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Atheism is responsible for mass murder?

Atheism, not religion, is the real force behind the mass murders of history” is the title of a recent opinion piece posted at the Christian Science Monitor. The author, Dinesh D’Souza, feels that the recent books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and others exaggerate…

“the crimes attributed to religion, while ignoring the greater crimes of secular fanaticism.”

After making that accusation, the author goes on to down-play religious atrocities while making the unsupported assertion that many more people have died in “the name of atheism”. This sort of character assassination is a prime example of why I openly identify myself as an atheist and why I feel that it’s important for us to vigilantly rebut the lies and misinformation spread by fearful zealots. They attempt to prop up their beliefs with fallacious appeals to the dire consequences they’re certain will occur if we reject fanciful claims about gods. Consequences which every bit of evidence continues to refute.

Let’s dig in and expose the lies and fallacies for what they are…

The first major claim is that atheists (specifically Harris and Dawkins) are exaggerating the crimes attributed to religion. In response to this, the author claims that fewer than 25 people were killed in the Salem witch trials and that 10-110,000 died in the Spanish inquisition. If we assume that those numbers are correct, how does that prove his assertion that these atheist authors are exaggerating? Did they use different numbers? Of course not. If they had, the author surely would have provided those numbers to show how exaggerated their claims were.

There were only 12 killed in the Columbine school shooting. Does that mean it wasn’t a tragedy? Is the death toll more critical than the circumstances surrounding the incident? Why does D’Souza think his low-20’s number should diminish, in any way, the nature of the vile injustice committed in Salem?

D’Souza is dangling a red herring in front of us, hoping that we’ll be so distracted by the facts that he’s presented that we’ll completely forget what he’s actually claiming – that atheists misrepresented these facts. Instead of making his case that these atheists are lying, he’s completely missed all the relevant points and opted to simply down-play these injustices as “not so bad” and expands this misdirection with the tired old appeal that these incidents occurred long ago.

I’m not sure why, but when faced with undeniable evidence of the harm caused by religion one common response is that religion “isn’t all bad”. Neither is heroin, but we generally discourage people from becoming regular users who allow it to influence or define the decisions they make. If your most salient defense of your beliefs is that they “aren’t so bad”, you’ve already sold out. You’re either a junky or supporting the dealers who supply junkies.

Does Dinesh sincerely believe that Dawkins, Harris and others are actively complaining about the Salem witch trials or Spanish inquisition? I doubt it. It’s more likely that he’s aware of the great social injustices and atrocities that are the direct result of religious belief and has wisely opted not to attempt to defend them. These atheist authors aren’t outraged over centuries-old murders, they’re railing against modern injustices which are the direct result of religious belief. They’re attempting to point out the divisive, destructive and delusional mentality that religion fosters.

The second major claim is that Harris and Dawkins have ignored crimes of secular fanaticism. Based on the points that Mr. D’Souza makes on this issue, I have to conclude that he’s completely in error. Both of those authors have spoken about the sort of crimes he’s referring to and provided clear responses to silly accusations like the following:

“In the name of creating their version of a religion-free utopia, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong produced the kind of mass slaughter that no Inquisitor could possibly match. Collectively these atheist tyrants murdered more than 100 million people.”

Whether or not Hitler was an atheist is a subject of much debate. He repeatedly identified himself as a Catholic both publicly and privately. He was supported by the Catholic church and the Pope described Hitler’s opposition to Russia as “highminded gallantry in defense of the foundations of Christian culture.”

Even if the author is correct about Hitler (a point we have no reason to concede) he lists those men as “atheist tyrants”. Was atheism the justification for their actions? Were these murders done “in the name of atheism”, as the author claims? Absolutely not.

At the beginning of his article, he blamed these murders on “secular fanaticism” and now he’s blaming atheism. What is “secular fanaticism”? I’m not completely sure, but D’Souza does nothing to justify the bait-and-switch he performs by equating “atheism” with “secular fanaticism”. Should we equate “religious extremist” with “Christian” or “Muslim”? As a thinking person, I certainly see a much stronger tie between the two (as I see no way to justify fanatic actions from non-belief), but I don’t think it’s fair to portray them as equivalent.

Atheism is, simply, the lack of belief in a god. There are no tenets, no dogma, no rituals, no common socio-political beliefs, no agendas, no ethical code, no “holier than…” or “better than” — there’s nothing within atheism that could support the claims he’s making. Those tyrants and murderers didn’t kill people “in the name of atheism” and atheism wasn’t the cause of their actions.

