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Sigfried Gold’s Relativistic Nonsense

Sigfried Gold has a Washington Post column about the new atheist “churches” being set up. While some of the more strident atheist voices dislike the idea because it too closely replicates religion, Gold seems to think it’s a bad idea because it doesn’t sufficiently “respect” religious views. And by “respect” he means consider them equally likely to be true.

The market for new religions is so hot at the moment that atheists are getting into the act. Alain de Botton’s 2012 book “Religion for Atheists” exhorts nonbelievers to replicate the comforts of religion–the choirs, the beautiful architecture, the mutual aid and charity, rituals to mourn the dead–without all the faith claptrap. The Sunday Assembly and Jerry De Witt’s atheist church are two efforts that have received recent press. I am personally more sympathetic to Religious Naturalism or the Spiritual Naturalist Society, but I applaud all these developments, being an atheist who is particularly friendly toward religion in general. But I worry that some of the new religions or quasi-religions in the works may replicate some of the worst qualities of the old ones.

To my mind there is one measure by which religions can be judged that is arguably more important than all others: does it truly treat other religions and non-religious belief systems with respect and friendliness, refraining entirely from claiming that it holds exclusive or privileged access to the truth? This measure, I posit, is most important because without it, any claim that a religion makes to universal love, brotherhood, humanity, etc., is contradicted by the attitude its believers will take towards others with different beliefs.

I’ll take relativistic bullshit for $1000, Alex. First of all, ideas are not people. We can treat people with respect and friendliness (and should, most of the time), but the idea of treating “belief systems” that way is absurd. Secondly, the whole idea of “universal love” is a pie-in-the-sky fairy tale. And he shows just how committed he is to relativism here:

Atheists have an amazing opportunity in this regard. It takes a considerable amount of philosophical sophistication for a believer to worship a God while granting that contrary beliefs have just as much claim on the truth as her own. For atheists and agnostics, though, this can be easy.

No, it can’t, unless they are just spouting this kind of new-agey nonsense. It simply isn’t true that all beliefs “have just as much claim on the truth.” If your religion teaches you that the earth is 6000 years old, that belief is false. Period. It has no claim on the truth because it is definitively disproven by the evidence, and no amount of holding hands and singing Kumbaya can change that. This position is not “philosophically sophisticated,” it is utter stupidity. And if he feels I’m not showing sufficient “respect” or “universal love” for his position, that’s just too bad.

Worse yet, he specifically targets James Croft, of all people, as not being sufficiently loving and kind:

The effort to spread atheist quasi-religious communities will be continued by others, including James Croft. He visited DC recently with a talk he’s been giving around the country called “God is Dead. So What?” He is an engaging, funny, charismatic preacher, but one of his primary points in arguing for atheist congregations is that we atheists need our own churches, our own “echo chambers for values” to combat the political power of the religious right…

I come to religion to learn to love people different from myself, not to combat them. Religions have done great and amazing things in the name of social justice, but Martin Luther King showed more compassion for his racist jailers than Croft shows for conservative Christians.

If James Croft, one of the kindest and most generous people in the humanist community, is too harsh a voice for you, your criteria is seriously flawed.

Comments

  1. Michael Heath says

    Sigfried Gold writes:

    It takes a considerable amount of philosophical sophistication for a believer to worship a God while granting that contrary beliefs have just as much claim on the truth as her own.

    What a moran.

  2. smrnda says

    This guy needs to realize that some beliefs are mutually exclusive, and though it might give him the warm fuzzies to pretend that we can all be right at the same time, people who actually think can’t do that. Most religions hold to mutually exclusive and incompatible beliefs except some highly liberal ones, so why isn’t he complaining about the masses of orthodox believers everywhere?

    The “philosophical sophistication” that enables a person to pretend that A and not A can both be true at the same time is nothing of the sort, it’s just a commitment to inflated rhetoric and fluffy bullshit.

  3. says

    To my mind there is one measure by which religions can be judged that is arguably more important than all others: does it truly treat other religions and non-religious belief systems with respect and friendliness, refraining entirely from claiming that it holds exclusive or privileged access to the truth?

    This bit really irritates me. I don’t act like atheism is a hotline with The Truth on the other end, the way religions typically do. I just tentatively believe that atheism is true. There’s no divine or mock-divine revelation involved, just plain old observation and analysis of the evidence. If I think I have good reasons to believe I’ve arrived at a truth, why should I keep it to myself? If I’m wrong, keeping silent means no one will correct me with superior arguments.

    Religious people deserve at least the minimum respect because they’re people. They have the right to believe whatever they think is true, even if I think it’s wrong. I’m not about to take away any of their rights because doing so would set a precedent for my rights to be taken away. Even if I see their religious beliefs as a flaw, there are other ways they can earn greater respect.

    I see no reason to treat religions with respect. I don’t see any virtue in faith. I consider the concept of dogma to be dangerous and regressive. The idolatry involved easily leads to the exploitation of idolators and oppression of dissenters. False, dangerous, or otherwise bad ideas shouldn’t be respected just because some people invest their identity in them.

