Questionable Motives

January 28, 2010

Is atheism fundamentally a Straw Man argument?

There is a reprehensible opinion piece posted online at the New York Times by Ross Douthat that supposedly offers us an “illustration of militant atheism’s symbiotic relationship with religious fundamentalism.”

Specifically, Douthat criticizes Dawkins for using Pat Roberston and his diatribe of god-sanctioned blame for the devastation suffered by Haiti as an example of a ‘real’ christian (read my previous comment on Dawkins’ article and why he argues as much). This is a failure of critical thinking by Douthat. By asserting that atheism requires a Straw Man approach, Douthat fails to comprehend Dawkins’ central argument: that a willingness by today’s theological apologists to grant any credence to a religious interpretation of some holy text that focuses on what is meek and mild without accounting for the parts that are vicious and genocidal is intellectually dishonest.

Douthat’s counter argument that quotes New Testament passages to negate Robertson’s interpretation is exactly Dawkins’ point: one biblical reference is not any closer to being true or accurate than the other. The only difference is that Robertson’s interpretation takes into account the capriciousness and violence of the christian god, making such an opinion based on biblical interpretation more ‘real’ in a christian vein than one like Douthat’s which simply ignores the Old Testament’s accounts of a god that is unconscionably cruel and immoral in favour of specific passages that casts Jesus as benevolent and forgiving. Let us all remember, however, that it is from Jesus we first gain a biblical account for eternal damnation… hardly one that enhances the CV of hope and love people so often attribute to Jesus’ message.

I have read repeated criticisms of Dawkins and other New Atheists as creating a Straw Man religious argument, that is to say, that these atheists create a Robertson-ian god as the one that defines the christian god and then tear it down by revealing its obvious malevolence. But the god worshiped by most christians, this argument points out,  is not this god – the one believed in by some fringe and/or extreme fundamentalists as the one so vehemently opposed by ‘militant’ and ‘strident’ atheists – but one that is actually benevolent and wise and compassionate. The faulty conclusion then held by so many moderate religious apologists is that Dawkins and his cohorts aren’t criticizing their religious beliefs but merely the ones held by hard core fundamentalists.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

New Atheists care about what is true. They care about knowledge – about what’s probably accurate, probably correct, probably true. They care about coming to a better understanding of the natural world, of promoting honest intellectual and scientific inquiry. They also respect the rights and freedoms and dignity of individuals within a secular society. They are concerned about any influence that intentionally impedes any of these cares, and there is no greater single impediment than the false certainty of religious belief. But rather than criticize specific people’s beliefs, the New Atheists’ approach is to enter the public forum and expose unjustified beliefs – regardless whether the unjustified belief is religious, superstitious, supernatural, or just poor thinking. To do this, New Atheists point out why the unjustified foundational belief of a Robertson is no different in quality of belief than someone who insists on holding a Jesus is Love assumption. Nor is there any difference in the unjustified foundational beliefs upon which the complimentary and alternative medicine industry has been built. Belief in the supernatural, whether it be god or evil spirits or the memory of water, cannot be honest knowledge: because such ideas are beyond our ability to be examined in the natural world under natural conditions subject to natural forces and natural efficacy all which can be naturally measured, supernatural belief cannot be justified by any other measure other than more assumption and assertion. Assumption and assertion that cannot by definition undergo natural testing and rational criticism because it is supernatural is immune from honest critical inquiry. Asserted beliefs are assumed to be true because they are believed to be true. That is not a justification for the truth value of the belief but an excuse, an allowance, a willingness to suspend critical inquiry. So it doesn’t matter whether or not it is a Pat Robertson’s unjustified belief or an Ayatollah’s unjustified belief or a Pope Benedict XVI’s unjustified belief or a Sarah Palin’s unjustified belief – the common denominator pointed out by New Atheists like Dawkins is that supernatural beliefs in their entirety are equally unjustified.

When a Pat Robertson makes another disparaging public statement about suffering people deserving their suffering and backs it up with theology, it is an opportunity and not a requirement for atheists to once again point out that if not for the acceptance of the moderately religious, then the foundation of unjustified religious beliefs would be treated with the same scorn and disgust aimed at Robertson for his outrageous truth claims. Robertson and his ilk have an audience because there is widespread acceptance by religious apologists to excuse, allow, and suspend legitimate criticism in matters of religious belief. That’s a public problem and it requires a public solution.

