Saturday, July 12, 2008

I am not you, atheism.

Via Alan Jacobs at the American Scene, PZ Meyers wants attention. He really, really does.

I don't believe in God, I guess, in any conventional terms, and I'm non-religious. But Jeezy Chreezy, the public face of atheism turns my stomach. It is an unrelenting, never ending foray into self-aggrandizement, debasement of one's opponents, and ridicule of things one doesn't believe in. If someone was a political commentator, and operated the way Meyers, Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens did, would anyone listen to them? No. As much as the success of the Ann Coulters of the world suggests otherwise, we largely understand that a basic level of decorum, mutual respect, and the assumption of good faith should under gird our national dialogue. Indeed, without these assumptions, the dialogue is not worth having.

But then there is atheism, where it is apparently the case that you can always come closer to righteousness by expressing still-greater contempt for those with which you don't agree. Now, this is all very strange; though growing, the atheist minority is stilled dwarfed in this country and in this world by the religious. And how can you possibly change people's minds if you're constantly ridiculing them? Doesn't make much sense.

But I suspect that it makes perfect sense. It makes sense because the goal of the new atheism has never been to convert. It has never been to include. It has never been to change minds. The ridicule is the goal; the contempt is the end; the sheer fun of sanctimony, self-righteousness and loathing are the purpose. Go to Youtube and look for all the young atheists proudly telling their webcams that Jesus is a lie and religion is a fantasy and God is a disease and on and on.... Do they really want to convince anyone? No. What they want is to feel that they are better than others. They want to insult for the joy of insulting. They want a sense of superiority, one I imagine is often denied in their lives, and by ridiculing something others find sacred, they find their method. This is classic adversary philosophy: I think this thing is true because in its being true it debases you and elevates me.

The new atheism has made its challenge, then. And here is my answer. I don't believe in God, in any meaningful way. I am not a Christian or a Muslim or a Hindu or a Buddhist or a Jew, or whatever else you will. In questions of public policy I feel religion has no place, and rational discourse has to rule. I don't want religious artifacts in the public square, I don't want creationism taught in public schools, and I don't want any religion privileged in any way by government. I am, in most every way that matters, a natural ally of atheism.

But atheism has expelled me. It has expelled me because it has in its heart contempt and loathing and fear of the other. So I reject it. I don't reject all atheists; many atheist are uninterested in ridiculing the religious-- they simply want to be left in peace, and not have religion forced on them or on the law. That, to me, is a principled atheism, and one I am happy to coexist with. But this new atheism, this anti-theism, has only contempt at its heart, and I reject it as thoroughly as it has rejected me.


Christopher M said...

To some extent I agree: for example, this stunt with the communion wafer is nothing but juvenile delight in cruel mockery. Would Myers mock a small child who held to some similarly irrational notion? If a child insisted there were magical creatures in his lunchbox, would Myers grab the lunchbox, dump out its contents, and laugh at the crying child?

If Myers is right about religion, the theists are roughly in the position of a child (with regard, of course, only to this particular issue), so what's the difference?

I will also say this, though. A certain amount of mockery of religion is a good and proper thing. Many religions do things, or impose beliefs, with extremely bad consequences for the world. It isn't enough to fight with religious believers on individual issues about homosexuality, condoms, science education, and so on. You have to persuade people to abandon a certain quasi-mystical, magical-thinking sense of how the world works, and to embrace -- at least to mostly embrace -- rationalism.

Because only once people are in that frame of mind can you hope to convince them rationally (or, for that matter, to be convinced by them on issues where you're wrong). And as history has shown since Voltaire (indeed, long before), one very good way to knock a little rational skepticism into people is to "break the spell" with a little mockery of religion. And I don't even think it's a bad thing if cultural elites send signals out into the broader world that a fundamentally religious worldview is not quite hip, something to be laughed at a little.

That's very different from deliberately desecrating an object that some people venerate, just for the fun of making them suffer.

Bobcat said...

Myers doesn't think the religious are literally children. He thinks they're adults who have beliefs that the evidence refutes. There's more than this, though: he doesn't have contempt for scientists whose positions he thinks the evidence refutes (except those scientists who believe that race is a natural kind, or who think that "g" measures anything). So it's rather that he thinks they have beliefs that the evidence not only refutes, but obviously refutes. So, people who believe in the teeth of the evidence are stupid, or ignorant, or self-deceiving, or are crypto-atheists.

