Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Tithe of Atheist Acquiescence

"Say nice things about religion, or else!"
Brick: Isn't it amazing how each snowflake is different?
Sue: I know. It took me, like, three hours to cut out ten, and God has to do, like, 50 billion. You can't tell me that's not a miracle.
Brick: That's a very good point. So do you really believe all that stuff in the Bible is true?
Sue: Oh, absolutely.
Brick: I don't know... But it is a really cool story.

Those were some of the closing lines to a Christmas special episode of one of my favorite sitcoms "The Middle." In the episode, one of the plots revolves around Sue Heck, the middle child of the family, trying to convince her younger brother Brick, known for being socially awkward but brilliant for his age, to be more on board with Jesus after she learns that he isn't 100% convinced of the Bible's accuracy (largely due to his own wealth of knowledge acquired from his constant reading contradicting many of the book's claims, such as the size of the world's smallest seed.) Despite her efforts, nothing is able to sway Brick into full acceptance of the Christian faith, but Sue's fears are soothed by her own pastor who tells her that God is not offended by people questioning him because it's God's job to answer questions. The siblings agree to disagree and enjoy the holiday together.

As a whole, I actually do like this episode. It never paints either Brick or Sue in a bad light and sends a good message about accepting differences of opinion amongst family. I would recommend it. However, those last few lines never quite sat completely well for me, the part where Brick admits that even if the Bible isn't true it is nonetheless a "cool story."

That's not to say that the Bible isn't interesting, or at least has interesting parts, or at least has parts that refer or allude to interesting things (the Bible isn't as big on epic weaving as Hollywood would have you believe), but the line is very clearly written and delivered in a way that is supposed to prop up the Bible as a big, fun, magical story that Brick wouldn't mind being true if it were the case. Narrative-wise, this is simply meant to help the story end on a happy note. Contextually, however, I can't help but see this as one of many examples of a relatively quiet but still pervasive phenomena in culture that I like to call the tithe of atheist acquiescence.

It hasn't been that long since atheists were universally regarded as immoral monsters out to raze society to the ground, but there's no doubt we've come a long way. While there is still considerable hostility towards atheists and areas of life that they are socially barred from (such as the upper levels of politics), we as a larger society have gotten past the point where admitting to one's atheism was a social death sentence. There is a degree of tolerance, if not necessarily full acceptance, from most other people. In the place of that overt hostility, however, has emerged a watered-down successor: the expectation that even if atheists don't believe in or agree with religion, we are still expected to pay some sort of tribute to religion as a positive force or at the very least refrain from challenging the perception of it as such, save for a handful of acceptable target aspects such as witch burnings, faith healing, creationism, etc. Those who fall in line with this expectation are "good atheists," and those who don't are "bad atheists."

What are bad atheists? You know exactly what they are.

An accurate representation of yours truly in the Rule 63-verse.
I am not merely referring to basic respect towards religious individuals mind you, though this is often what this expectation will be dressed up as. When it comes to media portrayal, atheists (or generalized "skeptics" often meant to be obvious stand-ins for atheists) are rarely ever allowed to simply be atheists. It feels like there is always some subtle addendum attached to atheist characters' presence that I can only assume is meant to soothe the anxieties of the religious audience. It can manifest in a lot of different ways, though usually it comes in one of three scenarios:

