Atheist Antagonist

We got an email yesterday from Mike. Mike calls himself the “Religious Antagonist” and very proudly pointed us to his new YouTube channel where he intentionally antagonizes religious people and mocks religion.

In his latest episode, Mike approaches a homeless man and offers him $20 to scratch the word “God” off the sign he is holding. The man refuses. Mike questions the man’s rationality. Why is he refusing real money for a ‘fairy tale’? The man’s wife gets involved and also refuses. Mike engages them both. Supposed hilarity ensues as Mike tries to get the couple to give up their faith in a higher power for the temptation of $20.

I’m sorry, Mike, I don’t think this was the reaction you were expecting when you sent this to us but I think this is a cruel, cold and pointless tactic and I am struggling hard to understand why you think this is a) meaningful or b) something we’d appreciate.

I am an atheist. I am open about my atheism. I think that there are many serious problems that atheists face in this country. Atheists are still discriminated against, and conservative Christian values are causing laws to be put forward that weaken our education system, are anti-woman and anti-civil rights. And some are just stupid.

There are certainly battles to be fought and I don’t dispute that we need to take steps to fight against these things. But, I’m not sure harassing a homeless guy is the most effective approach. Of course, that’s not the only thing Mike does. If you watch his other videos, he does things like moving bibles in a public library into the “Fiction” section and blowing his nose and wiping his ass with pages from the Bible.

Mike doesn’t like the Bible, it appears. Mike is angry at religion. He believes it is wrong and he is right. And he’s not afraid to mock a homeless couple in front of their child and on camera to demonstrate it.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the relationship between the religious and non-religious. People talk about not being dicks, about how being a dick is the only way to really be heard and to be honest, there are arguments on both sides that I sympathize with. But, for me, it comes down to two things:

1. In human relations, the only way to gain consensus and understanding is to try to find common ground. In my personal life, I know religious people who I care about deeply. And although I know that they don’t understand my atheism any more than I understand their belief, we find common ground. Because I live my life as a good person and as a good friend and they do the same. We find that common ground and it brings us closer together. And that makes it much easier to settle things when we do disagree.

2. Some things are worth fighting for. Sometimes, you need to take the gloves off and you need to antagonize. I do not dispute this. However, make sure if you are doing this, it has a tangible, measurable goal and purpose. What is the purpose of Mike’s harassment of the homeless family? Will the man see ‘reason’? Will his wife or his child?

Or will Mike’s attitude and his treatment of this family just cement their impression that atheists are evil, amoral tools of Satan? This man had probably been taught from an early age that God would look out for him and would test him. And let’s be clear. It’s not like Mike was offering to bring the man out of poverty. An offer of $20 simply isn’t going to make someone put his eternal soul on the line if that is what they believe is at stake. Sure, Mike offered him more money hypothetically and hypothetically, the man refused. But hypotheticals are far easier to discuss than reality.

If I offered Mike $20, would he go on camera and say that he *did* believe in God? Is belief that easy to toss aside on a whim? Not enough? What if it was $1,000? Come on, Mike, that would buy a LOT of snazzy argyle sweaters…

What about the people watching? Will this video convince anyone to turn away from religion? Or to turn toward reason? Or will the majority of people watching either be horrified at the cruelty or laugh along with Mike at the poor ‘stupid’ Christian down on his luck?

What would have happened if Mike had walked up to the man, handed him $20 and said “I am an atheist and I don’t believe in God. I don’t think God will bless me but I want you to have this money anyway because I believe it’s the right thing to do to help you take care of your family.”

It may not have made for quite as “funny” a video. But maybe it would have changed that man’s perceptions about atheists and about what they are like and who they are. Maybe that would have been more effective than any gimmick or smug post-production commentary that Mike could come up with. We won’t know because I don’t think Mike is going to change his methods any time soon. He believes he’s in the right. And he probably can’t see the irony in that.

Maria Walters (a.k.a. Masala Skeptic) has spent a lot of time in ‘furrin parts,’ including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Pittsburgh. Although her passport is from India, she’s spent most of her adult life in the United States. She currently lives in Atlanta and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

89 Comments

  1. I love your attitude about this horrible guy. I’ve nothing against talking negatively about religion, but the need for finding common ground and being civil is definitely important.

  2. From your description, I’m not even sure if I have the heart to watch that video. Fuck

  3. Hmmmm…I thought the major difference between secular charitable giving and religious charitable giving (in many cases) is that secular ones aren’t supposed to hold some idealogical price over the heads of those who need help. How is this different from requiring the homeless to pray before receiving a meal at a soup kitchen or only disbursing funds to medical charities that don’t provide condoms or abortion services?

  4. Ugh, I only got about halfway through that video before I had to shut it off. If I can bring myself to watch the rest of it, I’ll add more thoughts.

  5. Wow, what a fucking jerk. These kind of people is exactly why I’ve started distancing myself from atheism and leaning towards agnosticism – I don’t want to be lumped in with assholes like that.

  6. A True Believer atheist is no different than a True Believer theist, in my view. Like Masala I see validity in both the pro and anti ‘be a dick’ approaches. This guy manages to get every aspect of ‘be a dick’ wrong making himself and all atheists look bad in the process.

  7. At the end of the video, I was cheering for the family. I was happy they stood their ground. I loved that mom. I love that dad.

    Mike says he’s sad for that child. But I think that child learned a valuable lesson that sometimes people are assholes, you don’t have to give into them, and it’s not right to take money to do something that’s wrong. Even if other people are telling you it’s not.

    I wish we could do something for this awesome family.

  8. Although I may get yelled at for saying so, I think that belief is not worth arguing over. I think ACTIONS are worth arguing over – actions like laws being put forward that discriminate and go in the opposite direction of progress – actions like what Mike demonstrates in his videos. Actions are specific, easier to address, and easier to change.
    Maria is right in pointing out that we often only cement the belief we are fighting against. Someone else’s belief isn’t hurting me, the actions that person decides to take are the real problem. If someone attacks you with a gun, do you blame the gun or the person? If someone attacks you with a belief, do you blame the belief or the person?

  9. I’m on the fence about this. Mike is a bit of a bully sure enough, but he didn’t approach some random people. This family was advertising religion in a public area. Engaging them in a debate I think is fair. They didn’t seem unhappy at the conclusion of the video so he couldn’t have been that obnoxious.

