The Screwball Letters

I would like to thank Deborah for today’s blogging topic, given to me with the message that she thought it would raise my blood pressure as well.  Thanks so much … now I have you along with Dan and Miss Pink to make sure that the vein that runs across the side of my temple will be clearly visible on a permanent basis, even while I’m wearing a hat.

This was taken from part of a New York Magazine interview with US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in which he was asked about homosexuality, heaven, hell, the devil, and atheism.  I’ll be honest, I already knew he’s Catholic and widely considered the Court’s “conservative anchor” … which is fitting, since I kind of see him as something of a walking boat anchor myself.

Atonin Scalia would totally jump off a cliff if everyone else were doing it too.

Here’s part of the exchange, with my commentary thrown in because that’s what I do here:

In Lawrence v. Texas, you said Americans were within their rights in “protecting themselves and their families from a lifestyle that they believe to be immoral and destructive.”
I would write that again. But that’s not saying that I personally think it’s destructive. Americans have a right to feel that way. They have a democratic right to do that, and if it is to change, it should change democratically, and not at the ukase [decree] of a Supreme Court.

So, I guess he would have been the dissenting vote in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, which desegregated the schools.  That happened while the majority of the voting public felt very strongly against racial integration, which was likely deemed “immoral and destructive” at the time, or at least some functional equivalent.  And interracial marriage?  Hoo boy.  They might as well lynch themselves, and save everyone else the effort.

The bottom line is that civil rights have a nasty tendency to fall prey to tyranny by the majority.  It takes court rulings and legislative efforts (representative democracy, and even then, done sometimes against the will of the people) to enact the necessary change and society as a whole will catch up.  But that’s an aside.  He reveals that doesn’t even care about same-sex rights, since like most American CEOs, he’ll be gone before events move full-force one way or the other to place him on the wrong side of history.

The conversation turns to Heaven, Hell, and all things supernatural.  Asked if he’s seen any evidence of the devil after proclaiming a belief in him, he offers some thoughts as to why he’s been a little quiet recently.

So what’s he doing now?
What he’s doing now is getting people not to believe in him or in God. He’s much more successful that way.

For the record, God sure as hell isn’t doing a whole lot in this department either.  That’s what happens when you don’t present any compelling evidence whatsoever for your existence.

That has really painful implications for atheists. Are you sure that’s the ­Devil’s work?
I didn’t say atheists are the Devil’s work.

No, but the fact is that we are the least trusted religious demographic in this country.  Legislation could easily be enacted by referendum in any number of places throughout the country to take advantage of that opinion.  Again, civil rights should not be a matter of majority vote.

It also doesn’t help that you’re basically saying we’re in league with the Devil.  I guess I should at least thank you for saying we’re unwitting accomplices instead of soulless bastions of wickedness and debauchery.

Well, you’re saying the Devil is ­persuading people to not believe in God. Couldn’t there be other reasons to not believe?
Well, there certainly can be other reasons. But it certainly favors the Devil’s desires. I mean, c’mon, that’s the explanation for why there’s not demonic possession all over the place. That always puzzled me. What happened to the Devil, you know? He used to be all over the place. He used to be all over the New Testament.

What happened to him?

He just got wilier.
He got wilier.

Wilier, huh?  Well, you’re right on one thing:  there most certainly are other reasons, and the most obvious includes a hell of a lot less woo.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or a Supreme Court justice) to see the undeniable relationship between our ever increasing understanding of natural phenomena like physics, biology, psychology, germ theory, etc., and a corresponding precipitous drop in claimed events of miracles, possession, and divine intervention.

Maybe … just maybe … the reason we no longer see the Devil and God in every shooting star, behind every disease, or around every dark corner at night is because we have a better handle on how the world works than we did back 2,000 years ago when the New Testament was written.

I remember wondering this when I was about 7 years old, and – naive as I was – dismissing it by saying that if my parents and teachers believe in this stuff, there’s obviously a good explanation for it all.  So much for that theory.

Isn’t it terribly frightening to believe in the Devil?
You’re looking at me as though I’m weird. My God! Are you so out of touch with most of America, most of which believes in the Devil?

Holy crap, Tony, if most people believed that sacrificing albinos to the god Poseidon on the eve of every full moon was the only way to ensure a healthy harvest, would you be reacting with such incredulity and derision?  Maybe you shouldn’t be judging people on what they find unlikely purely on the basis of what most people think about the topic.  You know, “appeal to popularity” and all that.

I mean, Jesus Christ believed in the Devil! It’s in the Gospels!

Dumbledore believed in Voldemort.  It’s in Harry Potter.

You travel in circles that are so, so removed from mainstream America that you are appalled that anybody would believe in the Devil! Most of mankind has believed in the Devil, for all of history. Many more intelligent people than you or me have believed in the Devil.

Oh, you New York City, latte-sipping, intellectual elitist you!  Most of Mankind has believed in the Devil for all of history!  If by “mankind” you mean “followers of the Abrahamic religions” and by “all of history” you mean “around about the time Zoroastrianism started influencing Jewish beliefs regarding the afterlife”.  Aside from that, you’re spot on.  I think the reason why your interviewer may have an incredulous look on her face is because of the sophomoric explanations you’ve given so far to explain your way out of why we haven’t run into the Prince of Lies recently.

It’s frightening to think that a guy who retreats back into “it’s Catholic Doctrine!” and “but everyone does it!” is responsible for interpreting Constitutional Law for the entire nation, yet here we are.  And, may I say, right after my esteemed colleague Deborah Mitchell penned a piece about how we need to maintain civility when discussing issues of religion and belief in the public arena.  I guess I whiffed on that one … and even after I wrote a flowery reply basically agreeing with her.

The problem is, it’s not his Catholicism.  It’s his inability to grasp that public opinion doesn’t increase the chances of something being true, chiding someone who doesn’t buy into it as “out of touch”, and then giving the most intellectually vacant explanation I’ve heard to date for why modernity has pushed the devil into hiding.  Yet we – as atheists – are the ones given the critical eye when we tell people we can lead good, moral lives that have nothing to do with the carrot and stick of a god and eternal damnation.

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10 Responses to The Screwball Letters

  1. I know. I felt like such a dumb ass after reading that because I actually believed for a few moments that we could connect and reach some sort of understanding with believers rationally. (I’m closing my eyes and repeating, “Not all believers are the same; not all believers are the same.”

    I don’t doubt for one minute that Tony was just backpedalling here: “I didn’t say atheists are the Devil’s work.”


    This guy doesn’t deserve to be wearing a robe, not only because he doesn’t meet the basic requirements for decency, intelligence and fairness, but also because he is so arrogant in his beliefs.

    • I think the overall idea you expressed yesterday is a good one, and at least in the context of how we as a group deal with believers on a personal level I think it’s achievable. This one was difficult for a number of reasons, not the least of which being the shock and amazement that someone could look at the evidence for God and the Devil presented before them and reject both claims on the basis of their having not met the burden of proof. For a guy whose life revolves around the courtroom, you think he’d be a little more in tune with how the process worked.

  2. saab93f says:

    This is just sad. A person of his statute is that far away from reality. If only he was even slightly tolerant of others not sharing delusions but oh no, we unbelievers (or more precisely you US unbelievers) are minnows of Satan and spawn of Devil…

    That kind of talk is apparently OK because the judeo-xian religion is so popular.

    • That’s it in a nutshell. You could bet your life that if this guy were Muslim (and by some miracle he were approved for a judgeship on the SCOTUS) he would be thoroughly denounced for making claims similar to these about his own faith. He would be accused of letting his religion interfere with his ability to make rational, unbiased decisions and there would be a movement for impeachment.

  3. Erin W says:

    Nothing substantive to add, but great title.

  4. LanceThruster says:

    What scares/worries me is the fact that fundamentalists standing against the tide of rationalism wear it as a badge of honor. That someone with this level of retrograde thinking is in such a position of power is a testament to the sheer numbers of people who share this retrograde thinking.

    I hope at some point the balance tips in favor of rationalism…but as a culture, we are very set in our ways, particularly due to the fact that these ‘ways’ go virtually unquestioned and are treated with kid gloves and undue deference whenever the subject is broached.

    Scalia is a troglodyte who seems to wallow in his ignorance.

    Question authority!

    “Religious apologists complain bitterly that atheists and secularists are aggressive and hostile in their criticism of them. I always say: look, when you guys were in charge, you didn’t argue with us, you just burnt us at the stake. Now what we’re doing is, we’re presenting you with some arguments and some challenging questions, and you complain.” – A.C Grayling

    • These people interpret rationality and skepticism as little more than excuses the rest of the world is using to get rid of their way of life. I’m convinced that within the span of about 25 years, there will be enough of a shift in religious demographics as Baby Boomers and older generations leave us that faith will no longer be considered a virtue. Instead it will be seen as an obstacle.

  5. No doubt the SCOTUS will rule for the town of Rochester’s “chaplain of the month” program in November. We’ll see how it goes….

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