Thursday, June 12, 2014

Are Atheists "Offended" by Prayer?

Recently I have encountered online comments from believers who ask why their god talk "offends" atheists. It's an accusation more than a genuine question, of course. The word is code for a message that we are too sensitive and we should just suck it up. After all, they're in charge and we have to live in their world. That's just how it is and we should get used to it.

The online Webster's dictionary defines 'offend' this way:
  • to cause (a person or group) to feel hurt, angry, or upset by something said or done
  • to be unpleasant to (someone or something)
  • to do wrong : to be against what people believe is acceptable or proper
So... feeling offended could mean we're just oversensitive sissypants, or it could mean feeling as if we've been wronged. But the definition is clear - the onus is on the person who offends. But... but.... but... they're such good people, doing what they believe to be good, what wrong could they be committing? It must surely all be in our heads.  Blaming the offended party obviates any need for self-reflection.

Further down the page, Merriam-Webster says this: "offend need not imply an intentional hurting but it may indicate merely a violation of the victim's sense of what is proper or fitting."

Well there ya go. But... if people get offended for a good reason, that's still the fault of the offender, not the offended. If I don't realize that the N-word is offensive, and I use it and someone gets offended, it's not their fault. It may be the fault of my ignorance (the first time) but I wouldn't blame the other person. I would apologize for saying the offensive thing, i.e., apologize for doing something wrong and promise not to do it again. Blaming the "victim" is the kind of thing a sociopath does, not a normal, decent person.

Most of the time when I encounter this term it's in the context of government endorsement of religion. (Naturally, because I don't give a hoot about someone's religious expression any other time) When I e-mailed the principal of Lebanon High School in Missouri to admonish him for sneaking prayer into his graduation speech, he replied that he was sorry if I was offended. His public nonpology says much the same thing:

“I sincerely apologize if any comments made in my speech offended anyone in the audience and our community, especially any of our students, and will strive to not let this happen again. Our district endeavors to fully comply with the laws and Constitution of the United States, and to provide quality education to all of our students. I wish each and everyone of the 332 fine young men and women who graduated that night the best in all of their endeavors.”
-Lebanon High School Principal Kevin Lowery
For additional information Contact:
Jacy Tilton
Director of Communications, Lebanon R-3 School District
(copied from Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True site)

I doubt that these words are all his. The district probably has a legal advisor, but still ... the comments offended people, not Lowery. By blaming the comments and not himself, he's still taking a step away from his guilt. It's like saying "I'm sorry if my bullet entered your body and caused an injury. I won't let bullets do that again." Who pulled the trigger, Mr. Lowery? Words don't just fly out of your mouth on their own without your brain putting them there.

Recently I've been told that I'm unnecessarily "offended" in a debate with a Jewish Facebook friend.  I posted a link to a poll asking whether "Under God" should remain in the pledge."  She said that when she was in school (decades ago) she and a Jewish friend just stayed silent for those words so why can't atheists?

I think she's missing the point.  Well, there are many points that she's missing, and she sounds like victims of hazing who justify hazing the next group of fraternity pledges.  There's some kind of victimology there, but I'll save that for later.  For one thing, no child should have to make that decision!  In protestant Christianity and Judaism, a child isn't of age to commit to a belief system until just before puberty.  Our age of consent for almost every adult act is older than elementary school age.  If a child isn't of age to enter into a contract, buy a pack of cigarettes, drive a car, or have sex, we shouldn't expect them to make a consent decision regarding religious expression.   Another problem I have with this is that it asks a child to opt out.  It's a well known psychological/sociological principal that opting in results in less compliance than opting in, for example in donor registration on driver's licenses (the "default" effect).  This results in god-talk being normalized, and silence being seen by the majority as abnormal or exceptional.  In the case of children and the pledge, we are asking children to obey their teachers at all time ... except when they disagree with their teacher about God. Is that realistic? Again, the child is getting the blame for putting up with something illegal, not the teacher who enforces it.

The way we know that this is true is that believers don't like it when they are the ones who must opt in or out.  My Jewish friend asked me why atheists can't just opt out like she did, because opting in is so difficult.  It's as if the idea of not making children decide on their belief system at the beginning of the day for twelve years just doesn't exist for her. If the "normal" pledge has no god reference it's not in any way damaging... or should I say offending a believer. They don't say god all day long in every other activity in school. Not doing it during their morning flag recitation won't hurt them any more than not doing it while learning fractions.

