The Coexist Bumper Sticker v. The Fiction Bumper Sticker

I assume you’ve all seen the above bumper sticker before (it’s pretty common in California where I live).  But someone recently made a new bumper sticker that offers a pretty direct (and amusing) gnu atheist retort:

This recalls for me MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson’s recent theory as to why the gnu atheism, since 9-11, has gained some traction in the culture: the gnu atheists do not offer religion and faith respect:

That’s perhaps part of their attraction to a certain segment of the population—that is, that’s what makes it a new kind of phenomenon in that it basically shows no respect for religion whatsoever, because militant atheists think that religion is basically a bad thing and needs to be condemned.

Setting aside the ridiculous moniker “militant” attached to atheists, Hutchinson has nevertheless hit the nail on the head: the thing that distinguishes an atheist like Albert Camus in the 1950s from an atheist like, say, Jerry Coyne in the 21st century, is that Coyne declines the polite public deference usually accorded religion and faith.

But as startling as this decline of deference is, it has more than shock value. I think that the gnu atheists have arrived at a very interesting (and plausible) thesis:

Religion is basically a bad thing and needs to be condemned.

And the alternate thesis is this:

Religion is basically a good thing and needs to be praised.

Which direction do you lean? Are these theses too broad to be all that meaningful?

For me, to think that religion is basically a good thing would require an endorsement of one or more of religion’s traditional epistemic methods. But I can’t think of any that I’m at all impressed with. Here’s the standard list:

  • faith
  • tradition
  • religious experience
  • miracles
  • authority
  • scripture
  • memory (eye-witness testimony absent physical evidence)
  • etiological narratives (origin tales from ancient books, such as Genesis’s story of the Tower of Babel purporting to explain the diversity of languages in the world)

None of these seem to get people (reliably) closer to the truth of matters, and the truth of matters matters. And so to say that religion is basically a good thing is to allow that, though its epistemic habits of mind are dubious at best, it still does more good than harm in the world.

But that in itself is far from obvious.

From my agnostic perspective, the sole value of religion is not that it makes people better (on average, it probably doesn’t), or that it inspires art (I think art can arrive via the desiring and intellectual imagination alone), but this: it gives people meaning and hope against all appearances that the universe has none. Religion and faith are human responses to death, suffering, and the contingent.

The truths of religion and faith—if you want to call them truths and not simply gestures of desperation—lie in the outrage and rebellion of the human spirit against its seeming absurdity and nothingness. They give people, in their flungness, two things to hold onto in the fog and storm of existence. Religion and faith are among the wines of Dionysus; the gifts of the gods; the intoxicants that make life tolerable.

And religion and faith are forms of gaming against appearances: as a limited being, you may as well be a Pollyanna as opposed to a Cassandra; you may as well believe and come under the spell of belief, and embrace an ultimate optimism (as opposed to an ultimate pessimism). There’s no empirical evidence whatsoever that this will ever happen, but the Book of Revelation (20:4) catches religious longing and the stout determination to believe with perfect pitch:

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any pain: for the former things are passed away.

By contrast, the gnu atheists are realists about the most straightforward conclusion from the data at hand: they look at the appearances of death, suffering, and contingency, and say, “This is the way it really is”—and offer the following (not entirely comforting) promises about the future:

And scientists shall open our eyes even more; and it will grow in obviousness that there is no purpose or design to the universe, neither of matter, nor of life, nor of mind, neither shall there be any more ‘woo religion’: for dishonesty about our condition will pass away.

In other words, whether we like a conclusion or not, we have to possess the courage of honesty—and call what is almost certainly fiction fiction (including the highly implausible promises of religion and faith).

And the gnu atheist says what to this? Amen?

For those who like the gnu atheist thesis, I notice that the Fiction bumper sticker is being sold through PayPal here.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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24 Responses to The Coexist Bumper Sticker v. The Fiction Bumper Sticker

  1. TomH says:

    Santi,

    What are the epistemic methods of modern scholarship? Fantasy, story-telling, and the usual religious methods:

    Faith (I’ve already pointed out Steven Shapin’s book where he examines this phenomenon in science)
    Tradition (this is typically propagated in textbooks)
    Scientific experience
    Miracles (technology–oooh, aaaah)
    Authority (Scientists say….)
    Scripture (textbooks)
    Memory (Now what did I do with that sample?)

    These are standard epistemic methods used by all people–scientific and religious.

    And, of course, you ignore the biblical epistemology of testimony which requires corroboration of the empirical statements of eyewitnesses under careful scrutiny. Funny how technology with its oohs and aahs relies on corroboration, isn’t it? I mean, we corroborate Maxwell’s Equations on a daily basis through our use of technology, don’t we? When it comes to historical events, of course we have to rely on testimony. However, we must also examine the testimony carefully and look for corroboration of the empirical statements. We don’t want to be naive about testimony.

