Questionable Motives

July 28, 2011

Atheism: What’s a man (of god) to do when he no longer believes?

Filed under: Atheism,belief,Dennett — tildeb @ 5:13 pm

There an interesting podcast here about (and from) preachers who no longer believe in god. This is from Dan Dennett’s work (his study is here) and he is interviewed by CBC’s Mary Hynes on the hour long show Tapestry.

June 12, 2010

What’s with the militant and strident tone of New Atheists?

Filed under: Atheism,belief,commentary,Dawkins,Dennett,Harris,Hitchens,Religion — tildeb @ 5:00 pm

I read this complaint all the time: that the New Atheists are militant and strident and should take the advice of religious apologists and change their tone if they wish to communicate more effectively.

“I feel quite certain that a less emotional and less evangelistic atheism would garner far more influence. Atheism has a brand problem.  Lots of the people who do not believe in God refuse to call themselves atheists. Why? Because they don’t want to be associated with proselytizers” says Stephen Prothero over at Killing The Buddha.

Yes, atheism require some help to get its message out, and who better than religious apologists to explain to the likes of Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens why their best-selling books and sold out speaking engagements need more tweaking to be really effective. Yes, it must be all about tone.

It is very frustrating to be told repeatedly that one’s tone is of such tremendous concern when it dares to criticize the central and unjustified motivation of flying of planes into buildings, inserting theology into the science classroom, and undermining human rights and freedoms. The false charges of militancy and stridency about the tone of the message from New Atheists by religious apologists of all stripes is about trying to avoid the very real issue of being called to account, of being held responsible for appeasing the insertion of unjustified and caustic religious belief into the public domain where it has no legitimate place. That’s the issue – one ignored by far too many, and certainly by those of us coddled in the West who should know better.

Rather than be so concerned about the New Atheist’s tone, more of us should give thanks to those willing to stand up and express their (if not our) commitment to respect what is true with intellectual integrity against the excreta spewed by those of us who wish to excuse religiously inspired bullying, intolerance, and ignorance, who stand by and allow a concerted attack by religiously inspired policies, laws, and practices to directly undermine secular enlightenment values, human rights, and the dignity of personhood in the name of piousness and cultural relativity. The practices of religious belief in the public domain need more – not less – public criticism and the undermining of secular rights and freedoms need more – not fewer – public defenders. And if the tone by which this must be done offends, then so be it; it’s high time the tables were turned on those whom, by comparison, seem so accepting of the tone of religious offenders.

May 20, 2010

Trouble in (before) paradise?

  • Of the 1,050 pastors we surveyed, every one of them had a close associate or seminary buddy who had left the ministry because of burnout, conflict in their church, or from a moral failure.
  • 90% of pastors stated they are frequently fatigued, and worn out on a weekly and even daily basis (did not say burned out).
  • 89% of the pastors we surveyed also considered leaving the ministry at one time. 57% said they would leave if they had a better place to go—including secular work.
  • 81% of the pastors said there was no regular discipleship program or effective effort of mentoring their people or teaching them to deepen their Christian formation at their church (remember these are the Reformed and Evangelical—not the mainline pastors!). 
  • 77% of the pastors we surveyed felt they did not have a good marriage!
  • 75% of the pastors we surveyed felt they were unqualified and/or poorly trained by their seminaries to lead and manage the church or to counsel others. This left them disheartened in their ability to pastor.
  • 72% of the pastors we surveyed stated that they only studied the Bible when they were preparing for sermons or lessons. This left only 38% who read the Bible for devotions and personal study.
  • 71% of pastors stated they were burned out, and they battle depression beyond fatigue on a weekly and even a daily basis.
  • 38% of pastors said they were divorced or currently in a divorce process.
  • 30% said they had either been in an ongoing affair or a one-time sexual encounter with a parishioner. (This and the previous statistic raises an interesting reflection on what Family Values look like to those in the ministry – tildeb.)
  • 26% of pastors said they regularly had personal devotions and felt they were adequately fed spirituality.
  • 23% of the pastors we surveyed said they felt happy and content on a regular basis with who they are in Christ, in their church, and in their home!
  • Of the pastors surveyed, they stated that a mean (average) of only 25% of their church’s membership attended a Bible Study or small group at least twice a month. The range was 11% to a max of 40%, a median (the center figure of the table) of 18% and a mode (most frequent number) of 20%. This means over 75% of the people who are at a “good” evangelical church do not go to a Bible Study or small group (that is not just a book or curriculum study, but where the Bible is opened and read, as well as studied). (I suspect these numbers are actually lower in most evangelical and Reformed churches because the pastors that come to conferences tend to be more interested in the teaching and care of their flock than those who usually do not attend.)

From the article Statistics on Pastors over at the Schaeffer Institute.

These stats line up nicely with Daniel Dennett’s latest work about preachers who are not believers (pdf here). And their numbers are growing . What is striking in this compilation of stats is that more than half would leave if they could. Three quarters are fighting depression and nine in ten can’t cope with the challenge of ministry. But why? If religious belief added some measurable quality of life and comfort as we have been led to believe, then these numbers should be strikingly different by those who champion it. But as I have long suspected, the show-and-tell of religion are quite different: we see the show of happy and well-adjusted people who pretend religious belief is a marvelous way to live – even a necessary element to living morally well – but underneath that facade we find a very different story.

