Atheist Arguments = Racist Cultural Imperialism?


Hey, did you know that when I try to persuade people that religion is probably mistaken and atheism is probably correct, I’m “reproducing cultural imperialism against Native Americans”?

No, really.

I don’t have time today to do a line-by-line fisking of Be Scofield’s latest screed in Tikkun against the so-called “New Atheists.” Which is irritating, since the piece targets me by name and at some length. (Or rather, it tries to target me and misses by a significant margin, since most of what it says about my opinions is wildly off-base.) Ophelia Benson has already ripped it about sixteen different new assholes, especially on the whole “New atheism = racist cultural oppression” front, so I’m mostly going to direct you to her.

But there are a few things here that leaped out of the screen and lodged into my brain like a grain of sand, and I won’t be able to rest until I can coat them with the pearls of my wit and wisdom, and get them the frack out of my system.

Okay. First of all.

When Greta Christina says that religious people should be actively converted to atheism or Dawkins likens religion to a virus that infects the mind they are effectively saying “we know what’s best for you.”

No.

I am not saying that I know what’s best for you.

I am saying that, on this particular question, I think I’m correct, and you’re mistaken.

As I’ve said approximately 864,756 times: Religion is a hypothesis about the world. It is the hypothesis that the world is the way it is, in part or in full (depending on the specific religion), because of supernatural entities and/or forces acting on the natural world.

And I think this hypothesis is mistaken.

This is the crux that Scofield and others consistently miss. For me, and for most other so-called New Atheists, the question of whether religion is mostly helpful or harmful, while important and interesting, is largely a secondary concern. My primary objection to religion is not that it’s harmful. My primary objection is that it’s wrong.

I do think (along with many other atheists) that this wrongness is inherently tied to the harm that religion often causes. If for no other reason, mistaken assumptions lead people to make bad decisions. (If you think prayer will cure your pneumonia, for instance, you’re less likely to seek medical treatment.) And I do think (along with many other atheists) that the inherently unfalsifiable nature of religion does make it more likely to lead to extremes of harm — since there’s no reality check on it.

But that question, while important and interesting, is secondary. The primary question is this: Does God exist? Is there a supernatural world? I think the answer is No. There are no gods. There are no supernatural entities or forces. There is only the a natural, physical world, with no gods.

So why shouldn’t I try to persuade others of this? In a free society, we try to persuade other people that we’re correct, and that others are mistaken, all the freaking time. That is the messy glory of the marketplace of ideas. If we think we’re right about something — about science, sociology, politics, philosophy, art, medicine, public policy, who had the best Red Carpet look at the Golden Globes — and if we think we have better evidence or a better argument for it, we make that case.

So why — alone among all other ideas — should religion get a free ride? Why is it okay to try to persuade people that they’re mistaken about global climate change, or abstinence- only sex education, or the effect of an unrestricted free market on the economy, or the safety and efficacy of vaccines… but it’s somehow a terrible, oppressive form of cultural imperialism, comparable to the genocide of Native Americans, to try to persuade people that there are no gods and no supernatural world? Why should we be encouraged to critique every other kind of idea people have come up with… but this one idea has to be left alone? As I wrote in Atheism and the “Shut Up, That’s Why” Arguments: In the marketplace of ideas, why should religion get to drive its wares to the market in an armored car? And sell those wares behind a curtain? And insist that people stay politely quiet when the teakettles they bought at the religion booth don’t hold water?

I have asked this question more times than I can remember, of more people than I can count. And I have yet to see anything that resembles a satisfying answer. In fact, I’ve just about never seen any answer at all. The only answer I ever got to this question was basically, “Religious debates and disagreements have historically led to violent conflicts, so it’s best to just not engage in them.” Which, in my opinion pretty much proves my point and not theirs. If Mr. Scofield has an answer to this question, I would be very interested to hear it.

So. Moving on:

This is the crux of the problem with the New Atheists. They’ve identified belief in God or religion as the single most oppressive factor in people’s lives and feel justified in liberating people from it because they have “reason” on their side.

No.

I am not saying that religion is the single most oppressive factor in people’s lives. I’m saying that it is one oppressive factor in people’s lives.

This is one of the biggest problems with Scofield’s piece. It presents an extreme, absolutist version of so-called “New Atheism” that I’ve almost never seen advocated.

Yes. We understand that not all religious believers become martyrs, and that ideas/ identities other than religion can lead to martyrdom. (I even say this in one of the pieces Scofield quotes from… which his readers might know if he’d had the standard courtesy to link to the writing that he’s quoting.) Yes, we understand that many people get comfort and community and other good things from religion. We just think that religion isn’t, you know, true. And we think — many of us, anyway, that, on the whole, on balance, for more people than not, in more instances than not, it does more harm than good.

If you’re going to argue, can you please argue with what I/ we are actually saying? (Oh, right. No. Because what we’re saying is actually reasonable and accurate.)

And finally (for today, anyway):

If many of the New Atheists want to hold to an absolutist position that religion is harmful…

No.

I do not hold to an absolutist position that religion is harmful, always and all the time and for everyone. And neither does any other atheist writer I know.

I hold to the position that religion, on the whole, is harmful. I hold to the position that religion, on the whole, does more harm than good. And I hold to the position that the benefits that religion confers, the comfort and community and so on can be achieved without it.

You want research to back this up? Fine. Myself and others have written at length about the terrible harms caused by religion, and I’m sure you’re familiar with these writings and don’t need to be directed there again. So how about this: According to an extensive, years-long analysis of different societies around the world, societies with high rates of atheism also have a strong tendency to be societies that score at the very top of the “happiness index,” and that have high levels of social functioning: low rates of violent crime, low levels of corruption, excellent educational systems, strong economies, well-supported arts, free health care, egalitarian social policies, and so on. (Citation: Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, by Phil Zuckerman.)

