The clown shoe still capers

When last we visited Barney Zwartz, he was whining about those arrogant atheists having a conference in Australia. Now he’s reduced to filtering and interpreting another anti-atheist, Mark Helprin, who has an essay in a book titled New Threats to Freedom. Apparently, people who are free of religion are a New Threat to Freedom. I haven’t read Helprin’s essay, but I think he ought to bill Zwartz for the price of the book, because after reading Zwartz’s take I’m not at all interested in buying it. (Not that I was before; maybe the bill should be prorated, and Zwartz should give Helprin a nickel for chasing away a few thousand readers who wouldn’t have read it anyway.

Zwartz calls his enthusiastic tirade “The boot changes feet—but still crushes”, which is cute. The premise is that the Gnu Atheists are a gang of illiberal totalitarian thugs who are out to opress believers. It’s always that; anyone who expresses opposition to the glories of faith-based ignorance must be a brute and a philistine.

He opens with an anecdote from his youth of trying to philosophise his way out of a fist fight, only to be told by his opponent, “don’t give me none a dat college stuff!” This, Helprin suggests, is exactly the sort of tactic Richard Dawkins employs, confining any discussion to a realm that will give the answer he wants. “Freedom of spiritual conscience is attacked for departing the limits and dictates of a self-contained system of thought, that of reason which when honourably employed is admirable in part as a means by which to identify questions it is impotent to address, but when dishonourably employed glories in the limits of other approaches while admitting none of its own.”

Wait, what? Has Helprin or Zwartz ever met Dawkins, or even read any of his books? I’m trying to imagine Dawkins belittling higher education, or suggesting some kind of physical engagement rather than a literate exchange of ideas, and am failing. It’s like trying to imagine Gandhi chowing down at the Cattlemen’s Barbecue — there’s a serious disjoint between the metaphor and the reality.

The spiritual nonsense he’s prating about isn’t attacked for not being science — it’s being criticized for its failure to give any reasons or evidence for following it, and for the fact that no two gurus of the metaphysical seem to be able to agree about anything on the nature of the supernatural phenomena they tell us we must respect. I know what to expect next: demanding reason and evidence and measures of success is exactly the kind of scientistic persecution we atheists are being accused of. Well, alright then, come out with it. The faithful should admit that they want to believe something that lacks logic and empirical support. That’s just fine with me.

What other tyrannical crimes have atheists committed, besides Imaginary Pugilism? We’ve put signs on buses.

Helprin attacks the atheist bus campaign that began in Britain and has reached Australia. “Signs on buses tell you it’s OK not to believe in God. Admitted, but what of signs that said, “it’s OK not to be gay”, “it’s OK not to be black”, “it’s OK not to be a Jew”? While true, these statements are more than the simple expression of a point of view. Accurately perceived, they are an ugly form of pressure that while necessarily legal is nonetheless indecent.”

I am forever astounded that those mild-mannered bus signs have aroused such ferocious antipathy. Even admitting that we’re fine with our disbelief is considered antagonistic bullying, which actually goes a long way to explain Helprin’s whole thesis — he’s simply on a hair-trigger over any dissent.

His choices of alternatives are bizarre. He’s picked three things as examples that you aren’t free to change anyway, unlike membership in a religion (I’m assuming he’s referring to ethnic Jews, anyway), and he’s picked phrases that are actually fairly inoffensive. Of course it’s OK not to be gay; I’m not gay, and I don’t feel any pressure to be gay, and I don’t consider that an “ugly form of pressure”. Everyone should be satisfied with their sexuality, or race, or ethnicity, no matter what it is.

Now of course where they get a little dodgy is that they’re all saying it’s OK to be a member of the white heterosexual Christian majority, as if that group was somehow being made uncomfortable for its nature…which is obviously not true. Since atheists are the minority group subject to considerable discrimination, a better comparison would have been to bus signs declaring that it’s OK not to be heterosexual/white/Christian…which is again a perfectly reasonable statement.

Now there’s one piece of Helprin’s essay that Zwartz has apparently turned into an incomprehensible mess, but actually either interpretation I give to it is awfully silly.

On separation of church and state, Helprin says atheists who insist church beliefs must be excluded from the law miss the difference between exclusively religious doctrines, such as the divinity of Jesus, and social ones such as the prohibition of murder. “Primitives” on the religious side think if something is religious doctrine it should be law, but they are far fewer than primitives on the secular side who think if it agrees with religious doctrine it must not be law.

OK, I get that: we can segregate religious rules into two categories, those that are intended only to support the internal religious beliefs of the cult, such as “chop off your foreskin” or “don’t work on the sabbath”, and those that are more generally applicable to the whole of society, such as “don’t kill” and “don’t steal”. Another way to look at it is that religious rules overlap with secular rules.

Now I know of many religious “primitives” who want to impose their religious rules on the whole of a mixed and secular society — they want to put up ten commandments monuments in our courthouses, for instance, or go whole hog and replace our government with a Catholic monarchy or a Puritan theocracy. Those guys are crazy.

But who are these atheist “primitives”, and what exactly are they trying to do? That’s unclear, whether by Helprin’s omission or Zwartz’s garbling.

Are they the atheists who say that the conventions and dogmas of a purely supernatural nature, such as that god wants you to mutilate your penis, or that you need to go to church and worship a deity at least once a week, ought not to be enforced by secular law? Because that’s entirely reasonable and fair, and I don’t understand what Helprin is complaining about…unless he’s arguing for a theocracy.

Or are they atheists who say that any law that overlaps with a religious prohibition must be invalid? These would be the atheists who claim that because the Bible says murder is a crime, murder can’t possibly also be a secular law, and therefore atheists are free to kill people.

Of course, there are no such atheists that I know of, and that would be an utterly ridiculous and irrational position to take, which means that if that’s what Helprin is arguing against, he’s got to be stark chittering freakbar nuts. Which implies that he’s arguing that the imposition of purely religious rules on secular society is reasonable — which makes him merely right-wing teabagging American nuts, which isn’t really much better.

The other thing that amazes me is how dim you can be and still be a widely published defender of religion. Standards are pretty low, I guess, or desperation for anyone willing to praise vapor and lies is pretty high.