    Did Mike accomplish anything? I don’t know. It isn’t the approach I would use.

    I have a bigger problem with young, able-bodied people spending their days pan-handling. I feel for the homeless, but it is not a situation you can beg your way out of.

  10. @Elyse: I was thinking the same thing. It would be so great if we could track them down and offer them an apology from all the atheists who are NOT assholes. In the form of, I dunno, food. I haven’t had the stomach to watch the video — is there any indication of where he found them?

  11. Ugh, now I see why some atheists are reluctant to call themselves that. As a *humanist* atheist, I was completely disgusted by Mike’s actions. His treatment of that family and taunting them with money was an attempt to completely remove their human dignity. And I say good for them for not giving in to such douchey tactics. It’s hard enough to maintain your dignity when you’re homeless without some asshole mocking you and your faith.

  12. Sorry about making an axiomatic comment, but what else can I say: bullying is bullying. Period. I’m almost tempted to believe that “Mike” is actually a religious nut acting as some sort of agent provocateur. But sadly bullies come in all flavors.

    As for “able-bodied people” and not “begging your way out of a problem”: we are seeing news reports of widespread discrimination against unemployed people in the selection process, which, incidentally, is not against the law.

    Consider the recent story of a woman told by an employment agency that the client will not accept applicants unemployed for longer than 6 months.

    A person at the bottom of the economic food chain can’t just “Magic” a job into existence.

    Sorry about the thread-jacking, it’s just that ignorance about the underlying realities of how the world actually works bugs me no end.

  13. I also found this distasteful and embarrassing. It is precisely this sort of mindless idiocy that enables others to refer to us as “atheist fundamentalists”. It does huge damage to the perception of naturalists and Humanists in the USA for people to openly publicize the cruelty they inflict in the name of atheism. As Elyse said, I was absolutely rooting for the family by the end of the video. Profoundly disturbing.

  14. “If I offered Mike $20, would he go on camera and say that he *did* believe in God? ”

    If I had to guess, I would say that he would, to avoid being a hypocrite. But either way his response would be meaningless because he isn’t homeless. I would say that being asked to sacrifice your dignity for money is actually a much greater insult to those who are in real need, because often their dignity is the only thing they have control over. And let us be clear that core beliefs are a matter of dignity, especially when you are being asked to renounce them for money (and really, $20? That’s a pretty insulting offer in and of itself). Massive empathy fail by Mike.

  15. Personally I think atheism can’t be bought, you have to arrive there on your own. What does mike gain from this? In the end he’s no worse than the clerics out there that try to forcibly convert people to their faith.

  16. @revmatty: I don’t think true believer really makes sense in this context. This dude is just smug prick with no concern for others dignity. Look at his smarmy little face. Oh I just want to smack him.

    What a fucking asshole.

  17. @davew: I’m not sure how a line saying “God Bless” at the end of a sign is “advertising religion.”

  18. Being antagonistic and intentionally picking a fight is, quite frankly, a really prickish thing to do. Back when I was a believer, I saw a local access cable program put on by atheists. The hosts were total assholes and cemented in my mind that atheists, in addition to being delued, were jerks on top of it. Fortunately, I met other atheists and folks of different religions who weren’t jerks, who asked questions in a respectful fashion that got me thinking. I also saw fellow believers who were just as abrasive as the atheists on that cable show. In the end, critical thinking and respect won out for me.

    Being aggressive has its place, but even when you do assert yourself and fight, you need to keep the bigger picture in mind. Mike’s missing that.

  19. @Felicia: It appears that they’re in Idaho. A stop sign in the background has one of those “click it or ticket” type signs below it with a silhouette of Idaho on it. Maybe if Mike was contacted he would be willing to disclose more information about their whereabouts and a package could be sent/organised?

    On a side note: I think parabaxter sums it up perfectly. The belief isn’t really the enemy, it’s the actions taken by individuals that cause direct or indirect harm, like the ones Masala Skeptic cited in the article.

  20. DIGNITY, please! Homeless people are not our props. This antagonist may be an atheist, but he most certainly is not practicing humanist values.

  21. @davew: And what if he’s just desperate to feed himself and his family and has learned that appealing to God gets him a better response? What does that say about “Godly” people as opposed to, say, us? Maybe we could prove him wrong in either case by not being an asshole to him.

  22. @sadunlap: It’s not thread-jacking at all, that’s a completely valid argument.

  23. @scribe999: Very good point. I agree.

  24. I saw this video on Friendly Atheist last week and Mike is an asshole and an idiot. He demands to be ignored, the fewer people see his videos the better. His antics are more effective in solidifying religious faith and negative views of atheism than the preaching of any minister. Mike is to atheism what Fred Phelps is to Christianity.

    Mike, you’re not intelligent, you’re not clever, and you’re not doing anyone any good. Your stupid gimmick doesn’t even prove the point you’re trying to make. Yes, religion causes people to act irrationally, but the $20 thing is not an example of that. He’s choosing a deeply held principle (that you don’t share, nor do I, irrelevant) over a measly $20. I’m an atheist but I’d much rather have a beer with that homeless couple than you!

  25. @B Hitt: Do you have a link to the post on Friendly Atheist? Curious to see the reaction over there.

    Edit – Found it: http://friendlyatheist.com/2011/02/14/question-to-the-homeless-would-you-cross-god-off-your-sign-for-20/

  26. I won’t watch the video. While I like to poke a little fun at peoples religious beliefs, this is unfair. Mike puts the guy in a lose-lose scenario.

    - If he rejects the money he’s an idiot for not taking free cash and a bad parent to boot.

    - If he takes the money then he’s selling out.

    If I was Mike shooting this video, actually I am a Mike just not this Mike, then whatever they did I’d give them the $20. Probably $40.

    If you can track this family down I’ll donate.

    A Mike.

  27. If you can’t treat people with simple human decency then somewhere, somehow, your thought processes are flawed.

    It’s what you do that matters. It is not what you believe, what you look like, who you love, or where you come from except to the extent that these things can influence our actions.

    The difference between people and ideas is that people are inherently deserving of a modicum of respect and ideas are not.