Does this prove that atheism causes high rates of happiness and social functioning? No. It’s almost certainly the other way around. What it does show is that religion is not necessary for happiness and social functioning. What it shows is that all these wonderful benefits that Scofield ascribes to religion are attainable without it.

Are there problems with racism, sexism, privilege, cultural blindness, etc. in the atheist communities and the atheist movement? Yes, For damn sure. Many of us are intensely aware of these problems, and are working hard on them.

But the mere fact that we think we’re right? The mere fact that we’re trying to persuade others that we’re right? That’s not among them.

Comments

  1. piero says

    Greta Christina is a cultural imperialist.

    I think I’ve heard it all, now.

    I can die in peace, knowing that I’ve fathomed the full depth of human stupidity.

    Pity I’m not clever enough to have glimpsed the full heights of human genius, but hey, is the glass half full or half empty? Half full, of course.

  2. Azkyroth says

    When all one has is the self-awareness of a hammer, everything looks like a nail. (Or perhaps vice-versa.)

  3. says

    I realized (after responding to him on Twitter) that Scofield, like many another accommodationist, is really just an intellectual parasite trying to make a name for himself and capitalize on the New Atheists’ popularity by picking fights with us. I, for one, don’t intend to give him any more of my attention until he proves that he’s worth the effort.

  4. Christophe says

    To go from “Many oppressed people have relied on religion as a way of preventing assimilation and defending themselves against their oppressors” to “any criticism of religion as a general topic is therefore siding with the oppressors” is such as astonishing leap of illogical that i simply cannot believe that Scofield is arguing in good faith.

  5. sqlrob says

    @Christophe

    I don’t think it’s possible for an accomodationist to argue in good faith. The position is untenable.

  6. Nemo says

    I do think religion may actually be the single most oppressive factor in people’s lives. So many other forms of oppression turn to religion for support, often their sole support.

    But of course, no, one need not believe that religion is the worst thing in order to believe that it’s a bad thing.

  7. michaeld says

    Honestly the more time I spend reading this the more he comes off as just trying to pick a fight. Wild comparisons and keeps saying he listens to people when there’s little to no evidence in his writing he’s actually paying any attention. Still part of me wants to think he’s just daft and not trying to be malicious.

  8. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    Since you’re not disposed to do a full fisking, Greta, let me help a tiny bit. There’s something Be said that cannot go unremarked on and he needs called out for:

    When Greta Christina says that religious people should be actively converted to atheism

    No. Dirty, dirty move. Given that he has no shame about comparing argumentation with colonialism against indigenous people it should be crystal clear what he’s doing here. He’s positing that Greta (or anyone else who’s not a wilting flower) is advocating some kind of forcible “conversion” of oppressed people to New Correct Thought.

    Not only is that an outrageous libel (seriously Be. . . do you read the English language? Who in heaven’s name has ever advocated forcible “conversion?” And don’t hide behind the fact that you said “active.” Your deliberate implication is transparent.) but it doesn’t even make any sense. No one can be compelled to believe something. They can be compelled to profess that they believe it. They can be compelled to conform to majority norms and they can be compelled to perform rituals and behaviors that demonstrate conformity. But they cannot be compelled to believe a thing they don’t believe.

    And guess who did all that compelling-of-rituals-and-behavior when it came to Native Americans? Christian missionaries.

    Make no mistake. Be Scofield is not the “nice,” “gentle” person he desperately wants you to believe he is. That single passage above demonstrates a knowing and cynical rhetorical move designed to provoke by implicitly comparing argumentation for atheism with actual physical and cultural violence done to indigenous people. In short, it was a lie, and a calculated one.

    Be Scofield is either ethically disgusting or he’s incredibly stupid.

  9. Azkyroth says

    I do think religion may actually be the single most oppressive factor in people’s lives. So many other forms of oppression turn to religion for support, often their sole support.

    Not to mention that there’s pretty much no oppressive situation that can’t be made worse by sitting still asking what your god of choice is trying to teach you by it.

  10. Azkyroth says

    Still part of me wants to think he’s just daft and not trying to be malicious.

    1) why?
    2) if there’s one thing my ex taught me, it’s whether someone is “trying to be malicious” it’s a red herring. (In fact, the word “malicious” as part of an excuse is basically a berserk button for me now. >.>)

  11. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    2) if there’s one thing my ex taught me, it’s whether someone is “trying to be malicious” it’s a red herring.

    So true. It’s the same phenomenon as described by “intent is not magic.” The result is the same. The only difference is that someone who’s not disposed to be malicious by nature may be amenable to changing their actions when they’re educated about the effect of their actions.

  12. Stacy says

    When Greta Christina says that religious people should be actively converted to atheism

    That single passage above demonstrates a knowing and cynical rhetorical move designed to provoke by implicitly comparing argumentation for atheism with actual physical and cultural violence done to indigenous people. In short, it was a lie, and a calculated one.

    Be Scofield is either ethically disgusting or he’s incredibly stupid

    Josh, have I told you lately that I love you?

    No. No, it’s been awhile. Josh, I love you.

  13. Stacy says

    They’ve identified belief in God or religion as the single most oppressive factor in people’s lives and feel justified in liberating people from it because they have “reason” on their side.

    This was the sloppy and utterly unjustified assumption that first jumped out at me, but his entire argument is a veritable cornucopia of fail.

  14. says

    Somehow, this reminded me of the kid at camp that liked to fart and blame on others. I don’t see how anyone can doubt the dishonesty involved when we all know that religious imperialism hasn’t stopped since 1942…unless the confernce in Australia this year is in reality a missionary

  15. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    his entire argument is a veritable cornucopia of fail.

    You bet it is, Stacy, and I think it’s conscious.