    Oh, yeah, Jared wanted an “impartial” judge of the biblical eyewitnesses. Impartiality is a fiction. But let’s consider whether obtaining an impartial judge is possible for the resurrection question. Let’s suppose that the jewish christians of the early church recruited some pagan to examine those who claimed to be eyewitnesses of the resurrection because he would be impartial. Let’s suppose that that pagan then became a Christian after hearing the evidence, which he finds to be compelling. (I assume that he wouldn’t still be a pagan if he thought that the evidence for the resurrection was compelling.) All of a sudden he’s not impartial. It’s a catch-22 situation. Asking for impartiality is jejeune.

    • Maybe if you keep saying this enough times, a miracle will occur and it will become true. As it stands, it is a lie you just keep repeating. Please, show me where witnesses were interrogated by a skeptical source. Please show me the testimony interrogates testimony of multiple witnesses to each event. Hey, Christ was alive back then too, and as he is the source of most of your miracles, somebody definitely should have questioned him to see if he was a charlatan who tricked others. Then go on to explain to me why this non-testimony from 2000 years ago is unimpeachable in your eyes .. yet real testimony from UFO eye witnesses ( including 2 presidents and many ranking military officers) is bunk.

      As you make abundantly clear with every post .. you have 2 sets of criteria by which you judge the truth. One for Christianity and one for everything else.

      • TomH says:

        What do you mean by “skeptical source?” People concerned with the facts? I’ve already covered the question of the epistemology of testimony in 1st century Judea. Luke records that many people were attempting to compile accounts about the events of Christ’s ministry. We should infer from that that the early church was concerned about accuracy. The early church should not be viewed as monolithic in its views. When Paul was evangelizing, he was using reason in the marketplace and synagogue, not emotional appeals with emotional songs (“Tenderly, tenderly Jesus is calling…”) like is the practice in today’s churches. People were persuaded by reason and by the miracles that they observed.

        I’ve seen a few miracles myself not connected with any traveling evangelist. My own daughter was suddenly healed as part of one. My wife is the other witness, as is my daughter’s doctor. We’ve seen food multiplied when we had guests and not enough food to feed them. We’ve had money appear mysteriously just when we needed it when we were on a trip and out of cash.

        One witness about an event is insufficient to establish facts. This eliminates 99% of UFO testimony. The remaining 1% are not “abductees.”

        Your bias is preventing you from seeing that I have one epistemic methodology.

      • As I have pointed out before, using the Bible as proof of the events in the Bible is circular validation.

        You would think that if miracles were real, that the Catholic Church would invite scientists to study any and all of their miracles. Yet they do not. The reason being, that if science then explained them, the church would be forced to recant and declare something previously thought of as a miracle as not a miracle. Like the church, your definition of a miracle is simply something that you cannot explain. The god of the gaps. This was the same reasoning used for 1000s of years as proof of gods. Primitive man could not explain earthquakes, so it had to be god. etc. etc. etc. Science has continually chipped away at these things, particularly in the last few 100 years. Many of the mysteries of the universe have been stripped away. And the reality is that we still know very little. Logic, reasoning and understanding have been and continue to be the arch-nemesis of miracles.

        As for UFO testimony, there are many events witnessed and testified to by multiple people. Do a simple google search, there is a ton of stuff.

    • santitafarella says:

      Tom,

      Please notice that what you are describing is how science gets communicated to the general public (textbooks, news reports quoting a scientist as an authority, etc), not how scientists themselves actually arrive at confidence concerning the truth of a matter.

      And this is not to say that scientists don’t have biases or often want things to come out a certain way—obviously, as humans, they often do. But that’s why they have procedures for getting at the truth that are different from those traditionally associated with religion (doubt, peer reviewed journals, experiment, converging lines of evidence, free-for-all dialogue, annual conferences where conclusions are constantly brought into renewed scrutiny, etc). To get at the truth of a matter, you have to reduce your subjectivity, look closely, and think clearly. Empiricism tries to set up conditions to do these things.

      There is a culture surrounding critical thinking and science within academic disciplines that presses colleagues for evidence, and that encourages doubt and debate. You can deny that this is how it always occurs in practice, but I don’t think that you can deny that it is a very high ideal and that science often achieves it (with, for example, the discovery that the continents move and that Einstein’s theory of relativity is correct).

      —Santi

  2. Paradigm says:

    Here’s a bumper sticker for those who think science is all about truth:

    $ci£nc£

  3. I’m going to comment on the “message” of the stickers, rather than the epistemology behind them.

    One says “Hey, we’re not the same, but let’s all try and work together and make the world a better place, peacefully.”

    The other says “Everybody else is wrong, and I want you to go away.”

    Which one of these stickers is more helpful in moving society forward?

    The stickers are in fact doing two completely different jobs. One is concerned about truth and what is right, and puts all of its eggs in that basket. The other is concerned with how we can flourish as a society, not who is right. (I’ve seen a version of the Coexist sticker which includes an “atheist” symbol.)

    A minor message of the Fiction sticker is, “this is just for fun, let’s have a laugh, much like the “darwin fish” spoof on the IEOSUS fish. However, I think it’s major message is one of intolerance and division. Hence, I think it’s actually a very poor advertisement for atheism.

    Me = agnostic, should anyone want to do an ad hominum on me.

    Jonathan from Spritzophrenia :)

    • santitafarella says:

      Jonathan,

      My wife made to me similar observations to yours. I agree that the “coexist” sticker is more or less an affirmation of liberal values—not necessarily an endorsement of what religions tend to actually promote per se. It’s a pragmatic affirmation.

      But atheism shouldn’t be excluded from it. I’d be curious to see the bumper sticker you mentioned.

      —Santi

    • John Reece says:

      “Hey, we’re not the sam, but let’s all try and work together and make the world a better place, peacefully.”

      is an appealing ideal. But…

      The holy bible says that god commands you to kill those that don’t believe in him. The torah says the same thing. And, guess what, the qu’ran says the same thing. Three mutually exclusive commands.

      So whether you are christian, jew, or muslim, you have a choice. You can either follow the commands of your god thereby making coexistence impossible, or you can deny your holy scripture meaning that you actually embrace the concept expressed in the FICTION bumper sticker.

      It won’t do to deny portions of your book, whichever it is, either. If you say, well, I just don’t believe in that part, then you are proving that you had your own moral compass before you opened your scriptures to read. So what purpose the scriptures? And by extension, what purpose god?

      “Well, the scriptures tell me right from wrong.” Hmm, so is something right because god says it is? Or does god command it because it is right? If the latter, “right” exists in its own right (so to speak) and then what purpose god? If the former, god becomes the petty, jealous, capriciously evil misanthrope described in any of the three major scriptures.

      There is an insidiously evil elephant in the middle of our living room and the FICTION bumper sticker forces us to acknowlege its existence.

    • Kelly says:

      Yes. A MAJOR message of intolerance which is why I found it ironic to be stuck on a car next to a rainbow flag. Way to “represent” the community. I wish I’d had time to follow them and ask the question. I have militant lesbian mothers who preach acceptance yet are unable to accept anyone else who doesn’t have thier same views. Love them dearly bit its sort of sad.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        I’m confused. How is it intolerant to express the view that religions are delusional? Intolerance would entail the advocacy of forcing people not to believe. As a rhetorical strategy for winning over religious conservatives to support gay equality, I agree it may not be the best. It’s an alienating message, but it’s not intolerant.

      • John Reece says:

        Quran, Sura 4, Verse 89: They long that ye should disbelieve even as they disbelieve, that ye may be upon a level (with them). So choose not friends from them till they forsake their homes in the way of Allah; if they turn back (to enmity) then take them and kill them wherever ye find them, and choose no friend nor helper from among them

        Bible, Dt 13:6-10 “If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you … Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die.”

        How can that co-exist?

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Violent fundamentalists with clashing books obviously can’t coexist. The rest of us can.

        If you say, “Well, you can’t be a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim without taking such passages in the ‘holy’ texts seriously and following them,” I say: “Why would you want to encourage literal readings of such texts?”

        Gandhi read the Gita–a text that, read literally, promotes war and killing–and kept a copy with him always, interpreting it as a parable of spiritual life. If contemporary people need religion and are willing to adopt the mental gymnastics to make their traditions and books nonviolent (or substantially less violent), then those of us who are secularists needn’t mock them for it, but be relieved that they are at least doing this much.

      • John Reece says:

        So what should the rest of us do? Kill the violent fundamentalists? If you can get one muslim and one christian to take a Sharpie marker and blot out those passages in their holy books, then I would say that at least some of us have a chance for co-existence.

        Let me know when you find one of each, but don’t expect me to hold my breath until then.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Most religious people are not violent (at least most of the time). It’s a matter of isolating the few that are. The types of verses that you cite are typically invoked under moments of stress, when war is immanent or ongoing, and cultures are clashing over a zero-sum game (not enough land to go around, etc.). The long-term solutions are progressive political organizing, securing secular cultural advances through media repetition (we don’t bash gays in our Hollywood media culture, we support diversity, etc.), economic growth, education, and to keep violent fundamentalists apart (like George Bush and Osama bin Laden).

        –Santi

  4. Pat says:

    How do I get FICTION bumper stickers?

  5. If you are going for best contents like I do, only pay a visit this website
    everyday since it offers quality contents, thanks

  6. Kelly says:

    I saw this bumper sticker on a car yesterday in Minnesota next to a rainbow sticker and a Vote No sticker which references our newly passed legislation. (I absolutely voted no) however I thought this would be a very offensive sticker to many people of faith including the ones the gay community are trying to persuade. I just thought it was a horrible way for the individuals to represent the gay community. Aren’t we all supposed to respect each other?

  7. Patrick says:

    I created the original “Fiction” design. I’ve been selling items with it emblazoned since at least 2010 at http://www.cafepress.com/dd/18609334. I think my design is better. Their “F” is just an “F.”

  8. Pingback: Down With Gods. All of Them. | canthoudigit

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