Is unjustified belief in the supernatural and all its various promotions in the public domain in need of public criticism? My answer is an unequivocal Yes. The New Atheists like Dawkins don’t just say a meek and mild yes to this question in the privacy of their own minds; they DO something about it by bringing their arguments and expertise into the public domain to tackle the problem of a Robertson, an Ayatollah, a Pope, a Palin, head on.

So the answer to the title is No, atheism is not fundamentally a Straw Man argument but a call to action, a growing movement that will continue to challenge anyone who doesn’t care about what is true but what is unjustifiably believed to be true, and who would allow unjustified beliefs the right to take a place at any table in the public domain.

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23 Comments »

  1. Ross Douthat, shows us the method of how Christian’s read the bible – if it fits the situation, it is read literally. If it does not fit the situation, it is nothing more than a ‘figure of speech’ – meaning that how you interpret it at anyone time is dependent on what ‘god’ wants you to see – i.e. the ‘living word’.

    In other words, this man is just as deluded as any other religious nutter.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — January 28, 2010 @ 7:43 pm | Reply

  2. Are you kidding Tildeb? We have been through all of it and you still deny it and claim that you “care about knowledge – about what’s probably accurate, probably correct, probably true”

    You do not look and search and study…what a joke

    Comment by 4amzgkids — January 29, 2010 @ 2:58 am | Reply

    • We’ve been through this in your mind whereby you conclude that I “deny” what’s probably true, accurate, and correct. The problem as I see it is that you connect what’s probably true only with what you believe. You select only what fits your preconceived beliefs and discard anything else. You are a living example of what is known as someone who uses the web for confirmation of your bias and calls every other opinion – regardless of how well founded these other opinions may be – jokes.

      Go teach yourself. Here’s a good explanation: http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/

      Comment by tildeb — January 29, 2010 @ 3:07 am | Reply

      • I use the web – LOL….you are the MINORITY and full of hatred. It is apparent you do not believe in God because you spew hate.

        Comment by 4amzgkids — January 30, 2010 @ 2:28 am

    • It’s official: confirmation bias seems to drive trust in News organizations:

      “A generation ago you would have expected Americans to place their trust in the most neutral and unbiased conveyors of news,” said PPP President Dean Debnam in his analysis of the poll. “But the media landscape has really changed, and now they’re turning more toward the outlets that tell them what they want to hear.”

      Evidence?

      Fox is the most trusted television news network in the country, according to a new poll out Tuesday.
      A Public Policy Polling nationwide survey of 1,151 registered voters Jan. 18-19 found that 49 percent of Americans trusted Fox News, 10 percentage points more than any other network.”

      From http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0110/32039.html

      Surely this is a sign of End Times?! Faux News? By far the most biased news outlet in America. See 4amzgkids? You are not alone in your confirmation bias; it’s endemic.

      Comment by tildeb — January 29, 2010 @ 1:29 pm | Reply

  3. 4amzkids, You seem to have a problem with the mathematics of probability, when scientists use probability they have used maths to work it out.

    This is how the USA built a rocket to go to the moon – they worked out the probability of failure – “the rocket – will ‘probably’ work” – anesthesia for surgery has a probability of failure – it is small, but never the less it is a real probability that happens – however, there are multiple factors in complicated procedures so the probability is worked out as a ‘relative probability’.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — January 29, 2010 @ 9:39 am | Reply

  4. LOL – Fox news – is infantile.

    But then in the Sun Newspaper, we have here in England, which has a ‘reading age’ of 12 years old, is one of the most popular newspapers… (that is to say the language it uses is suitable for the average 12 year old – which considering it is read by adults says allot about the general public’s ability to think critically. The worrying thing is, the media men – the people who run this stuff out into society know this, so they use other people’s lack of education as a way of flooding their twisted political opinions into the public domain.

    However, it doesn’t always work; a classic underestimation of the owners of the Sun with regard to the general public was recently demonstrated – read here:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/nov/10/rupert-murdoch-gordon-brown

    Sky news is pretty lame as well, in fact all TV news is politically skewed to a lesser or greater degree – it depends on who owns the production company.

