Arguing for God (or pr0n)

Last night (actually, two nights ago, after the edits) while talking to my friend Tank (what up, Spaceman), our conversation swerved into religion, as it is wont to do, and he told me that he intentionally dislikes discussing religion at all, even if the other person brings it up. I told him I intentionally try to press people about their views, especially if they bring up the subject. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not out to attack anyone or anything like that, but it seems to me that an unexamined belief system is really no belief system at all. In John Milton’s Aeropagitica, Milton states (please don’t skip this):

Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned, that those confused seeds which were imposed upon Psyche as an incessant labour to cull out, and sort asunder, were not more intermixed. It was from out the rind of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evil, as two twins cleaving together, leaped forth into the world. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is to say of knowing good by evil. As therefore the state of man now is; what wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear without the knowledge of evil? He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian.

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure; her whiteness is but an excremental whiteness. Which was the reason why our sage and serious poet Spenser, whom I dare be known to think a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas, describing true temperance under the person of Guion, brings him in with his palmer through the cave of Mammon, and the bower of earthly bliss, that he might see and know, and yet abstain. Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger, scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.

Milton claims that a person can’t really know good unless they know and consciously deny evil as well. Milton was a big believer in free speech in a time when free speech wasn’t exactly seen as an inalienable right.

In 2005, the Atheist Agenda at UTSA began the “Smut for Smut” campaign. If a person brought in a Bible, the Atheist Agenda organization would gladly exchange the Bible for a free porno mag. Unsurprisingly, this made national news. The sad part about the whole deal was that I was so dense I didn’t even realize it was happening, on the campus in which I work, no less, until I read about it on Fark . For someone who takes a great deal of pride in cultural awareness, this was quite embarrassing. Here’s the post I wrote when I found out I’d missed the whole damn thing.

Anyhow, the Atheist Agenda has been doing this since 2005, but so far they haven’t received as much attention as that first year. I guess people do get desensitized to porn.

This year I discovered that one of my students was manning (womanning?) the Smut for Smut booth. That’s Chelsea Lura on the right. Hi Chelsea.


So, after three years of thinking about this, here are my random thoughts on Smut for Smut:

1) I’m glad I work at a state school where shit like this can happen. At Baylor, where I got my undergrad degree, these people would have been beaten bloody with King James Bibles.

2) This is an ineffective mode of argumentation. Understand that when I use the word “argument” I don’t meet a debate. I’m using the Aristotelian definition of the term,think which stress the possibility of not only reconciliation between the arguing parties, but also of intellectual advancement and ultimately a movement toward finding Truth. One of the most crucial aspects of any argument is a clear understanding of the orator or writer’s audience. Only by identifying the audience can the author determine the best tools to employ during the argument. I suppose it’s all about mission statement, but if the Atheist Agenda wants to meaningfully argue with religious people, and presumably cause them to question their faith, then they need to redefine their argumentative techniques.

I would think that the Atheist Agenda would need to have as logical an argument as possible with religious people, simply because logic is where religiosity falls apart. Again, I’m not attacking religion, it’s just that faith, by it’s very definition, is a belief in something in spite of all logic and reason. Contrastingly, religion is all about passion and emotion, so it would be best to avoid overly passionate and emotive techniques when arguing with the religious because doing so puts them in familiar territory; it’s a place where they can rally and counter-argue with their own passionate rhetoric. Then the argument has devolved into a shouting match.

All Smut for Smut does is take something that religious people passionately feel is morally wrong–porn–and juxtapose it against something that they passionately feel is morally right–the Bible. This places the two arguing figures in antagonistic roles, and even more unproductively, it forces people who might have otherwise been persuaded into hearing the Atheist Agenda’s side into choosing the side of passion with which they feel more familiar. Odds are good that will be the side of the religious. As a consequence, the Smut for Smut campaign will only further divide believers and non-believers, and it will strengthen the ideological foundation of the religious because it will serve as confirmation that their assumptions of Atheists are correct.

However, if the Atheist Agenda wishes to simply rally their base and cause some commotion, then Mission Accomplished.

3. When walking to and from my office, I need to pay better attention to the booths outside the HSS building.

One of the other things my friend Tank said during our conversation was that he categorizes people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins similarly to folks like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. They don’t add anything meaningful to public discourse, and in fact, they do their level best to create an environment of antagonism and division.

I don’t like antagonism and division.

I don’t like exclusion and insularity.

But I do appreciate the porn. So kudos to you, Atheist Agenda.

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