Skepticism

The Doorstop Problem

TAM8 was amazing, as advertised. It felt like a big family reunion. I loved seeing old friends, and especially meeting those of you I had only interacted with online previously. Thanks to all of you who introduced yourselves and chatted with me throughout the conference. It was great fun.

But, as with many good things, there was a downside. I came home with an epic case of the con crud, and proceeded to have quite possibly the worst week ever. So I’ve spent much of the past 9 days in bed, staring at Tweetdeck, playing Mah Jongg, and catching up on podcasts.

The SGU episode just before TAM (260, I think?), with guest rogue George Hrab, was great. I was really captivated by the question and ensuing conversation about collective iconography as it relates to the American flag, and whether it was strange that many people feel it contains meaning beyond its paltry physical existence (as a cheap piece of nylon, probably made overseas).

The discussion eventually came around to psychology, and the human need to be part of something bigger, and research into people’s willingness or unwillingness to use iconographic items for practical tasks; very much in the vein of Bruce Hood’s work on the seemingly inherent roots of superstitious thought.

Steve asserted that he didn’t believe these tendencies to be necessarily unskeptical, and a normal part of the human experience. I agree. I don’t think people who have these feelings should have their “skeptic card” revoked (an idea which I find utterly ridiculous, anyhow, but that’s another topic for another day), but I do feel very strongly that these feelings should be challenged, as Steve also mentioned on the show, so that people at least understand rationally what’s going on and don’t get swept up in tribalistic nonsense.

Thinking about this gave me some fresh perspective and understanding on something that happened at Skepchicon. As those of you who attended the Skepchick room party at Convergence may have noted, we used the Gideon’s bible as a doorstop. We did it last year, and again this year, and plan to do it in the future. This, obviously, is controversial, both to parts of the general audience at the con, and to some skeptics and atheists.

I’m not generally a confrontational skeptic or atheist. I tend to like to get along with everyone, generally respect people’s right to believe what they want (until it bangs up against my right not to), and I don’t normally try to push buttons. But this bible doorstop thing is something I feel very strongly about, and I didn’t really understand why until that SGU conversation.

I value the subversion of iconography. I want people to question their cultural feelings of connection to the bible. I want them to see it in a context utterly removed from worship and sanctity. I want to make it known that it is possible to see it differently. For many people, this is uncomfortable, and they get angry, or decide not to come to our party. I know it’s probably offensive to at least one of my close friends. Maybe it makes me a little bit of a dick, but it’s one thing I won’t compromise on.

See, the tendencies that make people feel like the bible is sacred are the same tendencies that make it easy for lawmakers to legislate religion into public life. If most Americans to some degree believe that religion should be held up on a pedestal, free from criticism, it becomes almost inevitable that they will see such legislation as right and good, regardless of what the constitution says, or how it might affect their rights to practice the religion of their choice, or none at all. We need to peel back, expose, and examine these emotional responses in order to get real, rational discourse and policy that is fair for everyone.

So if my little act of desecration makes a few people think about why using a stack of paper surrounded by cardboard to keep a door open invokes such a guttural reaction in themselves, then I’m okay with turning a few others away.

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46 Comments

  1. I just listened to that episode the other day, and I found that conversation to be really thought-provoking as well. I agree with you. I think it is important as well to let people know that if something is blasphemous within their own religion, that doesn’t mean people outside of their own faith have to adhere to their standards. To blaspheme is to go against your own religious dogma. If I were a practicing Hindu, it would be unreasonable for me go up to you on your lunch break and slap the cheeseburger out of your mouth. Right? Because the codes of my own religion are not yours to follow. Well, your cheeseburger is my Bible doorstop. I don’t disrespect Christianity by yelling Jesus Mary and Joseph when I stub my toe any more that I am disrespecting Hindus every time I eat prime rib. It just doesn’t matter to me, and there’s no reason it should.

  2. Well put, Carrie. I just listened to that episode today and had some of the same thoughts about subversion of icons. I’ve been trying to show my close family and friends my skeptical atheistic point of view lately (not from an “evangelical” standpoint, but more to help them understand where I’m coming from) and I just might steal the idea of a biblical doorstop or something like it just to provoke thought.

  3. Denying the existence of “skeptic cards” is #badforskepticism. Denying the importance of revoking skeptic cards over minor slights, on the other hand, is anathema. The Skeptic Inquisition will be along shortly to deliver your punishment.

  4. Thought I’d share a story of bible irreverence:
    At the Catholic elementary school I attended there was a memorable moment of icon subversion, although not intentional. During religion class a large fly landed on the desk in front of Sister Geraldine while she was passing out the student bibles. With surprising reflexes for an older woman she slammed one of the weighty bibles onto the desk, successfully squishing the fly. The fly then became stuck to the back of the book so she used a second bible to scrap it off into the trash. While the class was mostly in a state of surprise and suppressed laughter over this unorthodox use of scripture, this didn’t seam to faze her at all. After a brief comment that there was nothing wrong with swatting a fly with a bible if it is the only tool handy, she went on with the class as normal.
    This event did not cause me to loose any respect for scripture at the time, but I think it did help me see that the physical objects we use to represent sacred ideas are themselves unimportant or at least not deserving of reverence.

  5. nobody wants to revoke anyone’s skeptic card, the argument is whether or not a belief or opinion can be classified as skeptical. Christians for example can be good skeptics but when they start talking about say the second coming of Jesus ending the universe (to pick a completely random example) then that belief or opinion cannot be regarded as a skeptical one and should be criticized. They cannot expect the skeptical community to respect that. Maybe I hang out with nicer skeptics than the rest of the skeptical community but I haven’t hears anyone claiming these people aren’t skeptics I’ve only heard skeptics making fun of their dumb beliefs.

    In the case of iconography I think the rouges got it right emotional attachment to icons isn’t by itself un-skeptical but it can be when you let that emotion dictate your actions.

  6. Symbols, Icons, metaphors, whatever are all ways we communicate. But since we do communicate through them, many people tend to stop thinking and translate the symbol as the actual idea.
    Whenever we as skeptics poke at an icon, we should be just as aware of what we are doing – are we poking at the icon because of the idea is symbolizes or are we poking at the person for thinking the icon is the idea.
    If you want to poke at the idea, skip the icon. If you want to poke the concept of making icons into the idea – then poke at the icon.
    When we make a bible into a doorstop – we are saying its a just a book, a heavy item that conveniently holds open doors – its not religion. We aren’t really saying anything at all about religion with bible doorstops.

  7. “Thou shalt not make graven images.”

    I often wondered about the motivation behind that Commandment. Was the author of Exodus trying to warn against attaching undue significance to material objects? After all, these commandments were supposedly to a people who had to travel light through a harsh country and who should not have been burdening themselves with worthless knick-knacks.

    I’ve got Bruce Hood’s Supersense on my shelf. I really must get around to reading it.

  8. Hmm what do Americans think about the state of patriotism in there country?
    I find the whole thing rather perplexing.

    I was quite surprised by the way the SGU reacted to the American flag.
    Sure Iconography, but its just such a foreign concept to me when it comes to flags.
    I don’t think that its really a universal thing as Steve says. I never see any British flags in the United Kingdom or German flags in Germany. ( dual nationality) Apart from government buildings and at the borders.

    In all honesty most people in Germany just think you are a Nazi if you have a German flag hanging from your house. And in Britain a lot of people would think you are a rather odd.

    I hear that children at school in America are supposed to recite the pledge of allegiance every morning. No idea to what extent that is true, but most of my American friends tell me they had to. I honestly find that a little worrying, without intending to be offensive, but that to me would explain the obsession with flags, I mean that is proper brainwashing.
    I meet a lot of people nowadays, who when asked which of Flag burning or Book burning they would rather have outlawed, they choose the former. I just don’t understand it.

  9. I am confused?

    Should we be dicks or not?

    Using the bible for a door stop is pretty clearly a dick move.

    FYI: I think what you did with the bible is a great idea but it flies in the face of the “don’t be a dick” meme.

  10. @spurge: i think the whole “don’t be a dick” thing is much more nuanced than many people realize. i think we all have our own definitions around it, and we all have different comfort levels as far as what kind of dickishness to utilize and when.

    i don’t think we should never be dicks. personally, my line is drawn at personal interaction. i will always try to treat everyone with respect. what i mean by this is that i will give them the benefit of the doubt, i won’t assume they’re stupid or dysfunctional because they disagree with me, and i will engage in reasonable conversation with them if they choose to talk to me, and i won’t needlessly make everything in everyday conversation remotely related to religion or belief into an issue. to me, that’s what “don’t be a dick” means.

    i don’t believe anyone has the right not to be offended. and i don’t think doing something that will offend some people is necessarily wrong. i think there is a distinction to be drawn between insult and offense. personally, i find it insulting when people change their behavior or avoid saying certain things because they’re worried about offending me (this happens frequently at work). if you respect me as an adult, you should also respect my ability to deal with something i might find offensive.

    as an atheist, and a strong, independent woman, some people are offended by my very existence. does this mean i should sit down and shut up? of course not.

    the point is, i don’t think people’s feelings of offense should be the gauge of dickishness, precisely because people can be offended by just about anything. the key, to me, is when they tell you you’ve offended them, rather than dismissing them as idiots, to give them the benefit of the doubt, and simply ask, “why?”.

  11. @carr2d2:

    I agree with you 100%. That is why I think this meme is so counter productive.

    People keep stating that being a dick is counter productive and yet they do things that other people would clearly find dickish.

    Other than pointing out specific examples of where people are being assholes I don’t see the point of it all.

  12. Even though most of us probably fall on the atheist/agnostic spectrum, I think we should be discussing whether or not debunking religion is officially part of Skepchick’s (and, as an extension, the entire skeptic community’s) overall goal.

    SGU has stated a number of times that it is not one of their goals. I know that my local skeptic group has decided not to tackle the issue. If skeptics have decided not to make debunking religion one of their pillars, then using a bible as a doorstop seems to me to be a bit of a (sorry) dick move.

    I think that the “don’t be a dick” meme extends to both one-on-one interactions and group interactions. Even if our intentions are good… even if our intentions are to make people squirm a bit and question their cultural feelings of connection to icons, I imagine using the bible as a doorstop is frankly an eff you to many people who might otherwise attend and hear our message.

    So, my point is, if, as a skeptic community, we have decided not to tackle the issue of religion, then why the bible? Why not replace the bible with something secular but equally throught-provoking.

  13. I grew up entirely without religion, at least as much as you can in American society, and the Bible doesn’t really hold much meaning for me. It’s just a book that some people really like and apparently base their lives on. Like Twilight. Except the Bible seems to have in it (or at least inspired) a few decently good ideas, like being cool to people and helping those who need it.

    I wouldn’t be really personally offended by this, and certainly understand and essentially agree with your point – but I think it’s worthwhile to remember that maybe the reason some skeptics don’t feel like attacking the Bible or related issues is because it’s completely irrelevant to them. Which, really, isn’t the point we want to get to, in the end?

  14. @carr2d2: I think Bruce Hood addressed this at one level in his presentation at TAM. We get brain wired to be sentimental about objects from a very young age and sometimes all the rational thought in the world doesn’t remove the feelings associated with objects; but as you say how we react and have discourse over these objects can be rational or not. As for the use of a bible for a door stop I think that’s fine and in keeping with a history of subversive acts, be they public or as small as an object inserted in a 17th Century painting poking fun at a king or the church. I’ve always loved the stories about POW’s getting Red Cross parcels’ who are thrilled when they see a bible and realize they finally a source of TP.

  15. @battlestarlet: well, for starters, i never said the goal was to debunk religion. never thought it, either. what i said was, i want people to think more critically about their devotion to objects that symbolize religion.

    as far as what qualifies as proper behavior for “the entire skeptic community”, i’ll direct you to something i wrote a few months back addressing the kerfuffle over rebecca’s decision to denounce the catholic church here on skepchick.

    my personal opinion on the religion/skepticism matter is that i think skeptics should ask questions. it’s what we do. i really hate the idea of debunking, in any sphere. debunking isn’t skepticism. debunking is going into a situation with a preconceived idea of the outcome: you know you’re right, and you know you’re going to prove phenomenon x to be fake. that’s not skepticism.

    i think it’s completely fair for a skeptic to ask questions about the ways in which religion influences and shapes people and societies. other skeptics may disagree, and that’s fine.

  16. Like many of the things we do every day, this action (using the Bible as a doorstop) was meant to send a message. The message you intended to send was something along the lines of:

    “It’s just a book. Get over it.”

    Am I right? I know this is an oversimplification, but it seems like it comes close to your point.

    The problem with visual messages (and even verbal ones) is that their interpretation is always in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. While your meaning may be perfectly clear to you, it may quite reasonably mean something completely different to someone else. Thus @battlestarlet’s “eff you, Christians/theists/etc” interpretation.

    It’s not hard to see how a Christian skeptic might look at the Bible doorstop and interpret it to mean that you think that anyone who holds the Bible to be important in their life is unworthy to even come through the door. From everything else you have said, this is clearly not what you were trying to say. But someone looking though that door for the first time does have the benefit of having heard everything else you have said before.

    So while I agree that you are perfectly within your rights to use that Bible as a doorstop, you might want to consider alternative interpretations to these kinds of actions.

    One should always try to avoid insulting people unintentionally. It makes it so much harder to communicate effectively.

  17. @SteveT: i’m perfectly aware of all of that. hence, my closing paragraph:

    So if my little act of desecration makes a few people think about why using a stack of paper surrounded by cardboard to keep a door open invokes such a guttural reaction in themselves, then I’m okay with turning a few others away.

    and i disagree that it is possible to avoid insulting people unintentionally. people can feel insulted for all sorts of reasons. as i pointed out in the body of my post, some people feel insulted by my very existence.

    we all have to decide the level to which we’re willing to unintentionally insult with acts like this, and balance that with what we intend to accomplish. we’re not going to have the same lines, as this discourse clearly displays.

  18. I just want to know why it is always ME who gets yelled at by riled up Xtians over the bible doorstop.

    Sigh.

    Although, in retrospect, perhaps the correct answer to the man who asked me if I would do that to a Koran was NOT “Sure! Do you have one?”

  19. I did notice the bible doorstop on my way out of the room party. We laughed. I think it’s kind of amusing that this is an ongoing thing. The Gideons just leave these bibles in the rooms, so it’s not like they were damaging hotel property in the process.

    There was a room party at CONvergence a few years back that was themed around cults and had info on various religions, including several mainstream ones. They were also handing out religious tracts and condoms. You’d think that people would be used to the rampant blasphemy at the convention by now.

    Also, I wonder if anyone was offended by the Buddy Christ guy running around.

    I’m not sure where I was going with this post. I think people just need to get over themselves and just enjoy the con.

  20. My only problem with using ANY book as a doorstop is that it is hard on the book. I like keeping mine in good condition. :)

    I finally had to join and say thank you to all of you for rational, well expressed thoughts. It is a pleasure to read though everything on this site.

  21. Complete Tangent, feel free to ignore.
    It seems to be a human thing to want people to agree with you.
    And I end up wondering if this wanting people to agree with you is part of the underlying human need for control?
    We’re such prey animals, no natural defenses except our brains. The world is a big and scary place for a critter like that.
    We always seem to be looking for some kind of shelter, whether physical or emotional – and I wonder again, if that isn’t us trying to control our environment and make it at least perceived as safer?
    Maybe that’s why people respond so strongly to iconography like the bible or a flag – it’s a symbol of environmental control and produces feelings of safety?

  22. @carr2d2: “i’ll direct you to something i wrote a few months back ” Thanks for the referral. Great post. The topic of “skeptics as a community” actually reminded me of a poster I saw at George Washington University’s law school one night. It was a poster announcing the upcoming elections for the school’s anarchy club. Seriously. Haha!