    That’s what gets my blood up; those who affect “niceness,” and “tolerance,” and “inclusivity,” and “non-judgmentalism” are dangerous bastards. Anyone who makes an ostentatious show out of displaying these qualities, or who spends time deliberately constructing an image that projects these qualities (Stedman, Mooney, Rosenau, ad barfum) is not to be trusted. They will sell your ass down the river and they will come up with any dubious judgment to fit the popular sentiment of those whom they think they can use to advance their standing.

    Such people almost always turn out to be the most extreme self-regarding narcissists who use their Smiley Face ™ persona as camouflage for manipulations and political maneuvering. Hugo Schwyzer comes to mind.

    I prefer the company of unvarnished human beings who don’t try to pretend they’re not subject to the same base motivations and self-interest that all the rest of us are. I don’t pretend to be saintly at all—that would be laughable. And I sure as hell don’t trust anyone who does.

  16. says

    but it’s somehow a terrible, oppressive form of cultural imperialism, comparable to the genocide of Native Americans, to try to persuade people that there are no gods and no supernatural world? Why should we be encouraged to critique every other kind of idea people have come up with… but this one idea has to be left alone?

    the only honest, sensible answer to this is that most atheists are ex-majority-religion and the culture they live in is that of their former religion; so they don’t lose a connection to their culture when they deconvert, since everyone still celebrates Easter and Christmas etc. and so we get a lot of cultural Christians.

    Deconverting out of things that aren’t cultural-majority Christianity can be trickier, especially because people confuse culture and religion so often (and also conflate Western culture incl. it’s “secularized” holidays with secularism itself). So once in a while you have people who mean to say “please stop believing in magic”, but it comes out as “please drop your cultural traditions in favor of my Western traditions”.

    I’ve been saying for a while that atheism isn’t going to spread much past the Western world until and unless other cultures figure out how to separate themselves from the supernatural beliefs that may have shaped it, the way the West has done during the Enlightenment. I suppose atheist Jews would be a really good example to look to to figure out how to separate culture and mythology.

    Anyway, my point is: there’s no sensible argument against treating supernatural beliefs as the hypotheses about reality that they are; but there’s a wee tiny grain of truth buried under that bullshit, insofar as asking people to change their cultural practices, even if they are as harmless as celebrating christmas, for western practices is sometimes made into a package-deal with abandoning the magical belief (not, btw, by Greta Christina, AFAICT. just making a general observation about something I’ve observed elsewhere (especially in Europe))

  17. Ysidro says

    @ Nathaniel – #9:

    After Fred Clark left Typepad for Patheos and the old commentors took over the blog (with his permission), their already mild hostility to atheists became a full fledged flame fest. Beware to any non-believer who isn’t willing to kowtow to theists.

    I bolted pretty soon after the second time they descended on an atheist willing to criticize religous beliefs. It’s “shut up and be good” or nothing over there.

  18. karmakin says

    Am I a bad Gnu for being more concerned about the harm stemming from authoritarian interventionist monotheism than the actual truth factor of it all? Actually, I’m probably not a Gnu because a lot of my atheistic arguments were shaped long before the Gnu movement started.

    Dang. It’s probably more that I’m a bad skeptic, to be honest.

    In any case, that article was nothing but religious privilege from top to bottom. The double-standards in that article were simply shocking. Considering that the non-religious and the atheistic are the out-groups, if Scofield (You know. As a techie, the first three letters of his name always ring horrible alarm bells. SCO. Remember them? Yes, I know, quite petty) really has a problem with people making religious arguments, he really should be writing to the in-groups pleading with them to change THEIR communications. There’s very little if anything that atheists and non-believers say that is honestly anywhere close to what theists and believers say.

    We’re puppies and kittens compared to say something like the 1st Commandment and what it implies.

  19. michaeld says

    @13/14 cause I’d rather assume he just hasn’t thought things through and a nice civil conversation is all it needs rather then just trolling people for the negative reaction and purposefully making these poor analogies and straw people.

  20. andrea says

    I find that someone who consistently ignores the actual positions of people is indeed being intentionally malicious. They are lying for a reason, and that reason in Scofield’s case is to try to paint atheists as less than reasonable humans so he can feel superior in his religion. It is not poor education, it is not thoughtlessness. If it were, this person would not continue with the same lies after he has been, as has been said, ripped several new assholes. In my experience, theists are not interested in civil truthful discussion since they will always lose. They must consider any opinion or fact that shows that they are wrong as an attack, no matter how civilly it is presented. If they do not, then they must consider that they are indeed wrong and religion can’t do that being based on claims of absolute “truth”.

  21. johnkruger says

    What do you call a religion that has no component of faith, bases all it claims on repeatable evidence, does not utilize personal revelation, and makes no effort to suppress or dismiss evidence against its claims?

    Can you even call it a religion anymore?

    Believing for bad reasons is never helpful, not in the long run anyway. I care about what is real; all religions hinder the process of finding out what is real, and in the best case scenario religion offers nothing to help in this. That is why I can dismiss all religions at a single stroke.

    What blatantly dishonest reasoning. If I state “handling venomous snakes to prove your righteousness is a bad idea” is the best response really “why do you think you know what is best for me?” Or perhaps “Stop trying to steal my culture!” How moronic.

  22. A Portlander says

    I am not saying that I know what’s best for you.

    I am saying that, on this particular question, I think I’m correct, and you’re mistaken.

    Here’s the disconnect: by asserting that you are in possession of more accurate knowledge than some woo-slave, you are implying that said woo-slave requires correction/education, and since all varieties of fact and opinion have equal weight (except the scientific consensus, of course), you’re a damned filthy imperialist. If you dare to hope a wrong-headed person can be educated into a position of being less wrong, you’ve crossed into white man’s burden territory. QED.

