This American Life: How I Will Judge You

Some minister in Arkansas named John Terry is under the impression that atheists’ primary mission is, like his, to convert and evangelize people. Nope, not mine at least.

The thing is, in the end, I don’t judge people to be less of a human being they you hold or even push beliefs I think are silly or unjustified. What you do matters morally, of course, and there’s plenty of fights to be had over that, but even the most devoted, obsessive believers are generally still folks with whom we can all share that proverbial beer, or at least iced tea, with. Everyone ultimately lives an ordinary life.

But there is something that will make me think less of you as a person: if you don’t regularly listen to This American Life. It’s completely free. It’s an hour out of your life that will make you laugh, cry, and understand our common humanity a little better every week. Tales of ordinary people, ordinary lives, told in an extraordinary ways.

You won’t go to hell for not listening, like John Terry thinks you will for not believing. But man, you’d be a fool to miss out. And you can’t have any of my iced tea.

21 Responses to This American Life: How I Will Judge You

  1. SilverTiger says:

    It is a standard ploy of the religious lobby to claim that atheists are trying to impose their “beliefs” on everybody. Not that religious believers would ever do that, of course.

    Does John Terry spell out exactly what “beliefs” we atheists are “evangelizing” people with? Off-hand, I can’t think of any. Oh, maybe it’s this nonsense about thinking for yourself and asking to see the evidence. Pernicious stuff like that.

    I can see how that would upset a man who sees his role as telling people what to believe.

  2. Bad says:

    Well yes: he thinks atheists are evangelizing “nothing” which greatly confuses him.

  3. Pamela says:

    Good! Now he knows what it feels like. I’m tired of religion being so pervasive and am tired of trying to be indoctrinated. Perhaps mirroring their actions will finally get them to have some empathy and leave us be.

    Thanks for the tip on This American Life. Have added it to my podcast.

    Misguided Deviant Atheist :o)

  4. Bad says:

    If you want to see how little times have changed in complaints about “a swelling tide of atheism and unbelief,” check out this article from 1881.

  5. bohemianprose says:

    I agree with you and like the idea of your blog… there is a problem with thinking we have the market cornered on who will and won’t go to hell and who are we after all? Truth is that we can all stand to shut up everyo once in a while and listen, who knows maybe we as a species are able to change after all – but don’t tell anyone, because “they” might not like it.

  6. Jonathan says:

    Fears of atheist evangelizing- by force even- aren’t entirely without base, historically speaking, though I very much doubt this country would ever support an atheistic anticlerical regime. But the past couple centuries have seen lots of that sort of thing. Whether in Mexico with its Red Shirts and the virulent anticlericalism- and downright antireligion- of Presidente Calles, or in the Soviet Union with its massive campaigns against all forms of religion, from Orthodox monks to Muslim imans, secularist or avowedly and religiously atheist regimes have done plenty of evangelizing and more than enough forced conversions to come up equal with every other major creed. In modern China you can still find- I’ve seen them- virulent anti-religion slogans and posters plastered in towns and villages.

    Some of the modern-day atheist evangelists sometimes sound to me like they might not entirely disagree with such tactics, though perhaps with less head-bashing and shooting. This is hardly to deny, I might add, that some rightist religious elements in the West don’t have statist and even authoritarian tendencies. However, there have been precious few Protestant fundamentalist totalitarian states in the past hundred years, and I very much doubt such a thing will arise anytime soon. The religious aspect of the statist right is non-essential; Christianity is usually just a tack-on for these people to win voters and offer a half-hearted justification for their crimes.

    I should hope that no American atheists would find the devices of past atheistic regimes appealing. Statism and totalitarianism sucks, no matter what you believe. Here’s hoping we may all continue to be able to raise our beer mugs to that truth.

  7. Bad says:

    Jonathan, the examples you give are all pretty much baseless in relevance. First of all, they aren’t what or who this particular minister is kvetching about here in our society, and secondly, every single thing you cite is a particular movement or political ideology that happens to include an all around anti-religious (in the sense of seeking to destroy religious powers and establishments) element… not people promoting science, reason, and so forth, which is what the atheists qua atheism you hear about these days, and what the minister is responding to, are arguing for.

    And yes: simply arguing for: to a man, all of the prominent “New” Atheists are all freethinkers and classical liberals: that is, their value systems are democratic and favor the free exchange of ideas and the freedom to believe as one wishes. Not one of them would support forcing anyone to believe or disbelieve anything via the government. Comparing people like Dawkins, Harris, and other prominent non-believers to Mao and Stalin is, in the face of that, outrageously inapt.

