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Nov 29 2006

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.

18 comments

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  1. 1
    Anonymous

    You were doing so well until you mentioned ‘survivial of our species’. ‘you’ from this point on becomes the french ‘vous’, not ‘tu’.Do you really care if our species survives or not? And if you do, are you equally as concerned about aardvarks, pandas and the Iberian tree felling frog of Russia? OK, i made that last one up.But, and i suppose this is my point, the importance of our species in our some peoples minds is essentially religious in nature. Basically, God made anaimals and plants for our conveniance and they have no intrinsic worth except to serve us. This does not mean people are less important than animals, but we should, as supposed rationalists, recognise that no one animal (or plant) is worth more than another, except in purely subjective terms; or personal terms (she was my friend), or sentimental terms, or from vanity (‘we have arts for gods sake’).Religion seems to be a speciali case of vanity to me. WE were especially MADE by the CREATOR (more than ants) and I (not you damned atheists) AM IMPORTANT….etc (vomit)There might be a rational way through this is we think in terms of members of a species. if there are 250K Bonobos and 6 billion humans, then ask how many bobnobos you would kill to continue the existance of one person? If your answer is ‘all of them’ then i think you are infected with religious dogma regarding the value of human life compared to .. well… just about anything.As an atheist myself, i see nothing special about our species…maybe i am heading in the genocidal direction! let me check (tick.tock.tick.tock) ..it’s wednesday, I am always genocidal on wednesday, so it cant be Atheism.http://vhemt.org/

  2. 2
    Matt D.

    “You were doing so well until you mentioned ‘survivial of our species’.”I struggled a bit over whether or not to phrase it that way – and then I decided that it was fine, because that is a summation of a broader concept that I find important.”Do you really care if our species survives or not? And if you do, are you equally as concerned about aardvarks, pandas and the Iberian tree felling frog of Russia?”I understood that those weren’t specifically directed at me, but I’ll answer them just the same:Yes, I do care. No, I’m not equally concerned about other species.”But, and i suppose this is my point, the importance of our species in our some peoples minds is essentially religious in nature.”It’s not religious to me, it’s natural and it’s not similar to the religious ideas you mentioned. I don’t worship our species. What I’m talking about isn’t the species equivalent of blind patriotism it’s about the spreading of knowledge and ideas and avoiding counterproductive thinking.I didn’t say “survival of our species at the expense of all others” and it’s very telling that you chose to react as if I did.To twist my positive statement in favor of one species to a negative statement at the expense of other species is a gross logical fallacy.”As an atheist myself, i see nothing special about our species…”And I find that rather pathetic. While some of us could find something special or unique in any species, you claim to see “nothing special” in humans. You’ve bought into a load of philosophical nonsense or political correctness – a step that requires the same logical fallacy you committed above.We are, as far as we know, the only species capable of the level of understanding, discover, knowledge, that we posess. That doesn’t make us the “most important” in every sense of the phrase, but it does qualify for “special” in a number of senses. If humanity were to end tomorrow, I would consider that a wasteful tragedy. I’d say the same for bovines, felines, ursines… – but I wouldn’t consider them all equally tragic.It’s a little sad that you picked one part of one sentence – which had almost nothing to do with the point of the post – and used it as an excuse to spread some nihilistic dribble.If you’re really in favor of voluntary human extinction, I do support your right to eliminate yourself.If you don’t, are you a hypocrite?

  3. 3
    Stephen

    “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.”That’s probably one of the best religious analogies I’ve heard.Awesome post, Matt.

  4. 4
    tracie

    This reminds me a lot of the subject/objective argument on the other strand. I value some species over others because I subjectively dig some species more than others. For example, I will go out of my way to carry a cockroach outside and humanely put it out. But if my husband squashes an insect in our house, I don’t flip out on the level I would if I saw him kicking a stray cat to death.Neither the stray nor the bug have any previous ties to me–but I care more about the cat. Probably because I view it as more like me than an insect (I’m guessing there’s a bit of empathy at work here–whereas with the roach I carry outside, it might be more correct to call it mild sympathy).I keep hearing this objective versus subjective commentary as though it’s relevant. I don’t get why subjective judgement is somehow less valued(?) than objective judgement in some people’s minds.If there were an objective way to choose our sympathies, that might really suck, because then some things that are taken care of would not be. For example, I donate to animal welfare groups. Recently someone complained that $300K was “too much” to spend on disaster relief for animal welfare. I felt it was a drop in the bucket, and saw the animals as an underdog group that might get overlooked if everyone decided that “the people” were “more important.”I don’t mind if the human species is important to someone or if they care/don’t care about animals on the same level as I do. I care about them. I act benevolently toward them–and that’s all I need. I don’t care of some Scrooge thinks my donation means I hate human beings. I just did what I subjectively thought was a good thing.The human species doesn’t matter a _lot_ to me personally; I mean, I certainly know many people who value humans more than I do. But that’s just me. And that’s just them. And that’s choices–which we all make whether or not a god is involved.In the face of the knowledge that there is no objective “value” in the world, I stand up and claim the right to make my own values–totally subjectively.

  5. 5
    Matt D.

    I don’t want to give this side issue more time than it deserves, but there is one point that struck me as I was driving home:I’m pretty sure that every species is concerned with it’s own survival. Whether it’s a simple evolutionary instruction or a conscious effort.Humans, however, are not only concerned with their own survival, many of them are actively engaged in helping to ensure the survival of other species – in a fashion that transcends symbiotic need and moves toward altruism.In my book, that qualifies as special. In strictly utilitarian terms, it may well define humans as having a greater value than other species.If you were forced to save only one species – the rational choice would likely be humans, and not because of a bias toward our own kind…but because saving us may well save other species too.

  6. 6
    Anonymous

    “And I find that rather pathetic. While some of us could find something special or unique in any species, you claim to see “nothing special” in humans. You’ve bought into a load of philosophical nonsense or political correctness – a step that requires the same logical fallacy you committed above.”The immediate contradiction that steps out is that if every species has ‘something special or unique’ about it, then finding ‘something special or unique’ about a species is the norm, and so neither special nor unique. I find your sudden leap to ‘pholisophical nonesense or political correctness’ to be one of those back-handed religious like non-sequiters that spew forth when faith is challenged. But it’s all grist to the mill. You must demonstrate, not assert, if you are to be better than Dinesh D’Souza, and that last statement about philosophy and ‘political correctness’ is pure assertion and sad, as your blog is nothing short of brillian.And I note, you say you hesitated to use the phrase. Why hesitate if you are going to blow up over a statement that even you say you where not sure about?I will tell you my general experience of that phrase. It is deployed by theists to excuse their homophobia; “what if everyone was gay”, they whine, “the species would die out”, blub-blub-blub. of course, they’re a bunch of weirdos, so what can we expect?On closer investigation, of course, they don’t care about their species, and they certainly don’t mean ‘their’ society. they mean them, their kids, their memes and above all else, their faith.So if all that was left of our species was atavistic, magic sky daddy worshipping superstitionists with a tendency to burn books and people would you feel the same?”We are, as far as we know, the only species capable of the level of understanding, discover, knowledge, that we posess. … it does qualify for “special” in a number of senses.”As you say, “some of us could find something special or unique in any species”

  7. 7
    Kazim

    Compassion motivates me to care about the survival of our species. Not because of some abstract attachment to our species as a concept, but because of the consequences for the very real lives that will come after me.If our species goes extinct, what will the condition be of the last people living on earth? Pretty miserable, I’d imagine. Either we’ll be wiped out by some kind of horrific cataclysm, or a slow petering out. In the former case, billions will die in one event. In the latter case, we’ll eventually be reduced to small bands of people who are crushingly lonely.Rather than entertain either of those scenarios, I’d much prefer that the human race figures out how to keep going in perpetuity.

  8. 8
    Matt D.

    “The immediate contradiction that steps out is that if every species has ‘something special or unique’ about it, then finding ‘something special or unique’ about a species is the norm, and so neither special nor unique.”I’ve already pointed out one thing that, in my opinion, makes humans special. There is no contradiction in what I said – the “special” things about each species that make it unique provide us with diversity, not uniformity. If you don’t agree, fine.”I find your sudden leap to ‘pholisophical nonesense or political correctness’ to be one of those back-handed religious like non-sequiters that spew forth when faith is challenged…”It’s not a non sequitur, I just didn’t feel like writing a book. You took a positive statement that was largely irrelevant to the article and decided to spin it as a negative while spewing out nihilistic crap.Your words, sir, are the basis for my claim that you have bought into a nonsensical philosophy (nihilism) or political correctness (nothing is special, let’s move toward the least common denominator).If you’d like to have a lengthy discussion about it – email me. But we don’t need to have the discussion here.”And I note, you say you hesitated to use the phrase. Why hesitate if you are going to blow up over a statement that even you say you where not sure about?”Because I was concerned that some misanthropic nihilist would make a big deal out of it without trying to understand the meaning behind it.There is a segment of the religious population that actively seeks an apocalyptic end – that’s contrary to the survival of our species and something I oppose. Religion, in general, retards progress – progress is, in my opinion, a good thing. “So if all that was left of our species was atavistic, magic sky daddy worshipping superstitionists with a tendency to burn books and people would you feel the same?”Clearly there’s a reading comprehension problem as well as a logic 101 problem here. How does my statement encouraging people to abandon faith-based beliefs and work toward the survival of our species lead to the situation you describe.Talk about non sequiturs.

  9. 9
    Zed

    Monothesism has the same problem as monopoliticalism. It demands you be right to the exclusion all other possibilities. The reality thus far is that we are wrong about most of the complexities of religion and politics most of time but we are rather eager to most anything to deny it, up to and including mass murder.

  10. 10
    Prup (aka Jim Benton)

    Before I get back to the ostensible topic of this thread, the off-key D’Souzaphone, I have to comment on the first poster. Unlike the other commenters, I actually checked on the site he recommends, ‘vhemt’.org.It stands for the “Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.” I am not sure if this is a gigantic put-on, a religious trolling, or if these people are both serious and seriously sick. Nihilism is an understatement.As for D’Souza, he has somehow gained a reputation as an ‘intellectual,’ mostly by making outrageously absurd statements that everybody jumps on, thus demonstrating his ‘significance’ — measured by the amount of controversy he stirs up. His previous ‘news splashes’ have included racist attacks on affirmative action, and a recent statement arguing that since “Islamic terrorists” hate our freedom, particularly our sexual freedoms, the way to prevent attacks is by giving this freedom up.As for the question of atheist (or religious)murders or massacres, I think we have to look at the reason for the murders, and not just the beliefs of the murderer. Thus it is obvious that the sectarian killings in Iraq, the Serbian attacks on the Bosnian Muslims, the Albanians, etc., the killings in Nigeria, the Russian pogroms, etc. were religiously motivated. (In some cases the leaders of the killings might have had other motives, political ones, example, Milosevic and the Tsars, but the followers were undoubtedly acting to further their religion against those they saw as religious enemies.But the supposed atheist massacres were not on a religious basis. (No, not even Hitler’s. He saw ‘Jews’ as a ‘race’ and it didn’t matter what they believed, or if they had converted to Christianity or were secular.) Certainly — and this IS surprising — there was no specific action by Stalin aimed at believers as believers, similar, say, to his assault on the Kulaks.Again, pointing to the belief system (or non-belief system) of a person, particularly a political leader is pointless. To make a final example of the absurdity, in World War I we have the following: the King of England (nominally head of the Anglican Church); Kaiser Wilhelm (who saw himself as a god-selected ruler); Franz Ferdinand (Hapsburg, proud of their Catholicism and their history of ‘defending the faith against the Muslim Heathen); Czar Nicholas (as an Orthodox Christian ruler, per se a religious figure whose obedience was commanded by the Church) and the Turkish Caliph (at least nominally both the political and religious ruler of worldwide Muslims). Yet would any person seriously blame the carnage of that most bloody of wars on the religions the rulers professed?

  11. 11
    Anonymous

    “Because I was concerned that some misanthropic nihilist would make a big deal out of it without trying to understand the meaning behind it.”Feeling better now you’ve slung a few insults around? Remind me how you differ from some religious bigot having a rant? Oh yeah, you play for the other side. “There is a segment of the religious population that actively seeks an apocalyptic end – that’s contrary to the survival of our species and something I oppose.”At least you have tried to define “for the good of the species”, which is simply ‘survival’. No problem, except, of course, a billion or six billion has approximately the same survivial chance given population distribution on the planet. And, of course, you havent even bothered to approach what you would think if the survivors (however many) decided that religion clearerly was better than your pseudo-rational arguments.”How does my statement encouraging people to abandon faith-based beliefs and work toward the survival of our species lead to the situation you describe.”What makes you think you were encouraging any such thing? if you rationality loving view point included abandoning biblical human-mastery-over-everything-babies-babies-babies BS I might agree…if you could discuss it without frothing at the mouth, your claim would be plausable. But really, it’s just your holy cow, and you dont like it being poked.You’ve answered my question. Rationality is a distant land, and you smell like an ex-smoker and preach like an evangelical.”beware when you fight monsters…” etc.Pity.

  12. 12
    Matt D.

    “What makes you think you were encouraging any such thing?”I don’t know, maybe this:”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.”You can go away now, you’re obviously not interested in discussing what I wrote. Nor are you addressing any specific points I’ve made, you’re just trying to stir the pot.You’ve taken one portion of a post, twisted it into something it’s not and tried to claim victory.So, go ahead, accuse me of being the irrational one. You’re only fooling yourself.

  13. 13
    Matt D.

    “if you rationality loving view point included abandoning biblical human-mastery-over-everything-babies-babies-babies BS I might agree…”I have no idea what you’re talking about here, by the way. I do encourage abandoning Biblical nonsense…I actively and continually promote abandoning all faith drivel. Also, I never said anything about abundant breeding.You really are incapable of actually reading and understanding what I wrote, aren’t you?”if you could discuss it without frothing at the mouth, your claim would be plausable. But really, it’s just your holy cow, and you dont like it being poked.”I haven’t frothed at the mouth, I just call a spade a spade. You’re obviously a bitter little nihilist, and you’re unable to rational consider the points I’ve made. It’s pretty simple really.

  14. 14
    Anonymous

    “and what is most beneficial for the survival of our species.”OK, it’s clear you aren’t able to recognise the worthlessness of the above statement. It is either about mass producing babies, or it is about population control. Nothing else really factors in, because the ‘good of the species’, if you have honestly left behind the idea that your way must be the best and any old group should survive, is about resource management. And as long as you refuse to see this you are being Catholic in outlook (specifically, that population management /birth control denies the existance of a benevolent god) you cannot even begin to understand what you are talking about. Spreading knowledge is, i accept, a worthy end, as is the elimination of superstition, but neither of those address the core issue of resources management.As for:”You can go away now, you’re obviously not interested in discussing what I wrote. Nor are you addressing any specific points I’ve made, you’re just trying to stir the pot.”I have repeatedly said your posts are generally brilliant. I said right from the start that your phrase “for the good of the species” stood out as the weak point. Do you understand what that means? it means THE POST WAS A BRILLIANT POST EXCEPT FOR…Reading 101 a bit tough for you was it?Rather than doing your egotistical little rant maybe you should step back, stop throwing insults and try to get to the meaning of what I was saying (you know, practice what you preach).Or is that something only us readers have to do. Do you stand above it?”You’ve taken one portion of a post, twisted it into something it’s not and tried to claim victory.”Again, I agreed with your damn blog entry, I thought it was brilliant, literally brilliant which is why the weak spot stood out so boldly, I simply pointed out the weak point in it…of course with your reading 101 you simply failed to comprehend the message and hurled insults,…so much easier than having to think.It’s no victory for me that you have turned out to be such a wanker. It’s actually a bit sad.”I haven’t frothed at the mouth, I just call a spade a spade. You’re obviously a bitter little nihilist, and you’re unable to rational consider the points I’ve made. It’s pretty simple really”"Ooh, more name calling, that is sooooo rational. What a good little example you set. Remind me how reasoned your answers, have been, shall we count the posts to see how long you could go without name calling?Frothy-Chops (as i feel you should now be called) take that thing out of youre arse.

  15. 15
    Matt D.

    – “and what is most beneficial for the survival of our species.”"OK, it’s clear you aren’t able to recognise the worthlessness of the above statement. It is either about mass producing babies, or it is about population control. Nothing else really factors in…”—————I’m advocating neither the mass production of babies nor population control. You’re reading that one fraction of a sentence and seeing all sorts of ideas that weren’t included. You’re seeing what you want to see.So nothing else factors in? Nothing else is beneficial to the survival of our species? Things like stem cell research, climate initiatives, increased crop yields, cures for diseases, lifespan extension, longevity research, extra-planetary colonization, resource management (including the search for new sources) and the education improvements that might lead to these – all of which are threatened by the faith-junkies who cling to the “wisdom” of ancient barbarians – none of that factors in, right?Because those are EXACTLY the benefits to our survival that I am optimistically hoping we’ll begin to see once people abandon the divisive and destructive trappings of superstitious beliefs.You come here, make assumptions about my meaning, accuse me of positions I don’t hold and then label me as religious, Catholic even…all because you’re too fucking myopic to see anything other than your preconceptions.You latched on to 4 words, attached YOUR meaning to them and them accused me of making a mistake. Sorry, the mistake was yours.”Rather than doing your egotistical little rant maybe you should step back, stop throwing insults and try to get to the meaning of what I was saying (you know, practice what you preach).”I’ve addressed your comments. You’re wrong. Period. Your assumptions about my meaning were incorrect. Your assessment of the implications of this mistaken meaning are also incorrect. Your defeatist, nihilistic, “we’re not special and don’t deserve to survive” mentality is not only illogical, but unwelcome. You’re nearly (if not actually) the atheist that has bought into the lie that without a god, there’s simply no reason to live. “Again, I agreed with your damn blog entry, I thought it was brilliant, literally brilliant which is why the weak spot stood out so boldly, I simply pointed out the weak point in it”Thanks for the repeated compliment – but you haven’t pointed out a “weak point”…you’ve just found something you didn’t understand, made assumptions about my meaning and then compounded that misunderstanding into a series of jabs without substance.It’s clear that I used a phrase (survival of our species) that struck some chord with you and set you off on a sermon about how religions set us up as special when we’re not. Guess what…the religion can be false and we can still be special – a different kind of special, for different reason. And there’s more! Our view of ourselves as special can actually be justified – and doesn’t in any way justify the “fuck every other species except humans”-mentality that you seem to think is the inevitable conclusion.”Ooh, more name calling, that is sooooo rational. What a good little example you set. Remind me how reasoned your answers, have been, shall we count the posts to see how long you could go without name calling?”Count away. I have this guideline I tend to use if someone presents arguments like yours and I suspect that I’m arguing with an asshat — I make valid points AND I ridicule their comments. If they interpret this as name-calling and use the perceived name-calling as an argument point instead of addressing the valid points, then I was clearly correct…and they’re no longer worth my time.Feel free to e-mail me – but I won’t be filling up any more space here on your behalf.

