Atheist Chris Stedman disses atheism again

April 3, 2018 • 12:07 pm

Chris Stedman, whom we’ve encountered before, has moved from job to job as a “humanist chaplain”: first at Harvard, then at Yale, and he’s now started jobs as Director of the Humanist Center of Minnesota and a Fellow at the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College—an Evangelical Lutheran Church school). Author of the book Faitheist, Stedman’s avowed aim is to find common cause between atheists and believers. To do that, of course, he can’t be critical of religion, for that would erode his mission. Rather, he courts believers and the general public by criticizing vocal atheists and anti-theists, as there’s little downside to going after nonbelievers. The great asymmetry of America is that you get loved and lionized by praising religion, even as an atheist, but demonized if you praise atheism.

Back in the old days, Stedman went after atheists for anti-theism, convinced that his beloved but unrealistic concordat wouldn’t occur if we heathens didn’t shut up about the silliness, falsity, and dangers of religion. Now he’s bought into that staple of Authoritarian Leftist atheists: the trope that our “movement” (whatever that may be) is riddled with misogyny, racism, and, yes, alt-rightism of the white supremacist variety. You can read his “J’Accuse” piece at Vice by clicking on the screenshot below.

In the absence of any data showing that atheists are more conservative, more racist, and more sexist than average people in their demographic, Stedman relies on blanket assertions and anecdotes.  He picks out prominent nonbelievers, including Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and Richard Dawkins, slandering them for the usual reasons (I needn’t recount this here). Aren’t places like Vox and Salon getting tired of publishing the same article again and again?

Now it is true that some prominent atheists have behaved in odious ways (I’ve written about Lawrence Krauss before), but finding bad behavior in a handful so-called atheist “leaders”  doesn’t indict all atheists, or even New Atheists, of the same behavior. You can argue that Stedman, like me, simply wants to clean out the bad apples from his own barrel (my barrel is the Left), but I’ve never indicted the entire Left, or all its leaders (viz., Bernie Sanders, Nancy Pelosi, and so on) for behaving worse than, say, Republicans. No, Stedman wants to say that the problem of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and white supremacy is not only present in some atheists (yes, of course it is!), but is widespread among atheists. And to do that he relies on assertions without data, just making the usual unsupported claims or generalizing from anecdotes.

Some quotes:

I’m still an activist, but after nearly a decade of active participation in online atheism (a loose community of forums, blogs, YouTube channels, and fandoms of figures like evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and writer Sam Harris), I mostly stepped away from the online side of atheism a few years ago. One of the biggest reasons for this was my growing concern over its failure to adequately address some of its darker currents—such as overt sexism, racism, and anti-Muslim bias.

While I can’t demand that all my fellow atheists make public declarations against right-wing and bigoted stands, let me speak for myself, so that Stedman will shut up about me: I decry sexism, racism, and anti-Muslim bigotry, while at the same time reserving opprobrium for the tenets of all religions, including Islam. And I suspect most of you, as well as people like Sam Harris, Steve Pinker, and Richard Dawkins, would join me in that statement. I’m not sure what Stedman means by atheists “adequately addressing some of its darker currents”, but those are currents not of atheism but of humanity. As I’ve said, there’s no necessary connection between atheism and egalitarianism, although I would think there should be some linkage since many atheists are humanists, and humanism prescribes empathy and equality for all.

Here are some of Stedman’s questionable assertions about how atheism promotes alt-rightism and bigotry:

As George Hawley, author of Making Sense of the Alt-Righttold NPR last year, the alt-right is not only “predominantly white millennial men” but also probably represents “a more secular population than the country overall,” meaning many of its members are “agnostics and atheists or people who are just generally indifferent to religion.” Cultural conservatives are leaving organized religion, Peter Beinart argued in the Atlantic last year, and many are making their way into the darker fringes of the right.

. . . The alt-right intentionally targets and preys on people—young white men in particular—who feel disconnected, marginalized, and misunderstood, seeking to give them a sense of identity, belonging, and purpose. It’s not surprising then that atheists, who are often marginalized in America, may be prime targets. [JAC: Have any of you white males been targeted by alt-righters?]

. . . The problem is more widespread than figures like [Richard] Spencer and [Robert] Fisher, too. While championing liberal views on some issues, many of atheism’s most prominent advocates—the majority of whom are, like me, cisgender white men—have expressed troubling sentiments that align with views held by the alt-right and faced little to no consequences.

