Jeffrey Tayler continues making Salon friendlier to anti-theism

April 13, 2015 • 12:54 pm

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.

79 thoughts on “Jeffrey Tayler continues making Salon friendlier to anti-theism

        1. You saw it too, then. These episodes seem to just fly by because they move back and forth between parallel stories.

          1. It has such great quotes. This is my all time favourite:

            A day will come when you think you are safe and happy, and your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth. And you will know the debt is paid.

            1. “The Lord of Light wants his enemies burned. The Drowned God wants them drowned. Why are all the gods such vicious cunts? Where is the god of tits and wine?”
              -Tyrion Lanister

              1. Tyrion is my favourite character. Nothing fatal better happen to him or I’ll be completely distraught.

    1. I happened to see that show and the only ugly I saw was Fareed Zakaria breathing very heavy as he got all worked up attempting to apologize for Islam everywhere.

      1. That was funny with Fareed because he made a snide remark and Bill just said, “he’s just upset about being wrong about Islam.”

  1. There aren’t different ways of knowing (that something is true or the case), but there are different ways of coming to know, i.e. of acquiring knowledge, because there are different sources of knowledge. Naturalists accept perception, introspection, memory, reason, and testimony as genuine sources of knowledge, but they are divided regarding the question of the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge (based on nothing but pure reason or thought). The (scientific) empiricists among them answer this question in the negative.
    Supernaturalists assert that additional epistemic sources are available to us, such as mystical apprehension or divine revelation.

        1. I just mentioned the epistemic standpoint of the Catholics as an example without implying that they are right. (I’m neither a Catholic nor a theist of any sort.)

          1. As an example of what? You would say, of “ways of coming to know,” which I personally can’t distinguish from “ways of knowing,” except for it being more convoluted and even weaselier-sounding (if that’s even possible).

            1. I can make the distinction.

              “Ways of knowing” as commonly used implies that the facts can change with your viewpoint. Not just used by religiosos, but also by the New Agey moral relativists of the Trendy Left. Nonsense, IMO.

              “Ways of coming to know” implies that there are different ways to approach the same set of facts, or maybe different viewpoints on the same facts. That seems quite possible to me (For example I can try to learn French by studying the grammar, where someone else might try by ‘immersion learning’).

              Of course I don’t know what special meaning the Catlickers might attribute to the phrase.


      1. You think that documents written with the words knowledge, power, truth and God in total doublespeak says anything?

        An eight year old can see through that gobbledygook.

    1. Fine, then tell us what supernaturalists tell us about the universe that is as true as anything science tells us. Just give me three or four bits of knowledge about the divine that are acquired by “divine revelation”. It can’t be that Jesus is the son of God, because Muslim “ways of knowing” don’t tell us that.

      The supernaturalists are just wrong here.

      I’m waiting for those truths about the universe that supernaturalists have established.

    2. Well, without the confirmation using the methods of science, constructions of pure reason or thought are not “other ways of knowing”, they are “other ways of guessing”. Quite different things.

      The hypotheses come, ultimately, from unconscious processes in the brain. They aren’t knowledge until confirmed by scientific methods.

    3. I’d have thought most naturalists would agree that introspection, memory, and testimony are all extremely suspect as forms of evidence, and all would require corroboration before being accepted.

    4. “epistemic”!? That is philosophy, and it has no more standing in the court of facts than religion has. There is knowing and not knowing, and theology and philosophy epitomize the latter.

      This type of theological bait-and-switch is old, mossy and not effective. When will religious people give it up? (I’m not holding my breath.)

  2. I strongly agree with everything presented here except the notion that there is a war on atheism. Not in the US, anyway. We’re not always treated fairly, and there’s some real legal discrimination to consider, but that’s not a war.

      1. There is a war on drugs in the sense that we direct enormous resources into law enforcement efforts against the production, distribution, and possession of drugs. Maybe there is a war on atheism in some sense, but it sure isn’t that sense.

    1. Well, it’s certainly okay to be bigoted toward atheists and to publicly deride them. It may not be a thermonuclear war but it’s certainly a skirmish that some theists would love to turn into a full scale civil war.

      1. Maybe to compare his war on atheist phrase to the war on drugs was not apples and apples but you know how we simply folks in America love wars…especially wars we can lose.

        Many of us in the atheist world kind of do think of the push up on the religious as a kind of war. If you read what they do at ffrf it looks like hundreds of mini wars going on all the time. Maybe to women needing an abortion and living in Texas it looks like a war. Anyway, I don’t want to lose this one, whatever we call it. I also kind of think people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and PPC see it as worthwhile struggle.

        1. I just think it’s utterly discrediting to refer to it as a war, in precisely the same way and for precisely the same reason as it is utterly discrediting for people to talk about a war on Christianity. They’re both delusions, and they both come from the same place: that felt sense of being a minority under siege in a hostile culture. I’m not saying it isn’t a worthwhile struggle. Of course it’s a worthwhile struggle. It’s not a war.

      2. There’s certainly a violent war against atheists in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other nations that base their legal system on Islamic idiocy. Oh, and by Muslim fanatics living in non-Muslim nations in Europe and elsewhere, murdering atheists and other secularists who dare say anything negative about their peculiar brand of religous madness.

    2. Well, I wasn’t going to bring it up, but since someone else already has, I’ll chime in to agree. It’s the same peeve I have against the term, ‘militant atheist’. There are real wars, and real militant fanatics. There’s no need to use hyperbole and apply those terms to lesser situations. As others have said, there is real discrimination and prejudice towars atheists in the U.S., but not a war.

