Blowing away the smokescreen

Apologists for religion, when confronted with the ugliness that has been justified by adherence to scripture, will often retreat into a stance that goes something like “people will always do harmful things, regardless of their religion.” The argument, I suppose, is that human beings will find ways to commit atrocious acts, and that criticizing religion is therefore a red herring argument. “After all,” they’ll say “the kind of people who would do evil in the name of religion will still do evil even if you atheists do away with faith altogether!”

First of all, anyone who has ever made this statement has just admitted to losing the argument. Religion is chock full of morality claims, and by admitting that people who follow religion are not more moral than those who do not, you’ve admitted that your particular religious philosophy is entirely orthogonal to being a good person. It would be just as valid for me to say “don’t do bad things” and call that a moral system. Considering the number of people who use the argument from morality as what they think is a “slam dunk” proof of a deity, this kind of “well people will be bad regardless of religion” statement should be particularly troubling.

Some atheists are willing, however, to cede this point. In a world without religion, they say, people would probably do bad things at roughly the same rate. Some people are just opportunistic, or unthinking, or cruel, and will find some other way of justifying their actions even in the absence of a god to blame it on. This argument has bothered me for a while, and I have finally figured out why.

Long-time Cromrades (my nickname for regular readers) may remember that I cut my skeptical activist teeth confronting Deepak Chopra when he came to Vancouver last year. We handed out pamphlets outlining a few of Deepak’s more egregious antiscientific claims to passersby (and would-be attendees). I had an odd experience with one Chopra devotee who snidely asked if I believed that I was standing on solid ground (literally, he was pointing to the concrete under my feet).

When I told him that I understood atomic theory, he then pressed me in progressively microscopic details until I was forced to admit that I couldn’t provide an explanation for the existence of energy. He then grinned at me smugly and said “well there you go” as though he had just soundly defeated me, and then struggled with a locked door. I resisted the temptation to tell him that since solid matter was just an illusion, he should be able to walk right through it.

It was when I was recalling this interaction, and after re-reading Greta Christina’s should-be-award-winning article on why faith provides an armour that is impervious to logic (which, if you haven’t read it, you really should. Go now. Finish this article later) that I finally hit upon why this “people will just find another reason” argument bugs me so much.

What my friend the Chopra-ite was demonstrating was the power wielded by anyone capable of linking measurable, understandable things to intangible, eldritch questions. Because I was unable to answer questions at a sub-sub-sub-subatomic level, therefore claims about things that are impossible at the cellular level are somehow magically not wrong. Any one piece of knowledge missing from an understanding of the universe somehow invalidates all observations made about reality, to the point where any old claim is worthy of consideration provided it is couched in enough flim-flammery and invocations of the word “quantum”.

Those who have debated against religious believers have seen this same tactic deployed over the course of the long walk from “what started the Big Bang?” to “eating meat on a Friday lands you in hell.” I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched an atheist debate a believer and seen this evasive maneuver pulled at the first sign of trouble (I have, incidentally, stopped watching such debates unless I have a particular attachment to the atheist speaker – I usually skip the theist parts). When the atheist delivers a particularly sound argument, the theist retreats into hir (non-gendered possessive pronoun) tiny cubbyhole of “well you can’t explain everything, nanna nanna boo boo!”

Religion provides a smokescreen for bad ideas by linking those ideas to ultimate questions for which there may never be an answer. Given any ceding of uncertainty, the theist’s position leaps joyfully into the smoke and defies any attempt to pin it down to a fixed location. Like the forged connection between cell biology and quantum physics, the justification for outrageously immoral or otherwise harmful ideas are protected not only by having no reality check, but also by pressing unanswered puzzles into their service.

While it is only obscurification, it is highly useful at deflecting criticism. “I don’t think you should do that”, says one person. “Well, do you know how they get the caramel in the Caramilk bar?” replies the other. “Well, no.” “Aha! Well YahwAllahddha did it, and also he says I have to remove your kidneys!” “I guess that makes sense…” I trust that I don’t have to go into detail explaining why this line of ‘reasoning’ has no merit whatsoever.