  16. 16
    tracie

    Good job, Matt! I finally got to actually read your post. It _is_ a gross mischaracterization to say that if a group commits an atrocity, and they happen to lack belief in god, that the atrocity was motivated by their lack of belief in god. Atrocities, on the level being described here are not a result of the beliefs people _do not_ hold, but the result of beliefs people _hold_.When X says “god” told me to commit an atrocity, that _is_ an atrocity directly attributable to religion–to a belief that is _held_.And when a group commits atrocities over political ideology, that is also a result of the beliefs they _hold_ (not of the beliefs they _do not_ hold):1. I have a right to take your land.2. I have a right to take your stuff.3. I have a right to enslave or kill you.The things listed above are beliefs that, if _held_, can motivate behaviors described in these articles. Whether or not the people who hold these beliefs also believe in god/s is completely irrelevant–until it is the stated justification for the acts.If someone believes in god and commits an atrocity, and we ask: “Did god tell you that you should do this?” If the person says “No, I came to that decision for other reasons—-it is not related to my faith,” then the atrocity committed is not a “religious atrocity.” But if the perpetrator goes around saying that he believes god told him to do X—-then what he’s doing is a “religious” atrocity—-since it was admittedly motivated by the belief he _held_ in god.I have never seen or heard of any group coming together under the banner of “Atheist” (or any other nonbelief) to commit genocide or steal land or torture and oppress people. Actions are motivated by beliefs we _hold_. X might not hold the belief that Y has a right to life. But it’s not until X believes he should kill Y that an action is motivated in X.It almost sounds as though the argument is that “if god wasn’t a motivator it’s an _atheist_ crime.” Nobody I know would dare make the ridiculous argument that every crime committed by a person of faith is motivated by their religion. But crimes in which people directly attribute their actions to their religious beliefs certainly are. And those are huge in number compared to crimes in which someone says, “I felt I _had_ to do this, because my lack of belief in god compelled me to do it.”Also, thank you, Matt, for pointing out for what must feel like the billionth time, that history supports that Hitler was not an atheist.

  17. 17
    Tommykey

    I would argue that the regimes of Stalin and Mao were religiously based, albeit a godless religion, that of Marxism. Nobody kills anyone in the name of atheism, as atheism is simply an absence of belief in a supreme being.

