Myth-bustin’ bad arguments about atheists

This apologist for religion, James Scofield, has written a bizarre essay titled 5 Myths Atheists Believe about Religion. It’s a peculiar screed that assumes atheists are somehow aliens outside religious culture, looking in uncomprehendingly, needing some kind of correction in our perceptions — more so than the religious members of our culture, who are privileged to possess the true and secret information we do not have. Never mind that here in America we are deeply entangled everywhere in religion, tripping over it in our media, our politics, our commerce, and that many of us were brought up deeply immersed in a faith. None of that matters; Mr Scofield will condescendingly explain to us all the profound universal truths of religion that we have somehow missed.

In order to do this, unfortunately, he has to muddle up errors about the atheist position, and further, intentionally misrepresent religion. The end result is a garbled mess that says nothing at all about atheist ignorance but says a heck of a lot about Scofield’s desire to defend a meaningless, abstract religion, even if he has to lie to do it.

So here are his five “myths” rebutted.

  1. Liberal and Moderate Religion Justifies Religious Extremism. His criticism of this idea rests on arguing that this doesn’t apply elsewhere, and makes a series of irrelevant comparisons: a pediatrician isn’t responsible for Nazi medical experiments, liberal democracy isn’t responsible for totalitarianism, Dennis Kucinich isn’t responsible for George Bush.

    Scofield has completely missed the point. Liberal religion isn’t blamed for promoting illiberalism, it’s guilty of promoting religion. Nobody is arguing that the antithesis is responsible for the thesis, but that liberal religion and extremist religion hold something in common: the abdication of reason in favor of faith. They are both philosophies that undermine critical thinking. And without that safeguard of demanding reasonable evidence for propositions, they’re left vulnerable to bad ideas.

    You want a better comparison? The religious are like the anti-vaxers. They don’t directly cause the disease, but they do provide a susceptible field of defenseless individuals who can breed stupid and dangerous beliefs.

  2. Religion Requires a Belief in a Supernatural God. Why, look at Buddhism, and Unitarians, and Thomas Jefferson! And some people “describe God as the natural order”.

    This is a familiar and contemptible dodge, pure and simple. Let us pretend all atheists believe all religious people are Pat Robertson; therefore, when we mention someone who is not Pat Robertson, the atheists are routed! Huzzah!

    So what about Pat Robertson? And Tony Perkins? And John Boehner? And the local Catholic priest? And the kid in his Lutheran confirmation class who is told he must believe God came to earth as Jesus, and you must believe this story or go to hell? Are these not religious people?

    If those believers really did just consider their god a metaphor for the natural world, we wouldn’t be having a problem here, now would we? This pretense that criticism of religious gullibility can be dealt with by a tactical denial of the reality of religious belief is absurd and dishonest.

  3. Religion Causes Bad Behavior. Scofield’s evidence for this is the claim that atheists like to list evils done in the name of faith or by the failthful and then denounce religion as the cause. Strangely, he then cites Hitchens explaining that religion is only a reinforcer of a very human tribalism that is the actual root cause. So apparently this isn’t a myth held by atheists. How strange then to say it is!

    He doesn’t get the real problem here. Religion claims to be a source of morality; many believers go so far as to claim that it is the source for morality. The point of describing the evils isn’t to claim religion is the exclusive cause, but to show that a primary claim, that it encourages greater morality, is patently and empirically false. The Hitchens quote is right in the mainstream of atheist thought.

  4. Atheists are Anti-Religious. In this “myth”, Scofield lectures atheists on what atheism really means. He decides that he, not Greta Christina who wrote that “Atheists, by definition, don’t think any religion has any reasonable likelihood of being true”, is the privileged arbiter of the definition of atheism. And to back that up, he cites a personal friend at seminary who says he is an atheist but thinks that “religion has a lot to offer.”

    Argument by confused and inconsistent buddy is not very persuasive. I think I’ll trust the ideas of prominent atheists over that of a pair of incoherent seminarians who want to apologize for religion.

    He is right in one thing: you don’t have to be anti-religious to be an atheist. I am. A lot of us are. There are many different ways to be an atheist, but I’m afraid one consistent thread is that they’re all going to reject supernatural explanations for our existence. And that belief is incompatible with religions, which are in practice all about unnatural nonsense. It is perfectly fair to point out, though, that many atheists choose to simply ignore religion, rather than oppose it directly.

