Pope makes feeble, flailing attack on atheism

Pope Ratzo today issued an encyclical — a scholarly sounding term evidently used at the Vatican as a synonym for “overlong, ill-founded rant” — in which he purports to respond to the “new atheism” by drawing an oddly-reasoned equivalency between atheism and Marxism, and shoring up the theistic position with such empty, Hallmark-card platitudes as “Let us put it very simply: man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope.” To which the rationalist can only respond with, “Speak for yourself, you weak-willed superstitious infant.”

Seriously, if the news release is anything to go by, Ratzo really does hinge a huge portion of his anti-atheist position on comparisons to Marxism, which appear to have little depth beyond “Marx was an atheist, so atheism = Marxism.” Using that logic, one could argue that because Adolf Hitler was a vegetarian who painted bad landscapes (not to mention a Christian), that being a vegetarian or a bad landscape painter (not to mention a Christian) invariably leads to Naziism and white supremacist beliefs. It isn’t exactly Mensa-level thinking.

Amusingly, a commenter over at RichardDawkins.net has already noted that Ratzo, who belonged to the Hitler Youth as a child, goes out of his way to stick to Marxist comparisons while avoiding the Nazi comparisons being made by evolution deniers. But if, as the pope’s defenders will doubtless claim, Ratzo’s membership in that august boyscout club was compulsory and in no way reflects approval of Nazi ideologies, then why shouldn’t Ratzo go ahead and own up to that and start throwing around Nazi straw men alongside his Marxist straw men? It wouldn’t make his blatherings any lamer than they already are.

And it’s a bit rich to have the pope attack atheism by saying things like “It is no accident that this idea [Marxism/atheism] has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice,” given his own church’s bloody history. Hell, right up to this decade, we’ve seen the Vatican responsible for the enabling and cover-up of the largest and most horrifying pedophilia scandal in the history of western civilization. And yet, without a shred of irony, Ratzo can drone on sanctimoniously with such dreck as “We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth, then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.” Ah, blow it out your ass, gramps.

Sorry, Mr. Pope person, sir, but looking at the track record of your little cult, I really don’t care how shiny and expensive your robes and pointy hat are, but you’ve got no moral authority to lecture anyone on anything. And as for your invisible sky fairy, I’ll tell you the same thing I tell all of you lot. Prove it exists — hell, provide even a modicum of credible evidence it exists. But even if you do that, you’ve still got an uphill battle to convince me that without this being I have no hope, since the actual experience of my daily life tells me that goal-oriented rationalism and productive, positive humanism gives me hope to burn.

Fear of an Atheist Planet — again

Coral Ridge Ministries, home of the late D. James Kennedy, has finally figured out a way to unload all that unsold inventory of Kennedy’s book Skeptics Answered: whip up fear of the “evangelizing” “crusade” of the “new” atheists.

I think this one might backfire. I actually started to read Skeptics Answered, and I can say that even by the generally low intellectual standards of Christian apologetics, it’s a really, really lame and hopelessly dishonest effort. I never finished my fisking of it, unfortunately, but the part I did complete is still online. Contrary to the Coral Ridge e-mail, the book will hardly “arm” believers with “intelligent answers” to atheists’ criticisms, and any Christian who tries to use Kennedy’s arguments in a debate with an informed and experienced atheist arguer will find himself having his ass handed to him in a most humiliating fashion. Nope, Kennedy doesn’t do his flock any favors with this book.

Still, I guess they gotta unload those books somehow.

Want to hear some good news for a change!?

Via Debunking Christianity, I read of the latest poll by Christian research organization The Barna Group, which shows that American youth in the 16-29 age bracket currently have the lowest opinion of Christianity than that group has ever had in previous generations.

The study shows that 16- to 29-year-olds exhibit a greater degree of criticism toward Christianity than did previous generations when they were at the same stage of life. In fact, in just a decade, many of the Barna measures of the Christian image have shifted substantially downward, fueled in part by a growing sense of disengagement and disillusionment among young people. For instance, a decade ago the vast majority of Americans outside the Christian faith, including young people, felt favorably toward Christianity’s role in society. Currently, however, just 16% of non-Christians in their late teens and twenties said they have a “good impression” of Christianity.

Rock on! Now we just need to get those kids their copies of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and George H. Smith. Can it get any better? It can.

