Here’s a true story about a small gang of angry atheists, their tin funny bones, and their apparent practice of not bothering to think for themselves.
They first surfaced last October, when I wrote a tongue-in-cheek column about the Giles County School Board and its lawyers from the Liberty Counsel. It lampooned the school board and Liberty Counsel for using gangster-like tactics in court to try to keep the Ten Commandments on the wall at Pearisburg High School.
They were trying to force the “John Doe” student plaintiff to reveal his name publicly, which would expose him to intimidation or worse, as a way to “persuade” him to drop his lawsuit against the hanging commandments. (It didn’t work, thank goodness).
On the other side of that issue was the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group of nonbelievers based in Wisconsin. Somebody at the FFRF evidently believed the column poked fun at the FFRF, when it was actually aimed at the other side.
Via an email to a lengthy list of atheist adherents, the FFRF issued a figurative fatwah on your truly. It claimed I was a member of the religious right (now that’s a laugh) and that I had impugned them.
The next thing I knew, I got blitzed with nasty messages and comments on my blog, calling me all kinds of names.
The following day, Oct. 20, someone at the FFRF who has a normal IQ realized the blunder and issued this emailed correction:
“Note: FFRF inadvertently categorized this article under “What the religious right is saying about FFRF” yesterday (10/19). Please send a grateful email for his satirical story and support of FFRF.”
Once their fatwah was lifted, it was an atheist love-fest. I got emails from from all over the country. That was bizarre, too.
Not a big deal, right? Everybody makes a mistake now and then, including nonbelievers. But it was amazing how quickly the correspondents changed their tone. They turned on a dime. It made me wonder: If the FFRF told them to jump, would they ask “how high?” on the way up?
Until a little more than a week ago, I had forgotten all about that fleeting tempest. Then it happened again.
The July 26 column concerned the latest example of religious influence upon local government: sectarian prayer at Roanoke County Board of Supervisors meetings. The FFRF requested supervisors respect the constitution and halt that practice.
The column imagined a strategy meeting of the FFRF board, and a report of all the victories they were scoring in their efforts in the Roanoke region to remove religion from the public square.
The point of it (which was obviously unclear to some) was that when local governments resisted such reasonable demands, the FFRF would get publicity that would drive membership and donations. In that way, fighting the nonbelievers played right into their hands. And foolish governments in the Roanoke region have been doing it again and again.
Once again, the approach went way over the heads of a gang of out-of-town atheists. This time, FFRF staff attorney Andrew Seidel wrote his own satirical column about me on the FFRF’s blog on the same day the column appeared. It was cute though misguided.
Four days later, a guy named Ed Brayton, on another atheist blog, published a stern article titled “Virginia Columnist Slanders Atheists.” The headline was false and inept (by definition, nobody can slander anybody via the written word). And what followed was a bunch of childish emails.
- Frances — no last name — called me “a pig” and “probably an evil catholic.”
- Jim P. wrote: “Sorry, try another excuse for being an ignorant jerk.”
- Andy R. chimed in: “Please realize not everyone in the Roanoke area are bible humping nut jobs like yourself. Have a nice day.”
- PJ M. offered: “Just read your idiotic screed. Have any evidence to back up your fantasies or was that whole imagined conversation just childish wish fulfillment?”
- And a crank named Chris M. sent this email: “Wow, what a f—inng moron you are!” Yes, he actually misspelled the -ing form of the F word.
(Note: I shortened the email names because I can’t tell if they’re real or made up).
To be fair, a couple of the emails I received were much gentler. A Roanoke-area atheist, Scott Mange, sent an message to one of my colleagues that ended: “P.S. Tell Dan Casey that some of us DO have a sense of humor.”
I replied to Andy R’s message, and he wrote back: “After going back and reading the article again, I see where you’re coming from and see what you were trying to get across. I guess the context of the article just got me fired up and blinded me to what you were trying to say, my sincere apologies for the anger in my previous message.”
And a comment under the FRFF’s attorney’s original column acidly noted:
“I think this is the second time FFRF has overlooked Mr. Casey’s sarcasm. The last time we were asked belatedly to thank him for taking our side.”
From all of the above I have drawn a few conclusions:
First, satire often is risky because it can easily go over people’s heads. That’s what happened when Jonathan Swift penned “A Modest Proposal.” It sarcastically recommended impoverished Irish families sell their children as food to rich folks — and it was widely misunderstood in its day. Today it’s considered a classic example of the genre.
I am certainly no Jonathan Swift, and I could have done better with this one. Approaching the issue from sideways was risky, despite plenty of contextual clues that the column was a farce. Part of the problem is, readers’ senses of humor vary so much. And some have no sense of humor at all. It’s up to the writer to take that into account. So that’s on me.
Second, there obviously are a lot of humorless atheists out there. They’re likely a minority within the larger community of nonbelievers — every group has some angry misanthropes. That bunch needs to lighten up, though, and laugh a little more. They should start by laughing at themselves. That’s always good practice.
Moreover, when they fly off and send emails at the urging of others, without even having read the material they’re commenting on, or bothering to analyze it, they undermine their own credibility as self-styled “free thinkers.” And that’s what they pride themselves on.
Both of those qualities are worse character flaws than believing in a deity.
The third comes from Dave Gresham, an atheist acquaintance who lives in Franklin County.
“Who would have thought that the same sarcastic article could piss off militant Christians and militant atheists alike?” he wrote on my blog. His point was, there are extremists on both sides of many issues — and they’re usually nutballs.
Amen to that.
Last October when the angry atheists first came after me, a California nonbeliever named Frank wrote me a sympathetic email. Frank suggested I include a disclaimer for the “twits in my group [who] have a weak grasp of the concept of sarcasm.”
So maybe next time I go the atheism/humor route I’ll top the column with a big honking sign: “ATTENTION ANGRY ATHEISTS: THIS IS SATIRE!”
But based on past experience, I’m not sure even that will do any good.