Category Archives: Atheism
There has been a lot of commentary on Pastor Ryan Bell, the minister whose full journey from Christian Pastor to Atheist (apparently – I’d put him in the pledge phase), was chronicled in his year-long decision to live as an atheist. At the end of this year, he has left Christianity and has come to think that atheism is probably the more proper stance. This story isn’t really remarkable, in and of itself, people trade “sides” in both directions all the time. Even life-long atheist Antony Flew remarkably went theist at the end of his life/career and conversions/de-conversions have been used as a cudgel from both sides. So Ryan Bell’s story isn’t remarkable in that respect and as an atheist I don’t take stories like this to hold them up as any sort of proof of atheism, or even support of it. I think the facts stand for themselves. But when stories like this reach the main stream culture, it’s interesting to watch them for the purpose of gauging where the culture’s response lies.
It could be wishful thinking on my part, but I feel like Christianity in the U.S. is on their heels somewhat in the battle to retain their dominance in American culture. I think the internet has a lot to do with it. And I also believe that — much to the chagrin of their Christian enemies and accommodationist critics — people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens put a large dent in Christian cultural impact in the last decade.
I personally left Christianity simply because I believe that Christianity in no sense of the word is “true”. But Christians who see guys like Ryan Bell leaving Christianity, cannot accept the answer that he simply thinks it’s wrong without entertaining the premise. So instead of taking guys like me and other ex-Christians at their word, they spend many hand-wringing hours trying to explain this exodus for different reasons.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many Christians out there honestly looking inward at Christianity to try and see what they can do better to retain Christians. But they miss the point also: it doesn’t matter how much you try and get hip, or re-interpret scripture, or reduce Christian hypocrisy, or soften doctrine to accommodate modern sensibilities, you cannot keep Christians who simply don’t believe it’s true. Truth is and always will be the Achilles heel to religion. There are atheists that have admitted they want Christianity to be true (I am certainly not one of those), but in the end, Christianity has nothing if people aren’t buying the premises in which the religion was built on. The only move – which many modern apologists and theologians are doing – is to change what Christianity means, and give would-be apostates a life line built on mythology. But liberal theology that mythologizes the core of the Christian message is just the last stop on the fast train to non-belief. Sure, people can get off on that last stop, but I highly doubt they can build a city there.
People want truth and whether it comes in the big “T” religious version of the little “t” agnostic/atheist version that’s where they are going to build their lives, so building a culture around apologetics and theology is a non-starter as far as I’m concerned. Theology and apologetics are inherently reactive to the internal and external criticisms of religious doctrine. I think Christianity has been effectively adaptive to date about indoctrinating the sheep and mollifying the would-be intellectual heretics. But critical mass of science, reason, technology, and information age is here and if Christianity continues to fight from their heels, they will lose the privilege of influence they have comfortably held in this country since its inception.
The reaction to Ryan Bell’s exit from Christianity has been interesting to watch. Christians are being downright fierce about his apostasy. The more thoughtful Christians will read about Ryan Bell and look to change the church from within. But at the end of the day Christianity isn’t true and that’s a tough fort to defend. But humans love their narrative and something Ryan Bell said in an interview struck me as a sliver of light for Christianity:
I’d just say that the existence of God seems like an extra layer of complexity that isn’t necessary. The world makes more sense to me as it is, without postulating a divine being who is somehow in charge of things.
Ah, good ol’ Occam’s Razor. Bell also said it was “provisional” where he is at in his thought, so that tells me if he is able to come up with a better Christian narrative than the one he has now then he can be got. More likely though, the word “provisional” is just a responsible word that I think everyone should ultimately be using about their current thought. I hope tomorrow, some belief I hold today is absolutely demolished. That means I’ve grown. Hopefully this hypothetical new belief also is more closely aligned with truth, but even if it isn’t, the value I hold to be open to new ideas means we as individuals have growth potential.
So, on and on we go, a little push here, a little tug there. But the needle has been moving slowly and steadily in America in the recent past away from Christianity and toward non-belief. The reason why is there’s “no there-there” when it comes to Christianity, but it will continue to be interesting the tactics which are used by the believers to try and keep their flock together. Those Christians who think they will be successful because they have Truth on their side are sadly mistaken. I used to think like that. I thought that Christianity was self-evidently true and something that was true could easily withstand any scrutiny. Truth accepted my challenge and Christianity folded without a fight. If we change the value of the Christian culture to believe in the pursuit of truth and knowledge, then Christianity as a major influence in this country will similarly fold. I believe the information age is pushing critical mass in that direction faster than could be hoped for in past generations. I look forward to the day when faith is no longer a virtue and social, cultural, political, and governmental policy is completely discussed, written, and enacted purely by good reasoning.
My wonderful, loving, (atheist) wife today:
1) submitted an application for a rescue dog (on top of the 4 she has given a loving home to in the recent past)
2) paid money to the animal shelter so some more of the animals’ expenses could be waived to facilitate them going to a new home. This was done anonymously (except I suppose I’m blowing that now).
