11 Ways Christians Are Like Atheists

Note: I have written an explanation of this post.

This question is usually posed the other way around, where someone expresses how atheists are like religious people. However, the framing of the question itself creates a bias, namely by insinuating that atheists are inferior and have the burden of proof to show that they are as worthy as Christians.

Just consider any time that someone from either camp has argued how atheists have morals too, or how atheists also have faith on some things, or how atheists also experience awe and wonder at the universe. The points are valid, but we shouldn’t have to argue them in the first place. So, this post will run the questions and arguments flipped. Why are Christians as worthy as atheists? Let’s sprinkle some religious arguments in here just for fun.

1. Christians also defer to science for *almost* everything (“Atheists also have faith”)

Given that Christians are reading this right now, they are using some electronic device. Perhaps it is the fringe case where they are somehow reading a hard copy of this, which in turn came from an electronic device. Nonetheless, I’m happy to congratulate them. Though they may not know the inner workings of electromagnetism or quantum mechanics—or even believe in them at all—they have managed to willingly use a computer, smartphone, or tablet, which all sprang from human reason.

In addition, most Christians wash their hands, are vaccinated, take their doctor’s suggestions seriously, and basically trust science more than anything else in dealing with their health. They probably move around using a car or motorized transport system, also created by science. When on the edge of a tall building, they don’t jump off, because they believe in gravity just like we do. For almost every aspect of their lives, they use science as the primary tool.

2. Christians secretly doubt the existence of God (“Atheists secretly believe in God”)

As shown above, despite their nominal objections to science, Christians obviously still believe in it. Skepticism is a tenet of science, and Christians who embrace science—specifically, all of them—show that they don’t really with absolutely certainty believe in God. They secretly doubt the existence of God, even though they are too afraid to say it, because they are afraid of being socially ostracized.

After all, isn’t even an evolution-doubter still using doubt?

3. Christians don’t believe in Zeus, Thor, or Vishnu either (“Atheists must believe in something“)

We all treat mythology as what it is—mythology. If asked to write a list of gods we don’t believe, we would both have lists that would span thousands of names. Christians just stop one god short. Here is an extremely abridged list of gods throughout human history (source):

other gods

4. Christians must secretly worship the devil (“Atheists must secretly worship the devil”)

Atheists don’t even believe the devil exists, so how could we worship it? Christians, on the other hand…

5. Christians can also be intelligent (“The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” Psalm 14:1)

While Christians comprise 73% of the total US population, only 7% of the elite National Academy of Sciences believes in a god. On the other hand, atheists/agnostics, at 5.7% of the total US population, comprise the other 93%. This means that, picked randomly from the population of the United States, an atheist/agnostic is 170 times more likely to be in the National Academy of Sciences than a Christian. And this is assuming the 7% is all Christian; adding Jews and/or Hindus into the mix causes the disparity to rise even higher.

Of course, atheists on average have higher IQs than religious people. Even regarding religious knowledge, atheists score highest, quite ironically (or quite expectedly, depending on how you look at it). But this does not mean all religious people are unintelligent. Some are indeed very intelligent, and indeed, even they can contribute positively to human knowledge.

6. Christians can have morals too (“Atheists can have morals too”)

While it’s easy for atheists to think in a situation and decide what is right or wrong, it’s much more difficult for Christians who have been trained to defer to a two-thousand year old book to decide what to do and are not allowed to think for themselves, though usually they do. For instance, an atheist might see a gay couple and say, “They are not interfering with my life, so I’ll let them be.” However, a Christian has to weigh the prescribed death sentence on one hand and secular thinking on the other. “Am I obligated to follow up Leviticus 20:13 with my own hands, or does it suffice to contact the authorities? Or, is Leviticus complete rubbish, despite Jesus’ saying that the Old Testament still applies?”

Since I have rarely observed a Christian actually calling for the death of a gay person, despite their divine imperative to do so, I can reasonably conclude that most Christians use reason, not faith, in making moral decisions, and thus have morals too.