Without a causal link between atheism and the evil actions of these men, what we really have is coincidental correlation. The author could have labeled them “male tyrants” and come closer to a causal link than his preferred label of “atheist tyrants”. The actions of those men weren’t carried out on behalf of atheism or caused by atheism – they were carried out for reasons that transcend atheism.

D’Souza has done nothing to support his notion that atheism is responsible for great evil – he’s simply asserted that it is true and tap-danced his way around the issue.

In the case of the Salem witch trials, the cause of the action was religious beliefs. The Bible says ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’ and the people persecuting witches used that verse as a justification for their action — that is a causal relationship. Whether they killed 1, 25 or 25,000 hardly matters. The same holds true for other religious atrocities including the faith-based initiative we commonly refer to as 9-11.

D’Souza fails to support his accusations about Harris and Dawkins as well as the claim made in the title of his article: that atheism is the real force behind historical mass murders. Given the actual state of affairs it’s clear that a much stronger case can be made for the claim that the only people who have been killed “in the name of atheism” are those people who were killed, by religious zealots, for being atheists.

Where are the atheist suicide bombers? Where is the low-quality video of a beheading carried out by an atheist activist? Where are the atheists who string up non-atheists and burn large ‘A’-frames on the lawns of Christians? Where are the budget cuts and gag rules that prohibit funding to clinics that mention abstinence?

Whenever we see a prominent religious figure publicly disgraced or read about women who slaughter their children for their god, the most common excuse is that those people weren’t “real” believers. In the case of Christianity, the Big Book of Multiple Choice (also known as The Bible) includes verses that serve as warnings about false believers which are conveniently tossed around on these occasions.

What we’ve learned is simple: If someone does something that makes a given religion look bad – they weren’t a “true believer”. Until they do, they’re probably a true believer, but there’s no way to tell. Hopefully, more people will realize this and we’ll finally have a majority that stops thinking in terms of “what you claim to believe” and focuses on what we do, what is true, and what is most beneficial for the survival of our species.

This sort of ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ mentality is rampant among believers. It’s a coping mechanism that prevents them from ever having to deal with the harsh truths of reality. Their general misconceptions about atheism are the result of a desperate need to personify evil and shift blame. Kent Hovind, in his creationist propaganda includes an entire lecture which hangs the responsibility for all of the evil in the world around the neck of Charles Darwin. Evolutionary theory is, in his mind, the root of all evil.

Dinesh D’Souza is attempting something similar here. He’s desperately attempting to focus our attention on anything other than the man behind the curtain. While his attempts are as laughable and feeble as the great and powerful Oz, they’re hardly as endearing. While his prose may be better, he’s no different from the Internet forum troll who calls atheists evil and compares them to Hitler. His article, and the articles of those who echo his claims, may be the best evidence against his claims.

The whole God = morality thing

In the comments to the Warren Jeffs post of a few days back, an anonymous poster keeps asking us how we, as godless heathens, can possibly judge Jeffs’ actions as immoral because, being atheists and all, we obviously must live lives of pure moral anarchy where anything goes, right? You guessed it — it’s the old “no god, no morals” argument one more time. I thought it would be instructive to our commenter, as well as anyone else still uninformed enough to think this way, to devote to the topic a post of its own.

We have often heard from believers the whole “no Bible, no morals” pitch, and frankly I continue to be surprised that anyone in this day and age, even amongst the religious, could still be so naive as to adhere to it, as it demonstrates both an ignorance of the function of moral precepts in society as well as the actual content of the Bible. I also would have thought the recent scandals involving such evangelical leading lights as Ted Haggard and Kent Hovind should have put to rest the idiotic notion that religious belief is some kind of guarantee of moral superiority. (Indeed, the very fact that Warren Jeffs himself is a religious believer and not an atheist ought to say something.) But I guess some folks never got the message. I’ll address specific points in Anonymous’s replies in order to rectify his lack of understanding. (Note: because of Anonymous’s anonymity, I will default to assuming Anonymous is male for the sake of ease.)

To Tracie he said:

A lot of I’s and my’s going on here. If you don’t believe in objective truth then I guess it’s subjective. It’s just based on personal whims and preferences. In other words, someone can easily say to you who cares what you say is truth because my truth is different.