3) turned in a woman’s wallet with a lot of cash, credit cards and personal belongings, (yes, everything is still in there) that she found in the parking lot.
4) objected to me telling you all about all this because she’s gracious and humble.
Just another typical day in the life of a disgusting amoral atheist.
Now enjoy your two minutes of hate. It’s actually over 8 minutes but Christians need more time for hate than they did in Orwell’s dystopia.
I would feel bad leaving you with that nonsense, so here is some reason to cleanse your palate.
The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe is a weekly podcast dedicated to skepticism, science, and reason. In my nerdy fever dreams SGU would be the #1 ranked show on radio and television (they would have a TV show in my dreams of course) and everyone at SGU would be world-famous and they would be earning super-star dollars. The show is a team of skeptics headed by uber-skeptic, Steven Novella, and they talk about skeptical/scientific topics.
The show reflects the direction I would love to take my own personal “New World Order”: if everyone had just a little more critical thinking, a little more science education, a little more skepticism in their lives, then we could really get down to business and change the world for the better. If most people took on the the attitudes and values of the panel at SGU, then we could turn the tables of this mess we call a world. I often feel like I don’t need to speak: I could simply have a digital archive I carry around with me, and use a Steve Novella quote in lieu of talking, given that 99.5% of what is said by Steven Novella reflects my positions precisely — and he can always say it better than me anyway.
Someday I will write a blog post about the 0.5% difference (see Jamy Ian Swiss, atheism/skepticism, and tents), but of course today I want to talk about the big news that Rebecca Watson, after nine years, is leaving the show. It was announced yesterday on her blog that she was leaving SGU and her final episode as a skeptical “rogue” was posted to the webs.
Putting it mildly, Rebecca has been a polarizing figure in the atheist/skeptical “community”, sometimes simply due to her brand of witty snark, but more often (and with more vitriol) due to her feminist advocacy. She has one of those personalities that usually either endears her to or repulses her from people. This same love/hate relationship she has among the skeptical/atheist community has been warring inside my own head for years. I like to think that my extremes on any specific issue, makes me an amalgamated centrist, but it probably doesn’t work that way. That’s why Rebecca Watson is so fascinating to me as a barometer for my own views: at any given moment, I’m endeared to Rebecca Watson, and repulsed by her — sometimes simultaneously. Does this constitute a net/net ambivalence toward her? I don’t think so. I think that makes her someone who has that really special ability (especially if one strives to be a public figure) to generate reactions in people — both good and bad. Ambivalence and indifference is death to someone who aims to self-promote.
Rebecca has naturally (and purposefully I believe) had that ability to strike just the right note (or wrong note depending on your perspective), at just the right time, to elicit strong reactions from people from all sides. For Rebecca, I imagine this comes as both a gift (notoriety which can be used for self-promotion) and a curse (notoriety from psychopaths). Elevatorgate had so many ripples through the atheist/skeptical community, I do not think its impact can be overstated. Discussion from her video and her comments afterward were largely or tangentially responsible for a schism that is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. I’m not being flippant when I say this is a real talent. Most people seeking to affect change would give multiple appendages and/or organs to have this ability. I would never say there is a single cause for all the controversies, in-fighting, lashes, and backlashes among skeptics, atheists, feminists, freethinkinkers, etc.; but I would say that where there are such controversies, you don’t need 6 degrees of separation to get to Rebecca Watson – probably just a binary system would suffice.
I don’t want to cop-out and not say specifically where the love falls and where the hate falls in my love/hate relationship with Rebecca Watson. First, I want to make it clear that love/hate is just an expression. I don’t know Rebecca and I want to preface this by saying I like Rebecca as far as it goes. I like her as a public figure, I like her on the SGU and — even though she brings out strong reactions of disagreement in me sometimes — I even like her when I “hate” her. So here are my thoughts for what they’re worth:
Rebecca Watson is a feminist. Rebecca Watson is a Skeptic. Feminism is an ideology. Skepticism is a tool for reasoning. I think that these two can inhabit the same person at the same time, but much like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, depending on how you are looking at a person and their goals and values in any given situation, you can examine either their ideology or their skepticism, but you cannot evaluate ideology and skepticism simultaneously.
This is further complicated because there is no such thing as a universal Platonic ideal of “feminism” or any other ideology. “Feminists” are a group of individuals with individual ideologies loosely coalesced around some nebulous goal concerning women’s rights. For every single “feminist” (I’m using feminism here, but you can insert any ideological position), there is a “feminism” unique to a certain individual that espouses feminist beliefs. In this sense saying “Rebecca Watson has a feminist ideology” is saying something, in that it puts her in a set of people that would advocate for women’s rights, but it still says almost nothing about where she falls on the very broad (if you think I mean that as a pun, shame on you!) spectrum of feminist ideology. In this sense, when we speak of Rebecca’s “feminist ideology” we really can only speak of Rebecca Watson Feminist as a set of one and draw no further conclusions about what her feminist advocacy entails.
I say all this to make two points:
1) A person’s ideology can (should) be instructed by their skepticism, but belief is antithetical to skepticism. We need beliefs to “put on pants” and go out and live our lives, and sometimes our beliefs bring us to adopt certain ideologies. At this point, we are hopefully still using skepticism to continually inform our beliefs, but the action of advocacy necessitates leaving a skeptical mindset. Ideology involves positive momentum, and skepticism by definition is an exercise in doubt and irreducibility. Even though groups like SGU try to sneak in science and reason as part of the definition of modern skepticism, this is only a practical move to be able to engage in meta-skepticism which allows advocacy under the name “skepticism”. The statement, “skepticism is the best tool to obtain logic and reason”, is itself an ideological position, but a necessary axiom to be able to “put on pants”.
2) I believe that Rebecca Watson’s ideological feminism has become more important to her than her skepticism. Or, I suppose put a better way, feminism and her ideology are apparently driving her more than skepticism. Put even a better way, I suppose that it appears to me this is the case. But I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. But I also actually don’t have a problem with her shifting her focus from skepticism and into feminism. I support all forms of feminism — even if I disagree with some of the individual expressions of feminism — because at its core, feminism shares my goal of making women equal in value and force in society (if not giving women a greater role!). I believe that the world is inherently better when women are given a full voice. I do believe that some forms of radical feminism are irrational and illogical and taken to their logical conclusion would be highly detrimental to society — but I still find value to that: it shifts the center and makes rational, progressive feminist arguments seem tame and much more digestible to the general public. We need people to kick down the door whether or not they are being reasonable. I don’t believe Rebecca is always being reasonable when it comes to feminism, but I also don’t really care. Go after it! I don’t think Rebecca leaving SGU and throwing in with ideology is necessarily a bad thing, nor is it necessary for her to choose one or the other. I think she could continue to juggle the two, but unlike some of the Social Justice Warriors, I don’t believe one entails the other. So if it makes sense for Rebecca to focus on one over the other, I fully support the decision.
Finally, I’ll mention some specific points of disagreement with Rebecca’s actions over the years, as I believe these are examples in support of my position that she is more ideologically driven these days as opposed to skeptically driven. Again, I’d like to preface this by saying that for the most part (and certainly in relation the general public) Rebecca Watson is a thoughtful, reasonable person, but I believe she has moved away from the skeptical movement and toward feminist ideology in her advocacy. Perhaps that is necessary. Rhetoric really is effective even if it is seemingly contrary to skepticism.
- I do not think calling D.J. Grothe a “monster” is reasonable.
- I tend to think that there is something to what Abbie Smith and Stef McGraw said on the way Rebecca Watson behaved.
- I think her ideology causes her to have a blind spot for sussing out real hatred for women from people merely criticizing her views or behavior.
- I disagree with her specifically about her advocacy for conference policies, and generally about the infantilization of women that these types of policies promote.
- I think the paradox of using the term “privilege”, is that only people with “privilege” would think of using the term “privilege”. Also, “privilege” is almost always used as an ad hominem and I have yet to hear any actual analysis of how one would determine a scale of privilege or how we could possibly use it as an evaluation tool of fairness or justice.
- Speaking of privilege, I think Rebecca Watson et. al. use only the most uncharitable interpretation of their opponent’s positions.
- I think she overreacted and made an enemy of Richard Dawkins.
- I also think that the high maintenance monitoring of commentary at Skepchick is more ideologically driven, than skeptically driven. I think ideology has put her (perhaps necessarily) in an “us vs. them” situation, where dissent is not acceptable.
- I don’t think she is necessarily a hypocrite for the nudy Skepchick calendar and her current feminist positions – anyone can grow and change positions – but I do believe it is hypocritical for her to so harshly judge those that don’t share her current positions.
- I think there was something really off-putting about her sock-puppeting behavior at the JREF forums – if not completely nefarious, then her actions were certainly self-serving.
- Boycotting TAM was another overreaction, and attacking DJ Grothe during that time seemed pretty out there, and maligning him seemed uncalled for.
A lot of these examples of Rebecca’s behavior over the years seem ideologically driven and not those of a skeptic. Which is okay, I don’t point out these things to vilify her, but I also think that ideologues should not be so quick to condemn people with a “you are either for us or against us” attitude, because they will find their own behaviors reflected back from their perceived enemies. We all make mistakes, but one of the worst attributes of bad ideology is giving harbor to bad behavior for those who agree with you and viciously attacking those who disagree with you for the exact same behavior. This is where critical thinking goes out the window in favor of ideology, and I think Rebecca has engaged in this from time to time.
But I also think that there is much more overlap in mine and Rebecca Watson’s worldview than not. I simply think that she has chosen to focus more strongly on certain parts of her advocacy than skepticism in the past several years and I compliment and encourage her effort — even if I don’t always agree with it. I do think it is time she moved on from the SGU, because while I don’t think she has left skepticism, I do believe she has drifted in her advocacy focus over the years toward socio-political ideology. SGU has clear, stated goals of scientific-skeptical advocacy and education. These goals are antithetical to political movements and they are apolitical, sometimes to the degree of annoyance of some listeners. I think Rebecca struggled with her desire to be an ideological/political advocate and the role she had on SGU.