And this speculation, for which there are no data:

[Community organizer James] Croft suggested that this may be at the heart of the seeming kinship between so-called anti-theists and the alt-right. The taboo-confronting ethos of both movements, where irreverence is idealized and often weaponized, enables some of their members to style themselves as oppressed outsiders—despite often being relatively privileged straight white men. Many in the alt-right and atheist movements seem to see themselves as a group under siege, the last defenders of unfettered inquiry and absolute freedom of thought and speech, contrarians and truth-tellers who are unafraid to push back against the norms of polite, liberal society. If this is a part of why the alt-right seems to appeal to some atheists—and I suspect it is—then we must take a hard look at why that is and how to address it.

This, of course, doesn’t explain why many groups who consider themselves “oppressed outsiders” confronting societal norms and “polite, liberal society” don’t also move to the alt-right. Why is it just atheists?

Okay, Stedman here you go: I  honestly deplore Spencer and Fisher and disassociate myself from them.

Stedman goes on to name those people who have views supposedly aligning with the alt-right, and I’ve named them above. That’s just slander, pure and simple: a way to associate people like Sam Harris and Bill Maher with Nazis. Stedman also notes that several atheist organizations have explicitly declined to condemn Spencer because they didn’t want to call attention to the fact that he was an atheist (he conveniently fails to name these organizations, those he has no trouble naming miscreant atheist “leaders.”) But I’m not sure if it’s the business of organizations like the Freedom from Religion Foundation, for instance, to issue repeated condemnations of bigots and sexists who also happen to be atheists. That’s up to them, but I don’t see groups like the FFRF doing much good by spending their time making Little Lists of Bad Atheists rather than battling the incursion of real dangers—Republicans and free-speech denialistss—to our First Amendment.

In the end, Stedman’s piece is just a long kvetch condemning atheists for not denouncing Richard Spencer for his white supremacy.  So let me start by giving us all an “I am Spartacus” moment:

I, Jerry A. Coyne, hereby condemn Richard Spencer for his injurious and odious white supremacy. 

Stedman goes on to fault us for “mocking the sincerely held beliefs of others”, i.e. making fun of religion. Well, here I’m not with him. Religion is a dangerous superstition, and whatever it takes to make it go away, including reasoned discussion, debate, and yes, mockery, are fine. After all, for centuries those have been weapons against conventional but unfounded beliefs. And I’ll add here, somewhat lightheartedly, a poll on how we feel about these issues. Since it’s anonymous, you can vote how you want, and nobody will know who you are. This poll is just for atheists, and can serve as the kind of record Stedman seems to want. PLEASE VOTE.

Well, Stedman barks, but the caravan moves on. Despite anti-theists and supposedly hateful atheist leaders, the U.S. is becoming, slowly but inexorably, more atheistic.


More faitheism from Julian Baggini

April 2, 2018 • 9:00 am

Philosopher Julian Baggini is an atheist, and in fact the author of Oxford University Press’s Atheism: A Very Short Introduction.  Several years ago I wrote some posts about his lucubrations, which were largely soft on religion despite his own unbelief.

Later, however, after maintaining repeatedly that religion was not about belief in empirical propositions but was really about “practice,” Baggini took two informal polls of churchgoing Anglicans, and found, to his surprise, that far more of these Christians went to church “to worship God” than for “the feeling of community”. But there’s more. As I mention in Faith versus Fact (p. 52):

There was also widespread agreement that the stories in Genesis, such as Adam and Eve, really happened (29 percent), that Jesus performed miracles such as that of the loaves and fishes (76 percent), that Jesus’s death on the cross was necessary for forgiveness of human sin (75 percent), that Jesus was bodily resurrected (81 percent), and that eternal life required accepting Jesus as lord and savior (44 percent). Chastened, Baggini retracted his previous views:

“So what is the headline finding? It is that whatever some might say about religion being more about practice than belief, more praxis than dogma, more about the moral insight of mythos than the factual claims of logos, the vast majority of churchgoing Christians appear to believe orthodox doctrine at pretty much face value. They believe that Jesus is divine, not simply an exceptional human being; that his resurrection was a real, bodily one; that he performed miracles no human being ever could; that he needed to die on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven; and that Jesus is the only way to eternal life. . . This is, I think, a firm riposte to those who dismiss atheists, especially the “new” variety, as being fixated on the literal beliefs associated with religion rather than ethos or practice. It suggests that they are not attacking straw men when they criticise religion for promoting superstitious and supernatural beliefs.”

