"Fundamentalist" Atheists and Other Things That Go "Boo!"
There's an interesting post over at Pharyngula about supposed "fundamentalist" atheists, along with an interesting comment thread that displays some stunningly illogical and irrational arguments for theism.
First off an article quoted in the Pharyngula post that was published in the UK newspaper The Guardian quotes a Britsh theist as saying:
Atheists like the Richard Dawkins of this world are just as fundamentalist as
the people setting off bombs on the tube, the hardline settlers on the West Bank
and the anti-gay bigots of the Church of England. Most of them would regard each
other as destined to fry in hell.
Okay. First off, on the nitpicky side of things, the term "fundamentalist" doesn't make any sense at all when applied to an atheist. At dictionary.com they have three definitions for the term, and the one that doesn't relate specifically to Christian fundamentalism is: "[S]trict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles."
For the umpteenth time, folks, atheism is not a set of ideas or principles. Atheism is lack of belief in a god or god(s). Period. Just because religions attach a bunch of dogmas to the basic truth claim that a god or god(s) exist doesn't mean the same is true of those who reject that truth claim. There are no precepts of atheism, no dogma, no principles, no churches, no belief system. Without some fundamental set of beliefs to try to return to, like fundamentalist Christians try to return to a more literal, inerrant interpretation of the Bible, there is no fundamentalism. Period.
Now, of course, this guy in the article actually means something else. He means that Dawkins and atheists like him are just as strident and crazy in their beliefs as fundamentalists who have blown up trains and persecuted gays.
That is a totally false analogy, because Dawkins and others like him haven't blown up trains, haven't persecuted others in the name of their own irrational beliefs, and haven't claimed a divine right to some piece of land currently occupied by someone else. Until and unless Dawkins and other atheists start doing things like this, there is no valid comparison between the two. Being committed to rationalism and being willing to blow something up for your God are not even comparable.
No, in fact, what this guy really means is that Dawkins and other atheists should shut the fuck up. That's what he's opposed to: that some atheists have dared to speak up and say something about the batshit craziness going on around them. Standing up and saying, "The Emperor has no clothes!" is not the same as beating up anyone who is willing to point out the nakedness of the Emperor.
And then there's the whole stupid issue of how we all have to "respect" each others' beliefs. Well, for one thing, that's rich, coming from theists whose contempt of other faiths is only trumped by their complete disdain for non-theists. And theists, particularly monotheists, have very little respect for beliefs much different than their own. I have rarely seen theists show anything close to respect to Wiccans, neopagans, or others whose beliefs they are quick to characterize as "barbaric" or "Satanic."
Believe whatever you want. I'm not stopping you. But when you bring crazy beliefs into the public square and want your crazy beliefs reflected in public policy, I am going to criticize them. That's what happens in the public square.
And, for another thing, just because a person holds a belief, that means we should respect it, no matter how insane? Why? People believe all kinds of weird things. None of them can be dismissed for lack of evidence? Because theists include questioning the truth claims implicit in their beliefs as disrespecting their beliefs. Do we really have to respect every bizarre dipshit thing someone believes in? Do you really think theists would respect my belief that I am the reincarnation of Napoleon? I doubt it. Disrespecting someone's beliefs is not the same as disrespecting them, and conflating the two is a favorite tactic of theists to try to keep criticism of their beliefs off-limits.
Then the article quotes some professor of "European Thought" (I wasn't aware that was a discipline) trying to play the old, "No one really believes all this crap, you fools!" argument:
"It is not just in the rigidity of their unbelief that atheists mimic
dogmatic believers. It is in their fixation on belief itself."
Gray argues that this fixation misses the point of religions: "The core
of most religions is not doctrinal. In non-western traditions and even some
strands of western monotheism, the spiritual life is not a matter of subscribing
to a set of propositions. Its heart is in practice, in ritual, observance and
(sometimes) mystical experience . . . When they dissect arguments for the
existence of God, atheists parody the rationalistic theologies of western
Re-e-e-ally? Hmm. I guess someone forgot to tell all the people who do actually believe in God and do believe that their religion is about "subscribing to a set of propositions?" Because there are a lot of them out there. If what Gray says were actually true, then the article in which he is quoted would never have been written, because, if whether or not God exists was beside the point for Christians, they wouldn't care about atheists denying God's existence. Christians wouldn't spend so much time and effort (fruitlessly) refuting non-theist arguments against God nor would they spend so much time trying to knock down any science that might conflict, in their perception, with the truth of His existence. The very fact that Christians get worked up over what "fundamentalist" atheists say is proof that Gray is full of shit.
In the comments to the Pharyingula post, a commenter says:
I like what John Gray said. I find it ridiculous/amusing/sad how PZ and Dawkins thinks that they get to define what religion is, so they can keep attacking it. If religionists want to "redefine" what they believe in so that it doesn't conflict with science, this pisses PZ off. Why? Because he's got fewer occasions for self-rigteous mockery and easy laughs?
I'm calling this line of argument a "reverse strawman" argument. The reverse strawman is where you make up a more defensible version of your position that bears little resemblance to the thing itself. Then, on top of making the indefensible defensible, you also get to accuse the other side of trying to set up straw men to knock down. This is a great strategy, and would work, if only there weren't so much damned evidence in this case that Gray's characterization of religion isn't one many theists would recognize and agree with.
In fact, theists have a great double-whammy they use on this front: First, the strawman, where they wrongly characterize atheists as "hating God" or "just denying what they know to be true," and then also pull the reverse strawman by claiming that their religion doesn't make the truth claims it actually does make. Awesome.
Great argument in comment #85, in an attempt to defend the idea that all the people who go to church every Sunday really just go for the ritual:
Yes, "going through the motions" (ritual) adds meaning to the lives of many.
That's just a sociological fact. Deal with it.
Yeah, 'cause no Christian has ever argued that life is meaningless without God and an afterlife, which are doctrinal facets of Christianity, not ritualistic. No.
But I like this "deal with it" argument. Okay, Christian bigots, guess what? Homosexuality is inherited and natural. That's just a sociological (and biological) fact. Deal with it.
Most people in the world don't believe in your God and never will. That's just a sociological fact. Deal with it.
Safer-sex education is vastly more effective in preventing teen pregnancy and sexually-transmitted disease infection than abstinence-only sex education. That's just a sociological fact. Deal with it.
Countries where abortion is legal have lower rates of abortion than countries where it isn't. That's just a sociological fact. Deal with it.
Countries where drugs are legal have lower rates of use and addiction than countries where drugs are illegal. That's just a sociological fact. Deal with it.
Hey, this "deal with it" argument is fun!
And I love it when theists follow this line of argument, as evidenced in comment #101:
Sorry, I'm not buying it. People murder and wage war for a lot of reasons and justify it all kinds of ways. Whatever the justification, the result is often far more pragmatic: the acquisition of stolen lands and property. Simply removing religion isn't going to remove bigotry, and even removing bigotry is not going to eliminate competition over resources. People are always going to come up with a reason to kill each other.
The old, "Religion isn't the problem, human nature is, and getting rid of religion won't make human nature any better, so why bother?" argument. Which is interesting in light of the fact that theists also make the argument that morality is only possible through religion and that only religion keeps us from just acting like barbaric apes and killing each other indiscriminately.
So, the theists' argument basically goes like this: Human nature is terrible and can't be changed, so when people kill each other, even when they do so explicitly in the name of God, it isn't really religion's fault. Nothing, after all, can curb our human nature.
But man, we're lucky we have religion around, because otherwise, human nature would take over and we'd be having a huge sadomasochistic orgy of sodomy and murder faster than you can say "Bacchus!" It's lucky religion can curb our human nature!
Either religion has influence on how we act, and thus we can measure that affect and see whether, on the whole, it is good or bad, or else religion has no influence on how we act, in which case theists' claims that religion is necessary for morality and order are meaningless. If the former, then theists can't avoid the claim that religion is, over all, bad, destructive, and the cause of great suffering by blaming our unalterable "human nature." If the latter, then, while religion has no negative influence on our behavior, it has no positive influence either, which calls religion's utility into question.
It's fun when theists use incompatible arguments. It demonstrates the fundamental incoherence of their position.