  23. Ricky Damien says

    Really? I mean honestly? Scofield is asking for scientific evidence to back up claims that all religion is harmful?
    How about taking a look back in History almost every war faught in the past 4000 years has had some religious semblence or drive. Common sence tell us that belief in Supernatural forces, entities and a like are just plain rediculous. it’s ok for believers to pray to an invisible and supposedly infallable god(s), yet people are locked away and persecuted for seeing effogies of biblical characters or supernatural beings or entities.
    I stand by comments i have made to family and friends Christians, Catholics, Pentacostals,Mormans, Jews and Muslims all share pretty much the same belief systems share pretty much the same “god” yet they all claim their religion is correct, and the others are just full of shit (so to speak).
    My main issue with religion is that it promotes the opposite of what it’s supposedly intended to teach, and leaders of these religions, people who are in a position to use their noteriety and wealth to right the wrongs that their religions have plagued the world with, just sit in their million dollar houses sippin champagne, and becoming more powerful than the god(s) they are meant to represent, laughing at the world they and those before them helped create( 4 thumbs up, smashing work), asking everyone in their churches and parishes etc. to fork out money to help build a $45 well yet collect $90,000 if all these religion actually banded together in *cough cough* “GOOD FAITH” they could wipe out hunger make the “3rd world” in which they are marginally responsible for creating.
    The whole concept is sickening and downright fantastical(i’ve wanted to used that word in an intelligent conversation for ages), and the day that it is undisputably proven that god does not exist and religion is exposed for the brainwashing scam that us “New Atheist” know it is i’ll be there at the Vatican ready to take my share of gold out of the wall to sell it on ebay.

  24. KG says

    Very well said, Greta. When the New Atheists send out missionaries to contact previously isolated groups of people and set about destroying their cultures in the way Christians have been doing for centries, Scofield will have a good point.

  25. Kevin says

    You know, just the other day while I was on my rounds knocking door-to-door to convert people to atheism, someone tried to make this point.

    But of course, I had the mighty “God Delusion” by my side written by the prophet Dawkins (pbuh), so I was able to disarm the theist in a thrice.

    He’s coming to the next baby roast. He’s bringing the lemon squares.

    Sounds to me like Scofield is sad because he isn’t invited to the kewl kidz parties. Guess what Be: adopting their enemies as your enemies doesn’t work. They still that you’re creepy.

  26. jamessweet says

    When Greta Christina says that religious people should be actively converted to atheism or Dawkins likens religion to a virus that infects the mind they are effectively saying “we know what’s best for you.”

    It’s funny, because that’s how I feel about faitheists.

    My position is, “I am pretty sure X is not true, and you can decide what to do with that information.” The faitheist position is, “I am pretty sure X is not true, but you are probably better off believing it is true anyway.” Which one is being condescending now?

  27. drdave says

    If you do not want your private beliefs criticized, then do not put them on public display in the Marketplace of Ideas.

    What is so hard to understand about this?

  28. Be Scofield says

    UPDATE: I just posted this as an updated on my post. There have been lots of interesting questions raised so far. I hope to write a separate post on them later.

    I wanted to comment on an important point. As someone who has experienced white, male, heterosexual and class privilege I’m most likely far more privileged than Greta Christina. This privilege is assigned to me by the dominant society whether I like it or not. As a white American I’m no less capable of reproducing racism or cultural Imperialism than Christina is. My article is not meant as an attack or a “gotcha.” I don’t address these sorts of issues like that – rather I try to uncover ways that we all might be reproducing forms of oppression. Despite my best intentions I unwillingly think and say things that are racist, sexist and that may reproduce cultural Imperialism. Thus, by me highlighting how some of the effects of the New Atheists or Christina’s ideas/actions may reproduce this, I’m not saying that I’m better, more holy, or less racist. I’m fully implicated in this process as well. People like Tim Wise have written entire books about their white privilege, I could do that as well. But here I’m talking about a few specific areas related to religion, atheism and oppression.

    I chose to highlight a few of Christina’s statements because she has publicly advocated converting believers into atheists as well as written passionate and sweeping claims about why she believes religion is harmful and wrong (the subject of my article). When I hear someone advocating the conversion of believers into atheism without any sort of qualifications or context it concerns me. Because I do think of African Americans in the 50′s and 60′s in the Nation of Islam and the Black Church. I do think of Native Americans. I think of queer people who find strength and solace in religious communities. I’m concerned that this statement can be viewed as a sort of panacea and is made without any real relationships to the people or communities that could be affected by it. I’m concerned that people will see this and believe that throwing off superstition is the most pressing issue, when I think it is a non-issue when compared with whiteness or class oppression. Again, I simply don’t see why believing in the afterlife is such an urgent issue to liberate people from. Yes, many religious expressions have reproduced sexism, racism and bigotry. But this is not because they believe in God or heaven (one can believe in those without having to be bigoted). It’s because the religions reflect the larger institutional forces of oppression. Dr. King and Malcolm X believed in God but also fought staunchly against white supremacy. Again, I simply don’t see how liberating Dr. King from his theism takes precedent over ending whiteness or is even an issue.

    I do know that Christina has written lists of atheists of color and is perhaps one of the more concerned people when it comes to these issues. But she still makes sweeping denunciations of religion and publicly advocates converting believers from their beliefs. What is the context here? What sort of relationships are formed before doing this?

    I simply wish that a fraction of the energy that goes into attacking people’s personal beliefs about heaven were to go into educating or writing about the larger social forces of oppression that also shape a believers life. Imagine if much of the passion and fire that characterizes much of the New Atheist community could be directed towards the racial, class and patriarchal oppression that believers experience rather than their beliefs about God or heaven. Of course, as atheists are marginalized in a Christian and hegemonic culture there is a need to resist this persecution. As I’ve said before I think those who are affiliated with religion have a direct responsibility to aid in ending this misguided attack upon atheism.