  18. 18
    Alan Mackenzie

    I think the technique at work here is what I affectionately call ‘The myth of moral symmetry’ – if two sides appear to hold persuasive arguments, then there is really no difference between them. I feel this is a fallacy people easily overlook. We might not, but it is an important issue atheists and agnostics must address to the public.I you can forgive me for the following long post, please read on, for I have studied the Myth of moral symmetry in considerable detail:The Myth of Moral Symmetryhttp://rankatheism.blogspot.com/2006/10/myth-of-moral-symmetry_26.htmlModerate theists see little difference between faith in the supernatural and ‘faith’ in naturalism.The aim of this essay is to headline the series of “Difficult Dialogues”, whose contributors include, Richard Dawkins, Os Guinness, Judge John Jones, and Kenneth Miller, and provide my thoughts on those video presentations, before visitors of this site proceed to the video section at the bottom of this page.–A common diversionary tactic used by theists in their attempts to refute atheism, is the assertion that if two opposing schools of thought show the ability to highlight errors of reasoning among each other, then one must rightly conclude that there really is no difference between the two. Thus, if religionists periodically bring to the fore, any faults among the arguments from non-religious people, then of course, there is no difference between them; theism and atheism are thus equally plausible, and therefore categorically ‘faith’ positions.Os Guinness gave an interesting, and genuinely thought-provoking speech to the “Difficult Dialogues” audience, but I have one or two problems with his comment about secularism:”Religion, and I would say, faith, worldview, because I view secularism, as a faith, worldview too. It’s naturalistic, rather than transcendent and supernatural. But it does the same things as religion, but I would say that it doesn’t do it quite as well,” Os Guinness, October 3, 2006, Woodruff Auditorium, Kansas Union.Utter claptrap. It would appear, that Guinness would like to imply that secularism is not up to the job, but in doing so, he almost suggests that society would be wise to replace the separation between church and state with publicly-funded religious institutions. Guinness misrepresents secularism by implying that it is a government-supported ‘faith’, and thus paves the way for subsequent arguments to dissolve secular values altogether: in other words, more interaction between democratic legislature, and scriptural authority.In order to avoid the fact that secular values are indeed separate from traditional religious values, religionists often attempt to force-contrive secularism into the same territory as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Of course, when a religionist feels unable to refute the actual properties of secularism, they can, instead describe secular people as hypocrites, for being ‘religious’ themselves. Unfortunately, many religious people simply do not understand what secularism is, or how it is defined. The allegation of ‘secular activities’, if that is what we insist on calling them, for religionists manages to steer the debate away from substantive issues about where humans get their authority, and where we must look to improve our lives. Does authority come from the people and their democratically elected governments, or does it come from divine intervention? A first response to this question, is that there is overwhelming evidence that our authority comes from us, as citizens, and that we elect governments to impartially represent our needs. There is no evidence to support the concept that humans gain their authority from divine, immaterial sources, and we should rightly conclude the notion of untestable divine authority is incompatible with democratic processes. In American circles, the oxymoronic allegation of ‘secular religion’ manages not only to risk the teaching of evolution in science classrooms, but also provide for a convenient sound bite to undermine the separation of church and state.At this moment, I am drinking a pint of secular lager, while typing on a secular computer [a secular card-carrying iMac, for those interested]. I plan to vote in a secular general election –– I am divided between which secular party I should cast one’s vote for –– secular Labour, or the secular Greens, or as I fear, a secular abstention. Now, you might gasp at the absurdity of calling lager and abstentions ‘secular’ –– they are absurd of course, because in secular countries such as the United Kingdom, whether it is democracy, political freedom, or one’s choice of evening tipple, the relationship between the term ‘secular’ and the above is simply a non-issue and irrelevant. One benefit of living in a secular country, is that one can dispense with the so-called ‘religious’ implications of our daily choices. In so fact, we expect our governments to show impartiality in the treatment of religious and non-religious groups: optional religious education and nice hymns in mainstream schools are perfectly acceptable, but exclusive ‘faith schools’ are not.The implied line of thought for any religionist bent upon criticising atheism, evolution, or secularism, is to create the false impression that by default, any person categorised by their support for these ideas are expressing a ‘faith position’, and are therefore hypocritical for criticising other religions. Anyone with an eye for propaganda techniques will instantly recognise this as a lazy and dishonest way in which to deal with opponents: for example, atheism alone is no more a religion than theism, while evolution and secular humanism in their own rights lack any similarity to the supernatural, transcendent, or the divine.It would not be unreasonable to suppose that any religious person with an adequate understanding of religion and non-religion would never fall prey to such confusions; however, if a person with whom we should expect to have an adequate understanding of their own religion did choose to warp the definition of secularism into something that is unfit for the purpose, then we must rightly conclude that such a person would fail the Old Testament double-standards test [Deuteronomy 25: 13-16 13]. By Os Guinness’ theological standards, we might, then suggest that he has differing measures in his house, one large, one small.The idea behind the sinful treatment of secular people [including religious persons who support church-state separation] by sinning Christians like Guinness is that God, in his creation of the universe, made his work plain to humans who are without excuse but to acknowledge His self-evident ‘proof’, and so any sense of awe regarding nature is therefore a closeted signal that ‘we’re all theists, really’. This assertion really begs the question, and does no further work in explaining why people might not choose to accept it, such as lack of parsimonious evidence that points to God as a first cause. Those who give false testimony against secular believers and non-believers have to admit that they have sinned against their fellow humans, and there is a cure for sin: repentance. Religionists can, and do play around with words, but you can never make a triangle into a circle.Austin Cline goes to further to explain the motivations for pretending that atheism is a ‘religion’:”The truth is that atheism lacks every one of these characteristics of religion. At most, atheism doesn’t explicitly exclude most of them, but the same can be said for almost anything. Thus, it’s not possible to call atheism a religion. It can be part of a religion, but it can’t be a religion by itself. They are completely different categories: atheism is the absence of one particular belief while religion is a complex web of traditions and beliefs. They aren’t even remotely comparable.So why do people claim that atheism is a religion? Usually this occurs in the process of criticizing atheism and/or a
    theists. It may at times be politically motivated because if atheism is a religion, they think they can force the state to stop “promoting” atheism by eliminating endorsements of Christianity. Sometimes the assumption is that if atheism is simply another “faith,” then atheists’ critiques of religious beliefs are hypocritical and can be ignored”.I like cricket, wildlife photography, and cats, but it does not enter one’s mind to call those interests ‘secular’. They have nothing to do with religion of any kind, and my choice of photographic film neither rejects or endorses religious beliefs –– the fact that I enjoy stroking the cat outside my office building has just about nothing to do with faith, religion, or the divine; nor has it anything to do with the rejection of theology, and anyone who asserts otherwise is a humbug, secular or otherwise. Yet, as it were, people still insist in doing so, often in a tortive manner that is comparable to saying that a circle is square.Welcome to the myth of moral symmetry. Along with the fallacy of correlation implies causation, the myth of moral symmetry infects the discourse of nearly every person at some point in their lives.Let me explain how people commonly lend equal validity to vastly unequal standpoints, with the following analogy.Imagine that two colleagues, Gillian and Paul, commit two errors, one error for Paul, and one error for Gillian. Gillian and Paul were supposed to complete a written assignment, in two parts, each part divided among the two person team. Unfortunately, the assignment never arrived.Their boss isn’t too happy, and rightly calls them in for an explanation. Gillian waited days for a crucial statistical query to appear –– vital data that she required for the completion of her contribution –– but the database server suffered 92 hours of downtime, and thereby impeded her work [perhaps Gillian’s systems administrator should use Linux in the future]. To add insult to injury, when Gillian completed her assignment, shut down her laptop, and rebooted the machine, she lost her portion of the assignment, after a new computer virus wiped the hard disk of her laptop. Gillian excused herself with a legitimate reason for the incompletion of her contribution –– she could not update her anti-virus definitions in time, because her anti-virus vendor did not release an inoculation in prompt duration for the low quality operating system on her computer. Gillian waited 92 hours for her data, and had to write the assignment in three hours –– quite a stressful venture, and this might explain why Gillian forgot to back her data up on a removable disk.The boss now asks Paul for his explanation. Paul quite honestly reveals that he could not be bothered to complete his portion of the assignment –– it looked like too much hard work –– not really a legitimate excuse by any definition.Anyone used to the level of intelligence demonstrated by pro-active, upskilled, super-macho bosses, should understand the next part of our analogy: both Gillian and Paul received a written level three warning about their conduct, and in-line with company policy, such written warnings should remain on their personal files for the duration of twelve months! Let that be a lesson not to refrain from backing-up data, or watching Big Brother rather than type a word of a mission-critical assignment! Next time, Gillian and Paul should get their P45 for such morale-denting, protocol-violating downsizing!I would have sacked Paul –– our fictional company does not require fictional fools like him. In contrast, and in my opinion, Gillian deserved a verbal warning, along with a training course on data management and security –– I fully understand how intimidating modern technology can be. Perhaps we might allow Gillian another week to rewrite her assignment. I think the reaction from their boss was much too harsh on Gillian, while much too lenient on Paul. Do you agree?In the light of this analogy, we might want to define what secular humanism is, and what it is not. In his presentation, Os Guinness asked, where were all the secular humanists during the aftermath of the Asian Tsunami of 2004? Religious charities descended upon the disaster-stricken area wondering why a good God should allow such things to happen. Those religious charities gained much in the way of deserved credit for their work –– but where were the secular humanists, when they were needed? Nowhere, say the theologians –– a movement without a structure, rationale, or purpose, is a movement without a moral backbone. Now, if I were leading a debate on what secular humanism is, this would be the first definition to arise, and the first we should discard because it is so inadequate.What we might define as ‘the secular humanists’ were busy at home writing out cheques, or making donations over the Internet to charities, both religious and secular. Our humanistic philosophy makes us do good things for the sake of being good, and we seek no official recognition for social care, concern about the environment, or peaceful solutions to global conflicts. We share the credit for moral successes with the millions of Christians, Jews, and Muslims who value life –– it is not a competition to judge who wins the prize for the most Good and Virtuous contribution to animals made in God’s image. Secular humanism is not a movement, per se, because it is not a religion with idolatrous figureheads, or a set of moral codes with supernatural origins. We do not value human life over any other animal life, because we derive our worldview from a naturalistic perspective –– human values are not divine, but part of nature, and so humanist values form the unsung, gradual, and pervasive liberating consensus that marks one generation as morally superior to past generations.The guest speaker, and Christian, Os Guinness sees faith as being present in naturalism, and supernaturalism –– both sides are an excellent foil for each other –– and this line of thought represents a fatal flaw in the debate between religion and science. Plain-talking moderates who view science, as just another religion, would never fall prey to the fallacy that science is the ultimate discipline, manoeuvring itself gradually towards truth. No, plain-talking moderates view science as the ultimate failure; the smug ambitions of secular humanists and Godless detectives have failed to see their predictions confirmed by scientific investigation. Oh, well. We cannot this minute answer why X cannot explain y. Therefore, science has failed.Why don’t we just give up? Can’t understand why there are no fossils from the Precambrian period? It must be a failure on the part of science. Guinness admits that religion cannot always offer an explanation either, so the extremists –– Dawkinisian atheist rationalists and the Christian Right are simply as bad as each other for their failure to provide the answers, NOW! We’ve failed to provide the answers all at once –– but that misses the whole point of science.Science works by finding truth in gradual stages, not giant leaps –– and simply because science cannot answer all of our questions right now, it does not mean that religion, faith, or revelation can. Religion and science are not just ‘separate majesteria’ they are vastly unequal majesteria. Scientific investigation is a recipe for a gradual victory over the god-of-the-gaps. Pretentious theologians who tick science off as ‘failed’ every step of the way can wait for the truth like everyone else who is eager to find it –– the virus of omnipotence does not afflict the scientific method.Does the acceptance that our own species, Homo sapiens evolved from other apes, require some naturalistic leap of faith? It does, if ‘both sides’ can pick out [vastly unequal] errors of reasoning present in each camp. Perhaps I am mistaken to assume that Guinness speaks exclusively to atheists –– surely, it is not unreasonable fo