  5. All Religions are the Same and are “Equally Crazy”. To Scofield, all atheists equate Martin Luther King with Osama Bin Laden, and see no difference at all between different religions. To back that up, he again quotes Greta Christina, who recently wrote that she found Mormonism crazy, and couldn’t find any reason to believe that older, more established religions are any less crazy. Which, to anyone with half a brain, is obviously rather different from saying that all religions are the same.

    All religions are not the same. But all religions are crazy; there’s no other way to describe a dogma that seeks to explain the nature of the universe while ignoring the reality of that universe. This one isn’t a myth. Greta Christina put it very well when she wrote this bit Scofield even quotes:

    But all religions are out of touch with reality. All religions are implausible, based on cognitive biases, and unsupported by any good evidence whatsoever. All of them ultimately rely on faith — i.e., an irrational attachment to a pre-existing idea regardless of any evidence that contradicts it — as the core foundation of their belief. All of them contort, ignore, or deny reality in order to maintain their attachment to their faith.

    Waving Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King and all Buddhists (as if Buddhism was a platonic ideal) at us doesn’t save Scofield, and doesn’t contradict what Greta Christina wrote: where people reject dogma and supernaturalism they are rational, and in those parts of their lives where they bow before a god or a belief or an ideology, they are plainly crazy, in the informal sense of the word. You can be a tolerant, liberal, generous, kind-hearted Christian who rejects fundamentalism, and that does not grant your goofier beliefs protection from criticism.

At the end, Scofield piously declares that we have to move beyond these myths and misunderstandings…but these are myths that he has either perpetrated himself, or are actual significant divisions between the atheist and theist positions that he wants to wave out of existence. He has contributed nothing to knowledge about our respective positions, because he doesn’t want to acknowledge that there are sincere and principled disagreements — differences that are insuperably deep. Atheists will not accept the widely held beliefs of the religious that there is a supernatural, personal force influencing their lives. We will not accept faith as a substitute for evidence in any way. We will not pretend that your beliefs in magical forces or unseen involved entities is in any way rational or supported by science.

To Scofield, I would say that atheists will willingly cooperate with theists, but only as long as they don’t gabble that freakin’ loony bullshit at us…and we know that most religious people are smart enough that they can set aside the baseless pieties and magical crap in conversation. You will not achieve reconciliation by asking us to believe religion isn’t as insane as it actually is; that will be reached only by realizing that religion must at least temporarily be set aside while working with the reality-based community. That is, us. Not you. As your sloppily reasoned, inane piece of so-called myth busting reveals.

Godless students, combine!

The Secular Student Alliance is having their annual meeting in Columbus, Ohio on 29-31 July. You should go — it’s relatively cheap, it has some cool atheist leaders and me giving talks, and it’s a fantastic opportunity to network and find out how other student organizations are operating.

I’m a college professor, so it’ll just be like my regular year. I’ll drone on, smack a few of you with a ruler, and make you take a test before I let you leave. Doesn’t that sound like fun? People pay thousands of dollars for that privilege!

Canadians aren’t all nice and polite, except for the godless ones

Some team in Canada won the Stanley Cup, which prompted happy revelers to…riot and destroy public property? I have never understood that behavior; when something good happens in my life, I’ve just never felt the slightest desire to celebrate by setting a police car on fire.

I shall now embarrass all the good Canadians by showing a video of Canadians behaving very, very badly.

All honor is not lost, however: one reporter documented the Vancouver riots, and then found refuge in a bar full of sensible atheists.

I walked to the back toward windows looking down on the street and met a posse of friendly atheist gamers who asked how it was outside. We watched some videos on my phone, ordered a pitcher of beer, then hung out for hours chatting away about all sorts of things until the streets looked a lot more clear.

Good on Caustic Soda for representing the better side of Canada and atheism!

Oops. I’ve been informed that the Canadian team lost a hockey game, which, of course, justifies city-wide rioting and flaming cars in the street. My error.

A conversion story

Here is a sad, sad story: it’s the tale of Michael Glatze. He was a gay man, a gay activist, someone who supported and helped gay kids. Now he’s straight and crusades for gay conversion therapies. How, you might wonder, did that happen? You won’t be surprised to learn that it was that potent combination of fear and the Bible.

Michael didn’t begin to question his life path, he told me, until a health scare in 2004 that led to what he calls his “spiritual awakening.” That year, when Michael was 29, he experienced a series of heart palpitations and became convinced that he suffered from the same congenital heart defect that killed his father when Michael was 13. (Michael lost both his parents young; his mother died of breast cancer when he was 19.) After tests eventually ruled out his father’s illness, Michael felt that he had escaped death and found himself staring “into the face of God.” In a published interview with Joseph Nicolosi, a leader in the controversial field of reparative therapy, which seeks to help people overcome unwanted homosexual attractions, Michael said that he became “born again” in that moment and that “every concept that my mind had ever entertained — my whole existence — was completely re-evaluated.”

Along with this conversion came the adoption of a whole host of weird political shifts, too — he’s now a fan of Ann Coulter (which raises the question: was he always this stupid, or did he suffer brain damage when he was born again? The article doesn’t say).

The explanation for his conversion is revealing, though. When I gave up on church, it was entirely because I found no rational defense of the nonsense I was expected to believe in order to be a member; converting to Christianity is all about an emotional response, fear in particular.

I’m sure it will be popular with Christians

Oh, jesus…Chris Stedman is coming out with a book titled Faitheist, all about “How One Atheist Learned to Overcome the Religious-Secular Divide, and Why Atheists and the Religious Must Work Together”, which leaves me with a strange gagging sensation in the back of my throat. My response is that people must work together on shared goals, but that faith and reason will always be deep and bitter enemies…and unlike Stedman, I am not confused about what side I’m on. I can share secular aspirations with religious people, but the moment they use me to rationalize or endorse faith-based folly, I’m out of there, and you should be too.

Ophelia Benson has the best send-up of Stedman ever, and you should read that…but I also have to point out this perfect comment from jejaime, which predicts Stedman’s next book:

LEFT-TEA-IST: How one Leftist learned to overcome the Leftist-Tea Party divide, and why Leftists and the Tea Party must work together.

I also wonder if Stedman will acknowledge where his title came from, or is that too much reaching out to the wrong side, or maybe it detracts from stealing credit for a clever title?

Starting them young

As one of those geezers in his grey, tired, wizened 50s, I’m torn between the cranky get-offa-my-lawn attitude and a patronizing bless-their-little-hearts when I see all these young’uns romping about at meetings nowadays. And the internet is even worse: look, it’s a literate 13 year old atheist and a hardnosed 16 year old skeptic!

I’m going to have to combine my views — it gets easier as senility looms — and kick their little hearts around on my lawn, I guess.

Haven’t they learned how bad science and bogus tradition is a tool of oppression?

Oh, no. This is the first I hear of the Black Atheists of Atlanta, and what do I discover: they’re pushing the same bigoted, homophobic nonsense that I’d expect to hear from a white Republican teabagger. It’s a choice, it’s unnatural, science has something called the “law of reproduction” that means homosexuality is unscientific, it is justified by tradition to exclude homosexuals. They do have one difference: they claim homosexuality is a wicked Greco-Roman nastiness that afflicts Western civilization, but isn’t part of good African culture. Oh, and gay people in modern Africa are a product of colonialism.

Everything they say is wrong. It’s nothing but irrational, raging bigotry. It’s a shame to see one minority group rising up and speaking out, and what they’re doing is promoting the idea of throwing another minority group under the bus.

I’m back, and I’m still not a fascist

I’m home! I even got a good night’s sleep! And just to fire me up, Jeff Sparrow replies to my criticism of his article claiming that the New Atheists are a gang of neo-fascists. Bracing!

It’s especially fun since he begins the piece by disavowing one of my criticisms: “I do not think that the New Atheists are fascists, and nowhere did I say that they are.” No, he’s cleverer than that. He argued instead that the New Atheists were replacing anti-semitism with anti-Muslim racism, that they were converging with the populist right (does this mean we can invite Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh to our conferences now?), claimed that “enthusiasm for the rhetoric of the Islamophobic Right is entirely characteristic of the New Atheism,” played a little game in which he dared readers to distinguish New Atheist quotes from neo-fascist quotes, and suggests that atheism is practicing the “functional equivalent of 20th century anti-Semitism”. But oh, no, he doesn’t come right out and say New Atheists are fascists. It’s only the entire freaking point of his essay.

He does now firmly come out and say this:

I did, indeed, write that many of the main speakers in the two conferences scheduled for Melbourne in 2011 are very, very right wing. That’s because … um… they are.

Which is confusing. What two conferences is he talking about? There was one in 2010, and an upcoming one in 2012, but only a few of the speakers have been announced for the 2012 event, and his two major examples of atheist fascists, Harris and Hitchens, weren’t at the 2010 meeting. Even if we only use the partial lineup for the next event, and if we accept his claim that Harris and Hitchens are right-wingers (which I do not), it’s hard to claim that two is “many”.

And that was part of my counterargument, that he was cherry-picking two speakers and claiming their views were representative of the whole New Atheist movement. I would have expected that he’d at least try to shoot me down by finding more examples of neo-fascist New Atheists, and he tries, but he doesn’t do very well.

To the evil duo of Harris and Hitchens, he now adds Richard Dawkins, because he said “Islam is the greatest man-made force for evil in the world today”…which doesn’t sound racist or fascist. He’s targeting an ideology, not a people; if you asked him, he might even go on to say that Christianity is the second greatest force for evil. If we can’t even criticize ideological craziness without getting slapped with the accusation that we’re racist, we’re in trouble. Next thing you know, someone will pull up my denunciations of crazy American politicians Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann and declare that I’m clearly anti-woman and that I hate white people.

It’s a bit of a reach to include Dawkins in there, but his next efforts are even more ridiculous. To punch up his claim that racist Islamophobia is a serious problem in the movement, he cites…Herman Cain, teabagger politician, and a poll of Victoria schoolchildren to show them rife with petty racist bigotry.

I had no idea the tentacles of New Atheism reached so far.

Taslima Nasrin, AC Grayling, and Peter Singer were also at the 2010 convention — perhaps Mr Sparrow would like to cobble up a rationale for accusing them of being closet right-wingers out to exterminate the Muslim world? That would be even more entertaining than flinging Herman Cain in our faces.

Sparrow also makes the claim that these few speakers he can find who he doesn’t like are representative of the New Atheist community, or are leaders of the organizations (we don’t even have just one, we’re that splintered). This is nonsense. The New Atheists are not personified by any one individual, or even by a group of individuals; the Four Horsemen theme was prompted by a meeting of four individuals — Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens — to discuss their recent books and their attitudes towards religion. It was an entertaining meeting of a book club, basically, not a cabal of the party leadership to determine the path of world conquest. The reason these people get invited to conferences is because they have interesting ideas and are provocative speakers, not because they’re in charge. Sparrow doesn’t have a clue about who the real leaders of the atheist movement are.

He also doesn’t understand the relationship of the atheist community to these inspiring educators and rhetoricians and idea generators. We aren’t the sheep he’s looking for. Every one of these people gets up, presents their views, and then gets praised and criticized by the audiences; they don’t give orders, they express themselves, and the listeners talk and argue and agree or disagree. I’ve been to atheist meetings where Christians and Buddhists and weird New Agers have been given a time-slot to speak; so? This is not a movement that demands ideological conformity, and that likes to be challenged.

Finally, Sparrow condemns us because we haven’t thrown Hitchens from our ranks, and that we’re supposed to “speak out against the Islamophobia that’s self-evidently rife in the atheist movement,” a perfectly lovely demand that is offensive in its assumptions; shall he also tell me that I must stop beating my wife? There is racist Islamophobia scattered about within the New Atheist movement, just as there are racist atheists, anti-gay atheists, and Republican atheists, and we’d be fools to deny that a diverse movement built on a criticism of the folly of religion wouldn’t contain many individuals with a range of views orthogonal to our focus. But the outliers are not the movement. If Sparrow had actually attended any of these conferences and known any of the attendees, he’d know that the average participant is strongly left-leaning and progressive, but that there are also a significant number of Libertarians in the ranks with radical capitalism as their religion — but there is no purge in progress, which might annoy a Marxist like sparrow.

As for Hitchens, I adore the guy as a brilliant speaker and writer, as somebody I would go out of my way to listen to, and as an interesting human being who I sincerely hope can recover from his current affliction. But that does not imply that I listen to him unquestioningly, or that I and others won’t disagree with him on specifics. I was at the Freedom From Religion conference in 2007 in which he spoke and was at his most bellicose, and he was not given a free pass: the majority of the audience was vehement in its rejection of his ideas, and I flat out called them insane.

To people like Sparrow, though, the fact that we allowed him to speak, and that we even liked many of his ideas while specifically rejecting the war-mongering and Muslim-bashing, is a sign that we’re all right-wingers.