One of the groups hit hardest by the criticism is evangelicals. Such believers have always been viewed with skepticism in the broader culture. However, those negative views are crystallizing and intensifying among young non-Christians. The new study shows that only 3% of 16 – to 29-year-old non-Christians express favorable views of evangelicals…. 91% of the nation’s evangelicals believe that “Americans are becoming more hostile and negative toward Christianity.” Among senior pastors, half contend that “ministry is more difficult than ever before because people are increasingly hostile and negative toward Christianity.”

I guess that, to a well-educated and intellectually curious young population, ancient superstitions that express hostility to science and promote hatred of “undesirables” like gays, and back their demands for compliance up with threats of eternal hellfire, just aren’t especially attractive or appealing ideas to embrace. So the next time you feel depressed that such cretinous examples of institutionalized idiocy like the Creation “Museum” seem to be making far more headway than they deserve, we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that young people do appear to be thinking skeptics after all. Now they just need to be encouraged to maintain that healthy freethought, before religion gets its hooks of emotional manipulation and fearmongering into them.

Why do atheists speak out? This is why.

The post-Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens backlash continues as more petulant Christians come out of the woodwork with their increasingly desperate smears of the character of atheists. Here’s a typically asinine screed from some Christian prat writing for some news site in Arkansas. It was so full of perfect bilge that I felt compelled to take off the gloves and haul this little turd out to the woodshed, which I did in the following letter to the editor. It’s too long for them to print, surely. My hope is it will be so deliciously ranty that whoever it is on their editorial staff who reads these won’t be able to resist forwarding it to the writer, one John Terry. In any case, once your stomach has recovered from reading his twaddle, enjoy my bitchslap which follows.

Having just read John Terry’s ignorant and reactionary screed against atheists posted to your website on 9/22, this atheist felt he simply had to respond. I have often pitied people who hold the kinds of blinkered and philistine views Mr. Terry holds. But I am not the sort of person to let his calumnies go unanswered. Hopefully he will find this letter educative and instructive, though I doubt it. The fundamentalist mind is nothing if not hidebound. It is, however, precisely the kinds of views Terry expresses in his editorial that have prompted long-silent atheists to feel motivated to speak out and say “Enough is enough!”

Terry first begins by deriding atheism as a belief in “nothing.” Right from the start, in doing so he ensures his entire editorial will be based on false premises and baseless preconceptions of atheists rooted in ignorant stereotypes. Terry, blind to anything but his own indoctrination, asks, “If no God exists, what is there to get passionate about?” Golly gee…how about a little thing called real life? Perhaps Terry ought to get off his knees and up on his feet. He’ll be able to see reality a lot more clearly from up there.

Atheism is simply the rejection of the belief in deities. The alternative to believing in invisible sky gods is not “nothing,” it is everything. It is an appreciation of the beauty and wonder of the natural world as revealed to us by science and reason. As Mr. Terry’s religious indoctrination sadly seems to have blinded him to these beauties, one can pity him. But he shouldn’t be so arrogant as to assume that those who do not believe in his superstition of choice are de facto nihilistic. As I and other atheists of my acquaintance have discovered, once one emancipates oneself from the shackles of religious dogma, whole new vistas of intellectual wonder open up to you. You are free to question and explore and learn, but most important is what you are freed from: irrational fears.

Terry does say one thing partially right, when he mentions, “Contrary to the apparent belief of atheists, their nonbelief is not a danger to Christianity, nor to individual Christians. Nor does it change the existence of God.”

Actually, I don’t know of any atheists who consider atheism a “danger” to Christianity, though all atheists do recognize the danger religion poses to rationalism, independence, education, human rights, and peace. Sadly, we understand all too well the degree to which Christianity’s dogmas and delusions have become woven into the very fabric of modern culture, and that it will take nothing short of another Enlightenment to turn us away from our present slide into a new Dark Age. Terry is also right in that atheism does not change the existence of God. It simply acknowledges that Terry’s God’s existence is no more plausible than the existence of Zeus, Thor, Shiva, Amun-Re, or Cthulhu. If Terry wishes me to renounce my atheism and join him in being what he gushingly calls “a child of God,” then he ought to offer rational arguments and evidence for this being’s existence, rather than spewing supercilious invective and facile emotional appeals. Maybe the fool does say in his heart there is no God….but the wise man says it out loud.

Terry is so ignorant and myopic on the subject of atheism that he offers up examples of perceived problems atheism poses which are simply risible.

