The Gustavian Weekly

Letter to the Editor (4/26/13)

By The Weekly Staff | April 26, 2013 | Letters to the Editor

I’m sure that almost everyone has seen the flyers around campus featuring students of the Gustavus Secular Student Alliance voicing their reasons for being atheists. Some of the quotes include “I am an atheist because religious dogma is poisoning public discourse” and “I am an atheist because I believe in living a life without fear.”

The intention of the flyers as I understand it is to promote the group. As an agnostic student at a Lutheran college, I can appreciate the value of a group that offers secular students a chance to discuss their beliefs with those who share them. However, the way in which the group is promoting itself is disrespectful. They have every right to voice their opinions, but the posters attack religion.

They are rude, and I (as well as my agnostic friends) do not appreciate atheists and agnostics being portrayed in this way. I do not hate religion just because it is not a part of my life. Whether it is their intent or not, the Gustavus Secular Student Alliance is painting itself as an antitheist group.

Although I am not religious, some of my closest friends are devout Christians. Our differences in faith have never negatively impacted our friendship, and I know that things being said on these flyers hurt them. The attitude portrayed by some of the posters sends an ‘us vs. them’ message, and that’s not what the culture of Gustavus is about.

A group such as this has the opportunity to create understanding and acceptance between people of different faiths. I hope that they choose to take advantage of that opportunity in the future because we are not agnostics, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and atheists. We are Gusties.

 

Elizabeth Froden, ‘16

20 Comments

Comments are the sole opinion of the visitor who submitted the comment and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author of the article, its editors, or The Gustavian Weekly or Gustavus Adolphus College as a whole.

  1. Ryan Liebl says:

    I knew that accusation of being “disrespectful” were inevitable when my group was making the posters. But how else are we supposed to make an impact? Religion causes countless problems and conflicts in modern society and needs to be criticized as such. We simply cannot give bronze-age superstition a respected place in our public discourse or society at large. To do so is to drastically reduce the quality of our conversations about social and political issues. I often cite the marriage equality debate as an example. Homophobia and anti-gay rhetoric are almost entirely driven by right-wing Christians citing the Bible as their evidence. Why do we give them a respected place in the national debate on homosexuality when all they bring to the table are ancient myths?

    The only reason such criticisms come off as offensive is because they often undermine people’s heartfelt religious beliefs. But what else would you have us do? Sit quietly in a corner somewhere and keep our criticisms of religion to ourselves? I find that I cannot, in good conscience, remain silent as religion breeds unnecessary hatred and bigotry the world over.

    Your letter reminds me of an excellent quote by Richard Dawkins on the topic of criticizing religion: “Book critics if theatre critics can be derisively negative and gain delighted praise for the trenchant wit of their review. But in criticisms of religion even clarity ceases to be a virtue and sounds like aggressive hostility. A politician may attack an opponent scathingly across the floor of the House and ear plaudits for his robust pugnacity. But let a soberly reasoning critic of religion employ what would in other contexts sound merely direct or forthright, and it will be described as a ‘rant’. Polite society will purse its lips and shake its head: even secular polite society, and especially that part of secular society that loves to announce, ‘I’m an atheist, BUT…’”

    The thing is, all the posters present perfectly logical reasons for being a religious skeptic–reasons I would gladly defend in discussion or debate. Religion is in many ways an “us vs. them” issue. I know conflict is taboo in the midwest, but some battles are worth fighting. Even religious moderates are complicit in this because they enable the more extreme sects to exist in the first place. But don’t misunderstand me. I respect all people, religious or otherwise. What I don’t respect are the nonsensical religious beliefs that make people dogmatic and irrational.

    (quick aside on the term “antitheist.” It does not refer to people who hate religious people in any way. It merely serves to indicate those of us who are not only non-believers, but who are positively glad that there is no evidence in favor on any religion’s metaphysical claims, as opposed to atheists who “wish they could have faith.”)