    Compared to the BBC, Fox News is like a children’s program – but even the BBC isn’t without bias, but at least it has the courage to say so.

    I try to get my information from sources of impartiality, and if that is not possible from sources of integrity – it is main reason I do not listen to likes Ray Comfort, because he and his kind are a total waste of space, I would get more sense and scientific fact from high-school leaver than that guy. I must admit though, Ray Comfort is good for a laugh what a joker.

    But not nearly as funny as this guy:

    Classic.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — January 29, 2010 @ 2:27 pm | Reply

  5. “I use the web – LOL….you are the MINORITY and full of hatred. It is apparent you do not believe in God because you spew hate.”

    I wasn’t going to stoop so low as to reply to this ridiculous statement – but in the end, my reason was eroded by frustration and I gave in – so here goes:

    Atheists, do not stone people to death, shoot doctors or fly planes into buildings – religious people do, this causes hate.

    Atheists, do not riot, set up cults and murder people in them – religious people do.

    Atheists, do not frighten children in hell houses: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hell_house – religious people do this causes hate.

    Atheists, do not threaten to kill another man for his writings: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salman_Rushdie – religious people do.

    Here is hate spread by Christians: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxdxZ47JouU

    Here is another one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Seq2rwKucE&feature=related

    and yet more evidence of hate by Christian’s to a thinking and gentle man:

    So with all of this hate that is spread by religious people, you still think atheists spread hate – you’re deluded.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — January 30, 2010 @ 11:13 am | Reply

  6. You really need to grow up and stop blaming Christians and Christianity for hate…..you need to blame the humans that use it for that reason – that is not what is taught.

    Comment by 4amzgkids — January 31, 2010 @ 12:11 am | Reply

    • I blame the humans who empower unjustified beliefs to outweigh justified beliefs, who empower faith with their first allegiance to hold dominion over human rights and respect for human dignity, who use religion as a shield from legitimate criticism. I blame humans for aiding and abetting those who prefer the comfort of ignorant belief to dealing with hard corners that come with understanding what’s probably true, accurate, and correct, people who are willing to lie and quote mine and misrepresent information to maintain belief by deceit what cannot withstand reasonable scrutiny. I blame those who choose to close minds to honest inquiry and who are satisfied with vague theocracy that answers nothing. I blame those who are too afraid to be responsible and independent in this life to live authentically, to be ethical and moral not because they will be punished and suffer in some other afterlife but because they choose honest integrity for its own sake.

      Religion is based on unjustified beliefs. It requires adherents to accept and promote unjustified beliefs as both the test and measurement of the depth of their faith. It does not seek knowledge nor value truth. Christianity is predicated on accepting a group of core beliefs that enshrine misogyny and guilt and sin as the cornerstones of human nature, all of which are unjustified beliefs. This is what christianity specifically teaches, but religions as a whole teach that faith in some supernaturalism will provide answers about the natural. This is an unjustified belief.

      Comment by tildeb — January 31, 2010 @ 5:11 am | Reply

  7. “does not seek knowledge nor value truth.” That is crazy..that is All it does! Continually, throughout history.

    “hold dominion over human rights and respect for human dignity.” So because the church or Christianity helps people and wants human rights first and foremost they are wrong??

    “blame humans for aiding and abetting those who prefer the comfort of ignorant belief to dealing with hard corners that come with understanding what’s probably true, accurate, and correct, people who are willing to lie” Do you mean people like yourself that don’t really investigate everything and choose to believe what makes you happy? Do you mean people that stick to theories like evolution which are NOT proven? Do you mean those that cling to the teachings of one man (Dawkins) like he’s their God?

    “Religion is based on unjustified beliefs.” Religion is based on truth and history. It is based on Jesus who was actually here and walked among us, died for our sins and calls us to Him continually. Religion has been around since the beginning of man, God is real, he was here, and yet you choose to deny it all but say you’ve studied everything – you continue to judge the majority and choose not to open your mind and seek the truth. I just don’t understand why you have to put hateful articles out there when you aren’t even sure yourself.

