Look, Ma, I’m a “secular whackjob”!

I think The Raw Story is supposed to be a progressive political web site…which, unfortunately, means I now have to be greatly embarrassed by my fellow travelers along the great liberal path. Melinda Barton has written a bizarre and poorly supported screed against atheism, or as she’d prefer to call it, secular whackjobbery, as opposed to her preferred position, which I will call theistic wank-offery.

She starts by making up a novel definition, always a bad sign. To Barton, the term “secular” refers to “those who disbelieve all religious and spiritual claims, not to those who merely support a separation of church and state.” That’s an interesting position for a progressive to take, since there are a great many liberal religious people who believe that a secular government is the best government, yet because they hold private beliefs about God, she gets to sweep them completely off the table in any consideration of the promotion of secularism. Sweet. It also means she gets to accuse those few remaining godless promoters of a non-religous government “whackjobs” and extremists. Not all the atheists, she is quick to note—just the evil ones who hold the outrageous claims she then lists. Strangely enough, when she lists these claims, she isn’t able to provide any evidence that anyone actually holds any of these positions.

You know, I’m a fairly extremist atheist myself, and I just find her assertions daffy.

Outrageous claim number 1: Atheism is based on evidence and reason and is philosophically provable or proven. Atheism is a matter of thought not belief. In other words, atheism is true; religion is false.

Well, yes, I believe religion is false; that’s no more a damning trait than the fact that Melinda Barton believes religion is true. But this claim that atheism is proven is bizarre; who says such things? She tries to quote a writer for the Atheist Foundation of Australia who defines atheism as “the acceptance that there is no credible, scientific or factually reliable evidence for the existence of a God, god/s or the supernatural”…tell me, where is the claim of provability there? She goes on to argue that both the presence and absence of a deity are matters of belief, setting up a false equivalence in which she tries to argue that both are therefore matters of faith. What nonsense; the absence of faith is not faith, any more than the absence of a sandwich is also a kind of tasty snack between two slices of bread.

Outrageous claim number 2: Since the natural is all that we have or can scientifically observe and/or measure, it is all that exists.

Now we get into some real craziness. This basic claim of metaphysical naturalism, which is a reasonable interpretation of the absence of evidence, is called a blatant logical fallacy and scientifically inaccurate by Ms Barton.

She claims it is a logical fallacy because absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. That’s an extravagant misuse of the aphorism, I’m afraid. Absence of evidence is a legitimate argument for the absence of a phenomenon. If I claim there is a unicorn living in my backyard, but repeated attempts to observe and record it, or to find indirect evidence such as footprints or unicorn scat all fail, it is perfectly reasonable to provisionally suggest that the claim is false, and to insist that any further consideration of the idea will require positive evidence from the claimant.

As for her claim that metaphysical naturalism is scientifically inaccurate…her defense consists of abusing quantum physics. I’m thinking there ought to be an exam and some kind of licensing requirement before people are allowed to use The Argument From Quantum Physics in public.

Outrageous claim number 3: All religion is oppressive.

I’m more sympathetic to this one. I think it’s true that most religion is oppressive, and I agree with The International Manifesto for Atheistic Humanism that she quotes:

Religion is oppressive. The act of subjugating human will to “divine will” is oppressive. The practice of obeying clergy, of letting them make our decisions for us, is oppressive and irresponsible.

The onus is on Ms Barton to show that this is false and only believable by whackjobs. She fails. She cites examples of commendable behavior by religious individuals, which I don’t disagree with at all—people are quite capable of transcending the limitations of their dogma. As we’ve come to expect, she has to ignore the actual words of her atheist targets to make her case. She doesn’t even try to address the issue of surrendering autonomy to an authority based on “faith” as oppressive.

Outrageous claim number 4: The eradication of religion in favor of secularism will bring about utopia.

Again, a straw man, and she has got to know it. She reaches for the usual extremist examples with which atheists are typically beaten, the anarchists and communists, and says that they believe “the total eradication of religion is an essential but not sufficient step in the creation of an atheist utopia.” The statement of her religious claim and her recitation of an example follow one after another; are we to believe that she doesn’t understand what the phrase “but not sufficient” means? Possibly. She’s not exactly dazzling us with her clarity of thought here.

Outrageous claim number 5: All religious people want to force you or convince you or coerce you to believe as they do.

Just a rhetorical tip to Ms Barton: it’s a bad idea to end a list of arguments for your position with the weakest, lamest, most pathetic claim you can think of, and also to immediately admit that it’s unsupportable. You know, like this:

I tried to find an “official” source for this hasty generalization with no luck, but chose to include it here based on personal experience.

Jebus. Never mind. Do we even need to try to rebut this kind of nonsense?

