Using the excuse of criticizing an advertisement by the American Atheists, Massimo Pigliucci goes after what he calls “in-your-face” atheists over at Rationally Speaking. The ad, which has been criticized by others, including Rebecca Watson, is indeed unfortunate: it’s ugly and probably not very effective:
Like Watson, Massimo properly calls out the AA organization for not doing a better job here. But, in the process, he can’t resist being disagreeable and taking a swipe at atheists in general.
And he faults the AA for lying:
First, the ad is simply making a preposterous claim that cannot possibly be backed up by factual evidence, which means that, technically, it is lying. Not a good virtue for self-righteous critical thinkers.
Well, one can debate what “scam” means here. Certainly some purveyors of religion are being knowingly dishonest: witness the nonbelieving preachers in the Dennett and LaScola study, who still preached the gospel despite their creeping atheism. In a reply just published at Rationally Speaking, though, former AA President Ed Buckner takes issue with the word “scam”:
The meaning of “scams” is also quite relevant, of course. Massimo declares that “an intentional fraud” is what one is claiming when one says “scam” and there are certainly elements of that intentionality implied at some level. But if one Googles “scam definition,” the very first things that pop up are:1. Victimize: deprive of by deceit; “He swindled me out of my inheritance”; “She defrauded the customers who trusted her”; “the cashier gypped me when he gave me too little change”; a fraudulent business scheme.2. A confidence trick or confidence game (also known as a bunko, con, flim flam, gaffle, grift, hustle, scam, scheme, swindle or bamboozle) is an attempt to defraud a person or group by gaining their confidence.
Given such definitions, it is reasonable to argue that someone can be victimized by a scam even when the immediate agent for victimization is wholly unaware of the fraudulent nature of the transaction.
Well, this semantic quibble is what we Jews (SECULAR Jews!) call pilpul: intense argument about trivial issues. Personally, I read “scam” in Buckner’s sense. But never mind. What irritated me more was Pigliucci’s haughty and supercilious criticism of atheists. Granted, at first he imputes these sins to only “some” atheists, but eventually that “some” becomes “many.” Arguments about a group from personal experience, without documentation (why don’t people ever name or link to the “dicks”?), aren’t terribly effective.
If only a few of us are guilty of these sins, what’s the big deal? There are some professional philosophers who don’t argue very well, either, but we don’t indict the whole profession for a few miscreants.
And, according to Pigliucci, here are the sins of in-your-face atheists:
1. We’re inconsistent and arrogant.
Then again, in my dealings with the skeptic, humanist and atheists communities over the years I have noticed a peculiar lack of critical thinking among some atheists. Atheists are not necessarily skeptics (and vice versa), though they typically pride themselves in being smarter and more honest than religious people.
It’s odd that Pigliucci, at least, berates “some” atheists for saying they’re smarter and more honest than religious people, for if you’ve read his columns regularly, you know that that lack of humility is his own besetting fault. I thought he’d decided to be less arrogant, but that’s not obvious in this latest column. For example, he lectures atheists again because
2. We’re philosophically ignorant and afflicted with scientism.
Yet, several atheists I have encountered have no problem endorsing all sorts of woo-woo stuff, from quasi-new age creeds to “alternative” medicine, to fantapolitics. This is partly because many of them seem to be ignorant of the epistemic limits of science (in which they have almost unbounded faith) and reason (ditto). At the very least it seems that we ought to treat factual evidence with due respect, and claiming that religions are scams flies in the face of the available factual evidence. Hence, it is a bad idea that damages our reputation as an evidence-oriented community.
Oh dear, we’re back to that again, except that “some” atheists have become “several” and “many.” Yes, I decry those atheists who approve of things like homeopathy, but really, I find them quite rare. If anything, the situation is the reverse: skeptics tend to go after stuff like homeopathy and astrology and, for tactical reasons, keep their mitts off religion. And I maybe I am ignorant, because I’m not sure where the epistemic limits of reason really lie—at least in understanding the universe around me.
Really, what is this “unbounded faith” that we have in science? That sounds like something a creationist or faitheist would say. We don’t have “faith” in science and reason any more than we have “faith” in evolution or atoms. We have confidence in using science and reason because they’ve been shown to work.
3. We’re angry.
I get it, a lot of atheists are recovering from religious indoctrination, often of the harshest fundamentalist kind, and they are therefore angry about all the time they have wasted and all the emotional suffering they have endured. I went through my own short anger phase in atheism after I moved to Tennessee (where religion was as in your face as it could possibly get, the place priding itself in being the buckle of the Bible Belt). Anger is good as a transitory psychological state, because it gives us the energy to reexamine broad aspects of our lives, laying the ground for a more thoughtful future self. But if it stays in our system it quickly becomes both corrosive at the personal level and undermines our overall goals as a community.
(Note that “some” atheists have become “a lot of atheists”.) Once again, Massimo has managed to transcend the limitations that he sees as afflicting everyone else.
What a condescending and invidious thing to say! The accusation here is that angry atheism springs largely from being psychologically damaged by faith. But no, Massimo, most of us, even including those who used to be religious, have legitimate reasons—beyond religious indoctrination—to be angry.
And our anger is a good thing.
[Note: at the bottom I’ve added links to two earlier posts by Greta Christina on why atheist anger is good.]
I, for one, was never indoctrinated, and nevertheless I’m angry. I’m angry that these scams (that’s what I’ll call them) have such horrible effects on the world. I’m angry that millions of Catholic kids get permanently traumatized with visions of hell, and permanently riddled with guilt about “sins” like masturbation. I’m angry that priests, under cover of their own superior wisdom and spirituality, sexually victimize their flocks. I’m angry that mullahs are calling for their followers to kill innocent people, while other more “liberal” mullahs refrain from calls for murder but don’t decry those murders when they occur. I’m angry that thousands of Africans will die because the Pope and his priests won’t sanction condoms for their flock. I’m angry that many religions see, and treat, women as second-class citizens, stoning them, swathing them in burkas, or making them sit behind screens in the synagogue and purify themselves in ritual baths during menstruation. I’m angry at the stupid dogmatism that’s behind creationism, and behind the idea that even if evolution might have happened, God did it all. I’m angry at the faithful who dispute global warming, or environmental depredation, because they think God gave us stewardship over the earth. I’m angry at those people who oppose abortion or stem-cell research because of the absolutely stupid idea that a ball of cells is equivalent to a sentient person. I’m angry at the faithful who, on religious grounds, prevent suffering and terminally ill people from deciding to end their own lives. I’m angry that one of the greatest pleasures of being human, the act of sex, is subject to insane restrictions and prohibitions by many faiths—especially when it’s between two people of the same gender.
And I’m angry that religious people try to suppress freedom of speech when it deals with religion, trying to prevent us from calling attention to all this damage.
What is the proper response to all this religiously-inspired nonsense? Anger, of course. No, you don’t have to be a red-faced, sputtering jerk when confronting the faithful, but controlled anger is without doubt the right response to a form of superstition that wreaks uncountable harms on humanity. And not “transitory” anger, either—permanent anger.
Nor need anger turn you into a sour, embittered, and ineffective person. I’ve met the Big Four atheists—Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens—and they’re all delightful people, with not a trace of bitterness. They turn on the anger only when it’s appropriate. I’d rather have a beer with any of them than with a “non-angry” accommodationist like Chris Mooney. Really, in the end it’s the accommodationists who are angry—at us! They pretend to be oh-so-nice people, but underneath are deeply angry and aggressive because we’re not listening to them.
Again, the proper response to religious stupidity, as it was to segregation in the South, is anger—persistent anger. Anger that remains until the kind of religion that forces its tenets and superstitions down humanity’s throat vanishes for good.
Finally, since Massimo sees fit to lecture us about how the way we should behave to get our message across, let me reciprocate. Massimo, you’re a smart guy, and could be a real asset to atheism. But don’t you see how you look to many of us with your arrogance and your constant lectures on how we’re not as smart, insightful, or philosophically sophisticated as you? Many of your posts virtually drip with the overtones of “I AM SMARTER THAN YOU ARE.” I guess you really believe that (though, really, some of us actually do know philosophy), but perhaps you could refrain from saying it so often? It really does undercut your message.
UPDATE: I knew that Greta Christina did an awesome post a while back about why atheists should be angry. I couldn’t find the link, but she just sent it to me. She actually did two posts on the topic:
and, the response to the many comments she got on that one: