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Atheism, Religion

Armies of Atheists

When I was writing my response to the Dalai Lama, I intentionally glossed over his lone mention of atheists.  Today I regret my decision.  Here’s what he said:  “Radical atheists issue blanket condemnations of those who hold to religious beliefs.”

Let’s contrast that statement with this:  “Compassion is equally important in Islam — and recognizing that has become crucial in the years since Sept. 11, especially in answering those who paint Islam as a militant faith. On the first anniversary of 9/11, I spoke at the National Cathedral in Washington, pleading that we not blindly follow the lead of some in the news media and let the violent acts of a few individuals define an entire religion.”

I think we have to begin with the obvious.  A radical Muslim is more dangerous than a radical atheist.  By orders of magnitude.  There are simply no examples of atheists killing atheists over differences in atheist dogma.

Next, we must be honest about who we’re referring to when we say “radical atheists.”  We’re not talking about Stalin or Mao.  We’re talking about intellectuals and science-minded people who strongly believe in the value of empirically verifying everything before believing it.  The driving force behind the atheist movement is the demand for uncensored discussion.

Let’s restate this dichotomy.  It’s really important.

  • Radical Muslim:  Believes that all nonbelievers are heretics.  Encourages and participates in killing anyone who voices disagreement with Islam.  Actively participates in jihad.  Subjugates women as second-class citizens.
  • Radical Atheist:  Blogs about how bad religion is.

Is anyone besides me offended that the Dalai Lama — an admittedly peaceful and genuinely nice person — has perpetuated the stereotype that atheists are really bad people while glossing over the real violence perpetuated by hundreds of thousands of admittedly violent and genuinely mean religious people?

The myth of militant atheism seems nearly ubiquitous.  I have no doubt I’ll get angry emails about this post.  But curiously, when it comes right down to it, the only evidence anyone can ever seem to produce for the existence of angry atheists is one of two things:  Quote mines from a couple of authors, or the names of a couple of “radical” discussion boards.  That’s the entirety of the evidence that there’s a huge population of angry atheists ready to umm…

What is it that they’re going to do again?

That’s not just a flippant question.  What do people like the Dalai Lama think radical atheists are going to do?  As far as I can tell, the most radical atheist agendas in America consist of things like separating church and state, ending tax exempt status for churches, and restricting the rights of parents to withhold medical treatment from children based on religious beliefs.  Those are the most radical goals, folks.  The most commonly expressed atheist goal is to use the power of reason to persuade religious people to abandon their beliefs and become atheists.

On the practical level, there’s simply no reasonable justification for comparing radical atheists to radical religionists.  In fairness, Tenzin didn’t directly compare the two, but his only mention of atheists used the word “radical,” and did not include any disclaimers as to the completely dichotomous nature of atheist vs. religious radicalism.  And we’d be disingenuous if we didn’t admit that there’s a popular perception of radical, angry atheists.  Anyone who is genuinely interested in promoting peace owes us — the radical atheists — an honest representation.

Blanket Condemnations

But what about Tenzin’s accusation of blanket condemnations?  Is it true that a large number of atheists condemn all theists?  I think the short answer is yes, but it’s a qualified answer.  When we say that “all theists are deluded,” we could rightly be accused of a blanket condemnation, but this kind of statement is far different from one like “all non-Muslims are evil heretics.”

“Condemnation” is a bad word for what most atheists say.  It carries with it either moral or judicial guilt, and that’s simply not what we mean.  Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and I are all on the same side.  We believe all theists are deluded.  But none of us believes all theists are bad people, or morally culpable for their delusion.  In fact, we all view most of the flock as victims.  It would be more precise to say that we’ve made a blanket statement.  I just don’t think there are more than a small handful of atheists who would condemn all theists either morally or legally.  (And they’re pretty much ignored by every “radical atheist” with any influence whatsoever.)

Our “blanket condemnation” is intended as a statement of empirical fact, and we happily welcome evidence to the contrary.  Prove to us that god exists, and we will retract our statement.  But if god is nonexistent, it’s logically necessary that belief in god is delusional.

But what about other blanket condemnations?  Are there lots of atheists making other unfounded statements?  Perhaps.  Hitchens believes that religion in all its forms is poison.  He’s said as much, in as many words.  Is that true, and is it representative of the consensus atheist opinion?

I’d argue that as a bumper sticker slogan, “religion is poison” is more common as a perception of atheists than a reality.  Even Hitchens is quick to admit that there are potentially positive aspects of religious belief, and that some people gain comfort, inspiration, and moral support from their religious belief.  That’s the problem with bumper stickers.  Science is generally not conducive to blanket statements, but news headlines require them.  In order to understand the complexity of the average atheist’s position on religion, one has to have a thorough understanding of why we typically shy away from blanket condemnations and bumper sticker slogans.

TL;DR*

In fact, this is one of the reasons why atheism has such an image problem.  Science is hard.  It takes more than a few seconds to explain most scientific principles.  When you reduce science down to bumper sticker length slogans, you almost always reduce it to inaccuracy.

Unfortunately, most theists have been raised to believe that the “ultimate truths” are simple, elegant, and easy to explain.  Platitudes and “truthisms” are seen as more believable than complex and lengthy explanations.  Recall how Dawkins was tarred and feathered for a pregnant pause after being asked a question that demanded a careful and specific answer in “Expelled.”

If someone were to ask me whether I think all theists are deluded, it would take me at least ten minutes to answer completely.  That’s more of an attention span than most people have for such questions.  They want yes or no.  But yes or no is inadequate to the question, since there are different kinds of delusion as well as different causes.  Even though I do believe all theists are deluded, I think the cause and functionality (and ultimate rationality) of theist delusion is a complex, multi-faceted system.  Any sort of blanket statement simply doesn’t apply equally to all theists when we break it down to real world utilitarianism.