March 19, 2010

Is there an atheist in your church’s pulpit?

Filed under: Atheism,belief,Bible,Christianity,Dennett,Religion — tildeb @ 9:36 am

Dan Dennett is back (third from the left) with a study co-authored by Linda LaScola of preachers who are not believers.

We all find ourselves committed to little white lies, half-truths and convenient forgettings, knowing tacitly which topics not to raise with which of our loved ones and friends. But these pastors—and who knows how many others—are caught in a larger web of diplomatic, tactical, and, finally, ethical concealment. In no other profession, surely, is one so isolated from one’s fellow human beings, so cut off from the fresh air of candor, never knowing the relief of getting things off one’s chest.

These are brave individuals who are still trying to figure out how to live with the decisions they made many years ago, when they decided, full of devotion and hope, to give their lives to a God they no longer find by their sides. We hope that by telling their stories we will help them and others find more wholehearted ways of doing the good they set out to do.

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.

January 13, 2010

Is there widespread media bias against Christianity?

Filed under: belief,Critical Reasoning,Criticism,Dennett,Religion — tildeb @ 3:58 am
Q: Is there widespread media bias against Christianity? Against evangelicals such as Brit Hume and Sarah Palin? Against public figures who speak openly and directly about their faith? Against people who believe as you do?

Dan Dennett, second from the right, is considered by many to be one of the New Atheists Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, answers this On Faith question from the Washington Post:

There is no media bias against Christianity. If it appears to some people that there is, it is probably because after decades of hyper-diplomacy and a generally accepted mutual understanding that religion was not to be criticized, we have finally begun breaking through that taboo and are beginning to see candid discussions of the varieties of religious folly in American life. Activities that would be condemned by all if they were not cloaked in the protective mantle of religion are beginning to be subjected to proper scrutiny.

There is still a lot to accomplish however. We need to change the prevailing assumptions in the same way that public opinion has been reversed on drunk driving. When I was young, drunk drivers tended to be excused because, after all, they were drunk! Today, happily, we hold them doubly culpable for any misdeeds they commit while under the influence.

I look forward to the day when violence done under the influence of religious passion is considered more dishonorable, more shameful, than crimes of avarice, and is punished accordingly, and religious leaders who incite such acts are regarded with the same contempt that we reserve for bartenders who send dangerously disabled people out onto the highways.

I also look forward to the day when pastors who abuse the authority of their pulpits by misinforming their congregations about science, about public health, about global warming, about evolution must answer to the charge of dishonesty. Telling pious lies to trusting children is a form of abuse, plain and simple. If quacks and bunko artists can be convicted of fraud for selling worthless cures, why not clergy for making their living off unsupported claims of miracle cures and the efficacy of prayer?

The double standard that exempts religious activities from almost all standards of accountability should be dismantled once and for all. I don’t see bankers or stockbrokers wringing their hands because the media is biased against them; they know that their recent activities have earned them an unwanted place in the spotlight of public attention and criticism, and they get no free pass, especially given their power. Religious leaders and apologists should accept that since their institutions are so influential in American life, we have the right to hold their every move up to the light. If they detect that the media are giving them a harder time today than in the past, that is because the bias that protected religion from scrutiny is beginning to dissolve. High time.

January 6, 2010

Will the real god please stand up?

First there was this dog’s breath  article by Karen Armstrong (not that I’m the only biased one when it comes to abhorring Armstrong’s researching abilities… read this review here) where she makes all kinds of incoherent statements, like “when we treat religion as something to be derided, dismissed, or destroyed, we risk amplifying its worst faults.” You see, in Karen’s mind the real god is the god behind the god, and what most religious people believe isn’t about this ‘real’ god at all. I’m sure the billions of people who profess religious faith will be surprised to read of their error in her latest best-selling pablum-spewing book The Case for God. Just to cover her bases, Armstrong conveniently shifts all blame for any negative effect from religiously inspired behaviours and political expressions to people who have either been forced into extremism by how secular values have been implemented or who have misunderstood the ‘real’ religious message. She falls back on the standard apologetic canard that Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus because people have long believed in various superstitions.

Good grief.

Sam Harris, one the authors I most highly admire for clarity and pointed linguistic accuracy about the very real dangers unquestioned religious belief presents to all of us today, has responded to Armstrong’s long-winded and serpentine article here. Once again, he scores a direct hit with his biting satire and we would be wise to listen to what he has to say.

For example, he responds to Armstrong’s depiction of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism (Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, and Dennett) as people who have made the mistake of  categorizing religious “fundamentalism” for the totality of religion:

I can’t quite remember how we got it into our heads that jihad was linked to violence. (Might it have had something to do with the actual history and teachings of Islam?) And how could we have been so foolish as to connect the apparently inexhaustible supply of martyrs in the Muslim world to the Islamic doctrine of martyrdom? In my own defense, let me say that I do get spooked whenever Western Muslims advocate the murder of apostates (as 36 percent of Muslim young adults do in Britain). But I now know that these freedom-loving people just “want to see God reflected more clearly in public life.