Now, the last category of person definitely deserves scorn; the second-to-last kind perhaps deserves contempt as well; but I don't think the stupid or the ignorant should be so ridiculed--in both cases because neither of them is responsible for their condition (unless the ignorance is self-imposed, which is a kind of self-deception).

And yet Myers has unabashed contempt for every religious person, whatever the explanation. And ironically, he is himself quite ignorant of religion, philosophy of religion, philosophy of science, and epistemology, knowledge of which would enable him to make better arguments. And if he doesn't know he's ignorant, he's self-deceived. I'm sure if he read this, though, he would disparage it as the "courtier's reply". So I invite him to get into a public, taped debate with, say, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Peter van Inwagen, Michael Rea, Dean Zimmerman, Daniel Howard-Snyder, Eleonore Stump, Marilyn McCord Adams, or Robert Adams. I believe it would be quite illuminating.

Trevor said...

Amen, Freddie.

Christopher M said...

Bobcat: but I don't think the stupid or the ignorant should be so ridiculed--in both cases because neither of them is responsible for their condition (unless the ignorance is self-imposed, which is a kind of self-deception

One point worth making is that this statement -- and it may or may not be true or false or neither, I'm not sure -- does not follow in any way from the premises about science that Myers holds dear. Any question about whether people "should" be ridiculed is a moral question, and while science might hope to explain why we think what we do about that question, it couldn't possibly say whether or not we were right about what "should" or "should not" happen.

Anyway, what bothers me most about Myers and those like him is that they don't acknowledge that they have deep moral views (about the supremacy of truth, the worthiness of ridicule of the ignorant, the value of accurate knowledge above other conceivable values, etc.), and these moral views don't follow from the rationalism-about-the-world that they espouse.

Bobcat said...

I honestly doubt Myers has given the status of his moral views, or any of his normative views at all, really, much thought. For instance, he would probably claim that moral beliefs are mere preferences for the world being one way rather than another, or expressions of emotions, etc. But when he's actually expressing them, I doubt very much they seem to him like other preferences, such as his preference for vanilla over chocolate ice cream. They probably seem to him to be 'objective'--not just the way he would like things, but the way things really ought to be, such that if you disagree with him you show yourself to be somehow deficient (whereas he wouldn't think that your disagreeing with him about ice cream preference shows you to be deficient).

As for his normative views in general, I assume he thinks evolutionary theory, or something very close to it, is TRUE. As in, it describes what really happened in the past, what is really happening now, and what will happen in the future. If asked why, he would probably say something like, "it's the best explanation of the data" or "it's the simplest explanation" or "it has the best predictive power". Obviously, to say that an explanation is "best", though, is to presume something normative; moreover, to go from "this explanation is the best" to "therefore, this explanation correctly describes the world" itself relies on a principle that is contestable (and has been contested), and that cannot be tested for. I.e., a normative principle. And normative principles marble the rest of his justifications for science.

Though of course if he read this he would either say I'm being sophistical, or willfully uncharitable, or stupid, or none of this matters, or--who knows?--he might even offer a thoughtful response. But I suspect he sees all such questions as trivial, already satisfactorily answered, etc.

Olivia Xifry said...

Even as a God-fearing Christian, I understand Myers scorn at the notion that the consecrated wafer of the Catholic communion contains the actual body of Christ--though of course I disagree with it.

The kerfuffle that he's caused with his expressed desire to defile the sacrament is naturally upsetting to many who take the Catholic church's view of the inviolability of this core aspect of worship.

(I find some humor in this though. Myers won't attend a Mass to receive the wafer. Rather he wants someone to send him one. If the consecrated wafer has no meaning, the Mass at which it's dispensed likewise has none. Why not just saunter in on a Sunday morning and get your own?)

As for an earlier commenter's interpreting Myers action as "juvenile delight in cruel mockery", I don't read it this way.

Remember that he was writing in response to a story where a college student parishioner named Webster Cook went to Mass, obtained the Sacrament, didn't consume it at the altar, but instead planned to take it home. Cook was physically stopped from doing so. The event led to complaints being filed on both sides (Cook claiming assault, the diocese claiming theft--or so it was reported.)

Unsurprisingly, the number of aggrieved parties grew (and is probably growing still) as the story went national. Inevitably, incendiarists on both sides chose to embed themselves in the controversy--as is their nature.

