Questionable Motives

November 5, 2010

How should we write about gnu atheists?

Filed under: accommodation,Bias,New Atheists,Religion,Skepticim — tildeb @ 11:38 pm

Well, there are the standard canards. One of my favourites and perhaps the most common is the one that puts forth the proposition that non belief is another kind of religious belief, albeit of the fundamentalist and dogmatic kind. And those who believe in it are the militant, strident, and arrogant atheists who dare not only to question the god hypothesis but who reach a conclusion of non belief as the evidence now stands. It seems to be a nice way to balance the whack jobs on both sides while appearing reasonable. Of course, it’s no such thing: it is the religious equivalent of racial apartheid: separate but equal. That’s what accommodation is all about.

So what are the rules to denigrate atheists successfully? Is there some kind of accommodation-friendly argumentative path to follow that would allow otherwise reasonable people to pretend that the god hypothesis is really a problem for atheists rather than the faithful, an approach that seems reasonable enough to fool the majority of people who would prefer to dismiss atheists without having to really think about the issues and questions they raise?

From Salty Current comes this satisfying guide to all those who wish to write and complain about the New Atheists. I have extracted a few paragraphs as a teaser but the short guide is a fast an enjoyable read.

Gnu atheists should be presented as uncivil, strident, aggressive, arrogant proselytizers and rigid fundamentalists. Don’t worry about finding concrete examples to support these generalizations. If you absolutely must quote from a gnu, keep it short and divorced from the complex background and context which would only confuse the reader. You’re firmly within the consensus, so you’re on solid ground. At the same time, whenever possible – as when discussing large-scale surveys showing declining rates of belief – present nonbelievers as merely having “doubts” about God. This is perfectly consistent.

Similarly, gnu atheism shouldn’t be presented as an intellectual position. Repeatedly emphasize their hostility to organized religion as the source of their disbelief. It helps if you acknowledge that there are some legitimate reasons for this hostility – shows you to be fair and balanced while leaving aside those pesky ontological matters.

You’re also safe presenting gnu atheists as cold, hyper-rational, solitary automatons who lack an appreciation of beauty or sense of wonder. Pay no attention to those who are artists, writers, or musicians, or to any of their works describing the wonder of scientific understanding and the sense of cosmic connectedness that follows from this deeper empirical knowledge. Leave aside the enormous spectrum of atheist writing on any number of ethical issues. And no need to discuss gnu atheists as people with families, friends, and communities. There’s nothing dishonest about this. You’re writing about that one dimension that is the guiding focus of their lives: rejecting religion.

Enjoy the entire guide and comments here.

(h/t to WEIT)

October 9, 2010

Religion in the public domain: Confrontation or accommodation?

Filed under: New Atheists,PZ Myers,Secularism,theology — tildeb @ 12:44 pm

Which side of the fence are you on? For those who know about P.Z. Myers’s reputation as a fiercely strident Gnu Atheist, the answer is pretty evident. But why does he take such a position? Are his reasons good ones? And why that take-no-prisoners approach for which he is famous?

He was on a panel this week and addressed these questions under the heading of Confrontation or Accommodation. I think his words from his presentation are well worth our consideration, so I have re-posted them here in their entirety:

I’m going to begin with where I entered this conflict — and make no mistake, it’s a real battle — with my experience in science education, and specifically with the teaching of evolution. Biology has been a lifelong passion for me, and when I first began teaching way back in the 1980s, it was a shock to discover students who had nothing but contempt for the great unifying principle of my discipline, who were happily wallowing in self-inflicted ignorance and who outright denied plain and simple facts about science. And when I discovered that there were ministers who came onto our campus and lied to our students, presented half-truths and weird fantasies to substitute for evidence, i was outraged. We Gnu Atheists have a reputation for being militant, but make no mistake: we didn’t start this war. If you want to place blame, put it on the backs of religious zealots who have been poisoning the minds of the young for a long, long time.

This is another theme in this conflict: Gnu Atheists are so dang angry. Damned right we are. The real question is why everyone else isn’t. If you aren’t angry about what’s being done to undermine education in this country, you haven’t been following along.