Of course this should be evident from not only other polls, but from the proposition that you can’t really accept the moral teachings of religion without at least some acceptance of its factual propositions. You can hardly call yourself a Christian, for instance, unless you accept the divinity of Jesus as well as his resurrection; or a Muslim if you don’t think Allah, via Gabriel, dictated the Qur’an to Muhammad. But good for Baggini for testing his propositions and admitting he was wrong—that Christianity did involve belief in facts.

After this, Baggini went quiescent, at least on his faitheism, which was once regularly espoused in the “Comment is free” section of The Guardian.

But he’s back again with a wonky piece in the Guardian, brought to my attention by reader Phil (click on screenshot to see it). As you can see, from the title, it’s an atheist-dissing piece based on the proposition that nonbelievers don’t really understand the nature of faith:

The point of Baggini’s article is that we atheists need to have more understanding of how apparently intelligent people can believe irrational things like the Easter story.  His points are these

  1. Doubt is an important part of religion
  2. Many Christians accept that their beliefs are implausible and irrational, and anyway, God is beyond comprehension, so it’s okay to believe pretty much what you want
  3. Atheists don’t realize that smart people can accept contradictions, sustaining a cognitive dissonance
  4. Atheists who denigrate true believers as “deluded” don’t really understand how it’s possible for believers to accept things they don’t really think are rational or plausible

Here are some quotes from Baggini’s piece supporting this interpretation:

Some believe the unbelievable because they have had religious experiences so strong that they are literally unable to doubt their veracity of. It’s hard for those of us who haven’t had such an experience to appreciate how powerful it can be. But once you accept the existence of a divine creator who has a personal relationship with you, almost anything else is possible. It is not crazy but logical to conclude that what such a God says or does will sometimes be beyond our comprehension. It follows that there is nothing irrational in accepting a story that we are unable to make sense of rationally.

Note that he accepts as a basis for faith the “religious experiences” described so thoroughly by William James. But that’s the first bit of pure irrationality: accepting your own revelations, without supporting evidence, as sufficient reason to adopt not only a belief system, but one that comes with a morality and empirical claims. And what about a Muslim who has a revelation that leads to an entirely different worldview?

Further, is it not logical to realize that humans have revelations that, amazingly, comport with the belief system already dominant in their own culture? And that people have all kinds of revelations that tell us nothing about what is true? And is it really logical to conclude that what God says is “beyond our comprehension”? Is that then a reason for believing anything? And given that different believers accept different bits of the “story,” even in Christianity, which stories should we accept? And if we can’t adduce reasons for the stories we do accept versus those we reject, we are indeed behaving irrationally. Further, if God is beyond our comprehension, why accept any stories, since they’re all filtered through humans? Is a revelation enough?

What atheists often forget is that many – perhaps most – religious believers are less than completely convinced anyway. [JAC: He apparently doesn’t know many Muslims or Evangelical Christians.] Many of them are fully aware of the dissonance between what their faith and their rational mind tell them. Religion offers many tools to help manage this. It tells people that faith is superior to belief based on evidence. “Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed,” Jesus told “doubting Thomas”, adding: “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” Religion also tells believers that doubt is to be expected, even welcomed, as part of the journey of faith, all the time reassuring them that God is beyond our understanding. The Easter story thus ends up rather like quantum theory: if you find it easy to believe, you haven’t understood it. Illogicality is a design feature, not a design flaw.

Isn’t that convenient: the easier it is to believe a religious tale, the less likely you are to have understood it!

But no, the Easter story doesn’t end up “rather like quantum theory”, for quantum theory isn’t the same thing as wish-thinking. Quantum theory is based on evidence, and although we have trouble wrapping our minds around it from our everyday experience, there’s plenty of evidence that the theory is true. And it makes highly precise predictions that are in fact validated by further study. In contrast, there isn’t any evidence for the Easter story save what’s written in the New Testament—and even the different Gospels tell different stories. Those stories do make one prediction, but it’s a false one: Jesus will come into his kingdom before the death of some people who heard him preach.  We’re still waiting. Finally, quantum theory is not illogical, it’s just contrary to everyday experience.

In the end, Baggini somehow manages to turn the “cognitive dissonance” (he misconstrues this, for true cognitive dissonance leads to mental distress, which most believers don’t suffer vis-à-vis their faith) into a cudgel to bash atheists. We can’t understand it, so we have no basis for calling believers “delusional”:

Anyone surprised that people manage to sustain this dissonance all their lives hasn’t been paying enough attention to what psychology has taught us about our capacities to assert contradictions. What we call our “selves” are far less unified and coherent than common sense suggests. When we say “a part of me” believes one thing and another part something else, we are being more literal than we think. Dismissing believers as simply deluded could therefore itself be a way for us atheists to deal with our own dissonance between the belief that Easter is palpable nonsense, and the awareness that seemingly intelligent people believe in it. If we really do find implausible beliefs offensive, we ought at least to have more plausible explanations for why others have them.