  28. @davew: I’m with you, Dave.

    It’s kind of dickish, but I mean really. If I were those people I’d cross it out and then write a new sign (doesn’t “god work in mysterious ways”?). That kid needs to eat.

    These “homeless” (they have an RV) people give the impression that they are transient by choice, exploiting OTHER peoples’ belief in god (yeah, looks like Idaho) to guilt them into doling out money. They might have even convinced themselves that this behavior is not parasitic, but holy.

    On the other hand, they could (due to location and the fact that the guy looks almost exactly like several other Mormons I’ve known) be escapees from fundamentalist Mormonism who took a little acid along the way and turned into groovy jesus panhandlers.

    In any case, this part of the top comment from the dickish Mike under his video was interesting:
    “I was completely civil to the mother and father the entire time – if you caught it, they are the ones that refer to me as a “miserable human being” and a “worker of satan”

    Lastly – yes, this may be exploitative – but its not as exploitative as the parents pulling the sympathy card by leaving their child outside in 30 degree temperature?”

  29. Also, “Obviously I’m being a jerk in what I’m asking these people to do” (as well as his response to the friendly atheist thread) reminded me of this

  30. @Jen: And what if he’s just desperate to feed himself and his family and has learned that appealing to God gets him a better response?

    If I had to guess I would say this is exactly what he is doing. I hang out some on Boulder’s mall along within earshot of quite a few pan handlers. I find their conversations fascinating. The first thing I learned is that most people in Boulder with “homeless” on their signs aren’t. It just gets the best response now. Ten years ago it was “veteran” before that “will work for food.” Not all are jobless either. Some split their time between low-wage jobs and pan handling. In crowded areas pan handling pays better than minimum wage according to these people. In the two weeks before the Rainbow People gathering Boulder explodes with the homeless, although this is more of a nomadic lifestyle choice rather than economic necessity. Sometimes their signs make this obvious “Cure Sobriety!”, but usually not.

    I certainly don’t judge these people. I don’t know them. I have, however, learned not to believe anything that is written on a cardboard sign. What I do when I feel the pangs of sympathy for the economically disadvantaged is to give more to the local organizations that help feed people and find them jobs in a more systematic and ongoing way.

    What does that say about “Godly” people as opposed to, say, us? Maybe we could prove him wrong in either case by not being an asshole to him.

    I do not agree with what Mike did at all. I don’t think this video reflects well on anyone. I just don’t think he was as far out of line as many of the commenters here think. The sign the couple was holding up in public introduced both the concept of a money and religion. Also Mike edited that video. The fact that many people here sympathized with the family means he must have done a fairly even-handed job of it.

  31. “There’s no way to convince these people to think rationally.”

    Argument from personal incredulity. Skepticism fail.

  32. This isn’t about whether that family was actually homeless or not, but about Mike’s actions. It doesn’t matter if they were lazy douchebags trying to trick hard-working people into giving them money by appealing to their religious sensibilities, or upstanding citizens down on their luck — that has absolutely no bearing on what Mike did. He was being an asshole, and by extension making all atheists look like assholes, and the only thing we can do to prove those who think he’s representative of atheists in general wrong is by both vocally denouncing this kind of behaviour and DOING THE OPPOSITE. For example by giving our surplus income to charity.

  33. If anyone would like to see a more positive story:

    Foreclosure Hero: Man Pesters Executives, Saves Friend’s House
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/18/foreclosure-hero-man-pest_n_825025.html

    While not explicitly “atheist” –

    “I’m not a religious person, but I am very fortunate to have a really good job, and I think it’s my duty as a human being, when another human being is going through a hard time, I need to step up to the plate and help,” he said. “I think if we as Americans or neighbors or friends took the time to get to know someone and take on someone’s cause, well, imagine if everybody did that?”

  34. @sadunlap: Good points. I was thinking “Poe” while watching as much of it as I could stand. Unfortunately, though, I think he’s for real.

    With 10% unemployment, and FSM knows how many “discouraged workers” (I think that’s the official term for people who have simply given up on finding a job and are no longer listed as “unemployed”), blaming the victim is not a useful strategy.

  35. Someone did not get the “don’t be a dick” memo with A card. In a world where instant karma was real, Mike would be on the street next week.

  36. @whitebird: @davew:

    I read a lot of people speculating as to the motivations and circumstances of the man and his wife: Calling them desperate, that they should abandon their principles because “kid’s gotta eat,” etc…

    The fact is, we don’t know how desperate this family is.

    The only thing we know is that the videographer saw what he thought was a homeless man, offered him $20 to cross out “God”, and then got in a fight with him and his wife (yes, it was picking a fight).

    What is unanswered in this video is whether or not he gave them the $20 anyway. That would have sent a much stronger message, that atheists don’t give conditional support to those in need (a charge atheists often fire at the church).

    In the end, Mike used this man to prove a point and to embarrass him. And he thought it much more important to make that point rather than to help someone.

    There’s a word for that where I come from: “Shitbag.”

  37. @Some Canadian Skeptic: Actually, it is answered in the video. Mike comes to a ‘compromise’ with the couple. They cut the word God out of the sign. They keep the word God and give Mike the rest of the sign (after tearing it up to make sure he doesn’t use it against them in any way) and Mike gives them the $20.

  38. @sadunlap: &@Buzz Parsec: I also thought while watching the video that he might be a surreptitious believer parodying his idea of atheists to make them look bad. I got suspicious when he engages the couple in debate about religion, because he’s horrifically bad at it. He just throws out non-sequiturs like he’s never argued from that point of view before.

    Unfortunately, the way he frames it at the beginning and end of the video seems pretty earnest. Regardless of his intention, that’s certainly how the video functions.

  39. i think their beliefs would serve them better and have a purpose (provide them with some sense of security, hope, etc.) and therefore would be much more valuable than $20 dollars.

  40. Man do I disagree with most of you.

    1. The guy did not pick a fight. He was just stating his opinion. He stayed calm throughout, which is more than I can say about the couple.

    2. Every single question he asked of them is one I would have also.

    3. The couple was entirely willing to forgo any amount of money for a piece of paper. He did not ask them to renounce their faith; only to cut out the word God from that specific paper. They imbued that act with a meaning never intended, never expressed.