  • The atheism-inclined character, despite their beliefs, still winds up complimenting religion in some way, usually referring to the good works it inspires in others or the awe derived from its mythology. The character may even go so far as to say something along the lines of, "I don't think it's real, but I wish it was." Such was the above example with "The Middle."
  • The character has their lack of faith shaken in some way, not necessarily converting them, but definitely putting doubts there. Depending on the way it is handled, it may also heavily suggest to the audience that, at least in-universe, the character is incorrect about their beliefs. Two examples of this would be Huey Freeman praying in season 1 episode 15 of "The Boondocks," or Lisa Simpson squeezing her mother's hand in season 9 episode 8 of "The Simpsons."
  • The character is portrayed as one of the aforementioned "bad atheists" who takes their atheism too far and winds up being humbled by a religious character or someone else sympathetic to religion, usually involving a chastising speech about how you should respect things that give people hope and happiness in a bleak world. An example of this would be "Scrubs" episode 14 season 6 wherein Laverne yells at Dr. Cox defending her faith, which itself serves as the climax for a plot that could also be considered an example of the second scenario.
It is not just me who has noticed this either. In his book "Every Day is an Atheist Holiday," Penn Jillette of famous magician duo Penn & Teller talks about the strong anti-skeptic undertones he often experienced in show business, particularly the reluctance to portray skeptical characters without having them be "proven wrong" in some fashion by the end of the story. He specifically cites an incident in the nineties where he and Teller were offered to play themselves on an episode of "The X-Files," wherein they would be portrayed as an antagonistic couple of skeptics who were killed at the end as a result of their refusal to believe in the supernatural occurrences investigated by Mulder and Scully. According to Jillette, while he and his partner had no issue with the supernatural being real in a fictional setting or having their characters killed off, they were morally opposed to playing skeptics who were proven wrong. They felt it sent bad and false messages about skepticism, which is supposed to be about drawing logical conclusions based on evidence, even if those conclusions are fantastical, and not just blindly shooting down anything vaguely hard to believe (as it is often misportrayed as). For their concerns, the executives derided the two.
"We were discussing this with the cheeses at The X-Files and they were pretty snotty about it. They thought we should get off our fucking high horse and just do their big fancy TV show. They were right and they probably would have convinced us, but then one of them said something crazy. One of them said something like it was impossible to have drama without the supernatural. What? I brought up Psycho and all Sherlock Holmes and then they made a bigger mistake. They said something to Teller like "I can see why you don't talk much. Penn is so argumentative, you can't get a sane word in." Oh dear. When you say in real life that Teller doesn't talk because I'm too aggressive and he's dominated by me... well, things don't go well. Don't assume that anything Teller does isn't his own choice. 
Teller spoke. Oh my glory, did he speak. Teller explained that he was quiet during this meeting not to stay in character or because I bullied him into silence, but rather because he couldn't figure out a way to suffer fools as well as I had. He then made a very strong case for realistic drama, quoting Aristotle and Shakespeare and using phrases such as "hacks like you." It didn't go well. They did the show without us and got a couple of other guys to transform from make-believe skeptics to make-believe believers. The guys who did it are good friends of ours and it was a good break for them. It would have been good for us too, but we queered that deal. I think it's okay to do anything in fiction, but it's not okay to say that Teller is being quiet because I overpower him. That'll get you a new asshole ripped."
Speaking of "The X-Files," that's another prominent example of television's halting regard for skeptics. Agent Scully is infamous as a character whose primary purpose is to be proven wrong time and time again about the existence of the paranormal. This is in defiance of the fact that her experiences would logically suggest that the world does not in fact operate on the rules she thinks it does, something a legitimate skeptic—not the TV-land idea of a skeptic—would have realized a long, long time ago. The only time the shoe is on the other foot, when Scully gets to be right and Mulder is wrong? When the strange goings-on in question are Christian in nature. Then suddenly Scully, a devout Roman Catholic, starts swooning about how it's a miracle of God and it's Mulder's turn to have his worldview turned on its head. The nay-sayer, which ever one of them is playing it for that episode, actually being right is simply never an option.

Another fact of interest is that one of my aforementioned examples, season 9 episode 8 of "The Simpsons," titled "Lisa the Skeptic," originally ended with Marge apologizing to Lisa for not supporting her and having the conclusion be a nod to Lisa having been correct all along, but was later changed to the more wishy-washy "But you have to admit, when that angel started to talk you were squeezing my hand pretty hard" ending that tries to be open-ended about the nature of belief despite the fact that the episode has demonstrated no reason that both sides of the argument should be given similar due. Lisa was right all along, the angel skeleton was a hoax designed to advertise a shopping mall, and even her supposed brief moment of faith was prompted by the angel seemingly floating in mid-air and speaking—i.e., to the rightful credit of evidence, not faith. The ending was presumably rewritten to achieve the same family-heartwarming effect as in "The Middle," but I have to question if a crew of writers as experienced as the Simpsons crew couldn't have managed a similarly happy ending without the false implications. Once again, we are subjected to an unspoken taboo wherein a skeptic or atheist cannot simply be allowed to come out on top without a big reassuring pat-on-the-back for the religious that they're still totally relevant, special, and maybe-correct-too haphazardly thrown in. While I usually think that analogies to participation trophies and how they cheapen true success are a bit overdone and misused, it does apply here.