No, there are plenty of theories of why people are religious, and most of us know some: it gives us comfort, provides a sense of comity with others, counters the horrible fact of our mortality, and appears to make sense of things we don’t understand (consciousness, the laws of physics, etc.). Are those not “plausible explanations”—plausible enough to make people believe in the face of counterevidence? And don’t we know many people who have adduced these reasons? Atheists aren’t as dumb as Baggini makes them out to be.

But no matter why people believe, for if they believe on the basis of no evidence, they are deluding themselves.  Would Baggini be so kind to anti-Obama “birthers” or 9-11 conspiracy theorists, many of whom seem otherwise intelligent? (I recently met a biologist who was quite smart, but then presented me with a bizarre document proving that the World Trade Center plane attacks were the work of the Jews).

It’s hard not to lose patience when one sees an intelligent person like Baggini trying to excuse a faith he rejects himself, presumably on the grounds of “no evidence”. The fact is that it is irrational to accept religious stories, no matter how comforting they are. It is a delusion to take things as true when all the evidence says they’re false—or we don’t have any evidence for them. While I’m harder on people whose faith prompts them to do bad things, like persecuting women and gays, than on those whose faith is less injurious to others, having faith is in general bad because it leads society to think that there’s something admirable about believing without evidence. And that general attitude is inimical to social progress.

In the end I have to agree with this commenter:

It’s heartening to read the comments, for, Britain being largely secular, most of them aren’t putting up with Baggini’s nonsense.

Reza Aslan and Chris Stedman: Atheists and Muslims have lots in common and should be pals

October 20, 2014 • 6:14 am

When I stayed in England in my younger years, I used to read the Guardian, which I was told was the only good liberal newspaper in the country.

But how low it’s sunk!  I find little of interest there, and what we find is polluted with the mush-brained and predictable rants of Andrew Brown, as well as a spate of ill-tempered and poorly argued pieces attacking New Atheism, “Islamophobia”, and the like. The paper must be desperate for clicks. Whatever. It is to kneejerk liberals as the Sun is to soccer yobs.

This latest accommodationist post, though, takes the cake, or, as the Germans say, “nimmt den Kuchen” (my grammar’s probably wrong). The piece is by the unholy duo of Reza Aslan and Chris Stedman, and is called, “‘Violent’ Muslims?’ ‘Amoral’ atheists? It’s time to stop shouting and start talking to each other.

Stedman, of course, is a religion-friendly atheist (head of Humanist Community of Yale University), whose book was called Faitheist; while Aslan is the premier apologist in America for the excesses of Islam, someone who pretends to be a credentialed religious scholar. Their joint article should really have been called “Why can’t Muslims and atheists be pals?”

Here is their argument:

1. Both Muslims and atheists are reviled in America, especially by Christians.
2. Both groups are also numerical minorities.
3. American Muslims are more critical of civilian “collateral damage” in wartime than are members of other American faiths, hence, they are not only benign, but appaarently more liberal than non-Muslim Americans—if one considers this single issue.

Their conclusion: Muslims and atheists should talk to each other, find common ground, and be friends.

As the duo write:

So why hasn’t there been more dialogue and solidarity between Muslims and atheists? Can’t we all just get along?

The divide has to do in part with our natural inclination to retreat into our own communities or get defensive when confronted with difference. As a result, stereotypes about both groups not only go unchallenged – they become amplified as each side clings to its preconceived notions of the other. While it’s certainly not the only cause, the amplification of this “us against them” attitude has contributed to large majorities of Americans labeling Muslims as “violent” and atheists as “amoral”.

The irony is that when atheists and believers get to know one another, they often discover that many of their values are not so different after all. That is something that we, a Muslim and an atheist, have learned from our friendship – even as we acknowledge our differences and disagreements.

This dialogue between Muslims and Heathens is supposed to be mutually beneficial:

When 46% of Americans think Islam is more violent than other faiths but only 37% even know a Muslim, and when atheists remain one of the most distrusted groups in the country, it’s clear that a conversation between these two communities could benefit both. But that won’t happen until we Muslims and atheists commit to spending less time speaking past one another and more time speaking with one another.