Also, if we were to accept this poster's argument, then there is no point to any attempts to better mankind or improve society. As such, if theists accept this argument, there's no point in condemning or banning gay marriage, or murder, or abortion, or any of the other things they campaign so stridently against. After all, if people are "always going to come up with a reason to kill each other" and there's nothing to be done, then they are always going to do all these other things, and there's nothing to be done about them, either.
But some of the best wingnuttery comes at comment #144:
I really don't understand this obsession with evidence. I have no evidence
that Attila the Hun ever lived, but I believe it. I have no evidence that there
are spatial objects orbiting the sun that are thousands of millions of miles
away, but I believe that. I have no evidence that there is a city in Australia
called Perth, but I believe that, too. Almost everything I believe, I believe on
the basis of authority, not of evidence. That is true of you, and PZ Myers, and
Dawkins, and all human beings.
Ah, now I see. I just have a crass "obsession with evidence." It's not like evidence has any value or means anything in and of itself. It's just a weird thing some people do, demanding evidence, and using evidence to determine the truth is no different than the one where you don't have any evidence... what's that called... oh yeah, making shit up.
They're both the same. You can just as easily figure out if a medication works by just deciding it does as by gathering stupid old evidence. Just make shit up. Nobody ever died that way, by taking medication that was actually poisonous or detrimental. No, never.
Why bother investigating crimes and gathering all that dumb evidence? Just go with your hunch. No chance you'll be put innocent people in jail. It'll be fine.
And we don't need any evidence that a new plane will actually fly. Just hop on board and it'll be fine. The engineers kinda think maybe it'll fly, but they didn't want to be accused of having an "obsession with evidence," so they didn't actually run any simulations or do any test flights. Where can I stow your bags?
This dipshit actually believes all these things on the basis of evidence, not authority, but he's too deluded to understand the difference.
For instance, since Perth, Australia, is a place you can actually go and see, and there are pictures in books, there are maps, you can see it on Google Earth, and even talk to people who have been there, the balance of the evidence is that it does actually exist, and therefore we should accept that it does.
Since the existence of Perth, Australia, is a very ordinary claim rather than an extraordinary one, and to deny the evidence of its existence would require us to believe something extraordinary -- like a vast conspiracy to make us believe Perth, Australia exists when it doesn't -- it is more likely that Perth exists than doesn't. Therefore, we don't need faith or authority to accept this fact, we need only see that the alternative is vastly less likely and accept what is indicated by the balance of the evidence.
But, on the other hand, while a lot of people have made a lot of claims about God and written books on Him and detailed supposed miracles, this extraordinary claim is not backed up by the extraordinary evidence we would need. When a bunch of people say, "I've been to Perth," since the claim is modest, on the balance it is more likely they are telling the truth than lying, since there's not much obvious gain in them all telling the same lie about Perth.
But, on the other hand, when a few people tell us that Jesus rose from the dead, for instance, we have to consider a couple of things. One, the claim is extraordinary and utterly outside our experience. But being lied to or misled, on the other hand, is common and not very extraordinary. As such, on balance, it is more likely, based on the evidence we have about how things work, that we are being lied to or misled than that someone actually did rise from the dead.
And two, is there motivation for us to be lied to or misled, or do we have evidence that people have often lied about this topic in the past? Well, I have no particular reason to believe that a bunch of unrelated people all have cause to lie to me about Perth, while I know that many people have such an emotional investment in the existence of God that they will not only lie to convince me, they will kill me if I disagree. As such, I have much more reason to believe I am being lied to or misled by a person claiming that Jesus rose from the dead than I do a person telling me they've been to Perth.
So, on balance, I can safely say it is likely that the evidence I have been presented that Perth, Australia exists is authentic, because it would be far more extraordinary and unlikely for it no to be than for it to be. But, on the other hand, with extraordinary claims like those made by religions, it would be much more extraordinary if the claims were true than if the accounts of those claims were falsehoods, mistakes, and delusions, so on that basis, I can safely conclude that the evidence for those claims is insufficient for me to rationally accept the claim.
Or maybe I should believe any crazy-ass thing anyone tells me so as to end my "obsession with evidence."