    “Understanding and acceptance”? Our group is not an interfaith group. We exist as a union of people skeptical of all religious beliefs. We know that society would be better off without ancient dogmas holding back the progress of civilization. We reject the notion that all faiths are just different paths up the same mountain–because they’re clearly not.

    I must conclude by making a comment on the strange ending to your letter. I think most all religious people would take issue with you saying that they’re Gusties before Christians. Also, religious divisions are precisely the unnecessary ideological differences that lead to intolerance and war. As an antitheist, I say that such differences are ridiculous. Let’ simply be human beings together and leave religious conflict behind. Such conflict should not be merely glossed over.

    • Drew Corbett says:

      I think it’s strange to say things like “I am an atheist because religious dogma is poisoning public discourse”, etc. Isn’t lack of evidence the reason that most people are atheists? The effects that religion has on society isn’t evidence towards the existence or nonexistence of a deity, so I don’t see how it could be a convincing reason for someone being an atheist.

      I also think the following statement is really presumptuous.
      “…religious divisions are precisely the unnecessary ideological differences that lead to intolerance and war.”
      I admit that it’s naive to think that religious divisions do not impact international relations, but I think it’s at least equally naive to think that these are the primary “ideological differences” that lead to most wars. I think the primary reasons are usually more material, such as natural resources, land, etc, and that religion has been used to justify the use of force to acquire those resources. Without religion, I’d say there would be plenty of other justifications such as the spread of democracy or an infinity of other excuses. Thoughts?

      • Drew Corbett says:

        Please ignore the poor grammar in my post; I hope the message is at least clear.

      • Ryan Liebl says:

        I am an atheist due to lack of evidence for a god of any kind, but the reason I’m so vocally opposed to religion is because of its negative effects on society at large. Also, I don’t say that religion is responsible for all wars. I merely made the point that intolerance and war often have either religious components or origins. We see this in conflicts between India and Pakistan, Irish Catholics and Protestants, fundamentalist Islam and the U.S., Palestine and Israel, Iran and Iraq, Russian and Chechnya, in addition to countless others.

      • Drew Corbett says:

        I guess we just disagree on the extent to which religion plays a role in these crises. I believe that religion is one of the least important differences between Americans and fundamental Muslims in the Middle East, our exploitation of their resources being the greatest. I think that Palestinians would still have been irate even if the state of Israel was an Islamic one; their land would still have been taken from them. I think that problems between Russia and Chechnya are more a debate over the right of self-rule than religious differences. I know even less about the other crises you mention than the meager amount I know about these ones, so I won’t comment on those. But anyway I think it’s clear where we disagree.

  2. Logan Boese --2016 says:

    I too read many of the flyers around campus and was saddened by what I was reading. At least that is what the emotion started out as until it turned into a sense of disdain for the sever lack of tact that was used. I recognized that this is a new organization attempting to “make a name” for themselves here on campus. I couldn’t help, but feel attacked due to some of the reasons listed on these flyers. You see I, as a young prospective student, recognized something in the faith pillar here at Gustavus Adolphus College. I was very active in my church and my synod and I wanted to go to my synod’s college. Now being a strong and proud member of the Southwestern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. As well as a member of the broader church and religious community I recognized that this college was in a sense my home because of its strong Lutheran roots. I take no offense at other religions, in fact I hope to learn from them. I take no offense at well thought out and intelligently articulated atheism or agnosticism either. What I do however take offense at is being attacked in a space that should be deemed safe. I should not be expected to feel stupid or childish because a 20 year old believes that she cannot distinguish religion from fantasy. I apologize for the fact that there is far more to it than that. I should not feel offended at a Lutheran college that some of our less enlightened members of Christianity use it as a tool to oppress others. I speak out just as strongly against that form of religious dogmatism as any atheist would. The problem that I had with these flyers is that they were not addressing the theological roots of religion that have been around a heck of a lot longer than anyone else has. Instead, you are picking and choosing from a buffet line of mistakes that have been made and continue to be made. Couple that with the fact that it would appear some would rather give up then learn and struggle with faith I understand why some may be frustrated. I would be the first to admit that terrible things have been done in the name of religion. However, can atheism claim to have done all of the positive things that religion has been able to do? The flyers put up by the Secular Alliance attacked the people more than it did the problems, and it did so in very poor taste if you were to ask me. As Aristotle tells us in book two of his Nicomacean Ethics, to reach a median of virtue we must experience things, “at the right time, toward the right objects, toward the right people, for the right reason, and in the right manner – that is the median and the best course, the course that is a mark of virtue.” The manner in which atheism was presented violated the median in this case and therefore I believe that the intentions of this group to establish themselves as a meaningful, constructive, and necessary part of this campus failed.

