There was recently a “God Graveyard” display put up on a public university lawn, saying:
“Here lie the graves of thousands of dead gods.
Once worshiped by entire civilizations, now only myths.
How much longer will the gods of today last?
Atheists, Humanists, & Agnostics”
At first, I was taken aback. How incredibly rude is this? And in the name of being hospitable to fellow “questioners”, even! As usual for the internet, some of the comments in the replies were even worse.
It is breathtakingly arrogant to assume that people of faith are not questioning, that were everyone simply to question their beliefs, they’d agree with you. Evangelism that marginalizes people with different beliefs is no more acceptable coming from Atheists than it is from Christians. No amount of a firm belief in your own opinions justifies making a blanket insult to thousands, even millions of people you don’t even know, and aren’t bothering to include in your dialog.
My second response was bemused – no doubt countless Neo-Pagans would be up in arms at the insult to our Gods, but I felt no such upset. The Gods endure whether people choose to believe in Them or not. If these folks wanted to reject that, it’s their loss.
No, what upset me the most was the implications: Western culture has hundreds of years of using the divide between polytheism and monotheism to marginalize people of color and justify colonialism. For years, Western scholars have considered it obvious that Animism and Polytheism are “less evolved” philosophies, signs that a culture is inferior. During the “Age of Reason”, Atheist philosophers carried that the final step to say that Monotheists were merely the next rung on the ladder in the evolution of civilization.
That is the essence of this argument so frequently used in the fight between Atheists and Monotheists for the top of their ideological pecking order, and it includes a tacit agreement that Animists and Polytheists are so inferior in their ignorant beliefs that they are not even worthy of consideration in the argument.
I have a huge problem with watching university students use that argument all over again without any respect for the underlying racism, classism, and colonialist privilege embedded in its history.
To be clear: I don’t care which or how many gods you do or don’t believe in. 1, 50, 5 million, or negative two. What I care about is that people behave with respect and compassion towards each other.
I know countless Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (there are plenty of them in Silicon Valley), who do exactly that – behave with respect and compassion, care about fellow human beings, and extend hospitality to people of all kinds, regardless of their differences in views. My primary partner is Atheistic. One of my best friends for the last decade is Humanist (what I’d call Spiritual Humanist). Heck, I was Agnostic myself for most of my teenage years, while I questioned the Monotheistic model of divinity. I like to think I treated people of faith and skeptics alike with respect even as I indeed questioned everything.
So no, the fact that this group is one of non-believers is NOT what bothers me. By all means, ask good questions, and find the answers that mean the most to you.
The fact that they are using polytheists of indigenous and non-Western cultures from all over the world as a mere tool in an argument against Monotheists, erasing their existence as living people with thriving practices by declaring that their gods are “dead” and thus irrelevant, that these gods no longer having any relevant living followers in the modern world – especially while including Hindu gods, Afro-Diasporic powers, deities from Asian folk practice, and so forth in their display – is what bothers me.
I might be a touch less bothered if the only gods they put in that graveyard were from non-continuous traditions, although it’s very difficult to actually be certain a deity has no continuous traditions in its name, and wow, are the people who still follow any European gods in a continuous tradition about as marginalized as it gets. But even if somehow it’s truly just a bunch of Westerners arguing with other Westerners in a way that doesn’t even involve non-Westerners, it’s still really damned tacky, disrespectful, erasive of Neo-Pagans, and built on colonialist justifications. It’s perhaps not also massively classist and racist in the modern age.
If it includes god names from monotheistic traditions, that also shifts the context slightly, in that it no longer places Monotheists above all others of faith in such a way as to erase other faiths, although it does still invoke the colonialist arguments that underly the whole discourse. But since the underlying point of the argument is that belief in deity is itself a fallacy of logic by empirical standards, that, at least, is a fair argument, however immaturely presented.
Some people have argued that it’s a matter of freedom of speech that they be allowed to make this statement, and thus I should not be upset by it.
I absolutely defend the right of these students to not be arrested or punished by the federal, state, or local justice systems for having put out this display. I know of no riots it has started, nor physical harm it has caused. Ideas are indeed dangerous, but that’s exactly why freedom of speech matters so much.
But to say that I should therefore not be offended? No.
Freedom of Speech is about what the government can do to stop people from voicing their needs and views. Nothing about it says that nobody should be bothered by those views. Nothing about it removes us from being responsible for the results of our speech and actions. Nothing about it signifies freedom from social consequences.
Nothing about Freedom of Speech makes offensive speech not offensive.
However, this is only half of what that God Graveyard brought to my attention in the last few days. But that’s another post.