What Would Atheists Do? September 21, 2010

What Would Atheists Do?

Over the weekend, I went to Boston (Thanks, Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard!) and helped lead discussions on various scenarios atheists have to deal with from time to time and what the best response ought to be from our end.

We split up into three groups (about 15-20 people each), each of which had a moderator to introduce the cases and ask questions. The groups had a variety of ages, genders, and backgrounds, and it was amazing how split the crowd was on just about every issue.

I had written up seven “cases,” wondering if we would have enough to fill the 1.5 hour time block… it turned out the groups didn’t even get to most of the questions.

Since it seemed to go over well, I figured I’d share the scenarios with all of you.

It might work well for a local or campus group discussion. Or dinner talk with some good friends 🙂

One thing to point out: While all the cases are “based on true stories,” I did fictionalize a few parts of them just to get to the heart of the issue. There are nuances to every story and details I had never even considered adding in that were left out — so feel free to change these stories around to accommodate the group you’re with.

If you have any feedback or want to propose different “ethical dilemmas,” I’d love to hear it.

Hope it leads to some interesting conversations!

The Discussion in Word.

The Discussion in PDF.



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  • Jude

    This is cool. I’m sharing it with all my atheist teens (their conservative religious social studies teachers would never consider it). FYI: This summer, I watched The Laramie Project for the first time. None of my teens had even heard of Matthew Shepard, and ours is definitely a gay-friendly household. But of course, they wouldn’t teach about him in high school, would they?

  • CBC

    As to the first situation, I once had a professor (at a small private college, where they encourage us to branch out) tell me that he couldn’t “in good conscience” be advisor to a College Republicans student chapter. And we had nothing like anti-gay or anti-choice rallies planned. He turned me away without inquiry, and I lost a lot of respect for him as an educator.

  • Jeff Dale

    Interesting. Glad you shared it.

    Btw, #4, 1st bullet: “defuse,” not “diffuse.”

    Hemant says: Fixed! Thanks 🙂

  • NewEnglandBob

    I was there at Harvard and was in the group that you (Hemant) co-moderated for #1 and #3 and then we discussed #5 and #7.

    It was a lively and divergent discussion!

  • @CBC: Did you lose respect for your teacher because he didn’t explain his motivations to you, or because he refused to be an advisor?

    My view is that no teacher should be obliged to put their support behind something they fundamentally disagree with, even if it means depriving the students of the opportunity of forming a school-sanctioned group.

  • These would be great in the forums where we’ve got the opportunity to spend more time on topics.

  • Heidi

    Ack, you were in Boston and I missed it? 🙁 Apparently I need to pay more attention.

    And I agree with Keith about the advisory position. Why would anyone expect a professor to advise a Republican group if they do not support Republican views? There is no Republican agenda I would support, and I would have turned CBC down flat, too. I’m not a one-issue voter. I disagree with Republicans across the board.

    Would it have been better if the guy had politely wasted CBC’s time listening to the proposal and then turned it down?

  • On the issue of whether a member of the faculty should feel obligated to sponsor a group that they are religiously or politically opposed too… Well I find it difficult to imagine that a high school (or college) would not have anybody on staff that were either (1. a Christian, or 2. Republican).

    I suppose if there were such a school where there were absolutely no Christians or Republicans on the staff, that might be a different issue. But what are the odds of that?

  • Puzzled

    I’d sponsor the group, on the condition that they agreed to tone down their activities and be civil. If they agreed and didn’t follow through, I’d deal with that as a discipline problem. I’d allow the protests, just require that they be civil. I want to encourage my students (I am a hs teacher) to speak their minds, and to act on their beliefs, but also to challenge them, which is where I come in, since I go to all the meetings.

    However, I have to register a complaint, so to speak, that many of these questions seem to assume, without argument or acknowledgement, that certain political positions about abortion, homosexuality, and so on, are somehow logically required by being an atheist. The lack of belief in god shouldn’t commit me one way or the other, I’d think, in public policy decisions.

  • Don Rose

    1) I would not sponsor the group. I would tell the student that they should feel free to ask other teachers, but I’m not interested in the christian group. Hopefully they would take the hint. If not, then I would simply say “As an atheist, I couldn’t offer your group the support that it needs”.

    2) I would cheer on the child that spoke about “equality for all”. I wouldn’t say much to the child that spoke against gay marriage, unless asked to.

    3) I would send a message to the girl, explaining that I’m an atheist, and that a long-term relationship is out of the question….. maybe she could call me when she comes to her senses?…. lol.