Fresh off that flabby reasoning, her conclusions stoops even lower. Why should we oppose these “secular whackjobs” on the left? Pogroms, baby, we’re all about persecuting you for what you do in your home and church. Step into my classroom or onto the sidewalk wearing a crucifix, and I might just rip it off and stomp on it. (Do I have to add, “not really”? Probably. The fevered imaginations of the Melinda Bartons of the world no doubt see sarcasm as a personal slight.)

While most who believe in the separation of church and state hold that only government support of religion in the public sphere should be forbidden, the secular extremist may take it one step further to forbid the private display of religious symbols in public places.

I hereby promise that if you want to wear a yamulke in public, or want to dab ashes on your forehead on some incomprehensible holy day, I won’t sic the cops on you. OK? There’s a difference between accusing all people with certain religious beliefs of conspiring to lock you up in prison, and insisting that government should be entirely secular, granting no preference to one religious belief or another. When you target the latter under the pretext of protecting us from the former, you’re promoting theocracy.

Just for the slow and witless who have difficulty figuring out the obvious, Ms Barton, theocracy is not a progressive value.

(Crossposted to The American Street)

God grants tenure

Some clown at one of the ID blogs is making an incredibly stupid argument. She is claiming that my statement that I would not vote to give tenure to someone incompetent enough to support Intelligent Design creationism as a science is a violation of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1991 because, as Judge Jones has ruled, ID is founded on a specific religious view. She seems to think that demanding some standards in the review process is equivalent to excluding all religious people…which has some interesting implications. She must assume that the level of idiocy we see in the creationist crowd is implicit in all religious beliefs, and that religious people are incapable of teaching or research without babbling nonsense. She has an even more jaundiced view of the religious than I do!

Her claim, if valid, would mean that we could teach any ol’ belief we wanted in the classroom, and as long as we said it was part of our religion (or was so ludicrously absurd that the only possible justification for it is that it was a religious belief), then the instructor could not be criticized. Astronomy professors could say the Earth was suspended on the back of a turtle, geology professors could literally argue that rocks are the bones of Gaia, chemists could teach their traditional model of the four (and only four!) elements. The foolproof method of gaining tenure would be to come to class every day and read aloud from the bible…and when the tenure review committee justly voted to boot your butt out the door, sue them for violating your civil rights.

The IDists are definitely desperate when this kind of nutjob dreck is how they decide to defend their ideas. I shouldn’t even bother addressing it, it’s so pathetic…so I’ll leave you to read one defender’s view.

Blackbeard on a hydroplane


My hometown of Seattle isn’t big on that NASCAR thing—instead, they’ve got over-motored boats scudding and bouncing around the lakes and sound at insane speeds. One reader was nice enough to remind me of the summer rituals, and also that they’ve got pirates, which is always a plus.

And a good time was had by all

Remember when you went to the high school dance, and all the social strata of the institution were exposed? You knew who the jocks and cheerleaders were, and the stoners and the college preppies, and of course, the geeks, the A/V nerds, the chess club crowd…the ones who didn’t show up very often, and when they did, everyone was wondering what they were doing there. Geek Prom wasn’t anything like that—it was kind of an anti-Heathers experience, where all the distinctions were thrown away. There were some beautiful people there, and everyone liked them, but they weren’t any more special than the four-eyed nerd with bad hair. This was an event where everyone was appreciated for being unique.

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Almost that time of year


Hey! Coturnix is horning in on my turf, with a link to fornicating devil beetles (these are not popular beasties in my neighborhood—we get swarms of them every summer, crawling through every crevice to invade our house.)

It’s cool to see, but I may have to send a few of the boys over to the quail-man’s house to teach him a lesson. Either that or reconcile myself to the fact that my niche faces growing competition.

I agree with AiG: Najash is not the snake of Genesis

The kooks at Answers in Genesis never disappoint—they always come through with their own daffy interpretations of things. It didn’t take them long to scrape up a few excuses for Najash rionegrina, the newly discovered fossil snake with legs.

They have a couple of incoherent and in some cases mutually contradictory arguments against Najash as evidence for evolution.

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That question of race

John Wilkins has an excellent linky post on the subject of race. My position on the issue is Richard Lewontin’s (seen here in a RealAudio lecture by Richard Lewontin), and more succinctly stated by Wilkins:

So, do I think there are races in biology as well as culture? No. Nothing I have seen indicates that humans nicely group into distinct populations of less than the 54 found by Feldman’s group (probably a lot more – for instance, Papua New Guinea is not represented in their sample set). And this leads us to the paper by the Human Race and Ethnicity Working Group (rare to see a paper that doesn’t list all the authors). They rightly observe that while there are continental differences in genetics, there is no hard division, and genetic variation doesn’t match up with cultural differences per se. There is a genetic substructure to the human population, but it isn’t racial.