I’m tempted to simply dismiss Be Scofield as a smug, smarmy asshole, but I won’t; I’ll take on his arguments, because they are so stupid that I’m going to have fun tearing them apart.
Scofield has a new article, Reason and Racism in the New Atheist Movement, in which he basically accuses all New Atheists of being flaming racists who ignore their vocal claim to scientific reasoning to bash religion indiscriminately.
Scofield sets up his argument by trying to claim the scientific high ground, demanding the utmost rigor from the New Atheists. He’s going to slap us around with some sciencey-sounding buzzwords and sneer at us for failing to meet them.
Given that the New Atheists ground their arguments in science, reason and logic it behooves us to hold these conclusions to very high standards when analyzing them. It goes without saying that truth or knowledge claims should be supported by data, cross-cultural research and empirical evidence whenever possible. This should be measurable and certain principles of reasoning should be employed. Claims of this nature should also be scrutinized amongst a community of experts to try and reach a consensus before drawing conclusions. Unfortunately, the New Atheists fail tremendously in this regard.
Oh, really? Before addressing these claims, I would like to turn the tables on Mr Scofield. Tell me, which religion bases their knowledge claims on “data, cross-cultural research and empirical evidence”? Where are their “measurable” data? Do any Christian faiths, for example, bring their creeds to a council of scholars from Islam, Judaism, Shintoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Scientology to reach a consensus before drawing conclusions? Do they cross-check their interpretations with the Mormons, even?
Isn’t it peculiar how these apologists for religion so indignantly demand data and evidence from others, but never insist on it for their own claims?
It’s amazing how self-unaware the proponents of faith, including Be Scofield, can be. They are conscious that data and empiricism are valued by scientists, so they think that we should just ignore the absence of the same in their claims, and respond to scientists by asking for even more evidence.
The website Adherents.com currently lists that there are 4,300 different faith groups worldwide.
Yes, exactly my point. Which one has the evidence? Which one is true? And that is the crucial question.
Wouldn’t information need to be gathered from each of them before reaching scientific conclusions about whether or not the entire category of religion is harmful or poisonous?
No, because the test is so much simpler than that. You see, scientists have done the science — a few hundred years worth of intense scrutiny and experimentation — and the fruit of all that work is a fairly good (but of course, incomplete) description of the nature and properties of the universe. We know quite a bit about human history, the makeup of stars, early cosmology, geology, chemistry, etc., and we can look at those 4300 religions and ask how many of them describe the universe in a way that actually matches reality.
And the answer is…none of them.
They’re all wrong! They all sound like the guesses a totally ignorant bozo with a desire to manipulate people would make, and not at all like the insights someone with a genuine connection to a vastly greater source of cosmic information would provide.
So how do we know that the whole category of religion is harmful or poisonous? Because it teaches falsehoods about humanity and the universe around us. That is enough right there. We value truth. Teaching lies therefore does harm.
Apparently, Be Scofield considers truth to be unimportant and not at all a significant criterion for appreciating religion — otherwise, he’d be asking the same question of those faiths that he is so quick to ask of atheists. Therefore, I have to conclude he is being dishonest and disingenuous in demanding it of us.
Furthermore, what kinds of research questions would need to be asked? What sort of variables would be involved? Are there measures that could be agreed upon by a community of researchers to analyze what makes a particular religion harmful? Helpful?
How about, just as one example, this question: where did people come from? It’s an excellent question, and I’ll even give all those religious traditions credit for asking it. We know the answer, and it’s quite clear and sharp: we evolved from earlier species, by natural processes that we understand quite well. How many of those 4300 religions came up with that answer? I’m not familiar with all of them, but at least we can throw out all the ones that get it wrong, which I’m sure will be the majority.
Then we can ask another important question: how did they get the answer? What productive, testable process did they use to determine where people came from? If the answer is revelation, aka “pulling it out of their ass”, we can also conclude that their religion does harm, because it teaches dangerously invalid procedures for making and evaluating truth claims.
The truth and how we come to it are matters of importance, aren’t they, Mr Scofield?
Case and point: How can any of these New Atheists claim that the Dinka religious tradition of Africa is harmful? They’ve probably never heard of it, let alone conducted any sort of anthropological or sociological studies to determine the degree of harmfulness it poses to its members or others. Dawkins claims “I believe not because of reading a holy book but because I have studied the evidence.” I’d love to see the data and research he’s gathered to reach such sweeping conclusions about religion.
Oh. I confess, I know nothing about the Dinka. Sorry. Do they have the one true religion? Will Be Scofield go out on a limb and say, “Yep, the Dinka got it all right”? And then, of course, he’ll provide the empirical evidence that the Dinka god exists and is the one true god.
And again, Scofield doesn’t understand the nature of the evidence. Richard Dawkins has written many books summarizing the evidence; you can go to the bookstore and find even more science texts describing the studies done. They are studies of the objective nature of the world, not detailed studies of religion. If a religion claims the earth is flat, contrary to the evidence, we don’t need to do a detailed study of its theology to determine that it is a bad idea to promote that particular faith.
The game Scofield is playing here is thinly disguised version of The Courtier’s Reply — he’s demanding that we respect obvious nonsense and study it with all the fervor of a convert. We don’t need to. We have answers determined by reliable, independently verifiable methods, that don’t depend on gullibility and an upbringing in a particular dogma to accept. We can simply ask how well a religion conforms to reality.
And look, he continues with his demands that we appreciate ruffled flounces and puffy pantaloons!
Has he investigated the Japanese religion Tenrikyo? The Korean tradition Wonbulgyo? Have any of these atheists been to Iraq or Iran to interview any Mandeans? Do these atheists ‘know’ in some scientific way that the traditional mythological beliefs of the Inuit of the polar regions were harmful or led to more harm? Are Native American religious traditions really child abuse?
OK, Be, which one of these is the one true religion? Plucking obscure antique mythologies out of a catalog does not impress at all, nor does it compel me to want to dig deeper into them. It also doesn’t help your case; the top two religions, Christianity and Islam, cover over half the world’s population, so all I have to do is throw in Hinduism, Chinese traditional religion, and Buddhism and I’ve got the vast majority of cases already covered. If you’re going to pick some arbitrary tiny sect out of that 4300 as a sterling example of good religion, you’re going to have to a) make an actual case for its virtues, and b) your time would be better spent convincing Christians and Muslims to convert to it.
He also makes a very peculiar argument.
Would the researchers be all white, middle/upper class men like those that have predominantly defined new atheism?
I would agree that many (but not all) of the New Atheists are white, middle/upper class men, and I would also say that it is a problem. In case Be hasn’t noticed, there has been a lot of effort to broaden the appeal of New Atheism and get input and leadership from underrepresented groups. It’s also caused considerable tension within the movement.
But then, why does he then focus his criticisms on Greta Christina? She is white, but she doesn’t meet all those other narrow criteria? It’s very strange.
Also, meet Be Scofield: white, product of a $35,000/year education at a private liberal arts college. Gosh, look at the privileged white people arguing over who is more racist. I’m not even going to try. I admit that I’m a privileged white male, and when matters of racism and sexism come up, I will defer to those who have experienced its oppression. Which does not include the obliviously sanctimonious Be Scofield.
He’s also a liar. This is an outrageously false accusation:
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.” 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.
If I see someone starving, I will say that hunger is the most oppressive factor in their life, and try to feed them. If I see someone sick, I will say that disease is the most oppressive factor in their life, and try to heal them. If I see someone enslaved or trapped in poverty, I will say that hardship is the most oppressive factor in their life, and try to liberate them. I know of no atheists who would claim that freeing people of religion is the most important issue in everyone’s life.
I can think of many religious people who will prioritize saving souls over saving people.
Furthermore, home foreclosures, poverty, homelessness, oppression, inadequate mental health and social services, poor health care and violence plague America. Whether we like it or not, religious organizations are often the first to provide the much needed spiritual, material and social services to this sick society.
It’s also that religious mindset that perpetuates the sickness. We have an overwhelming Christian majority in this country: so why don’t we have a national health care system? Why is there such great economic inequity? What faith tradition is insisting that women not have unrestricted access to reproductive health services? Sure, there are selfish atheists who take the wrong side in these arguments, but we’re a minority — you cannot list the serious problems we have and allow it to be assumed that the godless are responsible. This is a Christian-dominated country: those problems are a consequence of the failure of faith to provide solutions.
Many of these New Atheists claim that holding onto the belief in supernatural entities is absurd or irrational. However, there is nothing more absurd than whiteness, class oppression and patriarchy. Resisting these absurdities means a more nuanced approach to religion – one that recognizes the positive role it can play in undermining such systems of domination. Ultimately, it means relying upon relationships more than reason.
Believing in supernatural beings is irrational. Is Be Scofield claiming that they aren’t?
I’m sitting here all pale and white because of my ancestry: there’s nothing absurd about it, it just is what it is. Oppression of class and sex are also real and awful, and I oppose them — and strangely enough, a majority of atheists are liberal and progressive and also deplore them, while a majority of Christians are conservative and endorse them.
I also think relationships are important…but relationships built on equality. There is nothing healthy about a relationship in which a person claims a pretense of privileged authority on the basis of imaginary, untestable claims obtained from an invisible being. That’s why religion is universally harmful: because it rests on unreasonable claims that it claims cannot be assessed for their truth. It’s also pretty darned good at recruiting useful idiots like Be Scofield to defend its authority.
I haven’t tackled every single stupid claim in Scofield’s article, because I can tell that jaws dropped all over the atheist blogosphere at the appalling ineptitude and dishonesty of his arguments. Ophelia Benson and Greta Christina also ripped into him. I’m sure more of us will join in. Sometimes, smacking a fool is just so much fun.