The good news and the bad news. I: The bad news

December 8, 2013 • 7:00 am

First, the bad news—so that you won’t be left fuming after you get both pieces of news. The two “pieces” are pieces of journalism that just appeared. I’ll post a much better piece in a few hours.

For some time now, Salon has been publishing pieces excoriating New Atheism, its Horsemen, and other atheists. I’m not sure why this site does that, but it’s definitely been noticed.  And Salon’s most recent article on atheism, “What Hitchens got wrong: Abolishing religion won’t fix anything,” by journalist Sean McElwee, continues the tradition. It’s dreadful, and fails on four counts: it is gratuitous (a postmortem attack on Hitchens—do we need another one?), it says nothing new, it is mean-spirited, and many of its claims are wrong.  Because of that, I won’t dissect it in detail, but we need to see what kind of attacks keep on coming. Here are its main points (indented quotes are from McElwee):

1. New Atheists think that all suffering comes from religion.

The fundamental error in the “New Atheist” dogma is one of logic. The basic premise is something like this:

1. The cause of all human suffering is irrationality

2. Religion is irrational

3. Religion is the cause of all human suffering

That syllogism is obviously wrong, even logically, and we all know it. But who among atheists has said religion causes all human suffering? Name one person!  Our contention is, of course, that it causes a great deal of human suffering, but that some suffering will remain even when religion is gone. That’s because some humans are malicious or uncaring, because there are inequities in society, and because some “evil” is simply the workings of nature. But who can deny that nonreligious societies like Sweden or Denmark have less suffering than, say, Yemen or Saudi Arabia?

2. Hitchens was a hypocrite because he supported a war promulgated by a religious American president.  I kid you not:

But then [in the 2003 Gulf War] Hitchens decided that, in fact, bombing children was no longer so abhorrent, because these wars were no longer neocolonial wars dictated by economics and geopolitics but rather a final Armageddon between the forces of rationality and the forces of religion. The fact that the force of rationality and civilization was lead by a cabal of religious extremists was of no concern for Hitchens.

How many times is Hitchens going to be excoriated for this? Granted, I disagreed with that war, and with Hitchens’s stand, but it’s not the only stand he ever took. Must we agree with every opinion of people we admire?  At any rate, there’s no point in dragging Hitchens around the block for this once again.  And the fact that Bush was religious was irrelevant given Hitchens’s feelings about the Kurds.

3. The problems associated with militant Islam come from politics, not religion.  This contention is so common that it should be given a name. Here’s McElwee’s version:

Is not the best explanation for the Thirty Years’ War more likely political than religious? Might it be better to see jihad as a response to Western colonialism and the upending of Islamic society, rather than the product of religious extremism? The goal of the “New Atheists” is to eliminate centuries of history that Europeans are happy to erase, and render the current conflict as one of reason versus faith rather than what is, exploiter and exploited.

Bernard Lewis writes,

“For vast numbers of Middle Easterners, Western-style economic methods brought poverty, Western-style political institutions brought tyranny, even Western-style warfare brought defeat. It is hardly surprising that so many were willing to listen to voices telling them that the old Islamic ways were best and that their only salvation was to throw aside the pagan innovations of the reformers and return to the True Path that God had prescribed for his people.”

I have to wonder if Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris truly believe that eliminating religion will also make the Islamic world forget about centuries of colonization and deprivation. Without religion, will everyone living in Pakistan shrug off drone strikes and get on with their lives?

First of all, eliminating religion won’t fix the problems of the Middle East, though it will certainly help.  Those problems stem not only from dysfunctional theocratic governments, but also from oppressive dictators (viz., Assad), from institutionalized corruption, and so on. Those factors often have nothing to do with Western oppression.

But such problems also stem from the issue that Hitchens always singled out as critical in making a society dysfunctional: the economic disempowerment of women. That, of course, is embedded in Muslim doctrine. My own view is that we should argue against religion directly, for one can convert believers and those on the fence; but ultimately one must also try to create a more just and caring world, for it is people’s lack of security and their own dysfunctional situation that sustains religion belief. And working on both fronts has a salubrious feedback effect, for religion both creates and derives from dysfunctional societies. Hitchens, of course, recognized that (I believe he used Marx’s famous “opium of the people” quote), and was doing his bit to oppose dictatorship and foster equality whenever he could.

But the main problem here is that most Islamic violence is directed not at colonialist oppressors, but at other Muslims (e.g., Sunni vs. Shia). Or against Islamic women.  Or it comes from a religiously-motivated hatred of Jews: another religious problem.  Yes, colonialism plays some role, but if you read Lawrence Wright’s absorbing book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (highly recommended, and it won a Pulitzer Prize), you’ll see that the origins of Al-Qaeda and its predecessor the Muslim Brotherhood trace back not to colonialism by Western powers, but to resentment of the “secular” government of Egypt and the desire to spread Islam throughout the world. I wish more people who play the “it’s-all-politics” card would read that book!

