Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Why Do They Always Lie?

Take a committed theist, ask him or her to say something about atheism, and just wait. The lies will come pouring out of their mouth like water from a fountain.

This article by Peter Berkowitz, who teaches law at George Mason, and is a "senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution", is no exception. How many lies can you find?

It starts in the smarmiest possible way, taking a cliché from Ecclesiastes to argue that the new wave of atheism books (which Berkowitz calls, unimaginatively, the "new new atheism") is confirmed by "biblical wisdom". This is the equivalent of the traditional response of the theist when an atheist makes a good point: ignore it, and say "God loves you anyway".

Next, Berkowitz sneers at Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and other atheist writers by describing atheism as a "profitable business" --- as if writing books that people want to read is somehow morally objectionable, and as if religious organizations haven't been raking in the tax-exempt cash for years.

We have to wait until the fourth paragraph before we get the first outright lie. Berkowitz claims "... the new new atheism proclaims its hatred of God and organized religion loudly and proudly from the rooftops". The only problem is, atheists don't hate the Christian God or any other god, any more than we hate the tooth fairy or the Easter bunny or Emma Bovary. You can't hate something that doesn't exist, and fictional characters don't inspire hatred the way real dictators do. Atheists might hate how a misguided belief in a deity or deities causes people to misbehave, and we might hate the division that religion causes, and we might hate some institutions of organized religion (and have a good reason to do so), but we don't hate Berkowitz's god.

The fifth paragraph has another lie. Berkowitz claims "[The new new atheists] contend ... we can now know, with finality and certainty, that God does not exist..." Really? Is that really what they say?

Nope. Take Richard Dawkins, for example. In The God Delusion, he makes the point that you can't know with certainty that there is no god. On page 51, for example, Dawkins defines a strong, or category 7, atheist as someone who says "I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung `knows' there is one." He then says "I'd be surprised to meet many people in category 7" and that he does not count himself in this category. He says he is "in category 6, but leaning towards 7 - I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden." A category 6 atheist says, according to Dawkins, "I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there."

There is much more to dispute in Berkowitz's piece, but I confess I grow weary at the weak excuses he uses to prop up religion, the straw men he erects to attack Hitchens, and the transparently sneering rhetoric. Hitchens, Berkowitz says, "shows no awareness that his atheism, far from resulting from skeptical inquiry, is the rigidly dogmatic premise from which his inquiries proceed, and that it colors all his observations and determines his conclusions." But modern atheism isn't a dogmatism, since it offers no creed to rigidly adhere to, only a disbelief in the creeds of others. To call this dogmatism is to insist that the barefoot man really does have a secret cobbler he visits on the side.

Berkowitz can't resist implying that his religion would never, ever result in the nasty kind of violence we see emanating from Islam: "today's bestselling atheists suppress crucial distinctions between the forms of faith embraced by the vast majority of American citizens and the militant Islam that at this very moment is pledged to America's destruction." What he fails to see is that that American majoritarian faith also results in reprehensible violence. To name just three examples from the last year:

  • Charles Carl Roberts, home-schooled by religious parents, killed 5 and wounded 5 more Amish schoolgirls in October 2006 because he was angry at God.

  • Brian K. White, a religious musician, beat to death a 75-year-old former Soviet political prisoner in New Jersey because the man refused to buy his religious CD's.

  • Joshua Royce Mauldin, who claimed he was called by God to be a minister, seriously burned his 2-month-old daughter's face by jamming her in a microwave.

Berkowitz concludes by claiming, "Of all the Bible's sublime and sustaining teachings, none is more so than the teaching that explains that humanity is set apart because all human beings--woman as well as man the Bible emphasizes--are created in the image of God". Berkowitz may feel this is "sublime" and "sustaining", but I just regard it with sorrow. What could be more responsible for our ecological crisis than this silly, deluded view that man is somehow elevated above everything else in nature?

If this mess of lies and foolishness is the best the theists can offer, then the atheists have already won.


Harriet said...

I don't think that they lie; they just don't know that they are spouting nonsense.

Superstition will take a very long time to eraticate; it is on the decline.