    I’m sorry. I watched the video, and it’s the Christian couple who come out looking like a**holes in this, rabidly clinging to a magical view of that sign as some sort of untouchable holy relic. He questioned their faith: SO WHAT???? Why is Faith worthy of such a taboo as to never be allowed to be questioned?

  41. @jjg.denis.robert: It wasn’t the act of questioning their faith that made him an asshole. It was the way he went about it. Methods matter. His method was guaranteed to fail, but what’s worse, it was guaranteed to make him, and by extension all atheists/agnostics/humanists look like dicks.

  42. I have often said that atheists (particularly those who are open about it) have to live with being considered a “dick” to a certain extent. Any open disagreement with religious people will invariably lead to that.

    However, while I don’t advocate that we atheists make our main goal to avoid being seen as dicks by the religious….this is guys actions are thoughtless, rude, insensitive towards homeless people, and just generally unhelpful to everyone involved.

    Religious or not, there is no excuse for bad manners.

  43. That was a disgusting video. On the user’s YT channel, he makes reference to a “newspaper article” on the event. Good catch to whomever caught the Idaho sign. I haven’t found the article yet. If I wasn’t on the other side of the country, I’d be tempted to figure out a way to donate $ to that family as an apology for that douche’s behavior. They could even say “God bless you” to me, and I wouldn’t be offended (nor would I say it back, though).

  44. @Masala Skeptic: I’m glad you gave away the ending. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the whole thing. :-(

  45. The vast majority of people are lovely, but the small proportion of fundamentalists and dickheads will be distributed across different belief systems, so it’s only natural that some of them will be atheists.

    Maybe this outrage is how ‘normal’ Christians feel when they see some homophobic hate-monger on TV getting all the attention and dragging their faith through the mud.

  46. I’m in Idaho, but didn’t recognize the location, and haven’t seen any articles.

    So while I can’t help with this specific family, I’m sure the Idaho foodbank would be quite happy to receive donations:

    http://www.idahofoodbank.org/

  47. Is this really the way the world sees atheists? Time for some good PR, methinks. I guess that means I should get off my fat ass and speak up a little, then. I certainly know I am not the kind of person to taunt a homeless man or his family so maybe showing the people around me this fact could be beneficial.

  48. Continued fractured thoughts:

    I look at the “god bless” on the sign as sort of like saying “thank you”.

    And if I watch this whole video back, replacing “god bless” with “thank you” and arugments for why I shouldn’t take “thank you” off my sign even if I’m not actually thanking anyone for reading my sign, I think the scenario plays out the same. I think they still cut the words out and hand him the rest of the sign and keep their words of dignity humanity and grace.

    Mike says, “I don’t like your words. Change them. I’ll give you $20. I know you are a poor little monkey who will dance for my money. Change your sign.”

    And they say no.

    I think that’s incredibly reasonable.

    What’s unreasonable is to assume that they should be grateful for an impromptu and manipulative confrontation and that they should be prepared to effectively defend and debate their reasons for wanting “God bless” on their sign.

    I’m saddened by the number of atheists celebrating this video.

  49. @Masala Skeptic: I stand (conditionally) corrected. It was so damned hard to watch, so it’s no wonder I couldn’t stomach everything. Thanks for pointing that out.

    Of course, it doesn’t change my point, which was to show that dicks like this aren’t against fanaticism, just the fanaticism of others, and that support is conditional.

    Thanks once again….you’re able to be far more measured than I am with this.

  50. @ Buzz Parsec

    “With 10% unemployment, and FSM knows how many “discouraged workers” (I think that’s the official term for people who have simply given up on finding a job and are no longer listed as “unemployed”),”

    Not jumping on you (no facial expressions or intonation to express tone online).

    I just like to point out how the “official term” is one of those “built on a foundation of sand” sort of statements. The “unemployment rate” is actually the number of people receiving unemployment benefits. After they stop receiving benefits they fall off the statistics. The Commerce dept. has no way of knowing which person has stopped looking for work and which person continues to pound the pavement everyday just because each no longer reports to the unemployment office a list of potential employers where they have applied for jobs. “Discouraged workers” has no empirical leg to stand on. (I’d love to be wrong. If anyone knows something I don’t I’d love to see the evidence). Calling them “discouraged workers” subtly reinforces the “they’re not looking for work” prejudices of a large part of the U.S. population.

    (Buzz Parsec: I know you were not the one calling them such, you just mentioned the term in passing – no attack on you intended).

    On an unrelated subject, have the Skepchicks considered finding some economists to co-blog who can write about the unproven assumptions and unverified crap that passes for economic analysis most of the time? This field is ripe for some skeptical scrutiny. Just a suggestion.

  51. This blogpost highlights something that has been irritating me about the skeptic movement ever since Phil Plaits DBAD speech.

    I’d be afraid to wear an antireligion t-shirt at a skeptics event because you people are all morphing into Chris Mooney or something.

    Skeptics views on religion seems to have morphed into a “each to his own” opinion and yet at the same time you will pull out the daggers when it comes to psychics, homeopathy or ufo’s.

    Nothing really produces as much venom from skeptics than loud atheists or activist atheists.

    Saying he is being cruel is melodramatic. Sure he was guy was being a dick, and he even stated it in his video. SO WHAT?

    The whole point is that believers will often put their false beliefs ahead of their families welfare – we read about it all the time. It’s the most dangerous delusion in the world. What he did was just go up to them with a proposition and this is no more being a dick than just ignoring them when you have cash to spare.

    For me I just hope to see more videos from him. I’d love to see him go door to door and make another good point. I’d also like to see a video about what skeptics will say about psychics compared what they will say about religion.

  52. I really disagree with the “and by extension” part of some responses here. An atheist acts like an asshole, and by extension all atheists look like assholes? Being an atheist isn’t what’s making the guy an asshole. He was likely an asshole long before he was an atheist.

  53. @Elyse: Linguistically/culturally you’re right that “God Bless” functions similarly to thank you but I very much doubt that if he asked them to cross out “thank you” that you’d get the same results and that’s sort of the point of his experiment.

    I also think people in general are overstating his dickishness. He performed an experiment (though of course he’s no social scientist afaik, just an amateur commentator) that probably can’t be performed without people seeing you as a dick. He admitted this but I don’t think he added much dickishness beyond that initial decision to do this.