It is for this reason that I find the invocation against the abolition of religion so tedious and misguided. Religion is the infinite (and infantile) regress from the tangible to the supernatural by way of the unexplained. It finds any fissure in humankind’s grasp of reality and anchors itself there like an octopus trying to escape a predator. And, again like our fleeing cephalopod (Jesus I hope PZ doesn’t catch me comparing religion to octopi), it billows out a huge inky cloud of nonsense to confound and bewilder any rational argument that might come sniffing around.

In a world without religion, in which we are not taught to revere this kind of brainless sophistry as part of the ‘mystery’ of faith, but rather to correctly identify it as the straws clutched at by a desperate madman, the smokescreen is blown away. Without being able to clothe your hatred of homosexuals in the gossamer raiments of the numinous, you are forced to find another way to justify your bigotry. Which isn’t to say that you can’t do it, it’s just much more difficult to do so in a way that convinces not only yourself, but others whose support you would otherwise have.

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!


  1. says

    hir (non-gendered possessive pronoun)

    Heh, you really want to open this Pandora’s box right now, completely distracting from the rest of your post? 🙂

    Interesting anecdote on the need for a non-gendered pronoun:

    I used to do a fair bit of behind-the-scenes mediating, etc., over at Wikipedia. I didn’t really have the time to do the research to generate significant new content, but I would help sort out disputes between people, as well as do simple maintenance like reverting vandalism, fixing typo and style issues, etc.

    On one of the Talk pages, a user was loudly complaining because someone had referred to that user with the generic male pronoun. I jumped in and said, “I’m sure nothing was meant by it, but yes please, let’s try and use ‘he or she’ if you don’t know.” The individual with the complaint responded back: “No, that’s not good enough. Some of us are intersex individuals and do not identify with either gender. ‘He or she’ is still inaccurate. Please use either a non-gendered pronoun like ‘ze’, the singular ‘they’, or simply refer to me using my name.”

    Well, woah, that was not what I expected. I wasn’t quite sure how to react. It was this occasion that led me to read up on non-gendered pronouns more than I had before, and really do some thinking. Certainly it was a consciousness-raising experience, if nothing else! After some thinking, my response was basically, “I for one will abide by your wishes, and I’d encourage others to do so… but Wikipedia is simply not going to start making people do this as a matter of course, and I don’t think there’s much we can say to people who don’t go along with it.”

    I’ve been surprised that when I tell friends about this — even very sexually progressive, queer bisexual polyamorous friends — the reaction is generally, “Oh, please…” I guess I understand this… you can’t ask to change the language for what must be a vanishingly small percentage of the population (although intersex individuals are not nearly as uncommon as one might guess, from what I have read the vast majority either have a specific gender identification, or else freely switch between male and female identification, but do not reject both.) On the other hand, I can totally understand how it might be frustrating for this person, that our language as it stands now simply does not accommodate that individual’s vision of self. I think sensitivity is warranted, even if we’re not willing as a society to accommodate that person at this time.

    As to the issue of non-gendered pronouns in general… I just can’t bring myself to start using them until a very clear front-runner develops. The problem is that, being new and invented language, they of course all sound awkward; and worse, even people with similar tastes tend to differ wildly on which of the candidates they find least/most awkward. My wife and I have completely different favorites, and can’t stand the other’s!

    What needs to happen to make this a reality is that a well-respected (and presumably progressive) publication like the New York Times has to just make a decision to go with one of them. For one thing, that let’s us as a society pick the one we are going to use, instead of having it being a huge awkward-sounding mishmash. For another, just getting it in common usage in a widely-read publication will make it sound less awkward.