When you don't have any good arguments or evidence
on your side, but you make people feel good so that's
apparently good enough.

For the record, I am not saying that there is something inherently wrong with these storylines. It is not unrealistic for a skeptical character to run into something that may make them reconsider their beliefs, or for that character to be an asshole and in need of a decency check, or to hold positive attitudes towards religious or magical beliefs. Rather, my problem with these stories comes from the same reason many people take issue with the damsel-in-distress trope, or the sluts-and-black-guys-die-first cliche of horror movies—
it's not the mere fact that it happens that is the problem, but the extreme frequency with which it happens and the wider cultural context that it plays into. A woman getting kidnapped and rescued by a man in a single individual story is not, by itself, an issue; but the larger pattern of a woman getting kidnapped and then needing rescuing by a man in damn near every other story that prominently features both a male and female character, and done so in a culture that has historically viewed women as weak and in need of protection, rightfully raises eyebrows. Likewise, when every other story that prominently features an atheist or skeptic has them being either proven wrong, vilified, or watered down during a time wherein atheists are still considered the most hated minority group in America, believers might be prompted to see past the flattering, feel-good veneer of a fable about acceptance and co-existence to recognize the slightly more intolerant themes actually underpinning these stories.

For many atheists like myself, this pattern sends a message: in order to be allowed to exist in society, we have to pay tithe to the religious. Tithe in the form of making sure we never make the religious feel uncomfortable or challenged, that we never cause them to too seriously doubt their position as a default conclusion. While the faithful are allowed to sing of their ironclad convictions from the rooftops (barring a few unpopular positions), the faithless are expected to use a normal indoor-speaking voice and begin each statement with, "Now this is just my opinion, I could be wrong..." If we don't, then we run the risk of being saddled with the dreaded mean-neckbeard-fedora-tipping-disrespectful-Edgelord stigma, even by those among our fellow atheists who have found satisfaction in conforming to the nonthreatening, acquiescent version of themselves that society favors. When a religious believer is firm, expressive, and unashamed, it's seen as a normal, even admirable, way of standing up for what they believe in. When an atheist does the same thing, it's seen as obnoxious, egotistical stubbornness.

This finally brings us to a slightly different example in television that most of you are probably familiar with, the insanely popular and somewhat infamous, "Rick and Morty."

"Rick and Morty" is an entirely different story. Its main character, Rick, is openly, loudly, and unapologetically atheist, and not once does the show do anything to try to put him in his place. Granted, he's also a sociopathic anti-hero, but he's an anti-heroic sociopath who isn't wrong. Aside from one appearance by the Devil (whom Rick handily defeats in a rivalry and nearly drives to suicide), no implication of human religious belief is ever implied to be true nor is religion portrayed in some noble light. In fact in one episode, they even seem to deliberately invoke Penn Jillette's hated "skeptic proven wrong" stock plot in order to dismantle it for the unrealistic pandering it is. Season 2 episode 5, "Get Schwifty," involves a race of giant floating heads forcing Rick and Morty to compete in an intergalactic singing contest in order to save the earth. Meanwhile, those not aware of the contest begin to worship the floating heads as gods. Beth, Rick's daughter, initially tries to persuade everyone to not jump to conclusions, but the unexplained occurrences (caused by Rick and Morty's mishaps) which coincidentally line up with several signs and behaviors of the townsfolk causes them to change their minds. While the new floating head cult starts out as peaceful and inspiring better behavior in the people, it quickly devolves into religious radicalism and heretics begin to be executed via being launched into the atmosphere with balloons (yeah, it's a weird show.) Eventually, when the floating heads finally take their leave, the townsfolk realize the error they've made and abandon the new faith while quietly sweeping their recent atrocities under the rug.

So we know from the start that the floating head religion is wrong, we have a skeptic who is challenged but turns out to be unconditionally correct, and the ultimate moral is not to present religion as a legitimate/admirable position, but more a warning that even religions founded under somewhat understandable circumstances that bring some tangible benefits to society are still ultimately misguided and have the capacity to go haywire.

