Feb 20 2009

The ‘bad atheist’ strikes again

My post last week on religious faith versus scientific commitment to certainty generated some interesting comments that I started to respond to in the comments section but it got too long (my usual vice) and I decided to do a separate post on the topic.

In the comments, I was accused of wanting to ‘banish’ or ‘abolish’ religion and that this was intolerant, akin to those of Christian missionaries who went to Asia and Africa seeking to convert heathen and in doing so disparaged the indigenous beliefs of the people living there. My phrases “getting rid of religion is the goal” and “Religion, on the other hand, is purely a propaganda system and will only die if its weaknesses and its lack of any empirical basis are relentlessly pointed out” were quoted as examples of my lack of tolerance.

I must admit that I am puzzled by this accusation. Although I definitely have said that religion is more a force for evil than for good and that we would all be much better off without it, I have never advocated ‘banishing’ or ‘abolishing’ religion as those words imply using coercive measures. I am a strong advocate of the First Amendment, after all. But I am arguing that we should actively speak out about the vacuity of religious beliefs, just like we should argue against astrology, fortune telling, witchcraft, and all the other irrational belief systems that are used to exploit the gullible. I have argued that religious beliefs act as a kind of gateway drug to those other beliefs.

The charge of intolerance arises because religion has been quite successful in its attempt to stifle any discussion of its irrationality, in seeking to establish the idea that ‘tolerance’ for religion means not pointing out its flaws and campaigning against it, the way that this cartoon describes.

But all that tolerance requires is not persecuting people for their beliefs or forcing them to change. It does not, and should not, mean requiring the rest of us to act as if those beliefs made sense. People have the right to believe (and advocate for) any belief system they wish, however insane it may seem to the rest of us. They do not have the right to be shielded from critiques pointing out that their beliefs are crazy.

This accusation of intolerance also tends to be selective. Suppose I replaced religion in the offending quotes with (say) the word ‘racism’ (or sexism or homophobia) so that they read, “getting rid of racism is the goal” and “Racism, on the other hand, is purely a propaganda system and will only die if its weaknesses and its lack of any empirical basis are relentlessly pointed out”. Would these statements still be seen as intolerant? Similarly, if I said that we should have as a goal “getting rid of” the terrible religious beliefs of (say) the Taliban by relentless arguing against it and pointing out all its flaws, would that be seen as intolerant?

I think not. In fact, I would likely be praised. But what is the essential difference? The difference, as I see it, is that most people view racism and sexism and homophobia and the Talibanic version of Islam as bad things, but religion in general (at least the mainstream varieties) as a good thing. So the accusation of intolerance is not about the attitude or the words used but about the perceived merits of their target.

It was also pointed out that people like gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr. were both inspired by their religion and that if an earlier campaign against religion had been successful, then they would not have been the people they were and we would have been worse off.

The idea that an entire system of beliefs should be maintained and even supported because a few admirable people hold them is a dubious argument. Should we refrain from criticizing fascism as an idea because of the inspiration its philosophy received from composer Richard Wagner? Or refrain from criticizing imperialism because it inspired some of Rudyard Kipling’s poetry?

The underlying premise of this argument is that if not for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Christian beliefs, he would not have fought the battles he fought and segregation in the USA would have continued forever. Ergo, Christianity is worthwhile. Similarly it is argued that Christianity gave rise to gospel music and if there had been no Christianity there would be no Mahalia Jackson. Ergo, Christianity is worthwhile. To bring these assumptions to the surface is to see how untenable they are.

So what if there were no gospel music? That would be unfortunate but music would still be there in its many varied forms. Suppose that we discovered a remote community that practiced child sacrifice and had produced a whole culture of beautiful music based on this practice, with their own equivalent of Mahalia Jackson. Would that require us to not criticize child sacrifice and call for its end?

I am perfectly willing to concede that if there had been no Christianity, maybe Mahalia Jackson or Martin Luther King Jr. would not have been the people they were. Or maybe they would have found inspiration from other sources, just like many other admirable people in history, because what they believed in or their natural gifts were too strong to be stifled. Most certainly there would have been other great fighters against racism and other great singers. To argue for the support and maintenance of a delusional belief system because those delusions produced a few exemplary people is not really an argument.

It all boils down to the fact that religious people want immunity from strong critiques of their beliefs, for atheists to adopt the policy that even if we think that religious beliefs make no sense, we mustn’t say so publicly. But ‘bad atheists’ like me, not deterred by being “ill-thought of and ill-spoken of” (in John Stuart Mill’s words), are simply not going along with that expectation.

POST SCRIPT: Psychic spoon bending

In this sketch by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry from their TV show, the Laurie character reacts in an aggrieved way when Fry points out some problems with his claims, not unlike the way that some religious people react when skeptics point out the problems with beliefs in god. Not having an answer based on evidence or reason, they resort to ‘taking offense’, in the hope that the natural desire of most people to avoid unpleasantness will cause them to refrain from pointing out the irrationality of religious beliefs.

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