First, he seems to think there is something bad about an atheist being left with “no wisdom but his own (except the wisdom of men) and no hope of a life beyond this one.” That Terry and believers like him so fear death that they must cling to such a hope is, I suppose, understandable. But part of the process of reaching emotional and intellectual maturity is understanding that life is a finite experience, and that finitude is precisely what makes life precious. It is important to remember here that Terry’s entire life has been informed by his indoctrination into one particular set of religious superstitions that enforces its authority over its followers through fear and guilt. Thus it is difficult, if not entirely impossible, for him to comprehend that there are millions of rational nonbelievers in the world who simply aren’t wracked by the same existential fears that plague him. In any case, for the atheist, the “problems” Terry thinks we face aren’t problems of any kind.

As for relying on the wisdom of men: well, without any proof of a God’s existence, why should I rely on anything else? By relying on their own intellect and reasoning, atheists possess the capacity to learn from mistakes, to adapt to new circumstances and be receptive to new knowledge and discoveries. This would seem to me to be a better way to live one’s life than to adopt the strident dogmas of a religious belief founded only on wishful thinking and “faith” (a process which seems to be all about the glorification of one’s ignorance), buttressed by fear.

If, as Terry implies, it is the God of the Bible whose “wisdom” I should prefer, I confess to being puzzled by the idea that I should consider a being who consigns anyone who does not worship him to his satisfaction to an eternity of agonizing torment as “wise,” when my own, pitifully inadequate notions of human wisdom tell me that a being like that is by definition a horrendously wicked and evil tyrant. Any God who refuses to make his existence unambiguously clear, and then is willing to consign individuals to eternal torture simply for doubting his existence, can only be unutterably evil, and the fact that Christians think that such a God is a paragon of all that is good is a view that quite simply perverts any meaning the notion of “goodness” could possibly have. For a Christian to hold such a view and still think he is “better off than the atheist” reveals the intellectually and morally corrupting force of Christian “faith” more powerfully than any atheist critique ever could.

Second, Terry laughably asserts that “the atheist may be able to persuade others (I knew of one situation like this where an older man concentrated on young people) that his unbelief is really true. This might consign those he persuaded to the same fate that is in store for him.” What fate is this, I wonder? The Christian “hell,” a concept that — as I have explained in detail above — could only be the creation of a morally bankrupt and evil belief system that seeks to ensure compliance through terror and intimidation because it lacks actual facts to support it? If this is what Terry means, then color me unimpressed. Threatening atheists with punishments that do not exist does not, to put it mildly, carry a lot of weight, and if anything, simply confirms what we already know to be religion’s most egregious moral failings. To stifle free inquiry and a person’s curiosity and sense of discovery by telling them that rejection of the received dogmas is punishable by damnation is perhaps Christianity’s most loathsome crime against humanity. However, if, as Terry asserts, I can persuade someone that nonbelief is the way to go, then I can only be happy that I’ve done my part, however small, in helping someone liberate themselves from superstition’s crippling shackles.

Finally, Terry makes an assertion that is simply dispicable. He implies that, lacking belief in God somehow
means atheists all somehow think they are their own gods, and thus “without restraint, he may become a pedophile, a murderer, a thief, or any other kind of a deviant you can think of. Or he might just become one who lives inward, with no concern for the people or things around him. There are tragic examples of such people.”

How dare you, sir?

MAY I remind you that the most recent pedophilia scandal to shock the world was not perpetrated by atheists, but by the Catholic Church? MAY I remind you that the people who crashed airplanes into buildings were not atheists, but fanatical Moslems? MAY I remind you that virtually all racist hate groups operating in the United States today are religious in focus, from the KKK all the way down to such groups as the “World Church of the Creator”? As for atheists as people turning “inward, with no concern for the people or things around him,” who are these people? Who are the “tragic examples” that you claim to have heard of? Since, by your own admission, you say you have only known “no more than two dozen” atheists, how can you possibly feel justified in smearing the character of hundreds of millions of atheists worldwide, in particular smearing them by accusing them of the very crimes that have famously been committed in recent years by the religious?

I’ll tell you how you can feel justified in doing it. Your beliefs are misanthropic and divisive. Religion enables hate by convincing one group of people that, because they are the devoted followers of such-and-such an invisible sky fairy, that all non-followers of said being are by definition evil, and must be viewed with suspicion, dread and loathing. The nonstop invective against atheists you spew in your article is a testament to such brainwashing. You don’t know any atheists, you say (except for a small handful against whose disbelief you lamely shield yourself by flattering yourself that they’re really believers who just won’t admit it), but somehow you know we’re all “deviants”. Gee, thanks very much. That must be some of that “Christian love” I keep hearing about.