    • Ryan Liebl says:

      First of all, these are posters we’re talking about. We cannot possibly provide a thoroughly reasoned argument in favor of our position on them–they’re merely meant to be visually eye-catching. How were any of them an attack on faith? Each one merely consisted of the person pictured expressing one of their own reasons for being an atheist. Is it wrong for us to express our views publicly? I take as much or more offense from the fact that there’s a symbol of torture at the front of the chapel and on top of the steeple, but I don’t come out and say that I feel it’s an attack on me personally. Atheists get offended too, but nobody seems to care or take notice.

      By what authority do you claim to know what is truly Christian? Do you know the mind of God better than a Southern Baptist? A lot of your religious fellows would say the ELCA (in its liberality) has ceased to be truly Christian–and they could use scripture to back them up. What makes your interpretation of the ancient and contradictory things in the Bible any sounder than theirs? The Bible can essentially be made to support any viewpoint, given its internal incoherence. So, I’m not just “picking and choosing from a buffet line of mistakes.” I’m tackling religion as the various sects present it. I might also point out that all conservative Christian sects accuse the ELCA and other liberal ones of “cherry-picking” the Bible. Lutherans like to take the good and positive bits of the Bible and ignore the genocides, rapes, tortures, anti-gay rhetoric and hellfire that it also contains in abundance. In this respect, I think the conservative Christians are correct. To quote Christopher Hitchens on the subject, “The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals.”

      But you’re right. I don’t respect religious superstition of any kind. Does that mean I shouldn’t criticize it? Not at all. Religion does not get special immunity from criticism because people so deeply believe in it. Any and all views should be criticized in order that they might be improved and good ideas prevail.

      Atheism and its political counterpart–secularism– can indeed claim to do what no religion ever has. Secularism is what broke the totalitarian bonds of religion off of our civilization. Secularism is what enabled scientific inquiry and uncensored literature and art. Secularism also doesn’t create the fanatics and sociopaths that religion does. This is why the communities that participate in suicide bombing, genital mutilation, and homophobia (to name a few) are entirely religious. I agree with Hitchens when he says, “We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instills morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid.” Faith in a deity of any kind is a false virtue that we should not waste our time struggling with. It almost always degenerates into a few claiming to know the mind of God so they can tell other people what to do.

      There simply is no “right time” for criticism of religion. Analogous to the response MLK and his civil rights campaign drew, people don’t like it when social and political tension is brought to the surface. However, the only way to deal with tension is to discuss and deal with it. My group and I could have been even milder in our criticisms of religion, but we still would’ve been deemed “offensive” and “inappropriately-timed.” There is simply no way to get around this, even with reasonable and accurate criticisms of religion (as evidenced in the Dawkins quote I included in my first comment). I think the fact that people are taking notice of our posters and having this discussion is evidence that our goal of bringing tension to the surface has succeeded.

      • Logan Boese --2016 says:

        With what you were doing you specifically contradicted that which you were aiming to resolve. You don’t see us with posters in your face saying I’m a Christian because…. or if you did you would react as though it were an attack on atheism. Once more I would like to stress that Gustavus is a private Christian ELCA college. If you tried to do what you were doing at Bethel your signs would get taken down. Instead of insulting the ELCA for having a critical approach to the Bible, you should thank them for being open enough for religious dialogue. You are taking for granted the fact that this institution allows you to form this club, post signs, and actively vocalize your opinions. That would not be the case in other colleges and here there really is nothing that secular law could do about it. Your actions can be deemed as insensitive, hypocritical, and overtly distracting from the larger problems at hand. It is one thing to bring tension to the service (which I can only say it presumes that you believe tension is needed to dissolve situations) however, it is another thing to bring dialogue to the surface. Have you tried meeting with the literally 15 different religious institutions on campus? Why is it your goal to force your opinions on the campus that is so open to them in the first place? Your organization would like to keep playing the underdog role here on campus and that simply isn’t the fact of the matter. You have been allowed to be here, but that is not license to create trouble or make it your own personal quest to “bring tension to the surface” Religion and science have long duked out this battle, but in the end they have come to co-exist. Yes, America still has some problems that need to resolved, and yes it is good to talk about them. However, when you criticize one of the denominations for critically analyzing the Bible and applying it to real life. As well as the denomination that fights for the civil liberties of individuals still deemed by others to be disatisfactory then what are you agreeing with? Lutherans have not ignored the less positive parts of the Bible. If you believe that to be the case go take The Bible with any professor in the Religion department and learn the truth. You who are quick to criticize without real information or knowledge tends to be the one that trips up the first. Plus we literally live next door to each other so come talk to me instead of carrying this out on the Blog.

  3. Connor Dufault says:

    None of the posters that I’ve seen “attack” religion. They are simply statements about the world views of the featured individuals and brief explanations of the reasoning behind these views. Declaring these statements to be “offensive” is a thinly veiled excuse to refuse to consider their merits. I acknowledge that everyone has a right to hold any beliefs that they wish, but this does not mean that any ridiculous statement must not be challenged simply because it is a “deeply held religious conviction.”

  4. Elizabeth Fröden says:

    I think you are arrogant to go on a crusade of conversion to atheism. Your view as I understand it is that religion as a whole should be eradicated from humanity. Billions and billions of people are religious, and most of them have genuine intent to make the world a better place just as you claim to. You say that you hate the bigotry and intolerance that “stems from religion” but you are being intolerant and bigoted towards religious people. You’re hypocritical. I would love to see you practice the tolerance that you preach. I am not going to respond extensively because most of your arguments are broad generalizations and I don’t think they deserve to be acknowledged. I will end by saying this. You can claim that atheists/agnostics being offended by the cross on the chapel is the same as people being offended by your posters, but it is not. The bottom line is that Gustavus is a private institution and its religious affiliation is not something that you have the right to change. You decided to come here with that knowledge. If your mission in life is to be a hateful antitheist, perhaps you should consider attending a different school. Gustavus has never tried to convert you or me, so stop trying to convert Gustavus. If you would like to continue this discussion, I would rather just talk to you in person. Perhaps we could come to a better understanding. Message me on facebook if that is the case.

    • Logan Boese --2016 says:

      Thank you Elizabeth for saying what I was attempting to get to. It is people like you who remind me why I chose this college for it’s openness in identity and willingness to stay true to what it is.

      • Ryan Liebl says:

        (replying to your post above) To the contrary, I would be indifferent to people putting up posters saying “I’m a Christian because…” Indeed, my group is currently in the process of working with Christians on campus to arrange a dual poster campaign. Many Christians were outraged at people ripping down our posters because they’re “offensive” and have offered to make common cause with us there. I don’t need to thank the ELCA for being open to my view. Simply by virtue of being rational and human, they should always allow all points of view to be expressed–it would be censorious to do otherwise.

        All my group and I have done is express our views. If this is “forcing our views on others,” there’s essentially nothing we can do. We are actively working to create dialogue on campus with Christian organizations–as evidenced by our meeting this very day. I recommend you attend a meeting before making such ad hominem attacks on my group and I.

        I can’t help but notice that you responded to none of the counter arguments I presented in my initial response. In any case, science and religion are by no means coexisting. Religion still makes scientific claims about the universe that have been systematically refuted by science (as evidenced by the existence of creationism). I have discussed things with religion professors and have gotten zero satisfactory responses to my objections. Lutherans definitely ignore the bad bits of the Bible. They are almost never mentioned in services and are glossed over routinely (I was raised Lutheran and attended many churches regularly).

        I wanted to be seen to respond to you publicly, but we should definitely talk sometime. That would make things easier.

    • August Jasnoch says:

      Elizabeth,

      I feel the need to quote you, and a majority of the quotes will be from you in the writing below.

      The statement “I think you are arrogant to go on a crusade of conversion to atheism,” is just down right “hypocritical.” By telling Ryan Liebl that he is “arrogant to go on a crusade…” you yourself are actually just distorting what his real purpose is. While I have ideas of his “real” purpose I cannot state it because that would be incorrectly placing him with things he may or may not be trying to do; in other words doing what you and Logan Boese have just done. I must say in your writing you seem very aggressive and the amount of distaste you have shown towards a fellow Gustie, Ryan, is quite un-acceptable. Like Logan himself stated “this institution allows you to form this club, post signs, and actively vocalize your opinions.” With that and after reading Ryan’s statements on this forum and seeing the posters around campus, I must say I don’t find very much if any statement that “attacks” Christianity, peoples faith, or what have you. I see it merely as statements, opinions, and his own point of view that he wishes to share with others (once again what I say about Ryan cannot be taken as his word because I am not him).

      Now I’m fairly sure that Christianity is a religion that attempts to expand and spread, sometimes even force views upon people (look at the marriage laws). There was a day earlier this spring where right outside of chapel people had drawn, in chalk, (what I believe to be) the Jordan river and it said “let faith wash over you,” now I’m not very religious and yes it slightly bothered me but I accept that people naturally want to spread things they believe. What I’m trying to get at, is that Ryan’s method of “spreading” his own personal beliefs is not wrong, does not “attack” anyone, and is simply a very informing discussion that is beneficial to everyone.

      Thank you for giving me something to do this Friday Night.

      Sincerely,

      August

    • Ryan Liebl says:

      But they try to make the world a better place in ways that fail to do so–and often do just the opposite. This is what happens when you try to draw your morality from ancient, barbaric mythologies. Sexuality has been systematically repressed, acts of violence committed, and suppression of free inquiry exacted in order to maintain the sacred reputation of the myths.

      I like Gustavus for its many redeeming secular qualities and see my time here partially as an opportunity to promote secular values (which are already overtaking the religious origins of Gustavus). I’ll ignore all your ridiculous ad hominems, because I’m a reasonable person.

      I wanted to be seen to respond to you publicly, but I would be willing to continue talking in person.

      • Ryan Liebl says:

        The above is in response to Elizabeth (obviously).

      • Elizabeth Fröden says:

        This is what I mean when I say you’re being intolerant. While you and I might not think that the bible or any other religious doctrine is reality, there are people who do. How do you expect to work with Christian groups on campus in a respectful manner if you refer to their beliefs as “ancient, barbaric mythologies.” I’m not saying you should hide your own beliefs. I share a lot of the same ones, and I personally don’t understand religion. However, my main point through all of this is just showing some respect for the fact that for some people it is reality. Calling their beliefs myths or “bronze-age superstition” is rude. It sends the message that you don’t accept the fact that they have a world view that differs from yours. That’s all I really want anyone to get out of this. People can coexist while disagreeing. I apologize for getting frustrated.

    • Kyle Maloney says:

      A few quick things here. First, neither Ryan (to my knowledge) nor any other secular students at Gustavus are on a “crusade” (ironic choice of words there, considering the origins of that word) to convert other Gusties to being an atheist/agnostic. While Ryan may have a fiery spirit, I’d like you to know that he and other on campus just want to lessen the taboo of talking about this subject on campus, and have honest discussions and debates. Religion, like all other subjects, should be able to be criticized on campus — it’s even criticized within the classrooms of our religion department. These discussions are not inherently “hateful.” Tolerating one’s right to make the choice of belonging to a religion, school of thought or a given spirituality does not mean that those choices and the logic behind them cannot be discussed. You are correct that Gustavus is a private institution, but it is an institution that prizes diversity of experience, skills, and spiritual beliefs nonetheless. I do not believe that any member of this discussion is attempting to rid Gustavus of its religious affiliation, which has long been a great tradition of the college; these discussions are simply an attempt by a minority in the Gustavus community to have a thoughtful and respectful conversation that will hopefully leave all involved feeling as though they learned something.