In the end I hope it works out great for everyone. I hope Rebecca continues to find her socio-political voice and affects the change she desires, and I hope SGU continues to kick ass. I will put in my two cents here and say that Rebecca needs to be replaced by not one, but two women (or three, or four). Perhaps it “shouldn’t matter” if they replace her with women or not, but I say it does. I think more women voices everywhere are called for and until women are equally represented, I see no reason not to specifically seek them out for vital roles. I think female voices make everything stronger. Give credit where credit is due, Rebecca made SGU stronger. She made it stronger from a production standpoint, and she made it stronger by growing the audience. It was in no small part because she had a different voice, and different voices usually complement more than they detract.
So, good luck Rebecca and “so long” and hopefully it’s “good riddance” from the perspective of both you and SGU.
As I’ve stated before, and I will undoubtedly state again, I’m a hack blogger, not an “author” or “journalist” and as such, I’m pretty lazy about sourcing. I just write opinions in this online diary rant, so I don’t feel overly compelled to meticulously source everything I say. I do what I can, but this is just a hobby that hopefully puts my voice out there to whatever degree it matters (probably none). That being said, here is a list of sources (by no means exhaustive) of background information relevant to this post.
- Rebecca’s Blog Site
- Richard Dawkins’ “Dear Muslima” letter in response to Elevatorgate, contained in the following link:
- Rebecca’s Response to Dear Muslima
- Site dedicated to crushing all things Rebecca. Example of love her or hate her, she creates sparks.
- Another article not particularly in the pro-Watson camp
- Freethought blogs (pro-feminism) and Slymepit (anti-feminism). Not equating these two places, simply showing where you can get what I think are extreme views on either side of the feminist schism within skepticism. Slymepit came out of a thread from Abbie Smith’s ERV site who I really like. She seems to have disappeared from the fray and is actually doing real science. Damn you Abbie for eschewing drama and actually working. In the end I think both sides are right and both sides are wrong. That doesn’t make me a fence sitter, given any specific topic or question I will have an opinion one way or the other, those individual opinions just so happen to agree with parts of one side and parts of the other.
- You can also check out Freethought blogs to get a healthy dose of Atheism+, a group that represents my point about once advocacy kicks in, one has adopted an ideology and left skepticism. As a matter of fact PZ Myers did just that: he turned in his skepticism card, and I believe rightfully so given his values as a Social Justice Warrior.
- Here’s a good primer on Atheism+ written by Richard Carrier. Atheism+ which has much overlap feminism and is a movement that in no small part is due directly and indirectly to elevatorgate and the fallout afterwards. This article can also serve as a rabbit hole for links and a history of Atheism+ and SJW. Like with most players in this theater, I like Richard Carrier, but also simultaneously find him to be an arrogant twit. Unlike, much of the A+ crowd, I can like and respect a person, but disagree (sometimes respectfully, sometimes not), without banishing them. I enjoy Richard’s books, but find him rigid, dogmatic, smug, and arrogant in much of his public persona. But so what? If we had to approve of and like 100% everyone’s thoughts and actions to be able to share space with them, then no one would like anyone. Judgment to this degree is for religious zealots, and I left religion in part because I value everyone, even if I disagree with them, even if I despise their views. At its root, I cannot support these movements because I believe ultimately they 1) undermine their own goals by excluding people that could be their allies (not an accommodationist argument!) 2) They don’t want people like me in their movement, so I respect their decision to exclude me. 3) While their goals actually reflect mine very closely, we disagree on fundamental definitions of what “feminism”, “atheism”, “justice”, and “fairness” are and also the best way to achieve the similar goals we have.
There are many, many more links, but if you pull the thread a little of any of the above links, you’ll be able to go down a rabbit hole that could entertain and/or repulse you for weeks.
In the end, I support everyone who uses skepticism as a foundation to inform their lives and ideologies even if I disagree with their conclusions. I believe that’s okay. Politics, social policy, fairness, justice, and other human constructs are instructed by individual values and no one has an objective claim to the ultimate answer. That’s reserved for the religious and for extreme ideologues, not skeptics. I believe some ideologies are abhorrent, but individual people rarely are.
I’m in a mood to reach across the aisle today. Always in search for common ground with my Christian counterparts, I’ve decided to give an ecumenical public service announcement: Christians… read your bible! Read it all. Cover to cover. Take it in. Engage with the text and really solidify your Christian bona fides and show your Lord and Savior that you mean business. I believe this is a message that will easily be endorsed by clergymen and laymen alike — of all Christian stripes: from the most fundamentalist fire-breathing pastor, to the most liberal wishy-washy believer out there. Simply read the Bible.
I’ve always been so curious as to what % of “Christians” who are out there professing “Christianity” have actually read the thing — the whole thing. I would wager a lot of money — and souls — that it is a miniscule minority. So many vociferous Christians, so little Christian education.
I have personally read the good book cover to cover twice — once as a Christian, and once as an atheist. I believe so much in the value of everyone knowing what is in this very culturally significant book that I think I’m going to make a new policy for myself: Christian arguments will not be recognized by me from anyone who has not slogged through the whole mess that is the Christian bible. Look, Christians, I’m not trying to be harsh here, it’s for your own good. You really need to read the thing. Your pastor/priest and fellow Christians will most certainly agree with me.
So, read the Christian bible, read the whole thing, engage with it, and let me know what you think. I’ll make a friendly wager — just to make it interesting — that at the end of it, you’ll be less Christian and more Atheist. This is a bet worthy of Pascal: if you read the bible and remain Christian, you’ve only educated yourself and brought yourself more into the faith that you so cherish; but if you read it and recognize it for the jumbled, incoherent, fairy tale that it actually is, you can then start leading a wonderful, productive life bathed in the warm comfort of reality. What’s there to lose?
This has been your public service announcement from Skeptical Music. Have a wonderful day!
For the purposes of this post I’m lumping theologians in with religious intellectuals of all stripes: Paul Tillich, Karen Armstrong, Shelby Spong, Alister McGrath, Marcus Borg, Chris Hedges, David Brooks, etc. Essentially, all those who keep claiming that atheists are only attacking the low-hanging, fundamentalist fruit of religious thought and ignoring the Sophisticated Theologians (as Jerry Coyne likes to call them). This is done to expedite the dismissal and not for lack of understanding or ignorance of your positions.
Sorry all you deep-thinking religious people, but it’s not that we are so incapable of engaging with your mind-crushingly profound thought — it’s that you are so easily dismissed. I actually have read your works, I’ve heard your arguments, I’ve engaged with your thought, so please quit making the facile, baseless argument that atheists are ignorant of your great insights. Most of us have engaged (though we often wish we hadn’t — there are certainly better uses of one’s time), but other atheists who have chosen not to engage, should not be shamed into wasting hours of their lives trying to digest your nonsense. Here is why you literally and figuratively “mean nothing” to me as an interlocutor, and why you are dismissed with and without prejudice:
1) What you espouse is simply not as profound, insightful, nor interesting as you like to think.
2) Theologians do not represent the prominent religious culture that concerns atheists. You are dismissed within your own religious milieu; why in the world should atheists care what you have to say if your own community doesn’t take you seriously?
3) For every theologian, there is a different theology. You guys love having it both ways.
4) Theology is purposefully opaque; anything can mean ANYTHING.
5) You have a premise problem which allows dismissal of anything that follows.
6) If you are looking to engage with atheists, you are barking up the wrong tree. You have millions of “choirs” to convince before you get to us.
7) Nearly everything you say is simply an expression of the human condition and your “other”, your “ground of being”, your “mysterious”, your “ineffable”, your “numinous”, are all perfectly fine discussions to be had among humans without invoking some superfluous supernatural component to these thoughts. Get over yourselves, you’re not that special.
8) You guys think you are engaging in and exercising humility while you prostrate yourselves before the ominous, mysterious, object of your existential yearning — but you are really just smug assholes.
9) You are utterly, completely, irrefutably, and irreconcilably boring.
For these 9 reasons I dismiss you. Except dammit, I just wasted my time enumerating reasons why I dismiss you. Oh well, from here on out, consider yourselves dismissed. Until you bother me enough to foolishly engage with you again, when I will probably break down and expand on the 9 reasons why you should be dismissed. Crap, this is reason #10 you should be dismissed, because you put me in the Catch-22 paradox of the theological dismissal by engagement. At least now I have a nice, round top ten list.
That’s essentially the depth of the argumentation in the book, The Selfish Genius: How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin’s Legacy by Fern Elsdon-Baker. It’s been a fun bathroom book (flagged!), but I’m afraid the content should be flushed with the other waste. This book is definitely one that can be judged by its cover: a caricatured, petulant looking Dawkins, shouting from a bullhorn. I’m not the first person to point out that many of Dawkins’ critics both religious and non-religious have caricatured him in such a way: “militant”, “strident”, “dogmatic”, “scientistic”, “atheist/scientific orthodoxy”, “heavy-handed”, etc. You’d think this guy was always engaging in extreme hyperbole at the top of his lungs at every turn — some kind of Morton Downey Jr. meets Rowdy Roddy Piper scientist (yes I’m a child of the ’80’s). I’m also not the first to point out that this caricature never matches Professor Dawkins actual demeanor.
In this book, Elsdon-Baker page after page caricatures Dawkins in this manner, except there’s one problem: no examples of such behavior or even quotes of his actual language are ever given in support of this caricature. It is simply declared and assumed by fiat. In a particularly galling example of the vilification of Dawkins, Elsdon-Baker accuses Dawkins of un-scientific-like behavior in his speech and tactics:
However, what is fine for the theatre critic trying to sell newspapers with his entertaining rants or a politician touting for your vote — or a fire-and-brimstone preacher trying to frighten the vulnerable into church — is surely not so acceptable for someone who promotes himself as a spokesman for science… Using intemperate language or shock tactics in this context only serves to further entrench people’s positions rather than encouraging them to become involved in open discussion.