Someone could easily say that, but they’d be full of crap, because no one lives in complete isolation from other individuals. Humans are social beings, and thus our every action has consequences that affect not only ourselves but those around us. This is an observable fact and there for any thinking being to comprehend and evaluate. People who go around saying “my truth is different” and then act upon that precept are generally considered sociopathic.

To be honest, the only people I’ve ever heard claim that there is no such thing as objective truth have been Christians. I’m not suggesting this is an opinion held by all Christians, only that the only people who’ve ever expressed it to me have been Christian; no atheist in my experience has ever told me there’s no objective truth. I once had a pastor tell me “truth is relative,” with a straight face, and phrases like “everything is a belief” pop up with surprising regularity in debates with believers, usually when you’ve just demonstrated to them how some aspect of their belief system doesn’t stand up to scientific or rational scrutiny.

Anyway, Anonymous’s point seems to be that either a person gets a list of rules out of an ancient holy book, and is thus moral, or they don’t, and they aren’t, and can only make decisions based on “whims and preferences.” This strikes me as a baffling way for someone to learn morality, as it offers no understanding of the precepts being taught, and in fact discourages intellectual involvement in moral development. A person might practice “moral” behavior at a superficial level if they go out of their way to follow a list of Biblical dos and don’ts. But they cannot be expected to genuinely understand the difference between right and wrong; why they must behave they way they’ve been told to behave.

What Tracie was explaining in her initial reply to Anonymous is that she can rationally observe the consequences of certain actions, and make decisions about the morality or immorality of those actions based on her observations. She was telling him she doesn’t need a list of rules in a holy book to tell her a thing is wrong when she can readily see this fact for herself. It’s a little process called “thinking,” and it’s quite a different thing than “whim.”

The rest of Anonymous’s response to Tracie shows he really hasn’t the slightest clue what she was trying to tell him (Anonymous also seems not to understand human interaction), and I’ll let her respond to Anonymous from here on out.

To me Anonymous asked:

I never said it was arbitrary [to condemn Jeffs for his actions], I wanted to know why it isn’t arbritrary according to your world view?

Anonymous obviously doesn’t understand my “worldview,” and I have a pretty strong suspicion that what he thinks my “worldview” is, is comprised of stereotypical notions about atheists that have been fed to him as part of his religious upbringing.

Reason is not an abritrary process. Observing the consequences of actions, thinking about what you’ve observed, and arriving at conclusions rationally is anything but arbitrary.

The irony of Anonymous’s position is that he’s either unaware or unwilling to admit that he arrives at moral decisions by the same process I do: he thinks about them. If, as he says, he considers the Bible to be the “objective standard,” (more on this in a minute) then how does Anonymous arrive at the decision that its moral precepts are the correct ones? When Anonymous reads “Thou shalt not kill,” and thinks, “Hey, that sounds like a good idea,” where does that decision originate from and how does Anonymous account for it (to paraphrase his own question to me)? How does he know it’s a better idea to follow that precept rather than reject it? If he replies, “God instilled that understanding in me,” then why is the Bible necessary? Why would God have instilled understanding in Anonymous and not everyone else?

The fact is that whether you prefer to get your morals out of the Bible (a bad choice, as I’ll shortly demonstrate), or by observing actions, learning from those observations and just approaching life rationally, you will arrive at moral decisions by the same process: thinking.

Anonymous goes on to say:

Well, now your [sic] begging the question, but since you asked I’ll tell you. I presuppose that the Bible is the objective standard. This behavior is clearly wrong according to Bible.

Bzzt! Wrong answer. This behavior is clearly not wrong according to the Bible. There are numerous instances where the God of the Bible condones and even advocates rape, incest and murder. Indeed almost the entire Old Testament is a nonstop orgy of God killing, killing, and killing some more. But here are some salient passages.

  • Genesis 19:30-38: Lot’s daughters get him drunk and have sex with him to “preserve the family line” through incest. God does not punish them for this, or express any kind of disapproval. So if God and his Biblical rules are the “objective moral standard,” why is incest considered profoundly immoral by most everyone in our society today, including Bible-believing Christians?
  • Numbers 31: This entire chapter is a nightmare of rape, carnage and murder. God tells his armies to massacre the Midianites, which they do with gusto. In verses 17-18, he orders boys and non-virginal women to be killed, but he allows the Israelites to keep the female virgins for rape purposes.
  • Deuteronomy 22:23-24: Rapists get stoned to death here for violating betrothed virgins…but so do their victims if they don’t scream for help. Yow! Tough beans if he was, like, covering your mouth, sweetheart!
  • Deuteronomy 22:28-29: A little further down we see the very lenient punishment for rapists of unbetrothed virgins — they get to buy their victims at a blue-light special price of 50 she
    kels! What a deal!

