Bring Us Back to Reality: Scott Dikkers

Scott Dikkers, Editor of The Onion . . . 

This speech was presented at the 2008 National FFRF Convention in Chicago on Oct. 12, 2008. This is the transcript, minus a PowerPoint presentation of Scott’s favorite irreverent Onion headlines and stories.

By Scott Dikkers

I’d like to start out, if I may, with a few insults. I’d also like to show you some articles from The Onion, the newspaper that I founded and then edited for 15 of the past 20 years. Then, I’ll tie it all together with a heartwarming defense of rational thinking.

So, I saw this U. of Minn. survey that came out a while back. Perhaps you saw it as well. It asked Americans, who do you trust? And they broke it down into categories: Do you trust a Christian? Most said yes. In fact, Christians were at the top of the list. Do you trust a black person? A Muslim? A homosexual? etc.

The group that came out at the very bottom of the list–and I’m talking about below terrorists, below sexual predators, below the guy who skins babies alive and wears the skin as a mask and then dances in the moonlight while gargling the blood of his infant victims–after that guy, was atheists.

(And when I say “atheists,” I mean atheists, agnostics, freethinkers of every stripe, because the culture as a whole thinks of us as the same.)

We are the single-most reviled group of people in the country. Maybe the world. By far.

What we have to ask ourselves is, what can we learn from the terrorists and the serial killers? Well, for starters we need to find out who does their PR. We’ve got to ask the racists and the rapists, what’s your secret? Child molesters, how did you get to be America’s sweetheart? Show us how it’s done. Maybe we could move up a notch or two if you’d share with us some of your winning people skills.

First of all it’s the name. Atheist. It’s a cold and prickly word, like Recidivist. Rapist. Terrorist. Anal cyst. It’s a terrible word. Agnostic is no better. It sounds clinical. It’s two letters off from diagnostic. “I’m sorry to have to tell you, Mr. Johnson, we got the results back from your agnostic, and we’re going to have to amputate your testicles.”

Christian. Christian–it flows off the tongue like a crisp autumn breeze. Christian. It sounds like a guitar being strummed in the grass under a sycamore tree.

The words we use are important. The freethinking community–a better term than atheist–is not doing well in the pr department. People still call us atheists. They’re still scared of us. We’re losing the war of public opinion, and we’re losing it badly. On every front. All I can say to that is I’m so glad that we’re an invisible minority.

Atheists are good people. Historically, we’re an important check on religious excess. The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment brought us out of the Dark Ages. The secular nation of America saved us from religious tyranny and the divine right of kings.

Yet people say they would never vote for an atheist or an agnostic for president. They’d sooner vote for Jeffrey Dahmer, evidently. What they don’t realize is that they have in the past–they just didn’t realize it. Thomas Jefferson was an agnostic. Abraham Lincoln was an agnostic. But I guess to get any PR benefit we have to wait until a good president is revealed to be an atheist or agnostic.

It’s not fair the way atheists and agnostics are treated.

Atheists are blamed for some of the greatest genocides of the 20th century. Hitler, Stalin, Mao. People think that these lunatics were simply fulfilling the dictates of the moral vacuum of atheism. These guys are an albatross around my neck every time I get talking to a religious person. Pointing out how many millions have been killed by religious extremists usually devolves into an argument where we’re just adding up numbers of dead in columns, and that’s not productive. Can’t reasonable people simply agree that human beings in the grip of any ideology can be real jerks? Especially if they are bat-shit insane?

We can do better. We can turn the tide of public opinion that runs so disproportionately against us. First, we need a mascot–a puppet, or some kind of lovable character. Christians have the character of God. He’s got a fuzzy white beard. He’s cuddly. He loves everybody. He’s like your grandpa. He’s like Santa Claus.

Now, he admits he is jealous and vengeful, and he has slaughtered entire cities full of people, wiped out virtually everyone on the planet in a great flood. In fact he set up his own son to be viciously beaten and tortured and killed–but he did it for us. So we should say thank you for that, I guess. Whatever the case, Americans love him. We need a lovable, old, child-killing curmudgeon mascot. And let’s make him a cartoon character because everybody loves cartoons.

What else can we do? I was watching Fox News the other day and came up with another idea. (I hate Fox News because they’re better at writing funny news than I am.)

I was watching Fox News, and some guy came on to promote a book that says evolution is false and creationism is true. He was an older guy, but healthy looking, wearing a suit. Well groomed. I was thinking, he probably lives a pretty modern lifestyle even though his beliefs are 200 years old.

Reasonable people know evolution is a scientific fact. We’ve mapped the genomes of several species. Chimpanzees share 96% of their DNA with humans. And the way you get DNA is from sexual reproduction. Ergo, chimpanzees and humans have a common ancestor. And that’s just the genetic science. It’s verified by every other science that we know.