    I think it’s a desirable thing, and if I were on the editorial board of a major newspaper, I’d probably advocate for it. I can’t bring myself to start using it on my blog, for the reasons I already discussed (though I do aggressively use the female pronoun as the generic one). Your bold decision to do so here is making me reconsider that decision somewhat, but who knows… It just looks ugly to me right now, and I can’t see that changing until it is in widespread use. The only way to get around that chicken-and-egg that I can see is for a major publication to take the plunge. And a widely-read publication my blog is not 🙂

  2. Crommunist says

    Actually I’ve been using ‘ze’ for a few months now. I didn’t know about ‘hir’ until I saw it in someone else’s blog. It seems so much more efficient than ‘she/he’ all the time. ‘She/he’ just makes it look like you’re trying too hard. ‘Ze’ or ‘hir’ seems much cleaner.

  3. astrosmash says

    Just as an aside, unless you object, I’m gonna start an ongoing soft campaign to have you featured at the next Skepticon. You are a relatively recent find for me, but I’ve been regularly blown away by your fine writing and ability to clarify complex issues. Even many of your posts thus far would warrent a meaty talking point…

  4. Richard Almaraz says

    The singular ‘they’ is pretty common, and has been for centuries. Anyone who gets their tightie whities in a wad over it better get angry about the singular ‘you’ instead, or their poser selves can bounce right away.

    Ze, hir, and the like are interesting approaches, and I like them. I won’t use them because the singular ‘they’ works, and most nitpicking over it would generally come from the uptight word-whiners that would complain about any other use. ‘He or she’ or ‘s/he’ is pretty awkward.

    Words come into canon by usage of the people, not some prescriptivist decree. The only way to get these accepted is to use them regularly. Screw newspapers; nobody reads the damn things anyway.

  5. says

    I just don’t like how the singular ‘they’ sounds. It’s clunky to my ears. If I’m writing informally (like a blog comment or a Facebook post, that level of informality) and it significantly simplifies the prose, then I’ll grudgingly use it, but… as a rule, I don’t care for it in written prose.

    I use it nearly without reservation when speaking, though. You may be right that it’s the direction things are going in. I probably find it less aesthetically displeasing than the previous generation, though, so perhaps my kids won’t be bothered by it one bit.

    I know “ze/hir” is the most popular variant, but I don’t like how it’s phonetically similar/identical to “she/her” — it’s just confusing. Absolutely impossible to use when speaking, and it hurts my brain a little bit to use when reading, because if you can’t distinguish a word from its homophone based on contextual cues, that just seems… wrong. I prefer the variants that sound nothing like the existing gendered pronouns– but many people find those the most displeasing because they sound like nonsense words.

    As to it being a pro-feminist motive to make the ungendered pronoun homophonically similar to the female pronoun, in that case why not just use the female pronoun as the generic one, the way we traditionally have with the male pronoun? Which is the solution I have arrived it, at least for now.

  6. Enkidum says

    James – Richard’s right, though, it’s not “the way things are going”, it’s “the way things have been for centuries”. The only reason it sounds clunky to you is because your fifth grade teacher didn’t know any better. Like the split infinitive, it’s a made up problem.

  7. Eh says

    It’s a reasonable point, but I have to disagree. Religion draws its power from a very deep source, the need for a comprehensive worldview. If a rational alternative is not presented, the weakening of religion will simply create a vacuum into which something else will pour. Someone may decide to advance Vox gens, vox dei in opposition and send millions to death camps. Or vox populi, vox dei and send tens of millions to slave camps.

    This point is continuously dismissed in the most flippant manner. Yet bother to read what Orwell wrote on the amputation of the soul. Or read Waugh’s famous comment on Kipling. Or T.H. Huxley’s point about the ethical process.

    You can see it in practical action today in Europe, where the collapse of any sort of organised world-view is the hole into which reactionary Islam is pouring.

    Unless a comprehensive, integrated rational alternative is available, that is what will happen.

    As regards this:

    On one of the Talk pages, a user was loudly complaining because someone had referred to that user with the generic male pronoun.

    As far as I’m concerned, the usage that was good enough for Shakespeare, Milton, Paine and Orwell, does not need to be set aside for some aggrieved nobody on a chatforum.

  8. Enkidum says

    FWIW, I dunno if I agree. Most people don’t bother justifying their beliefs at all, beyond a vague appeal to authority. There are just as many Satoshi Kanazawa’s out there as PZ Myers. And, of course, the standard arguments about Pol Pot, Mao, Stalin, etc.

    That’s not to say that an atheist society couldn’t be more moral, but it would have to be more than just atheist.

  9. NatalieB says

    I just go with “they”/”their”… contrary to misconception, “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun actually has a very long history of acceptability within the English language. And as awkward as it may seem to people who aren’t used to it, I still say it’s a lot less awkward than “ze”, less narrow and potentially insulting as “s/he”, and not anywhere near as dehumanizing and f-ed up as the nuclear bomb of offensive pronouns, “it”.

    So… my own rules go as follows: for a hypothetical person, I just pick a gendered pronoun at random. For an actual person, I go by gender-as-presented. If presentation honestly, actually CAN’T be parsed, I go with “they” until I get a chance to politely, respectfully, DISCRETELY ask (if they say they prefer “ze” or anything else, I’m happy to oblige). If it’s a hypothetical person which needs to be gender-neutral for the statement to make sense, I go with “they”.

    Ambiguous presentation, btw, is VERY rare… no matter how well one passes or how visibly gender variant someone may be, it’s almost always clear what gender they’ve chosen to present themselves as.

    And yet again I totally fail to comment on your article itself. :p

  10. Crommunist says

    And I am certainly not offering atheism as an alternative moral or existential code. What I am saying is that religion, by chaining itself to the edifice of the unknown/’unknowable’, safeguards itself from criticism. Any positive worldview (whatever flavour of secular humanism suits your fancy) that is consistent with an atheistic outlook would not have this countermeasure, meaning that it would be that much more difficult to sustain antisocial beliefs, and to convince others of their merit.

  11. Vicki says

    I will use “he or she,” “zie,” or “they” to refer to nonspecific individuals like “a student” or “a mayor” (“Did you talk to a doctor? What did they suggest?”) depending in part on context. Writing for myself I use zie/zir for people whose gender I don’t know, and do my best to keep track of individual preferences: that one friend of mine prefers zie/zir in all contexts doesn’t override another friend’s preference for singular they if I’m writing about them online. Yes, it gets complicated, or could: but so can remembering whether the person with a nongendered nym who you’ve chatted idly with online is “she” or “he.” And I’ve not yet been jumped on for using “zie” by someone who prefers “they” or vice versa.

  12. jamessweet says

    Fair enough about the long history, but you can’t just say I am wrong to find it clunky. It reminds me of a list of seatbelts myths I saw once, where one of the “myths” was “Seatbelts are uncomfortable.” How can that be a myth if it’s a matter of personal perception? It’s a pretty lame excuse, but it’s not really a “myth” per se. Similarly, you can argue all sorts of good reasons why singular they is acceptable or even preferred, but you can’t tell me I’m wrong for finding it aesthetically displeasing :p

  13. Enkidum says

    Fair enough. I’d have to say though, that the “that” in “that much more difficult to sustain…” is really “a very tiny little amount”. It’s not that explicit reasons for action are completely irrelevant, just that most of the time, they are.

  14. Enkidum says

    Well, I can say that you’re wrong to find in clunky in that you shouldn’t find it clunky – it’s not that you’re inaccurately describing your feelings, it’s rather that your feelings are unwarranted. And you can’t disagree with this, because I feel this way very strongly!

  15. Anat says

    Ambiguous presentation, btw, is VERY rare… no matter how well one passes or how visibly gender variant someone may be, it’s almost always clear what gender they’ve chosen to present themselves as.