In fact, McElwee goes further, arguing that:

4. No war was ever about religion; they were all “political.”

Religion has a tendency to reflect political and economic realities. Hitchens, in fact, has made ample use of this Marxist analysis, questioning religious experts whether it was Constantine or the truth of Christ’s words that were largely responsible for its breakneck spread. Constantine was, and his proclivities shaped the church. The doctrine of the Trinity was not decided exclusively by decades of intense debate; the whimsy of Constantine and political maneuvering between by Arius and Athanasius had a significant influence on the outcome.

But if there were no religion, there would be no conflict over the Trinity, regardless of the “political maneuvering” involved! Of course not all wars are religious, and there is always a secular element even when religion is involved, but to deny that religious beliefs motivate wars and conflicts is to deny reality.

I sometimes wonder if there is anything that would convince people like McElwee that religious beliefs contribute to violence. Or will they always find a way to construe things as “political”? I see that tactic as close to theology in its refusal to accept reality and its obsession with confabulating explanations when reality shows its unwelcome face. If you waffle hard enough, you can even see the Inquisition as “political”.

5. Atheists and rationalists don’t understand religion, and promulgate a simplistic caricature of it. McElwee quotes the odious Terry Eagleton on this point:

Similarly, within the church there are modernizers and reformers working to quash the Church’s excesses, no Hitchens, Dawkins or Harris needed. Terry Eagleton writes,

“Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.”

What McElwee ignores is that many, many atheists were once fervent believers, and understand religion very well. Think of the atheists who were once preachers or fervent Christians: Dan Barker, Jerry DeWitt, Bart Ehrman, John Loftus, Eric MacDonald, and so on. Did those people fail to understand religion? I don’t think so. And many readers of this site have testified to—”witnessed,” as it were—their former deep immersion in religion. (I should also note the recent survey that showed that UK Christians knew less about their faith than did UK atheists.)

And why do you have to be a believer to criticize religion? Do you have to be a Nazi to criticize Nazism, or a segregationist to understand and efface the evils of segregation? It seems to me that being an outsider gives one a certain advantage, at least in seeing and publicizing the harms of religion. Those in the asylum are often blinded to their delusion. And, at any rate, we have a distinguished roll of former religionists who are plenty well equipped “to understand what they castigate.”

That bit of obtuseness leads McElwee to his last inane conclusion:

6.  Atheists should shut up about religion because change is best made by the believers themselves.  Yes, that’s what he says:

Of course, I’m entirely aware of the problems in modern American Christianity. I have written an essay excoriating what I see as the false Christianity. But any critique of religion that can be made from the outside (by atheists) can be made more persuasively from within religion. For instance, it would hardly be the theologian’s job to point out that, according to The Economist, “Too many of the findings that fill the academic ether are the result of shoddy experiments or poor analysis. A rule of thumb among biotechnology venture-capitalists is that half of published research cannot be replicated.” I’m sure scientists are well aware of the problem and working to rectify it. Similarly, within the church there are modernizers and reformers working to quash the Church’s excesses, no Hitchens, Dawkins or Harris needed.

This is nonsense.  First of all, nearly all pressure to reform churches comes not from religion or church doctrine itself, but from secular movements outside the church that influence believers. I am absolutely convinced, for instance, that some churches’ acceptance of gays and women’s equality comes from social movements outside the church. I also believe that kind of secular pressure is required if any reform is to take place.

But, most important, “insiders” aren’t working to reform the most invidious forms of faith.  How many Catholics in the Vatican are undermining its doctrines about sex, divorce, the sinfulness of gays, and the prohibition of birth control? Answer: none that I know of.  How many Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Iran are working to dismantle the pernicious doctrines of Islam? Are we supposed to sit back and let the Vatican fix Catholicism? If so, we’ll wait a long time!

If McElwee lived in Nazi Germany, he’d probably tell us: “Look, Rommel and von Stauffenberg are working to bring down Hitler. Call off the U.S. and British troops, call off the French Resistance, because any critique of Nazism made from the outside can be made more persuasively by members of the Nazi Party.”

The fact is that the “reform” of religion will occur much faster with pressure from nonbelievers, for many forms of faith have no internal motivation for changing.  And you don’t have to be a believer to see the harm.  If I were offered a plate of dog feces to eat, I wouldn’t be persuaded by the argument, “You can’t know whether it’s bad until you’ve eaten a lot of dog crap.”

McElwee goes on to espouse a form of NOMA, arguing that we need religion to tell us about the meaning of being human and how to live the good life, and, conversely, religion shouldn’t intrude on science. He’s right about the second part but not the first. Religion doesn’t have any more credibility about the meaning of life and the best way to live  than do the exertions of secular, humanistic philosophy in telling us how to live. In fact, religion is a substantially worse guide for life, because it relies on faith and fiction rather than reason and facts.

I see I’ve written too much again. But this stuff just keeps coming, and will continue, I suppose, until the memory of Hitchens has faded.