    He also made his point very effectively early on and I think what he does poorly is let it drag on (though he realizes and points out that they’re going in circles). He was clear about his offer initially and immediately an instinctive wall of protection went up because it was this word “God” that was being “attacked”. Of course it wasn’t really being attacked at all, but that’s how religion as a meme protects itself, ultra-defensive attitudes mischaracterizing the “attack” on it.

  54. I know ad hominem attacks aren’t constructive or valid, but indulge me for a moment…

    Does anyone else find that his hipster glasses, flavor savor and ironic sweater vest inspire an intense desire to fling vinyl records and skinny jeans? No? Just me, I guess… well, we can’t all be hipster haters. (No, it’s not the style so much as the personality that often accompanies it. I just have an allergy to smug. I blame it on the Pacific Northwest… the smug is off the charts up here.)

    Ok, I feel better getting that out of my system…

    I’m a firm believer in respectful dissent, because it’s only in understanding that we can effect change. Humans are very loyal, stubborn creatures, especially when their beliefs (a very personal topic) are put into question. All you will do with condescension and smug self-regard is turn more people away. The more you push like this, the more they push back.

    Therefore, these kind of stunts won’t serve your cause in any way. They only pander to like minded individuals who congratulate themselves on their superiority and intelligence, while the rest of the world thinks they’re assholes with nothing useful to say.

    This does nothing to elevate, and serves only to chum the waters of our discontent.

  55. @sadunlap: No offense taken. That’s interesting.

    I had assumed the unemployment offices kept lists of unemployed people whose benefits had expired but who were still trying to find work, so they could refer those people to jobs when and if they became available, and “discouraged workers” were people who had dropped off these lists (possibly by not periodically telling the unemployment office they were still interested). Or maybe the stats were derived from BLS polls.

    I used the term because it sounded a little funny to me, like a half-assed euphemism. But the way you describe it is so much worse. “We’ve cut off your unemployment compensation, so you don’t count any more.” Yikes.

    Before making my original comment, I had googled the term to make sure I remembered it correctly, but I was too lazy to actually read up on it. Instead of a half-assed euphemism, it’s a full-assed one. The Wikipedia page sounds just like you described.

    Thanks for the information.

  56. Thanks for all the feedback, y’all.

    There are definitely those who disagree with me. I just responded to: http://atheistexperience.blogspot.com/2011/02/god-20-skepchick-dickishness.html

    I would like to re-iterate what I said there, particularly in light of
    @kennykjc‘s comment: taking this one example and extrapolating that it means that ‘religious people make bad decisions’ is bad skepticism. One data point does not a pattern make.

    I don’t have a problem with Mike performing his own personal brand of activism, per se. My point is that activism should have clear, measurable goal. I don’t see what that is. And I am not sure how we can tell if Mike has met it.

    I think it’s more likely Mike’s goal was to antagonize and cause divisiveness. To pick a fight. If that’s the case, he was successful.

  57. @Masala Skeptic: taking this one example and extrapolating that it means that ‘religious people make bad decisions’ is bad skepticism. One data point does not a pattern make

    One data point? I said religion is the most damaging delusion on the planet for a reason. This video shows two parents showing pride over a false delusion – religion. It’s not secret that religious believers cause detriment to the PLANET by putting their delusional beliefs before other more important things.

  58. I think the goal of a video such as Mike’s is to get the kind of person who sits on the fence and says things like “it doesn’t matter one way or the other” and “religion is the same as non-religion” or “there’s no harm in believing something” to see a concrete example of a negative consequence. (I’m trying to articulate this better as I imagine a few people, including my boss, who tend to lean on false equivalencies in any argument and avoid conflict unless you really show them the consequences of beliefs).

    It’s a sort of South Park tactic in a way (the good South parks, there are plenty of not-as-good episodes that sit on the fence themselves) that shows people that there are indeed absurd consequences to thinking of things one way or another. I don’t think Mike would necessarily articulate it this way or even that this would be his actual objective but to me it’s one of the results of this video – it ends up being a South Park style lesson pointing out that in fact one side does have a more absurd outcome than the other, or that X belief that is taken for granted can have, no matter how silly and contrived it appears to some here, a negative consequence.

    I never got the “making them dance for money” vibe from this video that others do (though I got that vibe from descriptions of it before I watched it) and I still think that, somewhat like South Park, people are defensive about the subject that was tackled (or here, the sort of person that he approached) and that defensiveness projects more of a “he’s a dick” image than he actually earned through his behavior.

  59. I can’t believe anyone is actually defending this asshole.

    What about basic human dignity, and the right to be treated with respect (even when wrong)?

    Very disappointed.

  60. Many of the people writing in support of Mike seem to be implying that these people’s unwillingness to cross out a word in response for money is proof of the insanity that religion causes. Well let me say that as an atheist their refusal seems perfectly reasonable. That word is a symbol for their belief, and I reject the idea that symbols are only important to crazy religious people. Mike offering them money, in a clearly confrontational fashion, to cross out that word only reinforced this interpretation. So let’s not beat around the bush, Mike was offering them money to publicly renounce a core belief, and both of them knew it. And that is why he is an asshole.

  61. I strongly suggest people watch the video before commenting and also those that didnt finish it. I find many,many things objectionable about this topic. Mike was conducting an experiment and admitted upfront that he was being a dick in order to assess this couple’s behaviour. He showed how religion has poisoned their minds to the extent that they would refuse money for a $0.20 sign. He was basicallypolite and just asked a question, though he referred to the situation as “silly” it was Aaron who said ” All I have to say is they (the non-religious) are miserable beings for not accepting him” and his wife stated he would cross Mike out and take the money. There was no bullying, he wasn’t harrassing them- he gave them the $20 and shook hands at the end. I think the ‘skeptics’ here have to go back and watch this video again

  62. I have watched the whole video now, and he still was in the wrong. As has been mentioned on other discussion boards, what if he offered the guy $20 to “cluck like a chicken,” or “dance a jig,” or otherwise degrade himself.

    And YES, being offered to renounce a dearly held belief for a pittance, even to a homeless family, is degrading.