Now I ask you — this is an “objective moral standard” to live by?

So to conclude — Anonymous asks:

I wonder how you can possitively assert something is wrong or right according to your world view?

Because my worldview is based on rational thought and observation of consequences. Contrast with a person whose moral decisions are explained by saying “Because the Bible tells me so.” Where is the understanding of right and wrong?


Do you believe murder and rape is wrong? If you say yes then how can you assert this position from a morally relative position?

As I have demonstrated, my position is not “morally relative” in the way Anonymous thinks it is. Now I ask Anonymous: do you believe rape and murder is wrong? Then how can you assert this from a position of obeying a holy book in which rape and murder are either openly advocated or only very leniently punished by God?

Christian Coalition president booted for not being enough of a hayta

From Friday’s Austin American Statesman:

The Rev. Joel Hunter of Longwood, Fla., said he quit as president-elect of the group founded by evangelist Pat Robertson because he realized he would be unable to broaden the agenda beyond opposing abortion and gay marriage. He had hoped to include issues such as easing poverty and saving the environment.

“These are issues that Jesus would want us to care about,” Hunter said. “They pretty much said, ‘These issues are fine, but they’re not our issues; that’s not our base,’ ” Hunter said of the group’s leadership.

No, Jesus wouldn’t want us to do anything wimpified and librul like helping the poor or giving a damn about the health of the ecosystem. Undermining women’s health care and a pathological hatred of gays — that’s what Jesus would do!

The article ends with a brief, obvious note about the once-mighty Christian Coalition’s increasing irrelevance. Good riddance.

Warren Jeffs is one creepy-looking motherfucker

Check this dude out. Drink him in: the scrawny chicken neck, the leering eyes, the oddly bifurcated chin-butt. Mainly it’s the leering eyes, though. I mean, he looks like he’s scoping out an underage girl right there in the courtroom, while everyone is waiting for the judge to emerge from his chambers. When parents talk to their kids about not speaking to strangers, this is exactly the kind of man they mean.

And yet, this man ran a fringe cult of Mormon separatists who practiced a virtually slave-like form of polygamy in which men north of 50 traded teenage brides like baseball cards, with the only thing invalidating that analogy being that one doesn’t fuck baseball cards. How, I wonder, does the cult-follower mind develop? With all of these wacko groups you see, they seem to have a leader — whether Jeffs, or David Koresh (who rarely indulged in the habit of bathing, yet managed to get all his male followers to hand over their wives to him), or Jim Jones — who, to anyone on the outside with a rational brain, is clearly a bad, creepy dude at first sight. How is it that these people cannot see what must be obvious to anyone else? It saddens me to imagine a mind so confused and dysfunctional in its irrationalism, that the person possessing it will gravitate towards any manipulative, sick weirdo in the hopes of finding some peace and direction in their lives.

I’ll be too glad for words when this Jeffs perv is put away. Let’s hope it’s for the rest of his born days.

Monday hilarity: ID proponent compares God to designers of exploding Ford Pinto!

In case you haven’t been keeping up with this: Casey Luskin, a lawyer whom PZ Myers has side-splittingly described as the Discovery Institute’s “attack mouse,” has been spending the last week or so attempting to refute an article by bestselling science writer Carl Zimmer in the 11/06 issue of National Geographic, in which Zimmer discusses how evolutionary biologists are learning more and more about how complexity develops in organisms. Luskin offered an increasingly lame series of rebuttals, which Zimmer has been calmly taking apart. The whole thing has culminated in Luskin’s responding to Zimmer’s explanations about the flawed design of the eye with this desperate howler:

Was the Ford Pinto, with all its imperfections revealed in crash tests, not designed?

Seriously. He actually wrote that. Oh well, so much for, you know, God’s omnipotence and all that. Oh, that’s right, the ID movement isn’t about promoting Christianity in the schools, ri-i-ight! I keep forgetting that.

“Christ is indispensable to any scientific theory, even if its practitioners do not have a clue about him.” — William Dembski, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology (1999), page 210.

Ah well, enjoy a little of God’s indispensable handiwork below.

