Wednesday, November 04, 2015

How to Suck at Atheism

or, "How to Out-Dogma a Fundamentalist"

Michael Schermer wrote an article for Scientific American called "Smart People Believe Weird Things". In it he reveals a study published Skeptic (Vol. 9, No. 3) that found no correlation between science knowledge (facts about the world) and paranormal beliefs. Note the title well. Belief in certain things does not make one stupid. And just as education by itself is no paranormal prophylactic, lack of belief in those same things does not make one smart, or educated.

So if you denounce as idiots those who possess "superstitious" beliefs simply because they believe, know that there is no scientific basis for that denunciation; and while you're crowing about your enlightenment, you may miss out on your own ignorance. I encountered a bit of fundamentally flawed thinking that needs to be shared for the benefit of those sheltered individuals who might believe that atheism automatically imbues one with intelligence, education, and/or rational thought.

It began with this particular story was shared on Facebook from The headline:
Arkansas pastor: If a woman thinks ‘she has the right over her own body… no, that’s not true’
It's accompanied by this video:

In general, as a former Journalism geek, I have limited respect for headline writers. Often a well-written, well-balanced article is subverted by a cherry-picked quote. In this case, I can't blame the headline editor any more than the writer, who cherry-picked this sermon.

It was shared on Facebook with this comment by "the Atheist":
"Another horrible, dangerous line of thinking that can only exist because of Religion. Praise be!"
And what followed was an already-in-progress long, semantic argument over the "misogyny" exhibited by this man and the "problem" (undefined by all participants) of his statement. What was being argued was whether this "misogyny" was because of or separate from his religion. While I'd like to think that this fundamental mis-reading of the material was purely a result of the poor writing, that turned out not to be the case. But before we look into that, let's pay attention to what this pastor is actually saying.

The Actual Message

This particular sermon is targeted at men and women alike. Abortion is one of the examples he uses, but he's using 1 Corinthians 6 to make a far broader claim. In the sermon he argues against gluttony, Internet pornography, and body modification as well. It is the headline that is focused on women, but this one example does not encompass the whole of the broader point that's being made. To say that it's "misogynistic", one must first allow that it's "misandric" in equal measure. That, of course, means it's neither, and simply treats people equally.

On theological grounds, I'd argue that Crawford's language is imprecise... that a more proper reading is that we are granted all of the rights due to a caretaker, and have a corresponding responsibility to be good stewards. "All things are lawful for me; but not all things are expedient. All things are lawful for me; but I will not be brought under the power of any." -- 1 Cor 6:12

However, to be clear, this sermon is not about abortion alone, nor is it about women. If it is "about" anything, it's a sermon against hypocrisy... what Jeff Crawford calls "theological dualism". It is about the idea that if you choose a religion, then you should choose also to live by its precepts. Crawford says quite a lot about what you choose to do ("you" being his parishioners), and not one word about forcing others to conform to your choices. This is made rather clear starting at around 1:56. This is a sermon specifically directed at Christians by a Christian pastor.

Whether you agree with his theology or not, if you wish to debate what Crawford says, intellectual integrity demands that you pay attention to the context. It's not merely easy to isolate a statement and debate what you wish it meant instead: it's lazy.

The Perceived Message

Pro-Life advocacy is the undefined "problem" referenced by the Atheist. Although he never says it outright, later statements made it clear that this is so, and other correspondents in the thread don't share his timidity.

I think it highly revealing that in the discussion, the only conclusion that anyone had drawn is that the motivation for such a stance is misogyny... hatred of women. No one considered that opposition to abortion may be motivated by a sincere desire to protect the life of a child. Instead, it was simply assumed to be hatred. At that point everyone there had stopped thinking, and never once considered that there may be a deeper motivation. It was as if they were mice who had found cheese, and thus never bothered to look for an exit to their maze. That's incredibly disappointing, as misogyny and religion need play no part in an anti-abortionist position. This is well-argued in this piece by Hemant Mehta:
Yes, There Are Pro-Life Atheists Out There. Here’s Why I’m One of Them
There are compelling Pro-Life arguments without religion. The fact that someone ascribes to religious reasons as well does nothing whatsoever to negate any of the secular arguments which they may also have. And the mere fact that someone offers a Pro-Life argument does not make them misogynistic. So if you want to debate that topic, you have a two-fold task. Flippant dismissal of a "religious fanatic" isn't going to cut it. You have to address all the other reasons, too.

And that could have formed the basis of a rather robust intellectual discussion. Sadly, it never got that far.

Atheism as Dogma...

One voice of reason pointed out to the Atheist that religion is neither the cause nor a guard against sociopathy. It simply gives focus to those problems an irrational person already possesses. Anything that a fundamentalist will do in the name of God may be done (and historically has been) by an atheist in the name of the State.

I agree entirely. Note carefully that his argument is not an appeal to hypocrisy. Rather, it's argued as an indication that sociopathy exists independently of religious conviction. When talking about the State, there is a direct equivalence with God. The State or the Collective is not an entity... it is an incorporeal abstraction that is omnipresent and has the power to dictate your thought and actions. When you give over to that, the result is identical in every respect to religious dogma.

There are many examples of atheistic practices that mirror those of religion. One that is particularly appropriate is that Communist China long had a "one child only" law that basically mirrors the assertion that a woman has no right to her body, substituting "the State" for "God".

Not only did China's "one child only" law mandate abortions, it was enforced by the state with armed arrests, forced procedures, and continued harassment. When listing the transgressions of Christians, you would be hard-pressed to find any as heinous as having a team of armed policemen break through a door, grab a woman, subdue her husband, drag her to a clinic and forcibly remove her unborn child against her will. Clearly, such "dangerous lines of thought" do not require religion.

NOTE: I know it's tempting to the atheist reader to denounce this as a "tu quoque fallacy". However, such a reader is advised to look at the application of the argument. Tu quoque ("you too") is fallacious when used as a means to deflect blame, as it's merely a way of saying, "this is right because you do it, too". That's not what I'm doing. When your argument is that you never do a thing, then it is a valid and devastating refutation to demonstrate that you do. Remember, the plainly stated argument is, "Another horrible, dangerous line of thinking that can only exist because of Religion." Examples to the contrary are not tu quoque: they are silver bullets.

This is an inversion of the "Hitchens Challenge", which we'll re-visit below. For now, know that there is no atrocity that can be done in the name of religion that cannot be done in the name of secularism.

Yet, despite such recent documented evidence of State ownership of individual bodies, the Atheist repeated the blatant falsehood that this very condition "can only exist because of religion". This is a case of hearing the evidence, making no attempt to refute it, but rather simply pretending it doesn't exist to make the same refuted claim over and over again as if repetition makes it true. Here's an actual example from the thread:
This has nothing to do with secular ideas! This is a guy saying you have no right over your own body because of GOD.
How is this unclear? You cannot use the argument of GOD without RELIGION.
There is nothing secular about this. It is about his preaching of GOD
As you can see, the response to a clear case of such a line of thinking existing without religion is to re-define the argument so as to claim that it's not the same line of thinking unless it includes god. If this looks a bit like frantic foot-stamping, that's because it is. This isn't a compilation: it was one response.

You should know that this was a response to a non-Christian. The last I asked, he was a Satanist. And this Satanist reasonably argued that religion is not the source of all evil, that it doesn't prevent people from performing altruistic acts; and that although there are some religious sociopaths, it doesn't follow that simply being religious makes one a sociopath.... and the Atheist would have none of it.