  4. zero6ix says

    To my mind there is one measure by which religions can be judged that is arguably more important than all others: does it truly treat other religions and non-religious belief systems with respect and friendliness, refraining entirely from claiming that it holds exclusive or privileged access to the truth? This measure, I posit, is most important because without it, any claim that a religion makes to universal love, brotherhood, humanity, etc., is contradicted by the attitude its believers will take towards others with different beliefs.

    But…but no religion does this. I mean, believers may do this, but all religions, everywhere, to the very last of them, believes that A)They do indeed have privileged access to the truth and B)All others are false and worthy of derision.

    Put more succinctly, it’s contradictions all the way down.

  5. Chiroptera says

    To my mind there is one measure by which religions can be judged that is arguably more important than all others: does it truly treat other religions and non-religious belief systems with respect and friendliness, refraining entirely from claiming that it holds exclusive or privileged access to the truth?

    Actually, I think a more relevant measure would be: would the adherents, when given the chance, fine, imprison, or kill non-believers?

    As far as “privileged access to the truth,” whatever that means, most atheists who make statements about other peoples beliefs aren’t claiming “privileged access” to any truth. What they are doing is pointing out that most religious people are making claims about the real world; that these claims can be evaluated through empirical observation; and that most of these claims can be demonstrated to be false by the same criteria that claims even they recognize as “superstition” have been demonstrated to be false.

  6. says

    Chiroptera: you make an excellent point regarding good measures for judging religions. I completely grant that yours takes priority over mine. But if two religions do fine on your measure, then I think mine should be applied.

    To all the arguments about my intellectual incoherence, I’m afraid I don’t have time, or even the philosophical chops, to make an argument that will convince any of you; but I know a lot of smart people who are capable of holding apparently contradictory ideas and using them to think with, without being confused.

  7. says

    Sigfried Gold “To all the arguments about my intellectual incoherence, I’m afraid I don’t have time, or even the philosophical chops, to make an argument that will convince any of you; but I know a lot of smart people who are capable of holding apparently contradictory ideas and using them to think with, without being confused.”
    What do you call it? “Double-think”?

  8. says

    There is a difference between holding apparently contradictory ideas, and holding actually contradictory ideas. Religions are chock-full of ideas that are simply logically incompatible either with reality as we have discovered it to be, or with other ideas fromm the same religion. No religion can possibly hold the idea that all religions have an equal handle on the truth without sowing the seeds of its own intellectual destruction.

    All religions make some truth-claims about reality that are incompatible with some truth-claims from other religions – even those that say that the gods don’t care what religion you follow are making a claim that is utterly irreconcilable with those religions that claim that a god or god does have a preference for which religion you follow.

    Anyone who can examine mutually contradictory ideas and use them as tools for think about stuff is a good candidate for philosophical sophistication. But if someone genuinely believes two mutually incompatible ideas – ideas where, if one is true, then the other must by definition be false, then that person is not being philosophically sophisticated; they are simply a virtuoso at mental compartmentalization.

  9. says

    To my mind there is one measure by which religions can be judged that is arguably more important than all others: does it truly treat other religions and non-religious belief systems with respect and friendliness, refraining entirely from claiming that it holds exclusive or privileged access to the truth?

    In other words, religions can’t call out the lies or BS of other religions because everyone getting along 24/7 is more important than confronting unpleasant truths? That’s the WRONG kind of unity and togetherness, and we have too much of it already. Gangsters demarking their respective territories in a spirit of friendliness are still gangsters.

  10. scienceavenger says

    To all the arguments about my intellectual incoherence, I’m afraid I don’t have time, or even the philosophical chops, to make an argument that will convince any of you

    What twaddle, and insultingly insinuating twaddle to boot, as if we are all too closed-minded to persuade.

    Make a reasonable, intellectually honest argument, and reasonable intelligent people will respond.

  11. says

    Religions have done great and amazing things in the name of social justice…

    You mean like crushing the Nazis and building stable and prosperous democratic states all over Western Europe and Japan? Oh wait, that was done by secular governments. Whose side were the big churches on back then?

    …but Martin Luther King showed more compassion for his racist jailers than Croft shows for conservative Christians.

    First, King was a bit of an outlier here. How many other spiritual leaders did as much as King did to lead people to do good against formidible forces of evil? If King is the only shining example they can offer, that kinda disproves their point.

    And second, King was not acting as a spiritual leader, he was a POLITICAL ORGANIZER, forging political coalitions far outside his original church (which wasn’t entirely behind him anyway). I find it totally despicable that religious people would claim credit for King, while ignoring the hateful opposition King got from other religious people, in both his own and other Christian churches.

  12. says

    …I know a lot of smart people who are capable of holding apparently contradictory ideas and using them to think with, without being confused.

    Holding contradictory ideas in your head is not the same as giving equal respect to all ideas, nor does it mean refusing to judge which ideas are more useful or worthwhile than others. I like watching “Constantine,” but I still understand that the underlying Catholic theology is pure reprehensible bullshit.

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