Is the Dalai Lama guilty of imposing his own “platitudinal” mindset onto atheists?  I don’t know.  But I do know that there are a lot of people — including atheists — who are.  Being an atheist doesn’t magically convey the appropriate attention to detail and complexity necessary to consider the question of theism and its causes, effects, and impact on the socio-political structure of the world.  The simple reality is that most scientists (have you noticed how many of the big atheist activists are scientists?) have an ingrained aversion to blanket condemnations.  If there is a judgment to be made, it is against readers and well-meaning bloggers who are not as well trained in critical thinking, and haven’t fully comprehended the complexity of the statements made by prominent atheist activists.

In the final analysis, it’s still a nasty catch-22.  Without training in scientific critical thinking, most people aren’t interested in lengthy, detailed explanations of complex issues.  But without understanding the need for such training, most people won’t receive it.  But without abandoning truthism and platitudes, most people won’t get much farther than religious belief.  But as long as most people are religious, they’ll insist on reducing atheist positions to platitudes and thus making them inaccurate.

And we’ll continue to be misunderstood and misrepresented.

* If you don’t know, TL;DR is internet slang for “Too Long.  Didn’t Read.”

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Discussion

5 thoughts on “Armies of Atheists

  1. Is that a cartoon of Stalin drinking the herb tea?

    It seems some Atheist would like to sweep their history of murdering millions of human beings by genocide under the Atheist philosophies…

    under the rug,

    or in this case, simply drinking a glass of herb tea

    .

    Posted by PG | May 26, 2010, 3:30 pm
  2. I guess what I struggle with is that as a Christian I had to do endless Christian stuff as part of the deal. Half the appeal of atheism is that I didn’t have to do all that crap and could just live my life for a change.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | May 26, 2010, 6:43 pm
  3. I am still watching, reading and adoring you – too busy to write anything thoughtful… but yeah – science is hard and I don’t understand a lot of it – I trust the method of the experts double checking each other – I think the amygdala is a VERY interesting piece of the human brain – and have read quite a bit on it… I am not sure I spelled it correctly or if I would pronounce it correctly and I would surely be taken aback if asked to expand on anything beyond what I have read. Better to be silent and be perceived a fool than speak up and be proven one. I will leave that to the experts and trust.

    Posted by PaigeB | May 26, 2010, 7:21 pm
  4. I can commiserate with the blanket statements problem, and the desire for “yes” or “no” answers (i.e., black and white thinking). The other day I posted on my Facebook wall a link to PZ’s article on the futility of prayer. I got the following response:

    “So, if I understand all of this correctly, esp. after having read through the comments… it is perfectly OK to lump *all* Christians, and *all* prayer systems together in one big happy bunch of wild-eyed, crazy acting and talking weirdoes… and excoriate them all as an amorphous blob of a group of some cohesive sort…”

    I responded with the following, which took more than ten minutes to think about and compose:

    “I think as I understand it, it’s fair to call “futile” all methods , not just Christian, of invoking the name of any deity to perform some task that leads to objective, reproducible results. I wouldn’t lump all believers in there. I’ve met many academics that believe in a god, but acknowledge that prayer doesn’t work and that their god doesn’t intervene in the operation of the universe. I think as a Christian you sort of have to bite the bullet though and say that your god did intervene at one point in history, if you believe in the resurrection (but even there I think the Gnostic Christians didn’t believe it was an actual resurrection, just a spiritual one, whatever that might mean).* I have also met believers that say that it is unnecessary. They believe that their god already knows their heart/mind and current strife, and she will act accordingly. Others I’ve met will not pray for anything material, including health. What they do pray for, is beyond me, I have no way of knowing what that is being someone that thinks our epistemology should include verifiability as a property.

    * – Personally I find the resurrection to be a load of hokum, but that’s another post. 🙂

    I think it’s perfectly fair to be skeptical of prayer that is alleged to affect the operation of the universe. Whenever it’s put to scrutiny it doesn’t work.* Thankfully the methods that brought about our current knowledge of medicine are made of sturdier stuff than wishful thinking. I’ve heard it said more than once that god answers a prayer with “yes”, “no”, or “wait”. In that system there is no way to falsify the belief, all outcomes are taken as proof that their god is answering prayers. I can get the same results making requests to my coffee cup. However, my coffee cup has the benefit of being observed as casually affecting the universe and existing. Such a deity described above does not. I also find it silly anyways, because does not god already know one’s plight? Does praying make her more aware? By which mechanism do these prayers actually reach her? How does one know it is working? All legitimate questions that are asked when we actually take serious the outcomes of our theories, and how it is to be applied.

    * – See the following for a start:

    http://web.med.harvard.edu/sites/RELEASES/html/3_31STEP.html

    I don’t know what you personally believe about prayer. If you think it actually affects the universe (e.g., can help people cure, say heart disease), then I would say it is a “quacky” belief. Probably not as harmful as the individuals in this story, as you probably would seek medical care, but still “quacky”. What do you believe?”

    Posted by MKandefer | May 26, 2010, 10:33 pm
  5. Great response MK. Our problem is compounded by the fact that theists often paint us as absolutists. That’s understandable because so many theist dogmas insist on an absolutist worldview. It honestly probably never occurs to many theists that it’s even possible to account for certainty within a relative worldview. And all of this is a preface to the discussion of things like “all theists are deluded.”

    Posted by hambydammit | May 27, 2010, 6:48 pm

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