On Making an Ass of Yourself in Light of Making a Good Point

The New York Times ran an article, recently, covering the drought and its potential impact on food production. In the article, the author quotes a rather innocuous statement from Ag. Secretary Tom Vilsack about how he prays for rain everyday. Sec. Vilsack also notes that he would do a rain dance if he knew one.

Tom Flynn, of the Council for Secular Humanism, saw this quote and wrote a blog post criticizing Sec. Vilsack for his comments. His post makes three major points: (1) that the focus needs to be on activities that will mitigate the impact of the drought, (2) that praying, in this context, may impinge upon the establishment clause, and (3) that prayer does not work.

Lisa Miller, wrote a response for the Washington Post’s On Faith section. Her central point is that Tom Flynn’s response is unnecessarily churlish and over-exaggerates the extent to which Vilsack’s prayer comment impinges on the First Amendment. And she is right on this point.

As it turns out, the quote Tom Flynn criticizes was mined out of a larger answer Vilsack was giving to a question from a Christian journalist. Sec. Vilsack mentions that he is praying everyday, makes a light-hearted comment about a rain dance, and reiterates that the focus for the department and the federal government is on taking actions to mitigate the impact of the drought.

This is all, incidentally, brought up in the comments section of Tom Flynn’s blog post. Flynn dodgingly admits he has some egg on his face but stands by his points, generally. But Lisa Miller does not leave her response to Flynn at merely pointing out that his critique was churlish. No, she extracts from this event the conclusion that the atheist movement is “petty and small-minded.”

Miller claims that the Atheist movement of old (you know, when Hitchens roamed the Earth) was full of “brave, fierce warriors bent on fighting conventional wisdom and easy piety.” Interestingly, “conventional wisdom and easy piety” is an accurate description of Sec. Vilsack’s appeal to praying for rain. But, whatever.

A decade later, according to Miller, atheists have become “petty and small-minded ideologues” out to stifle every expression of public religiosity. In fact, this pettiness has reached the level of “hysteria,” exemplified by Flynn’s comments. In case you are wondering, one of the best ways to make yourself look like an ass is to churlishly over-exaggerate your critique of someone’s churlish over-exaggeration. Oh, sorry, that was probably just snark brought on by my hysteria.

Miller’s comments go from over-exaggerated to outright silly when she tries to offer a history of appeals to gods for rain. I’m sorry, but this has nothing to do with Flynn’s comments. Though, it is probably evidence that Miller knows how to use Google. (<– was that said “rather meanly”?)

Along with Flynn’s comments about Vilsack, Miller criticizes the ‘attacks’ of Rev. Rick Warren for his comment on twitter that teaching evolution to children leads them to act like animals. Atheists had criticized Warren’s tweet as being about the Aurora, Colorado shooting. Instead, the tweet was about sexual promiscuity. It is fair enough to point out that the criticism of the tweet was aimed at the wrong context. But, if atheists are petty and small-minded for properly criticizing Warren within the wrong context, does that mean Christians are petty and small-minded for making the same critique? How about when they learn the proper context of the tweet but are still critical of Rev. Warren? Surely, we can now conclude that Christians are petty and small-minded (I mean, one of them made a quick-to-judge comment; therefore, the Christian movement is petty and small-minded).

Finally, she brings up the criticism of President Obama offering prayers to those impacted by the shooting in Aurora. Again, fair enough. Who made that critique? The atheists, right? No, it was Tom Flynn. So, we’ve concluded that Tom Flynn is churlish and has a tendency to put his foot in his mouth. And the petty, small-minded were silent right?. Well, except those critical of him: like here or when his affiliated organization released an official statement clarifying the organization’s stance and showing that Flynn’s words were his own.

Or, here’s another atheist blaming the Aurora shootings on James Holmes’s religious upbringing. Again, those shameless, petty, small-minded atheists were silent on the issue. Oh, wait, except here and here.

So, why would atheists do such petty and small-minded things like criticize every public display of religiosity? Well, they don’t. In fact, groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) work to ensure the First Amendment is upheld as it pertains to governmental establishment of religion.

But, again, one might want to ask why the bother? Instead of publishing books proclaiming religion “not great” (like Miller’s warriors from a decade ago), why do atheists speak out when government officials pander to religion? Well, because atheists get disenfranchised. For example, sometimes the religious try to use antiquated laws to prevent atheists running for office. Sometimes, public schools sponsor religious-specific prayer that violates the First Amendment. Is it truly petty of atheists to demand their constitutional rights? And when the community reacts with derision and threats of violence, I assume the atheists are to blame for their small-mindedness?

And, to drive the point home, it is not just atheists. The Anti-Defamation League, for example, takes a strong stand in favor of church-state separation on issues like public-school sponsored prayer.   Perhaps, part of the reason is because Jewish families have felt pressured to leave overly-religious public school systems. Of course, it’s probably just that the Jewish movement is petty and small-minded.

So, in conclusion, the movements of the atheists, Jews, and Christians are all petty and small-minded. Or, perhaps Lisa Miller has a bit of a chip on her shoulder and is unaware that stereotyping an entire group of people for the comments of one guy makes her look like an ass.



  1. danielwalldammit · July 27, 2012

    I do think the comments in question were pretty damned petty, and I also think Miller is being more than a little opportunistic to use them as a basis for commenting on the atheist movement as a whole.

    • thecaveatlector · July 27, 2012

      And, in all fairness, I may pull a Miller on Miller, herself, with some of my comments. But, the critique of both Flynn and Miller needs to be said.

  2. JusticeGeorge · July 29, 2012

    I think one of the points you make in the post was the need to admit the possibility of being wrong, something which Flynn was willing to recognize but that Miller was not.

    What’s frustrating is when an entire movement is condemned because of the obstinate views of the people who express them, especially when compromise and understanding is possible. To me, it sounds like Flynn just wants to make a stink for the sake of making a stink.

    I think your post does not “pull a Flynn” specifically because it respects the possibility the you might have been hypocritical. Too many people today believe that confidence as a writer requires stubbornness free of any fraction of humility.

    On another note, I really appreciate your perspective on the need for less religious pandering in the United States government. The very idea that being an atheist should inhibit one’s ability to perform as a government official or should be a factor in electing a person to office is quite frustrating to say the least. Everyone has the freedom to believe what they want and the amount of religious discrimination from the largest most general levels to the individual is staggering and deplorable. One would think we might have made it a little further in terms of accepting one another’s freedom to peacefully believe what they want.

  3. sketchy · August 15, 2012

    How can Flynn make the statement that prayer doesn’t work? It’s not something you can prove or disprove…

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