    But, no, I’m sure LOTS of people will come over to the nonbeliever side after watching that vid.

    *eyeroll*

  63. I think I can help solve at least one mystery. As soon as I read one commentator make the connection that these folks were in Idaho and were in an RV, I was reminded of this news story from our local Boise, Idaho paper a few weeks back. http://www.idahostatesman.com/2011/02/06/1516677/boise-faces-a-new-reality-in-panhandling.html
    I’m pretty sure the family in the article and the video are the same but I could be wrong. The picture from our newspaper isn’t very detailed but the kids ages seem to match up. That video background is rather identical to Boise’s landscape.
    Our area was really hit hard by the housing bust and it’s going to be years before we bounce back so the amount of homeless folks needing help has increased. This family is just doing the best they can with their resources.

  64. megbat: That’s definitely them: good find.

  65. @ethanol: ‘So let’s not beat around the bush, Mike was offering them money to publicly renounce a core belief’

    That’s not what he was doing at all. He didn’t ask them to renounce anything. They could have stated that they would take it out whilst still strongly mainting the belief and intend to put it back in as soon as he left.

    “what if he offered the guy $20 to “cluck like a chicken,” or “dance a jig,” or otherwise degrade himself.”

    Apples and oranges. I don’t believe what this atheist did was purely as exploitative as what dancing like a chicken would be… but in any case I think someone who has been shunned by society would rather that than people ignoring them even if they could spare the change.

  66. @Masala Skeptic:

    In my personal life, I know religious people who I care about deeply. And although I know that they don’t understand my atheism any more than I understand their belief, we find common ground.

    I think you might be wrong. I think you possibly do understand their belief. I certainly do, and I find it likely that’s one of the differences between those who approve and disapprove of Mike’s behaviour.

    Having deeply held and irrational beliefs is human. Being willing to and able to suppress ones emotional response when such beliefs are challenged is hard, and skeptical discussions both in life and online are filled with examples of otherwise “good” skeptics failing to do so. Realising that this is common human nature and applies even to yourself is important both to deal with challenges to your own beliefs and to interact constructively with other people.

    If you get angry at someone else’s opinion or challenge, take a deep breath, think twice, and then use actual arguments in your response, and know that you may still be wrong and you’re not likely to notice. And if someone else gets angry, or acts irrationally, in response to your simple rational challenge, accept that they are just being human.

  67. Having a quibble about god is not the being a dick part.

    Hassling anyone for entertainment is being a dick.

    Hassling homeless people for entertainment is being a dick to the point of being in danger of losing your dick and then some.

  68. So I’ve watched the video all the way through since that seems to be the complaint of many of Mikes supporters, and he still doesn’t impress me.

    He used another human being who has deeply held beliefs, whether the rest of us think they are wrong or not it is not so easy to turn them off. I am disappointed at those who were believers yet support Mike, it isn’t a choice that can be turned off and antagonizing them with an ambush isn’t going to convince them.

    Mike can pretend all he wants that he has their best interest at heart, if that were true he would have just given them some cash and then had a friendly discussion about belief, not place them in a strings attached position.

  69. What @genjokoan said. @kennykjc, personally I’m all for dickishness in certain instances. I don’t think religious beliefs are in any way exempt from be mocked. But that’s not the issue at stake here. Taking advantage of a homeless person, regardless of WHAT you’re having them do, is not okay. And when it’s done in the name of atheism, that’s seriously bad PR, which is something american atheists really can’t afford. I am honestly completely flummoxed that it’s so hard for people to understand this…

  70. It’s like I’m taking crazy pill listening to these comments.

    Was it dickish, yes. Does dickish have a place yes.

    He was showing the grip that religion has on them, how rational is it to deny the opportunity to feed your homeless family for simple ink?

    What kind of cognitive disidence is required to love a god that thinks his plan includes your homelessness, while others prosper?

  71. @bug_girl: This @genjokoan: and This.

    The wrap-up speech in which Mike expresses his “concern” for the kid is appalling. The kid’s parents were just used as an object lesson in religious delusion. Using him to appeal to emotion doesn’t convince me that Mike is a nice guy looking out for the welfare of children.

  72. Quite simply, aside from any of the loaded words like “dick,” what Mike is doing here is exploiting a power dynamic that heavily privileges him in order to make a homeless person’s beliefs — and, by extention, that homeless person himself — look foolish.

    I wouldn’t care whether his point has to do with religion, or belief in the paranormal, or anything else. He is simply not on equal ground with the people in the video, and to essentially flaunt this $20, whether he gave it to them in the end or not, while making demands is a clear abuse of power.

    It doesn’t matter why these people are “homeless,” or whether living in an RV qualifies them as “poor enough” (whatever that means) to be desperate, or even whether or not it’s irresponsible for them not to take any and all money offered to them. The point here is that they are at a disadvantage in the situation, and the (seemingly) comfortable Mike has targeted them because of two words on the man’s sign, using this family to make some kind of point that, quite frankly, had no need to be made in this way.

    That’s exploitation, pure and simple.

    I don’t care which side of the “be a dick”/”don’t be a dick” spectrum you come down on, it simply is not right to take advantage of someone else’s lack of power in order to score points. The religious baggage here is almost irrelevant; co-opting the narrative of someone from a generally voiceless group and using it for your own purposes is wrong, no matter what you think about god’s existence or lack thereof.

  73. @megbat:

    I have an I-Deee-Aaaa (singsong)!

    In the above comment, there is a link to a story with this family in it. How great would it be for US ATHEISTS to raise a bunch of money for these people and give it to them and explicitly tell them that we’re giving it to them because we care about people AND we don’t believe in god.

    Of course they will thank god for sending us and not us, but hey, who cares? THAT would be some good PR.

    The family’s name is Tapia, the wife even comments herself in the comments section of the story.

    Someone, start a Skepchick Kickstarter campaign. I’m pretty sure it could go viral and get Pharyngulated..the thing about kickstarter is that if donations exceed the minimum, they still count (see website). The problem is that it’s supposed to be for creative endeavors – so if someone could figure out how this could be creative…maybe someone wants to do a video? I dunno. Seems like a good opportunity.

  74. …Plus, it would be the total Anti-Mike-the-Dick act. Everyone wins.