  29. michaeld says

    My problem and I think a lot of peoples problems with your post is that we don’t see anyone saying we should go get a group of atheists together go down to the local NA preserve and go convert us some injins for dawkins! I see quite a few people who touch on the religions affects on women’s health issues. I see more then a few espousing fairly liberal and social points of view. Quite frankly I can’t remember the last time I saw an atheist attacking the religious view of native Americans. You know what I do see them talking about? This : http://i.imgur.com/mpQA0.jpg

    How often do you honestly see people railing against the little liberal church down the road that makes people feel better? If all religion was like that. If religion was like knitting would there even be an atheist movement? I’m not really sure. What bothers and riles atheist activists are the large mainstream religions that are causing harm to people and society.

    Does anyone remember a couple weeks back when Rebecca Watson had a post titled: “Reddit makes me Hate atheists”. And there was this back lash of well there are all sorts of atheists that aren’t like that, that’s not everyone, and so on and so on. You remind me of those people Be Scofield. People for whom a general statement can never be said. It’s like if I said slavery is wrong and immoral and then a whole group of S&M practitioners pounce on me because they feel slighted that I didn’t make some addendum to point out that they’re not what I’m particularly talking about. Or arguing against catholic views condom use without haveing a flood of catholics saying they’re ok with it.

    Some times you just want to get to the meat of whats bothering you without spends 3 paragraphs explaining and soothing people that this isn’t a problem with them or their particular position that this is specifically about people who actually believe the things you’re arguing against.

  30. bescofield says

    Update II: A comment on the Tikkun blog stated: **Another blatant lie. Greta Christina has never “insist[ed] that we convert believers to atheism.” You simply made that up. Why are you so disinterested in arguing honestly?**

    However:
    In 2009 Greta Christina wrote an article originally titled “Why I Want to Turn Religious People in to Atheists.” http://www.onepennysheet.com/2009/11/why-i-want-to-turn-religious-people-into-atheists/

    On Alternet the title was changed to “Atheism and Diversity: Is it Wrong for Atheists to Convert Believers?” But the original title obviously shows that she publicly advocates that “religious people” be turned into atheists.

  31. John Horstman says

    It’s also crap like this that gives things like postmodern models of truth/meaning (meaning is contextualized both by historical-cultural position and personal history) a bad name. There’s a difference between stating that there might be multiple possible valid constructions of meaning and stating that all possible constructions are valid. It also invokes the strong cultural relativist argument of “you can’t criticize my culture because CULTURE”, which is clearly stupid, as the same argument can be deployed with equal validity in defense of rape, institutional murder, mutilation, etc. Go read Harris’s “The Moral Landscape”, Be: it does a great job of shredding cultural relativism and arguing instead for a sort of evidence-of-human-good-based cultural pluralism (there may be multiple, equally-good options for one aspect of culture, and others that are demonstrably not as good).

  32. michaeld says

    and yet you equate this view with imperialism when if you read the article it doesn’t sound like she’s advocating that. An except:

    “And I think the problem comes from how we think of diversity.

    Historically, we pretty much have two models of dealing with religious beliefs that are different from ours. We have (a) intolerant evangelism and theocracy — forcing religious beliefs down other people’s throats, through social pressure at best, and legal strictures and even violence at worst. And we have (b) uncritical ecumenicalism: The idea that all religions are part of a rich, beautiful spiritual tapestry and they’re all at least a little bit true — and that even if they’re not, it’s religious bigotry to criticize them or try to persuade people out of them. It’s a model created largely in response to intolerant evangelism and theocracy… and therefore, it’s a model in which any criticism of any religion automatically gets slotted into that ugly category.

    Atheism is offering a third option.

    We’re offering the option of respecting the important freedom of religious belief, while retaining the right to criticize those beliefs, and to treat them just like we’d treat any other idea we think is mistaken.

    The atheist movement is passionate about the right to religious freedom. (With the notable exception of a few assholes on the Internet. Name me one movement that doesn’t have its share of assholes on the Internet.) We fully support people’s right to believe whatever the hell they want, as long as they keep it out of government and don’t shove it down other people’s throats. We see the right to think what we like as a basic foundation of human ethics, one of the most fundamental rights we have — and we have no desire whatsoever to overturn that.

    Yet at the same time, we see the right to free thought and free expression as including the right to criticize other people’s thoughts and forms of expression. We passionately defend people’s right to believe what they want… but we defend with equal passion our right to think what we want about those beliefs, and to say so in the public square. We express our disagreement in a variety of ways — some more polite and respectful, some more insulting and mocking — but we damn sure think we have the right to express it.”

    Much like how you reference the title to “how religion poisons everything” you don’t seem to go for title of a work and not the substance of the argument.

  33. says

    At least Scofield avoided Godwin’s law and didn’t compare atheist debate and social criticism to the holocaust. But instead he makes a disgusting and completely insensitive claim that social criticism and debate by atheists are similar to the cultural oppression imposed on Native Americans through violence, manipulation, and lies.

    Scofield needs a lesson in making a reasonable and non-offensive argument. My full take on his article here

  34. says

    @34 Be Scofield says:

    …rather I try to uncover ways that we all might be reproducing forms of oppression.

    If that’s what you actually did, then we might not be having this discussion. Instead, you explicitly stated that Greta is reproducing those forms of oppression. This is what you said in your piece (emphasis mine):

    Unfortunately, when Greta Christina says we’d be better off without religion and insists that we convert believers to atheism she is reproducing cultural imperialism against Native Americans.

    See? You said “is,” not “might be.”

    I think of queer people who find strength and solace in religious communities.

    And why do these people even need to find strength and solice? Why, because other religious communities discriminate against them. I think Ophilia already covered this, though…or maybe it was covered in the comments…it’s this problem that this thing (religion) that is comforting people is the same thing that is the cause of the discomfort in the first place! Sorry that some of us want to break this vicious cycle.

  35. Rob says

    He still doesn’t get it, does he?