    In this, you seem to have the same broad misconception about non-belief that many people have when they make these sorts of arguments: that atheism it is, in itself, a particular ideology to which various things can be traced. This gets things precisely backwards. Mao and Stalin were non-believers, but their values and ideas have as little to do with me and people like me as virtually anyone could be. As such, accusing atheists of having totalitarian tendencies just because some of us publicly criticize religious claims and presumptions is slightly more off base than accusing Christians of the same. Myself, I’m not even particular anti-religious even in the sense that I care that much whether religion remains a majority part of the society in which I live.

    In the face of atheists in our society only just now being able to be honest about who we are without facing as much or as devastating an amount of censure and persecution (and we’re still a long long way from being fully accepted and tolerated as citizens by most people), it’s simply amazing to have a powerful majority of believers whining and calling upon the spectre of Stalin just because some of us are now being outspoken about who we are and what we think.

  8. Hey!! Just a thing cought my attention:

    It’s true, religion many times draws people to think less of other people, like in the case you mentioned in your most recent post. To kill a gay just for being gay… not right, for me at least: it’s extreme discrimination.

    BUT, you say “But there is something that will make me think less of you as a person: if you don’t regularly listen to This American Life”. Ok, then you agree to discriminate somebody in that basis? Maybe “This American Life”, and maybe also some other similar TV programs (all of which I have not seen, ’cause I don’t live in america), maybe THOSE are your religion, aren’t they??

  9. Bad says:

    No. Thinking less of someone for not doing something that will enrich their lives isn’t anymore a religion than thinking less of someone because they kick a dog. And I’m not really that serious about it anyway: discrimination? Pffff. Of course not.

  10. Jonathan says:

    In response to Bad:

    The examples I gave were of ideologies which operated out of explicitly atheistic, materialist philosophies. They simply would not have done the things they did had they not been possessed of very specific, atheistic, materialist philosophies of the world. They thought of themselves as promoting science, reason, and so on, against superstition, reactionary thinking, and so forth. Particularly in the case of Calles and his fellow anticlericals, they were very much driven athiests, who believed it was their duty to destroy “antirational” forces- as a natural outgrowth of the Revolution, of course. The cases of Stalin and Mao are similar: for both a particular materialist, and hence atheistic, ideology, drove them (to the extent either was driven by ideology; in Stalin’s case, one wonders whether he really cared all that much for ideology qua ideology at all…).

    I was not trying to insinuate that you, or even most, contemporary Western atheists possess an ideology along the lines of Calles, Mao, or whoever. I was merely pointing out that it is entirely for an atheistic, materialistic ideology to be a persecuting evangelistic force, just as religious, theistic ideologies can. If you are going to criticize theistic systems for persecuting behavior or foisting their views on others, I am perfectly within rights of reason to reply with similar examples from atheistic ideologies. Is this not fair enough?

    Of course atheism is not an ideology qua ideology, no more than theism is, really, except in a very broad and generally unhelpful sense (which God? of what sort? pan- or otherwise?).

    And I do find some contemporary atheist discourse a little troubling- when someone like Dawkins calls religious systems that espouse eternal judgment to be equivalent to “child abuse,” I cannot but help to hear echoes of less pleasant epochs in the very recent past. Someone who makes a statement like, “I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate,” doesn’t really earn my trust. If I had merely posted on your blog that atheism is a nasty virus that must be eradicated, you would probably find such sentiments at least a little troubling- as I would if they were directed by one of my fellow believers at atheistis. I know the past, and what we are all unfortunately quite capable of.

  11. Bad says:

    The examples I gave were of ideologies which operated out of explicitly atheistic, materialist philosophies.

    Sure, but this is like saying that they took place on the planet Earth, and therefore we have the planet to blame for them.

    I agree that non-believers have exactly as much inherent capacity to persecute people as do believers. That is because they are people, and not even any particular sort of people. Flavors of justification can be found to do almost anything for any reason.

    And I do find some contemporary atheist discourse a little troubling- when someone like Dawkins calls religious systems that espouse eternal judgment to be equivalent to “child abuse,” I cannot but help to hear echoes of less pleasant epochs in the very recent past.

    Ok, and no one can blame you for having fears and echoes, which are, after all, emotional responses beyond our control. And indeed one can rightly fault Dawkins for not realizing or caring that they might inspire such things.