Terry’s pomposity and arrogance know no bounds. He stupidly asserts that “unless the avowed atheist is prepared to account for the universe, for man in all of his complexities, and life in general, he certainly is not prepared to declare that ‘there is no God,'” while completely overlooking the fact that he is in no position to declare that there is a God unless he is able to account for that God…and account for it with hard, independently verifiable and testable evidence, not just a string of Bible quotes. Remember, just because there are certain questions that science has yet to answer does not mean the religionist is justified in slapping down “Goddidit” as the all-purpose default “explanation”. An explanation that has no explanatory power is no explanation at all.

Terry here is simply committing the common logical fallacy of “shifting the burden of proof.” Despite what he thinks, it is not my responsibility to demonstrate to him that his deity of choice does not exist. It is his responsibility to demonstrate to me that it does. If he fails to do so, I will continue to refrain from believing in this being, just as I refrain from believing in Zeus, Thor, Set, et al.

Remember, the only claim atheism makes is that we do not believe in a God. Every time a believer asserts there is a God, and fails to meet his burden of proof, the atheist successfully meets his. In point of fact, science actually does offer a great deal of what Terry says atheists must offer as explanations — though I suspect that, as a religious fundamentalist, Terry reflexively rejects most modern science. Still, there is much left to learn, and the joy of learning, much less the freedom to learn, is one of the greatest benefits from living the rational, secular life, away from the simple-minded catch-all non-answers of religious dogma.

One difference I can say with confidence I have observed between atheists who are scientifically-minded and religious fundamentalists is that the atheists almost always have a passion for knowledge and a profound degree of dedication to understanding the truth about the world as the discoveries of science can reveal it, while the more religious a person is, the less intellectual curiosity about the world they generally have, smugly satisfied that their ancient holy book has it all figured out for them.

This is painfully evident all throughout Terry’s editorial. Nowhere in the piece does Terry give atheists any indication that being as devout a Christian as he is does anything to satisfy intellectual curiosity and provide a fulfilling understanding of life and the world we live in. However, Terry’s editorial does show a surfeit of smarmy, egoistic preening. Terry’s Christianity may not tell him anything meaningful about the real world, but it allows him to puff himself up and declare himself a superior breed of human to all of those “deviant” atheists, and that’s all he requires from it. Thanks, but I’d rather be a proud adherent to rational, secular philosophies that encourage my intellectual growth, than to a shallow superstition that acts as a band-aid to my insecurity by letting me say “Nyah nyah, I’m better than you.”

As for Christians being the only people who help others, well, this is simply more snide self-flattery on Terry’s part. He does not know me, but if he did, he would know of all of the charitable work I have done in my life (in terms of both money and personal time donated), how I have gone out of my way to be supportive of my friends and a good and productive member of my community. The atheist organization to which I’ve belonged for years does regular charitable works, inculding highway cleanup and participating in blood drives.

As Terry clearly does not wish to be disabused of his anti-atheist bigotry, then if he did know about atheists doing those things, he would probably make up some twaddle about how this shows we’re all really godly people at heart, or something. I have news for Terry. A truly moral and philanthropic person does not engage in charity and acts of helpful human kindness simply because one hopes for a bright, shiny reward from one’s sky-father. One does so because virtue is its own reward. The smile on someone’s face I see when I have helped them at a time they could not help themselves is all the reward I need. And it is so much more meaningful than the reward Terry imagines his God will bestow upon him in some dreamed-of afterlife. Because, unlike the promises of Christianity, a person’s smile is real.

I feel highly confident that I am not “misguided in my thinking” to hold these views, any more than I am “misguided” not to believe in invisible sky gods. If Terry still thinks I am misguided, then he is welcome to persuade me. However, on the slim chance he reads this, I must advise him that the way to persuade me will be through strong arguments which apply rigorous standards of evidence, and not pitiful, self-aggrandizing cheap shots and empty rhetoric that do little to prove Terry’s points to the thinking skeptic, though they certainly seem to do much to shore up Terry’s ego. I can imagine, what with all of us “deviant” atheists finally willing to come out and stand up to the ignorance and sanctimonious posturing of the religious, Terry’s ego needs a lot of shoring.