I pointed out that in painting with a broad brush, and claiming that there is nothing good in religion, he equally denounces Buddhists, Shintoists, Animists, Wiccans, Zoroastrians, and all manner of other spiritual folk beyond those he obviously targets (Those being "Christians", although he went to extraordinary lengths to avoid typing the word even once). I asked if that was his intent, and it was:
As for "painting a broad brush", that is always weak. First of all, it's very easy to tell exactly which specific religion this is about in context, but, yes, broadly speaking there is nothing good about any religion. However, that's a distraction from the point of the original post, which was "Hey, look at this really stupid and potentially unsafe thought process given to us by religious 'thought'." [emphasis added]
Actually, the original post was a fallacy brought on by a failure to move beyond a headline. And here it became clear that he really wasn't looking for a discussion. Rather, he was expectant of the "Ha, ha, silly Christians," response that one might get in an echo chamber. The fact that a Satanist and a Christian might agree that his reasoning is faulty wasn't anticipated in the slightest.

More importantly, If you're looking for something REALLY stupid and potentially unsafe, consider this:
"Everybody who doesn't think like me is dangerous" is the most dangerous line of thought in all of human history.  

...aaaaand Bigotry

Given the news that "there is nothing good about any religion", I had to ask the obvious question: "So what happens when a religion espouses the things that are secularly proclaimed to be good? They must actually be bad if you're correct. This claim leads to a ridiculous result, and is just sloppy thinking."

Um, the fact that the only good things religion can offer ARE offered by rational secular crowds kind of proves that religion offers nothing uniquely positive.
There is nothing good that religion can do that a lack of religion can't, and a lot of bad stuff -- like telling you that you don't have a right to your own body because of god -- that a secular crowd couldn't argue.

First of all, it's not a given that "the only good things religion can offer are offered by rational secular crowds". You don't get to just assert that... you have to demonstrate it, or at least argue it convincingly. Sadly, this Atheist isn't one to expend that kind of effort, and defining as "good things" only those things that secularism can offer just isn't convincing. It can simply mean that atheists are missing out on good things. Secondly, the one example he uses of something "that a secular crowd couldn't argue" has already been demonstrated to have been not merely argued, but put in practice by secularists for several decades. It's the Chinese "one child only" law that he continues to pretend can't exist.

In so pretending for the severalth time, it became clear that his argument was circular, and that it would never acquire more depth than "Religion is bad, religion is stupid." Why? "Because God." Reason need not apply. Logic need not apply. It was a textbook example of religious bigotry. And while I'm always up for a good argument, this bit of mindless tail-chasing was as far from that as it's possible to get, and I had much better things to do than waste my time arguing with a stump.

However, I could explain that until Hell freezes over.

Of course, he took my exit from his pointless hate-fest as a "concession".
It's not the first time he was wrong.

I did continue other aspects of the discussion with rational beings, as noted in my last post.

Hitchens Challenge

In the assertion I quote above, the Atheist is leaning on the "Hitchens Challenge", a task whose main power was in the reputation of its originator, famed atheist Christopher Hitchens. In fact, as I left, and shortly before he deleted the thread, the Atheist parroted Hitchens:
Name for me an act of good will that can be performed by a religious group that cannot be performed by a secular crowd. Something that makes religion morally necessary, not just a lateral step from something you can do with a secular organization.
I've seen it before, and it's actually a rather tiresome rhetorical device, but in reviewing my blog, I see I've never addressed it here. So here it is:

The "Hitchens Challenge" is most useful as a defense of atheism. Employed that way, it basically argues that it's not necessary for an atheist to adopt a religion, since one can act in a moral fashion without it. And in a religiously tolerant society that does not insist upon worship of the One True God as a moral imperative, that's quite good enough, so leave the atheist alone. At its best, it's a call for tolerance.

Here's another form of Hitchens' challenge, and a link to him posing it in a debate against his brother Peter:
"Name me a moral action performed or a moral action recommended or a moral statement made by a believer... name me one by a true believer (mumble)...  that could not have been made by a nonbeliever." -- Hitchens vs. Hitchens (YouTube)
The statement took many forms, sometimes being "ethical" rather than "moral", or as above, "an act of good will". But the challenge is useless we are talking about morality, as no one disputes that anyone can exhibit good will; and ethics, where it differs from morality, refers to mere conformity with established rules of conduct.