    There are instances of ambiguous perception that are not the result of deliberate ambiguous presentation. Primarily infants and young children – (do we really have to make assumptions based on the pink/blue ‘code’? do we want to?). Even at later ages – as a child I was often asked whether I was a boy or a girl. There was a boy in my daughter’s kindergarten class that raised similar confusion among people who did not meet him frequently.

    As for language usage – I don’t like randomly choosing a gender for an unknown individual because of the risk of unconscious biases ending up reinforcing and perpetuating stereotypes. I got used to s/he and hir but now that I’ve been exposed to the alternative I’m considering replacing s/he with ze, for the sake of pronounciation and further inclusiveness.

    The problem is a lot worse in Hebrew. At least operating instructions and recipes are now in plural (male, but that is considered all-inclusive) rather than have cooking recipes and instructions on detergent written in feminine singular while operating instructions of mechanical and electronic devices in masculine singular. (The kicker was a toaster that came with instructions for operation in feminine and for repair in masculine.)

    To Crommunist – sorry for perpetuating the derail. I agree with the gist of your main point and like your presentation of it.

  16. Eh says

    What I am saying is that religion, by chaining itself to the edifice of the unknown/’unknowable’, safeguards itself from criticism

    That’s certainly true. And it’s weird the way that the taboo persists; remember the quote from Douglas Adams in The God Delusion?

  17. Crommunist says

    So… much… grammar… derailing 😛

    Naw I’m fine with the conversation going where it goes. The comments section is y’all’s (how’s about THAT for grammar?). I just show up occasionally for comedic purposes.

  18. keithharwood says

    I hate s/he, am generally ignorant of ze and hir and dislike the singular they. I have two strategies to writing non-gendered pronouns.

    One is to recast the sentence from a singular subject to plural and using the plural they. That is replace “A person with property P . . . s/he . . .” with “The set of people with property P . . . they . . .”.

    The other is to recast into second person. That is, replace with “If you have property P . . . you . . .”. I am quite happy using you instead of thee and thou.

    I should add that my readers are also generally ignorant of ze and hir and since my writing is for the purposes of communicating to those readers I would avoid them on those grounds only. Linguistic innovations are generally avoided in technical writing.

  19. says

    Personally, I don’t see how simply switching from the masculine generic pronoun to feminine helps anything. If you’re going to use a specific gender to refer to people, anyway, why not use the one everyone already understands? Basically, you’re picking a method that still has the same problem (and I have to say I’ve read book where they’ve done what you suggest, and I can now relate a bit to how women must feel, because it was fairly aggravating for me for every nonspecific person to be labeled female), but now you have to explain yourself whenever you use it. Seems like too much effort for no gain. I’d just concede to the use of already established gender neutrals like “they,” though it’s clunky, or even “that person,” which is bigger but feels nicer.

  20. leftwingfox says

    I agree with NatalieB’s use of “they”, and Anat’s note about ambiguously gendered children being a major area where the use of “they” becomes awkward.

    I’d also like to point out that pseudonymous commenters online are also a major area where referring to a known, present individual of unknown gender is going to happen on a regular basis. Fortunately, that’s also an area where “s/he” at least work in a text settings, although “ze” is more elegant and more easily adapted to speech.

    I have to admit, I can’t see “hir” as an un-gendered pronoun, as it was adopted heavily by folks playing hermaphrodites on the furry chats I used to frequent. It’s already taken hold in my lexicon as referring to an individual of both sexes, rather than non-gendered.

  21. says

    Can one hear a difference between spoken “her” and “hir”?

    Wiki has a whole list.

    I can’t decide which one(s) I like best, else I would be using them.
    I’m with James Sweet- I wish there was an obvious front-runner.

    While I like the look of ‘hir,’ if it isn’t distinguishable by ear, I’m not sure it entirely solves the problem.

    Shklee, from futurama, is fun.

