Belief, part 5 (a response)

It's time to make this clear, since there was a hefty dose of unintentional timing: this 'Belief' series is neither fictional nor an April Fool's joke, despite part of it being posted on April 1. Ricky Ellis is a real person, a high school classmate of mine I have not seen in fifteen years, and those words are truly his. His profile on facebook, if you have access to it, contains more of the same, and specifically references me, once by name:

Ricky Ellis:  atheism= WHAT A JOKE!! Iv been standing my ground for 2 days againsnt some of the smartest people in bauxite......but thats not saying very much is it! LOOKS AS IF THE DUMBEST OF BAUXITE HAS GOTTEN WAY AHEAD OF THE BALL GAME!! AND MY SALARY IS TWICE IF NOT 3 TIMES AS MUCH AS THERES......NOW YOU TELL ME GOD DOESNT HAVE GREAT THINGS INSTORE FOR

Ricky Ellis: Had a real hard time on amy qualls-mcclure page.......a lot of people with great minds just can't seem to phantom the belief that God exist!!! I WAS ATTACKED BY DEMONS WHEN I SPOKE GODS NAME TO A BUNCH OF VERY SMART PEOPLE!! WWWOOOOWWW!! But as always god won the battle of the unfaithful threw my mind.....THANK YOU JESUS!!

For those of you—cousins, friends, high school acquaintances, and yes, co-workers—who participated in the thread that got hijacked, you have my apologies for the email spam you have undoubtedly gotten in the past few days. Facebook does not allow you to turn off comments in threads like those; otherwise I would have redirected discussion here, to

I made the decision to archive everything that was said, and leave everyone's names intact.  I have a mix of motives in doing so, but in the end, I think everyone's words need to be taken in context.

It would be incredibly easy to write of my disgust with Ricky's words—for let us be clear, I am discussing his words —and translate that disgust into a disgust with Christianity. But that's wrong in the same way that the original letter I was responding to was wrong.  We must not—cannot—judge the whole of a religion by the actions of the few, as my inbox has indicated this week; what you have not seen are the emails from and the conversations with several other Christians who felt compelled to apologize and say, "This is not us. These are the words of one person.  Please do not assume he speaks for all of us, for he does not."

You know who you are, and I have a great deal of respect for each one of you. Each of you use your religious beliefs to approach your lives with grace and care, and put great stock in the idea of embodying your faith, not just preaching it.


* * * * *


As a result of the past few days, I've put thought into the concepts of faith, zealotry, and logic. I knew in the end this (...hopefully) final installment hinged around those concepts. Why could faith and logic co-exist peacefully, sometimes even encouraging each other (think of Einstein's quotes about God and the universe) while zealotry and logic never seemed to coexist on the same person? What was the difference between faith and zealotry?

My answer came in a rush over lunch today, when I was trying to explain the entire mess to a co-worker. I rushed to scribble it down before I forgot:

"The difference between faith and zealotry is the difference between taking your faith in context of the world around you, versus taking your faith instead of the world around you."

It's the difference between seeking knowledge of the universe, because knowledge of the created world teaches you more about the Infinite  ... and refusing or disbelieving anything that does not fit with your established worldview.

I don't know if it's the right delineation, but it's the best I've come up with so far.


* * * * *


The harder part is acknowledging that there is fault and intolerance on all sides. It is harder to look my friends in the eye and say, "Next time, try it without the ad hominem attacks."

Given that this country is a majority-Christian country, it's a reasonably safe assumption that many non-Christians were at least heavily exposed to Christianity at some point in the past, or were once adherents themselves. So, when you factor in that most of these people had ample exposure to Christian beliefs, and didn't incorporate them into their worldviews, one could expect a certain degree of hostility if the unwanted topic is frequently revisited. If this is the fiftieth time you've been approached, and the fiftieth time you're not interested, it is probably about one-fiftieth as easy to be as polite as it was in the first round.  Even if it's a completely different person doing each approach, the effect is cumulative;  it becomes surprisingly easy to skip the "thank you, I'm not interested" for "leave me alone, you pain in the ass, I've heard this already."

I am guilty of this shortcut. It has a lot to do with why I have said as little as I have during this entire debacle.  (Go back, look again, and notice that my name very rarely appears in these exchanges.)  I recognize my bias and my frustration with repeated proselytization, and I think several other people in the thread shared the opinion, and we all let it out to one degree or another as Ricky's words became angrier.

That doesn't excuse his words, but it means we must be as mindful of our own. The same standard applies to both sides.


* * * * *


So I—hopefully—end this unintentional series in the general area where it began, with a quote from a letter I sent to a woman who forwarded me a hateful, ignorant, and wrong letter whose intent was only to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment:

"...I believe that every person who makes a peaceful religious choice, regardless of the choice itself, deserves better."

My friends have made theirs. I have made mine. You, reader, have probably made yours, and our decisions are likely all different ones. You don't have to agree with mine, nor I with yours, but decency, politeness, civility, and common sense dictate that religious decisions made in peace and followed in peace should be greeted with peace.  Not sniping, not air quotes around the word 'tolerance,' not pronouncements that someone is parroting the devil's words, but peace.