Religion motivated millionaire “Secret Santa” to acts of charity (but not in the way you’d think)

CNN today has the story of 58-year-old Larry Stewart, a communications industry tycoon who’s been secretly handing out gifts of cash to random strangers during the holiday season. He’s been known as the “Secret Santa,” and has outed himself because he’s sick with cancer and wanted folks to know who he was and what he’s done in the hopes of inspiring further acts of random kindness.

Stewart certainly seems a swell chap, though one could debate the wisdom*, if not the unimpeachable altruism, of walking around handing out Benjamins to anyone and everyone. But what I found interesting about the story was this little tidbit, which is another piece of ammo you can whip out the next time some Christian tells you you have to be Christian to be moral and treat people kindly. Note: the article doesn’t specifically say Stewart is non-religious himself, but it does say this:

[Poverty] was a feeling he came to know in the early 70s when he was living out of his yellow Datsun 510. Hungry and tired, Stewart mustered the nerve to approach a woman at a church and ask for help.

The woman told him the person who could help was gone for the day, and Stewart would have to come back the next day.

“As I turned around, I knew I would never do that again,” Stewart said.

So basically, when Stewart was young and broke, he went to a church, because we’re all programmed to think that churches are places of charity that will eagerly help the unfortunate. And he got told to piss off. Oh sure, sure, the woman might have sincerely meant for him to come back the next day, and he would indeed receive help. But odds are she was giving him a politely worded brushoff after sizing him up and categorizing him as “useless, jobless loser”. And so Stewart went away, vowing never to be like the person he met at the church.

Now I’ll grant some folks may interpret the story a little differently. They might say that Stewart left the situation embarrassed at having asked for charity in the first place, and determined to get himself together and succeed on his own. But there’s no indication Stewart had no motivation to do that in the first place; he was simply caught in a bad patch in life, as so many people are, and was looking for a temporary lift to tide him over. If the woman at the church had generously given him a donation, would he have been less likely to go on to make his fortune in cable and telecom businesses? I don’t think so. In life there are driven, goal-oriented people and there are ones who aren’t. The ones who are driven and motivated are more likely to make it to some degree in life, period, though both are equally likely to have hard times when starting out. I suspect that Stewart’s describing a bit of resentment and disappointment at the woman’s treatment of him. And besides, if Stewart were simply embarrassed at himself for asking for charity, he’d hardly be likely to be so sympathetic to others needing it after he’d become a self-made man, that he’d make a hobby of handing out hundred-dollar bills every year.

Stewart didn’t need the payoff of a godly reward to motivate him to bring a little light into people’s lives. He just did it to see the smiles on their faces and to know he’d helped another human being. And his cash handouts certainly had a much more beneficial, tangible effect on the lives of the people he helped than any Christian who’d have told those people, “I’ll pray for you!”

* — I won’t give panhandlers on street corners money, for instance, though I have on occasion given them food or drink. In randomly giving away cash, you may be unwittingly funding someone’s habit. And in the case of panhandlers that’s true more often than not.

Toys for Tots flip-flops on talking Jesus dolls

Toys for Tots has announced it has decided to take the talking Jesus dolls from Christian toymakers one2believe, their spokesman announcing, “Toys for Tots has found appropriate places for these items.” I’m assuming they don’t mean the city dump, so have they in fact figured out a way to ensure that these dolls only end up with Christian families? Or is this just simple cowardice in the face of Christian outrage over being prevented from proseltyzing everyone’s kids whether their parents approve or not?

Polish exchange student gains firsthand experience of Christian Love

Here is one of the most alarming little tales you’re likely to read today. It’s short but not so sweet. 19-year-old Michael Gromek came to America on an exchange program, and what were the first words out of his host family’s mouths?

‘Child, our Lord sent you half-way around the world to bring you to us.’ At that moment I just wanted to turn round and run back to the plane.

Dude! I bet! It got worse. Much worse.

For example, every Monday my host family would gather around the kitchen table to talk about sex. My host parents hadn’t had sex for the last 17 years because — so they told me — they were devoting their lives to God. They also wanted to know whether I drank alcohol. I admitted that I liked beer and wine. They told me I had the devil in my heart.

My host parents treated me like a five-year-old. They gave me lollipops. They woke me every Sunday morning at 6:15 a.m., saying ‘Michael, it’s time to go to church.’ I hated that sentence. When I didn’t want to go to church one morning, because I had hardly slept, they didn’t allow me to have any coffee.