25 May 2012

7 Myths About New Atheists: Myth #3 – Atheists judge all believers by the worst of them

I recently watched the discussion/debate between Christopher Hitchens and Tim Rutton, and if there was anything that Hutton kept hammering on it's that he agreed with a lot of what Hitchens said about the perversity of many religious practitioners. But the point he hammered back with is that the extremists, the fundamentalists, the evolution deniers, the war mongers, the gay and women haters, the privilege seekers, etc, are not representative of all believers.

I've mentioned my brother before, and it's appropriate here to mention him again. He's a devout evangelical Christian, and a blue-blooded liberal. I won't try to guess his stance on various political issues, but he certainly sees himself as pro-science. He's a big fan of guys like Francis Collins and Ken Miller, devout Christians who also happen to be prominent biologists who speak out against the folly of creationism. It was Miller, after all, who helped expose Intelligent Design for the pseudoscience it is – in no small part by exposing its most prominent advocates' ignorance – in the famous Dover trial.

I'm not sure how to quantify what Christian charities have done for the world, but it's undoubtedly no small contribution. And while atheists are quick to point out the abject idiocy of the Pope preaching the sinfulness of condom use to AIDS-ravaged Africans, Catholic charities are some of the most efficacious and prominent on the continent. Meanwhile, believers are quick to point out the "atheist regimes" of Stalin and Mao, and the millions who died under their rule (Hitler is often wrongly tossed in there, but he was a Christian).

Unfortunately, it's all beside the point.

Atheists point out the atrocities committed by religious people and in the name of religion (there's a difference) to show that religion often is and often has been not a source of charity and love, but of tyranny and cruelty. History is mired with blood spilled in the name of spreading religion: the Saxon wars, the Crusades, the Inquisition, Encomienda. The pro-slavery South of the 19th Century was overwhelmingly Christian (the whole Atlantic slave trade was masterminded by the Christian West), as was the pro-segregation South of the 20th. The primary opposition to the equality of woman and homosexuals both here and abroad comes from religion – overwhelmingly so, in fact. Even today, in the US, while Christians don't advocate the burqas and dehumanization of women as some Arab nations do, a visit to Christian conservative website will find a plethora of arguments regarding women as submissive to the authority of their husbands – not equal partners. I'm also unable to find any sort of secular opposition to gay rights, particularly since the scientific verdict has been in for quite some time.

And there's more. There's no opposition to the forward march of science outside of religious circles. While Intelligent Design advocates attempted to cast a veneer of scientific respectability over their pseudoscientific nonsense, the infamous Wedge Document revealed them for what they are – Christian fundamentalists hellbent on subverting science education. Christian hucksters exploit millions under the frauds of "prosperity preaching" which encourages people to give thousands to already-wealthy churches with the promise that God will magically bless them financially as a reward for their sacrifice, and millions are duped into giving money and forsaking medical care for the dangerous fraud of faith healing. And all this doesn't even touch the modern extremes of terrorism and war advocated in the name of religion.


No one is arguing that all believers are like this, or that religion inevitably leads to such things. Rather, the argument is that faith is the problem. We believe that the core of the problem is the idea that it is not only acceptable, but even virtuous to believe things about reality based on faith. We new atheists are empiricists, and we think that the only justified believes are those based solely upon evidence.

Liberal and moderate believers believe that faith is fully justified, and that the conservatives, fundamentalists and extremists are just doing it wrong. They're reading the wrong holy book, or reading the right one but interpreting it wrong. They might claim God speaks to them, but they're wrong because, well, God spoke to those moderates and said something different. The problem is that this is an argument from consequences. The problems are many:
  • There is no objective, independently verifiable criteria for the proper interpretation of any holy book
  • There is no way to independently verify claims that God spoke to anyone, or to ascertain what God's intentions are
  • Research already indicates that people simply impose their own sociocultural biases on their theology, molding the latter to conform to the former, which clearly undermines the validity of religion as any sort of moral compass.
In other words, new atheists think the problem isn't religion per se, but a faith-based epistemology. There's simply no way to independently verify any faith based claims about reality. The result is the kind of extremism that Richard Dawkins is concerned about in his interview with a Muslim from the DVD Root of all Evil?: that people with equally fervent but opposing views will be unable to reason with one another, because their faith-based views are not amenable to evidence.




Myth #2
Myth #4


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