    A conversation with Be Scofield is a little like… suppose we’re talking about TV SF shows, and I’ve just made what I think is a reasoned, well thought-out argument for why – oh, I dunno – Doctor Who is better than Stargate. But rather than engaging with that argument, the person I’m talking to proclaims: “you want to convert Native Americans to think that Doctor Who is better than Stargate! You racist cultural imperialist!” To which I could only say, after recovering from my bafflement: well, sure, that’s true in the utterly trivial sense that I’m happier if other people agree with my opinion than disagree, as is the case for anyone who ever expressed an opinion about anything. But more to the point: WTF??? Conversion? There are no missionaries involved, no residential schools, no forcible relocations, neither to promote opinions on TV shows, nor atheism. Only organised religion did that stuff.

    Might there possibly be a little projection involved in Mr Scofield’s thesis?

  36. SAWells says

    Scofield, try to grasp that when Greta writes “I want to convert people” she isn’t writing “I insist that people be converted”. You seem to have a reading comprehension problem there.

  37. Sastra says

    bescofield #34 wrote:

    When I hear someone advocating the conversion of believers into atheism without any sort of qualifications or context it concerns me… I’m concerned that this statement can be viewed as a sort of panacea and is made without any real relationships to the people or communities that could be affected by it.

    So, if someone who has derived strength and solace from their religious community reads some atheist arguments and as a result comes to the conclusion that the religious beliefs of their religious community are not true, then you are very concerned. Concerned how, exactly?

    You are concerned that their friends in the religious community won’t like or want them any more?

    You are concerned that the numbers in the religious community are dwindling?

    You are concerned that all strength, solace, inspiration, and meaning has now been sapped out of the atheist’s life?

    You are concerned that there will be less and less reason to fight for justice, equality, and human rights because nobody cares about that stuff if God doesn’t say it’s good?

    You are concerned that the atheist is no longer a true member of their race, country, ethnic heritage, gender identity, or family any more, because all the genuine ones share the same religion?

    You are concerned that being a ‘person of faith’ has become less impressive as a goal for all?

    You are concerned that there will be fewer great works of art without God as inspiration?

    You are concerned that the oppressed minority will be even more oppressed now that they can’t hide behind believing in God and gain cultural legitimacy?

    You are concerned that the Center for Inquiry is a lot harder to get to than the old church on the corner?

    You are concerned that the person who is now an atheist made a very bad choice when they decided to consider an alternative viewpoint and think about it seriously? They should have stayed the way they were. They were better off. You know this even if they don’t.

    Frankly, every one of these concerns …. causes me some concern.

  38. Mary says

    Be is just a troll. Conversation is wasted on Be. I will say, though, that the conversation has been very helpful to me. In my work, I get quite a few Bes–in a variety of situations, not this set of topics, but the same dishonest tactics. I have bookmarked many of the comments here. Thank you for the perspective!

  39. mmy says

    @Ysidro- #29:

    You don’t have to like the board to get a few basic facts corrects.

    You said After Fred Clark left Typepad for Patheos and the old commentors took over the blog (with his permission), their already mild hostility to atheists became a full fledged flame fest. Beware to any non-believer who isn’t willing to kowtow to theists.

    I bolted pretty soon after the second time they descended on an atheist willing to criticize religous beliefs. It’s “shut up and be good” or nothing over there

    1) “The old commentors” didn’t “take over the blog.” The community nominated from amongst themselves a few “regulars” to administer the board. Board standards arise from the community.

    2) The community that was left after Fred Clark moved to Patheos was not even mildly hostile to atheists. Indeed if anything atheists and agnostics formed a plurality of the remaining active community.

    The tensions, such as they are, are not between atheists and theists as much as among atheists. That is, many of the atheists on The Slacktiverse disagree with the arguments and behaviour of some other athiests. It is an ecumenical board on which it is possible to express different flavours of atheism just as it is possible to express different flavours of theism.

    The most “routine” fights the members of The Slacktiverse community have with members of some other atheist communities are about TRIGGER WARNINGS, importation of the kind of misogyny found among some parts of the atheist community and rejection of some atheists arguments that other atheists are not R(eal) T(rue) A(theists).

  40. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Scofield sets up the strawman that “New Atheists” in general and Greta in particular are trying to forcefully convert goddists to atheism. Having read the rest of his screed, it’s obvious that while he doesn’t like “New Atheists” he really likes logical fallacies. He’s particularly fond of non sequiturs, special pleading, false dilemma and excluded middle.

  41. Nathaniel says

    “it is possible to express different flavours of atheism just as it is possible to express different flavours of theism. ”

    It is possible to express any kind of atheism that sees nothing wrong with religion. It is possible to express an atheism that doesn’t see what’s true as more important than what makes people happy.

    Write outside those lines and get called an asshole.

  42. Hamilton Jacobi says

    karmakin:

    Actually, I’m probably not a Gnu because a lot of my atheistic arguments were shaped long before the Gnu movement started.

    You don’t have to be New to be Gnu. (That’s sort of the point.)

  43. mmy says

    @Nathaniel, #48: It is possible to express any kind of atheism that sees nothing wrong with religion. It is possible to express an atheism that doesn’t see what’s true as more important than what makes people happy.

    Write outside those lines and get called an asshole

    No, if you act like an asshole you get called an asshole. Disagree in a reasoned and logical manner (and even better do so with wit) and people will argue you up hill and down dale and then come back for more next week.

  44. Rieux says

    Well, several of us are showing Scofield what’s what on the Tikkun comment thread. It’s not looking pretty for the home team.

    I have to admit that my first comment over there flatly stole Josh’s point @11. Though, shockingly, I used fewer words to make it.

  45. Rieux says

    Karmakin:

    Am I a bad Gnu for being more concerned about the harm stemming from authoritarian interventionist monotheism than the actual truth factor of it all?

    I don’t think you are. That describes me, too.