111 thoughts on “The good news and the bad news. I: The bad news

  1. “What McElwee ignores is that many, many atheists were once fervent believers, and understand religion very well.”

    Perhaps the fact that the fervent believers became atheists indicates that they didn’t understand religion very well or at all, for that matter.

    1. We understand that there is no evidence for god or any of the other supernatural claims of religion, and that therefore they have no a priori claims to moral authority. What else do we need to understand?

    2. You must be kidding. Do you think that, say, Eric MacDonald understands religion LESS than, say, an average Baptist?

      On what basis do you assume this, and on what basis do you assume that only those who don’t understand religion leave the church? That borders on circularity!

    3. Are you the one who turned up for a few weeks last year at AtheistNexus & then disappeared? Questioning the limits of what science can know about origins of our reality, Earth life & the evolution mechanism? Claiming “other ways of knowing” beyond the reach of empirical methodologies [science]? Well questioning is a good thing as you know.

      But, if that is you then you’ll also know by now what a drive-by smug remark looks like & avoid making them.

      There’s some who say that children are natural atheists, before their culture drives them to a particular flavour of belief. All the atheists I know personally, got to non-belief from a religious position. Some of them were in very deep & it took a long intellectually honest road trip to free themselves from their programming. That’s why your comment comes over as smug. It doesn’t feel as if you’re here to learn or to question. Prove me wrong.

    4. “Perhaps the fact that the fervent believers became atheists indicates that they didn’t understand religion very well or at all, for that matter.”

      This is exactly the argument my sister used against me–even though I had studied for five years for the Catholic priesthood. No true Scotsman . . . etc.

    5. “Perhaps the fact that the fervent believers became atheists indicates that they didn’t understand religion very well or at all, for that matter.”

      Atheists don’t understand religion

      Fervent believers don’t understand religion

      Who does? Weak believers only? Or — does anyone but you?

    6. The especially lacks credibility re ex-clergy or ex-seminarians. It’s a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose argument.

    7. The first part is true “many atheists were fervent believers” I doubt the second at least in my experience. As a child I did experience the positive, safe, and secure feelings faith brings, and even after a life time of non belief suffer pangs for it particularly in times of stress. Resorting to the Methadone of a possible higher force perhaps; “The Force of Life” to appeal to. Not half as satisfactory as the certainty of the one “true” God who hears all prayers. Atheists such as myself know only too well the appeal of religion, and resist it like a drug.

    8. I d suggest for McElwee read “Letter to a Christian nation” by Sam Harris. And you could do the same, I should think.

      I can only conclude that mr Mclwee is a very frightened person. What, oh what, if any, or all of those atheistic claims are simply true?

  2. looking forward to the good news:) It seems to me that there is a massive misunderstanding of atheism and the New Atheists. You could easily reverse this article and turn into a piece on how the religious don’t understand rationalists.

    Date: Sun, 8 Dec 2013 14:00:35 +0000 To:

    1. Ditto!

      And…saying about judging books by their covers notwithstanding, when an article’s headline and subhead both are so absurdly wrong in such an inflammatory way, it hardly seems necessary to go any further.

      I don’t recall Hitchens ever wanting to abolish religion; he just wanted to see humanity grow out of it. Of course, he would join with me and not only most rationalists but most all humans in wanting to abolish certain religious practices. I’m sure he’d put female genital mutilation at or near the top of the list, but I’m sure even the most barbaric of muslims would agree that the Aztec religious practice of offering a still-beating human heart as a sacrifice to the gods has rightly been abolished.

      And I do believe that it is inarguable that a society mature enough to not buy into the superstitious bullshit of religious fantasy and practice that, for example, has children being willfully lied to about fundamental science — that growing out of that sort of nonsense could do anything other than fix a great many (though of course not all!) of society’s problems.

      It is absurd to suggest that Hitchens believe that universal atheism is the key to world peace; he knew as well as any that not believing in gods did nothing to stop Stalin or Pol Pot.

      And does that old canard about religion being blameless for wars really need addressing? Especially after all the ink spilled by the combatants on all sides about how their imaginary friends are compelling them to spill their real-life cousins’s blood?

      Damn. All that, and I haven’t even made it to the byline. Not a good sign at all….


      1. Actually, Hitchens explicitly said that he would NOT want to abolish religion. He enjoyed too much having it as a foil against which to practice his craft.

        1. He did say that; however, when he was being a bit more serious, he said he only wanted to abolish its influence on his life. That’s the fair-enough and rational point of view, IMO.

          1. Well, on that I disagreed with him. (And you, too, perhaps.)

            I’d like to abolish its influence on the lives of my fellow human beings, too.

            Of course, one might argue that the only way to abolish its influence on my life would be to also abolish it fully. It influences me every time I read about the latest faith-based nastiness.

            1. “I’d like to abolish its influence on the lives of my fellow human beings, too.”

              That’s what he meant. He meant the religious should keep it to themselves.

              1. But of course they can’t do that. Sort of like wishing for a flu virus that can’t be spread from one animal to another.

