don't care if they don't.
6. Wars, poverty, starvation and many other harsh realities continue to exist today and I don't see either atheists or deists doing a whole lot to seriously address those problems.
7. I wish everyone a wonderful Christmas whatever that day means to each person. Actually I wish everyone 365 wonderful days each year but I do think its nice to have one special birthday regardless of how you relate to it.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7 concern non-facts. At least according to:

6. Those are not really questions that can be solved by atheists. But they can be solved by socialists.

It'll be far less violent if socialists solve them and the problems of cult infested societies.

If the solution to the intrinsically vile and horrific role of the three abrahamic cults - who create anti-GLBT violence, violence against women and children and who are deeply interconnected with the ugliest side of capitalism - fascism - is left to the victims of the cults then it will inevitably resemble the solution of Spanish anarchists during the late 1930s. Socialists will be much less violent but much more thorough.

In America, economic stimulation is the reason for the season.

You are funny. You don't accept the fact that there were any human births 2010 years ago? You don't accept the fact that authors of the gospels state they didn't know Jesus as a child? You don't even accept as fact a statement that I don't care about a specific thing. And you discredit those simple facts based on a web site? Have you no ability to think? Tell me how you are different than the Family Research Council folks.

I think. Therefore I am an athiest.

Maybe you are dreaming. This could all be a figment of someone else's imagination.

It is amazing to me that so many people believe in one person from approximately 2010 years ago! His life changed the "Old Testament" drastically! I was not there and the writers of the "New Testament" may or may not have been there! Does anyone know who is right?
Our modern religions have many Pagen rituals at the root of the celebrations. I know it is not up to me to make choices of religion for anyone else other than me! It does annoy me to no end that the most deadly wars have been over religion! Rev. Regina

"Does anyone know who is right?"

Nobody knows.