Substance over sweetness — another New Atheist critique gone askew

Another of those common, erroneous strategies used to criticize those danged Gnu Atheists is to first invent a definition for New Atheism that the Gnu Atheists themselves would find foreign, and then to jump all over it for a prolonged period of time until they’ve convinced themselves they’ve finally defeated their nemesis. It’s the cardboard cutout tactic — it turns out that cardboard versions of us put up much less of a fight than the real thing.

I’m afraid Stephen Asma has committed the same error. He has written a long, meandering essay that accuses the New Atheists of having a narrow worldview because, he thinks, all we know about is Christianity and Islam. What about Buddhism, he asks, or animism? And then he does tell us some interesting things about Buddhism and animism, but they’re all entirely irrelevant, because he has completely missed the point.

Asma errs by thinking he has encapsulated the Gnu Atheists as people who reject Christianity and Islam because they do a poor job of explaining nature and guiding morality, and that therefore he can make a case for the inadequacy of that atheism by showing that there are other religions that do not consider explaining and moralizing to be their primary duties: Buddhism, for instance, is about finding psychological contentment, while animism is a reflection of mankind’s helplessness and lack of control. We could argue about those characterizations — Asma admits that Buddhism as practiced has supernatural and ritual elements, too, for instance — but let’s not, for now. I want to argue with his narrow and erroneous worldview of what a Gnu Atheist is.

Gnu atheism is not simply about what isn’t. Our views do find expression in specific criticisms of specific faiths, but those are just the epiphenomena of a deeper set of positive values that Asma completely misses. Certainly I will make moral arguments against religious pathologies — Catholic priests raping children is bad — and I will judge beliefs by the foolishness of their explanations — creationist dogma is utterly absurd. But to say that is the guiding philosophy of atheism is to mistake the actions for the cause. I have one simple question you can ask of any religion, whether it’s animism or Catholicism, that will allow you to determine the Gnu Atheist position on it.

Is it true?

I’ve told people this many times. The Gnu Atheism is a positive movement that emphasizes the truth of a claim as paramount; it is our number one value. This is why you’re finding so many scientists who consider themselves in this movement — it’s because that’s how we’re trained to think about hypotheses. Also, because there are many scientists and philosophers behind this idea, I should also emphasize that we’re also well aware that “truth” is not some magic absolute, but something we can only approach by trial and error, and that truth is something you have to work towards, not simply accept dogmatically as given by some unquestionable source…which is another difference between us and religion. A scientific truth is more complex than a colloquial truth, it’s requirements being that it is free of contradiction with logic and reality and supported by reason and evidence.

Asma’s big mistake is assuming that our central question is, “Is it good for us?”, which leads him into all these pointless anecdotes about how praying makes him feel better, and how animism helps impoverished people cope with their circumstances. I don’t care if religion makes someone feel better. Stacking illusions over a grim reality does not turn it sweet. I have my anecdotes, too; I remember the tragedy of my little sister’s death a few years ago, and how I sat through a funeral in which the preacher declared with absolute certainty that she was in heaven, and all I felt was anger. Lies do not make me feel better. There is no consolation in fantasy. You can sugar-coat the truth as much as you want, you can make up extravagant stories of my sister living in constant joy and rapture, frolicking with lambs and puppy dogs in fields of sweet clover while angels on gentle zephyrs sing to her, and it would not give me one instant of comfort. I do not lie to myself, and other people lying to me under the delusion that it will make me happier I find unconscionable.

Seriously, it’s worse than that. I despise people who try to swaddle truth with lies in the name of consolation. It kills ambition, the striving to make the world better in the future, and it can allow evil to lurk unchecked. Those child-raping priests persisted because people lied to themselves, telling themselves that no man of god could do something so heinous…and even when finally exposed and removed, they continued to live in denial, reassuring each other that the institution that protected those vipers really was a force for good, overall.

So Asma is barking up the wrong tree when he thinks this is the relevant question:

So how do we discriminate between dangerous and benign religions? That is the more fruitful question, because it invites the other world religions into the discussion. Both the developed and the developing worlds can profitably examine their unique belief systems in light of larger human values. Like Harris et al., I agree that we should employ the usual criteria of experience to make the necessary discriminations. Religious ideas that encourage dehumanization, violence, and factionalism should be reformed or diminished, while those that humanize, console, and inspire should be fostered.

He really doesn’t get it. He could show me a religion that is nothing but sweetness and light, happiness and good thoughts and equality for all, and it wouldn’t matter: the one question I would ask is, “Is it true?” It wouldn’t matter if he could show empirically that adopting this hypothetical faith leads to world peace, the voluntary abolishment of crime, the disappearance of dental caries, and that every child on the planet would get their very own pony — I’d still battle it with every fierce and angry word I could speak and type if it wasn’t also shown to be a true and accurate description of the world. Some of us, at least, will refuse to drink the Kool-Aid, no matter how much sugar they put in it.

It is also the case that every religion describes itself as benign. Ask the true believers in even the most hateful, violent faiths, and they will all say they are workin for the betterment of their people. Women like wearing burkas, they will say, and they’re happier when liberated from civic responsibilities, like voting, or doing a man’s job.

Asma does go on at length about the virtues of animism in the third world, where it is a coping mechanism to live with difficult lives and high-risk environments, but I think he’s also wearing those rosy glasses that transmit lies to his nervous system. It makes them happier, he claims, but African animists still die of starvation, thirst, and disease, and African animists are using their faiths to accuse children of witchcraft to justify setting them on fire, or butchering unfortunate albinos to use their body parts in magical rituals. So even his examples of a benign religion don’t hold up unless we close our eyes to much of what’s done in their name.

Asma concludes with a typical unsupported plea; atheism’s “proponents need to have a more nuanced and global understanding of religion.” No, we don’t. Show us that it’s true, first, and then we can talk about nuance, and implementation, and consequences. Telling us how it makes some people feel good doesn’t even begin to address our core objections.