    4) All I might try to do is…. try to get the man out of there. Maybe grab a cup of coffee with him. There is no “discussion” with religious fanatics. I’d probably debate them a little, and insult their intelligence for believing in magic cloud ghosts.

  • Don Rose

    5) I would totally rip on christianity. No, there would be no way of talking to the museum owners. On the Noah’s Ark thing, I’d probably just mumble “that’s not true”, just loud enough for the kid to hear….. or do the fake cough *bullshit* thing.

    6) No, I wouldn’t support any group that assigns the title “sin” to anything they don’t like.

    7) They should continue as planned. Do it if you want to….. don’t do it if you don’t want to. I don’t think there’s a good way to invite people to join in something that is offensive to them….lol. It couldn’t hurt to discuss the situation with muslims, to learn more about why we shouldn’t draw muhammad. Maybe some of them would have some information that could be useful. But, the whole idea is to show religious people that their rules don’t apply to the rest of us.

  • Hitch

    1) I would sponsor the group under the condition that they fully understand my position and understand that I will speak it and expect it to be heard. My prediction is that this will automatically exclude me as sponsor from the student’s side, but if not I’ll be happy to advocate for sanity. I would not fund raise for them as long as they support causes I consider immoral and I would make that explicitly clear.

    2) Yes I would cheer the child on. I disagree that children are made spokes-person for causes like this, but there is no moral equivalence here. I child advocating for tolerance is not the same child that advocates for intolerance. Indoctrination into intolerance is clearly worse than “indoctrination” into tolerance. There is no litmus test for age. A 3 year old is entitled to an opinion, but I think it is unwise for parents to place their children in the public sphere and opening them up for public opinion reactions.

    3) Date is fine, but there will be a time to articulate a range of things. There is no real need to bring up religion, more important are underlying values, such as tolerance, attitude towards others, especially of other belief systems. All this can be probed without much of any judgment at all. Religion is irrelevant when it doesn’t serve to define a deal breaker, such as intellectual rigidity or incompatibilities.

    4) First off the man is fine to argue. Clinic protesters are some of the most asinine things we have. People harrass others in the most difficult situation they have anyway. Noone gets an abortion for fun. Literally noone. These protesters are grossly disrespectful. But they have rights, including the right to be safe from violence, so yes I would work to diffuse tension. Frankly I know of no instance of productive dialogue with that crowd, so I would recommend to disengage rather than even try constructive dialogue. It just hurts the decent parties of such discussions to try.

    5) It’s trivial to have fun with the creation museum. It doesn’t implicate all of Christianity because not all Christians are creationists. I think there are more important issues than trying to convince the creators of the museum of anything, and more promising goals as well. I would say that it’s just a story and that noone has to worry about all the other creatures. They didn’t really die. It’s very hard for the parent to tell the child that “no, really everything else did die”. Delivery with a smile.

    6) No need to support anybody who cannot clearly articulate their position. It’s not mine to judge who represents christianty “correctly” I don’t define what “correct” christianty is (nor does any christian!). Story of Marie Magdalen and Jesus attitude towards the stigmatized.

    7) Sure. Let’s invert the roles. There are many things that atheists can find offensive in religious attitudes. We do not go around and demand that they stop doing it because it is offensive. Rift: plurality is good, each does as they please. Explaining is key as well as the ability to agree to disagree with grace. Surely there are ways to do that, but the ball is in the Muslim’s student’s court to actually care to understand what the concern is to articulate a working alternative. After all the very prohibition to depict the prophet is the topic.

  • cat

    1) I could not support or sponsor any group that promoted hate of women and queer people. I would tell the student that I would not sponsor them (which, since they are asking the genderqueer bisexual, they should have expected) and refer them to a teacher or administrator who might.

    2) I think ten is awfully young to be put in a public forum as a spokesperson for any side unless the person is speaking about their own individual experience (such as a queer ten year old discussing the bulling that they have directly faced). Little kids often copy what their parents say even without direct indoctrination to do so. Also, a twenty year old might look back in shame one what they said at ten, but if it was all over the press, it will follow them.

    3. Well, as I mentioned, I’m bi and genderqueer. This raises a whole other issue, because accepting my sexuality and gender identity is not negotiable and Christians are far less likely to do that. However, assuming this person had cleared that hurdle, if the page had one or two not too extreme (like stoning virgins) quotes and a mention that they were Christian, I would go on the date, but I would be cautious and bring up the issue. But a whole page? I would call and cancel. That level of incompatibility is more trouble than its worth, from my point of view.