Sadly, their argument is utterly ridiculous, and for several reasons. First, who really wants that dialogue? Do Muslims hunger for dialogue with atheists? No. Perhaps they want to be accepted by atheists and others, but I doubt they want to talk to atheists with the aim of benefitting themselves. I suspect that if anyone wants dialogue, it’s accommodationist faitheists like Stedman (remember, he applied the term “faitheist” to himself). Even Aslan hasn’t shown himself to be particularly desirous of conversing with atheists. So far, his “discourse” has consisted of nonstop sniping at atheists who, he claims, simply misunderstand Islam, and impute to the faith perfidies that are really cultural in origin, or stem from colonialism. Does Aslan really want a dialogue? I’ll believe that when I hear him actually listen thoughtfully to what New Atheists say.

Second, American atheists don’t revile American Muslims that much, for that group, embedded in a liberal democracy that prevents obvious extremism, is indeed far less harmful than many of their extremist coreligionists elsewhere. Nevertheless, I deplore most of the doctrine of Islam, which includes institutionalized marginalization of women, calls for death of apostates, the imposition of repressive sharia law, and so on. To the extent that Muslims adhere to this kind of belief, I criticize those beliefs.  And I will criticize them in the U.S., precisely as much as I criticize the pernicious beliefs, of, say, Catholic.

My own quarrel with Islam is not with the actions of American Muslims, but with how Islamic belief is translated into action in other places. It is odd that the Guardian, a British paper, chooses to promote friendship between American atheists and American Muslims when the real quarrel is between worldwide atheists or liberals and worldwide extremist Islam—the form that is misogynistic, oppressive, and even murderous.  Do you have to know a jihadi personally to criticize him? I don’t think so.

And don’t forget that many Muslims in the U.S. and the U.K. while criticizing the barbarity of ISIS, fail to do so with respect to the other malevolent and unenlightened brands of Islam. So long as a religion oppresses the half of its members that lack a Y chromosome, I will oppose it. Do male Muslims in America allow their daughters and wives the same kind of freedom of opportunity as members of other faiths (I except here some of the Pentecostal Christians as well as some Mormon sects)? I hope so, but I’m not sure.

Now, what is the benefit of atheists talking to each Muslims? I may learn that some Muslims are nice people, but I know that already, having traveled in countries where Islam is prevalent (Turkey and Morocco, for instance). This is not news to me. But that doesn’t mean that I will become soft on Islamic theology, just as knowing Catholics doesn’t make me softer on Catholic theology. I do not hate Andrew Sullivan (in fact, I kind of like him sometimes), but I will criticize to my last breath the views of the Church to which he adheres. And I will never accept, in dialogue with Muslims, the widespread view that woman are like breeder cattle whose job is to produce nascent Muslims, and whose testimony is, in sharia court, worth but half of a man’s.

And shouldn’t atheists and Muslims be talking not to each other, but to the Christian majority who reviles both of us? Wouldn’t that effect more comity than friendship between two reviled groups? What is the point of two small minorities talking to each other rather than seeking acceptance from the majority. Aslan and Stedman don’t explain.

In the end, I see nothing substantive to be be gained by this conversation except getting to know our neighbors. What thoughtful atheists oppose is the pernicious effect of Islamic doctrine, not the existence of peaceable Muslims who live alongside us. If they embrace Islamic doctrine but don’t act on it (i.e., if they allow Muslim women complete freedom of dress, of opportunity, of mate choice, and so on), then that’s fine. But if they oppress women or gays in any way, that’s not fine, even if Muslims don’t like the killing of civilians in wars. Oppression of women and hatred of gays is also collateral damage: a byproduct of Islamic faith. And if they tacitly support coreligionist extremists by remaining silent about that excesses of Islam, that, too, is bad. Needless to say, there is no branch of atheism that supports killing those who revert to religion, or seeks to murder those who still believe in God or who have sex with someone of their own sex. Muslims don’t go around with bodyguards because they fear assassination by atheists. And atheists issue no fatwas.  You have to look hard to find any kind of “doctrinal” parity between atheists and Muslims. And there lies the problem. Finally, we have this quote from Aslan and Stedman:

“When 46% of Americans think Islam is more violent than other faiths but only 37% even know a Muslim, and when atheists remain one of the most distrusted groups in the country, it’s clear that a conversation between these two communities could benefit both.”
As a friend said who sent me this piece:
It is a complete non sequitur if you follow the implied course of actions to their logical conclusion: Muslims and atheists can become a group that is hated by the Christian majority together? How is that going to be useful or productive?

Two more points: atheists and Muslims have talked to each other, but both parties must rely on rational discourse and not extremist dogma. Productive discussion can be seen between, for example, Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz. (Nawaz, as a liberal Muslim who decries coreligionist extremists, is widely hated by both Muslims and liberals.) Unproductive dialogue can be seen between Richard Dawkins and people like Mehdi Hasan, who adheres to preposterous tenets of Islam and is certainly not interested in any kind of comity.