The Catholic League, a prominent national organization that takes upon itself the burden of defending Catholicism against all slights and against all comers, raised Myers ire with their defense of the local diocese's action. The League claims that a hate crime has been committed, as they accused the parishioner of holding hostage the body of Christ. The student parishioner was sent death threats and is now facing possible expulsion.

It was in response to the essential absurdity of this chain of events that Myers requested the opportunity to "eat a cracker" as he insultingly puts it.

Ryan Lanham said...

Yep. You articulated my view perfectly. Thank you.


Mike said...

I really like this post. It reminds me of this eulogy for Richard Rorty:

== ==
The philosopher Anthony Appiah once described his views on matters religious to me as “boring atheist.” I rather liked that description, by which he meant that for him, as for virtually all analytic philosophers, religious claims are too obviously unconvincing to merit a great deal of intellectual energy: the question of the existence of God simply doesn’t register as a serious matter of philosophical dispute anymore.

In contrast to this “boring atheism” one finds the atheism of a Voltaire, a Marx, a Nietzsche, a Freud, a Russell: volcanic intellectual confrontations that regard religion as mendacious, narcotic, slavish, illusory, pernicious. With their impassioned polemics and very public salvos, the so-called new atheists—Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens—are clearly of the unboring variety.

Richard Rorty—the most influential American philosopher of the last three decades, who died in June—would undoubtedly have counted himself, along with Appiah, in the boring atheist camp.

He was, decidedly and very openly, an atheist. Indeed he had much to say about religion and secularism that would bring smiles to the faces of humanists. But Rorty’s critique of religious belief took a different tack from that of most atheists—especially from those whose rejection of faith relies on scientific arguments. Late in life Rorty even suggested that “anticlericalism” might be a better term for his outlook than “atheism.”

Hapless Passenger said...

"Go to Youtube and look for all the young atheists proudly telling their webcams..."

If you got this idea by looking at YouTube videos I suggest you try looking at YouTube videos for just about any other topic under the sun and I think you'll be equally appalled.

When I read Hitchens or Dawkins I don't see them as ridiculing the religious, I just see their genuine astonishment and incomprehension that people can believe things that are so self-evidently false. I think it is this astonishment that motivates them, not a smug sense of superiority.

Titan said...

What exactly do you have against Richard Dawkins? He always comes across as rather mild to me. Sure you can pick out a handful of aggressive quotes over the course of a 30-year public career, but still, an Ann Coulter comparison? Read Coulter's "How to talk to a Liberal (If You Must)" or "Treason", then pick up "The Blind Watchmaker" by Dawkins and tell me again how they are the same.

You say the goal has never been to convert, when the opening passages of the God Delusion express the hope that believers will be atheist when they put the book down.

Religious beliefs are illogical. It is easy to shoot holes in them. You seem to be confusing this for ridicule.

You also left off Sam Harris and Dan Dennett, neither of which have ever spoken above 20 decibels.

This whole post is a gross over-generalization because you're upset with PZ's stunt.

Matt said...

In defense of the passionate ridicule of theist, as expressed by the "new atheists," I must say that that stance is taken from what could be seen as a sound and logical standpoint. Yes, the atheist understands that ridicule is not the best grounds on which you can convert or convince someone to take a new position on some subject, but the difference with things pertaining to God is that arguments and tactics simply don't make a difference.

So, rather than present arguments with a person-by-person strategic bent, we must actually look at our society and culture as a whole. Most religious beliefs are clearly absurd, and until we can, almost anonymously, stress this over and over, society will never change. This is the very essence of "new-atheism" which, as you pointed out, is best reflected from the strutting, preening, arrogant you-tube videos.

Grandmothers are still free to say their prayers; only a monster would dare engage such a person in an argument over the scientifically based impotency of prayer.

Anonymous said...

Many commenters have covered several points well, and I only wish to add that sometimes inversion of situation is beneficial for a person who is being unconsciously insulting, as religious people in a religiously-dominant culture are often wont to do.

For example, as I (an Atheist) was touring a beautiful cathedral with a Catholic friend, she made a crack about her expectation that I would "burst into flames" upon treading upon such holy ground. I pointed out that such a comment is approximately as insulting as saying to a Christian: "Hey, don't pick up that biology textbook, or a miniature Jesus Christ might burst out of your chest and kill the local townsfolk!"

She was momentarily pissed, but after she calmed down we chatted about it, and I explained to her why her comment was so insulting (I came, after all, not just to admire the building but also to respect her traditions), and we were both better for it.