    However, one can also blame you if you do not then examine the matter further and find that Dawkins is a full-throated advocate of liberal democracy and the freedom of belief. Or that his discussion of how the idea of “hell” is child abuse is not some accusation out of thin air, but comes from the actual experiences of specific people: in the case of this quote, he’s discussing a real person who was both sexually abused AND taught that a childhood friend was going to hell, and found the latter far more damaging.

    If you are not willing to seriously entertain the possibility that the idea of hell may well hurt and damage people both psychologically and morally, or that faith is a great evil, always using your “echoes” as an excuse to systematically shut away any such discussion or consideration, that does become something I think you can rightly be faulted for.

  12. What I don’t get is how can you fault somebody for anything. PLEASE, I need an answer to that…

  13. Bad says:

    I don’t understand the question. I can fault and judge people for all sorts of things. Is there some reason I cannot? Can you explain what you see as the problem?

  14. First of all, I agree with almost all you said in response to Jonathan. But on the second place, I still have in mind that you are an atheist.

    So, what I don’t understand is how could you blame or fault somebody in any case. Of course, you can do that using everyday language. But under which basis do you say “this is good” or “this is bad”, “he is right” or “he is wrong” on doing this or that.

    For example, you say you could fault Jonathan if he doesn’t consider that hell could hurt people. What does “fault” mean to you? Judge him, right? Is there going to be any sentence? Probably not, but then, would you at least feel sorry for him not considering that? Why? Sorry compared to what? I don’t know if I am clear enough… we are all accidents, mere products of chance. Why should an accident feel sorry, or feel anything, for another accident? I don’t see any basis for an accident saying to another accident “your attitude is wrong” or “is right”…

    On the other hand, for the sake of the discussion, consider vaccinations. They hurt. Some hurt a lot. But they are there for a greater good. So, if Hell hurts to you, maybe that’s good! How can you say otherwise? Things that hurt are not necessarily bad. Another example: the birth of a baby. Hell it hurts!!! So who is anybody to say that something that hurts is good or bad? You need a point of reference, somewhere to place your balance.

    Finally, how can you hurt somebody morally? And if an explanation of how the whole hell-thing works happens to hurt somebody psychologically, then that doesn’t mean that hell doesn’t exist, or that the term hurts, or that “hell” is bad. That particular conception of how hell works, hurts, and is bad (I grant this because, again, what is good or bad without a point of reference?). That’s all you can conclude

  15. Bad says:

    What does being an atheist have to do with being able to hold someone at fault for a particular failing or lack? Do you believe that theists have some ground on which to do this that atheists lack? If so, addressed this idea in a recent essay: theists cannot have any better foundational basis for judgement or meaning or anything else of the sort than atheists.

    When I speak about morality and judgement, I do so from the same sorts of grounds that virtually everyone uses: things like empathy for other people, demands for honesty, and so forth. I don’t think anyone has any problem understanding what I mean when I talk about such things. And in the face of that, demands to know what the “basis” is for doing so don’t really make a lot of sense.

    Can you explain, even in theory, how a moral judgement could ever have a “basis”? How would you go about showing that it had one? How would that work?

    Moral judgments just aren’t objective facts: they aren’t grounded on anything other than people having common values. I value, for instance, intellectual honesty. I assume that everyone I’m talking with also values that (an assumption that is pretty much always the case). But if, for instance, you don’t value intellectual honesty, then there really isn’t much more to say. I can’t, in some universal sense, convince anyone that they MUST logically care about the lives of others, or the integrity of logical discussion, or so forth. If they do not share any of the necessary premises/values, then there is nothing much more to say. Either you do, and we have common ground to work with from there, or you don’t, and there really isn’t much more to say on the matter. Would I have a moral conversation with a sociopath or a robot, neither of whom have any moral values to begin with? No.

    So what’s the issue you’re having then?

    You seem to be under the impression that whether or not we were created or occurred by chance and natural law has some bearing on whether we are capable of judgement and moral discussion. That impression is, simply, mistaken. If you think otherwise, then please explain how it makes any difference. We are beings that can care, can have moral values, and can then have discussions and coherent communication and argument over the implications of those values. Again, where’s the problem?

    You need a point of reference, somewhere to place your balance.

    The point of reference is simply those moral values that we might hold in common by virtue of having things like empathy for each other. They cannot be otherwise. No state of affairs, such as a god or no god, can provide any such point of reference, because no “is,” no matter how wacky, can provide an “ought.”