But we also respond rationally. My early incredulity about the nonsense being promoted by creationists was followed by a lot of fact-finding. You can do it too — look up the history of creationism, and you find that we’ve been fighting this same battle for at least half a century, and dealing with the same inane arguments over and over again. Where once Duane Gish was the creationist dinosaur roaming the earth, he was replaced by Kent Hovind, and he is now superseded by Ken Ham and Ray Comfort and Eric Hovind. Nothing has changed but the names. We have had a succession of court cases: Epperson v Arkansas in 68, McLean v Arkansas in 82, Edwards v. Aguillard in 87, Kitzmiller v Dover in 2005 — are they coming to an end? Did any of these trials diminish the influence of creationists? One flareup will be squelched, and next year there will be another. Similarly, we see a succession of politicians come and go, and nothing changes. Ronald Reagan becomes Santorum becomes Bush becomes another dreary chain of Republican know-nothings at every election cycle. It’s 2010, and guess what: Christine O’Donnell is running for the senate, and I’ve still got a local fundamentalist pastor coming on to my campus every week to instruct my students in the video fables of Brother Kent Hovind.

We have been treading water for 50 years. In one sense, that’s a very good thing: better to stay afloat in one place than to sink, and I am deeply appreciative of organizations like the NCSE that have kept us bobbing at the surface all this time, and please don’t ever stop. But isn’t it also about time we learned a new stroke and actually made some progress towards the shore? Shouldn’t we move beyond just reacting to every assault by Idiot America on science education, and honestly look at the root causes of this chronic malignancy and do something about it?

The sea our country is drowning in is a raging religiosity, wave after wave of ignorant arguments and ideological absurdities pushed by tired dogma and fervent and frustrated fanatics. We keep hearing that the answer is to find the still waters of a more moderate faith, but I’m sorry, I don’t feel like drowning there either.

There is an answer, and it’s on display right here in this room. The solution, the only longterm solution, is the sanity of secularism. The lesser struggles to keep silly stickers off our textbooks or to keep pseudoscientific BS like intelligent design out of our classrooms are important, but they are endless chores — at some point we just have to stop pandering to the ideological noise that spawns these unending tasks and cut right to the source: religion.

That’s where the Gnu Atheists get their confrontational reputation. We’re fed up with fighting off the symptoms. We need to address the disease. And if you’re one of those people trying to defend superstition and quivering in fear at the idea of taking on a majority that believes in foolishness, urging us to continue slapping bandages on the blight of faith, well then, you’re part of the problem and we’ll probably do something utterly dreadful, like be rude to you or write some cutting sarcastic essay to mock your position. That is our métier, after all.

There is another motive for our confrontational ways, and it has to do with values. We talk a lot about values in this country, so I kind of hate to use the word — it’s been tainted by the religious right, which howls about “Christian values” every time the subject of civil rights for gays or equal rights for women or universal health care or improving the plight of the poor come up — True Christian values are agin’ those things, after all. But the Gnu Atheists have values, too, and premiere among them is truth. And that makes us uncivil and rude, because we challenge the truth of religion.

Religion provides solace to millions, we are told, it makes them happy, and it’s mostly harmless.

“But is it true?”, we ask, as if it matters.

The religious are the majority, we hear over and over again, and we need to be pragmatic and diplomatic in dealing with them.

“But is what they believe true?”, we ask, and “What do we gain by compromising on reality?”

Religion isn’t the problem, they claim, it’s only the extremists and zealots and weirdos. The majority of believers are moderates and even share some values with us.

“But is a moderate superstition true?”, we repeat, and “How can a myth be made more true if its proponents are simply calmer in stating it?”

I mean, it’s nice and all that most Christians aren’t out chanting “God Hates Fags” and are a little embarrassed when some yokel whines that he didn’t come from no monkey, but they still go out and quietly vote against gay and lesbian rights, and they still sit at home while their school boards set fire to good science.

It’s all about the truth, people. And all the evidence is crystal clear right now: the earth is far older than 6,000 years. Evolution is a real, and it is a process built on raw chance driven by the brutal engines of selection, and there is no sign of a loving, personal god, but only billions of years of pitiless winnowing without any direction other than short-term survival and reproduction. It’s not pretty, it’s not consoling, it doesn’t sanctify virginity, or tell you that god really loves your foreskin, but it’s got one soaring virtue that trumps all the others: it’s true.

You won’t understand what the Gnu Atheists are up to until you understand that core value. I have been told that my position won’t win the creationist court cases; do you think I care? I did not become a scientist because I want to impress lawyers. I have been told that I must think promoting atheism is more important than promoting good science education; tell me how closing my eyes to claims of an imaginary deity using quantum indeterminacy to shape human evolution helps students better understand reality. I’ve been told to hush, there are good Christians who support science, and a vocal atheism will scare them away…and I have to ask, you question my support for science education, when you pander to people who you admit will put their superstitions above science if someone says a harsh word about Jesus?