The problem with being a member of a majority is that things can be so slanted to accommodate your position that the very structure of society, language, etc. can be abusive to those who don't share the same beliefs and traditions. It is no great crime, nor a measure of intolerance, to point these out to those who blithely use them.

Bad said...

I didn't think PZ's stunt was a very constructive way to criticize the validity of an otherwise harmless belief, and it's not something I'd do myself, or recommend.

But it's just false to say that such things cannot arguably be said to affect the larger culture in a way Myers probably wants. Ridicule really can puncture absurd beliefs by laying them bare: has before and will again.

I'm simply not a fan of ridicule, because it hurts people in the process, and there are other means to accomplish the same end that do less hurt.

And your criticisms of various public atheists and accusations about them and their motivations are as content free as these things usually are.

Anonymous said...

This essay is painfully off the mark, in my view. But, of course, now I should perhaps be afraid to criticize it since I can be labeled as "mean" or "ridiculing". That was probably the intention. Well, there are jerks on both sides of the equation. For every condescending atheist one can produce, I can produce just as many condescending theists. It's not about identifying which side has a bigger superiority complex. There are assholes in all walks of life.

To me, atheism is a scientific argument with moral ramifications. Theism is a theory that cannot be reasonably defended within the paradigm our natural world. Just like no scientist would give any consideration to people claiming that the sun revolves around the earth. It's not matter of ridicule. It matter of understanding hypothesis, observation, and conclusion. While this angers many religious folk as somehow condescending, most atheists like Dawkins are simply saying that based on our knowledge of the scientific method, one cannot argue that the world was created in seven days, or that water turned to wine, etc., etc. There is no malice intended. There is only frustration at the number of people who can selectively relax their notion of scientific rigor to allow for these supernatural beliefs.

Personally, I can understand anti-theism, and in many ways support it. The reason has nothing to do with superiority or snobbishness. It pains me in my heart to see the death and destruction that religion has caused throughout history. It gives me anxiety to look at my one-year old son and think that he'll be brought up in a society that doesn't see any link between the erosion of critical thinking and the increase in religiosity. People seem to need figures like bin Laden, Koresh, Hubbard, etc., so they can point fingers and proclaim them to be religious fanatics or "wackos". It makes the average moderate Christian/Muslim/Jew/Hindu feel better about their faith. As if the suspension of scientific thought that they exercise has absolutely nothing to do the extremism that is built on the same principle. I am not trying to lump everyone into the same group here, I'm just attempting to explain how a scientist views this general line of thinking as major threat to society. The slippery-est of slopes.

I sincerely believe that most atheism is spawned not out of hate and elitism, but out of love. Atheists like me have simply lost all faith that religion can exist without being used as a tool for justifying war and subjugation. If it could, even scientists that cringe at the thought of accepting supernatural beliefs would probably learn to coexist peacefully with theism, given that many beliefs system also catalyze acts of great compassion. But in the end, I'm torn as to which notion is more naïve and idealistic: a world without theism or world in which theism does not lead to human suffering.

Sam said...

I arrived here via Sullivan.

I'm confused about this notion of 'expulsion'. Atheism isn't a church, or a club, or a political party. There are no secret handshakes or membership dues. Atheism is neither a philosophy nor a faith. It is simply an expression of the nature of the world. If you don't like PZ Myers, well then, don't like PZ Myers. I personally have never understood the need of atheists to assume kinships with other atheists anymore than a gravitationist would feel the need to have their belief in gravity confirmed by another gravitationist.

It seems to me that much of the recent writings on atheism that I've read (Dawkins, Hitchins, and Harris) serve a valuable purpose in highlighting the inherent danger that religionism, in all its varieties, poses to the formation of a stable and rational world. That seems to me a worthy objective and a little ridicule in the service of that mission seems perfectly acceptable...but's just me.

You wondered "how can you possibly change people's minds if you're constantly ridiculing them? Doesn't make much sense" and then answered your own question by rightly recognizing that it doesn't make sense. Myers isn't trying to convert religionists to atheism, he's trying to keep the world safe for rationalists by keeping the religionists at bay, which he does by highlighting their follies. His methods occasionally take on the form of circus sideshow, but he gets people thinking and that's the most important thing.