Armstrong reveals that she still doesn’t get what Sam is talking about with a response to Harris’ criticism.

No surprise there.

December 3, 2009

Should atheists be more humble?

From WEIT comes this answer:

Atheists have been “humble” for centuries (who was more humble than Spinoza?) and it hasn’t gotten us anywhere. It’s that crop of new atheist books that have finally created a climate in which atheists need not feel like pariahs. Like my confrères so maligned by Kristof, I think it’s time to try Mencken’s way:

The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous. Is it, perchance, cherished by persons who should know better? Then their folly should be brought out into the light of day, and exhibited there in all its hideousness until they flee from it, hiding their heads in shame.

True enough, even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. He has no right to preach them without challenge.

November 4, 2009

Atheist Fundamentalism: gob-smacked stupidity

moronHow many time have you heard the comparison that atheists are as fundamental in their ‘belief’ as any religious extremist? Frank Schaeffer has written a stupendously ignorant article over at Alternet that maligns Dawkins and Hitchens as equally pathological in their certainty as the evangelical fundamentalists Robertson and Haggard.

I know a deranged faith-based personality cult when I see one, he states.

In comparison, he uses Dennett as the kind of atheist he likes, a calm and quiet voice of reason. He explains

One reason I find Dennett so appealing is his decency. His humility, wit, and empathy speak volumes to me and lends a solid gravity to his wisdom.

Wisdom like the theme of Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell, the thesis described by Schaeffer as

humans are like ants whose brains have been infected by a parasite.

According to Schaeffer, religious belief to Dennet is like a parasitic  infection, which is oh so compassionate compared to the fundamentalist certainty offered to us by Dawkins that describes religious belief as merely a delusion. The thought probably never occurred to Scheaffer to recall the title of the Dennett’s book, that religion holds a great many people in something akin to a spell that needs to be broken. But I expect too much of the perspicacious Schaeffer. His insight is too great to pick up on that title. A spell is not the same thing as an infection, except we would do well to remember that Schaeffer doesn’t seem to use – or be able to utilize – the same dictionary as the rest of us writers of English. Nor does he give bother to credit Dawkins with Dennett’s reliance on the idea of religion as a meme. Schaeffer couldn’t possibly do that to the terrible Dawkins who coined the term to describe how cultural ideas and practices can be transmitted between people.

Like his inability to grasp the importance of a title, Schaeffer fails to appreciate any motivation Dawkins may have had beyond the creation of a cult to address the effects of religious belief. It’s just a little something, I will grant you, but he tramples on Dawkins reputation as an evolutionary biologist by omitting what that motivation might be – a motivation slightly greater than selling trinkets perhaps. I doubt Schaeffer is even capable of considering the fact that Dawkins is responding to a concerted attack by a very powerful group of religious proponents against the fundamental principle that informs all of biology, namely, the theory of evolution. Dawkins takes that misinformation campaign against his discipline very seriously and perhaps can be forgiven if he sometimes reveals his passion for evolution’s truth claims when back by lots and lots of evidence.

If Dennett, by comparison, had philosophy purposefully undermined at every step of his professional career, including a highly financed campaign to replace it in the schools with biblical mutterings and other theological Armstrong-ian deepities (God is not a being, God is the god behind the god drivel) then perhaps Dennett might not be quite so willing to tolerate religion’s social pluses and minuses.

But the major complaint Scheaffer has against Dawkins is that his web site sells stuff. THAT’S what makes Dawkins a REAL fundamentalist, a personality cultist. He natters on about Hitchens in much the same ad hominem vein, attributing his religious hostility to his relationships with his religious brother as well as his religious ex-wife.

If you are hoping to understand the link Schaeffer makes between fundamentalism and atheism, then read no farther than this: it is simply that some of the most popularly read atheists have a passionate personality, which therefore defines their message merely as an ingredient to obtain the cult that supposedly goes along with such fundamentalism.


All other considerations are secondary to that keen if incomprehensible insight. And a personality cult is fundamentalism, let us not forget, because our esteemed Schaeffer says so. Such is the refined definition that so exceedingly betters the simplistic version of religious belief criticized by the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens. As for their message? It’s all wrong, of course, as Schaeffer’s cherry picked quotations and hugely biased interpretation of them can attest. Dennett is absolved by His Worshipfulness because, well, because Dennett seems so much nicer. Thus we can be gob-smacked at the profundity of  Schaeffer’s conclusion:

If Hitchens being Hitchens is an example of those “hardwon human attainments,” the rest of us would do well to avoid them. If Dawkins messianic/commercial website is the future of atheism, we might just be entering a new age of religion pushed there by the reaction to the reaction against religion. What a zinger! Religion will grow because of the reaction to these ‘cults of personalities.’

Oh please. What tripe.

Read the entire long winded diatribe here if you can do so without bleeding from the ears.

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