An Atheist’s View on Religion

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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

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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.)

The Moral Landscape

“She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?
Me: Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing well-being—and it is obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human wellbeing.
She: But that’s only your opinion.
Me: Okay … Let’s make it even simpler. What if we found a culture that ritually blinded every third child by literally plucking out his or her eyes at birth, would you then agree that we had found a culture that was needlessly diminishing human well-being?
She: It would depend on why they were doing it.
Me [slowly returning my eyebrows from the back of my head]: Let’s say they were doing it on the basis of religious superstition. In their scripture, God says, ‘Every third must walk in darkness.’
She: Then you could never say that they were wrong.

The Moral Landscape

This is a passage from Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape (2011). The book is controversial and very thought-provoking, both philosophically and practically, especially to the liberal notions of the West. It has certainly changed my views of morality.

Namely, Harris argues that moral relativism has gone too far in our current world, and that it has caused morally inferior practices (such as the burqa) to persist without serious criticism. In addition, he notes of these practices, several are especially difficult to criticize, because to criticize them would be considered offensive to religion. Moreover, because morals are associated by many to religion, it is difficult to seriously argue what is right or wrong, again out of fear of being labeled as offensive or intolerant. And out of this, many moral issues are left unresolved because to debate them is considered wrong.

Can One Culture Be Inferior?

Consider two societies that had the same moral code in all ways except, as in the example earlier, one society required removing the eyes of every third-born, while the other did not. Can we say that the former has an inferior culture? Maybe, maybe not. But this question has an answer, according to Harris, although most of the world would think that it does not. In our world, the tendency is to say that all cultures are equal, that they deserve the same respect, or something along those lines. We would be viewed as supremely intolerant if we were to say otherwise.

And yet, there are issues with this: Can we really view a culture that plucks out the eyes of third-borns out of tradition as an equal culture? What about a culture that condones slavery, or one that requires the burqa, or one that isn’t taken aback by suicide bombing? In the back of my mind, at least, I think such cultures can be viewed as wrong in those areas, but of course, it is an entirely different thing to say it publicly. (See what I did there?)

In the section “Moral Blindness in the Name of ‘Tolerance'”:

There are very practical concerns that follow from the glib idea that anyone is free to value anything—the most consequential being that it is precisely what allows highly educated, secular, and otherwise well-intentioned people to pause thoughtfully, and often interminably, before condemning practices like compulsory veiling, genital excision, bride burning, forced marriage, and the other cheerful products of alternative “morality” found elsewhere in the world. Fanciers of Hume’s is/ought distinction never seem to realize what the stakes are, and they do not see how abject failures of compassion are enabled by this intellectual “tolerance” of moral difference. While much of the debate on these issues must be had in academic terms, this is not merely an academic debate. There are girls getting their faces burned off with acid at this moment for daring to learn to read, or for not consenting to marry men they have never met, or even for the “crime” of getting raped. The amazing thing is that some Western intellectuals won’t even blink when asked to defend these practices on philosophical grounds. I once spoke at an academic conference on themes similar to those discussed here. Near the end of my lecture, I made what I thought would be a quite incontestable assertion: We already have good reason to believe that certain cultures are less suited to maximizing well-being than others. I cited the ruthless misogyny and religious bamboozlement of the Taliban as an example of a worldview that seems less than perfectly conducive to human flourishing.

As it turns out, to denigrate the Taliban at a scientific meeting is to court controversy. At the conclusion of my talk, I fell into debate with another invited speaker, who seemed, at first glance, to be very well positioned to reason effectively about the implications of science for our understanding of morality. In fact, this person has since been appointed to the President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues…. Here is a snippet of our conversation, more or less verbatim:

She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?
…”

The End of Faith

“What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own.”

the-end-of-faith

These are the bold words of Sam Harris, in his 2005 book The End of Faith, which may be better remembered by the nickname, Out of Context. Not that the material is out of context, but the style is direct enough such that certain quotes such as the above can be (and apparently has been) perceived in a completely wrong way if an attacker chooses to strip passages of their context. Apparently this very passage above has sparked controversy, primarily because someone quotes just the bad-sounding part (that we are justified in carrying out a nuclear first strike), and nothing before or after it.

Here is the full paragraph (p. 128):

“It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence. There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death. Notions of martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon. What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe. How would such an unconscionable act of self-defense be perceived by the rest of the Muslim world? It would likely be seen as the first incursion of a genocidal crusade. The horrible irony here is that seeing could make it so: this very perception could plunge us into a state of hot war with any Muslim state that had the capacity to pose a nuclear threat of its own. All of this is perfectly insane, of course: I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns. That it would be a horrible absurdity for so many of us to die for the sake of myth does not mean, however, that it could not happen. Indeed, given the immunity to all reasonable intrusions that faith enjoys in our discourse, a catastrophe of this sort seems increasingly likely. We must come to terms with the possibility that men who are every bit as zealous to die as the nineteen hijackers may one day get their hands on long-range nuclear weaponry. The Muslim world in particular must anticipate this possibility and find some way to prevent it. Given the steady proliferation of technology, it is safe to say that time is not on our side.”

This is indeed a troubling thought.

Overall, Harris’s book is far more direct than even Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which for the most part has a detached, academic tone. Harris’s tone is more dire.

More than Dawkins, Harris emphasizes the problem with the Western tolerance of intolerance in religion. Dawkins pointed out that there is an undeserved respect for religion. Any discussion of religion in current society can be dismissed as rude or offensive if the religious person deems it so. However, Harris goes further and calls out Western intellectuals who are religious moderates or even nonreligious for going along with and appeasing religion.

Also, since the passage above was about Islam, let’s be a little politically correct here and include something about Christianity (p. 73):

“Jesus Christ—who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death, and rose bodily to the heavens—can now be eaten in the form of a cracker. A few Latin words spoken over your favorite Burgundy, and you can drink his blood as well. Is there any doubt that a lone subscriber to these beliefs would be considered mad? Rather, is there any doubt that he would be mad? The danger of religious faith is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy. Because each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified in the way that all others must, civilization is still besieged by the armies of the preposterous. We are, even now, killing ourselves over ancient literature. Who could have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible?”

This echoes a Robert Pirsig quote: “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion.”

Unlike Dawkins, who strongly cares about the intellectual dishonesty or delusion imposed by religion, Harris seems to exert all of his effort on the practical consequences (31):

“As I have said, people of faith tend to argue that it is not faith itself but man’s baser nature that inspires such violence. But I take it to be self-evident that ordinary people cannot be moved to burn genial old scholars alive for blaspheming the Koran, or celebrate the violent deaths of their children, unless they believe some improbable things about the nature of the universe. Because most religions offer no valid mechanism by which their core beliefs can be tested and revised, each new generation of believers is condemned to inherit the superstitions and tribal hatreds of its predecessors. If we would speak of the baseness of our natures, our willingness to live, kill, and die on account of propositions for which we have no evidence should be among the first topics of discussion.”

Even more on violence (27):

“Mothers were skewered on swords as their children watched, Young women were stripped and raped in broad daylight, then… set on fire. A pregnant woman’s belly was slit open, her fetus raised skyward on the tip of sword and then tossed onto one of the fires that blazed across the city.

This is not an account of the Middle Ages, nor is it a tale from Middle Earth. This is our world. The cause of this behavior was not economic, it was not racial, and it was not political. The above passage describes the violence that erupted between Hindus and Muslims in India in the winter of 2002. The only difference between these groups consists in what they believe about God. Over one thousand people died in this monthlong series of riots—nearly half as many as have died in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in more than a decade. And these are tiny numbers, considering the possibilities.”

The “possibilities” most likely refer to a nuclear war between India and Pakistan.

And let’s not forget:

“All pretensions to theological knowledge should now be seen from the perspective of a man who was just beginning his day on the one hundredth floor of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001, only to find his meandering thoughts—of family and friends, of errands run and unrun, of coffee in need of sweetener—inexplicably usurped by a choice of terrible starkness and simplicity: between being burned alive by jet fuel or leaping one thousand feet to the concrete below. In fact, we should take the perspective of thousands of such men, women, and children who were robbed of life, far sooner than they imagined possible, in absolute terror and confusion. The men who committed the atrocities of September 11 were certainly not “cowards,” as they were repeatedly described in the Western media, nor were they lunatics in any ordinary sense. They were men of faith—perfect faith, as it turns out—and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be.”