  3. If all religions were abandoned it could not fix all our problems. But it would be a bloody good start.

    I’m pretty sure it is impossible to criticise any religion accurately. Because they all make it up as they go along, based on different stories, theologians and personal thoughts and feelings. Atheists and theologians alike have to keep our descriptions of religion vague because of this. Without a method of checking what and why you believe then everything is opened to be believed without facts and understanding, we call it faith. There is only on General Relativity, but there is thousands of Christian sects. When you get into the very technicalities of General Relativity there will be differences of beliefs, but so far we don’t have the methods of checking our facts and understanding that religion has at it’s most basic of levels, and when we can check there will be changes in belief.
    Most of the people reading Hitchens or Aquinas would say “this is not the Christianity I believe in.” I have heard that too many times about the Bible itself, the god of Genesis and the old testament is not the god of Jesus and the New Testament.

    1. Sometimes it seems as if most believers consider their religion to be “different than whatever the atheist says it is” regardless of what the atheist in question happens to have said it was — unless, of course, the religion was described in suspiciously vague but glowing terms of approval, like “the meaning of being human and how to live a good life, thus generously conflating it with philosophy and ethics in one cheery ecumenical mess.

      And the definition of “God,” of course, is “an ever-shifting goalpost which constantly evades the atheist’s understanding.” Which sort of hands over their smug Courtier’s Reply victory in advance, doesn’t it?

      Their victory, however, is a hollow one. Every time they are forced to put up an intelectual, reasonable defense against gnu atheism they can only do so by appealing to humanist values, humanist arguments, humanist rationality, and humanist standards: they’re trying to make a case on common ground.

      In other words, they’re screwed. Any point which requires religious belief in order to see how reasonable it is would be automatically ruled out. Articles like the above are forced to defend the parts of religion the gnu atheists should have no objection to. When you think about it, that’s rather damning.

    2. Well, we can certainly criticize all of religion accurately. E.g. none of it is knowledge, because there are many religions, i.e. they can’t tell when they are wrong. Et cetera.

      Something similar can be done accurately with large swaths of religious concepts such as kinds (evolution), prayer (prayer studies), souls (neuroscience) et cetera.

      But when you come down to the finer levels of a concept which is fractally wrong, even before it is endlessly mutable as you note, one has to make a stand: “no further!”

      Which is why McElwees weaseling is so promiscuous among religious, they have to claim that a rational cut off is a detriment and not a boon to actual (not “theological”) analysis of religion.

      1. “fractally wrong”

        I had to look that up and I love it: “wrong at every conceivable scale of resolution”

  4. I’ll plagiarize my own comment from the Salon article:

    “1). Think of shallow, straw man arguments against “New Atheists”…

    2). Use Hitchens’ name in your article title to get views because nobody knows yours…

    3). Congratulations, you’ve just written a Salon article!

    Hitchens believed abolishing religion would END world conflict? Are you insane? This site has gone off the deep end publishing claptrap like this.”

  5. > This contention is so common that it should be given a name.

    Methinks it looks like a contest …

    The best I could come up with so far is “politigion”.

    1. It’s not too clever or snappy, but the term “Apologetic Shape-shifting” comes to mind. The Defender of the Faith cleverly morphs a clear problem either backwards or forwards so that it becomes a completely different problem.

      Thus a religious mandate to “kill the infidels” is shifted in reverse to its roots in xenophobia and the ground of human nature with its tendency towards tribalism. It wasn’t religion. Or else you speed forward and focus on the history of a particular culture or even an individual: what was going on to prevent THIS society or THIS person from benignly interpreting “kill the infidels” in harmless, metaphorical ways? It wasn’t religion. Religion always shapes itself to fit into an environment.

      It only actually molds an environment in positive ways. You can credit religion, but you can never blame it.

      Apologetic Shape-shifting fits not only political manuevering (“it’s not religion, it’s politics!”) It also describes the common attempt to protect the belief by throwing the believer under the bus (“it’s not religion, that guy was a psychopath!”)

      1. I like Apologetic Shape-Shifting. It’s a more general term, though.

        How about “Extrinsic Fundamentalism”?

  6. I realize you are a busy man, but after reading that I could really use a bit of that good news you mentioned 😉

  7. Ah, more drama journalism: where “quality” is measured by the number of web page hits, and page hits are generated by deliberately provoking some group of people in any way possible, even by risking (and perhaps best by risking) your own reputation.

    You starve if you write dispassionate assessments of some controversy (since it’s been done so many times before: there ain’t nothing new here folks). So better to poke some group with a stick, particularly if it appears that group could then easily score some counter points by poking you back. It’s really just “entertainment”.

  8. It is daunting to think about attempting to respond to such an article. The amount of wrongness is so great, the tedious task of addressing it all just seems too huge a task to contemplate. Surly this spiteful little ass doesn’t believe the crap he has written?

    1. You’ve just described the Gish Gallop. Look at how much it took me to address just the headline. A truly thorough rebuttal would take thousands of words that nobody would bother to read. But, since it’s impossible to keep up with the refutation of this type of bullshit, Gish and McElwee and their ilk then trumpet how nobody can address such-and-such an “issue” they “raised.”

      It’s like playing whack-a-mole with hydras. There’s some merit in smashing a few heads for effect, but the only way to really deal with them is to get them at the root. Discredit their basic premises and / or show them to be the raving lunatics completely out of touch with reality that they are, and leave it at that.

      I don’t know who McElwee is, so I don’t know what his game is. One hopes he’ll simply fade into oblivion. If not, maybe we’ll have to break out the glyphosate.



  9. If one is to attack Hitchens, it’s only prudent to do so after he is dead. Too many crossed swords with him and regretted it later.

  10. Thank goodness we have people like yourself ready willing and able to take to task the dross that passes for Atheist-bashing journalism. The memory of Hitch will live long and so doing, continue to win over support for reason as religion withers and dies.

  11. What an eloquent response to this rubbish. Very very few journalists write for the edification of their readers. Most write, like Dawkins said about Dobbs, in an adversarial manner just to get the clicks. If success for a journalist is measured by the number of clicks the article gets then it doesn’t matter if the article itself is bad. The bean counters are happy.

    1. Attacks against outspoken atheists don’t really fall under the adversarial category, I think. It’s more like an attempt to appeal to the audience’s sense that being adversarial about religion is BAD. The gnu atheists aren’t open-minded and generous and nonjudgemental like YOU are, gentle reader. And here is why you can feel superior to them — regardless of whether they’re technically correct about God’s existance or not. Because that’s not the point, is it?

      The point is to bend over backwards to defend religious tolerance so that it entails approval of religion. And be smug and scornful of those who fail to do so.

  12. McElwee’s comments are a real surprise to me because (a) he has written numerous pieces at, for example, the Daily Kos and AlterNet, that defy the logic used in the piece here and (b) for starting his piece w/ perhaps the greatest assault ever on one of the most fundamental rules of logic.

    It just doesn’t compute w/ me. The Salon piece has me thinking that McElwee didn’t write it and that he’s somehow been pwned.

    It’s just too weird.

    1. @revelmundo

      It’s possible he may have been “edited” into saying what some Salon staffer wanted him to say.

      A few years ago I wrote an op-ed to the effect that, while most of the science denial in the US came from the Right, the Left was not entirely spotless in this respect either and should do a bit of housekeeping. With my permission, the paper that commissioned the piece syndicated it.

      One of the client newspapers changed the title of the piece to (from memory) “Both Left and Right Practice Science Denial” and “edited” the text so it now apportioned equal blame — which was (a) not what I’d said and (b) bollocks.

      Natch, the letter of complaint I sent to the editor of the rag concerned went unanswered.

      I’m not saying this is what happened to McElwee, but it would be consistent with your description of his track record.

    2. According to his Bio, he participated in the National Christian Forensics and Communications Association – a speech and debate league for Christian homeschooled students in the United States. Perhaps this explains his inability to thick properly when it comes to religion.

      1. THIS is what he thought at 16 in 2009, which means he’s 20/21 now. From my perspective he’s just a kid, but then so’s nearly everyone from cops to Prime Ministers 🙂

        His resume also reveals that he taught weekly at Groton Bible Chapel, Groton, CT:- “…toddlers ethical principles, etiquette and crafts, encouraged positive peer interaction and conflict resolution skills”

  13. The fellow is pretty good elsewhere in debunking Republicans et al. but the half-truths of this article are fatally undermined by sweeping overgeneralizations that tend to proliferate when one’s only knowledge of New Atheism is from secondary sources rather than from the main original texts.

    The most !*basic*! requirement of legit criticism of New Atheism should be to be able to explain the !*differences between*! Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. (Agnostic Vincent Bugliosi passes this test- I kinda sorta think Christian Frank Schaeffer does, but hardly any other critics do.)

    NOMA tends to (re)define religion as being about Einstein’s “superpersonal” rather than “supernatural”, as being more about human aspirations then about divine inspiration, but this fellow both embraces NOMA and also claims to be Christian, which I think involves a deeper quagmire than Einstein, Gould, et al unless he overtly embraces a demythologized Christianity, like John Spong or Don Cupitt.

    I also wish he had attributed the quote in the second to last paragraph to the fellow who said it, Martin Luther King Jr.

  14. I read this sophomoric piece yesterday and thought about e-mailing it to you, Jerry. But then I thought, ‘Oh no, it’d just ruin his Caturday.’ This is about as bad as the garbage Camille Paglia used to write for Salon.

    1. Oh, well, the hypothesis that I posted a few minutes ago — that he might have suffered undue “editing” to alter his article’s sense — was clearly a bummer. I stand corrected!

  15. Honestly Jerry, while I admire and appreciate your efforts, sometimes I dont know how you have the patience for this crap. Nearly all of those points (1-5) have been argued and debunked over and over again – McElwee is simply regurgitating things that have been said elsewhere in a lazy attempt to draw attention to himself.