  22. papango says

    I think one thing the apologists are overlooking is that religion allows people to redefine ‘good’ to suit whatever interpretation of scriptures suits their purposes. It takes the sort of non-thinking that an ideology offers to make average people do monstrous things.

  23. Dunc says

    Religion is the infinite (and infantile) regress from the tangible to the supernatural by way of the unexplained.

    Oh, I am so stealing that! 😉

  24. jamessweet says

    Well, you gave on reason right there in your comment: Consciousness-raising. Now you understand better what it feels like for a woman to be in a world where the male pronoun is the generic. One can make a very plausible argument about how it’s simply arbitrary, since we don’t have a gender-neutral pronoun we might as well pick one, etc… but until you’ve experienced that arbitrary choice being not-your-gender, you haven’t really grasped all of the concerns inherent in that argument.

    Another is just as a general statement of support, etc. i.e. it communicates, “I don’t like that we have decided we don’t need a non-gendered pronoun because it’s fine to just use the male one, so here is my protest against that.”

    Lastly, a number of people have distinguished — quite correctly, I think — between referring to a specific but undetermined person vs. referring to a hypothetical person. It would be weird if, not knowing Crommunist’s gender, I said “Crommunist does such a wonderful job with her blog,” really no better than defaulting to male, because either way you’ve got a chance of awkwardness/offense. But it’s different if I said, “Consider a hypothetical blogger. Say she does a really wonderful job with her blog, and…” In that case, all other things being equal, it doesn’t matter which gender pronoun I use. In a perfect world, we might argue it would be random, 50/50. Obviously it’s not. Since I can rest assured I am in a distinct minority in even using the female pronoun for a hypothetical person ever, I can feel confident using it nearly 100% of the time and know that I’ll be pushing the average closer to 50/50.

  25. NatalieB says

    Yeah, you have a good point about how children aren’t really -choosing- how to present their gender, and we certainly wouldn’t want to reinforce some strict pink/blue binary. That’s a tricky situation.

    I’ve had to deal with a lot of confusion about my gender at different points in my life. As a boy being being gendered female AND as a woman being gendered male! It hasn’t always been the nicest problem to deal with.

    For the randomly picking a gender thing… well, yes, subconsciously our culture tends to default to male when describing a hypothetical person, and that reflects the misogynist cultural bias that men are “neutral” or “default” or “normal” and women are “special”, “other”, “specific”, “apart”. So really, most of the time I just consciously choose female pronouns as my little way of fighting that bias.

  26. P Smith says

    The claim that “religious people are moral” has an unspoken corollary: “non-religious people are immoral” (and those of competing religions as well).

    The point of the claim is not to promote morality but to turn what they call “immorality” into criminality. They want to criminalize and create an atmostphere of intolerance and possibly violence toward those who don’t share their narrow and narrow minded view.

    Admitting that religion has nothing to do with morality would destroy the biggest argument for religion.


  27. sunnydale75 says

    James @ #1
    -I found everything you said to be quite interesting. Recently, I’ve been thinking about certain terms that seem too “male derivative”. Words like male/female and man/woman are too gender specific. In a society where the Abrahamic religions are have tremendous influence I have to wonder if the continued use of such terms supports some peoples’ views of men being the “dominant” gender.


  28. sunnydale75 says

    Eh @ #3
    How funny. I was literally thinking of this (for the first time) while reading this post. While religious beliefs are irrational and damaging, I think reaching the core of that irrationality and trying to overcome that is of paramount importance. I think you’re right about a vacuum that would result in the removal of religion. I tend to think it’s the lack of strong critical thinking skills that is a strong contender for what’s really wrong with religion. If the majority of people were skilled at critically thinking, ridiculous ideas like religion, homeopathy, acupuncture and all the other quack ideas wouldn’t be able to take root (sure, there would be *some* people that fall for them, but by and large I’m hopeful that a world dominated by strong critical thinkers, these people would be a infinitesimal minority).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *