18 September 2010

Bill Donohue thinks atheists should apologize for Hitler

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, is one of those people whose thought processes are so remarkably vacuous that he fills his rather expansive intellectual void by being loud and belligerent. He's fond of saying things that are so ignorant and fallacious that you could swear the guy is trying to parody something, and damn is he awesome, until that horrible moment when you realize this clown actually believes the nonsense he's spewing. So recently, he posted something on the Catholic League website in which he demanded that atheists apologize for Nazis:
Radical atheists like the British Humanist Association should apologize for Hitler. But they should not stop there. They also need to issue an apology for the 67 million innocent men, women and children murdered under Stalin, and the 77 million innocent Chinese killed by Mao. Hitler, Stalin and Mao were all driven by a radical atheism, a militant and fundamentally dogmatic brand of secular extremism. It was this anti-religious impulse that allowed them to become mass murderers. By contrast, a grand total of 1,394 were killed during the 250 years of the Inquisition, most all of whom were murdered by secular authorities. 
Man, where to start.

First of all, Donohue, as usual, gets his facts wrong. Hitler was a professed Catholic. The entire Nazi army wore belts with the slogan "Gott Mit Uns", which just happens to be the slogan of the Lutheran church: "God with us". In Mein Kampf, Hitler makes countless references to his religious faith. Some may say that Hilter didn't really believe in God, and that he was just a savvy politician – which may or may not be true. But what is true is that Hilter made countless public references to his faith, and that he publically declared atheists to be the enemy. Moreover, it's well documented that numerous high-ranking Catholics had close ties to the German government at the time.

And then there's the whole comparison of the Inquisition with more recent genocides. It's a ridiculous comparison, for a number of reasons:
  • Record keeping from the time leaves something to be desired, to say the least, so it's really difficult to say how many people died in the Inquisition
  • There were a lot more people alive, and thus a lot more people to kill, in the 20th century than in the 13th
  • People in the 13th century did not have bombs, gas chambers, or machine guns that could quickly kill multitudes of people
  • There are also those pesky crusades and witch burnings, also devoid of machine guns and gas chambers

But while I feel compelled to call out Bill Donohue's bullshit, all this fact checking is really beside the point – his whole argument is rooted in a fallacy, and addressing this fallacy is how, in my opinion at least, atheists/agnostics/skeptics/humanists/whatever should respond to these kinds of dumb arguments from religious nutcases. After all, religious apologists love pulling out the old Stalin canard: "See how much worse things were when ATHEISM ran rampant?!" Nevermind that the most peaceful, prosperous countries on this planet also happen to be the most secular. But I digress...

If someone tells you they are a theist, what do you know about them? Can you say whether they are politically liberal or conservative, what their views are on abortion or gay rights, or even whether they are Buddhist or fundamentalist Muslims? No. That is because while "theism" is a component of a great many religious philosophies, it is not a philosophy unto itself. It is simply a belief in a higher power – a god of some sort.

Atheism, likewise, is not a philosophy. It has no doctrine. It is simply the absence of belief in God. Atheists may be conservative or liberal, rational or irrational. While there is certainly some philosophical homogeneity among the "new atheists", that cultural movement is not reducible to atheism itself. A great many people are atheists who know little or nothing about science or religion, and who have not studied rational arguments for and against the existence of God. As with theism, there are atheistic philosophies. Marxism, for example, is an atheistic philosophy. But that doesn't mean Marxism is reducible to atheism, or that all atheists are Marxists. Of course not.

So yeah, take some kook like Stalin. He thought religion was a threat to the State, and tried to eradicate it. But were his actions motivated by a rational critique of science and philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God? Of course not. They were motivated by nationalism and megalomania. Was Stalin's problem that he was too reasonable for his own good? Please.

What theists often miss in these discussion is this: the problem with religion is not necessarily the conclusion; it is the way it asks questions and seeks knowledge. Richard Dawkins says it himself in The Devil's Chaplain:
My point is not that religion itself is the motivation for wars, murders and terrorist attacks, but that religion is the principal label, and the most dangerous one, by which a "they" as opposed to a "we" can be identified at all.
Atheists are fond of pointing how irrational thought processes lead to dangerous behavior, and that often includes specific religious doctrines being adhered to in a wholly uncritical manner. But in all my readings and video-watching, I've yet to hear an atheist suggest that theism implicitly leads to destructive behavior. Yet theists try to pull this canard on atheists all too often, and like all theistic arguments it's predicated on a logical fallacy. If there's one thing nutbars like Bill Donohue are good at, it's throwing stones from glass houses.

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