There are many comments at the Guardian, and lots of them highlight the inanity of Aslan and Stedman’s argument, but I’ll just post the latest two comments:

Screen shot 2014-10-20 at 3.47.43 PM

Philosopher John Gray denigrates reason and promotes religion on the BBC

July 21, 2014 • 9:19 am

John N. Gray (b. 1948) is an English political philosopher  who is an emeritus professor at the London School of Economics.  According to Wikipedia, he “contributes regularly to The GuardianThe Times Literary Supplementand the New Statesman, where he is the lead book reviewer.”

For a philosopher, Gray shows a curious tendency to denigrate reason and praise faith. We’ve met him before on this website (here and here), and in both cases he pointed out the limitations of science and argued that religion is a way of knowing that yields truths inaccessible to science.

We’re used to that view from faitheists and believers, but not from secular philosophers. It’s doubly curious because, in the article I’ll discuss today, Gray avers that he’s an atheist. (He’s also espoused another atheist-bashing trope: the notion that atheists are deficient because we don’t hold “the tragic view of life” taken by Nietzsche, whom Gray called “the pivotal modern critic of religion,” one who “will continue to be the ghost at the atheist feast.”)

Here’s some of Gray’s religion-osculation and science-bashing from a 2011 BBC piece, “A point of view: can religion tell us more than science“:

Unbelievers in religion who think science can save the world are possessed by a fantasy that’s far more childish than any myth. The idea that humans will rise from the dead may be incredible, but no more so than the notion that “humanity” can use science to remake the world.

. . . Myths aren’t relics of childish thinking that humanity leaves behind as it marches towards a more grown-up view of things. They’re stories that tell us something about ourselves that can’t be captured in scientific theories.

Just as you don’t have to believe that a scientific theory is true in order to use it, you don’t have to believe a story for it to give meaning to your life.

Myths can’t be verified or falsified in the way theories can be. But they can be more or less truthful to human experience, and I’ve no doubt that some of the ancient myths we inherit from religion are far more truthful than the stories the modern world tells about itself.

By all means, Dr. Gray, let us hear some of the ancient myths that are more truthful than what modern science accepts. By truths, he means “truths about human experience,” some of which can indeed be verified empirically (i.e., “I got depressed when I was diagnosed with cancer:). But as is usual with critics of “scientism,” Gray neglects to mention any of these truths. He just bashes science, perhaps because he resents its advances. What one cannot doubt, unless one is completely blinkered with faith, is that science has saved the world far more than any myth. Two examples: antibiotics and the Green Revolution.

What is is about atheists that makes them so ready to criticize other atheists rather than the religious, whose beliefs they not only find wrong, but sometimes admit are harmful? What comparable harms does atheism do? This kind of atheist-bashing fascinates me; after all, we all disbelieve in the same God!

I suppose the atheist-bashing of arrogant pundits like Gray derives from their claim that we’re disbelieving for the wrong reasons. But I suggest that “not enough evidence” is a reason that’s perfectly sufficient. As for the “value of myth” in helping humanity, I’d like to see some examples. As an atheist who nevertheless promotes religious belief, Gray is simply advancing the condescending Little People Argument. If we need myth, how about simple but clearly fictional stories that espouse racial and sexual equality and note the horrible consequences of prejudice. Why do we need to accrete those stories around scripture that is not only claimed to be true, but has a lot of bad side effects? Why the Bible instead of, say, Maus(Actually, Maus is a graphic novel—a very wonderful one—based on real events.)

At any rate, Gray continues his attacks in another piece in BBC Magazine published 3 days ago: “The child-like faith in reason.” What a strange title for a philosopher to use! And the piece is every bit as critical of reason as Gray’s religious predecessors, like Martin Luther:

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard religion being described as childish. It’s one of those uncritically accepted ideas – perhaps I should say memes – that have been floating around for generations. Even many religious people seem to accept that there’s something at least child-like about their faith. Believing in God, they sometimes say, is a bond between human beings and an infinitely wiser power – we should trust in God just as we would a loving parent. When they hear this, our evangelical atheists feel vindicated in their crusade. In their view, nothing could be more childish than a relationship in which human beings are utterly dependent on a supernatural power. For these atheists, putting your trust in such an imaginary being is the essence of childishness.