For evolution to be false, some of the most basic facts of nature that we know to be true would have to be wrong. If you’re going to reject evolution, a lot of well-established science has to be thrown out the window along with it: Chemistry, genetic science, physics.

So I thought, we should, as a society, bar anyone who doesn’t accept evolution from partaking of any technological advance derived from the science that makes evolution true. No access to modern medicine, no access to basic biological, chemical products or knowledge. You want to heat up your food before you eat it? Sorry. You’re eating your meat raw because you don’t believe in germs. And forget antibiotics. You’re on your own. You’re welcome to pray for a better life, but you can’t use science. That’s cheating because you don’t believe in science. If people want to live in the 17th century, let them.

If we adopted this simple rule, this author on Fox News would come on dressed in a dirty burlap sack, with rotting teeth and matted hair, barking at the hosts like a dumb animal. And that at least would make sense, given his beliefs.

An idea like this would encourage people to appreciate all the good things that science and empirical evidence have brought to the world. It would give our PR effort a needed boost.

It would also incentivize more people to accept reality. The alternative is fantasy. People now have the option to just believe whatever they want–just make something up–it doesn’t matter if it’s not substantiated. And that hurts the rest of us.

To me, as a writer, what’s worse is that most people don’t even make up a fantasy for themselves. They actually take something someone else made up and believe that as absolute truth. I really don’t understand that. If you’re going to make up a reality out of whole cloth, at least be original. Come up with your own fantasy scenario. Something new. Catholicism, Mormonism, Islam, Hinduism, Scientology–these are all just somebody else’s made-up ideas. You can’t just take someone else’s idea and accept it wholesale as your cherished personal belief. That’s like stealing someone else’s Halloween costume idea and showing up at the same party.

Let me take a moment now to tell you a little bit about the reality that I invented–for fun. I don’t really believe it. It’s a powerful newspaper empire. Our flagship publication is called The Onion. It’s the leader in news and information without any real competitor in any known medium. Through the centuries The Onion has covered all the major news events that have shaped our world:

1910s: Sears, Roebuck Plead ‘Not Guilty’ To Pornography Charges
1920s: Scopes Monkey Trial Raises Troubling Question: Is Science Being Taught In Our Schools?
1930s: New President Assures Nation, ‘The Only Thing We Have To Fear Is A Crippling, Decade-Long Depression’
1940s: War Rationing Board Restricts Nylon Use To Armed Forces, J. Edgar Hoover Only
1950s: Pentagon Develops A-Bomb-Resistant Desk
1960s: Holy Shit; Man Walks On Fucking Moon
1990s: Drugs Win Drug War
Today: Army Holds Annual Bring Your Daughter to War Day

See, atheists and agnostics aren’t scary. Listen to their laughter! It’s a joyous sound, like the laughter of innocent children. You can trust us!

Furthermore, I want to say to the world, you need us. As I hope I’ve demonstrated here, atheists are fun. We’re fun to be with. We like playing make believe as much as the next guy, but we know the difference between fantasy and reality. And our crucial role in society is to remind everyone else of the cold hard facts.

We live in an age now that could easily turn into another dark ages. It’s a time when irrational beliefs that run counter to established science are accepted not just by a large percentage of the population but also by our elected leaders.

The religious like to say they’re “saved.” But after eight years of their pick for president, it’s the rest of us who need to be saved.

And the people who voted for this leadership are ready to do it again, because they are ideologues, who are incapable of learning–they reject any factual information that contradicts their beliefs.

Who’s going to save the religious from their demonstrably terrible choice in elected leaders? Who’s going to save us all from the mistakes those leaders inevitably make when they base their decisions not on empirical facts but on made-up information, make-believe intelligence? Who’s going to save us all from living in a fantasyland and bring us back to reality? We are.

Thank you very much. (An animated Q&A followed.)

Scott Dikkers, a comedy writer and filmmaker, has been editor-in-chief of The Onion from 1989 to 2000, and since 2005. He has written and illustrated Jim’s Journal, a comic strip about the mundane life of a college student. Dikkers directed the features Spaceman (1997) and Bad Meat (2003), starring Chevy Chase. He is the author of You Are Worthless, Depressing Nuggets of Wisdom Sure to Ruin Your Day (credited to “Dr. Oswalt T. Pratt and Dr. Scott Dikkers”), a parody of self-help books, and a co-author of Destined for Destiny, a Fake Autobiography of US President George W. Bush. He is co-author of Our Dumb World and Our Dumb Century. He has been named by Rolling Stone as one of the nation’s top-ten favorite writers, has made Time Magazine’s list of top 50 “movers and shakers” in the digital realm, and has been on many entertainment “It” lists.

Freedom From Religion Foundation