  3. Taylor might just be the next Hitch with numbers like this on the defenseless theist. O’Reilly should probably just go write another “history” story about Killing Bob or something. He loves to write books about killing. Pretty sure Coulter lives under a rock somewhere.

  4. When I was young and being raised as a Roman Catholic, a priest told me that seeking to know “why” verged on the sin of pride. Only God is all-knowing, we should just accept. That’s what faith is, I guess. Quite a catch-22.

    1. Rather than a catch-22 situation, I see it as a blatant stacking of the deck. In the same way, the strength of one’s faith is highly prized, and the more deluded folks are seen as the more pious and worthy. Meanwhile, it’s all bogus and a load o’ crock.

  5. In self-defence I often say that ancient texts are just that – ancient texts. In future I will use Tayler’s words:

    “fatuous fables and Paleolithic preachments inscribed in ancient books that should be pulped,”


    1. Yes, and I’d like to add to that – “strictly adhered to by people who long for the simpler times: when 30% of infants didn’t make it past 5, humans had a life span of ~30 years and war, pestilence and famine were as common as the mice, cockroaches and fleas that will rule the world if these folks get their hands on it.”

  6. Wow, you had it turned up to 11 in your 2006 review. But, if anyone deserved that, it was (is) Coulter. “Piercing squawk”, LOL.

      1. Coulter really is a Dreadful Person. I only became aware of her in about the last ten years, and whenever I see her I am amazed by the hate and vitriol that ooze from every pore. She seems to have this nasty knee-jerk reaction to certain words, including liberal, progressive, and atheist. I’ve always wondered if she was badly hurt by someone who fits that description, as her response seems so irrational for someone who is obviously very intelligent.

        1. Without the Ann Coulter’s and Pat Buchanan’s of the world, Canada wouldn’t get to laugh at “Soviet Canukistan” or the idea that Canada is a 3rd world country and Americans need to “Keep Canadians on their side of the border”. It would be hysterically funny if it didn’t mess up trade.

          1. We were in company of a Canadian couple, somewhere in the world (can’t remember where) and some one asked them, “Canadian? What is Canadian? I no know.”

            The young man paused for just a moment and said, “Well, we’re like nice Americans.”

            That was priceless (and generally true in my experience, as a USian abroad).

            1. I think Canadians are friendly but not nice. I find if travelling in the US, Americans are friendly. You can get some weird ones if Americans are visiting your country though. 🙂

    1. Yes, I hadn’t read that before. Very nice.

      I wonder, was the experience of reading and reviewing Coulter’s Godless the final inspiration (the straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were) for Jerry to write Why Evolution Is True?

  7. Jerry, in the review of Coulter’s book Godless, you link to another article of yours in The New Republic deconstructing Coulter’s bad ideas about ID, but the link returns “page not found”. Can we see your critique of Coulter’s ID views?

    1. “She” is a graduate of the Un. of Michigan law school. Of course, Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton are graduates of Harvard Law School so let’s not beat up on UM.

  8. Coulter is even more odious then Billo the clown. Several years ago, one of “her” former gentlemen friends revealed that “she” doesn’t believe 90% of the stuff that rolls off “her” tongue or “her” word processor. “She’s” in it for the money and if “she” could make more touting left wing ideas, that would be “her” approach.

    1. I figure she’s probably a sociopath and/or narcissist. I find her somewhat intriguing and I’d enjoy her more if she weren’t so influential but who’s fault is that? Why does the public buy her books and pay attention to her? Clearly she’s selling them what they want to buy.

      1. Because every one of her hate-filled tomes is promoted on Fox. O’Reilly, who after all has the most popular current events show on cable, gives her regular interviews. She’s on the (even worse) Hannity even more often. She makes appearances on some others too. Their viewers lap up her type of book, and thus each is a guaranteed success.

        When Piers Morgan was on CNN, he used to interview her a bit too. He seemed fascinated by her. Of course, he frequently gave positive air time to the religious, especially fellow RCs. In 2012, he gave Rick Santorum a lot of friendly time.

        1. Hannity is another phoney. A commenter on Ed Brayton’s blog several years ago wrote that he know Hannity and, he, like Coulter, didn’t believe most of the stuff that cam out of he mouth.

        2. The larger issue is this new phenomenon of partisan “news” is allowed to exist as news. Before GW Bush, such crap would never get on the air.

          1. Oh sure it did. It’s always been there. Fox has done an “admirable” job promoting their editorial position.

            It was much worse 150 years ago in the US.

    2. Can you just quit with the ad hom quote marks? It makes it highly annoying to read and utterly undermines your credibility.

  9. “…or, better yet, my 2006 review of it…”

    OMG, that’s funnier than anything I’ve ever heard from Mahar, or Stewart, or Maddow, or…you name it! What a tour de force!

    1. Just read Jerry’s review. Priceless!

      Speaking of well-educated ditzes, just read somewhere thst Marco Rubio was a big Osmonds fan in his yoof…

      1. “Coultergeist” was actually how I found out about a certain Jerry Coyne. Been reading his books and website ever since. Seems like a pretty chill dude…

  10. them there fighting words.. prisoners optional, religious intolerance grenade launcher, standard issue.. make my day punks! and don’t mention the war.

  11. O’Reilly has been foundering in the shallows of his own mind for so long that not even the tide going in and the tide going out — the one he infamously claimed no one could explain — can lift him off those rocky shoals.

  12. I’d like to see a serious analysis of the personality cults of Mao and Stalin and Hitler and the Kims, comparing and contrasting them with religions. They gave themselves god-like status that supports, not disproves, the view that religion is causally linked to great evil.

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