    Still, I guess someone has to set the record straight – keep up the good work.

  16. Great piece! As always I wish I had the patience to deal with Gish Gallop/fractal error beyond the surface layer of Not Even Wrong.

    But this is somewhat questionable to my skeptics eyes:

    Our contention is, of course, that it causes a great deal of human suffering, but that some suffering will remain even when religion is gone. That’s because some humans are malicious or uncaring, because there are inequities in society, and because some “evil” is simply the workings of nature. But who can deny that nonreligious societies like Sweden or Denmark have less suffering than, say, Yemen or Saudi Arabia?

    If we can believe Rosling’s statistics it is the inequities of market economies that somewhat alleviates human suffering in that it makes for functional societies. ‘But who can deny that market societies like Sweden or Denmark have less suffering than, say, North Korea or Burma?’

    Not that the inequities would, or should, be unquestioned or changed or alternate systems couldn’t be better. (China makes an interesting outlier.)

    But so far that is what we have, and it isn’t all bad. (I think the pseudoscience (?) of economy takes markets even farther, but I wouldn’t poke that without a pole between me and the subject. =D)

  17. No war was ever about religion? What did this clown think was going on in Northern Ireland for 300 years? What does he think is going on now in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq?

    1. Causes of war can be messy especially where political and religious motives get confused or mixed. The two often run together and both churches and the poweful are happy to achieve temporal aims amongst a religous miasma. It’s often complex but it’s not the case that religion never causes wars.

  18. I read McElwee’s thoughts linked MF links to @19. Not much of a defense, imo, and pretty pathetic weaseling, particularly regarding his abolishing religion remarks. He does sorta admit, in a weaselly sorta way, that it is he from whom the abolition trope sprung.

    Abolition of faith belief is as likely to succeed as prohibition of mood altering substances. It is only the believer who may ultimately free him/herself from faith affliction. Or not. Abolition is a non-strategy.

    Strategies do exist for outside parties to facilitate this process when judicious, and it’s a good thing to learn them — and which are to be avoided. This guy compiled a handy list of them for us:

    Web Link:

  19. “2. Hitchens was a hypocrite because he supported a war promulgated by a religious American president. I kid you not:

    But then [in the 2003 Gulf War] Hitchens decided that, in fact, bombing children was no longer so abhorrent, because these wars were no longer neocolonial wars dictated by economics and geopolitics but rather a final Armageddon between the forces of rationality and the forces of religion. The fact that the force of rationality and civilization was lead by a cabal of religious extremists was of no concern for Hitchens.”

    However wrong the rest of it may be, this caught my eye. This is nonsense. Whether or not you agree with Hitchens on Iraq, this reads as what someone on another thread called “lazy, hack journalism.” Firstly, and prepare for me to moan here, it is not hypocritical to support war whilst attacking religious violence: however much you disagree with him, he saw the Iraq War as just and an attempt to save people, whilst all religious violence is unjust because it is sectarian. As for the bombing children line, well, that’s nonsense: one of his main reasons for supporting the war was to save the population of Iraq and the Kurds, and he abhorred the atrocities the Bush administration perpetuated against Iraqis. He also desired the use of smart weapons to limit civilian casualties (this was stated before the war, of course). As for the final Armageddon between rationality and religion, that’s also untrue. Yes, part of his desire was to attack militant Islam, but the reason for that desire was to save large Muslim populations such as the Kurds and to promote a democratic, religiously plural society. If he wanted to use this war to destroy religion, he wouldn’t have made such a big deal out of creating a religiously plural society through secularism. And he did concern himself with the fact that Bush was a religious nut: he said that though Bush was subjectively a Christian he had done more for secularism than most atheists and agnostics. Again, this can be disputed, but it refutes the notion that he didn’t concern himself with the religious extremism of the Bush administration. Add on to all this his criticism of torture and Abu Ghraib and he is certainly nothing like the stupid caricature presented above. Much more could be said on this, but this is nothing more than hack journalism, and every point of it is refuted in Hitchens’s own writings. Again, whether or no you agree with Hitchens on Iraq, or whether or not you agree with his beliefs presented here, the fact is this paragraph is a crude and vicious caricature.

    Rant over…

  20. The article is not without its salient points: While it is clear that religion is not the cause of all suffering, any New Atheist worth their salt is going to have something negative to say about irrationality. Thus, this is why they oppose religion, because religion is irrational. But here’s the in response to the article that irks me to no end: “But who can deny that nonreligious societies like Sweden or Denmark have less suffering than, say, Yemen or Saudi Arabia?” For New Atheists who want empirical evidence to prop up beliefs, they should know that such an observation is a correlation and not causation. Why has the non-suffering of, say, the Amish, been left out of the preceding statement? Because then Jerry couldn’t make his point. Keep in mind that the disparity in suffering between Sweden and Yemen may or may not be due to religious belief and there has been no scientific study to confirm the hypothesis. It may seem reasonable to come to such a conclusion, but if evidence is the hallmark for the things New Atheists should believe, well, the evidence isn’t there. Second, “…but to deny that religious beliefs motivate wars and conflicts is to deny reality.” As Matthew White concludes in The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: A Chronicle of the Top 100 Atrocities in History, only 13 of the top 100 atrocities were primarily religious in nature. That leaves 87 events in which religion play little or no role in atrocity. So, religion simply isn’t the evil New Atheists make it out to be. There really is very little reason for New Atheists to assume that if religion were abolished, the world would suddenly be a bright and cheery place. Why not? Because religious belief is not what causes humans to inflict suffering upon each other, not to the degree New Atheists say it is, anyway.

    1. Sorry to “irk,” you, Theory Parker, but I’ve previously published, and mentioned on this site, a positive correlation between social dysfunction among FIRST WORLD countries and their reigiosity. That also holds among states in the U.S., and other sociological research shows that social dysfunction appears to be causal here. So your statement that “the evidence isn’t there” is flat wrong. I expect you to admit it. You can start by reading my article in Evolution in 2012.

      And your accusation that I didn’t mention other societies so I can make my point is simply rude. I have looked at the correlative data and it holds up. Now you can say that there are other causes for the correlation between religiosity and social dysfunction, but there’s independent evidence that the latter affects the former.

      As you’re a first-time commenter, let me remind you of the rules to be polite, especially to you host. Accusing me of cherry-picking data is not the way to succeed here.

      1. This reminds me of something I once saw in an attack on Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation; in response to the data that religious states were more dysfunctional than less religious ones, the guy sarcastically said it wasn’t because the pastor was telling people to commit crime but because of the already-existing dysfunction. He also said it was hypocritical of Harris to use abortion in a list of social dysfunctions whilst defending abortion…


    2. I’m not familiar with White’s list of the 100 top atrocities in history.

      But, if I had to make a list of the ones committed by Europeans, it’d be topped by the Nazi Holocaust, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Conquistadors. Those were all committed by Christians in the name of Christ and with justifications and excuses drawn from the Christian Bible.

      Whatever other 96 atrocities you might care to add on to that list would seem to be irrelevant. I could make a huge list of all the substances an human could drown in and point out that 99%+ of them are not water; would that mean that it’s worng to associate water with human deaths from drowning?

      And, yes — I left out two other notable atrocities…both Asian, neither Christian, both in the 20th Century. So? Christianity is primarily an European phenomenon, and it’s what drove Europeans to commit the atrocities they committed.



  21. The non-suffering of the Amish? Are you kidding?

    Are you aware of their high levels of rape, incest and sexual abuse? The poor education provided to children? The lack of rights of women and high levels of animal abuse?. Doesn’t that stuff count as suffering?

    1. I don’t know why this stuff about the Amish isn’t more widely known.

      Oh, wait–something about all religions must be respected…

  22. Another example of how Eagleton Flew into religious obscurantism. Only, in JAC’s quote, in a less slippery fashion than usual. TE said:

    Card-carrying rationalists… are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate…This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.

    In the latest LRB TE barely rises above the first semester of the Foundation Year in claiming that, “…the doctrine of Creation has nothing to do with how the world got off the ground.” Mind you I could only agree with his further aperçu, that, “…as with any other piece of God-speak this cannot be taken literally”. And Eagleton accuses new atheism of making it up.

    The good Professor blames Prometheus for the eagle.


  23. I really don’t get the “it’s not religion, it’s politics”, as it implies that religion is somehow apolitical. This has never been true, and it’s not going to be made true by repetition. I can understand the “it’s non-religious political factors”, but as soon as you start talking factors, you start talking degrees. When people are taking up arms under a religious banner, how is it not at least in part a religious act?

    It does feel like the narrative of the modern Western democracy is one of separation of church and state; then we act surprised when there’s religious incursion into our politics as if it’s somehow violating what religion is.

    We are pretty egocentric beings, how are we to deal with something that is a) true (to the individual) and b) tells us how we ought to live? Can we really say it’s only personal?

    1. When people are taking up arms under a religious banner, how is it not at least in part a religious act?

      …or wearing it on their belt buckles….

      Even if you wanted to make the unsupportable claim that religion wasn’t the reason they did something, that still doesn’t leave out the fact that the religion didn’t do anything to stop them from doing whatever it was that was done. And, as Stephen Fry so eloquently put it, “then what are you for?


    2. There is after all a reason why a series of wars in early modern Europe were labeled by historians “Wars of religion”
      and why the Crusades were called “Holy Wars”. In 1095, the Pope elevated the Aragonian war from bellum iustum (“just war”), to bellum sacrum (“holy war”).

      Sure politics gets mixed into a lot of this. Many wars have multiple causes, not a single one. But the ‘blame politics, not religion’ is the worst trope of this article.