Skatje Myers nailed it

PZ Myers’ teenage daughter explains two methods of successfully discussing atheism:

It’s moderate atheists’ job to speak nicely to theists and get them to hear the message, but it’s the militant atheists’ job to get the moderates out of the closet and active. Do they scare away some theists entirely? Probably, but those are most likely the most unchangeable anyway. And it still doesn’t outweigh the need for angry atheists and their “rudeness”.

Of course the two styles are both very familiar to me. The first is The Atheist Experience, and the second is The Non-Prophets.

Edit: Updated to include a link to the original post in the first sentence.

What theists don’t ask

Michael Gerson has written a piece in the Washington Post entitled “What Atheists Can’t Answer.” As I mentioned on my last show appearance, often these kinds of claims come about because theists don’t bother talking to any atheists before coming to conclusions about what they think.

The heart of this article is this:

“So I merely want to pose a question: If the atheists are right, what would be the effect on human morality?”

Later it is re-expressed in this way:

“So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts? Theism, for several millennial, has given one answer: We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the God we love and respect requires it. While many of us fall tragically short, the ideal remains.”

As people know who watch or listen to our shows, we’ve grappled with those questions frequently in recent years. The problem with the question “How do we choose between good and bad instincts?” is that it’s a non-trivial philosophical issue, about which tremendous volumes have been written by philosophers for many centuries. Folks like Michael Gerson believe that they have scored a good point when they essentially ask us to give them an simple answer in a thirty second sound-bite or even an 800 word column. Then they falsely assert that religion provides that easy answer.

You want a sound bite? As always, take a cue from the Euthyphro Dilemma. You don’t need to play the game of trying to appear to have all the answers; it is sufficient in this case to point out that theists do not have any answers either. The counter-question is “How does inventing a god help us to choose between good and bad instincts?” Then you can follow up immediately by pointing out awful things that God can and does ask people to do in the Bible. You can take your pick from slaughtering entire cities and taking the virgin girls to be unwilling brides; being prepared to stab your first born son to death as a test of loyalty; millenia of unabashed support for slavery; etc. Not to mention modern applications of religion, such as flying planes into buildings.

In this case, pleading “That’s the old testament” or “Only Muslims fly planes into buildings” is completely irrelevant. Michael Gerson didn’t make an argument for modern liberal Christianity; he made the more general claim that believing in a higher power solves the problem of morality. Of course it doesn’t. Belief in a higher power simply adds a level of arbitrary abstraction to your moral decisions. You are no less likely to commit acts of atrocity, only now you are free to attribute these actions to the deity of your choice. Instead of picking your morals, you are picking your god, as well as your interpretation of what the god wants.

Here in the west, only a few extremists are willing to take Biblical morality at face value, including (for example) stoning unruly children to death, but these are not the sorts of people you want to spend much time talking to. Most people are ready to argue that they shouldn’t be expected to accept some of these edicts that were supposedly directed by God. At that point, the question of “Where do you atheists get their morality?” is easily answered: “It’s probably about the same place YOU get your morality, since it clearly isn’t from God.”

That’s most of what the article is about, although there are a couple of other assertions that are worth commenting on. The first paragraph of the article says:

“British author G.K. Chesterton argued that every act of blasphemy is a kind of tribute to God, because it is based on belief. ‘If anyone doubts this,’ he wrote, ‘let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor.'”

Right. That totally makes sense. Because every time you criticize something, you are secretly supporting it. Doesn’t matter what it is. If you stop and think “Hey, I saw my mom sneaking around my bedroom, I wonder if she left that money under my pillow?” you are paying tribute to the tooth fairy. If you say “Suicide jihadists are idiots to believe that they will get 72 virgins in the afterlife” you are paying tribute to their notion of an afterlife.

I wonder if anyone will ever catch on that this argument boils down to nothing more than “I know you are, but what am I?”

Gerson also states:

“And I suspect that a certain kind of skeptic would remain skeptical even after a squadron of angels landed on his front lawn.”

This, too, is a fairly common desperate move to use against atheists. Theists realize that the actual evidence that is available to prove the existence of God is piss-poor, so in frustration they make up hypothetical rock solid evidence, which does not really exist. By making the unsupported claim that atheists wouldn’t even believe THAT, they manage to shift the discussion away from the poorness of the actual evidence, and turn it into an unwarranted assumption about how unreasonable atheists are in their imaginary alternative universe.

Still, just so we are clear, let me state this for the record. If a squadron of angels landed on my front lawn and started chatting me up about God, I’d be pretty easy to convince at that point.

There. Now God knows exactly what he can do to make me renounce atheism. Where’s my squadron of angels?