~ The Selfish Genius p. 152
This guy sounds horrible! What quote got the author so riled up? What is this shocking language and scientific heresy that Dawkins engages in? What atrocious behavior causes such criticism? I have no idea, the author never says. Certainly such a public figure as Dawkins who is so ubiquitous on television and in print, one could find a slew of examples which would be readily available to anyone wishing to support such a position. I’m still waiting.
I have yet to see a criticism of Dawkins that is an actual criticism of Dawkins and not same made-up, mythical Dawkins-Creature built of straw: The evil, mythical “Strawkins”. This is so lazy. A hack blogger — like myself — I can see not making the effort to build a solid, well-researched, academic case, in some off-the-cuff opinion piece, but Fern-Elsdon is an academic and this is a published, supposedly researched and edited book. For shame!
Even I was able to manage to dig out a stupid quote from the book I was criticizing and 1) I’m not getting paid 2) I don’t pretend this blog is anything but the equivalent of a layperson’s rant diary and 3) I actually am a bit strident.
Faitheists are annoying. <—————– Strident.
Okay, to be fair Elsdon-Baker finally does get around to quoting Dawkins in the book to prove her point, here’s Dawkins:
I am trying to call attention to the elephant in the room that everybody is too polite — or too devout — to notice: religion, and specifically the devaluing effect that religion has on human life. I don’t mean devaluing the life of others (though it can do that too), but devaluing one’s own life. Religion teaches the dangerous nonsense that death is not the end.
She then quotes Dawkins comments on the awful practice of female genital mutilation, and argues that he’s being silly, because of course it isn’t a religious practice, it’s a cultural one. Right. A culture which is instructed, informed, entangled and born of religion.
Here’s another quote by Dawkins that Elsdon-Baker says “Dawkins’ spleen was not just vented on accommodationists, however. His double-barrelled shotgun opened fire on much bigger targets — creationists themselves”. Whoa! That sounds serious. Can’t wait to see what Dawkins said, he must have really brought the hate:
Get the bishops and theologians on the side of science — so the argument runs — and they’ll be valuable allies against the naive creationists (who probably include the majority of Christians and certainly almost all Muslims by the way).
My goodness that’s some invective!
The book goes on to completely conflate Dawkins as a scientist and as a public advocate for atheism. Funny how female genital mutilation can’t be religious, but must be cultural and political, but when Dawkins is clearly being cultural and political in advocating for atheism and against religion, he’s being a scientist. Wow, is that ironic.
I love it when I find agreement with Christians, even if it is for completely different reasons and from polar opposite viewpoints.
Here’s an article by a Christian, properly placing blame on Christians for not keeping “Christ” in Christmas. It’s pretty typical “reason for the season” drivel and admonishing Christians for allowing so much commercialization of the holiday, blah, blah. There is a lot about the article that isn’t relevant to me as a non-believer, but in the spirit of the season, I’ll point out an area of major common ground: Christians’ “war” with non-believers during this time of year is small potatoes compared to the worldview-war they should be having in their own community concerning the “true” meaning of Christmas.
For whatever reason, the Bill O’Reillys of the world think they are in a battle with secularists over the holiday. To some small degree that is true, but not in the way they think. Bill’s culture war should be with his fellow Christians, because the war with non-believers is mostly on constitutional grounds — and much less so about the culture (although I certainly wouldn’t mind convincing the culture not to be Christians).
The culture war surrounding the holidays is a much bigger “war” in scope, but that’s a battle that Christians need to have with themselves, not with secularists. It’s really easy for a non-believing 1st Amendment-lover like me: I don’t believe any tenets of the Christian faith, the Bible holds no value for me, and I certainly don’t think that religion of any sort should be anywhere near the state, the government, nor any public policy. Christmas, or any celebration around the solstice, is simply a celebration of humanity and a recognition of the good things in life. The line for those who are religious gets a lot fuzzier. Christians are confused and disjointed as a group as to where religious/secular line lies, and how it should be toed.
Christians lament the fact that Christ is a minority role player in the theater and pageantry of Christmas. I agree, Christ has almost nothing to do with the modern celebration of Christmas. Christmas is better for it. So, in this very narrow way, I absolutely agree with the author of this article: Christians should whine to each other and try to keep each other in line about “keeping Christ in Christmas”–just keep it off my lawn, away from the courthouse, and leave me out of it — you’ll find much greater disagreement amongst yourselves than you will with me as to what Christmas means to Christians.
Half the time when you meet people who say they are churchgoing Christians, they don’t know what they’re supposed to believe, they don’t believe all of it, they have a lot of doubt, and they go to church largely for social reasons.
~ Christopher Hitchens “Christmas with Christopher Hitchens,” A.V. Club 12/20/07
Give me a good old Christian or Muslim fundamentalist any day. I think this is why atheists are often accused of being the mirror of fundamentalists, because we actually want religious people to believe in something rather than constantly abusing language, abusing text, and moving the goal posts. No wait, moving the goal posts doesn’t quite describe what religious people do, they change stadiums and start playing a different game with different equipment.
David Brooks has a column on “faith” in the NYT Op-Ed section today that simply redefines “faith” and “religion” into something that can sit well with his modern sensibilities. It’s what Karen Armstrong does and it’s what all the woo-peddlers out there do. Don’t like the meaning of a word? Don’t like what your holy book has to say? That’s okay, words can mean whatever you want them to mean both individually and as a collective. Translation: “You stupid atheists, you’ll never understand the ineffable and numinous because you’re so inflexible and don’t realize that words can mean anything we want them to mean. The sooner you learn that, then, well… GOD!” I think they are simply being precious, and religion and faith allows them to wall off their sacred notions of sacred.
David Brooks starts the column right away by redefining faith in quite a circular way:
It begins, for many people, with an elusive experience of wonder and mystery. The best modern book on belief is “My Bright Abyss” by my Yale colleague, Christian Wiman. In it, he writes, “When I hear people say they have no religious impulse whatsoever … I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond yourself, some wordless mystery straining through word to reach you? Never?”
Who buys this stuff? If you feel overwhelmed or inadequate by life experiences this equates to religion? It is so obnoxious to have someone redefine the term religious to include everyday life experiences, and then tell the non-religious that if they have ever experienced anything whatsoever, then they are by definition religious. How does David Brooks and Christian Wiman put forth such an argument with a straight face? He continues:
Most believers seem to have had these magical moments of wonder and clearest consciousness, which suggested a dimension of existence beyond the everyday. Maybe it happened during childbirth, with music, in nature, in love or pain, or during a moment of overwhelming gratitude and exaltation.
What he says in this paragraph is a key difference between believers and non-believers: once you take out the silly word “magical” from above, he is not describing anything outside normal human experience, and yet he wants to claim for religion (and faith) absolutely everything that doesn’t belong to religion, it belongs to humanity.
It’s all very solipsistic on the part of the believer to think the range of human experience and emotion simply belong to religion — but it’s actually worse than that: David Brooks (and Wiman) are claiming these experiences, can only be the domain of the religious. They put aside human experience into this little “other” category which they dub “religious” and stake claim to it as solely something experienced and appreciated by believers. It doesn’t make such experiences any more special, I think it actually cheapens them. Most believers cannot see outside their own head and realize that nothing described above (again, except magic) cannot be fully experienced and appreciated by a non-believer. I would dare to argue that such experiences are enriched by non-believers, as these experiences are seen as a beautiful part of the human condition in this world; they are experiences that we can share together and not just sprinkled onto us by a magical fairy-dusting.
He goes on about religion in faith in a completely incoherent manner:
These moments provide an intimation of ethical perfection and merciful love. They arouse a longing within many people to integrate that glimpsed eternal goodness into their practical lives. This longing is faith. It’s not one emotion because it encompasses so many emotions. It’s not one idea because it contains contradictory ideas. It’s a state of motivation, a desire to reunite with that glimpsed moral beauty and incorporate it into everyday living.
Leave it to the religious to think they are so special because they are gifted with internal magical powers. Yet they think humans are not special for the reasons we are actually special: humans have ideals, dreams, emotions, senses, consciousness, etc. Notice again how he uses “faith” in a way that is unrecognizable. Faith in this paragraph is a longing. What? He not only redefines “faith” yet again, but also extends the definition and makes it more vague by saying “it’s also not a single emotion, it encompasses many emotions”. So now “faith” has been redefined, the definition has been extended to encompass multiple emotions, and it’s vague and opaque. He’s not done, it’s also a “state of motivation”, a desire associated with moral beauty, and also the act of incorporating all this gobbledygook into life. Congratulations David Brooks, you have just rendered the word faith utterly meaningless.
Up to this point I just considered this another horrible column on faith. Let them have religion, I say, I think it’s silly, but if they want to do it, let them have their toys. But then David Brooks has to go and do something really stupid as he starts the ridiculous attempt (it’s always ridiculous) to reconcile his weird definitions of faith and religion with reason. Yes reason.
Religion may begin with experiences beyond reason, but faith relies on reason…
In his famous fourth footnote in “Halakhic Man,” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes, “The individual who frees himself from the rational principle and who casts off the yoke of objective thought will in the end turn destructive and lay waste the entire created order. Therefore, it is preferable that religion should ally itself with the forces of clear, logical cognition, as uniquely exemplified in the scientific method, even though at times the two might clash with one another.”
Or as Wiman puts it more elegantly: “Faith cannot save you from the claims of reason, except insofar as it preserves and protects that wonderful, terrible time when reason, if only for a moment, lost its claim on you.”
I should have known there couldn’t be a religious article without having it both ways. Reason needs faith and faith needs reason. Neither of these premises is true, reason does not indeed need faith, and faith vanishes with reason. Don’t try and tack your religion on to reason and scientific method. Seriously, scientific method??? I cannot for the life of me comprehend how any religious definition of faith has anything to do with the scientific method. It’s simply another way for people like Brooks to feel better about that nasty little word “faith” and be able to live with himself and accept reason and science also. One needs to go and I’m glad he recognizes that it can’t be reason or science, so he has abandoned faith without knowing it. It has been obliterated by Brooks and any discernible definition of the word is lost in his re-branding — and it most certainly doesn’t coincide with reason. Why not drop it altogether? Religious people are so clingy about words like faith, they are willing to rob them of all meaning before they will stop using them.
