[Continued interview with Dr. Daniel Fincke of Camels with Hammers from Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3]
BRET: Would you say you were a Christian if you would be killed otherwise?
DAN: Depends on the circumstances. If there were a way I could code my ideas into acceptable symbolic language and influence people better than by being dead, then there might be something to it.
BRET: Gun to your head right now. And you know the answer they’re looking for.
DAN: You say what gunmen want you to say, unless there are awful consequences. If the guns are not in the room, if there are just death threats, then you don’t say anything they want.
BRET: Is there any circumstance where you would die specifically for atheism?
DAN: Yes. If it meant defending the right to free speech, the right to blaspheme, etc. Then it would be necessary to fight that kind of authoritarianism. So if they said, “Stop blogging or we’ll kill you,” I’d keep blogging.
BRET: But is being put to death fighting it?
DAN: Now, if they show up and are in the room with me, I’ll say whatever they want to stay alive! But if I ever get back to my blog... I’m just being honest here.
BRET: I wouldn’t even take a paper cut for atheism.
DAN: Speech acts with potential murderers are not under the same rules. But what you say to the world matters. The right to freedom of conscience is one of the few things worth dying for.
BRET: Does it?
DAN: Yes, it does.
BRET: I think it’s worth fighting for, but not really dying for.
DAN: Nietzsche has a wonderful line that I’ll paraphrase, “Die for our opinions? No, we do not hold them that strongly. Die for our right to them? Perhaps...” I think that’s the best combination of principle and honesty. It’s not atheism itself that’s worth dying for. It’s the right to freedom of conscience.
BRET: Right, but I think you’re analyzing an additional situations I wasn’t thinking about.
DAN: But “dying for” is different than “dying on account of.”
BRET: I wouldn’t just be a martyr for something, but I would fight with a chance of dying. But I see those as very different.
DAN: If I were in an oppressive country where they’d kill me for saying I was an atheist, I wouldn’t just futilely get myself killed.
BRET: I imagine not.
DAN: But I’d fight with the risk of death or speak out in ways that could be effectual in changing things, even if it meant possible death. In other words, there’s no point in dying just for the principle, there is a point in dying in a way that has hope of changing things.
BRET: I sometimes wonder if atheism needs a Jesus, someone they can point to as a paragon of self-sacrifice and principle.
DAN: We have one, it’s Socrates.
DAN: He predates Jesus even.
BRET: I don’t have a daemon inside me, so I can’t relate.
DAN: Philosophers for centuries have appealed to his model. It’s no small thing that he died for iconoclastic, dialectical, gadfly truth-telling, and except for the dialectical part, atheists are part of this tradition.
BRET: He didn’t even die for a noble principle, he died because he decided to adhere to the social contract.
DAN: Well, he was sentenced on principle. He antagonized the jury and refused to pander, even after being sentenced.
BRET: Right, but there were means of him escaping such injustice.
DAN: Yes, that was just the icing on top. Not only would he stand up in public for what was right, he would adhere to it privately to his own disadvantage. It solidified his unwavering commitment to principle. At least as he is heroized for us.
BRET: I dunno... I always took away from my reading of the Apology (assuming those are not just Plato’s ascribed words and ideas) that Socrates ultimately was adhering to the idea that he was a member of society and must abide by society’s laws. I see no such merit in just obeying. Sure, his words were those of a rebel, but he acted as a pawn.
DAN: Well, it’s the principle we cannot simply pick and choose which laws to follow.
BRET: We can though. We most certainly can, and people do. And some people are better for it.
DAN: Yes, it’s a problem with deontological thinking, but I wouldn’t accuse the deontologists for pawns.
BRET: By Socrates’ logic, Rosa Parks is a malcontent. I’ll side with Parks.
DAN: No, she’s a gadfly. The whole point of civil disobedience was to be willing to accept jail to break the laws, but not break the social order. The genius is that it showed the violence of the law, these peaceful people doing peaceful things being beaten and jailed---it made vivid the insane injustice of how the law was already treating them with its constraints on peaceful activities based on their color. The law was already beating them up and jailing them just without it looking like that, so they forced the law to do it explicitly and people came to realize those laws were unjust.
Also remember Martin Luther King Jr. was following a deontological view of Aquinas and Augustine that an unjust law was not a law. They could disobey an unjust law because it wasn’t really a law. But then they also accepted the penalties of the existing law. So they lived in the middle. They acted in accord with real law. But they accepted the punishments of the claimed law. It was a triumph of philosophy. It exposed the dissonance between real law and perverse law in a world-altering way. It’s moral genius.
BRET: These actions don’t exist in a vacuum, though. You need other factors at play.
BRET: Like a way to disseminate information.
DAN: You need TV.
BRET: Right. If you don’t have a group behind you to publicize you, then any sacrifice you make is just... like a tree falling in the woods with no one to hear it.
DAN: Right, there would be no sound.
BRET: Oh there would be. Physics assures us.
DAN: There would be sound waves.
BRET: But we wouldn’t know, yeah.
DAN: No noises.
BRET: Who would win in a fight, Jesus or Mohammed, assuming they’re both human and the same age?
DAN: Mohammed. No context [typo on “contest,” but left due to serendipity].
BRET: Why’s that?
DAN: Because he was a conquering type, whereas Jesus only got rough with accountants.
BRET: True. We also would have accepted, “Because I don’t want death threats.”
DAN: (laughs) On second thought, Jesus.
BRET: Judges? We’ll accept it.
Would you rather heaven or hell be real? Only get to choose one. But not everyone goes there.
DAN: Heaven. Where does everyone else go?
BRET: Everyone else just disappears.
BRET: Aww. So no justice for Hitler.
DAN: There wouldn’t be justice in either case.
DAN: Hell is disproportionate punishment even for Hitler. It’s insanity. Oblivion is just fine for him.
BRET: If you say so... I think it can’t be worse than private schools. I bet you get used to it after a while. Like a hot tub.
DAN: Then it wouldn’t be hell, conceptually speaking.
BRET: I thought hell was just the absence of God? That just means hell is like my normal life.
DAN: So how is that justice for Hitler?
BRET: Well he was really religious. He would probably hate that. Plus we’ll put him in next to a few Jews.
DAN: (laughs) Next question!
BRET: If the world were proven to be ending in 2012 (let’s say a star was on a collision course and would eradicate everything), what would you do this year? We’ll say it happens in late December. So you have all year basically, though nothing you do will really matter...
DAN: I would do everything I already do. I’d just spend some more time with friends, but I’d still blog, I’d still teach.
BRET: Maybe cash-out your retirement?
DAN: My what?
BRET: Hehehe. Oh you poor educators.
DAN: I’d spend the last month with my parents
BRET: For the free food and laundry?
DAN: (laughs) Yes, for the free food and laundry.
BRET: Which would make a better series of movies, the Bible or the works of Homer? Obviously the Bible would be much longer, but still.
DAN: Having never read Homer it’s hard to say.
BRET: Okay scratch that then. What other mythology have you read?
DAN: Not much, just a few Greek myths. They are way better than anything in the Bible.
BRET: You’re breakin’ my balls. Okay then, New or Old Testament?
DAN: Morally, New. For the stories, Old.
BRET: You know I think Peter Jackson is directing a Noah movie. After the Hobbit, I believe.
DAN: Wasn’t Steve Carell in that?
DAN: After I saw that movie I woke up with this thought in my head that there must be a movie made called “There Will Be Flood.” Seriously I was certain of this for a few minutes.
BRET: Pick any person, living or dead, to be God.
DAN: Stephen Colbert.
BRET: The real Stephen or TV Stephen?
DAN: The real one.
BRET: Risky move... I don’t even know what he’s like.
DAN: He would be a benevolent, rational, and mischievous ruler
BRET: Would you rather choose someone you loved to live forever, or someone you hate to die?
DAN: Someone I loved to live forever. I’m not a hater.
BRET: Yeah, but what if living forever is horrible. And this would be a great way to finally just get rid of someone like Cheney. He’s so close anyway.
DAN: Then make someone I hate live forever.
BRET: Ha, perfect. Just be sure when you make the wish to claim you love that person. Or it might not work.
DAN: I’ll have my lawyer work out the details before I sign anything
BRET: Which religion currently being practiced do you think will disappear first?
DAN: It’s probably one none of us have ever heard of. Those we know are sticking around a while.
BRET: Well you have to pick one you have heard of. And Scientology is too easy.
DAN: Yeah. I think the Amish may not be able to hang on forever.
BRET: So true.
DAN: Sorry for your kids.
BRET: Do you think Amish people will be using iPads in 200 years? And sagging their pants? Or will they always be trapped in 1800?
DAN: They’ll just be integrated with everyone else. I don’t know, I have a gut feeling in the future it will be impossible to be trapped in 1800. I think technology is going to change life in ways we can’t yet cognize.
BRET: I dunno, I can imagine being a ball of energy.
DAN: But I don’t know what that means.
BRET: It’s like being a teen all over again.
DAN: Besides that, no one will be Amish anymore.
BRET: Last question, why do cartoon characters who never wear pants put on swimming trunks at the beach?
DAN: The same reason people who do wear pants put on swimming trunks instead at the beach. Why do normal people who wear shorts wear swimming suits instead? Whatever that answer is, is the answer.
BRET: Because they won’t let us swim naked?
DAN: And the same goes for cartoon characters.
BRET: Well the real reason we have to wear swimsuits is the netting. So our pubes don’t fill the pool. But cartoon characters are often covered in hair... and are at a beach, not a pool.
DAN: So all the MORE reason to wear swimming suits! Okay, my Chinese food is here.
BRET: Nice talking to you.
DAN: You too, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks for indulging me all afternoon.
BRET: Enjoy your Chinese.