Of course, this does not mean that Christians are automatically equally as moral as atheists. At 2.4% of the total US population (excluding self-described agnostics this time), atheists make up 0.07% of the US prison population. An atheist is thus 34 times less likely to be in prison than the average American.

7. Christians can also have humility (“Why are atheists so arrogant?”)

While atheists understand the relative significance of their roles in this enormous cosmos consisting of billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars, each with chances for planets that contain billions of individuals, Christians find humility much more difficult. They believe that out of all the billions of billions of possible worlds to choose from, an omnipotent, omniscient God chose them to share His love with, that the entire universe was designed for their temporary experience, that out of the stupefying vastness of the universe, they are special.

religion-location

(Source: imgur)

In addition, any Christian who has prayed to God for intervention must think that they know better than God in that instance regarding what to do. “I know you’re kinda the creator of the universe and are infallible and such, but I think you messed up by afflicting my mother with cancer. If you would kindly remove the cancer, that would be great.” Such arrogance to question God like that.

But anyways, some Christians, namely the ones who are least Christian and believe the least of all the nonsense, still do have humility.

8. Christians can also experience awe and wonder (“Atheists can also experience awe and wonder”)

Atheists look at nature and see wonder everywhere and experience awe in the fact that a set of rules with no inherent design could lead to such an amazing world. On the other hand, Christians believe there is a God that is omnipotent, capable of anything, thus everything they see is merely the result of an all-powerful being, so everything is supremely unimpressive. They wouldn’t experience much awe in watching a champion Olympic weightlifter lift a 1-pound weight.

Of course, this brings us to the issue of whether a Christian who claims to experience awe is a Christian in the first place. After all, if a Christian proclaims to be in awe, isn’t this Christian really an atheist, since only an atheist can truly be in awe? Of course, if one twists the definitions of awe and wonder, it might be possible that Christians can experience them too, only to a lesser degree.

9. Christians can also be happy (“Can atheists be happy?”)

Even though Christians have to always worry about burning in eternal fire, it’s entirely possible for them so believe so strongly that they will be saved that the thought will not trouble them for most of their conscious life. Hence, even Christians can also be happy, even if paralyzing fear is always in the back of their minds.

10. Christians can also love (“Atheists are incapable of love”)

Atheists get to experience genuine love without having to be told. Christians, on the other hand, love because they are commanded to by Jesus, and they desperately want to be on Jesus’ good side when judgment rolls around. It’s hard to call this fake display of affection “love,” but I guess we’ll let it slide.

11. Christians can be good people too (“Atheists can be good people too”)

Is it possible to be good with God? I think the answer is yes. Every year, dozens of Christians manage to survive without being racist, misogynistic, homophobic, judgmental, hypocritical, intolerant, superficial, proselytizing, antisemitic, islamophobic, anti-other-faiths, anti-atheist, closed minded, arrogant, or willfully ignorant. So yes, it’s certainly possible.

On the whole, Christians aren’t all that different from atheists, and as we can see from above, they’re not that inferior. Given time, they will see the error of their ways, and when they do, we should gladly welcome them into the ranks of the godless. We are all children of evolution, and we all walk the path we are given, and let those who are given more windy paths go on until they again reach the main path towards a better human society. We must meet one another doing good. “But I believe, I’m a Christian!” But do good: we will meet one another there.

On God and Victim Blaming

For the response to a response to this article, see link.

Everyone is familiar with God rhetoric and with victim-blaming rhetoric. But what people don’t seem to realize is that the two are very similar, and when you think about it, you find that God (as the fictional character in the Bible) is the ultimate victim blamer. The following screenshot is from the comment section of a post by “allallt” called “A Non-intervening God and The Problem of Suffering“:

Victim Blaming

Sure, so if God kills a thousand people in an earthquake, then it’s the peoples‘ fault for settling there, not God’s. What about hurricanes? Well duh, 21st-century America is just asking for God to send them. (Ignoring even the most basic science, let’s analyze this from the perspective of someone who really holds these views.) Of course, the religious user ends the discussion several comments down with “I will pray for you.”