Finally, I get the feeling you're a pretty 'soft' atheist to begin with ("I don't believe in God, I guess, in any conventional terms, and I'm non-religious.") which I guess may be the cause of your discomfort with the tone of the discourse. Fair enough. But I agree with commenter christopher m that "You have to persuade people to abandon a certain quasi-mystical, magical-thinking sense of how the world works, and to embrace -- at least to mostly embrace -- rationalism." For an unalloyed atheist like myself, any non-violent method in the service of that goal is to be encouraged and commended.

Thanks for letting me comment.

Chris V said...

This Myers guy is clearly an idiot, but I find your attempt to link him to the new atheists pretty unconvincing. I fear for the future of free speech if you can't tell the difference between expressing an opinion and deliberately trying to infuriate people. The opinions that transubstantiation is a delusional and borderline-insane idea, or that Mohammed was a sex offender, or that the God of the Old Testament is an evil megalomaniac (all of which I hold) are not opinions which I can "tone down" to avoid giving offence. That it is seen as taboo to express such opinions is the whole point of new atheism's criticism of religion as an agent of suppression of free inquiry. There is no polite way to say to someone that their dearly cherished beliefs are childish fantasies.

Also, you can't seriously mean that line about decorum being the norm in political debate? Have you READ Christopher Hitchens' political writings, let alone the rantings of Ann Coulter et al?

Michael said...

I just see their genuine astonishment and incomprehension that people can believe things that are so self-evidently false.

Of course, religious people see such things as self-evidently true, and are equally astonished that others would see things differently. The non-assholes among them, however, tend not to respond with contempt. The same holds true for non-asshole atheists.

Those who respond to others' belief systems with contempt are assholes. Myers and Donohue certainly are.

slattern23 said...

A hatemonger is a hatemonger is a hatemonger. I'm confused about which part of that statement Meyers' defenders have trouble with - the beginning, middle or end?

Anonymous said...

A hatemonger is a hatemonger is a hatemonger. I'm confused about which part of that statement Meyers' defenders have trouble with

I think we have trouble with the part where PZ "monged" hate.

"Hatemonger" implies that PZ was inciting people to hate. I think he was inciting people to join him in being a bit of an asshole.

His only really denigrating statement in his tirade was specifically directed at those people who make death threats as a response to cracker-defacement.

Here's that statement: "That's right. Crazy Christian fanatics right here in our own country have been threatening to kill a young man over a cracker. This is insane. These people are demented fuckwits."

And, no, I don't consider that "hatemongering".

Don Francisco said...

The overwhelming majority of the debate on religion for me completely and utterly misses the point. We will never get agreement on this issue, ever. Religion will not go away, and neither will atheism. So how do you accommodate the views of someone you don't agree with? Quite easily as it happens.

Your co-worker across from you talks drivel for much of the day, but you don't insult him/her, do you? Why? Because it's not very nice, it's discourteous, and people will think you are an arsehole. Also, you probably don't believe there is a chance in hell that you will change their mind one anything. And for all that drivel he/she may come out with, there will be part of them you do like. They annoy you, but part of you does care.

Can we not do this on the God issue too? Though much of the debate there is worrying lack of care, respect, sympathy or understanding for the other person's view - you know, the kind of values that tend to attract people. To shoehorn an analogy, eople are so fixated on winning small little battles that they risk losing the whole war.

Surely the question is not is there a God, but should be how do we treat each other? Being right is nothing as compared to being good.

Anonymous said...

You are correct. Dr. Myers is an ass! The Emperors new Royal Cracker Cloak is nothing short of sublime. The way the royal tailors worked the glorious purple velvet and peacock feathers in with the dry tasteless breads is a beauty beyond description.

Dr. Myers comments on his Highness's nakedness can obviously be discarded without further thought. He does not understand the finer points of Imperial Wheat-based Haberdashery. Dr. Myers should shut up and go study in one of the finer baking fashion salons of Rome, or perhaps Milan. ;-)

slattern23 said...

"Hatemonger" implies that PZ was inciting people to hate. I think he was inciting people to join him in being a bit of an asshole."

I wasn't "implying" anything. Meyers IS a hatemonger. I invite you to take any random Meyers post and substitute the words "gay" or "black" or "Jew" for "christian" or "believer". The nature of what Meyers is peddling will immediately become apparent. The only thing that makes Meyers a hero is that he's peddling hatred towards a group which it is currently ideologically acceptable to hate.

Anonymous said...

I invite you to take any random Meyers post and substitute the words "gay" or "black" or "Jew" for "christian" or "believer".

Why would I do that? Myers is disparaging these people for their beliefs and actions. If I substituted in "blacks" it would make no sense at all.

Well... I'll give it a shot. Let's take the angry comment I quoted earlier.

"Crazy Christian fanatics right here in our own country have been threatening to kill a young man over a cracker. This is insane. These people are demented fuckwits."

OK, now I'll put in Blacks. (We can pretend that this comment occurred because Black fanatics were threatening to kill people because some African cracker ritual was disrespected.)

"Crazy Black fanatics right here in our own country have been threatening to kill a young man over a cracker. This is insane. These people are demented fuckwits."

PZ's comment would still be directed to their beliefs and actions, and it would still make sense.

Doesn't seem like "hatemongering" to me.

John said...

Theism is a theory that cannot be reasonably defended within the paradigm our natural world.

"within the paradigm of our natural world," eh? But that's the whole fucking point. Obviously there are religious people who believe in God in an unsophisticated way and think that the existence of God can be proven by science, and so forth.

But any halfway intelligent religious believer is perfectly aware that belief in God cannot be justified through "the paradigm of the natural world" and that, if God is to exist, he must exist in a way that cannot be perceived from a scientific examination of the natural world.

This whole line of argument is begging the question. "We know that there is nothing beyond the natural world because the tools we have to perceive the natural world do not show us anything beyond the natural world. QED." I am not myself a religious believer, but if God did exist, it makes little sense to expect him to be something perceptible within the physical world. My understanding is that this is the whole idea of faith - that one must choose to believe in God because one can never know that God exists. Science and religion are ultimately about completely different things, and the sooner both sides realize this, the better.

Titan said...


I think a lot of atheists do understand the separation of science and religion. That's the point!

You cannot "know" something that is beyond the realm of scientific testing. I think most atheists do NOT claim that they know there is nothing there. (Take Dawkins in The God Delusion, who very carefully explains this point.)

It is the religious people who are always violating your idea. They claim to know all sorts of things that can't be known. There is a heaven. There is a hell. There are angels. There is a soul. There is a holy spirit. (Crackers are infused with the body of Christ!)

Believers choose to believe these things anyway. We can ridicule them for doing so, and we can be furious when that choice has ramifications for the rest of us.

Catholics, for example, believe that condom use is a sin. This causes death by AIDS in Africa, because the Catholic church actively spreads this beliefs in that continent. These unfounded beliefs are actively harmful, and they should be opposed. It's not enough to write them off as some sort of faith-choice that can't be disproven. Of course it can't be disproven, but it doesn't need to be.

It needs to be justified.

Monitor said...

I respectfully disagree.

In a nutshell, when faced with something evil, the proper reaction is revulsion and contempt.

In my opinion, milquetoast atheism (which is happy to let religion perform its daily evils upon us) only holds any validity if you accept as your fundamental premise that religion is ultimately innocuous.

As I have written about on my blog (, in my opinion, religion is NOT innocuous. It causes untold amounts of suffering and subjects us to evil acts every day.

As an antitheist, I believe that religion deserves our contempt. If this has the effect of "rejecting" people that are fine with tolerating religion, then so be it.

Update: Dealing with the precise subject matter of the atheist-in-question's remarks, I don't see why he/she thinks they are being rejected from the broader atheist movement.

An atheist is "Someone who denies the existence of god.". Therefore, atheism is the larger construct in which antitheism falls.

Antitheism goes one step further, generally being defined as "Active opposition to the belief in the existence of a God". As a result, antitheism is a smaller subset within the larger construct of atheism.

Based on the above, the broader atheist/non-antitheist movement is happy to have the writer within its fold. It's the antitheist subset that would not be comfortable with the writer's religious apologism.

Posted at

Andrew said...

Titan, that AIDS argument is quite possibly one of the most ridiculous of the regularly repeated arguments in that vein. It takes but a moment of reflection to realize that you're suggesting that many Africans are such pious Catholics that they're forgoing condoms because it's a sin, yet they continue to spread the disease by having multiple partners. But needless to say that's something the Catholic Church is also against. It's amazing you can somehow reconcile the contradiction.

Sure, you could make the argument that Catholic relief agencies could do more good if they distributed condoms, but that's not anything close to what you're suggesting.

Titan said...

Ah, but don't Catholics know that people are still going to have sex, with or without the condom? Thousands of years of human history have shown that to be the case.

But hey, don't listen to me! Listen to a Cardinal that wants to change this abominable policy.

"I'd say that it's right for the Church to preach chastity, that sexual intercourse is for within marriage. But God knows, people just do not live up to ideals. While we can say that, objectively, the use of condoms is wrong, there are places where it might be licit, or allowable, as when there's a danger of intercourse leading to death."
-Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor

See. HE knows that people will still have sex, but now they will die as a result. Unfortunately, this statement by a group of African Bishops represents the more common stance:

"[The promotion of condom use to combat HIV/AIDS is an] immoral and misguided weapon against the disease. . . . Condoms may even be one of the main reasons for the spread of HIV/AIDS."
~ Southern African Bishops' Conference

Titan said...


Let me add this from the BBC.

"The Catholic Church has been accused of telling people in countries with high rates of HIV that condoms do not protect against the deadly virus.

[A report] says cardinals, bishops, priests and nuns in four continents are saying HIV can pass through tiny holes in condoms.

The World Health Organization has condemned the comments and warned the Vatican it is putting lives at risk."

Claims like this are common, and have been documented elsewhere as well.

So when you say "Sure, you could make the argument that Catholic relief agencies could do more good if they distributed condoms, but that's not anything close to what you're suggesting," you're right! I am arguing more. I am saying that the Catholic Church is deliberately spreading falsehoods, and urging its constituents to try to adhere to am unachievable standard, while knowing that both of these things will result in more Africans dying.

The Catholic Church could adopt a top-down policy that is consistent with Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor's stance. It would save many, many lives. They choose not to for religious reasons.

Bobcat said...

titan wrote, "You cannot 'know' something that is beyond the realm of scientific testing."

Ah, but titan, how did you know that claim itself? Did you test for it? What was the test? If you didn't test for it, then I guess you don't know it? And if you don't know it, why do you believe it? More to the point, if you don't know it, why should *I* believe it?

Also, how did we scientifically test for Cantorian set theory? I guess we don't know any mathematical claims, huh?

Drew Margolin said...

Saying that we can only "know" what we can test is not quite right. Popper's argument insisting on testability is that we can only know things to be false, we can never know what is true, and we can only find out if something is false if it can be tested. We do not know that gravity works according to Einstein's laws. We do know that gravity does not work according to Newton's laws, because Einstein's arguments identified observations that Newton's laws consistently get wrong. We then accept Einstein's laws as provisional knowledge because they are falsifiable but not yet falsified. That's the best we can do.

Religious beliefs are untestable so they do not participate in this contest, though some religions have tossed their own scientific theories into the arena and had them falsified.

But the validity of religious beliefs seems, to me, to be irrelevant to the claims of the anti-theist. The anti-theist, as far as I can tell, is claiming that:
a) Belief in religion causes bad outcomes in the world
b) Attacking religious belief for being irrational is an effective way to eliminate/mitigate this causal effect, i.e., reduce these bad outcomes.

These claims seem to me to be at least quasi-testable, and yet I have not seen any evidence that supports them.

For example, we hear a lot about what is done by religious authorities or done in the name of religion, but we hear little about the role that actual belief plays in the process. Take Torquemada. He tortured people in the name of Catholic doctrine. But why do we identify the irrationality of the doctrine, and his belief in it, as the sources of the problem? How is this the most sensible explanation? First, if the doctrine were provisionally true according to Popper's rules, instead of unfalsifiable, would that justify his actions? Second, on what basis do we conclude that he really believed in the doctrine, and how do we know that if he were to be persuaded that the doctrine was false he would have changed his behavior?

It seems to me that attacking the beliefs of religious people is a long way around and brings in unnecessary difficulties. Most objectionable religious practices are inconsistent with the very religions they purport to act on behalf of and can be criticized more easily on that direct basis.

Bobcat said...

drew margolin wrote: "Saying that we can only "know" what we can test is not quite right. Popper's argument insisting on testability is that we can only know things to be false, we can never know what is true, and we can only find out if something is false if it can be tested. We do not know that gravity works according to Einstein's laws. We do know that gravity does not work according to Newton's laws, because Einstein's arguments identified observations that Newton's laws consistently get wrong. We then accept Einstein's laws as provisional knowledge because they are falsifiable but not yet falsified. That's the best we can do."

This still doesn't address testing mathematical claims. And I don't know why I should accept this Popperian falsification constraint in the first place. It doesn't actually describe how scientists act. And you've not given me an argument for it. And it rules out inference to the best explanation as a way of knowing things. As well as deductive and inductive argumentation. Seems like an awfully high cost for taking a position that is unargued for and doesn't describe the actual conduct of scientists.

R.C. said...

Part of the problem with the "self-evidently false" notion is that, for many, God's personal involvement in their lives is self-evidently factual.

After one sees an exorcism, or has a friend miraculously healed of MS, or is guided to make a decision which was later found to be correct based on information unknown at the time, the issue seems settled, even if two dozen other issues are immediately no longer settled.

Those other issues aren't small ones, either: Why does He not heal so many others? Why allow possession in the first place? Why not demonstrate His existence in a less camera-shy way? Why does bad stuff happen? Why do even Christians disagree about theology so much? Why do people who believe in God still act like jerks?

Such questions are thought to be compellingly answered by those saints who've considered them long enough, but they're certainly bewildering in the short term.

Still, the believer is in the entirely rational position of saying, "Look, I'm sorry you haven't seen what I've seen. I wouldn't buy it either, if I were in your shoes; but standing, as I am, in mine, my intellect refuses to be dishonest about it."

Drew Margolin said...

In response to Bobcat, I think we are on the same page. My point was that the argument "we can only know what we can test" is not correct. Testing tells us what is false, not what is true. We do not know what is true, empirically. We will always have approximations that include as yet unidentified errors.

As for mathematics, I am not an expert on set theory but my understanding is mathematics uses deductions to validate conclusions from premises. If the premises are true, the conclusions can be shown to be true. In most mathematical proofs, as I recall, premises, as well as the meaning of the rules of operation, are supplied. But the premises themselves have no empirical content. We define them ourselves rather than inferring their existence from the world. To say "1+1=2" is to say "given meanings of "1, 2, +, =" it can be shown this is a true statement. But those meanings come from us, not the world. We can, for example, imagine numbers that cannot exist (according to the way we define them) and prove things about them.

In terms of Kuhn and others objections to Popper. I'm not saying that scientists do what Popper says they should, I'm saying that if they do less than he says they should they can make no claims stronger than the strongest claim his logic allows. Which is just another way of saying science can't tell us what "is" in a permanent way. Which is really not a big deal. Scientists get it mostly right with some small error from which we learn more.

Mark D. said...

I have pretty given up on atheist the same way I have done for fundie's of all strips. You can't be talked to. For like all fundie's most atheist are filled with contempt for others. At first I did respect atheist, but now I jus hope that none of you ever get into a political office that carries much power, the same wish I have for right wing believers of any stripe.

However I find your post refreshing, though lased with contmept.
mark said...

Myers does not have contempt for every religious person, he has contempt for any religious person who believes they are party to some transcendent truth which allows them to make false claims about the nature of reality.

In these cases his contempt is well founded, since his discipline is constantly assailed by the worst kind of blinkered stupidity imaginable (in fact without religion it would be un-imaginable that people could be so antagonistic towards otherwise completely non-controversial science).

And the public face of atheism is not PZ Myers. The blogosphere is an environment of heightened opinion and emotion, not to be confused with real life.

The public face of atheism is sill pretty much defined by idiotic political/religious types who do their level best to position it somewhere between nihilism and satanism, and is only lately being tempered by the more than charming Dr Dawkins, who is not and never has been as "strident" as people are ALWAYS bitching about.

You're buying into the line we get all the time from the smugly-pious, that we are loud, obnoxious etc. Of course some of us are, so what?

Anonymous said...

Jacobs is describing what humanists have started to call "antagonistic atheism" (google it).

This breed of atheist are a cruel and sick bunch of assholes who are more often than not deeply in love with themselves.

Anonymous said...

Myers is someone who wants attention and he got it. Also, atheist who take strong stances against those who think or believe differently or just as much a problem as those they condemn.

The history of those countries that were run by atheist, also those today that are being run are just as bad if not worse than those countries under the oppression of some religion.

The problem is our humanity, our will to power etc. Religion like politics is just the system used to play out or worst and best potential.

Scapegoating does not work, we either face up to the real challenge, or we can waste time over non-issues.

Dawkins, Harris and the whole rat pack of 'new atheist' or doing great harm to the atheist moviement.

I will never vote for an atheist or a right wing Christian, they are both made from the same cloth.

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