Oh, Lord, there’s the “evangelical atheists” again, by which Gray really means “passionate and outspoken atheists.” He’s just saying that to slip the “evangelical” word in, as if somehow outspoken atheism was a religion. By those lights, I suppose we could call Gray an “evangelical philosopher.”

Gray continues, and I have bolded a very striking (and completely idiotic) statement:

Speaking as an atheist myself, I can’t help smiling when I hear religion being mocked in this way. Looking at the world as it has been and continues to be at the present time, it’s belief in human reason that’s childish. Religious faith is based on accepting that we know very little of God. But we know a great deal about human beings, and one of the things we know for sure is that we’re not rational animals. Believing in the power of human reason requires a greater leap of faith than believing in God.

Such a statement borders on insanity. For we have ample demonstration that using reason has told us truths about the universe. How do we know? Because reason works. If you want to cure infectious diseases, you do it by reason: making hypotheses, doing tests of whether diseases are caused by transmitted microorganisms, devising antibiotics or antivirals, testing them scientifically, and so on. It is through reason that we’ve found everything we know about the universe. If reason was as fallacious as Gray avows, the material human condition, as well as our ability to predict eclipses and send men to the Moon, wouldn’t have improved.

In contrast, believing in God hasn’t told us one thing about the universe, including whether said god exists, whether there is more than one god, what said god wants us to do, whether there’s an afterlife, and so on. Religion, in other words, simply makes stuff up and has no way to determine whether what it makes up bears any correspondence to reality. Why on earth, then, would you trust revelation and dogma more than reason? You wouldn’t trust revelation and dogma to fix your car, cure your disease, or purify your water. Why would you trust your entire life, now and hereafter, to it? There is no “leap of faith” involved in believing in reason.  We don’t have “faith” in reason, we use reason, as does Gray in his article. And we use it because it gives us results.  The true leap of faith is believing in supernatural beings and the dictates of religions.

In fact, in his whole article Gray says nothing in favor of reason, which he sees as hopelessly inadequate for solving human problems. Humans, he says, are not reasoning animals, for we have an annoying propensity to believe in the palpably untrue:

If human beings were potentially capable of applying reason in their lives they would show some sign of learning from what they had done wrong in the past, but history and everyday practice show them committing the same follies over and over again. They would alter their beliefs in accordance with facts, but clinging to beliefs in the face of contrary evidence is one of the most powerful and enduring human traits.

Umm. . . we no longer believe that disease or drought are signs of God’s displeasure (Rick Perry excepted), nor mental illness a sign of affliction by demons. We have used reason to show that lightning has physical causes rather than divine anger. Most of us use reason in our jobs, and we’d be unemployed if we didn’t. Why doesn’t Gray realize that?

Really, one would have to be blind to claim that every rejection of reason of humanity’s ancient days remains with us, and has kept us from advancing, both scientifically and morally. Morally because, as Steve Pinker showed in The Better Angels of Our Nature, it is reason that has led to the decline of violence on Earth, as well as other salubrious (and probably inexorable) changes in attitudes. For what is it but reason that has led us to recognize that heterosexual adult white European males hold no special moral privilege over gays, people of other ethnicities, or women? Or that children should be not be worked to death and animals mistreated? Those advances did not come from religion, although some churches promoted more liberal attitudes. Had equality been inherent in Christianity (or Judaism or Islam) from the outset, and had scripture been a myth that promoted good behavior, most of those improvements in morality would have taken place by the Middle Ages, not in the last two centuries.

Nevertheless, Gray sees religion as some kind of palliative to human problems (my emphasis):

Outside of some areas of science, human beings rarely give up their convictions just because they can be shown to be false. No doubt we can become a little more reasonable, at least for a time, in some parts of our lives, but being reasonable means accepting that many human problems aren’t actually soluble, and our persistent irrationality is one of these problems. At its best, religion is an antidote against the prevailing type of credulity – in our day, a naive faith in the boundless capacities of the human mind.

The belief in reason that is being promoted today rests on a number of childishly simple ideas. One of the commonest is that history’s crimes are mistakes that can be avoided in future as we acquire greater knowledge. But human evil isn’t a type of error that can be discarded like an obsolete scientific theory. If history teaches us anything it’s that hatred and cruelty are permanent human flaws, which find expression whatever beliefs people may profess.

Note that he says, “at its best”.  Really, though, which religions are “at their best”?  Which ones have been antidotes against the “prevailing credulity” of faith in the “capacities of the human mind”? Gray is triply wrong here. First, even the “best” religions expand the credulity of the human mind by asking us to believe the unbelievable: prophets flying to heaven on horses, saviors coming back to life after being crucified, or the existence of an afterlife in which we get either wings or fire. Are those things not conceived in the human mind and a product of irrationality—religion? Nor, as we know, are these beliefs always salubrious, even if they’re wrong.

Further, it is precisely our faith in reason that has improved humanity. How much has theology, or religion itself, improved the human lot (especially compared to science) over the last 400 years?

Finally, Gray is wrong that humans cannot become markedly better. Yes, cruelty and avarice will always be with us, partly because some of that was instilled in us by evolution. But, as Pinker showed, we’re capable of using our reason to overcome these tendencies.  I would maintain that the average person, at least in the West  (the area I know most about) is markedly more empathic now than, say, three hundred years ago.  Do we laugh at cats being tortured, as they did in medieval France? Do we not care about children laboring in coal mines, something that was acceptable  in England not all that long ago? Do we not recognize that women have moral and political equality, something laughed at only a few centuries ago? Do remember that it was only in in the 1970s that women in Switzerland got the right to vote! And they still can’t drive in Saudi Arabia—all because of the wondrous power of myth.

Gray, then, is simply wrong when he says this:

If human beings were potentially capable of applying reason in their lives they would show some sign of learning from what they had done wrong in the past, but history and everyday practice show them committing the same follies over and over again. They would alter their beliefs in accordance with facts, but clinging to beliefs in the face of contrary evidence is one of the most powerful and enduring human traits.

Oh really? Yes, we still have wars, but, as I said, we are on a moral arc that makes us significantly more empathic than our ancestors. Does that come from reason or from religion? (Indeed, science can potentially feed into this kind of reason, for it can show us, for instance, that a society that treats women or minorites as equals is a better society in which to live than one sanctioning inequality.) And science itself is a product of learning: the discovery that using reason observation gives us useful truths about the universe. Does Gray really think that the adoption of science instead of superstition doesn’t represent any kind of “learning from what we’d done wrong in the past”?

And, in the end, Gray can’t help but get in the obligatory licks against science:

In Europe before and during World War Two, persecution and genocide were supported by racial and eugenic theories, which allowed some groups to be demonised. These theories were pseudo-science of the worst kind, but it wasn’t this that discredited them. They were exposed for what they were by the defeat of Nazism, which revealed the horrors to which they had led. Subsequent investigation has since demonstrated that such theories are scientifically worthless. But the habit of demonising other human beings hasn’t gone away. The same minorities that were targeted in the past – Jews, Roma, immigrants and gay people, for example – are being targeted in many countries today.

Racism and eugenics did not come from science and reason, but simply used science to prop up the endemic unreason and xenophobia that Gray already indicted our species for. “Pseudo-science” is correct, for those “theories” didn’t rest on real science: the kind supported by reason and empirical investigation.  The extermination of the Jews, for instance, rested purely on religiously-based prejudice. Chalk up another good effect of “myth” that is “true to human experience.”

Frankly, if I didn’t know Gray was a serious philosopher, I’d think that this piece was meant as a joke, or a Sokal-style hoax. Really, a philosopher writing repeatedly that reason is overrated? (Why the BBC would publish a piece denigrating reason is beyond my ken.)

But he’s not joking, for he’s been cranking out this kind of stuff for years. No, the man is simply doing bad philosophy—if you can call that philosophy. (I’d call it an academic version of The Daily Mail.) The reasons for this bad philosophy, and for the denigration of the very values that underlie Gray’s discipline, are beyond me; they lie deep in the murky waters of psychology and upbringing. And I’m surprised that the BBC would publish this sort of stuff. Do they consider this a deeply thoughtful piece? Maybe I’m wrong, but it’s my impression that the quality of British journalism has declined steeply in the last few decades.

And if you don’t believe that Gray’s article is totally worthless, consider this: his essay uses reason to try to convince people that reason doesn’t work well for convincing people!

h/t: Michael

Atheism as self-help

March 25, 2014 • 1:20 pm

Alain de Botton is about to unleash another bout of Religion for Atheists on us—in fact, that’s the title of his last book, and I suppose his principles are summarized in this handy little “Manifesto for Atheists.”

Call me a curmudgeon (on second thought, please don’t), but do we really need these bromides, posted yesterday afternoon on his Twi**er feed?

Screen shot 2014-03-23 at 5.11.19 PM


Read and be virtuous! My own Manifesto for Atheists would be much shorter:

1. There is no evidence for gods. The rest is commentary

The rest you can find in the “self help” section of any bookstore. The ten above are in fact qualities for anybody to aspire to, not just atheists.  In fact, their connection to atheism is obscure to me.