The “just asking for it” rhetoric is absurd. Does this imply that if someone didn’t “ask for it,” they will be spared of the full consequences? Former Representative Todd Akin (from last year, Republican of Missouri) seemed to think so:

At the time, the press correctly made a huge deal out of this (as well as of other fellow religious Republicans). The trouble is, if you thought that was bad, then you may be shocked to hear that even the most fundamentalist Christians with the most primitive views about rape don’t come close in comparison to fundamentalist Muslims, who have a much more degrading view of women and have given one woman a 200-lash sentence for the crime of being raped. Well, to make it better, she was originally sentenced to only 90 lashes, but then since her lawyer tried to bring this absurdity to light in the international press, the Saudi Arabian court extended it to 200 lashes and a 6-month prison sentence. I really wish I were making this up.

sharia-justice

In 2005, Australian Muslim preacher Faiz Mohamad said in a 1000-person lecture, “A victim of rape every minute somewhere in the world. Why? No one to blame but herself. She displayed her beauty to the entire world…” You know it’s a sad state of the world when a whole class of people make Todd Akin seem like a feminist in comparison.

Is it a mere coincidence that the most extreme victim blamers are often the most religious? I would argue it is not a coincidence, and that the two are very intertwined.

God, the Ultimate Victim Blamer

Now that I have your attention, I would like to take a step back and explain the purpose of this article. In general I think many well-meaning people (both religious and nonreligious) completely ignore the relation between religion and society, or at least publicly ignore it due to the taboo against discussing it. On the contrary, there are very significant correlations between religion and social/political views, and it’s some of these that I would like to bring more awareness to.

So why is God the ultimate victim blamer?

All the rapes, murders, and genocides in the Bible indicate not only that God approves of humans doing the victim blaming, but also that He does the victim blaming himself.

As you approach a town to attack it, first offer its people terms for peace.  If they accept your terms and open the gates to you, then all the people inside will serve you in forced labor.  But if they refuse to make peace and prepare to fight, you must attack the town.  When the LORD your God hands it over to you, kill every man in the town.  But you may keep for yourselves all the women, children, livestock, and other plunder.  You may enjoy the spoils of your enemies that the LORD your God has given you. (Deuteronomy 20:10-14)

Thus says the Lord: ‘I will bring evil upon you out of your own house. I will take your wives [plural] while you live to see it, and will give them to your neighbor. He shall lie with your wives in broad daylight. You have done this deed in secret, but I will bring it about in the presence of all Israel, and with the sun looking down.’
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan answered David: “The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin: you shall not die. But since you have utterly spurned the Lord by this deed, the child born to you must surely die.” (2 Samuel 12:11-14)

Make ready to slaughter his sons for the guilt of their fathers; Lest they rise and posses the earth, and fill the breadth of the world with tyrants. (Isaiah 14:21)

What a great leader, showing such shining examples of paragon virtue to His followers! Of course, many Christians instinctively say, “But that’s the Old Testament, and that doesn’t apply because Jesus.” That objection is technically invalid because Jesus and the New Testament explicitly say the Old Testament still applies. This is often denied, and even if the Old Testament were completely ignored, it’s not as if the New Testament is made up of radiant moral perfection.

God is also the ultimate sexist, who, even besides all those passages about rape, said infamous things as

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” (1 Timothy 2:12)

“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22)

“Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.” (1 Peter 2:18)

And even without citing particular passages, some of the central messages taught to everyone reek of victim blaming. The New Testament says plenty about Hell, but what other is Hell than God’s punishment for beings that He himself created? In the moral behavior setting, if someone sins and deserves going to Hell, then why did God create such a person who would commit that sin in the first place? “I created something that was flawed, therefore I must punish it for being flawed.” The whole mentality of “God doesn’t send people to hell, they choose it” is practically the definition of victim blaming. I would urge anyone to compare that to the “they asked for it” mentality. Finally, the predestination setting is just as bad, if not worse—now you are being punished for being the victim of pure chance.