That is all.


 Your grace and tolerance of the entire thing impressed me very much. I would not have been either of those things anywhere near the level you have managed, so for that I think everyone has thanks.

It's been enlightening to say the least!! :)

I kept to myself on all of that, mostly because the level-headed logical responses that were given by many fit my sentiments exactly.

I hope the fire has mostly gone out now.... it was a pretty impressive flame-war... that's for sure! :D

Although I have been reading the posts referred to in this thread since the beginning...I have held my tongue until now.  Mostly out of respect for the owner of this site and out of common decency to mankind.

With that being said, however, I can no longer contain my ire and my complete loathing of what zealotry can do to a human being.  Let me preface this particular rant by saying that this is *NOT* an attack on Ricky...this is *NOT* an attack on Christianity...and this is *NOT* an attack on "believers".

I have often wondered throughout my life just what kind of gene is missing from religious zealots.  Through the years it has become apparently that zealots of any flavor are not capable of rational thought, logical debate, or healthy reasoning.  Simply put...these people espouse dogma and will not listen to opposing viewpoints regardless of the facts presented that may contradict their views.  Through indoctrination there is always a comeback for the common gauntlets laid down...however...if you pose your question in a way that is unfamiliar or pose a new question that has never been heard you often get the response that a 4 year old would give akin to sticking ones fingers in ones ears and yelling "la la la la la"

I was raised without any religious preference and my views show a result I have no insight into the kind of inculcation that fundamentalist "anything" children are subjected to.  Nor am I aware of the consequences of a child being brought up like that faces should they decide that they actually have a mind of their own and are capable of personal responsiblity.  Is it easier just to "go along to get along"?

Zealotry, no matter what it refers to, is an inherently bad thing.  Closed mindedness is the enemy of civilization in general ... and this has been played out through history repeatedly since the dawn of mankind.  You would think that we as a people would learn...but's that missing gene that prevents world harmony and peace.  Maybe one day we will learn...but I sincerely doubt it....for that would require rational thought and logic.  It's a catch-22 in the purest sense.

The harder part is acknowledging that there is fault and intolerance on all sides. It is harder to look my friends in the eye and say, "Next time, try it without the ad hominem attacks."

And yet, this is one of the most important things we can do: we can remind each other that the most important thing is mutual respect and civility.  We will never convince the zealots of the world to practice respect and civility, so it is even more important that the rest of us, whatever we happen to believe in, show how it's done.

One thing that strikes me here is this: I have known people like Ricky, zealots for Christ, who will not listen to anything you say and will not participate honestly in a conversation.

But I have also known intolerant atheists who are the same!  The kind who will state dogmatically that anyone who believes in a God must be a moron, and who also will not have an honest conversation about faith and belief, because they are too busy trying to tell everyone who disagrees with them that they are deluded fools.

What do both groups have in common? They're both zealots. And you can't have a useful conversation with either.  Maybe we can lock them all up together and just get on with things.


I love that Ricky has been engaged in a discourse with "the smartest people in bauxite." A perspicacious intellectual brain trust if ever there were. Truly he has consulted with the finest minds Arkansas has produced in its long history of bequeathing geniuses to society. And I say that as an 18-year resident of Harrison, epicenter of racial unity and reasoned political thought. 

In all seriousness, though, zealotry may have a neurological component. Some people are just not comfortable with doubt or uncertainty. In every argument I've had with conservative Christians, it always came down to black & white versus grey. Some people crave existential certainty so much that the more one tries to take it away from them, the tighter they cling like a child to a security blanket.

I remember seeing Richard Dawkins take questions from an Arkansas audience in Little Rock. One man had told him that the idea of being able to see his loved ones in the afterlife is what keeps him going. Dawkins, bless him, had the courage to tell the man that "we must resist the temptation to believe things merely because we wish them to be so."

Gee, and you were so concerned a few weeks ago about the potential for Arkansas' brain drain.  Clearly, at least some of the intelligentsia have decided to stick around.

Greetings Amiga!

I'm both sorry and relieved I wasn't part of that Facebook flamewar with your former classmate; sorry that I couldn't bear witness to yet another example of how superstition trumps reason and relieved that I wasn't around to, well, fight fire with fire. As my education has been more ad hoc than formal, particularly given my recent experiences in a place so steeped in its religious traditions  that it makes the American South seem tolerant and Bohemian in comparison, there's a very good chance that I would be the guy who would have matched Ricky rant for rant. (Something I got rather good at in Kuwait, for good or ill.) As it is, given recent discussions with a mutual friend of Sara on the subject of religion reading your last five posts have given me much more to think about it. In particular, I enjoyed your comparison between faith and zealotry- it would make an outstanding bumper-sticker. ;-)

I look forward to seeing you and Jeff again, whether at Dragon*Con or sometime beforehand, and discussing this or any other subject that crosses our minds. Until then, all my best to you, Jeff, Edmund, and Tenzing. Keep up the cool posts!


Scotty (aka MN1, USNR, Retired)

<insert witty comment here>