  16. You said,

    Moral judgments just aren’t objective facts: they aren’t grounded on anything other than people having common values.

    That’s totally true from your point of view. Not from mine. For me, morality is higher that me or you, not relative to each other but rather absolute; it transcends us. Let’s see what happens with a point of view similar to yours: an evolutionist (by the way, do you believe in evolution? Most certainly you do, and that’s what I assume).

    For an evolutionist, life exists merely as a result of chance mutations occurring within a chemical ‘soup.’ The same primordial soup that produced human beings produced plant life, animals and all of the seemingly infinite varieties of things which we observe on earth. In such a system, there is indeed no basis for determining value for anything aside from the shifting sands of human opinion (like you have implicitly said). For example, one may believe that sending airplanes into skyscrapers is evil and wrong, and another may believe that it is pleasing to God and correct. But, without a higher moral code than just one’s own beliefs, how could anyone be able to say that he or she is right and another individual is wrong? There can be no such universal principles as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in an evolutionary system as there is no higher authority for such principles than man himself—who is no more valuable than his own opinion would deem him to be. Sometimes its good to be practical. One thing is when we don’t share the moral value of “empathy for each other”. Another thing is if we don’t share the moral value of “don’t rape my mother”. Then we would all see how relative you would like “your” moral values to be!

    Of course everybody understands you when you talk about morality, when you judge somebody and so forth. But they understand you because there are objective moral values. And you talk about them because they are higher than you and you cannot escape from them, and you don’t want to escape from them. Of course this is not my argument to say that there are moral absolutes. You can read more about moral absolutes here and here, and I really encourage you to do that, and then tell me what you think… This articles also answer what you said about atheists and theists having equal basis for morality (and hence, judgment).

  17. Bad says:

    That’s totally true from your point of view. Not from mine.

    Unless you can explain how a moral judgement can be objectively true in the same way a fact can, then I’m afraid that it’s just as true for you as it is for me, whatever you believe.

    For me, morality is higher that me or you, not relative to each other but rather absolute; it transcends us.

    That would make it meaningless and pointless. Unless morality is in some way directly rooted in our values and empathy as human beings, it’s simply not what anyone means when they say that they care about each other, think murder is wrong, and so forth. It would be utterly alien and valueless.

    In such a system, there is indeed no basis for determining value for anything

    Making bold claims like this is like making a promise: a promise that you are going to at some point explain what you mean by “basis for determining value,” how that has anything to do with any set of facts about the world, and explain how you do it.

    You break this promise. You don’t explain anything, or offer any of this purported “better way” of theism. I don’t see any connection made between your discussion of evolutionary history and how that is any way relevant to morality.

    Personally, all I see in distinctively theist morality are attempts to justify immorality, nothing more. They are attempts to escape practical and basic human values, and justify suffering, cruelty, and things like eternal torment: things that in any other context we would see are wrong and evil, but somehow are theologically committed to promoting as good.

    The articles you link to are philosophically laughable. They wax and wane about the inferiority of other value systems, and then propose a system that is so abstract, so arbitrary, so functionally unintelligible, and so removed from anything even resembling human values, that it might as well be basing morality on the outcome of a coin flip (which is just as objective and external, and its outcome just as unchangeable after the fact).

    I don’t find there any answer to what I said: in fact, they are examples of EXACTLY the problem I discussed in my article: they simply try to avoid and ignore the step in which individuals unavoidably judge/assume/pretend that God is good. And that’s not even getting into how useless the doctrine is in practical terms, given that no one on Earth can agree on which God exists or what it wants anyway, let alone demonstrate that any of it is true.

    But the argument you raise does, I think, deserve another full article, so in addition to this brief answer/discussion here, I’ll also post something in the next few days regarding morality and theism.

    But they understand you because there are objective moral values.

    If you agree that there are, in fact, objective moral values, then you must agree that this is the case whether or not a God exists.

  18. Sassu says:

    Okay, so I didn’t read the comments. I’m sorry. This is a delayed response to this entry, but I was just reading your blog after you’ve commented on mine:

    I am so glad someone other than me loves This American Life.

  19. Bad says:

    Well, it is one of the most popular and critically acclaimed public radio programs out there, so we’re not quite alone, happily. :)

  20. Sassu says:

    I’m not too hot on the TV series, though. I think the stories and the art of the show are best kept to the medium of radio.

  21. Bad says:

    I very much agree. There’s just something so much more personal and immediate about audio stories: it’s like a long phone call with a friend.

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