While the Bible is quite horrible at talking about gender equality, there is one book that is arguably worse: the Quran.

. . . If you fear highhandedness from your wives, remind them [of the teaching of God], then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them. If they obey you, you have no right to act against them. God is most high and great. (4:34)

. . . Wives have the same rights as the husbands have on them in accordance with the generally known principles. Of course, men are a degree above them in status . . . (2.228)

Of course, now I’m going to get the “You’re taking it out of context!” objection. So please tell me, what kind of context I am supposed to take 1 Timothy 2:12 under that makes it okay to tell women to shut up? I’ll await your answer in the comments.

In all, the rhetoric of religion and that of victim blaming are very similar, if not identical. Their similarity is moreover not a coincidence, but rather a lingering effect of a time when people believed every word of the Bible/Quran (and many still do). In our age, it seems that to be a “good” Christian is to follow as little of the Bible as possible. So does the best Christian completely ignore it?

An Atheist’s View on Religion

Scarlet A

In the past year I’ve written a bunch of posts on particular aspects of atheism and religion, but so far there are none that have laid out my views at a glance. So this is an open, informal post designed to do just that.

  • Identification: Agnostic atheist. I don’t believe there is a god (atheist), nor do I claim to know whether one exists (agnostic). (Though typically, the word “agnostic” can be used differently to describe someone who is “between” theism and atheism.)Agnostic_chart
  • Burden of proof: Those believing in a god must prove so. “I can’t prove the planet Kolob doesn’t exist, therefore I must accept Mormonism,” is a ridiculous statement, as is “I can’t prove fairies don’t exist, therefore fairies exist.” Equally ridiculous is, “I can’t prove God doesn’t exist, therefore God exists.”
  • Religion (general): Antitheism with respect to societal impacts. I think the harms outweigh the benefits. This is the primary reason I even post about religion in the first place.
  • Religion (specific): Islam is arguably worse than Christianity, as it justifies and is actively used to justify many violent actions. On the other hand, I don’t really consider Judaism to be a religion: 68% believe you can be Jewish and not believe in God. (I am probably biased in these views, as nearly every Jew I know is a secular Jew, whereas I know otherwise rational Christians who believe steadfastly in creationism.)
  • Religious people: With respect to individuals, I don’t treat religious people differently, since I don’t think it is their fault they were indoctrinated in a particular religion. I think the very devout are misguided rather than evil people, as I believe they are genuinely doing what they think is right. When someone does something terrible in the name of religion, my instinctive response is never “What a bad person!”, but more often along the lines of “Who brainwashed them into believing that!?” I would go so far as to say that the 9/11 hijackers, as well as all those Americans who perished, were victims of Islam, and that the truly bad people were the ones setting it up from behind the scenes. And, for example, I think the correct response to the Boston marathon bombing earlier this year should have been to consider conducting an objective criticism of Islam, but instead, we are too politically correct to do so, thus not helping to stop another such event from happening.
  • Fundamentalists vs. moderates: I don’t hold fundamentalists more accountable than moderates. Here is a link to my main post on this topic.
  • Activism vs passiveness: I think atheists do need to speak up, even at the cost of being perceived as “rude” or “angry.” So far, the main criticism of the “new atheism movement” is that it is rude and angry, not of the actual contents or messages of the movement. Here is the TED talk in which Richard Dawkins introduces this (30 min video):
  • Religion and science: The two are incompatible at the fundamental level—one teaches to not question anything, and the other to question everything.
  • Afterlife, ghosts, ESP, witches, UFOsreincarnation, etc.: No.
  • Morality: Just as a good law code is very complex, accounting for fringe cases and how to deal with ambiguous situations, so must a good moral code. A moral code simply stated in rules of “Do not X” is doomed to failure, especially if the rules are ambiguous, symbolic, self-contradictory, loophole-ridden, and cherry-picked to serve self interests. Here is a previous post on a better moral code, roughly utilitarian. In addition, with respect to large-scale views on morality, I agree with Sam Harris‘s criticism of “multiculturalism.”
  • LGBT rights, women’s rights, right to choose, feminism, universal education, universal healthcare, etc.: Greatly in support. It’s sad when one of the leading stories yesterday was that Saudi Arabian women were protesting a ban that prevented them from… driving. And when you think about the root cause of the opposition to these factors, you start to see a clear pattern with religion. I see all these issues as religious issues, and I don’t want society to fight the same battle many times, which is why I am also in favor of more vocal disagreement with religion. But of course, that would considered offensive, and the status quo is to care about the unjustified sensitivities of a religious group over the civil rights of millions.
  • Political views (on social issues): Liberal, as shown above.
  • What needs to be done: I have an outline for this but it can easily form a new post.