Addressing the claim that suicide bombing is caused by economics and not faith, Harris writes:

“The speciousness of this claim is best glimpsed by the bright light of bomb blasts. Where are the Palestinian Christian suicide bombers? They, too, suffer the daily indignity of the Israeli occupation. Where, for that matter, are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers? The Tibetans have suffered an occupation far more cynical and repressive than any that the United States or Israel has ever imposed upon the Muslim world. Where are the throngs of Tibetans ready to perpetrate suicidal atrocities against Chinese noncombatants? They do not exist. What is the difference that makes the difference? The difference lies in the specific tenets of Islam. This is not to say that Buddhism could not help inspire suicidal violence. It can, and it has (Japan, World War II). But this concedes absolutely nothing to the apologists for Islam. As a Buddhist, one has to work extremely hard to justify such barbarism. One need not work nearly so hard as a Muslim.

Recent events in Iraq offer further corroboration on this point. It is true, of course, that the Iraqi people have been traumatized by decades of war and repression. But war and repression do not account for suicidal violence directed against the Red Cross, the Untied Nations, foreign workers, and Iraqi innocents. War and repression would not have attracted an influx of foreign fighters willing to sacrifice their lives merely to sow chaos. The Iraqi insurgents have not been motivated principally by political or economic grievances. They have such grievances, of course, but politics and economics do not get a man to intentionally blow himself up in a crowd of children, or to get his mother to sing his praises for it. Miracles of this order generally require religious faith.

And finally, another great passage is the first paragraph of the epilogue:

“My goal in writing this book has been to help close the door to a certain style of irrationality. While religious faith is the one species of human ignorance that will not admit of even the possibility of correction, it is still sheltered from criticism in every corner of our culture. Forsaking all valid sources of information about this world (both spiritual and mundane), our religions have seized upon ancient taboos and prescientific fancies as though they held ultimate metaphysical significance. Books that embrace the narrowest spectrum of political, moral, scientific, and spiritual understanding—books that, by their antiquity alone, offer us the most dilute wisdom with respect to the present—are still dogmatically thrust upon us as the final word on matters of great significance. In the best case, faith leaves the otherwise well-intentioned incapable of thinking rationally about many of their deepest concerns; at worst, it is a continuous source of human violence. Even now, many of us are motivated not by what we know but by what we are content merely to imagine. Many are still eager to sacrifice happiness, compassion, and justice in this world, for a fantasy world to come. These and other degradations await us along the well-worn path of piety. Whatever our religious differences may mean for the next life, they have only one terminus in this one—a future of ignorance and slaughter.”

This book is a must-read for anyone who cares about the next century of world history. We are nearing a point where the progress of civilization can be abruptly reversed by a group of irrational agents, and our chances for survival will depend ever increasingly on the ability to not get ourselves destroyed.

“Just As Bad”

One of the worst and widespread arguments these days is the “just as bad” argument. It happens when one criticizes some (often extreme) position, and the response is simply that the alternative (often neutral) position is “just as bad,” at which point the discussion is basically terminated, because the accuser will use no means other than repeating “just as bad.”

The most prominent case today is that of religion, particularly of Islam vs some other religion, or sometimes religion vs atheism.

Earlier in the year we had the Boston marathon bombings, committed by Islamic fundamentalists. This is not to mention bigger events such as 9/11 or 7/7. And yet, the West is afraid to call out Islam, afraid not of the Islamic world itself, but afraid of being viewed by other Westerners as racist or intolerant. (Neither of these labels is sensible, as Islam is not a race, and intolerance of intolerance is not the same as intolerance.)

In fact, many liberals defend Islam indirectly by saying “fundamentalist Christians are just as bad,” and they are smug about saying this, as if just to show off their “tolerance” of other people. Now, if the assertion were true, it would be a good argument. However, it could not be much further from the truth.

One person in a debate (I shall leave the name anonymous) tried to use Timothy McVeigh as an example. McVeigh killed 168 people and wounded many more via an explosion in Oklahoma City in 1995. He was also a Christian. However, his motives for the event was not strongly based on Christianity. He was not trying to protect Christianity, or trying to conquer in the name of it. His quarrel was with the government. Almost all Christians rightfully condemned the attack.

On the other hand, the marathon bombers spoke strongly about Allah, justifying it based on Islam. And while there are not yet any poll numbers for the marathon, we can extrapolate from Muslim world’s reaction to 9/11 and 7/7 that there was NOT universal condemnation of the attack. For example, from the poll linked previously, 20% of British Muslims sympathize with 7/7 bombers. Sure, 20% is still a minority, but not the “tiny” minority that politicians and politically correct liberals make it seem to be. I’m sure the percentage of Christians supporting McVeigh’s actions is under 0.001%.

From the Oatmeal comic:

oatmeal_extremists_1
oatmeal_extremists_2
oatmeal_extremists_3An important idea to keep in mind is that there are different degrees. This is the famous Isaac Asimov quote about it:

“When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

Islamic fundamentalism:

islam-posters

Christian fundamentalism:

Westboro-Baptist-Church

At least Westboro doesn’t kill or bomb people. And stalling the advancement of society is better than actively moving it backwards.

“Atheist fundamentalism”:

Richard Dawkins

Of course, I put the phrase in quotes because there aren’t any holy pillars or dogmas that atheists must adhere to.

Overall, the “just as bad” argument is an intellectual cop-out move. Of course, there exist cases where “just as bad” is actually valid (stealing something on a Monday is just as bad as stealing something on a Tuesday). However, for most of the cases it is used, the person making the argument has no other argument than to equate two unequal things without justification. What worries me the most is that I know otherwise very smart people who are religious, and when I ask them about their views, they almost all have nothing more than fancy statements of this argument (circular reasoning being the other main argument).

Along with “just as bad,” we have the “just as extreme,” which is intrinsically not a bad argument since extremes are normally to be avoided. However, just as it is wrong to equate different levels of wrongness, it is very wrong to equate extremes.

(Unsure of the source for the following table, but it’s pretty funny to read and then think about how both sides are just as bad.)

religion-and-atheism

In addition, many otherwise logical people are drawn to this type of argument because it makes them look tolerant and politically correct. However, if you ask them whether it is worse to wear clothes mixed fabrics or to murder someone, they will always respond using proper reason, even if these two sinful acts have the same Biblical punishment.

A while back I wrote a post called “On Giving Too Much Legitimacy to the Inferior Position,” which also condemned blanket statements of two things being equal when they are not. I think these two posts are two different perspectives on the same issue. The other criticizes “just as good,” whereas this one criticizes “just as bad.” More broadly, it is wrong to equate two things without any justification.

To summarize, the “just as bad” argument has many real-world issues:

  • It draws otherwise smart people due to its political correctness.
  • It draws people who have otherwise no argument.
  • Smart people don’t realize they are using it.
  • It sounds at first like a legitimate argument.
  • It is much easier (and takes far less time) to use this argument than to criticize it it.
  • It makes people afraid to condemn destructive issues in Islam or religion in general, because they will be mocked by the statement that their own worldview is just as bad.
  • It helps to inhibit social progress, as those who advocate it are just as bad as those who are holding it back.

Watch the first comment be, “You’re just as bad as the people you’re criticizing!”

Religious Logic: Fundamentalists vs Moderates/Liberals

You might expect from my politically liberal views that this article is going to bash religious fundamentalists. But in fact, this article offers a defense of one aspect of fundamentalism: its use of logic. The criticism is of the inconsistent beliefs of religious “moderates” and “liberals”. (Note, from here on out, the words “moderate” and “liberal” will denote degree of religiosity, not political views, though the two are often related.)

Disclaimer: I am an atheist and would be the last person to try to justify religion’s countless atrocities and impediments of social progress. However, this article was written to give a different perspective of religious fundamentalism, especially on the liberal criticism of conservatives or fundamentalists for taking things too far.

Disclaimer 2: This article is written with Christianity in mind. Many of the arguments do not apply to other religions due to the specific position of Christianity in the US.

Fundamentalists Hold More Consistent Worldviews than “Moderates” and “Liberals”

First, consider the following thought experiment. You’re standing in the middle of a highway, with no cars around. However, there are two people standing on the curb. They both think that a giant truck is going to appear out of nowhere and slam into you, killing you. However, you don’t think such a truck is going to appear.

One of the people on the side is more “respectful” of your beliefs, and just lets you stay in the middle of the highway, even though he sincerely believes you will be run over any minute. The other person, also sincerely believing you will be run over, starts yelling at you to get off of the highway. When you ignore her, she runs into the highway and shoves you out of the way. Which is the better person?

Of course, given that both of them sincerely thought you would be run over, the person who tried to save you (even by knocking you over) is a more sympathetic person.

In case the analogy wasn’t clear, the highway can be thought of as some path of sin, the truck is Hell, the onlooker who did nothing is the moderate or liberal religious person, and the one who yelled and shoved you out of the way is the fundamentalist.

Westboro-Baptist-Church

I hate to support even a tiny aspect of the Westboro Baptist Church, but you gotta consider the situation from their perspective. They are being very logical, given what they think to be true. Remember that in a logical argument, one makes axioms (aka. hypotheses, assumptions, premises) and deductions (or a deduction system), and then draws a conclusion. Of course, even if the logical deductions are perfect, the conclusion can be nonsense if the assumptions are false. I would guess that their logic is something like this:

  • Premise 1: The Bible is true.
  • Premise 2: It is good to save people from horrible things.
  • Result 1: From Premise 1, homosexuality is a sin.
  • Result 2: From Premise 1 and Result 1, one burns in Hell for being homosexual.
  • Result 3: From Premise 1, Hell is the worst possible punishment.
  • Result 4: From Result 3 and Premise 2, it is good to save people from Hell.
  • Conclusion: From Result 2 and Result 4, it is good to stop people from being homosexual.

The reason this is a bad argument is that Premise 1 is obviously false (at least, obviously to atheists).

However, I know some Christians who consider themselves moderate/liberal, yet still trust main points in the Bible (such as the concept of hell and that homosexuality is a sin), even if they do not interpret it literally.

So if you are in this group, my question to you is, why do you NOT actively try to save people? Again, I am nonreligious and I think the Bible is absurd; however, if you believe in heaven and hell, and if you believe that a certain behavior from your friends is going to send them to hell, and if you value that friendship, then why are you NOT trying to guide them away from hell?

I can think of a few possible answers for this:

  1. You are secretly nonreligious, and are afraid due to social/economic concerns to come out.
  2. You actually do NOT accept concepts from the Bible like heaven and hell, or sin.
  3. You actually hate people and want them to go to hell.
  4. You can’t do simple logic.
  5. You never spent time thinking about these things, and only go with the flow. For example, you only support things like gay marriage because it’s the popular thing to do, not because you came to the conclusion from a rational perspective. (In this option, you can still support the concepts of heaven/hell and sin, be a supporter gay marriage, and be good at logic—it just didn’t occur to you to actually apply logic to this situation. This could be due to social norms.)
  6. You can both keep the idea that homosexuality is a sin, and at the same time support gay marriage by using doublethink/cognitive dissonance.
  7. You are mentally ill.

In any case, #1 is easily understandable  #4, #6, and #7 we cannot really do anything about. #5  just means you should think about the issue some more (or at all). #3 means you are a sociopath. And if it is #2 for you, then why are you still a Christian? (Though the answer to that might tie in with #1.)

Going back to the truck analogy, why would the passive onlooker NOT try to get you off the road? The corresponding bullets:

  • He does not actually believe that a truck will appear and kill you, thus it would be absurd to try to shove you off the road.
  • He believes some aspects of the truck myth, but believes that a the truck is benevolent (for example) and will not injure you.
  • He wants you to be run over by the truck.
  • He cannot conclude that saving you is the correct move.
  • He was brought up in a household/society where it is a social norm to NOT warn people of oncoming trucks, and to NOT try to shove people out of the way, even if it saves their lives, and he has not questioned those norms yet.
  • He used doublethink to simultaneously believe that it is correct to save you from being run over and that it is correct to not save you from being run over.
  • He is mentally ill.

On the contrary, fundamentalists at least speak and act on what they think is right. After all, if you really believe that some sinful action will lead someone to hell, then isn’t the right thing to stop them from doing that? Again, I am against the views and actions of the WBC (e.g. I support marriage equality), but the way they come to their views makes a lot more sense than how many liberal Christians arrive at the opposing views. Here is a WBC member speaking in a Russell Brand interview (1:39):

He seems like a nice person but is just playing with the wrong set of facts. Of course, immediately after the statement the audience starts laughing, but did they even catch the logic, let alone understand it? I know it might be comedy for them, but to solve the issue we need to understand what the other side is thinking.

This is one of the qualms I have with religious liberals. When a fundamentalist does or says something bad, religious liberals are quick to defend their own beliefs by calling out the fundamentalist, with sayings like, “He’s not a true Christian,” or “He is misinterpreting the Bible.” This is absurd, since fundamentalists are taking the most literal interpretation of the Bible, taking it as the word of God, and are in a sense the most Christian.

Instead of addressing the root cause (the Bible and its outdated, barbaric myths), Christian liberals blame the fundamentalists for taking the book too far, yet they themselves never criticize the book. So what they do instead is cherry-pick the currently convenient quotes from the book. In other words, they are the ones deciding which laws from the book are moral and which are not. Does this not directly contradict their belief that morals come alone from God? At least the fundamentalists are consistent about it. And, by not criticizing the book, religious liberals are only helping fundamentalists to impede social progress. (On the other hand, atheist authors like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins directly criticize the Bible/Quran/etc.)

I challenge religious moderates and liberals to re-examine your views—both religious and social views. Are they really consistent with each other? Do they contradict each other? If so, how can you proudly embrace both?

I want you to show your true colors.

A “Hated Minority”?

There is a pretty funny article on CNN’s opinion blog today: When Christians become a ‘hated minority’ by John Blake. The reason it’s funny? Well, just take a look at some of the ideas expressed in it:

When Christians become a ‘hated minority’

This is nonsense. 73% of the United States is Christian, and that is a deeply entrenched majority.

oppressed

Neither are they hated: 90.3% of the US Congress is Christian. If anything, Christians comprise an over-represented sect of government. Who is the real voiceless minority? The Unaffiliated, at 19.6% of the general US population, comprise 0% of Congress.

Evangelical Christians say they are the new victims of intolerance – they’re persecuted for condemning homosexuality.

Intolerance of intolerance is not intolerance. If you don’t want to be criticized for condemning homosexuality, then stop condemning homosexuality. “The KKK say they are the new victims of intolerance – they’re persecuted for condemning blacks.”

A Laughable Comparison

…a new victim: closeted Christians who believe the Bible condemns homosexuality but will not say so publicly for fear of being labeled a hateful bigot.

Perhaps because using the Bible to condemn homosexuality makes you precisely that: a hateful bigot. It is funny how the term “closet” has turned around here.

The conservative media culture is filled with stories about evangelicals being labeled as “extremists” for their belief that homosexuality is a sin.

Yet they pick and choose their sins. It would be universally considered fundamentalist, for instance, if one were to express their belief that wearing clothes of mixed fabrics is a sin (Deuteronomy 22:11).

“It’s easier to just go along,” says Carter, who is also author of “How to Argue Like Jesus.” “You don’t want to be lumped in with the bigots. That’s a powerful word.”

It’s a powerful word because it describes a detestable attribute.

“They are incapable of comprehending that someone may have a view different than theirs,” Johnson says. “For them anyone who dares to question the dogma of the tribe can only be doing so out of hatred.”

This was said in reference to supporters of homosexuality, I kid you not. If only those who condemned it would listen to their own advice.

Some evangelicals say Christians can’t change their view of biblical truth just because times change. But some scholars reply:

Sure you can. Christians do it all the time.

Denying a woman’s ability to preach in church was justified by scriptures like 1 Timothy 2:11-12 – “… I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”

No further comment needed on this one. I actually didn’t believe the quote was true, but apparently it’s actually there.

Until the debate over homosexuality is settled – if it ever is – there may be plenty of evangelical Christians who feel as if they are now being forced to stay in the closet.

Oh no! How will society function without bigotry? How will I live my day without condemning others for their way of life?