I have to follow the advice of Tom Paine:

A thing moderately good is not so good as it ought to be. Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice.

And I will insist that a principle worth holding is worth fighting for. We must confront untruths; letting them lie unquestioned is simply a way to allow them to fester and grow.

I have to quote something I recently read by Ed Yong, the science journalist who blogs at Not Exactly Rocket Science. He has an excellent post up asking, “Should Science Journalists Take Sides?“, and while it’s specifically addressed to journalists, it applies equally well to scientists, or humanists, or just plain citizens. To summarize it all, the answer is yes: journalists should take sides, and I’m going to generalize it and suggest that we should all take sides. Here’s what Ed wrote:

A veteran science journalist recently wrote: “Reporters are messengers – their job is to tell, as accurately as they can, what has been said, with the benefit of such insight as their experience allows them to bring, not to second guess whether what is said is right”. That’s rubbish. If you are not actually providing any analysis, if you’re not effectively “taking a side”, then you are just a messenger, a middleman, a megaphone with ears. If that’s your idea of journalism, then my RSS reader is a journalist.

Too many of the godless believe in something even more: to avoid rocking the boat, to refrain from challenging dogma, to deftly avoid the issue when someone raises some religious folly. If you think you’re helping the cause with your cautious silence, then a brick wall is a public intellectual.Then Ed has this bit, which could have been written by a Gnu Atheist:

As I said earlier, this is about taking sides with truth. It’s about being knowledgeable enough to make a decent stab at uncovering the truth and presenting the outcomes of that quest to one’s readers, even if that outcome lies firmly on one side of a “debate”.

It’s about doing the actual job of a journalist, by analysing, critiquing, placing into context and so on, as opposed to merely reporting. It’s about acknowledging one’s own biases and making them plain to see for a reader.

In the end, this is about transparency and truth, concepts that are far more important than neutrality or objectivity. After all, the word for people who are neutral about truth is ‘liars’. It shouldn’t be ‘journalists’.

I have to repeat that. The word for people who are neutral about truth is “liars”. It shouldn’t be “scientists”. It shouldn’t be “humanists”.

Earlier today we heard Paul Kurtz speak, and while I have great respect for his contributions to this secular movement, he did mischaracterize atheists, and I have to call him on it. One of the most common canards applied to us, and especially to the Gnu Atheists, is that we’re negative, that we lack a positive center that we stand for. This is completely false. When you look at the body of work that the prominent leaders of this movement have put together, when you look at the books of people like Dawkins and Harris and Dennett and Coyne and Stenger, you do not find them nattering on for hundreds of pages about how much they hate religion. Quite the contrary. What you find are authors who write about reason and evidence and science, where front and center you find an appreciation for a universe rich with natural phenomena that, with a little honest effort, we can reach out and comprehend. We atheists live a purpose-driven life, to steal a phrase, and that life is dedicated to deepening our understanding and learning about this world. Call us merely negative, or merely angry, or merely anti-religious, and you haven’t been paying attention. You haven’t been reading our books or articles for comprehension.

What may have confused some people, though, is that we also believe you can’t love the truth without detesting lies. That an honest way of dealing with those lies is to confront them openly, head on, and unapologetically, and while some might rationalize accommodating unjustifiable distortions of the truth as a strategic option, there are a number of us who consider that principle to be one on which we will not compromise.

May 31, 2010

What has David Sloan Wilson misplaced?

I get tired of the same old crap from religious apologists who claim to be atheists but respectful of religion. The two notions, like so many other notions snuggled up against religion, are simply incompatible. Be that as it may, the religious apologist tends to miss the point of their own atheism: non belief. And one maintains non belief because the reasons and justifications for the belief are held by the atheist to be insufficient to be considered probably true, probably correct, probably accurate.Wilson seems to have misplaced that notion regarding other atheists.

Most of us don’t apologize if we think the followers of astrology are wrong in their beliefs about the effects of stars and planets guiding our destinies. Most of us don’t grant respect to the idea that because some people believe lead can be made into gold by the incantation of magic words, the idea has merit simply by the fact that these folk find comfort in believing in transubstantiation. Most of us don’t lend credence to dowsing because of the utility the belief brings to those who wish to dig to the water table and who – miracle! – find water. Yet there is a veritable army of people who use this kind of flimsy thinking to excuse those who wish to maintain their religious beliefs and enter them into guiding public policies that directly affect the rights and freedoms of others.

One such apologist is David Sloan Wilson who proposes that that natural selection can operate on traits that improve the success of groups rather than individuals. Groupthink is a sociologist’s wet dream and I have always found those who construct mental definitions based on selected group criteria who then in turn define the ‘group’ behaviour as an explanation for that common group criteria to be sloppy thinkers. Sloan does not disappoint me. He responds to a question about why those like he is who argue the evolutionary utility of religion helps to explain its value in terms of group advantages are treated with less deference in the scientific world of biology than he believes they ought. The entire article is here, but the part that pisses me off is his answer to the question:

Does your approach annoy atheists?

I piss off atheists more than any other category, and I am an atheist. One of the things that infuriates me about the newest crop of angry atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, is their denial of the beneficial aspects of religion. Their beef is not just that there is no evidence for God. They also insist that religion “poisons everything”, as Christopher Hitchens subtitled his book. They are ignoring the scientific theory and evidence for the “secular utility” of religion, as Émile Durkheim put it, even though they wrap themselves in the mantle of science and rationality. Someone needs to call them out on that, and that person is me.

Angry atheists? We deny benefit to those who share religious belief? Our beef? Ignore secular utility? Wrap ourselves in science and rationality? What nonsense.

How does this intentional gross misrepresentation of some of the New Atheists deal with what matters most to honest atheists: is the notion being brought forth as a truth claim actually true, and if so, based on what good reasons with evidential support? Sloan doesn’t tackle this point because he can’t; instead, he call more famous atheists names. Yes, what a champion of the droll.

Put another way, Sloan is undermining exactly that approach concerned about inquiring into what is true and focuses on these piddling caricatures of those who do so with more groupthink that has no bearing on truth claims. For example, he seems to think that the inquiry into what is true needs to lend some weighted value to a ‘happy’ factor. He thinks if a belief has some benefit, that must increase it’s truth value. Surely if an idea has utility, he insists, that has to grant some weight to its truth value. And obviously those who insist that truth be determined in as objective way as possible must do so out of some hidden egoism. Regarding what is true, what atheists actually care about, Wilson shoots off his mouth well wide of the mark and thinks himself a real champion of the religious underclass for doing so.

What bunk.

With willing minions like Wilson to tackle the job of undermining atheism by intentional misrepresentations and really stupid and weak arguments like these, David Sloan Wilson becomes just another religious apologist aiding and abetting those who don’t care about what’s true. Although I have no doubt that in Wilson’s mind he has ‘called out’ these atheists who own up to caring about what is true, all he has really accomplished is called into question his own intellectual integrity with such proud prattle. But that will happen when you disconnect from your own higher faculties.

May 25, 2010

The moral high ground: Is this how you teach atheists to play Nice?

Dr. Karl Giberson, a professor at Eastern Nazarene College and co-president of the BioLogos Foundation, tells us in his article published in USA Today that New Atheists need to learn how to play well with others.  His main argument here is that because some well-respected scientists are christian, christianity is compatible with science. Supposedly he’s just as fine with the same logic that because some catholic priests are pedophiles, pedophilia is compatible with catholicism. Setting aside the main thrust of this very stupid argument, he admonishes the New Atheists for countering such very stupid arguments and pretends to take the moral high ground to do so, and reminds us that Nothing is gained by loud, self-promoting and mean-spirited assaults on the beliefs of fellow citizens. In addition, he tells us that it appears that the New Atheists are behaving like a boorish bunch of intellectual bullies.

Mean-spirited assaults. Boorish bullies. Yes, those New Atheists are a mean and boorish bunch and they are loud because they wish to promote themselves. Terrible people, really. How do we know this? We know this because people like Giberson keep telling us it is so. It’s the standard ‘tone’ argument; religious apologists keep telling atheists that they need to change the tone of their arguments to be more effective countering very stupid arguments offered up by religious believers that in turn counter the claim that science and religion are compatible ways to know what’s true. ‘Tone’ is often code for ‘Just shut the fuck up and keep your filthy mouth closed because what you are saying is disrespectful of my very stupid arguments and therefore disrespectful of my god.’ As evidence for this mean-spirited assault, Giberson tells us that New Atheist Jerry Coyne raked Brown University cell biologist Ken Miller and him  over the coals in The New Republic for their claims that Christians can unapologetically embrace science. Now isn’t that mean-spirited? Downright boorish and bullying, too.

What did Coyne actually write in The New Republic?

Giberson and Miller are thoughtful men of good will. Reading them, you get a sense of conviction and sincerity absent from the writings of many creationists, who blatantly deny the most obvious facts about nature in the cause of their faith. Both of their books are worth reading: Giberson for the history of the creation/ evolution debate, and Miller for his lucid arguments against intelligent design. Yet in the end they fail to achieve their longed-for union between faith and evolution. And they fail for the same reason that people always fail: a true harmony between science and religion requires either doing away with most people’s religion and replacing it with a watered-down deism, or polluting science with unnecessary, untestable, and unreasonable spiritual claims.

See how mean-spirited that is? Why the boorishness and intellectual bullying almost leaps off the page, doesn’t it?

The truth of the matter is that it is liars like Giberson, who paint New Atheists inaccurately and then have the gall and temerity and lack of moral integrity and intellectual honesty to deal with legitimate criticism against their religious ideas like grown-ups, resort instead to name calling and spreading false rumors. In religious terminology, I think it is relevant to call what Giberson does bearing false witness.  And it is offensive because it undermines exactly the supposed point of why the article was published in the first place: that playing nicely results in more respect for compatibility.

As Ophelia Benson writes about the mean-spirited and boorish bullying accusation,

That’s a really offensive claim. Not offensive in the frivolous sense the word is so often used to convey, but genuinely offensive, because it is untrue. Coyne doesn’t rake Miller and Giberson over any coals; he says good things about both of them in that long review in The New Republic; he also disagrees with much of what they claim in their respective books. He does it honestly, and carefully, and with detailed argument. That is not the same thing as raking people over the coals! It is offensive for Karl Giberson to make that accusation in a large-circulation national newspaper. Yet here he is telling other people how to play nicely. It’s so typical – say things about atheists that are not true, in the very act of telling atheists to be Nicer.

Giberson is not alone. Typical criticisms by religious apologists against the New Atheists – for daring to criticize religious beliefs by pointing out the incompatibility between science and religion – can’t win on intellectual merit. Nor can Giberson and his religiously apologetic ilk win the argument on honest moral grounds; what we do see is that the New Atheists have to be demonized first by mean-spirited and boorishly bullying methods even if it requires blatant unapologetic lying to do so. You see, by hook or by crook, any method to inaccurately portray New Atheists poorly and get the false message out there that they are terrible people to the broadest audience possible is really all that matters to people like Giberson. Playing nice, as you can plainly see, has nothing to do with the point of his article and is just another example of duplicity by the faithful to support the maligning of atheists themselves rather than deal honestly, openly, and fairly with their legitimate criticisms. Such people as Giberson who prefer to believe the worst about atheists in spite of contrary evidence and those who prefer to agree with their boorish and bullying tactics are really nothing more and nothing less than intellectual cowards.

April 25, 2010

How can we get rid of the New Atheists’ reason for being?

From the Nigerian Tribune:
Citizen Oluwatoyin Oluseesin was killed recently by irate students of the Government Day Secondary School, Gandu, Gombe State, where, until her gruesome murder, she was a contract staff member.

The deceased was reportedly assigned to invigilate the SS1 students who were writing their Islamic Religious Knowledge paper when she observed that one of the students was attempting to smuggle some books into the examination hall. Sensing that a foul play was about to take place, she allegedly collected the books and threw them outside.

Unfortunately, that simple act of preventing the occurrence of fraud was to prove fatal for Mrs. Oluseesin. Unknown to her, a copy of the Holy Qur’an was among the books she allegedly collected from the aberrant student and threw outside. Newspaper reports claimed that she was attacked outside the school premises after the examination and beaten to death by the students for allegedly desecrating the holy book. Efforts made by the principal of the school, Mr. Mohammed Sadiq, to control the rampaging students, the reports further claimed, proved abortive. His attempt to protect the victim by hiding her in his office also failed. He was reportedly beaten up by the riotous students who also burnt down his car as well as three classrooms, the school’s clinic, library and the administrative block.

Acting on religious belief is unjustified. The sooner we accept this concept for judging any behaviour in the public domain that attempts to use religious belief as an excuse, the sooner religious apologists will have to stop pretending that religious belief’s intrusion into areas of public policy, law, education and governance is somehow acceptable. It isn’t. Religious belief has no business in the public domain because it is informed by nothing but assertion and assumption.

Want to get rid of the New Atheists’ reason for being and protect people like Oluwatoyin Oluseesin from the hatred of the religious mob? What better way than making public expressions of religious faith tantamount to an attack on religious freedom and supporting the return of religious belief to the private domain where each of us has the freedom to believe whatever delusion that comforts us the most and leaves our neighbours free from us attempting to reduce their rights and freedoms and dignity of personhood in the name of some unjustified religious belief?

April 11, 2010

Deputy Dawkins?

From Marc Horne at the TimesOnline:

RICHARD DAWKINS, the atheist campaigner, is planning a legal ambush to have the Pope arrested during his state visit to Britain “for crimes against humanity”.

Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, the atheist author, have asked human rights lawyers to produce a case for charging Pope Benedict XVI over his alleged cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic church.

The pair believe they can exploit the same legal principle used to arrest Augusto Pinochet, the late Chilean dictator, when he visited Britain in 1998.

The Pope was embroiled in new controversy this weekend over a letter he signed arguing that the “good of the universal church” should be considered against the defrocking of an American priest who committed sex offences against two boys. It was dated 1985, when he was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which deals with sex abuse cases.

Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, said: “This is a man whose first instinct when his priests are caught with their pants down is to cover up the scandal and damn the young victims to silence.”

Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great, said: “This man is not above or outside the law. The institutionalised concealment of child rape is a crime under any law and demands not private ceremonies of repentance or church-funded payoffs, but justice and punishment.”

Dawkins posted a comment about this article on his own blog here from which I have taken the following excerpts:

Needless to say, I did NOT say “I will arrest Pope Benedict XVI” or anything so personally grandiloquent. What I DID say to Marc Horne when he telephoned me out of the blue, and I repeat it here, is that I am whole-heartedly behind the initiative by Geoffrey Robertson and Mark Stephens to mount a legal challenge to the Pope’s proposed visit to Britain. Even if the Pope doesn’t end up in the dock, and even if the Vatican doesn’t cancel the visit, I am optimistic that we shall raise public consciousness to the point where the British government will find it very awkward indeed to go ahead with the Pope’s visit, let alone pay for it.

And that’s what makes the New Atheists different from previous atheists in general: we have decided to push back in various ways and means against the promotion and acceptance of religious belief in the public domain. Surely welcoming such a prominent and accused criminal with pomp and ceremony (and security) paid for by the state because the visitor is a high ranking religious figure falls into this category of unjustified promotion and acceptance.

Any push back – no matter how gentle but firm – will be presented as militancy by religious supporters and apologists , of course, and any public disagreement with the faithful’s unwavering support for the insertion of religious belief into the public domain will be described as strident and arrogant and a host of other negative but equally inaccurate terms. This is business as usual between the two groups. But the push back is necessary. By launching a legal challenge against the pope, the Hitch and Rich are doing what the British government and other secular states should be doing: holding  those accused of complicity in crimes legally accountable for their decisions and actions. Good on ’em, I say.

March 29, 2010

Is the tone of religious criticism important?

Richard Dawkins has written a short article answering the question, “Should the pope resign?”

As an atheist, Dawkins is often vilified as too strident, too aggressive, too unqualified about sophisticated theology to speak to the nuances of religious belief. His tone, in other words, is all wrong to be effective, we hear from so many ‘I’m an atheist, but…’ apologists.  Clearly, Dawkins has no respect for beliefs that are not concerned with what is true, and that central tenet of Dawkins’ philosophy must be kept in mind if one is to appreciate what the man brings to the discussion table regarding religious belief and its effects in the world. You may not appreciate the messenger, but the message is clear and truthful.

So when he Dawkins is asked to give his opinion, religious moderates and apologetic atheists need to gird their loins for what is to follow because they are about to hear the truth without the sugarcoating niceties so favoured by the apologetic faint of heart set.

“Should the pope resign?”

No. As the College of Cardinals must have recognized when they elected him, he is perfectly – ideally – qualified to lead the Roman Catholic Church. A leering old villain in a frock, who spent decades conspiring behind closed doors for the position he now holds; a man who believes he is infallible and acts the part; a man whose preaching of scientific falsehood is responsible for the deaths of countless AIDS victims in Africa; a man whose first instinct when his priests are caught with their pants down is to cover up the scandal and damn the young victims to silence: in short, exactly the right man for the job. He should not resign, moreover, because he is perfectly positioned to accelerate the downfall of the evil, corrupt organization whose character he fits like a glove, and of which he is the absolute and historically appropriate monarch.

No, Pope Ratzinger should not resign. He should remain in charge of the whole rotten edifice – the whole profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution – while it tumbles, amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears.

The tone? Short, to the point, in your face, here’s the truth, now deal with it, kind of tone.

Shocking? So what? Is it true?

Now let’s look at what criticizing the tone really means.

Greta Christina has written a lovely response to those people who troll their concern about this very issue: tone.

Dear Believer:

Thank you for your concern about the well-being of the atheist movement, and for your advice on how to run it. I appreciate your concern for the image of the atheist movement, and I appreciate you taking the time to give us advice on how to get our message across more effectively.

In particular, I have received your observation that attempts to persuade people out of their religious beliefs are often seen as rude or offensive — along with your suggestion that we therefore should stop making our case altogether. I have also received your suggestion that, if we do feel it necessary to point out the flaws in religion, we do so gently and diplomatically, making the avoidance of any possible offense or hurt feelings our absolute top priority. I have received your observation that attempts to persuade people out of religious beliefs can be divisive, possibly alienating the progressive ecumenical religious community — and I have received your suggestion that we should therefore concentrate entirely on anti-discrimination and separation of church and state issues that we have in common with progressive believers, and abandon any focus on pointing out the flaws in religion or the harm done by it. And I have received your suggestion that we avoid any use of anger, humor, mockery, passion, and other traditional methods of drawing attention to controversial ideas, and that in the future we make our case soberly, moderately, and with little fanfare. These suggestions are certainly interesting, and I will give them all due consideration.

However, while your concern for the well-being of the atheist movement is certainly appreciated, I can assure you that it is unwarranted. rates of religious non-belief are going up at a substantial rate — a rate that even surprises many of us — all over the United States and all over the world. This trend is especially true among young people… arguably the most important demographic for any social change movement. What’s more, I personally have been told by several people that they left their religion and became atheists, in part, because of things I’ve written. And I know that I left my own religious beliefs, in large part, because of things that were written by people in the atheist movement. Clearly, we are doing something right.

It is difficult to avoid the observation that, whenever believers give advice to atheists on how to run our movement, it is always in the direction of telling us to be more quiet, to tone it down, to be less confrontational and less visible. I have yet to see a believer advise the atheist movement to speak up more loudly and more passionately; to make our arguments more compelling and more unanswerable; to get in people’s faces more about delicate and thorny issues that they don’t want to think about; to not be afraid of offending people if we think we’re right. I have received a great deal of advice from believers on how atheists should run our movement… and it is always, always, always in the direction of politely suggesting that we shut up.

You’ll have to forgive me if I think your suggestions on making our movement more effective would, in fact, have the exact opposite effect. What’s more, you’ll have to forgive me for suspecting that this, however unconsciously, is the true intention behind your very kind and no doubt sincerely- meant advice.

And you’ll have to forgive me if I am less than enthusiastic about taking advice on how to run the atheist movement from the very people our movement is trying to change.

And that’s the key point: the New Atheist movement recognizes the global danger unjustified religious beliefs that is organized and political brings to the world and is trying to do something about it not by violence or imposition but by discourse. The various styles and tones by which this is done are not the issue and never shall be; the issue is whether or not religious belief is justified to have say about anything. If we are concerned about what’s true, then we need to be very concerned with popular beliefs that are not.

And at the top of that list is religion. It is the criticism of unjustified beliefs that is important if one thinks that what’s true actually matters more the tone by which it occurs. Those whose opinions are more concerned with tone than what’s true are simply an impediment to meaningful discourse.

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 26, 2010

Christianity according to Dawkins: a haven for apologetic hypocrisy?

We know what caused the catastrophe in Haiti. It was the bumping and grinding of the Caribbean Plate rubbing up against the North American Plate: a force of nature, sin-free and indifferent to sin, un-premeditated, unmotivated, supremely unconcerned with human affairs or human misery.

The religious mind, however, restlessly seeks human meaning in the blind happenings of nature. As with the Indonesian tsunami, which was blamed on loose sexual morals in tourist bars; as with Hurricane Katrina, which was attributed to divine revenge on the entire city of New Orleans for harboring a lesbian comedian, and as with other disasters going back to the famous Lisbon earthquake and beyond, so Haiti’s tragedy must be payback for human sin. The Rev. Pat Robertson sees the hand of God in the earthquake, wreaking terrible retribution for a pact that the long-dead ancestors of today’s Haitians made with the devil, to help rid them of their French masters.

Needless to say, milder-mannered faith-heads are falling over themselves to disown Pat Robertson, just as they disowned those other pastors, evangelists, missionaries and mullahs at the time of the earlier disasters.

What hypocrisy.

Loathsome as Robertson’s views undoubtedly are, he is the Christian who stands squarely in the Christian tradition. The agonized theodiceans who see suffering as an intractable ‘mystery’, or who ‘see God’ in the help, money and goodwill that is now flooding into Haiti , or (most nauseating of all) who claim to see God ‘suffering on the cross’ in the ruins of Port-au-Prince, those faux-anguished hypocrites are denying the centrepiece of their own theology. It is the obnoxious Pat Robertson who is the true Christian here.

Read the rest of Dawkins’ On Faith article here.

January 10, 2010

Do atheists perform a public service criticizing religious belief?

Excerpts from Russell Blackford’s Hellfire and Metamagician post:

The trouble with religious explanations of the world is not so much that they are implausible, for their implausibility becomes apparent to many people only after a great deal of thought and against a background of accumulated scientific knowledge. Over the centuries, indeed, religious explanations have proved to be all-too-plausible for people who are attracted to them by their rhetoric, their association with wealth or power, or the comfort they provide … rather than by actual evidence. Conversely, it is a gross misunderstanding to imagine that anyone thinks of quantum theory or cosmological theories as plausible in themselves. On the contrary, these theories, taken in isolation, are difficult and highly counterintuitive.

The entire history of modern science, from Galileo, through Darwin, to the present day, has been one of replacing the common sense of medium-sized earthbound creatures such as us with explanatory theories that defy commonsense intuitions – but are superior in their explanatory reach and conformity to the evidence. Scientific evidence, of course, does not fall from the sky without labour, like so much manna; instead, it is gathered painstakingly and incrementally, year by year, drawing on the professional efforts of many highly-trained individuals. Eventually, some of the evidence converges so powerfully as to support highly successful bodies of theory. Some of these are never likely to be overthrown, such as the theoretical finding that human beings descended from apelike creatures, that the Earth is billions of years old, that it revolves around the Sun (while rotating on its axis), that many diseases are caused by bacteria or viruses, and so on. None of these claims, taken in isolation from the evidence and from the rest of science, is especially plausible.

Religious organisations and leaders continue to exert social and political power, even in the supposedly enlightened nations of the West. All too often, they seek to control how we plan and run our lives, including choices about how we die. We still see intense activism from the religious lobbies of all Western democracies, and even in relatively secular countries, such as the UK and Australia, governments pander blatantly to Christian (and now Muslim) moral concerns.

If religious leaders and their organisations were prepared to stay within the private sphere, worshipping their gods as they choose and performing works of charity, we would have no great problem with them – live and let live! Unfortunately, they tend to lobby for government actions that would impose their moral views on the rest of society – whether it be views about homosexuality, abortion, artistic freedom, end-of-life decisions, blasphemy and vilification laws, or a raft of other issues involving precious individual liberties.

Against that background, there is at least a loose, minimalist movement to challenge the authority of religion. Individual atheists within this unstructured feline community may have widely differing philosophies and priorities, but one thing we could almost all agree on is that religion continues to obtain far too much deference in government decision-making, including when the decisions involve coercion and police powers … and when they involve large sums of public money.

In a different world, without the many religious leaders, organisations, and lobby groups that claim moral authority and exert actual political influence, contemporary atheists would feel less need to be outspoken. However, we don’t find ourselves in that world. Instead, the religious sects, even those that give lip-service to a separation of Church and State (a concept which they self-servingly misinterpret), typically lobby for their specifically religious moralities to be imposed by the secular law. When the religious do that, it is only natural for us to reply by asking what moral authority they really have. Are their holy books and traditions really repositories of supernatural moral wisdom, dictated or inspired by a higher being, or are they all-too-human constructs, reflecting the limited moral visions of their times? Surely it is the latter, and surely we perform a public service when we point this out – supported, where necessary, with evidence and argument.

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