I’m sure there are missing things in this profile, so don’t be afraid to ask questions. I look forward to answering them.

Edit: Received a question on the religion and science compatibility. I agree that I have not quite expanded on the topic as much as the others, and I may write more about this in the future.

Edit 2: Here is the science and religion compatibility post.

No Deal

cross-cnn

There is an opinion article that appeared on CNN yesterday titled “Hey atheists, let’s make a deal.” It sounded like an innocent enough title, and I clicked it, hoping to gain some fresh, calm insight into the modern-day religious situation. Overall I had high hopes as CNN has had some interesting religion stories in the past (such as this one from last week), but also some disappointing ones (such as this one, which I criticized).

In “Hey atheists, let’s make a deal,” the author Rachel Evans uses the classic “just as bad” argument (which I wrote a post on here) in trying to make a silence deal: atheists stop criticizing Christianity based on its fundamentalist leaders and Christians stop criticizing atheism based on its own “fundamentalist” leaders.

religion-and-atheism

(Image source unknown.)

Now of course, Evans spends three paragraphs bashing Dawkins and atheism before even getting to the deal:

Famed atheist Richard Dawkins has been rightfully criticized this week for saying the “mild pedophilia” he and other English children experienced in the 1950s “didn’t cause any lasting harm.”

This comes after an August tweet in which Dawkins declared that “all the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

Dawkins is known for pushing his provocative rhetorical style too far, providing ample ammunition for his critics, and already I’ve seen my fellow Christians seize the opportunity to rail against the evils of atheism.

At least Evans does not jump on the bandwagon of saying that Dawkins actually defended mild pedophilia (props to her). In fact, Dawkins acknowledges the misinterpretation. But it is still interesting that Evans quotes the phrase “saying that… didn’t cause any lasting harm” as if Dawkins was attempting to make an authoritative statement. With a couple of surrounding sentences:

As soon as I could wriggle off his lap, I ran to tell my friends, many of whom had had the same experience with him. I don’t think he did any of us any lasting damage, but some years later he killed himself.

This clearly shows that Dawkins is giving an opinion, and presumably knows the others he speaks of are in a relatively well-off condition.

However, the main point that seems to be missed was the question of whether one should judge someone’s actions according to modern day standards. Dawkins considered it to be not as bad (but still bad, obviously) in the 1950s as it is today, when now we know so much more about the harmful effects that it causes. For another example, we would probably consider Thomas Jefferson to be more moral than the leaders of the Westboro Baptist Church, but Jefferson owned slaves, while none of the WBC own slaves. If anyone wants to discuss this I’d be happy to indulge, but this is getting really far from the topic. Anyways…

In the second paragraph, Evans mentions a post by Dawkins which is factually true. Yet she uses the word “declares” as if Dawkins just made it up to anger Muslims.

