Friday, September 04, 2009

Freedom Of/From Religion (updated)

Billboard seen in South Carolina last spring

My copy of the Fall, 2009 UU World just arrived this afternoon. Some of my fellow bloggers have already posted their opinions of the full-page color ad for the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) inside the front cover.

I’m… well, I’m unsurprised. I know this organization. I support its mission to maintain the wall of separation between church and state. Its co-president, Dan Barker, has spoken at my UU church a couple of times – as well as other UU churches in the area. Knowing that Barker has a reputation for being… provocative, I’m not surprised the FFRF uses clever and provocative quotes for bus sign advertising – and you’ve got to admit, they’re catchy. Whoever is responsible for this ad campaign deserves some credit.

Is the ad offensive? Well, I think a few of the quotes are guaranteed to offend someone. I'm bothered by the ad for other reasons.

The quotes in the ad (which can be found here) convey what I consider a “fundamentalist” atheism. These are intelligent people – but they’ve limited their view of God. One of my theology professors calls this “putting God in box,” and warned us against it. This sort of fundamentalism is as offensive to me as religious fundamentalism that claims to know who are saved and who are damned.

These quotes are also negative. “Unpleasant,” “don’t believe,” “ain’t so.” Isn’t that one of the criticisms of our own faith? That many of us find it easier to say what we don’t believe in, than what we do? I’d rather listen to Penn Gillette’s “This I Believe” essay on his non-belief. It is at least clearly stated and rational enough to engage. I think he's also put God in a box, but there's a difference. In a snark-free way Gillette clearly defines what his belief means to him, and it's actually kind of cool.

I'm very interested in interfaith dialogue. I spent a lot of time on internship talking with people who aren't UU, since my supervisor is very involved in local clergy and interfaith groups. I learned a lot by listening, and sharing ideas with people whose beliefs differed from mine. It is far better to begin a dialog from a place of "this is what I think, and why," than from a place of "you couldn't possibly believe something so stupid."

I do like the quote from Katharine Hepburn: “I’m an atheist, and that’s it. I believe that there’s nothing we can know except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for other people.” Ms. Hepburn’s quote is plain, and not derogatory to others’ views. Again - beginning from "this is what I think."

Several months ago I was in a southern state where I observed the above billboard while driving on the freeway. It gets the point across without being derogatory to others. I know some have been offended by it, but I don't find it so. The FFRF should make a note of it...

UPDATE: After posting this, my DH & I had a long conversation about this ad this morning. We see the basic problem with this ad as being (a) that it's not immediately obvious that the FFRF is not part of the UUA; and (b) that the message gleaned from the quotes is anti-religious, equating religion with theism (and a particular form of theism, as well). The DH and I have different beliefs - but a common faith. We've had this conversation about inclusiveness for theists and nontheists for years. There seems to be no end to it.

For What It's Worth: The UU World's business manager responded to one blogger's direct communication and she posted it here.

And now I'm tired of all this - and just plain tired. I seem to have been taking a blogging holiday unofficially. I'm making it official now. I'm discerning how and whether this blogging thing fits into my ministry. Be back next month, or so.


Robin Edgar said...

Well For What It's Worth Earthbound Spirit I think that UU World business manager Scott Ulrich's timely decision to accept personal responsibility for the *mistake* of publishing that particular Freedom From Religion Foundation ad in the UU World magazine was worth a fair bit, even if I can quibble with some parts of his letter. Allow me to be ever so Green and recycle a comment that I submitted to Rev. Cynthia Landrum's Rev. Cyn blog minutes ago -

I can make a few quibbles about what Scott Ulrich said, and may do so later, but on the whole I am very favorably impressed with his prompt handling of this controversy which serves to largely defuse it and prevent further escalation of "hostilities" as it were. Would that more UUA staff and UUA leaders displayed the level of integrity that Scott Ulrich displayed in taking personal responsibility for the error of accepting the offensive anti-religious advertisement from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I am particularly impressed by these two sentences of his letter -

I have come to the conclusion that it was a mistake to run this particular ad. While the stated mission of the Freedom From Religion Foundation is entirely consistent with UU values, this ad seems hostile to all religion.

Mr. Ulrich clearly and unequivocally acknowledges that tit was a *mistake* to run that particular FFRF ad in the UU World magazine and equally clearly and unequivocally acknowledges that that particular ad "seems hostile to all religion." Those words needed to be said and he had the personal integrity and courage to say them and say them in a very timely manner.

Bravo Scott Ulrich! You are very much in The Emerson Avenger's good books on this particular issue even if I can quibble with aka question some of your other words. You may even be awarded a U*U Hero Award if I ever get around to creating my U*U Heroes and Zeroes Awards. ;-) In fact your exemplary conduct, which allows me to hand out at least one U*U Hero Award this year, gives me the push to go ahead and award some U*U Heroes and Zeroes Awards.

That being said I would like to encourage all the good U*Us who have shared their concerns about this questionable ad being published in the UU World magazine to go the extra mile and contact the Freedom From Religion Foundation directly to politely let them know how and why you found the ads themselves to be offensive to try to persuade them not to display the more offensive ads in bus advertisements as doing so will only exacerbate relations between God believing Americans and atheists, most of whom would prefer to get along with each other if I am not mistaken. I had no serious problems with the wording of the earlier Atheist Bus Campaigns and said so very publicly in this letter to the editor published in the Montreal Mirror alternative weekly this spring when the French version of the Atheist Bus Campaign came to Montreal.

Earthbound Spirit said...

Robin, I appreciate your staying on topic with your comment.

I think it's important to remember that there is more than one atheist/humanist organization out there, each with different ad campaigns. One organization may or may not be aware of the others, or their ads. So if you're encouraging people to contact the FFRF about a different ad campaign - the FFRF may not know what you're talking about. As far as I know, the FFRF only operates within the USA.

Robin Edgar said...

My comments usually are on topic to the general theme of the blog post I am commenting on, if not the specifics, or respond to comments that have been posted to it. I am perfectly aware that there are several different atheist/humanist organizations and I thought it was clear that I was suggesting that U*Us directly contact the FFRF about its offensive advertising campaign that was advertised in the UU World magazine. It should be obvious from my letter to the editor that I linked to that I did not find the previous Atheist Bus Campaigns to be particularly offensive. If they were offensive enough to complain about them I would have done so but did no such thing although I did poke some fun at the British one since it was partly sponsored by the "fundamentalist atheist" aka Atheist Supremacist Richard Dawkins.