“Christards” April 11, 2007


The issue discussed in this post actually arose several weeks ago. I talked to Dale about the issue when it occurred; we agreed it wasn’t worth posting about (it would just bring on unnecessary attention) and it would just fade away. Now, it looks like the story is going to spread since it has been mentioned in Humanist Network News and in the comments section on Daylight Atheism. I might as well jump into the fray.

Here’s the summary of what went down:

Dale McGowan wrote a book called Parenting Beyond Belief. The book is a collection of essays for parents who wish to raise their children without religion and how to deal with the issues that come up as a result. The essay writers include Richard Dawkins, Julia Sweeney, Penn Jillette, and many others. The book is now available in stores and getting some great reviews.

Penn Jillette expressed frustration, however, when his essay had some editing done to it. Here’s a response he gave (on his own message board) to an inquiry about his contribution to the book:

“That godless parenting book is not really my writing. I wrote something that had some guts to it, and they were scared of it. I guess they didn’t want to anger xtians by having an Atheist perspective in their book on atheist parenting. When I write, I usually have control over the final product and editors are very respectful. I did this for free because I thought it was a good cause. They used that against me, and edited it in ways I don’t approve of. It might be a good book, but please don’t buy it for my essay, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they edited other stuff badly as well.”

Dale responded to this topic on his own message board with a fuller explanation of what Penn was talking about (The emphases are his own):

Yeah, I figured this was coming at some point, since he was pretty upset at the time. That’s really unfortunate — his piece is brilliant, as you might expect. I really didn’t want to air this in public, but I won’t be libeled, either. Here’s the story:

I sent all contributors one page of editorial guidelines. I then edited essays according to those guidelines and sent the essays back to each for approval.

Penn’s essay is 1100 words in length. I edited two of those words.

The first was the word “xtian,” which I asked all contributors to spell out as “christian.” He agreed. “The xtian change could be made as a style thing for the whole book,” he said in an email, “and I’ll go with that.”

We’re now down to a single word.

Penn had included the word “christards” in his essay — a combination of “christian” and “retards.” Here’s the original phrase:

We don’t have any friends who are christards or into any kind of faith-based hooey…

I changed it to

We don’t have any friends who are into any kind of faith-based hooey…

The book includes very direct and unapologetic critiques of religious belief by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Dan Barker — hardly wallflowers — but I considered this to be over the top, an unnecessary slur, which is something I’d asked the writers to avoid.

I went back and forth on the decision, weak-kneed bastard that I am. At one point I apologized to Penn, abjectly and sincerely, and said I’d leave it in. I really thought for half an hour that I’d done the wrong thing. But then I ran it past five other atheists, all of whom felt even more strongly than I did that it was too much and had to go or it would become a distraction, the only thing interviewers and reviewers would talk about. And I re-read the guidelines, and thought about the core audience of parents who aren’t as comfortable as others in their disbelieving skins and who need this book. That’s not the only audience, of course, but it’s the one that can finally demarginalize disbelief by getting more comfortable about identifying with it.

So I told Penn I wanted to remove it after all, not to avoid offending christians, but to avoid turning off that core audience of moderate nonbelievers. I can be plenty boundless and rude myself when the situation calls for it, but I know there are times when it’s counterproductive. I decided this was one of those times.

Penn was very angry, but said, “It’s your call.” If he’d insisted I leave it in, I would have done so, as I did for some other contributors…but (whether he meant it or not) he gave me the choice. If this is “disrespectful” editing, I just don’t see it, and I don’t see that a piece with two words changed is no longer his.

As for writing it for free: I sent a rather large check with his name on it, and somebody cashed it. He might want to look into that. His account may not have noticed it, but mine sure as hell did.

I agree with Dale on this matter. For a positive book on atheist parenting, the word would’ve stuck out like a sore thumb. I haven’t read Penn’s essay yet, but if it is “brilliant” as Dale says, there’s no need for an additional slap-in-the-face to theists. Dale made the right decision in editing it out of the book.

Using derogatory words takes away from the rational, logical discourse we atheists claim to hold so dear. It’s not like religion has a lack of reasons to be criticized. There’s no need to resort to low blows.

[tags]atheist, atheism, Christards, Dale McGowan, Humanist Network News, Daylight Atheism, Richard Dawkins, Julia Sweeney, Penn Jillette, godless, parenting, xtian, Dan Barker[/tags]

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Brett

    And I’m guessing if he actually did know some “christards,” he wouldn’t call them that. It’s easy to insult those you don’t have to interact with.

  • Siamang

    I’ll just insert that word randomly into everything I ever hear or read from Penn.

    “I hold here in this Christart hand an ordinary deck of playing cards……”

    Whatever, Penn… have your prima donna fit.

  • Robin

    I am wondering if Mr Gillette took into consideration that someone reading that book may have a child or relative that may be retarded? It is not just the slur to Christians, which is bad enough, but to the handicapped as well.