    Comment by 4amzgkids — January 31, 2010 @ 3:37 pm | Reply

  8. But the real problem is that those people who murder in the name of religion, and demonise people – think they are doing gods work. In actual fact they are not bad people – they think they are doing good, they think they are following the ‘word of god’ because they are blinded by religious dogma and faith.

    They are so blinded by their faith that they misrepresent facts and bend the evidence to convince themselves that they and only they and their religion is literally correct. They indoctrinate their children, ensuring that their children have ‘faith’ however, dangerous or misguided their faith is likely to become – ensuring that future generations will carry on this folly.

    A religious homosexual murderer would justify their horrible grubby crime like this: “It’s ok to be prejudiced to homosexuals, because it says that laying with another man is a sin in the bible, and the bible is gods word – so therefore, if I kill homosexuals, I am in fact doing gods work, and if I do gods work, god will be pleased with me and I will go to heaven.” They cherry pick the bits of the bible to justify their actions. Just as the priests who abuse boys, justify their actions by confessing their sins.

    The 911 terrorists, are religious martyrs, in the world of hardcore Islam, they died for their beliefs in their god. And whether you like it or not, there are others that will do the same again and again. They believe their god is the real god just like you do – so convinced by their religion they will lay down their life for it, fooling themselves that they will go to heaven.

    If you think Christianity is any different, you are sorely mistaken. Pro-life Christians kill doctors, they do this because they think they are doing gods work, and they use scripture in a book that was written in medieval times to justify their actions which inflict misery on others. They take support and solace in their view from the religious community – which is outspoken, and ill informed on nearly all matters of science, including human reproduction. Even the threat of the electric chair if caught for the murder does not frighten them, because they will be ‘accelerated to heaven by the glory of god’ – so in fact they are pro-death, they want to die, they want to meet their maker, and they want to make sure they can show their maker how loyal they were – they are deluded!

    They think that when they kill a doctor they are saving the lives that the doctor was going to take – and will be rewarded in heaven. The trouble is they have not bothered to ask or enquire about human reproduction, or apply any common sense to their reasoning, they think they know better than a fully qualified medical professional – such is their arrogance!

    When a doctor terminates an embryo, the embryo does not have a fully developed nervous system, or relationships with other human beings. In many cases embryo’s are naturally terminated by the woman’s body, in the form of a miscarriage, my wife had one, my sister had six, another friend of mine had several miscarriages as well and had to have IVF treatment (from doctors).

    In contrast, the doctor those pro-life Christians kill is a fully developed human life, with a family, a person who can save lives and use their skills to heal and take away pain. When they snuff out the life of the doctor, they are snuffing out a fully developed human with relationships with other humans, patients, family, friends and children of their own – in the process causing and stirring up hatred and damaging the fabric of civilised society.

    The pro-life attitude, sanctions these fundamentalists, it underwrites their actions – and they justify their life taking crime, based on your beliefs as well as theirs – to hold this view and to post this view fuels their deluded desire to do gods bidding – you may as well pull the trigger yourself!

    What pro-life activist should be doing, is promoting contraception, safe sex and sex education – which is the responsible and moral thing to be doing.

    They should be accepting that everyone is different, their life styles, capability, financial affairs, conception circumstances, social status, educational levels are all different and unique. Abstinence is not always an option, and neither is adoption.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — January 31, 2010 @ 4:04 pm | Reply

  9. If not abstinence or adoption then why not contraception? It’s ridiculous – they are taking a life. You can call a Christian crazy for killing a pro abortion doctor but the doctor doing the killing is ok? Does that make logical sense to you? As for Christians killing….you have to stop lumping people together like that – it’s not what Christians are taught or what they believe. Some people get carried away.

    By the time a baby is terminated it feels pain….what about late term abortions where the baby’s head is delivered and then hacked off? That happens up to 8 months…How anyone can justify killing another is beyond me but especially when it comes to an innocent child. How could you honestly look in the face of your child (if you have one) and think abortion is ok? Thank God your mom thought you were important enough to make the cut.

    Abortion absolutely should be outlawed – it became legal when a woman lied about being raped. If you don’t want to get pregnant then take precautions, no ifs and or buts about it. But people choose to do as they please, have a good time and kill all in the name of pleasure. You claim to have morals and not need the church or the bible and look at what you support. Where are those morals now?