    I find Gnus’ “truth factor” arguments generally boring. Cogent, yes, and probably necessary within a certain (not narrow) range of societal contexts, but still boring and less important than harm to people.

  46. Rieux says

    Be @36: Hey, look—I’m the Commenter Who Must Not Be Named!

    I’ve rebutted that bit on both the Tikkun blog ( http://bit.ly/zDHaHn ) and Butterflies & Wheels ( http://bit.ly/zDj08o ). For now, suffice it to say that the very text Scofield quotes @36 here proves that what I called a lie (regarding Greta’s claim) is indeed a lie.

  47. Hamilton Jacobi says

    Nathaniel:

    It is possible to express any kind of atheism that sees nothing wrong with religion. It is possible to express an atheism that doesn’t see what’s true as more important than what makes people happy.

    Write outside those lines and get called an asshole.

    In my religion, it makes me happy to wear a necklace of dried assholes excised from the bottoms of accommodationists.

    I presume you will be happy to donate yours to my collection?

  48. karmakin says

    Pretty much. To be fair, I find theistic/atheistic arguments of all stripes to be pretty boring. Simply not my cup of tea. (No criticism intended to folks who do enjoy them).

    All I need to know is that there are various thought patterns that I believe are negative/dangerous/potentially oppressive and I oppose said thought patterns. Which probably makes me the type of person that Scofield is talking about, but at the same time I’m not anti-religion at all, I don’t want to remove communities, I just don’t think that authoritarian interventionistic monotheism is necessary for those communities, and I’d like to see pushback against those ideas.

    So he’s even wrong about real dyed-in-the-wool anti-theists.

  49. Nathaniel says

    @Hamilton Jacobi

    I think you might be misunderstanding me. I am not an accommodationist. Not at all.

  50. Rieux says

    mmy @50 and Hamilton @54:

    I wouldn’t bet my house on it, but still I’m fairly confident that Nathaniel’s comment @48 is intended to express approval of “writ[ing] outside those lines.” I think he’s opposed to the “asshole” response he describes.

  51. Hamilton Jacobi says

    Oops, sorry Nathaniel. I’ll take my foot out of my mouth now and get back to work on my reading comprehension skills.

  52. ttch says

    On the plus side, Greta, you’re now a “name” atheist, on a par with Richard Dawkins and needing no further identification.

  53. Ysidro says

    @mmy

    I lurked at Slacktivist for a very long time. Don’t presume to tell me I don’t know what I read with my own eyes.

    Your point #1 is true. So is “took over” if that seemed hostile to you, I’m sorry but I wasn’t going to spend most of the post on background. Saying any more is just a distraction.

    #2 is patently wrong. In fact, it is a lie. Yes, there were issues with trigger warnings and other legitimate concerns. It also shouted down any atheist who mentioned any issues they had with theism. If that’s the kind of community you and the others want, then so be it. I just decided to leave.

    Slacktivist taught me a lot. It was the first place I learned about privilage. The first place I learned about debates over accomidation. It was a worthy place.

    It is also a place filled with people swimming in unacknowledged Christian privilage.

  54. karmakin says

    Speaking for myself I stopped reading Slactivist when Clark and the community at large simply couldn’t understand the moral and ethical implications of valuing faith over works.

    In any case after reading over the Tikkun comments, I think the major conflict here is over the concept of “actively”. I think that most people here have a distaste for the “hard sell”…we don’t like that behavior in evangelicals and we really don’t want to resort to a lot of the same tactics that they do.

    But Scofield is making the claim that the things that we do..writing blogs and books and having conferences and attempting to build non-belief communities..are somehow the equivalent to what the evangelicals are doing…no..that what we’re doing is even more of a “hard sell”. This, quite frankly, is ludicrous.

    At the very least, let’s assume that what we’re doing is on par with mainstream evangelical behavior. We are the out-group, they are the in-group. Quite frankly, if he doesn’t like that people do these things, he should be attacking the in-group. That he doesn’t, is a huge double standard and a massive case of religious privilege.

    And remember, when it comes to religion, the problem IS the privilege.

  55. Orlando says

    Another indication that christians are in panic mode over the “New Atheist Threat.” We are here, and we’re comin’ to get your children. Heh, heh.

  56. Aquaria says

    When Greta Christina says that religious people should be actively converted to atheism

    The hypocrisy is stunning.

    The christer delusion manual specifically urges its followers to convert people to the delusion. The vast majority of christers are constantly on the lookout for people to convert.

    Why is it okay for the christers to do this, but not atheists?

    Does he also think that education is bad? I mean, that’s nothing more than converting people to a world of knowledge and ideas, if you get down to it.

    What is wrong with convincing people not to believe in stupid things, or false things, or things for which there is no evidence?

    Be has the same problem all religion-humpers do: He doesn’t know how to think through anything without getting lost in his own precious fee-fees.

  57. Aquaria says

    When I hear someone advocating the conversion of believers into atheism without any sort of qualifications or context it concerns me…

    This is stupid, naive and beyond hypocrisy.

    People are constantly trying to persuade people of various ideas. Entire businesses do this. A government that’s a democratic republic thrives on it.

    Be: You’re a liar and a hypocrite. Your own delusion still sends out millions of jaysus humpers to try to persuade people of another belief. The idiots all but assault us in parking lots and bother us in our own homes to spread the word of the delusion.

    Show me atheists doing that as anything other than a gimmick to show christers how it feels?

    Why is it okay for people from your delusion to try to convert people to a lie, but it’s not okay for us to try to persuade people of reality?

    You’re stupid, you’re ignorant, you’re a hypocrite, and you’ve become tedious.

    Go away.

  58. Orlando says

    My memory is a bit vague, but wasn’t Tikkun, and its staff writers, the chief proponent of communitarianism (not to be confused with communism), which was a reaction to liberalism, and more specifically the brilliant philosopher John Rawls’ book on Social Justice (forgot the exact title). I seemed to recall there was a spiritual aspect to the communitarian movement. Not to commit the genetic fallacy, but still….

