April 1, 2008

The Unevolved Jonah Goldberg

In today's Fish Wrapper, I'm tempted to think that someone has run an April Fool's joke. Jonah Goldberg attacks the Darwin Fish. The reason? He just watched the recently banned anti-Muslim movie Fitna and thinks that evolution advocates are smug and cowardly for not taking on Muslims who would be infinitely more oppressive towards secular people than the Christians who hold power in the United States, and he recalled a "brave" Turk bartender in Ireland who went out of his way to surreptitiously hand Goldberg a business card with the Jesus Fish scrawled on the back as an attempt to forge solidarity.

Interesting indeed that Goldberg should watch a movie critical of Islam and his first thought was to take a swipe at secularism. Were I to confront Mr. Goldberg, I might point that that if the Turk were truly brave about his religion, he would have "come out" to his friends and family, not to a drunk American tourist. The fact that instead he kept his faith a secret (for whatever reason) suggests that he had a good reason for doing so, a penalty to pay if he did that, even in a free Western European democracy with a strongly pro-Christian culture like Ireland.

It's one thing to admire a "secret Christian" who maintains his faith despite powerful incentives, sometimes even deadly ones. It's something else to condemn people who publicly state their world views, and that's what Goldberg's column is all about. The point of the Darwin Fish is not to say that secular people like Muslims and they hate Christians, which is what Goldberg tries to conflate it into being. In fact, seculars think Muslims and Christians are equally misguided. To the extent that the Darwin Fish is a symbol of being secular, though, it is a political and not a religious (or anti-religious) statement.

The Darwin Fish evolved in response to a proliferation of "Jesus Fish" that somehow began appearing on people's cars in the mid-1980's. This was at the same time that the Christian Right was howling in rage over losing Epperson v. Arkansas and demanding that "creation science" be taught in public schools as an "equal theory" to the hated "doctrine" of religion. In that sense, it was a precursor of the contemporary image of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The fact that a symbol like the FSM should have struck such a chord as it did a few years ago is itself indicative of the fact that those who would make fun of creationism needed a new symbol, because the Darwin Fish had transformed into a symbol of a different message entirely. It has become simply a way for seculars to identify one another (because we look just like Christians and Jews, after all); a way to say to other seculars who might come across the symbol, "Hey, you're not alone; I share your lack of belief." As a form of commentary, the Darwin Fish is silent about Islam. It has become today is a symbol of secular solidarity, as much as there are numerous symbols of religious solidarity that no one would, or should, dream of criticizing.

Why the Darwin Fish then? Muslims aren't trying to have their religion taught in the public schools under the guise of "science." Today, critics of evolution call it a "religion" as if it had no basis in scientific fact and spend a great deal of time attacking straw men instead of the real science. And they, too, are guilty of smug attacks on the identity symbology of their perceived enemies. In any event, even if one reads the Darwin Fish as a smug tease by a secular accepter of evolution against a backwards religious denier of evolution (which, I concede, is a fair gloss on how the symbol got started) it's not necessarily a bad thing to tease someone into re-examining the way they approach the subject. It may not be productive, and it may even be counter-productive, but it's within the range of acceptable commentary on a subject of debate.

Goldberg also doesn't comment on the "Truth Fish" which one sees in the counter-counter propaganda. That symbol, which seems more popular in these parts than the original "Jesus Fish," shows the Darwin Fish being eaten by a larger fish symbol, this one bearing the English word "Truth." The message is clear -- the truth of Christianity is more powerful than any so-called scientific theory. When I see the symbol, my reaction is to ask "what kind of 'truth' are they referring to?" and my usual conclusion is that to such people, the scientific validity of evolution does not matter at all because to them, Christianity transcends whatever scientific evidence might be out there. This justifies their ignorance of the science; it justifies a condescending attitude towards evolution, and it justifies their desire to teach this "truth" to people (particularly children) who would not otherwise be told that it was "true." In that sense, then, the "Truth Fish" is an emblem of a faith so intense it approaches the level of fanaticism.

Still, that too is part of the currency circulating in our marketplace of ideas. My point is that you can't sneer at one without sneering at the other. Personally, I think it's no more religious bigotry to have a Darwin Fish on your car than it is to have a bumper sticker that says "My Heart Is On Fire With The Love Of Jesus." Both say to the viewer, "This is how I see the world, and I'm certain of the correctness of that world view." Is it anti-heterosexual bigotry to have a rainbow triangle decal? Obviously not; the Darwin Fish is differently only in the sense that its symbolism began as a political protest and has since come into its own. Kind of like the original Jesus Fish did two thousand years ago.

Yesterday, I noticed three vehicles with bumper stickers I've never seen before, all of which have the American flag and the phrase "Please Pray For Our Troops." A nice enough sentiment for a religious person, but one that excludes me from participating in the purportedly patriotic activity. It doesn't strike me as likely that Muslims were the ones who display such bumper stickers on their cars.

The melding of religious and patriotic iconography is intellectually quite disturbing. The picture to the right is about the most extreme example I've found, particularly so because it invokes Lincoln and Washington. At minimum, these men deliberately cast themselves as ciphers with respect to their own religious beliefs, and particularly in the case of Lincoln, they were critical of significant facets of Christianity. If they were in fact devout Christians, one wonders why they would have gone to such lengths to have concealed that fact about themselves; they were both politicians, after all. Yet here they are shown forming a cross with their arms, praying with George W. Bush (who, being placed directly before the crucifix in the image, is cast as the modern personification of Jesus). No one but me is in the least bit troubled by this?

So that's why the swipes at Christianity and not Islam, Mr. Goldberg. Muslims are not the ones attempting to exclude people different than them. Muslims are not the ones trying to leverage their political power into an imposition of their belief structure on the rest of us. In such places where they are in power and do these things, of course we are critical. Secular people in those countries do indeed face harsh penalties for even identifying themselves as secular, much less advocating secular world views, so it makes sense that in those nations, they are silent. But the sins of Muslim leaders in nations like Iran and Singapore do not excuse our own leaders from trying to steer our own country away from its ideals. That is what we seculars are really criticizing. This country stands for the proposition that everyone is free to believe and speak as they wish, and we seculars who do not believe in Jehovah and are exercising our freedom to say so.


zzi said...

Out of the 6 pictures I don't see anything related to Islam. Atheist are so brave these days.

Islam has overtaken Roman Catholicism to become the world's largest single religious denomination,

Burt Likko said...

The post isn't about Islam, it's about callow faux-patriotic Christian apologists and the power they vest (and have caused to become vested) in various symbols. I also assume you hadn't seen this post before commenting.

zzi said...

I don't think this imagery would offend Muslim. http://tinyurl.com/3bxujx

Burt Likko said...

I agree, it probably would not. Which leaves me with two questions.

1) Why should the Darwin Fish offend Mr. Goldberg so?

2) Why is it so important to you that I offend Muslims?