  75. @Expatria:

    I think this it: That these was and is a power dynamic here, with Mike holding the power and choosing to use it in an abusive manner. ‘Abusive manner’ doesn’t mean ‘physically’ but a relationship in which power and control is wielded cruelly does not need to take the form of gross bodily harm.
    It was exploitative. That was the point. “Believers are silly, you guys. Look how silly they are.” I watched the video and was reminded of nothing but GOB Bluth, except this is real.

    The opposite of “Being A Dick” is not only “Don’t Be A Dick”, but something else that strikes at the heart of skeptical inquiry. It is “A Better Idea”.

    Not a logical and rational line, because it is so hard to bring it to other people without it seeming like a personal attack on a huge part of their self-identity, themselves, and their cultural group as well, but phrasing ourselves from that place of questioning where we want better answers to the material nature of the universe.
    It is raising the discussion from mocking and yelling to where we can just (at least try to) go forward.

  76. I find the video interesting and sad, but the comments here are unbelievable. Someone said this gives atheists a bad name- nowhere in the video is atheism mentioned. He doesn’t say he’s an atheist and would you cross god outfor money, he just asks the question. It was $ in exchange for something they don’t want to do, just like 90% of us who have jobs. What ifhe had offered to give him a job making the atheist bus ads? Better his family starve than take a job? This was not bullying, not harrassment , the couple is in a parking lot asking ppl for money and he offers them some. He is trying to understand irrational beliefs, and ppl here want to ‘smack’ him? The video was fairly lighthearted- Mike even shook Aaron’s hand at the end, is kenny kjc the only one actually watching the video?

  77. I think stunts like this are definitely detrimental to society’s view of non-believers! Any Christian viewing Mike’s video will have all their worst stereotypes of non-Christians confirmed, and any neutral party will undoubtedly side with the homeless couple (hell, most of us atheists are siding with the homeless couple).

    Mike’s douchebaggery is only part of my objection to the video. If you’re going to criticize religion, at least know your shit! His arguments are crap. When there are good arguments for something, repeating bad ones is a waste and only convinces those you disagree with that they are right.

    Also, I don’t think anyone here is saying that we shouldn’t criticize religion because it has a privileged status and deserves special respect. We’re just saying that if you are going to criticize religion, don’t be stupid about it. When you’re arguing against ESP or homeopathy, blunt mockery will sometimes have a positive impact on people who casually accept it. It’s typically not central to their worldview. Challenging someone’s religion takes a bit more finesse.

  78. @mikekoz68:

    It was $ in exchange for something they don’t want to do, just like 90% of us who have jobs

    The difference is that a job is a willing, good-faith compact that is made between an employer and an employee. Your duties are outlined before you take the job, as is the compensation you will get for doing it. You can choose not to take a job, and (barring contractual things) you can quit a job if it isn’t to your liking. The point of a job is that it is a negotiated compromise between an employee doing something s/he doesn’t want to do (ie. work) and the employer doing something s/he doesn’t want to do (ie. parting with money) so that both walk away having benefited, on the whole, from the transaction.

    This is a person who has money, presumably, and all of the social power that comes with being a gainfully employed middle class person, wielding that power over someone who does NOT have money and who is in a socially targeted and largely powerless group (the unemployed and homeless). This is not a mutually agreed compact; it’s one person applying social pressure to impose unfair conditions on another person.

    The insinuation that someone in Aaron’s situation should take money, regardless of ethical cost, is totally a privileged and classist position to take. No-one has the right to put another person in that sort of an exploitive situation. It’s arrogant and debasing to assume that, because Aaron is homeless, he should accept a condition that would not be on the table were Mike and he social equals. Just because he has a greater need for money does not automatically justify that he should have a greater willingness to accept unfair conditions, regardless of what’s at stake. THAT is why this is wrong; the fact that it happens to be about religion is irrelevant.

    From a purely ethical viewpoint, this is absolutely no different than Bumfights: taking advantage of someone’s lack of social power to impose conditions — whether they be “No money unless you fight this guy” or “No money unless you change your sign” — that wouldn’t even be considered were the power dynamic equal.

    It’s exploitation, and it’s foul, whether it’s intended for a cause that I agree with or not.

  79. @Expatria: The insinuation that someone in Aaron’s situation should take money, regardless of ethical cost, is totally a privileged and classist position to take.

    I agree with many of your points and compliment you coming up with a fresh and clear way to look at the situation. I come to a different conclusion. Leaving aside the argument and invective for a moment it was a very much a contract negotiation. The $20 was a bit of power and the couple who presumably wanted this money were in the less powerful position. It was, however, in the end a successful negotiation. They came to terms, money changed hands, and parted amicably as nearly as we can tell. I have been in considerably more tense situations in my career and have faced less reasonable requests. I didn’t feel exploited or abused just that sometimes working for someone else sucks.

  80. @mikekoz68:

    Someone said this gives atheists a bad name- nowhere in the video is atheism mentioned. He doesn’t say he’s an atheist and would you cross god outfor money, he just asks the question

    Actually he starts the discussion by saying “So this is what we’re doing, I’m not a big fan of religion, and I noticed your sign said god bless…” It actually would have been less douch-ey if he had just said “I’m an atheist, and…”

  81. I was trying to put myself in the position of these people. Suppose I am in a park selling copies of The Blind Watchmaker to buy my dinner. Suppose further someone comes up and offers me $20 for each copy I am willing to burn. They make it clear that they’ll relish the destruction of these offensive books by the hateful Dawkins. I know I can replace them for $5 each and I need the money. I say follow me to the nearest fire pit, and I’ll burn them all.

    The difference is I don’t imbue these books with any special power. It’s just paper and ink and I can get more. The printer can print more. Similarly the couple in the video could have scratched out the word “God”, taken the $20, and then made a new sign with “God” in bold type this time. To the extent that I learned anything from the video is that objects only have the power you give them. To me the couple in the video put way too much power in a little ink. Or perhaps they didn’t want to be seen to capitulate to the ass with the video camera. It could be either one.

  82. @davew:

    I agree up to a point, in that the parties did, sort of, come to amicable agreement about the transfer of money. And I think you present an interesting counterargument in your comments.

    However, I still think that the inequality present trumps the rest. I do not think that it is fair to put someone in that position for any purpose, given their status. You refer to being in more tense situations in your career, but that you have a career puts you in a far more advantageous and privileged position than this family. Presumably, the social pressures compelling you to do whatever unpleasant tasks may be part of your job are far different than those on someone who is out of work, living in an RV, and trying to support a family on panhandled funds. Because of the inequivalent status and power, it just doesn’t compare.

    Again, the specific unfair condition being placed on the transaction is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about crossing a word off of a sign, or any other pressured/coerced action. It’s the act of coercion itself, the inappropriate application of social pressure, that is unethical, here, regardless of whether or not the subjects are ultimately willing to go through with the coerced action.

    In your follow-up comment, you propose the idea of someone coming up to you and paying you to burn Richard Dawkins books you are selling, which you would be comfortable doing. Now, that person does not know whether or not you would be willing to do this prior to approaching you, but the assumption on their part seems to be that you would not, and that is where the unethical decision comes into play. That the requested action does not feel like a transgressive one for you is simply a mitigating circumstance; it’s the exercise of power across a non-equal dynamic that’s troubling.

    Further, your comparison falls short because the requested act is not transgressive to you. Presumably, it’s no different than if someone were to offer this homeless version of you $20 to take their picture; as it’s not something that causes you grief, it doesn’t really compare. I don’t know you, obviously, and don’t know what sorts of things you would think to be transgressive. But in order to legitimately put yourself into this family’s shoes, you’d have to alter your scenario so that you’re actually placed in a bind, whatever that might consist of for you. Whether or not you agree with the legitimacy of their particular bind is unimportant.

    Sorry to be so long-winded, here… I certainly don’t want you to think I’m attacking you. I’m just sort of thinking through this whole thing while I’m reading/responding to these comments, and loads of ideas crop up as I’m going. I think I’ll shut up for a while now! :-P

  83. @Expatria: ‘It’s exploitation, and it’s foul, whether it’s intended for a cause that I agree with or not.’

    Gimme a break. They are driving around in a “miracle bus” trying to use god to engage with the public. So what if an atheist went up and tried to challenge them with an alternate view? Put the melodrama and high-horseness aside and try to understand that what happened in this video was pretty amicable, generally good natured and hands were shook at the end.

  84. I couldn’t bring myself to watch this video, after his smug introduction. So instead I watched his other 2 videos.

    One in which he makes fun of Christian music and singer; twice he posts names and addresses of sex offenders. While I’m against rape of preteens (obviously), I disagree with the tactic of outing the perpetrators on the internet.

    He also made a video where he shows how it’s a better use of bible pages to wipe your ass with them, use as a kleenex, and roll a joint with them. Dickish or not, I dunno, but it didn’t make me laugh because the jokes weren’t funny.

  85. For those of you supporting Mike, I’d like to do a thought experiment.

    Suppose that you’re a down-on-your luck you, atheist as ever. As far as you can see, you have no choice but to panhandle just to get you through the day. Tomorrow you can pound the pavement, but since your bank went under and the FDIC is overburdened you need some greenbacks to keep your stomach from eating you from the inside out. So you’re sitting in a crowded area, holding a sign that says: “Rough times. Please help. Least amount good. Thank you!”

    Now, as you’re sitting there this clean-shaven man wearing a cross necklace and a “Real Men Love Jesus” t-shirt walks up to you and says. “I don’t like that sign. It doesn’t gorify God. How about you write in ‘God Bless You’ at the end? I’ll give you twenty dollars if you do.”

    How would THAT make you feel?

  86. @ansuzmannaz: <I guess I´d be happy for the 20 dollars. I´d write god bless on the sign, take the money then make a new sign and hope for more christians to come around.

    Whats the problem? Its just a fucking sign.

    That is the point Mike is trying to make. These peoples faith stops them from making a simple gesture be cause they think the magic man will be angry. A rational person would see beyond that.

    That said, I think this video is a °°major dick move°°. These people have it hard enough not to be harassed like that. Shame on you Mike. The point could have been made without humiliating homeless people.

  87. @Trausti: Interesting, because I’d probably react differently. I would say something along the lines of “Unless it’s rude for me not to put that there, I’m not going to change it. I don’t believe in god and I don’t believe in guilt-tripping people any more than I have to. Plus, your attempt to buy my loyalty is anything but charitable.”

    I see the point he’s trying to make. I also say that it is wrong. In my experience, people of faith aren’t motivated solely by fear of retribution by their god. Certainly, not all of them are. They are also motivated by the notion that doing what they perceive to be the will of their god is good and noble in and of itself. Mike isn’t just asking them to change some words on their sign: he’s asking them to violate one of their most cherished principles. On top of that, the only reason he’s given for them to do so is the $20 he’s holding over their heads. He claims he’s demonstrating their ignorance, but he’s doing no such thing. He hasn’t given them a reason to believe their principles are in error: he’s simply trying to manipulate them with a bribe.

    Principles are necessary for any ethical system to function. That is not to say certain principles are always wise or correct to adopt, but the presence of principles as a whole are what distinguish ethics from convenience. The point that I am trying to make is that although we may disagree with the homeless family’s principles, and be right in doing so, we cannot deride them for sticking to their guns in the face of obvious manipulation.

    In fact, it wouldn’t have mattered if the couple were middle-class or well-to-do: Mike’s actions were patently unethical. The reason is simple: he was bribing them. He was trying to get them to sell out. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want more people to become atheists because it’s convenient for them. I want people to become atheists because they have arrived at that conclusion through critical thinking. I don’t want people to renounce their religion because they’ll be paid more if they do; I want people to question their religion because they are concerned about its truth, its ethics, its implications. Fair-weather skeptics are the last thing we need.

  88. I wonder if Mike would have the guts to defend himself here. If not, he is a coward. As an Honorable Skeptic, not an atheist fanatic, I find Mike’s tactics disgusting. Being honorable has always been more important to me than just bashing religion for the fun of it.

  89. Perhaps if he had been less confrontational and simply offered them the $20 to remove the religious reference?

    I am not an accommodationist with religion, but this was just plain wrong. It benefited not one, accomplished nothing, and made himself look like a total jerk.

Add Comment Register



Leave a Reply