  • Mriana

    I’m a writer and 1. You do not abbreviate in essays. 2. You can say what you want, but a little tact makes for better writing. In other words, there are better ways to say someone is a retard without using the exact word or making up words. 3. Does he want to throw insults or does he want to discuss parenting without religion? The name calling distracts from the actual subject. The second way is less distracting from the subject at hand than the first way is.

    If he wants to discuss parenting without religion then stick to the topic. If he wants to throw insults, then he should write his own book and try to have it published, but I don’t even think even Prometheus Books would publish a book that is full of insults. A good writer knows how to write an insult without making it stand out and distract from the topic/thesis. The better writers can cause someone to scratch their heads and wonder what just happened or turn it around in a why that brings out what should be, then the reader eventually goes back to the topic- in this case, parenting without religion.

    The second way is less insulting and still gets the point across about parenting without religion. Whether or not Penn knows it, he is also lowering himself to their level by throwing out insults. This is somthing I get onto Christians about too. It turns people away instead of bringing them to your cause.

    In fact, I just got done posting about the article in HNN concerning the hate crime against Atheists on another board with both Christians and non-Christians. It was a hate crime IMHO, which also turns people away from Christianity. It’s a two-way street and violence only begets more violence, even if it’s just words.

  • anti-nonsense

    I’ve made my statement on this matter over at Daylight Atheism.

    I think the removal of the word was appropriate. We don’t need to resort to petty childish insults. Especially since I know Christians that I very much enjoy talking to, I even know a creationist online that I enjoy chatting with as long as we stay away from religion and evolution.

    Just because they are wrong, and have irrational beliefs doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve to be treated with a minimum amount of respect, and branding them all as retarded isn’t very respectful. Also we have to think of the effect it might have if a religious person read the essay, if it got published with that word in it, it would make people think that the atheist community in general supports such childish language,

    to Penn, I say, come on, we both know that kind of language belongs in the elementary school playground, leave it there.

  • Is there any excuse for any mature person to ever use “retarded” as an insult? That’s an ugly use for a word that can be very hurtful to lots of beautiful handicapped people. As a parent myself, I would never allow my daughter to use that word in a derogatory way, and I wouldn’t respect the advice of any parenting “expert” who did.

  • While I can agree with the decision regarding the “*tard” epithet, the term “xtian” as a shorthand for “christian” has a long history, even amongst christians as the x represents the Greek letter “chi” which was/is commonly used as an abbreviation for “christ”, although I would agree with both the author and Mriana above to say that it’s not appropriate to abbreviate some terms in formal writing.


  • There is a difference between saying something gutsy and provoking. “Christards” changes the tone of the piece to something arrogant, rather then helpful or thought provoking. Should everything written be scholarly, no, but you need to think of your audience. Are you helping them with your piece, or just stroking their egos?

  • Mriana

    I’m not against the abbreviation of Xtian, Bjorn, but in writing essays and alike it is not appropraite even when considering the audience, regardless of it’s origin. That was not my sole complaint either. If one begins insulting people quit listening or in this case reading. Christards is insulting and lowers people to the level of others who throw out insults to those who oppose their views.

    This book was to be written for anyone who wants to read it, not to the few who are atheist or agnostic. I can see progressive Christians and liberal Christians reading this book too. There is a cause behind this book and to throw insults defeats the cause.

  • I think Penn’s response was a bit childish. Whenever you write, and are not publishing a work yourself, you are subject to editing. Considering the light editing, I think Penn is out of place when he considered the work as not his.

  • stogoe

    Meh. The slur probably wasn’t in the best of taste and would definitely have been a focal point for discussion and criticism for the whole collection, but some individuals really are religious asshats.

  • Gretchen

    I agree 100% with the editor.

    The last thing atheists need is to be accused of being hateful.

    This isn’t the first time I’ve heard about Penn Jillette being an asshole. People who went to this year’s Amazing Meeting said that he was rude and arrogant there, too. On the other hand, at least that means that he’s an equally opportunity asshole, not reserving that behavior for believers alone. ;-P

  • Karen

    This isn’t the first time I’ve heard about Penn Jillette being an asshole.

    Y’know, I really enjoyed the first couple seasons of Bullsh!t, his TV series, but I’ve found recent programs disappointing.

    Rather than presenting objective research and reporting on the topics they tackle, it seems to me they push their own version of a Libertarian agenda – and damn any facts that conflict with their point of view. That’s not good analysis, that’s just unsufferable partisanship. And it’s boring, besides.

  • Richard Wade

    If Mr. Jillette thinks that taking the insulting term out of his essay was removing the “guts” of the essay, then I guess his only purpose for writing it was to insult.

  • fred

    What is the point of this web site?
    Give it up! Your wearing masks that don’t even fool your mirror.

  • Richard Wade

    Good question fred. What is the point of this web site? People come in and post meaningless statements like yours.

  • Don’t feed the trolls Richard. 😉

  • Richard Wade

    Mike, right.

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