    Comment by 4amzgkids — January 31, 2010 @ 11:43 pm | Reply

    • From the Texas State Republican Platform:

      All innocent human life must be respected and safeguarded from fertilization to natural death; therefore, the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We affirm our support for a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution and to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection applies to unborn children. We support the Life at Conception Act. We oppose the use of public revenues and/or facilities for abortion or abortion–related services. We support the elimination of public funding for organizations that advocate or support abortion. We are resolute regarding the reversal of Roe v. Wade. We affirm our support for the appointment and election of judges at all levels of the judiciary who respect traditional family values and the sanctity of innocent human life. We insist that the U.S. Department of Justice needs to prosecute hospitals or abortion clinics for committing induced labor (live birth) abortion. We are opposed to genocide, euthanasia, and
      assisted suicide. We oppose legislation allowing the withholding of nutrition and hydration to the terminally ill or handicapped. Until our final goal of total Constitutional rights for the unborn child is achieved, we beseech the Texas Legislature in consideration of our state’s rights, to enact laws that restrict and regulate abortion including:
      1. parental and informed consent;
      2. prohibition of abortion for gender selection;
      3. prohibition of abortion due to the results of genetic diagnosis
      4. licensing, liability, and malpractice insurance for abortionists and abortion facilities;
      5. prohibition of financial kickbacks for abortion referrals;
      6. prohibition of partial birth and late term abortions; and
      7. enactment of any other laws which will advance the right to life for unborn children.

      http://www.1888932-2946.ws/TexasGOP/E-ContentStrategy/userfiles/FINAL_2008_PLATFORM%281%29.pdf

      Sounds like your kind of place, 4amzgkids.

      Comment by tildeb — January 31, 2010 @ 11:50 pm | Reply

      • It would be my kind of place! However, please know that this is the Republican platform, not yes the law.

        Comment by 4amzgkids — February 2, 2010 @ 12:42 am

      • yet

        Comment by 4amzgkids — February 2, 2010 @ 12:42 am

      • Do you actually think that I assume that this reprehensible platform is now the law? It violates all kinds of federal laws and runs counter to offering respect for human rights and dignity of personhood. It is a living embodiment of Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I suggest you read it.

        Comment by tildeb — February 2, 2010 @ 2:23 am

  10. I don’t believe abortion should be used for contraception, but I understand that everyone is different there are different circumstances involved in every conception. I am lucky, I have never had to make a decision like that. But to suggest that people do out of pleasure is ridiculous, and to imply that it is OK for a doctor to be killed is madness.

    Teaching people sex education is the responsible thing to do – not promoting and fueling fundamentalist ideas, that get doctors killed, and rubbing your hands together and saying ‘he deserved that’ – that’s not Christian, nor is it supportive of women’s human rights.

    As for your diatribe about hacking heads off, this is what happens if you do outlaw it, if you keep abortion within the law, it can be monitored, it can be recorded and the procedure can be done safely, support can be given to the women and the father if it is required, with civilised health care.

    Putting a blanket outlaw on abortion gives control back to criminals and the black market.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — February 1, 2010 @ 7:19 am | Reply

  11. No Mur, the hacking of the head is done by the Doctors NOW in hospitals!

    Comment by 4amzgkids — February 2, 2010 @ 12:38 am | Reply

    • That is partial birth abortion

      Comment by 4amzgkids — February 2, 2010 @ 12:42 am | Reply

      • You have a very skewed opinion of what abortion is. Remember, about 35% of all pregnancies end in abortions without any medical personnel involved. These spontaneous abortions occur for all kinds of reasons. Why you give your god who supposedly has preordained and implemented this mass murder a pass from your criticism as the biggest abortionist of them all remains a mystery.

        Comment by tildeb — February 2, 2010 @ 2:27 am

  12. “No Mur, the hacking of the head is done by the Doctors NOW in hospitals!”

    Do you believe everything that is emotive that supports your view?

    I suggest you read up about the procedure before you even make a judgement or statement like this.

    Here is a start: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Abortion/Pages/How-is-it-performed.aspx

    Your statement is designed to drive up emotion to put fear and hatred into people – and totally irresponsible.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — February 2, 2010 @ 7:13 am | Reply


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