  59. layneransom says

    Every well-placed rebuttal against Scofield’s idiocy here and on Tikkun brings a tear of joy to my eye.

  60. Greta Christina says

    You’re stupid, you’re ignorant, you’re a hypocrite, and you’ve become tedious.

    Aquaria @ #65: Please remember my comment policy, and please don’t aim personal insults at other commenters in this blog. Please criticize ideas and behavior, and don’t insult people. Thanks.

  61. smhlle says

    Don’t educated white male westerners with computers dominate almost all (western) media spaces, particularly English language internet discussion boards? This phenomenon is hardly limited to atheism.

  62. says

    Hey Greta, I’m Túlio from Brazil and I have something to say you. THANK YOU AND THANK FOR BE WHO YOU ARE! You’re a amazing person with a huge sense of humanity and goodness. If the world were full of people just like you we would not have half our problems.

    I’m a big fan of you. Awesome job lady. :)

  63. says

    @Be Scofield said in #34:

    When I hear someone advocating the conversion of believers into atheism without any sort of qualifications or context it concerns me.

    Be Scofield then links to an article in #36 that supposedly supports this point. However, when you read the article – not the abridged version that Scofield links to, but the full version on Alternet, you’ll see that it is full of qualifications.

    Back in #34:

    I’m concerned that this statement can be viewed as a sort of panacea and is made without any real relationships to the people or communities that could be affected by it.

    If you were so concerned that people might misunderstand Greta Cristina, then why didn’t you link to the full article in your original post? And why link to the abridged version in your update?

    Again, I simply don’t see why believing in the afterlife is such an urgent issue to liberate people from.

    If you honestly, at this point in the conversation, still think that belief in the afterlife is why atheists argue against religion, you have not been paying any attention to what atheists have been saying. One might start to think that you are not interested in having an honest conversation, but just want to bully atheists into shutting up.

  64. Brad says

    What is particularly ironic about this piece is that the issue of community without faith has been a massively discussed issue in the atheist blogosphere in the last month or two. Lots of discussion/controversy around the suggestion from some that we need to have “atheist churches” that incorporate the positive social aspects that churches have traditionally provided, but without any faith in god or supernatural. (Most of the objections have been about terminology and ritual, not so much objecting to the idea that we all would benefit being part of a supportive community.)

    What I have not seen mentioned in any of the rebuttals to Scofield’s article is the idea that the benefits provided by the social support groups he mentions might have had little if anything to do with their supernatural beliefs, or even that maybe they would have been even better without the supernatural aspect of their belief system. I’m not going to try and fully articulate this argument here in blog comments, but I think that’s a defensible position, and that Scofield’s assumption that the religious nature of his examples is key to their effectiveness is the one where [citation is needed].

    We’ve seen some recent clear examples (Cranston prayer banner, for example) of a non-religious community stepping up and coming together in a way that we’ve previously seen mostly in religious contexts. And especially clearly in this case, its the religious ideas (and ignorance about constitutional law) that have been the problem, not part of the solution.

  65. thomaspainejunior says

    This is the crux of the problem with the New Atheists. They’ve identified belief in God or religion as the single most oppressive factor in people’s lives and feel justified in liberating people from it because they have “reason” on their side.

    Greta (and any other “new atheists” who may be reading this): There will always be folks who slag us off simply because our world view is different from theirs. And in may cases it’s also because we threaten the political and cultural status quo. A lot of people (and not just the usual suspects) get lots of financial and political mileage from established religion or some pop-culture-inoculated variation thereof.

    Keep on liberating people and promoting reason before it’s too late.

  66. Blupp says

    Oh, so you’re a member of that Heaven’s Gate cult? Why no, I would never presume to try and dissuade you from committing mass suicide, that would be me pretending to know what is best for other people..

    Notice also vis Scofield, you can’t criticize Hezbollah or Hamas on account of that being cultural imperialism. You also can’t criticize, say, North Korean or Vietnamese communism on the same ground. That would be naughty, naughty cultural imperialism and also those ideologies have done so much to resist imperialism.

  67. atheist says

    Greta, thanks very much for writing this post. I am frustrated by accomodationism, but also dislike when other atheists make claims about how religion is the cause of all ills. Your responses to Mr. Scofeld’s unfair accusations are calm and your good sense shines through your words. You make the important points about religion’s damages but do not make overwrought claims. I appreciate your calm and admire your graceful responses.

  68. Sarah says

    “This is one of the biggest problems with Scofield’s piece. It presents an extreme, absolutist version of so-called “New Atheism” that I’ve almost never seen advocated.”

    darwinkilledgod.blogspot.com

    Now you have.

    What’s the odds that you are going to ignore this/forget you read it and pretend in the future that your version of New Atheism is the only one that people subscribe to?

  69. baal says

    Sarah,

    “almost never”

    One guy with a rant for presentation style doesn’t make your point. He’s one guy. By holding a group up for derision, “new atheists” Be Scofield is not doing good. He is doing harm by saying that those people aren’t ok. The history of those people isn’t a good one.

  70. says

    The primary question is this: Does God exist? Is there a supernatural world? I think the answer is No.

    Excellent post but I was wondering why you would write “I think the answer is No.” If you were writing about whether or not tooth fairies are real, would you say “I think the answer is No.“?

Trackbacks

  1. […] Greta and PZ have joined Ophelia in expressing their exasperation about this article, and I’m totally with them. But I’d like to add that anyone who thinks accusations of misogyny are no big deal should take a look at Scofield’s piece, and Ophelia’s and Greta’s and PZ’s reactions to it, because when you toss around accusations of misogyny carelessly, you’ll often end up looking a lot like Be Scofield (at least to anyone who stops to ask whether the accusations are really justified.) […]

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