But my real complaint isn't that I'm personally "offended" or hurt if some child somewhere is forced to pray against his/her will, or if a principal prays at a graduation ceremony.  I'm not personally affected at all so my own feelings can't be hurt. I'm offended as an American that such things are going on in a country that supposedly did away with them. Expecting a 6-year-old or a 16-year-old to go along with a religious message in a school environment where they are expected to be obedient to authority is coercion, not free expression.

Now, let's look at the other definition of offend:  to break the law.  Criminals are called offenders.  A school that forces kids to say "under God" and a principal who prays at a public school event is breaking the law of the land: the First Amendment of the Constitution and subsequent related case law.

When someone commits an offense against a law, they are committing an offense against all the people, as represented by the government.  As one of those people,  I'm entitled to shout "HEY!  You're breaking the law!"  In criminal court, the prosecution represents "the people," even if there's a specific victim. Unfortunately, in civil court only aggrieved parties are able to file lawsuits against these malefactors.   I think crimes against the Constitution offend against everybody in the U.S., so anybody should be able to file suit, and Principal Lowery should be put on trial and jailed.

Why do outsiders like Jerry Coyne, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and myself (to a much lesser degree of course) take "offense" at offenses against the Constitution?  In my case, it's because of the "Broken Window" effect in sociology.  When that first broken window doesn't get fixed, people think it's okay to break more windows.  They think, Nobody obviously cares about windows in this neighborhood, do they? It's a slippery slope, but not a fallacious slippery slope. In Law, it's called "precedent," and in principle it's called "tradition."

God on our money, in the pledge, or in a public school graduation speech is a broken window in the one place on Earth that made a solemn promise not to let broken windows happen.  It was a founding principal of our government not to let get entangled with religion, and that principal needs to be restored.


Infidel753 said...

Taking offense is a subjective reaction and is different for every person. To me, sheer stupidity, when extreme enough, can be offensive, and religion certainly qualifies, so I try to avoid it when possible.

Prayer in an official context, such as when led by a teacher in a public school is a violation of the rights of others. That's why we try to ban it, not because it's offensive.

The religious nutters are the last ones who should be complaining about us feeling offended. They are the most constantly-offended people in the world. There are Christians who are offended by gays and porn, and there are Muslims who are offended by cartoons and piggy banks. Well, tough. That's part of living in a pluralistic society.

LadyAtheist said...

Perhaps that's why they keep bringing up the Pilgrims - they want to set up little enclaves of like-minded mini-sects where everyone is a carbon copy of themselves.

Chatpilot said...

Nice post Lady Atheist! The only thing is that although our Constitution claims that government and religion should not mix our government is the first offender of these principals.

We have 'In God we trust' on our currency, above the judges bench in our court rooms, presidents are sworn in using a Bible, etc. Not to mention that fact that our politicians use religion as a means to get more votes during their runs for office.

Christians and Muslims love to offend others who are not part of their religious movement or sect all the time. They are offended it seems by living. I personally don't take offense to believers as long as their beliefs don't affect my freedoms and right to not believe without suffering consequences or being labeled immoral.

LadyAtheist said...

Yes, the Feds broke the first windows :-(

Midwesterners are too nice to intentionally "offend" which is rather irksome considering I know what some of their views are. One of my former coworkers here belongs to the crazier wing of the Pentecostal church. Very nice fellow, but some of his views.... yikes

LadyAtheist said...

Yes, the Feds broke the first windows :-(

Midwesterners are too nice to intentionally "offend" which is rather irksome considering I know what some of their views are. One of my former coworkers here belongs to the crazier wing of the Pentecostal church. Very nice fellow, but some of his views.... yikes

Ipecac said...

Nice post. Well said.

Scott said...

I like to point out how well this would go over if the roles were reversed. "One nation, where there's no God, with liberty and justice for all." People would be up in arms, howling that the government shouldn't be forcing that sort of expression.

LadyAtheist said...

Yep! "Even One Nation, which has no opinion on god" would upset the dominionists who have been getting their way for 60 years

Anonymous said...

Actually, a year or so after your post, the news has instances of the roles reversed---Christian bakers/photographers having to choose whether to create (sometimes gay-themed) works for gay weddings. Unlike remaining silent for a line of the pledge to the flag, the courts haven't let them "opt out" so far. As I read, I wondered if you think this is a constitutional issue like having religious prayers in schools. I hope you would be equally offended by both. (I haven't read all your posts, so I apologize if you write on this elsewhere.)