The third paragraph is just further painting Dawkins as a target, and then says, “I’ve seen my fellow Christians seize the opportunity to rail against the evils of atheism.” I appreciate Evans’ rhetoric, cleverly overloading words/phrases with positive connotations on one side (“fellow,” “Christians,” “seize the opportunity”, “rail against” [in the context of attacking unjustice]), and then putting “evils of atheism” on the other side. This makes good writing, but it is hardly an impartial view. The bias induced by these paragraphs then set the stage for the terrible deal to come.

In the next three paragraphs, she gets to the deal:

As tempting as it is to classify Dawkins’ views as representative of all atheists, I can’t bring myself to do it.

I can’t bring myself to do it because I know just how frustrating and unfair it is when atheists point to the most extreme, vitriolic voices within Christianity and proclaim that they are representative of the whole.

So, atheists, I say we make a deal: How about we Christians agree not to throw this latest Richard Dawkins thing in your face and you atheists agree not to throw the next Pat Robertson thing in ours?

Again, she is attempting to play the fair mediator position by appearing to treat the two sides equally. Perhaps she genuinely believes this is a fair comparison, and if so, I admire her willingness to bridge the gap.

However, atheist “fundamentalism” is incomparable to religious fundamentalism. We should attack religious fundamentalism because it holds outdated, unchanging, unyielding views on social and moral issues (LGBT rights being the most prominent current issue in America), and because their views actually affect public policy, and they attempt to deny rights and liberties to millions of Americans. And this is Christian fundamentalism we’re talking about: fortunately, very few people are being killed. Religious fundamentalism in the Islamic variety would be much worse.

Atheist “fundamentalism” is quite different in that, even if you take Dawkins, Harris, etc. to be the “fundamentalists,” the main message is to question everything, even their own views. This is hardly fundamentalism, any more than not putting up with intolerance is in itself intolerance.

Next:

Now I’m not saying we just let these destructive words and actions go—not at all. It’s important for both believers and atheists to decry irresponsible views and hateful rhetoric, especially from within our own communities.

(Believe me. There are plenty of Christians who raise hell every time Robertson says something homophobic or a celebrity pastor somewhere says something misogynistic.)

Again, the situation is asymmetric. The Bible is filled with hateful rhetoric, and it is somewhat up to moderate religious folks and atheists to called out when fundamentalists quote these passages. Some passages literally say to kill gays or atheists. At best, “The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” implies all atheists are fools. On the other hand, Dawkins uses logical arguments to counter some statements held sacredly by theists, and this is considered to be offensive. No matter what measure of morality you use, it is clear that debating someone and challenging their beliefs is not equally as bad as labeling an entire group of people as fools or holding sacred a book that says to kill many different groups of people.

This brings me to the following point: It sure took a lot of effort to find that quote by Dawkins, and even if fully misinterpreted, it would not even be that bad (e.g. in terms of body count). On the other hand, one can easily find hundreds of far worse examples in the Bible or in the writings/speeches of fundamentalists that require no verbal gymnastics to parse. This yet again demonstrates the imbalance of the deal.

Skipping ahead a bit:

Only then can we avoid these shallow ad hominem attacks and instead engage in substantive debates that bring our true differences and our true commonalities to light.

It’s harder to go this route, and it takes more work and patience, but I’m convinced that both Christians and atheists are interested in the truth and in searching for it with integrity, without taking the easy way out.

Yet again, this runs into an asymmetry that makes the deal sound poetic but doesn’t change the fact that it is nonsense. The second sentence really disturbs me:

…I’m convinced that both Christians and atheists are interested in the truth and in searching for it with integrity, without taking the easy way out.

When you have a Bible that you know is the truth, isn’t your search for “truth” just to validate the Bible? On the other hand, when you use the scientific method and question everything along the way, there is no ultimate truth you know ahead of time that you are trying to validate. There is a difference between actually searching for truth and cherry-picking evidence to support something you think ought to be true.