    4) I would quietly and sympathetically talk to the man and get him to come back inside. He’s not helping, but his reaction is understandable when watching his loved one being attacked. On the issue of discussion, there is a time and place for that, but this is not it. Clinic protestors are there to harass and obstruct and often turn violent. Talking to them and adressing them more than absolutely necessary to get through doesn’t reduce the tension, it escalates it and increases the risk of violence.

    5) I would not cause disorder, since I am voluntarily in there building, I would take photos and notes to share once I left. As to the parent and child, I would cringe inside, but I would not interfere.

    6)”they feel that you can “love the sinner” while “hating the sin.” They believe you should treat gay people with respect. ” Contradictory much? If you think you are superior to someone and that they are wicked, that is not respecting or loving, period. I would not support this group, in fact, I would probably counter-protest it.

    7)I am not a big fan of the ‘draw muhammad’ (I know Hemant differs here). I would much rather see a debate, panel discussion, invited speakers, etc. on the topic of free speech and freedom from religious based censorship and I would try to bring moderate pro-free speech muslims and others into the organizing. This would allow the problem to be addressed without the ‘offending for shock value’ aspect. That said, while I would not participate in a draw muhammad, I would not support the university if it tried to censor those who did. People do not deserve to be censored merely for not obeying the religious taboos of others (In other words, this is a tactical disagreement, not a goal based one).

  • Awesome questions Hemant, we tried this with AHA! but much weaker questions.

  • Pluto2

    I would love to try these questions out with my universities atheist group. Unfortunately there are only about 7 active members.

  • Ron in Houston

    Is screw those zombie loving delusional f*** tards a possible answer?

  • Synapse

    1) Simply no, I am not able to sponsor the group at this time.

    If pushed for a reason – “I love being a teacher – and mixing religion or politics into public school teaching guarantees someone will want me fired for it.”

    2) I’d be concerned about both parroting things they have been told.

    Until about 14 or 15, when almost every kid things their parents are complete morons and are in full-blown distancing from their parents beliefs, I really believe that most of what you get from most kids is regurgitated parental phrases.

    3) I don’t rule it out immediately, but quickly need to determine what this person feels about things. See if they’ll even walk into a movie like Kinsey. It’s certainly a red flag to be reviewed and discussed.

    4) I would grab him by the shoulder and remind him his wife, who is back inside, needs him now. He does her no honor this day by engaging the crowd.

    Do you want her to have to leave from one traumatic event to go to another to pick you up from jail, the hospital, or the morgue?

    Let’s get back inside – there are other days to fight.

    5) Waste of time – most everyone who goes to that kind of Creation Science museum is looking to confirm ALREADY HELD beliefs. Don’t waste your breath. This is private property, and the moment you vocally disagree you will be asked to leave. This is not the neutral ground upon which to scatter seeds.

    6) – I would tolerate such a group, work with them in interfaith efforts where possible to reduce hunger and poverty in the community.

    – Yes, I believe the “love the sinner, hate the sin” approach represents mainline protestant views in the US.

    – Ask them how many times Jesus preached to a crowd urging them to cast out the gays. Ask them just how many homeless people are sleeping in their church on nights when it is fatally freezing cold outside. How many hungry people is your church feeding? Do you truly follow the gospel of Jesus and feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give shelter to the homeless? If they do, and then have additional time and energy to spend admonishing homosexuals – so be it. But any church that proclaims the name of Jesus as their lord and savior, but then turns their back on the poor, the sick, and the destitute deserves to suffer the worst judgment and ridicule for gross hypocrisy.

    7) a) Continue as planned.
    b) Allow people the choice to participate or not. Explain this is done in support of those who are currently in terror for their lives because they dared to draw a picture. Make it clear the purpose is not to offend for no reason, but to offend specifically to de-sensitize the Muslim community to this insane stance that is currently held.

    c) No, I personally would never have attempted to contact the Muslim group until after the fact. Attempting to appease them would be asking them to clearly separate from the official teachings of their religion, and it exposes your group to heavily increased risk. To me there is extremely little value to be gained and a high probability of additional risk by engaging in before-the-fact discussions.

  • Rollingforest

    1. There’s an atheist club, a Muslim club, and a Hindu club, but no Christian club. Where is this high school located? The rich end of New Delhi? But seriously, I would only offer to be the advisor if there were no available Christian teachers to do it and they needed an advisor or they would not be allowed to form. I would show up for meetings if I had to, but I would have the students do all of the work (including fundraising) because it is their club.

    2. I think anyone, no matter how young, should be allowed to speak their mind. It is the responsibility of the listener to decide whether what they say makes any sense. Keeping this in mind, whether or not either of the two children were brainwashed shouldn’t affect whether you agree with them or not. Do not allow yourself to be convinced by someone just because they are a cute child, a beautiful woman, or a handsome man. Logic alone is the litmus test. I would cheer the child in favor of gay rights, not because of his age but because he is on my side.

    3. Dating or even marrying a fundamentalist is not a problem for me (my best friend is a fundamentalist, though while she knows I’m a strong Democrat, I don’t really discuss religion with her. I think she’d be disappointed to hear of my atheism, but I know that she’d still be friends with me because she was willing to be friends with my old roommate who believed in New Age woo) The problem comes with raising children. An atheist and a fundamentalist who were married would inevitably fight over how the child should be raised. I can see marrying a liberal Christian who wouldn’t press the issue as much. After all, a weak indoctrination of the child can be undone when they go to college far easier than a fundamentalist indoctrination can.

    4. Try to get the man to calm down and move away from the protesters. Arguing with them isn’t going to do any good. They are set in their mind. Having people who can walk beside the women as the make their way into the Planned Parenthood clinic is good, however. If we want the anti-abortion protesters to go away, we need to work to convince the public to adopt pro-choice values.

    5. Don’t waste your time trying to convince those going to the creation museum or the owners of the creation museum of evolution’s merits. Instead write a letter to the local paper describing in a few words why evolution is science and creationism isn’t and explain there why the Creationist museum is misleading children.

    6. I would respond with a quote from Voltaire “I disagree with what you say, but I’ll fight to the death for your right to say it.” Everyone should have free speech. That being said, I would still protest against the group. They may think they are doing good (heck even Bin Laden thinks he’s doing good) but that doesn’t mean they actually are doing good. I too “love the sinner” and “hate the sin” but I think the “sin” in this case is trying to make gays into second class citizens. Sorry Christians, but I think you need some tough love and should be told the error of YOUR ways. Now, if I was a liberal Christian, I would try to provide gay-friendly events from inside the Christian group and if I couldn’t do that, I’d start my own liberal Christian group or join one, such as the International Justice Mission, which isn’t as conservative.

    7. I think that Atheists groups should promote Everyone Draw Mohammed Day, especially now after Molly Norris, the person who came up with the idea, was forced to go into hiding. I think we should draw positive pictures of Mohammed and leave questions about his personality and history for other events. I also think that we should publically post a notice that we respect Islam and Mohammed, and are sorry if people see this as offensive, but we reserve our right to draw Mohammed. No one has the right not to be offended, especially if the event wasn’t meant to be offensive to start with. Muslims don’t make pictures of Mohammed because they fear someone while worship him as a god as the Christians have done to Jesus. But even if I was a Muslim, I would still draw Mohammed because I don’t think that anyone would really worship him as a God just because we drew him on the sidewalk.

  • Liudvikas

    1. No I would not. As an atheist I would be automatically excluded from their club and I would rather they had a sponsor of their own faith. They wouldn’t want me as their sponsor anyway.
    2. While I would cheer the ideas that kid is proposing I could not cheer the kid itself. I just can’t believe a 10 year old can think for himself on such questions. In either case it’s only parents influence speaking.
    3. While I would not break off the relationship I would be forward with my beliefs. I could handle her being a fundamentalist, but I’m not sure can she handle me being an atheist. It’s better to clarify that before investing time in relationship which might break as soon as she realized I didn’t share her beliefs.
    4. It’s better not to engage those assholes, they thrive on attention, if nobody is paying any, then their protest is useless. I would probably point out to protestors that they look like assholes, but probably wouldn’t escalate any further.
    5. I would never go to such museum. NEVER. If they want to believe such bullshit, there is no way I can change their minds, better not to waste my breath.
    6. If he avoided to answer my question the conversation could not go any further until he did answer truthfully. I could never support any group which can’t even answer about their views. So I would repeat the question until he did, or I got tired.
    7. They should go through. Freedom of speech is the most important right there is and everyone should be able to exercise it even if it offended everyone in the world. I would try to point out that to the muslim students and try to explain why I feel it is so important.

  • Heyzad

    I have a situation I am dealing with that I wanted to get another like minded persons perspective on. My friend asked me to be his daughters godfather. He and his wife both know I’m an atheist and are fine with that. I am just wondering about what I am going to have to deal with at the church. I have never been to a baptism so I have no idea what goes on here. Anyone who could enlighten me, I would appreciate it. It is a christian church and I’m pretty sure it is a more liberal church because they didn’t have to do much to get married there.

  • Great questions! I especially like #2, 3, and 7!