I guess Salon, which most New Atheists dislike because of its history of accommodationist and atheist-bashing articles, doesn’t really care whether it has a unified viewpoint or not, for it’s begun to publish a string of long and hard-hitting anti-theist articles by Jeffrey Tayler, a contributing editor to The Atlantic who lives in Moscow. Tayler’s latest (there must be at least a half dozen by now) is “Bill Maher terrifies Bill O’ Relly: An atheist has the Fox News host running scared.” And although nobody can replace Christopher Hitchens, if you have a Hitch-shaped hole in your God Module, it’s pretty well filled by Tayler’s prose, which pulls no punches.
The piece is nominally about Bill O’Reilly and his odious colleague Ann Coulter’s affront at Bill Maher’s repeated attacks on religion, and on the duo’s judgment that Maher is promoting the well-known “War On Christians”, a war that’s completely imaginary except in the minds of jihadist Muslims. O’Reilly argues that Maher is a “well known religion hater” with “a free pass to bash people of faith.” Well, most of that is true, but it’s ironic given that O’Reilly and Coulter’s long engagement in a real war: the war on atheists, and the fact that both have long had a free pass to bash people of no faith. In fact, both O’Reilly and Coulter are far more strident in their rhetoric than Maher ever was (read Coulter’s book Godless—or, better yet, my 2006 review of it—to see how hateful these people are).
But the real excuse for the article is Tayler’s desire to unload on the incursion of unsubstantiated and harmful religious belief into American politics. I’m not sure why he’s started doing this lately, but I fully approve. Here are just a few excerpts—do read the whole thing, even though for most readers Tayler will be preaching to the choir:
It hardly takes a journalistic sleuth to ferret out the simultaneously ludicrous and lamentable false equivalency that O’Reilly has drawn here between the horrific, all-too-real massacres of Christians underway in countries afflicted with terrorism abroad, and the barbs, criticisms, and, yes, insults about religion coming from some vocal atheists, including Maher, in the United States. The death toll from the former stands in the hundreds; from the latter: zero. I’m unaware of a single atheist who, motivated by his or her nonbelief, has called for or committed acts of violence against Christians anywhere, at any time. Obviously, nonbelievers possess no “sacred text” with which they could justify harming anyone, let alone people of faith. (NB to those who will take to the comments section and rant about Stalin and Mao. Murderous dictators both, they ordered their atrocities not on account of their atheism, but to “defend the revolution” and secure their power.)
One of the reasons I’m such a fan of Tayler’s latest pieces is, I suppose, because they echo so closely the premise of The Albatross: that religion claims to help us understand things about the universe, but, unlike science has no way to test or verify its claims. Both science and religion compete to understand reality, but only science has the method to verify its findings, while religion merely buttresses emotional and epistemic commitments made in advance, commitments impervious to evidence.
All in all, rationalists should applaud O’Reilly and Coulter for having the courage to so boldly air their mendacity, mischaracterizations, and lopsided analogies, which are in fact illuminating. Namely, they both argue from a premise so widely accepted that they leave it unstated: that those who believe, without proof, fantastical, far-reaching propositions about the nature of our cosmos and how we should live our lives have nothing to explain, nothing to account for, while those of us who value convictions based on evidence, reasoned solutions, and rules for living deriving from consensus must ceaselessly justify ourselves and genuflect apologetically for voicing disagreement.
Beneath this unstated premise lies another more insidious notion: that there are two kinds of truth – religious and otherwise. That, say, the assertion that God created the earth in six days and rested on the seventh might not be literally true, but it merits respect as “religious truth” (or, as Reza Aslan puts it, “sacred history”), as a metaphor for some ethereal verity, one so transcendental that boneheaded rationalists obsessed with superfluities like evidence cannot grasp it.
This is sophistry of the most contemptible variety. By such unscrupulous subterfuge the faithful (and their apologists) commit treason against reason, betray honest discourse, and hope to render their (preposterous) dogmas immune to disproof and open to limitless interpretation, depending on their needs of the moment. Either an objective proposition (say, that Jesus was the son of God, or that the Prophet Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse) is true or it is untrue. It cannot be whatever the one advancing it says it is; much less, true for some, but not for others.
O’Reilly himself clings to this New-Age idea that we all have a right to our personal, customized truths. In his 2006 interview with Richard Dawkins, O’Reilly admits that he’s “not positive that Jesus was God,” but he’s “throwin’ in with Jesus, rather than throwin’ in with you guys [atheists], because you guys can’t tell me how it all got here.” A minute or so later, he announces that he’s “stickin’ with Judeo-Christian philosophy and my religion, Roman Catholicism, because it helps me as a person.”
That doesn’t mean it’s true, replies Dawkins.
“Well, it’s true for me,” says O’Reilly. “See, I believe it.”
“You mean true for you is different from true for anybody else? . . . Something’s either got to be true or not.”
O’Reilly’s “reasoning” would fail to pass muster in a nursery-school yard, yet he presents it shamelessly to an adult audience on national television. He knows most people tend to avoid outright expression of disbelief (and certainly suppress belly laughs) when others begin disclosing their religious beliefs.
Such timidity must stop.
. . . The one thing both O’Reilly and Coulter do get right is that there is a war going on, but it’s not between hapless Christians and “vicious” atheists. It is between rationalists who seek to live in ways they reason to be best, and the faithful cleaving to fatuous fables and Paleolithic preachments inscribed in ancient books that should be pulped, or at best preserved as exhibits for future students majoring in anthropology, with minors in mental derangement.
Indeed. Tayler aligns himself firmly with New Atheism by adhering to what I see as its defining trait: the view that science itself , aligned with secular philosophy, is our main intellectual weapon against religion. There are not two different ways of knowing about the universe. There is only one, and that’s the scientific way, for science is the only reliable way to learn about reality. And so long as religion makes claims about reality—the few who deny that are so far out of the mainstream that they’re hardly worth bothering with—then its main opponent must be science, construed broadly as a combination of empirical investigation and rationality.
One of the most eloquent dismissals of religion’s pretensions appears in a little-known essay by Mike Aus on Richard Dawkins’s site, an essay called “Conversion on Mount Improbable.” Aus was a Protestant minister who, after learning about evolution, gradually abandoned his faith. And in that essay he makes a statement that I find almost unbearably eloquent:
When I was working as a pastor I would often gloss over the clash between the scientific world view and the perspective of religion. I would say that the insights of science were no threat to faith because science and religion are “different ways of knowing” and are not in conflict because they are trying to answer different questions. Science focuses on “how” the world came to be, and religion addresses the question of “why” we are here. I was dead wrong. There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.
There’s not much to add to that.