But he’s not done. That little 5 letter word still has some stretch left in it, so he will go to the well yet again to slap another definition onto faith. “All this discerning and talking leads to the main business of faith: living attentively every day.” Again, living attentively every day is not magical, nor spiritual, nor religious and it certainly isn’t faith or “the business of faith”. Living attentively does just fine as a human endeavor. More unnecessary mysticism where real life is more than sufficient to speak in these terms.
I love the way he ends the column too. The column insults my sensibilities as a non-believer, who I thought his piece was addressing, but he ends it with a dig to his fellow believers:
Insecure believers sometimes cling to a rigid and simplistic faith. But confident believers are willing to face their dry spells, doubts, and evolution. Faith as practiced by such people is change. It is restless, growing. It’s not right and wrong that changes, but their spiritual state and their daily practice. As the longings grow richer, life does, too. As Wiman notes, “To be truly alive is to feel one’s ultimate existence within one’s daily existence.”
So, according to Brooks, non-religious people are actually religious if they simply have emotions. Also, believers are facile and aren’t doing religion correctly. Way to start the column off by condescending to non-believers and end it by condescending to your fellow faith-heads. David Brooks wins the gold for condescension. Good job!
Since I have ceded the War on Christmas to Bill O’Reilly, and since I have confessed my allegiance to Christopher Hitchens as the closest thing to a deity that I’ll likely admit, and since I feel like celebrating this holiday season, and since I’m a person of the 90’s and a heartfelt Seinfeldian, I’m going to combine my interests and make up my own holiday (see Festivus). My holiday will be Hitchmas, and to celebrate, I will spare you my thoughts on topical matters and view them through the Atheist Prophet’s eyes since he could say it more eloquently from the grave than I could hope to while alive and kicking. It works out nicely in this case, because Christians are often so predictable that their miserable history just keeps repeating itself.
“Nothing optional — from homosexuality to adultery — is ever made punishable unless those who do the prohibiting (and exact the fierce punishment) have a repressed desire to participate.”
~ Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great)
The general topic at hand is Christian hypocrisy and the specific event is that of the pastor, Gaylard Williams, of Praise Cathedral Church of God in Seymour, IN, and his alleged gay-sex proposition. I do not mention, as most articles do, that this pastor and his church are “anti-gay”. This, to me, is just superfluous language. Any decent church-folk who profess to following the “Good Book” know from Leviticus 20:13 that homosexuals should be killed. Anti-gay is inherent in Christianity and if you don’t believe that as a Christian, then you are doing it wrong. I know, that’s the militant, fundamentalist, atheist in me caricaturing Christianity. I simply can’t bring myself to ignore the actual words that are contained in the book Christians hold in such reverence. You call it theology, I call it hypocrisy: Tomato/Tomahto.
Anyway, back to Hitchmas. In this wonderful time of year, I invite the Reverend Williams into the fold, invite him to drop that nasty book that tells him he can’t be gay, and wade in the warm waters of Freethinking. He will have much less cognitive dissonance and much more gay sex. I will leave the good Reverend Williams with true prophecy from someone with actual predictive ability:
Bishop Eddie Long of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Georgia preaches that Bayard Rustin was a vile sinner who suffered from the curable ‘disease’ of homosexuality. I have a rule of thumb for such clerics and have never known it to fail: Set your watch and sit back, and pretty soon they will be found sprawling lustily on the floor of the men’s room.”
~ Christopher Hitchens [“God’s Bigmouths,” Slate 9/27/10]
Bill O’Reilly considers himself a culture warrior. Grossly overstated metaphor aside (subtlety does not exist in the No Spin Zone), he definitely engages in battles of words daily. A particular battlefield during the month of December gets him going like no other, his beloved “War on Christmas”. You can Google it to find over a decade’s worth of clips and commentary on his Christmas Crusades. Recently he declared victory for his side. He is literally on the side of the angels and baby Jesus (non-existent as they may be) – it is the little tot’s birthday after all. So in the spirit of the season, I’ll cede the war to Bill, so all that is left is to draw up the treaty.
Bill and Baby Jesus get to have and celebrate the following Christmas items:
Creepy nativity scenes, gold, frankincense, myrrh, crosses (burning optional), church, Herod, donkeys.
The “losers” of the war on Christmas are stuck with the following to celebrate only if they so choose:
Decorated trees, pretty lights, PEACE [Bill doesn’t want this because a) he’s a warrior and b) Jesus came not for peace but with a sword], presents, stockings, Santa, reindeer, secular Christmas songs, Dickens, candy canes, eggnog, snowmen, holly, wreaths, merry bells, snowmen, feasts, JOY, family (Jesus ain’t too big on family values), cookies…
So to Bill and other Jesus warriors: I promise not to go to church but we get Rudolph and for Kris Kringle’s sake keep your hands off my figgy pudding!
Happy Holidays Everyone!