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.

January 4, 2010

Spreading the Good News: Isn’t religion a private affair?

It should be, but it isn’t. Behind much hate and suffering in the world lies the responsible agency: those who act on unjustified religious belief.

From an article in the New York Times:

KAMPALA, Uganda — Last March, three American evangelical Christians, whose teachings about “curing” homosexuals have been widely discredited in the United States, arrived here in Uganda’s capital to give a series of talks. The theme of the event, according to Stephen Langa, its Ugandan organizer, was “the gay agenda — that whole hidden and dark agenda” — and the threat homosexuals posed to Bible-based values and the traditional African family.

For three days, according to participants and audio recordings, thousands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians, listened raptly to the Americans, who were presented as experts on homosexuality. The visitors discussed how to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys and how “the gay movement is an evil institution” whose goal is “to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity.”

Now the three Americans are finding themselves on the defensive, saying they had no intention of helping stoke the kind of anger that could lead to what came next: a bill to impose a death sentence for homosexual behavior.

One month after the conference, a previously unknown Ugandan politician, who boasts of having evangelical friends in the American government, introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009, which threatens to hang homosexuals, and, as a result, has put Uganda on a collision course with Western nations.

Donor countries, including the United States, are demanding that Uganda’s government drop the proposed law, saying it violates human rights, though Uganda’s minister of ethics and integrity (who previously tried to ban miniskirts) recently said, “Homosexuals can forget about human rights.”

The Ugandan government, facing the prospect of losing millions in foreign aid, is now indicating that it will back down, slightly, and change the death penalty provision to life in prison for some homosexuals. But the battle is far from over.

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November 5, 2009

Gay Marriage means family breakdown? Hardly.

Symbol-Lambda“It’s intrinsically interesting that same-sex couples who use the term spouses look like opposite-sex married couples even with a characteristic like children,” said Gary Gates, the UCLA demographer who conducted the analysis. “Most proponents of traditional marriage will say that when you allow these couples to marry, you are going to change the fundamental nature of marriage by decoupling it from procreation. Clearly, in the minds of same-sex couples who are marrying or think of themselves as married, you are not decoupling child-rearing from marriage.”

Read the MSNBC article here.

Shame on Maine: Another blow to civil rights in the US

gay rightsSubjecting equal rights to majority rule is a recipe for discrimination. It is exactly the rights of minorities from the persecution of the majorities that need legal protection. Subjecting the legality of these minority rights to a popular vote is not only wrong, it’s dumb. Dumb is as dumb does, and these propositions to overturn legal equality reveals just how dumb is the belief that democracy yields what is right. Democracy yields what is popular, and right now in California and Maine, dumb is popular. And that’s a reason for shame.

Religious belief: irrational, intolerant, and de-humanizing. Sometimes, it even kills.

Religious IntoleranceWhen is enough truly enough? When will religious apologists wake up and realize that it is from the ranks of religious moderates comes the never-ending idiotic whack-jobs who think that they have the wherewithal to correctly interpret god’s wishes for humanity and impose their warped views on the rest of us? This comes at a deadly cost.

Examples abound large and small, from the Vatican’s lunatic position that condoms fail to offer much protection from AIDS to Egyptian clerics assuring the faithful that even trees hate the Jews (except for the Gharqad tree), the irrationality of religious beliefs continues to seep into our lives. It would be funny if it weren’t so destructive. There are about a billion Catholics who tolerate the Vatican’s nonsense and another 1.9 billion Muslims who produce clerical scholars of such repute. As if such popular foolishness and general delusion wasn’t depressing enough – foolishness and delusion that at the very least does nothing to stop needless death and destruction and arguably adds to them – we have a general theological consensus that, above all,  homosexuality truly has earned the wrath and revulsion of the devout on behalf of god.

From the Mormons who funded the revocation of legal same sex marriage in the great state of California, to the active support by the Church of Scientology for the same Proposition 8, the religious continue its war against the equal legal rights for gay and lesbian couples in the heartland of Liberty. Iran’s Shia laws may kill them with the blessing of the Guardian Council, but Americans like to think that their brands of Christianity are much less… brutal. Legal discrimination is fine and dandy with the Good Lord’s blessing, of course, but the theological maturity of Western Christianity means that the basic rights to life and quasi-liberty are assured – even for gays. I mean, talk about tolerance. Even India has legalized homosexuality in 2009! Talk about progress.

So how surprising is it to find that the Family – the Christian evangelical group dedicated to a muscular Jesus right at home in the halls of Washington’s power brokers – directly supports such stalwart allies in the land of so much missionary zeal, Africa, like President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda.

After listening to various speakers at a conference in the capital of Kampala in March of ’09, including American speakers like Scott Livey and Caleb Lee Brundidge who are well known for their religiously inspired anti-gay polemics, Uganda has tabled legislation aimed at criminalizing homosexual behaviour: from capital punishment for aggravated homosexuality to five years in prison and a multi-thousand dollar fine for those who attempt to legitimize or in any way abets homosexual and related practices. The law awaits the signature of the person Senator Rick Santini calls the Family’s “key man” in Uganda, President Museveni. The legislation calls homosexuality a “mental disorder” which “can and have changed to a heterosexual orientation” because it is “preventable, especially among young people who are most vulnerable to recruitment.” Sound familiar? It’s the same old ‘homosexual agenda’ bullshit right out of the US conservative christianity shtick. If it can’t fly at home, let’s support it where it can do some real damage, right?

Tolerance by the religious moderates for this kind of ongoing bigoted attack by their devout brethren allows it to spread around the globe without self-rebuke and theological condemnation. Without that moral support from those so-called ‘moderates’, atheists can keep pointing out how irrational, intolerant, and de-humanizing the anti-gay agenda really is with a count of very real dead bodies. Unless and until the religious moderates step up to their supposedly theologically inspired moral plate and deliver a resounding home run against this growing bigotry, the very least they can do is get out of the way and recognize that atheists hold the higher moral ground here on the basis of human rights and dignity for all.

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