Monday, 18 May 2009

In Which I Whine About A Whiner Whining About Whiners

Thanks to Kevin Drum I came across Charlotte Allen's poor excuse for an article on atheists (main point: atheists are boring and thus I hate them), which I felt deserved a thorough perusing. Let's take a look, shall we?
Other people... take to task such superstar nonbelievers as... Richard Dawkins... and ... Christopher Hitchens for indulging in a philosophically primitive opposition of faith and reason that assumes that if science can't prove something, it doesn't exist.
We've already reached our first straw man; the view held by Dawkins is that if science has no evidence for something, there is no reason to believe it exists, and that an explanation for a complex phenomenon that requires greater complexity and for which there is no evidence isn't an explanation at all. There are other things Dawkins claims that do irritate me (arguing that the Resurrection didn't happen because it's scientifically impossible is on its own terms a vacuous statement, for example). At worst, Allen could make the point that leaping from "there is no evidence God exists, and it's illogical to point to him as Creator" to "There is no God" is too strong, but that's a point about phrasing more than anything. If nothing else, someone willing to decry others as utilising arguments that are "philosophically primitive" should try to ensure their own comments on the subject aren't so embarrassingly dumb.
My problem with atheists is their tiresome -- and way old -- insistence that they are being oppressed and their fixation with the fine points of Christianity. What -- did their Sunday school teachers flog their behinds with a Bible when they were kids?
The only damage that can come from a child's indoctrination [1] being if they're being beaten, apparently. Speaking as an apostate, breaking from the religion you have been brought up in can be very difficult, and can lead to all sorts of problems in later life. If you spend the first fifteen years of your life being told you'll go to Hell if you leave the church, it is perhaps not surprising that a conscious realisation that you no longer believe does not prevent a subconscious terror that you're going to burn for eternity. I'm not saying Allen is necessarily wrong about the fact that numerous atheists tend to recycle the same points and obsessions ad infinitum, just that her response to such is glib to the point of being insulting.

Moreover, I'm not sure I'd use the word "oppressed" (nor can I recall it being used by an actual atheist), but in America (which is where the article appears, whether or nor Allen herself is American) it is certainly still the case that being an atheist can be an impediment to certain things (public office being the most obvious, see below), and pretending that such isn't the case requires a truly amazing degree of wilful blindness, which is being done here purely to allow the author to complain about a group of people no-one is forcing her to associate with or listen to.
visit an atheist website or blog... and your eyes will glaze over as you peruse... the obsessively tiny range of topics around which atheists circle like water in a drain.
This of course, is entirely true (and whilst I've removed her brief comment on how such blogs tend to have names that are both banal and combative, she's right there too), but by their very nature blogs dedicated to a specific topic are liable to be repetitive, especially when we consider that the same discussions regarding faith and morality spring up all the time (every time someone tries to prevent gay people from marrying, someone's going to bring up that West Wing clip, and I would humbly suggest that it isn't the latter group who are the problem). Moreover, trying to discredit atheism by demonstrating [2] that kooks exist on the internet isn't particularly persuasive.
Harris writes that "no person, whatever his or her qualifications, can seek public office in the United States without pretending to be certain that ... God exists." The evidence? Antique clauses in the constitutions of six -- count 'em -- states barring atheists from office.
Quite where Allen gets this from is difficult to see, Harris in fact offers no evidence of the claim at all in the piece she mentions (this, obviously, is hardly an impressive state of affairs in itself). Regardless, even if this were what Harris was hinging his argument on, Allen is being purposefully dense in suggesting the lack of legal obstacles to an atheist acquiring public office implies a lack of bigotry. Only the briefest consideration of the history of the United States would remind her that the gap between a group of people receiving legal equality and acquiring sufficient public acceptance to enter politics in representative numbers can be quite long [3]. The number of atheists in the Senate right now? 0. The number in the House? 1. That's one atheist out of 435 members of Congress (note that the Congressman in question, Pete Stark, did not admit to his lack of faith until after he had taken office). If we assume Allen's own number of 1.6% of Americans being atheists, you would expect seven. The chance that there would be one or less is a mere 0.7%. Assuming a binomial for this is dangerous in itself, but I'll take that any day over the tired "If it isn't illegal, everyone can do it" argument, especially when it's being made with regard to a country in which even Catholic and Mormon candidates for president have been widely decried as bad potential choices for the ticket specifically because of the suggestion that their faiths aren't close enough to the mainstream.

From there she moves onto the favourite tactic of atheist bashers, pointing out there are some amongst our ranks who are inveterate turds. This, of course, is the case, though find me any group that numbers in the (at least) tens of millions, and I'll find someone in there who is a twat, and more specifically, someone who is a twat but also famous and/or powerful.

Then we move onto Creationism. Allen asks:
haven't atheists heard that many religious people (including the late Pope John Paul II) don't have a problem with evolution but, rather, regard it as God's way of letting his living creation unfold?
This one's easy: hasn't Allen heard that many religious people do have a problem with evolution? She may not enjoy the debate, or the behaviour of some on our side of it, but it's not a good idea to pretend as though there is no reason why we talk about it at all. Also note how she cites the previous Pope.
Furthermore, even if human nature as we know it is a matter of lucky adaptations, how exactly does that disprove the existence of God?
Another straw man, which you would have assumed Allen would realise (it's always a worry when you reach the point in a supposedly serious article when the most charitable viewing of its author is as a total idiot, rather than someone smart who is deliberately side-stepping the real issues). Evolution disproves the necessity of the existence of God which, again, is an argument that is still far too common today, and thus worthy of countering.
And then there's the question of why atheists are so intent on trying to prove that God not only doesn't exist but is evil to boot... If there is no God... why does it matter whether he's good or evil?
This seems to be a coded way of asking "Why do atheists spend so much time trying to disprove the Christian God?" The answer is obvious, Dawkins (and Allen) both live in countries in which the dominant religious belief is Christianity. It is the belief with which we are most familiar, and the belief with which we most find ourselves coming into conflict with. If an atheist and a Christian are debating the existence of God, I don't see any problem with using a line of argument that says "Even if there isn't a God, they can't be your God, and here's why"; nor has Allen spent any time trying to argue that she is aware of any problems either.
The problem with atheists -- and what makes them such excruciating snoozes -- is that few of them are interested in making serious metaphysical or epistemological arguments against God's existence, or in taking on the serious arguments that theologians have made attempting to reconcile, say, God's omniscience with free will or God's goodness with human suffering.
Maybe this is true, maybe there are too few atheists willing to engage on a sufficiently high level. My counter would be that Allen gives no evidence for this, thinking rather that pointing out there are some stupid atheists and some smart atheists who say dumb things constitutes proof, and more importantly she gives no reason whatsoever to believe the same criticism cannot be laid at the feet of Christians. I agree entirely that we could do with more discourse, that there should be enlightened debates instead of slanging matches, but in the course of her article all Allen manages is to throw more invective around. You can't complain atheists don't engage intellectually whilst baldly misrepresenting the views of atheists. In the very piece Allen quotes, Harris gives a very nice postage-stamp explanation of the problem with believing God to be both omnipotent and loving. Allen might not be convinced by it, of course, but that isn't the problem, the problem is Allen is wilfully pretending it doesn't exist.

Allen concludes with this little snipe, proving that we can add projection to Allen's list of glaring logical flaws.
So, atheists, how about losing the tired sarcasm and boring self-pity and engaging believers seriously?
In fairness, I suppose if I were so totally unable or unwilling to grasp the arguments of others, or the current situation regarding religious belief in America, I'd find atheists boring as well. Having said that, I would hope that I am neither of those things, and I certainly didn't ask for money in exchange for writing a piece entirely divorced from reality, which complains the targets of the piece are entirely divorced from reality.

[1] Just to preempt any objections: it is indoctrination, in the sense that it offers historical facts and philosophical points without encouraging (and more specifically actively discouraging) critical examination of same. Perhaps there are some Christian teachers out there who do encourage such things, in which case I apologise for including them here. As a matter of fact, I would love to meet such a person, since I would be very interested in their teaching methods, and I think a lot of the potential problems with religious teaching might very well be bypassed.

[2] Well, claiming, Allen doesn't manage anything so interesting as demonstrating, which you think might be useful when you're saying things like "agnostics [are] a group despised as wishy-washy by atheists" or "atheists say the problem [behind low numbers of self-confessed atheists] is persecution so relentless that it drives tens of millions of God-deniers into a closet of feigned faith, like gays before Stonewall".

[3] I'm not trying to claim parity between atheists and African Americans, for example. I'm just pointing out the obvious flaw in Allen's "reasoning". A closer analogy might be homosexuals (another group for whom discrimination against them is largely a religious issue). I haven't found an exact figure, but it appears the number of openly homosexual members of Congress is somewhere in the region of three.

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