"Rick and Morty," however, like most sufficiently large modern fanbases, has gained something of a bad reputation for being worshiped by scores of people falling perfectly in line with the "bad atheist" stereotype. And well, it's not an entirely undeserved one. One need only look back to the legendary szechuan sauce riots to know that. I'm not going to defend this behavior (especially not as someone who has worked in fast food) nor any of the other pseudo-intellectual bad habits of the fanbase, however, I do think there is value in understanding why someone does something even if it's something we don't approve of—an approach often sadly ignored or even vilified for its lack of satisfactory outrage, which many people seem to confuse for efficiency.

Often times when people have felt pressed down most of their lives, it can be easy to get carried away with what ever little sense of empowerment is given to them; it's like being starved nearly to death and then suddenly given food, table manners certainly aren't on the mind in that moment. When you're used to being given unfair standards by which to behave and then finally get the power to eschew those standards, it can be hard to subsequently tell the difference between what is now a reasonable expectation of your behavior and what is just more attempts to disempower you. In our age of increasing empowerment to the once-disenfranchised, this is a problem that many groups are struggling with and which I believe fuels much of the cultural conflicts currently plaguing us. A wider discussion of this problem is due for another time, but suffice to say, atheists are one of those groups that's struggling with it.

Particularly, because atheists find themselves pushed into this false dichotomy of either being acquiescent towards religion or being a belligerent nuisance, they're almost set up for failure from the start. When given the option between cow-towing to whims you don't believe in and may actively oppose, or being labeled an asshole, it's not surprising that many people choose to embrace the asshole label. And when you've just accepted the fact that you're an asshole, it becomes easier to justify doing nasty things—after all, if you're going to suffer the consequences of being a jerk regardless, why not also reap the benefits in the meantime? This is a vicious cycle that many groups find themselves struggling with: anything other than submission is viewed as an antagonism, so when antagonism is inevitably chosen, it reinforces the notion that the dichotomy is true. The stereotype influences the behavior, and the behavior makes people believe in the stereotype, and so on and so forth, but you can't just easily "not act like a stereotype" because the standards created by the stereotype are already set against you. Some, understandably, just throw their hands up in the air and yell "Fuck it!"

"Rick and Morty" blew up because after years of sitting through the subtly insulting attitudes many previous shows had towards them, a show finally had the guts to portray an open and unashamed atheist without trying to sneak in any apologetic bullshit for the sake of not scaring its theistic audience members. Given the show's success among most everyone, including the religious, I think it also proves that such pandering is unnecessary. You should rightfully call out anyone who uses the show as an excuse to be a jerk, but I think it's worth keeping mind where this behavior is springing from. Not all bullies can be reasoned with, but some do change their ways if given a chance for empathy, and if not, others may at least witness what you tried and avoid becoming a bully themselves in the future.

I myself continue to walk the line between refusing to water down my principles for the sake of other people's comfort while also not going out of my way to deliberately cause trouble. It's not always easy. Generally, my rule of thumb is that I treat religion much in the same way as I treat politics. I have about as much respect for the religious as I do for republicans: what they act like as a person comes first and foremost in our interactions, which may be pleasant or awful, and that may be all it ever comes down to. But if they want to bring their views into the conversation, I'm not going to sit back and politely nod along, because I genuinely think those views are demonstrably incorrect and even harmful. Furthermore, I'm not going to hold my tongue while on my own time, I have every right to express my distaste for those views on public venues and amongst my fellows. How dearly they hold those views is frankly irrelevant and if they can't take the heat then they need to get out of the kitchen. Don't worry, I won't follow them with a flaming frying pan.

i.e., I don't pay the tithe. I pass along the bowl and go buy Hot Cheetos instead.

Swap out those Doritos, Mountain Dew, and trilbies for Flamin' Hots, Sprite,
and berets, and you've got me. Ponies are the same though.

Here's to a bad smelly edgelady like myself hoping for a better future for atheists in television and in everyday life—i
f I were Brick, that scene would have went a little something like this:

Brick: Isn't it amazing how each snowflake is different?
Sue: I know. It took me, like, three hours to cut out ten, and God has to do, like, 50 billion. You can't tell me that's not a miracle.
Brick: Eh, yes I can. I read a book about meteorology, and it's actually not that hard to imagine once you understand it.
Sue: Oh...

Brick: But it is still pretty cool.

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