Note that the argument is actually useless as an attack against religion, as it's logically fallacious. Any moral argument that requires religious belief would not be recognized as moral by Hitchens (or any atheist who poses the challenge in Hitchens' stead), who places himself in the position of being the arbiter of what is a moral act. Therefore, there is no possible "acceptable" answer to the challenge. The faux challenge is offered to support an un-testable claim, which ironically removes it from the realm of that which is scientific. It is an obvious bit of sophistry that should be dropped from the repertoire of those who employ logic, as mere exposure destroys it.

But there is another answer that any atheist, assuming he has working wetware, should understand. This is to counter with a demand for any valid reason whatsoever to do so. Just as there are many governments in the world, and people tend toward those that they prefer, there are many philosophies in the world. If two philosophies yield similar results, then there is certainly no necessity to tear one down in favor of the other if it were not for sheer intolerance.

Take, for instance, a person such as myself... a Libertarian, who is content to ignore whatever beliefs you may have so long as your behavior conforms to the tolerant standards required by our Constitution. Incidentally, those Constitutional standards are in near conformance with half of the commandments incumbent upon Christians: "Love thy neighbor as thyself". And you know what? You don't even have to do that. Just treat others as you'd be treated, and everyone's satisfied. And if you don't comply with the other moral imperative ("Love God"), then that's between you and God.

And if you don't believe in God, then what possible business is it of yours whether I do, so long as I also conform to the same tolerant standards required of you? None whatsoever. So if you want me to waste my time playing a transparently rigged game based on blatantly bad logic, you first have to explain: to what end? An atheist who does not comprehend the invalidity of the Challenge must still prove its utility, and in a nation where religious freedom is defended and actual tolerance is taught, there is none.

The reason the Atheist is using this argument for attack is revealed in his opening statement: this is a "horrible, dangerous line of thinking". Of course, it's not the real line of thinking that he's upset with; it's his mental construction that stands in for it; and he doesn't target that, but the whole of religion that he irrationally blames for it; and he never reveals how it's more dangerous than the murder of innocents that he would have in its place... but hey! It's dangerous! Kill it!

There are those with whom I have substantive disagreements, and I'm happy to cordially disagree. In our democratic process, solutions and compromises may be reached that none of us are completely satisfied with, and I'm happy to conform to them as a citizen should. But this... it's nothing more than an intolerant refusal to consider another position, leading to lashing out at a boogeyman constructed in his own brain... and that's how to suck at atheism.


  1. A useful post. I differ from you personally on many thing, I'm sure, but I love the way you "call for a better atheist." I've tangled with atheists on Patheos and so far all I've run into is the dogmatic type. I feel bad because most often they're easy to confute. One recently insists there are miracles in the Sermon on the Mount. Oh well.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I'm happy to differ with anyone who can do it civilly; so in this age, count yourself as rare and wonderful.

      Jordan Peterson has said that many of those who believe themselves to be Atheists are not. I find that to be often true. They are as spiritual and dogmatic as any pious Christian, the difference being the focus of their devotion. I'll do Peterson one better and point out that many who believe themselves to be Christian are not: many of their beliefs have more to do with pop culture than theology.

      As I'm that weird outlier who holds everyone to the same standard, have my fair share of disagreements with EVERYONE. I've lately become largely content to stand in the torrent of 'woo' like Tantalus, except that I don't drink of it because it's my own choice.

  2. A useful post. I differ from you personally on many thing, I'm sure, but I love the way you "call for a better atheist." I've tangled with atheists on Patheos and so far all I've run into is the dogmatic type. I feel bad because most often they're easy to confute. One recently insists there are miracles in the Sermon on the Mount. Oh well.