  5. Ian McNally says:

    This escalated quickly.

    The posters themselves did not expressly say anything that was directly offensive. They are all identity statements. Identity statements not only affirm the people that they are coming from, but they provide an explanation to others. None of these posters are trying to force beliefs on others, they are a simply a statement of what the individual on the poster believes.

    The statements made on every poster that I have seen (admittedly, I am not God [tee-hee] and I may have missed a few of them) are statements that do not generalize. The two most controversial posters, for example. Religious dogma of some sorts DOES poison political discourse to a degree-see the Westboro Baptist Church. This may be political discussion on a small scale, but political discussion nonetheless. And some religions do resemble fantasy to many-why can all religions not look like fantasy to some?

    The posters themselves are not what I feel offend most people. What I feel offends people is the type of discussion that follow them; discussions like this. To be frank Ryan, you are being very offensive in your comments, with vast generalizations that are very untrue in many cases. I will cite them if you wish, as I am sure that we will discuss this in a personal discussion where we are not hiding behind our keyboards.

    However, the best response to generalizations is to show that they can easily be untrue-but this is not how counterarguments (if they can be called that. I would call them attacks) have been phrased. Instead of an intelligent discourse, this has become a playground argument. When one could present an intelligent argument, they simply call Ryan names.

    Whew.

    To sum this all up:

    The posters are statements of PERSONAL belief. Not an attempt to de-evangelize.

    People are being extremely inflammatory on both sides of this debate, but that is the nature of it. Both parties should respectfully challenge each others’ beliefs, but learn to do so in a manner that is less incendiary.

    Thanks! Props to you if you read all of this!

    Kumbaya!

  6. Kyle Maloney says:

    I do not believe that the posters are rude, or that they seek to attack religion. Each poster represents the honest opinion of an individual member of the group. Your notion that is would be rude simply because their opinions collide with more traditional religious opinions and beliefs should be re-considered.

    I’ll try to explain quickly why your two examples are not “attacking” religion. The first quote you use is “I am an atheist because religious dogma is poisoning public discourse.” What is wrong with this opinion, and why shouldn’t one be able to express this opinion? Many atheists see religion as “poisoning” public discourse in areas such as the discussion on various moral issues because it can be all too easy to justify a policy, such as not allowing homosexuals to marry, on religious grounds without further reasoning. Another way one might say religion is “poisoning” public discourse involves the unfortunate fact that even the possibility that a presidential candidate might be a Muslim would become national news and threaten to derail a campaign; you can imagine how there would be similar outrage if an openly atheist or agnostic candidate tried to run for public office. Your second quote, “I am an atheist because I believe in living a life without fear,” does not attack religion either. I imagine that this opinion is very personal to he or she that was willing to put it on a poster. Perhaps this individual used to be religious and, after leaving religion, has found himself/herself to be less afraid of what is ahead; how is that offensive? The opinions of this community should not be closeted for going against the grain, even on a campus with a rich and valuable religious tradition such as this.

    This has already been said, but it is worth repeating that these posters should not be taken as representing all atheists or agnostics; part of the purpose of the Gustavus Secular Student Alliance is to show students, religious and non-religious alike, that there is a broad spectrum of views in the atheist/agnostic community just as there is within the religious community. That said, you say that the group is portraying itself as an “anti-theist” group; while some of the members are certainly anti-theist, not all of them are. Moreover, there would be nothing wrong with the group painting itself as anti-theist if it chose to do so (which it is not, as I explained each poster represents the views of the that individual). I hope you aren’t suggesting that those on campus who consider themselves to be anti-theists should hide their views or feel that they cannot bring a voice to the religious discussion on campus.

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