[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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A Bright Idea for Atheists

by Robert J. Sawyer

First published (under the title "Unhealthy Skepticism") as an op-ed piece in The Ottawa Citizen, the largest-circulation newspaper in Canada's capital city, Wednesday, April 4, 2007; this is the definitive version of the text.

Copyright © 2007 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

[Flying Spaghetti Monster]

I'm bright, and you're not.

At least, that's the way the Modern Skeptical Movement would have it — assuming you're one of the vast majority of North Americans who believe in God.

"Skeptics," by the way, is the term that's now generally used by atheists to describe themselves — and with good reason. As Richard Dawkins documents in his current bestseller The God Delusion, voters, at least in the U.S., would rather elect a criminal or a member of a cult than someone who publicly professes to not believing in God.

The term "skeptic" became synonymous with "atheist" because of the magazine The Skeptical Inquirer, published by the — wait for it — Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. The magazine's name was originally a pun; in its early years it demolished the silly claims found in The National Enquirer. But over the years, it's shifted from debunking spoon-bending and flying saucers to focusing almost entirely on a war against religion.

Stripped from the magazine's title, the name skeptic on its own conjures up visions of dour, frowning, unpleasant people. And the Modern Skeptical Movement — yes, you can hear the caps when they say it aloud — wants to be viewed as fun and inviting. And so, like the Martians in H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, these intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic looked with envious eyes at what had at one time been an even more reviled community: homosexuals.

See, those who prefer same-sex partners brilliantly remade their public image by taking a word that had been quaint even when The Flintstones had used it in their theme song back in 1960 and giving it a vibrant new meaning. "You may be happy," they said, "but we're gay." And with a cheery rainbow logo, colourful parades, and self-deprecating humour, they won over almost everyone whose first name isn't Stephen and whose last isn't Harper.

And so the skeptics — who have all the marketing savvy of the New Coke team — decided to try something similar, co-opting "bright" as their sexy replacement term for atheist. Except that the unspoken implication, as I said at the outset, when one asserts "I'm bright" is that you are not.

And that's only one example of how the Modern Skeptical Movement has gotten us into this mess in which atheists actually have to keep quiet about their beliefs — or lack thereof — in polite company.

We've all seen those cartoon fish outlines that some Christians stick on the backs of their cars. How do the skeptics respond to them? Why, with mockery, of course! [Darwin Fish]

Recently in Toronto, a gala opening was held for the Centre for Inquiry, Ontario, the new local headquarters for the skeptical movement. At the little gift counter there, you can buy yourself a Darwin fish. The Darwin fish looks just like the Christian fish, except that it's got legs — a fish evolving into an amphibian.

But Christians don't display a fish in support of creationism (something most educated Christians don't believe in anyway; they know that life evolved from simpler forms, thank you very much). Rather, they're declaring their adherence to a moral code: blessed are the peacemakers; if someone strikes you on the right cheek, offer them your left; forgive and forget. Responding to that with a smug joke about evolution not only misses what the Christians were saying, but it makes the atheists look mean-spirited.

Even worse, in its way, are the pins and T-shirts for sale at the Centre depicting the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The FSM is a putatively divine being that looks like a big twirl of spaghetti strands. It's used all over the world by skeptics as a cudgel in debates over religion in schools, tax breaks for churches, and so on. If you want time and space to worship your bearded old man in the sky, they appear to be saying, then you need to give us time and space to worship our deity, the hallowed FSM.

Except, of course, no skeptic actually believes in the FSM (although the Centre does hold monthly $5 all-you-can-eat spaghetti dinners in its honour). No, what they're really saying is, "If you want time and space devoted to something that's important to you, then I should be given equal time and space to ridicule that thing."

Again, arrogance. Is it any wonder nobody wants to elect — or have as a neighbour, or allow their daughter to marry — an atheist?

More: the skeptics who trot out the FSM are playing into the hands of those who try to dismiss atheism as just another religion. But atheism is no more a religion than not playing chess is a hobby. In a world in which we have a war not on terror but rather on religiously inspired violence, in which sectarian fighting spills blood on every continent, it's vital to keep clear that there is an alternative to religion.

Despite the arrogance of the Darwin Fish, despite the sneering of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, despite the out-and-out stupidity of the term "Bright," most atheists are good, happy, fun-loving people. But I wish to — well, to the random forces of nature! — that they would come up with a better way of presenting themselves to the world. Rather than the Darwin Fish, maybe a bumper sticker that says, "You Can Be Good Without God." Instead of a Flying Spaghetti Monster pin, get one that says, "Moral Atheist."

The skeptical movement in the United States has been an abject failure. It's done nothing to prevent the election of George W. Bush, an anti-science fundamentalist, to the White House (and I, for one, certainly wish the guy with his finger on the button didn't think there was a better world after this one). It's done nothing to quell the fight to expunge evolution from classrooms. It's done nothing to counter — and, yes, maybe even is responsible for — the public perception of atheists as evil, arrogant people.

But perhaps there's a ray of hope. Despite its gift counter, the Centre for Inquiry, Ontario, has dubbed itself "A New Canadian Voice for Reason, Science and Secularism." If that's just an empty PR slogan, then it will accomplish as little as its American counterparts have.

But if the Centre can really bring a new voice (one that's polite and charming) and a Canadian voice (one that's self-effacing and inclusive) to the Modern Skeptical Movement, then it might actually do some good.

And then maybe, just maybe, atheists will start feeling comfortable about coming out of the closet.

[2007 bionote] Toronto science-fiction writer ROBERT J. SAWYER's latest novel is Rollback, just out from Tor.

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