Skipping forward a bit more:

And I’m willing to bet that the same collective groan emitted by millions of Christians each time Pat Robertson says something embarrassing on TV sounds a lot like the collective groan emitted by millions of atheists when Richard Dawkins rants on Twitter.

Again, this is a comparison of apples and oranges. When Pat Robertson says something about homosexuality, for instance, I have no doubt that a vast number of Christians actually disagree with the content of what he says. However, when Dawkins tweets something questionable on Twitter, it is invariably because some people don’t understand the post, don’t get sarcasm, or don’t know of the previous tweet that the current one is referring to. (And yes, I think Twitter is a terrible medium for debating religion, as demonstrated by this.)

Still, in the end, it’s not about who has the most charismatic or generous personalities in their roster, nor about who has the most “crazies.” It’s about the truth.

So let’s talk about the truth, and with the people who most consistently and graciously point us toward it.

Here’s something I can agree with. (I still think the phrase “who has the most ‘crazies'” is comparing incomparable things, but I’ll let this slide.) However, I think there is still a huge gap in what we consider to be proper ways to search for truth, and the reason for this gap is a deep difference in our worldviews that cannot be so easily solved by saying let’s talk about the truth.

Evans wrote a good article, but had a very biased vocabulary in a deal-making situation where she should have been more impartial. Also, even if the deal itself doesn’t seem very appealing, it is thought-provoking, and the overall idea is a good attempt at the problem.

No Deal

I think the proper response is to reject the deal, for several reasons:

  • It is hardly a fair deal, as without criticizing Christianity in itself, we cannot actually solve any of the root problems that fundamentalists continue to spread to the public and to political/social policy. On the other hand, the problem with the public image of atheist “fundamentalists” can be more simply solved by telling them to stop using Twitter, and instead stick to platforms where it is not as easy to misinterpret something, or some solution along those lines.
  • The deal assumes that fundamentalist atheism is just as bad as fundamentalist Christianity.
  • The deal doesn’t really solve the root problem; in fact, it only makes it worse by silencing voices in the debate.

A better deal would be for both sides to listen to what the other has to say, and debate the content itself, and not dismissing things just because they come from “fundamentalists” of either side.

(Edit: Hemant Mehta, aka. The Friendly Atheist, wrote a post on this CNN article today as well, also criticizing the false equivalence between atheist and religious fundamentalism. His article, which is quite interesting to read, is here.)

2012 Embassy Attacks and the Tolerance Paradox

US Embassy Cairo 2012
An Egyptian protester throws a tear-gas canister back at riot police outside the U.S. embassy in Cairo on Sept. 13, 2012. Photo from TIME.

Due to recent events in the world, I’d like to dedicate a post on the concept of tolerance and its paradoxical nature.

Russell’s Paradox

This paradox is usually explained as the Barber paradox. If there is a barber in town who cuts the hair of only those who do not cut their own hair, then does he cut his own hair? If he does, then he is the category of those who do cut their own hair, so he can’t cut his own hair. But if he doesn’t cut his own hair, then by definition he does cut his own hair. Either way is a contradiction.

More formally, this is given as Russell’s paradox: Imagine a set that contains all sets that do not contain themselves. Does such a set contain itself? If it does, then it is not a member of itself, which is a contradiction, and if it does not contain itself, then by definition it is a member of itself, which is another contradiction. So, such a set is an impossible construction.

The Tolerance Paradox

The notion of all-tolerance leads to a paradox as well. If there is a person who tolerates everything, then by definition he also tolerates intolerance. But if he tolerates intolerance, then he is then not all-tolerant. Thus it is logically impossible to tolerate everything, because intolerance is included in the set of everything.

Whenever there is a clash of tolerance versus intolerance, the more tolerant side cannot be fully tolerant. It would be naive to believe it would be possible. The best the tolerant side can do is to not tolerate the intolerance of the other side.

How Tolerant Can We Be?

Now, if we do not tolerate the intolerance of the other side, then aren’t we too becoming intolerant? Yes and no. Yes only in the technical sense. No, because the only thing we are being intolerant of is at a meta level, not a real level.

For example, if person A tolerates all forms of clothing and person B does not tolerate jeans, then person B has an intolerance at the real level. If person A were to not tolerate person B’s intolerance of jeans, he is only not tolerating at the meta level. His intolerance of B’s intolerance is really just a defense of the real-level tolerance. So, person A is more tolerant than person B.

The Statue of Liberty

In the United States, we have the freedom of speech and expression, which is a supreme tolerance. If some Congressman were to argue that free speech should be taken away, then when you protest that choice, you are not really being intolerant of the Congressman’s intolerance of free speech. You are defending tolerance in the form of freedom of speech.

In a way, the intolerance of intolerance can be considered a form of tolerance after all, which is one resolution of the paradox. But even so, at some point to defend tolerance, you must disagree with the Congressman who is intolerant. And their side, in a non-logical defense, will claim your side is being intolerant and that their side is the tolerant one.

Religion and Tolerance

Some religions work the same way, claiming they are the tolerant ones while the other side is being intolerant, when it is really the other way around. Islam and Christianity seem to be serial offenders, each claiming itself as tolerant but neither one of them really being that tolerant at all.

Not only have these religions used verbal mockery, but time and time again throughout history, they have used physical force and oppression to attack those who disagreed with them, under the guise of being tolerant. When Galileo made his astronomical observations supporting Copernicus’s heliocentrism (that Earth orbits the Sun, not the other way around), he was charged with heresy.

The whole idea of calling someone a heretic goes completely against the idea of tolerance. And then taking oppressive and violent actions on such a person goes even further.

In the 2012 embassy attacks so far, the condemnation should fall strictly on the attackers, not on any filmmakers. At this point, as defenders of tolerance, we should no longer stand still and watch the violent intolerance against free thought.

It used to be that individuals such as Galileo were hated for using reason. But now, nations of the West are hated and their embassies attacked because of the non-violent free-expression of a few.

Obviously, not every Muslim is of the mindset of the attackers, and in fact only a small minority was violent. However, that does not absolve the religion itself from guilt. The attacks should not be blamed on any group in the Muslim population, nor against even those who perpetrated such actions, as these people were no doubt just doing what they thought were right, what they thought God wanted them to do. The root problem is the worldview itself and how it facilitates and justifies such violence. That is where the real blame lies. Unfortunately, judicial systems around the world judge people or groups of people, not ideas and worldviews. So until the judicial system adapts (along with a whole bundle of other factors, primarily education), religious intolerance is not going to stop. And this is not just referring to Islam, but especially Christianity as well.

Response to the Attacks

There is nothing wrong with condemning the attacks. By condemning the attacks, you are not being intolerant of Islam, but rather, tolerant of freedom of the press. Similarly, if you condemn the Salem witch trials, you are not being intolerant of Christianity, but rather, tolerant of the right to fair trial. It’s not that the “witches” were causing any threat to the religion, but rather, it was religion that was demonizing the victims. Similarly, the violent protesters make it seem as if their religion was strongly threatened, when in fact, it was them who were terrorizing others. So don’t be fooled when religions play the victim card. They claim to be the victim but act the bully. They claim to be tolerant, when they are highly the opposite.

Title page of Cases of Conscience (Boston, 1693 – Salem Witch Trials) by Increase Mather.

The legal systems of countries adapt all the time. Societies adapt, humans adapt, and all life adapts to new situations. Language adapts, technology adapts, and science adapts to new facts. But some religions absolutely refuse to adapt (though not all religions). Sometimes it might take a hundred years for a religion to accept something, such as the fact that Earth orbits the Sun and not the other way around. Or the fact that the Earth is round, not flat. Or the fact that biology is driven by evolution, not magic. As long as major religions stay in the same position and refuse to adapt, there will always be intolerance.