    r conservative Christians to accept that their genetic heritage shares the same molecular territory as monkeys, grey wolves, and butterflies –– not a leap of faith, but a consciousness-raising, moral enlightenment based upon the best available evidence. Is it really a disguised form of post-modern religion, for one to make a valuable contribution towards the field of quantum mechanics, or to seek data about whether lunar rocks contain sufficient water to permit the future establishment of self-sufficient manned bases on our only natural satellite?Theologians simply assert that people require faith in natural explanations. That is indeed all they can say, because it is easy confuse the motivations for having a supernaturalistic worldview, with the myth that science does not find truth.Too many scientists say stupid things, and do little to educate the public when they play into the hands of pseudo-scientists. With a plethora of inaccurate comments at their helms, even moderate believers find themselves able to perpetuate myths about science.”Evolution is a religion. This was true of evolution in the beginning, and it is true of evolution still today,” Michael Ruse.”But our ways of learning about the world are strongly influenced by the social preconceptions and biased modes of thinking that each scientist must apply to any problem. The stereotype of a fully rational and objective ‘scientific method,’ with individual scientists as logical (and interchangeable) robots, is self-serving mythology,” Stephen-Jay Gould.Austin Cline provides a better answer to dumb remarks by scientists than I could ever hope to find:”It’s ironic that Ruse would complain about how things said by evolutionary biologists hurt their cause when Ruse himself has said things (for example, that evolution is a religion) which are taken out of context and used by creationists. He defends that as an occupational hazard, but it sounds like he’s trying to claim that it’s OK for him to say problematic things, but not for others.I think that the above comments are right: appeasement is not the way to go. It’s not appropriate for atheists to hide their atheism or their ideas about religion merely so that religious people don’t feel uncomfortable with evolution. No one tells religious evolutionists to keep quiet about how they think evolution demonstrates the majesty and power of God. The problem lies with anti-scientific, anti-Enlightenment religion, not with atheism”.The notion that everything is relative, and that science doesn’t find truth –– is what theologians want to get ‘out into the open and debated’, and, I must freely confess, that moderate religionists are using bad models of science to undermine the scientific method, and promote the fate of exaggerated uncertainty that ‘rational’ theology enjoys.There is no reason to have faith in natural explanations for the universe –– evolution, quantum mechanics, and heliocentric astronomy have a massive amount of evidence in their favour. We say that those theories are almost certainly true, not to refrain from their absoluteness, or to exaggerate the working uncertainty that all strong theories have –– but to provide for a small degree of falsifiabilty so that in the future, science might incorporate other parsimonious, mutually supporting theories to explain what evolution MK 1 cannot explain today. To exaggerate uncertainty is but a missed point – the Big Bang theory may bow to a replacement theory in the future –– evolution MK 1 may become evolution MK 2, and cosmologists might find an even better solution than general relativity.In contrast, theologians gaily declare the victory of separate majesteria precisely because there is no evidence for religious claims –– now I hesitate to mention this, but I fear that there might not be a Jesus MK 2 coming to a bible-belt near you. A made-up theory such as creationism cannot find itself updated by new ‘claims’ –– pseudo-updated perhaps, in the form of ‘Intelligent Design’, but I fear also, that creationism will go on being made-up because zero evidence is the inevitable result of anything conceived solely and exclusively inside the imagination.If I were to speak in an intellectually honest manner, if not as a politically expedient conciliation, I would say that no evidence supports theistic evolution, or the theory that ‘God’ lit the blue touch paper as the first cause of Big Bang quantum cosmology. Quantum uncertainty does not require a cause –– only humans require a cause, because causal relationships define the evolutionary limitations of human middle-world consciousness. Objective science steps in to see the things we humans cannot see –– the universe in X-ray radiation, to visualise neutrinos passing through the Earth, and examine particles at a sub-atomic level. Those findings are not an act of faith, or even reason –– it is a myth that cosmology operates upon logical callers and pointers –– logic is our invention; mathematics is the invention of space and time itself, and merely the recent discovery of conscious logical organisms.”Some people have views of God, that is so broad and flexible that it is inevitable that they will find God wherever they look for him. One hears it said, that God is the ultimate, or God is our better nature, or God is the universe. Of course, like any other word, the word God can be given any meaning we like. If you want to say that God is energy, then you can find God in a lump of coal,” Professor Stephen Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory.There is no evidence to support the modern theological view that God neither resides within space and time, or outside it; He is neither material, nor immaterial –– God is everywhere, apparently, but I suspect that modern theologians have overlooked the ‘residue fallacy’. The residue fallacy describes the notion, that if one discards 95% of the ideas now considered defunct, as is the material God, the remaining 5% of ideas might just be valid… thus, you can discard old conceptions of God, rebuff your critics for attacking those conceptions as ‘straw man arguments’, and then make up new conceptions of God to prove that your opponents are simply attacking the wrong position. Such is the dynamic range of theology.Now of course, theologians may argue that modern scientific findings are simply a by-product of transient social constructs, and cultural relativism. Philosophers of the past were mistaken about geocentric astronomy, and our place in the universe; but now that we are in a position to see their errors within a historical context, we should avoid cloaking their version of reality under the label of relativism. The falsity of historical philosophers cannot be defined through relativism, but more satisfyingly through rigorism; our explanatory approach towards their falsity and the foresight of superior knowledge, like the emergent rejection of slavery during the American Civil War, had not been invented during the times of Aristotle, the Founding Fathers, or Descartes. By definition, rigorist theory describes a historical paucity of relativism, precisely because little in the way of credible opposition existed to put mainstream views on slavery, Genesis biology, or geocentric astronomy into a broader context, or even consign them to the dustbin of obsolescence.I would argue that the current unpopularity of evolutionary theory and fact demonstrates that science has broken away from social, conformist pressures, and instead pursues its own goals regardless of whether contemporary, democratic, pluralist notions deny the existence of absolute, objective truths. So whether or not people like the fact that humans evolved from other apes, or appreciate hard evidence that we are genetic cousins of bacteria, science ultimately does not respect personal convictions, or religious beliefs. Instead, science edges slowly and progressively towards the truth, even if such a progression crawls at a pace that gives answers
    in dribs and drabs, rather than all at once.I doubt that modern science got evolution, quantum mechanics, or heliocentric astronomy wrong, for we have the privilege of calibrated tools, molecular insight, and predictive modelling –– I expect that updated theories of the future should respect the rigour of our present knowledge.Alan Mackenzie,http://rankatheism.blogspot.com/

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