    “Debunking” was a bad word choice on my part. I think that @SteveT worded it better than I did. I think I am simply concerned with the unintended interpretations of an action like this.

  23. @carr2d2: The tone of your response to me suggests that I have, ironically enough, insulted you unintentionally! Since you did indeed consider the possible alternative interpretations of your “message” then I have no beef with you. I guess that wasn’t clear to me on reading your post. I have just so often seen examples of people (including myself) NOT considering the alternative interpretations and unwittingly closing off opportunities for further communication.

    And I certainly agree with you that it is impossible to completely avoid offending people unintentionally (I did say “try”) since so many seem to be in a perpetual state of offense. About the best you can do is a quick “once over” to see if you have missed anything obvious.

  24. @SteveT: haha, funny how “tone” can be interpreted…i wasn’t insulted. maybe a bit annoyed that you seemed to miss things in my post that appeared obvious to me…but such is the nature of these online, text based conversations.
    clearly they weren’t as obvious as i thought, and i appreciate your clarification :)

  25. can i just say that i appreciate very highly the level of civility in this particular conversation? there are at least 6 different ways this could have turned into a flame war, and i love that it hasn’t. (cue flamers in 5…4…)

    anyway, thanks for that. i feel like we’ve actually had a good, thought provoking discussion, and ultimately respect each other’s positions, even where we don’t agree.

    that’s what i call decent skeptical discourse.

  26. I have three differently-colored Gideon Bibles on my shelf that I “stole” from various hotels. Even though I’m sure the Gideons want you to take them, I get a kick out of breaking a commandment with a Bible. When I have visitors, I point them out, and usually they’re at least slightly surprised. I do like challenging assumptions, and I think this isn’t that terrible of an idea. When I tell them you can’t steal something people want to give away, they get it immediately.

  27. Speaking of the Book of Mormon, I just had the world’s most annoying Mormon encounter. EVER! (humor me) I was on my way home in a torrential downpour, and 2 missionaries coming the other way stopped me just in front of my house to try to talk to me about their book of fairy tales. “I’ve read the Book of Mormon,” I said, walking up my driveway. “Well have you prayed about it?” He asked. “No, I’m an atheist.” Put off, they went on their way. I got to my door and found it locked, which is odd, since we do not lock our door (until now). I called my son and asked if he had locked the door. “Why would I lock the door?” he asks. “I don’t know, but it’s locked.”

    So he comes back from his friend’s house, climbs in a window, opens the door and says, “that’s weird. This was in the door on the inside.” It was a card. The same card the missionary had tried to give me. It says, “The Book of Mormon, another testament of Jesus Christ.”

    Frakking Mormons locked me out of my house. How exactly is that supposed to get me to pray over their stupid doorstop?

  28. The Mormons are always nice. That’s how they get ya! I tell all my Mormon friends that. They get all offended by me laying the nice stereotype on them like that but they are way too nice to say anything about it! That’s how I get them!
    Of course, these particular Mormons have never locked me out of my house. Maybe they are changing tactics.

  29. Yeah, that was a first. I am still pretty mad about it. I mean, I’m sure they probably thought they were being nice by locking my door for me after they opened it, but what the hell would make them open it to begin with??? I called the phone number on the card to complain (that was a first for me as well. I’m not a call-and-complain sort of gal, but I felt like my privacy was violated), and they said, “So sorry about that! Where, exactly do you live? So we can find out why that happened…” Why would I tell them where my house is? Does she think I want them coming back? “Sorry for breaking into your home. Let’s talk about Moroni…”

  30. With regard to dickishness, I think context is everything. Blocking a door with a Bible in a church at which you are speaking about, say, stamp collecting: a bit dickish. Blocking a door with a Bible at a skeptical conference: not so much.

  31. I guess, if it were me, I wouldn’t do it. First off, it might make Pamela Gay uncomfortable, and she’s done to much great stuff to be insulted by the likes of me. Secondly, it doesn’t strike me as funny. It just seems a little inflammatory. Funny, would be forgivable. Something like Atlas Shrugged would be funny to me. But that’s just me.

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