  24. This is irritating, but you almost have to laugh when an atheist-basher accuses us of not understanding religion and, in the very same set of paragraphs, produces such a ridiculous caricature of atheism that if you saw it in isolation you’d think it was deliberate satire.

    1. The cause of all human suffering is irrationality

    2. Religion is irrational

    3. Religion is the cause of all human suffering

    I didn’t recognise this as anything an atheist would say; ironically it was very familiar as part of the script of theistic apologetics.

    I have to wonder, not only at the writer’s dedication to presenting accurate portrayals of the declared enemy, but at their self-awareness. I simply could not in good conscience present anything so shallow and vapid to the world.

  25. So infuriated by that article, I’ve actually unfollowed Salon (and followed WEIT since I found this). Told them why, too.

    Hitchens would have ripped that piss-poor excuse for a polemic apart with a single tweet.

  26. “The problems associated with militant Islam come from politics, not religion.”
    Now that’s a false dichotomy as all religion is and always has been politics. The genocide stories in the OT for instance have been written specifically with the idea to intimidate the powerful neighbors Assyria/Babylon and Egypt.
    The same with point 4. Just one example happening right now under our noses:

    The only way a religion can be non-political is by means of a solipsistic believer.

  27. I know a number of people who were believers and are no longer, including myself. Compared to most Christians, who resolve yearly to read the Bible and yearly fail, most of these people have read their Bible and a small theology library besides. You don’t walk away from Paradise and risk going to Hell without being sure. The former believers I know were sincerely dedicated to their religion when they believed. I actually suspect that this is a real trend, that those who leave are more dedicated than average (by leave I mean say they don’t believe. Those who just don’t bother to participate in religion but claim to still believe are a different story). It’s easier to hold onto a faith you only practice half heartedly, or that you only know fragmentarily, because you can always tell yourself that if you weren’t such a slacker and read more it’d all make sense to you, or that it’d all work out better if you were putting in the effort, or that if you were opening your heart more god would speak to you. When you have gone at it sincerely, earnestly, and with an open heart, though, and it doesn’t work you have a chance to realize, like Job, that the fault isn’t with you, that the religion is flawed, that it doesn’t make sense, that it’s based on nothing of substance, a mere collection of superstitions wrapped in fairy tales.

    Leaving a religion is hard. So hard, that most of the religious-turned-atheist I know have not left religion publicly. The social costs, and even the psychic costs to oneself, are just too high. In fact, I know three atheist Sunday school teachers (confirmed, I suspect another). They continue to go to church and Sunday school even after they no longer believe because of the social stigma of leaving, because of the habit and the way they have structured their lives over decades, because it is their culture, because even though they don’t believe it they manage nonetheless to feel a little guilty about their unbelief. They fell into teaching classes simply because they had the most expertise, because they had the most to say week after week in class and were effectively teaching it anyway. This is hard for many to understand, I know, but such is the power of stigma, social pressure, and inertia.

    In any case, all of these forces conspire to ensure that those who actively leave religion are, I expect, way above average in both intellectual understanding and active participation in religion.

  28. “How to live the good life” includes two abdominal surgeries plus two high tech cataract surgeries so that I can see the good life.

    To paraphrase Dow, “Better living through science.”

  29. >This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.

    Most believers are NOT theology students, first year or otherwise. Most believers aren’t trained in apologetics and don’t have a ‘sophisticated and nuanced’ understanding of their scriptures, etc.

    I’d be surprised if most first-year theology students didn’t wince at people whose theology is ‘God said it, I believe it, that settles it.’

    In what way can that be caricatured?

  30. The fool doesn’t appear to realize that, in terms of “pure” Islam, there is no separation between religion and “politics”.

  31. It’s not ALL bad… I’ve just found myself listening to half an hour of Hitch on Youtube as a result of wandering from some of the links above… 😉

  32. Based on the comments at Salon – McElwee gets positively thrashed – I suspect Salon is using these articles in the same way the Grauniad is using whatsisface, Andrew Brown. Pure clickbait.

  33. I fear that Salon is merely following the general American trend of increasing piety and antagonism toward atheism. Since I left the states and moved to Canada 8 years ago, I have watched as habitual bashing of atheists, constant reinforcement of the need for faith and belief as a part of everyday life, and perhaps even a bit of schadenfreude about the recent economic downturn in Europe have all contributed to a country that barely tolerates vocal atheists. Ironically, there may be a counter-trend of disaffection with organized religion, but instead it is being replaced by a more vague ‘spiritual’ belief in God and antipathy toward anyone who doesn’t ascribe to this. Salon’s article is very much in that mainstream of American thought, praising religion as one of the good, core qualities of a society, rather than any kind of clear-eyed appraisal, partly because doing so would incur the wrath of their readership. Dissenting voices need not apply (at least to Salon’s editors).

  34. If it’s any consolation, McElwee is getting absolutely savaged in the user comments for that article – particularly for his boneheaded opening straw-man.

    It bothers me that people get paid to write this kind of tripe.

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