Skepticism

Is It Rude to be an Atheist Online?

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Last weekend was Easter, which surprised me because i didn’t realize time was still moving in a linear fashion. But I went to a drug store and sure enough there were Cadbury creme eggs there, so I guess it must have been Easter.

I really like Easter. I have good memories of warming days, pastels, baskets full of eggs, delicious chocolate candy — the only bad memory is needing to get dressed up for church, which always required pantyhose which is the devil’s leggings. Now I’m an atheist, so I get to keep all the fun stuff about Easter without the annoying and boring parts, like wearing pantyhose and sitting still for two hours on a hard wooden pew.

When you experience your first Easter as an atheist, it’s customary to learn and repeat the atheist Easter jokes, most of which are about zombies. “Oh, Jesus died and then came back to life? Sounds like a zombie, am I right?” Or “is it fair to say that Jesus died for his sins, because it sounds like he just had a really bad weekend. For our sins.”

After your first atheist Easter, you are no longer required to make these jokes. However, there are many who do. Today I want to talk about one of them: Professor Alice Roberts, Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham and President of Humanists UK, who Tweeted on Good Friday, “Just a little reminder today. Dead people – don’t come back to life.”

I wasn’t following Roberts so I actually saw this on my feed several times because of people I DO follow retweeting it to admonish her, like this scientist I follow who said “This is not good public engagement or good anthropology. It costs you nothing too keep your snark to yourself when people are celebrating a religious holiday you don’t believe in.”

And I saw these responses from a lot of scientists I respect, and I just…big old sigh. Big sigh. For several reasons! It’s exhausting, but let me discuss some of the reasons.

To start off, Roberts’ Tweet is bad. I’m not talking about whether or not it’s good for science, or for religious people, I just mean from a pure craft standpoint. And yes, I’m very invested in the *craft* of a good Tweet. “Dead people don’t come back to life” is just not an interesting thing to say, it’s not clever, it’s not funny, it’s not informative, it’s just…meh. Boring. Compare that to a good Easter Tweet, like this one: “The christian lobby has completely and utterly failed at making easter weekend a federal four day weekend. Worthless”

As an aside, I was SHOCKED to learn that I didn’t get “good Friday” off when I worked in an office. And that was in the extremely Catholic city of Boston. Which brings me to my next point: a lot of the replies to Roberts went along the lines of “how dare you insult Christians on this, their most sacred day.” And guys, let me tell you — Good Friday is in no way “Christianity’s” most sacred day. I’m sure there are some Catholics who feel that way, and I definitely knew a few Protestant hipsters who would claim that but in practice, come on. It’s all about Christmas. America is straight up run by evangelical Christians in a multitude of ways, and if they gave a shit about Good Friday then some lawmaker in the pocket of Big Jesus would have absolutely introduced a bill already to make it a national holiday. Whether or not that would violate separation of Church and State is another matter, and something that few evangelical politicians have spent much time losing sleep over.

So while I agree that Roberts’ Tweet wasn’t good, I gotta take issue with the breathless condemnations of it on the part of scientists who are worried about driving Christians away from science. Like, people were talking about how this Tweet was going to actually push Christians away from learning about science because it’s so incredibly demeaning. And I’m sorry but I just don’t see that happening and I completely disagree that the Tweet was rude, or disrespectful, or, jesus christ, “crashing a religious festival to claim that “we” know better about matters of life and death because, y’know, “science”.” Like, let’s all take a deep breath and remember that posting a Tweet on your own Twitter account is not akin to kicking down the door of the Vatican during Easter services and pissing in the holy water fountain. Do they have a holy water fountain? I’ve never been. I hope they do and that you can dip Twinkies in it like a chocolate fountain. Mmm, holy Twinkies.

But anyway what if an anthropologist Tweeted something along the lines of “Just a reminder — Jesus died for your sins!” Most people would not think twice about it, even if they Tweeted that during, say, Hanukkah. If it was on Yom Kippur, and that person had a lot of Jewish followers, okay, maybe we can talk about timing and rudeness but in general? Not a big deal. And even then, honestly? It would only be a problem because Christianity is the majority religion in the US and UK and Jews are regularly, you know, murdered by Christians.

And that brings me to my main point: that Tweet was only seen as a problem because so many people are Christian, and because atheists are seen as rude assholes. It should absolutely not be seen as rude or mean or disrespectful to state the OBVIOUS FACT that people don’t die and come back to life three days later. That is a fact that even Christians who believe in the resurrection of Jesus will agree with! It is very special that Jesus came back to life and he did it because he was not a regular person!

People are arguing that Roberts can’t be a good anthropologist and Tweet that dead people don’t come back to life, but guess what? You can understand that, while also respecting that a lot of people do believe that for a variety of reasons. And as an anthropologist, she probably understands that there are a lot of people out there who have suffered greatly because of this completely implausible Christian belief. Atheists and Jews have been murdered for not believing this (and yes, many Jews do not believe in an afterlife or have a very different understanding of it compared to Christians). Non-Christians still face serious discrimination in the US and UK, and as recently as 2019 Americans were still ranking atheists and Muslims as the “coldest” and most negative groups. In 2017 42% of Americans said that believing in a God was necessary for a person to be moral. In 2013 an international survey found that in many countries the vast majority of people (90% and above in places like Egypt, El Salvador, and Indonesia) feel an atheist simply cannot, by definition, be moral.

So it is important, I think, for prominent people to express atheistic ideas in public, if for no other reason than to normalize it. I’m not offended when someone says into the ether that Jesus died and was resurrected for our sins, and they shouldn’t be offended when I say “Did he, though?” At the very least, we should all be okay just expressing that. And just because I’m a science communicator, expressing the (rather obvious) scientific consensus that dead people don’t come back to life shouldn’t be taken to mean “all scientists believe this.” Loads and loads of scientists are religious. Very famous scientists like Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome Project and was in no way encumbered by his Catholic faith!

In fact, I made an entire video about this just last year, pointing out that loads of scientists hold unscientific beliefs, like Isaac Newton being obsessed with the Philosopher’s Stone and James Watson being an abject racist piece of shit. I also said this, about a study that found that religion and science were compatible pretty much everywhere except for the United States:

“In my previous video I talked about how one of the things that makes it difficult to make a blanket statement about religion, like “religion is at  odds with science,” is because there are many different ways to be religious, and because religion is so tied into culture. When so many people in a culture are religious, it’s hard to tease apart what is causing the problem.

This research suggests that we can’t simply say “religion and science are incompatible.” That may have some truth here in the United States, but in other countries the two things are perfectly compatible.

This makes sense! Fundamentalist Christianity in the United States has been particularly focused on being in opposition to science, demanding a literal interpretation of the Bible and pushing that science classes teach the Bible as though it’s obvious fables are equivalent to the past two millennia of scientific inquiry.”

In fact, a brand new survey has found that organized religion is quickly falling out of favor in the US, and experts suggest that the reason is those evangelical Christians that keep insisting that following their religion means giving up on scientific thought and becoming a misogynist racist. Over the past twenty years, the number of Americans who say they attend church service (or mosque or synagogue services) dropped from 70% to 47%.

According to the Guardian, “David Campbell, professor and chair of the University of Notre Dame’s political science department and co-author of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, said a reason for the decline among those groups is political – an “allergic reaction to the religious right”.”

I’ve often wondered how the Religious Right got to be so powerful in the US, where we instituted a separation between church and state, while it wasn’t that big of a deal in the UK, where they literally still have a national religion. And this study speaks to that: maybe aligning religion and politics is a surefire way to make a bunch of people atheist. Who knows.

All that said, I really don’t think that one prominent scientist expressing skepticism about religion is enough to drive religious people from science. Is Roberts’ Tweet going to convince religious people to give up their belief in the resurrection? Probably not, though hello, I AM one of those people who gave up religion despite, and perhaps because of, being exposed to people who viciously mocked religion like James Randi and Penn & Teller. It does happen. But not every Tweet from a scientist or an atheist needs to be persuasive. Let’s be clear, Roberts is, as best as I can tell, a human being. Not a science-reporting robot whose only job is to convince people to like science. It’s okay that she, living in a society that is absolutely lousy with Christian beliefs, cognizant of the untold devastation the Christian religion has had on world politics, on colonialism, on even our scientific understanding of the world, it’s okay that she might want to fire off a flippant skeptical Tweet reaffirming the impossibility of a corpse springing to life after three days in the grave.

I just ask that next time she make it funnier.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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2 Comments

  1. Is it a statement of fact? Or a command: ‘you dead people, stay put.’
    Since at least one Gospel says that the dead walked the streets of Jerusalem on Good Friday, she MIGHT be pitching a joke over the heads of most of her audience. Including most Christians who manage to forget that passage.
    But the message? Stay invisible, don’t let the poor downtrodden Xtians know that there’s anything else in the world outside their bubble? Yuck. They’ll clutch their pearls and shriek about how opwesséd they are no matter what we say.

  2. Dead people – don’t come back to life.

    Depends upon what you count as “dead people.” There have been people who were officially declared “dead” who did come back to life. There are apparently medical conditions which lower the vital signs enough that people around them, and even doctors, think they’re dead, but they can later be revived (or even revive spontaneously.)

    I believe it’s actually not uncommon when someone “dies” of hypothermia, since the rule in mountain rescue is that they’re not dead until they’re warm and dead.

    Which is not to say that this was actually what happened to whoever the Jesus (Yeshua) stories was based on. Then as now, stories always get improved in the telling, and AFAIK they weren’t written down until long after the events they relate are asserted to have taken place.

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