Anonymous said...

you lost me at "WSJ OpinionJournal."

that stuff's not for normal people to read - you're just wasting your time. you may as well head over to sci.math and argue with the math trolls.

Stephen Lavelle said...

"Berkowitz can't resist implying that his religion would never, ever result in the nasty kind of violence we see emanating from Islam"

It's hard to talk about what he implies. But he does say something: that his religion has a pacifying effect. You don't deal with this claim I think.

(still an ok response though!)

Steven Schultz said...

Religion has a pacifying effect? Are you kidding? Just a recent example: three "Christians" disrupt a U.S. Senate opening prayer simply because it was being given by a Hindu cleric. Not to mention the "Christians" who have bombed abortion clinics and killed physicians. Religion is a motivational device, and not all of it for the good of society.

Anonymous said...

It is certainly true that there is a violent lunatic fringe to Christianity in the West. The people shooting abortion doctors for example. And there is a much larger group of Christians who hold a number of beliefs that, while not causing physical violence, result in extremely poor outcomes for our country and for the planet. I'm thinking here of those, for example, who see no need to husband our resources because the rapture is drawing nigh.

But it is foolish to fully equate the current danger of Christianity with that of Islam. For a variety of historical reasons, Islam maintains a grip on culture that Christianity hasn't had for centuries. Even with our prayer meeting Presidents, our science curriculum under attack, and our medical system shackled, American culture is not remotely like those living under the control of the mullahs.

The three examples cited, while horrible, read more like the acts of garden-variety psychopaths rather than faith-fueled crime. More importantly, when these sorts of crimes occur in the U.S., the government prosecutes those involved and they typically end up in prison with little sympathy from Americans – theist, deist, agnostic, or atheist. All too frequently in Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere religiously inspired violent crimes are committed openly with the perpetrators lionized by many and unimpeded, and even encouraged, by the theocratic state.

Berkowitz makes a number of unimpressive points. And he fails to address a whole variety of vital arguments from Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett. But he is right to point out that many atheists “suppress crucial distinctions between the forms of faith embraced by the vast majority of American citizens and the militant Islam that at this very moment is pledged to America's destruction”. Ironically, Hitchens and the other authors mentioned rarely do this. They have repeatedly pointed out that while Islam and Christianity are equally unlikely to be true and equally full of all sorts of nonsense, Islam, at least at this point in history, is vastly more dangerous to freedom, democracy, and the planet itself.

Anonymous said...

Just to pile on Berkowitz: one thing that he hasn't touched on, something that all of the atheists he mentioned consider a crucial argument, is that there isn't a shred of credible evidence for the existence of any gods.

Anonymous said...

For Mark in Connecticut:

Superficially, you are correct that Islam is a greater danger and even more correct to add the qualifier "at this point in history." However, what you fail to see is that countries, empires, provinces, etc., that were ruled by christian religious leaders were equally abhorrent in the past and the combination of a royal figure using those leaders to subject populations and plunge Europe into an intellectual wilderness of violent confrontations for centuries is what led to the founding of the US as a secular state. It is because of this history that the founders insisted on atheist politics as the ones that would govern us, and the historical record of adherence to this in this country as well as adoption by other countries, that the US and Europe has been able to resist the continual atrocities of our collective history.

It is also for this very reason that I say you may be right superficially. With the US as the original modern model of the atheist government, I think it may be accurate to state that right-wing christianity in the US, insofar as it seeks to force its religious views into the commons, is more dangerous as its desire is to eliminate the pacifying atheist model of democratic government in favor of one that seconds the guiding force of the Constitution to some biblical viewpoint.

And, anytime any christian uses the Old Testament as a reference point, we all should be scared... as were a great many of the founding fathers who regarded the god of the Old Testament as an irrepressibly irrational and bloodthirsty psychopath deserving of no one's respect.

So, while the Islamic radicals are ostensibly the greatest threat to us, I would argue that this is a physical viewpoint whereas the greater danger is in the possibility of a philosophical shift brought on by the radicals in our country like the one who heads up the Oval Office and regards god as a better guide to governing than the document to which he took his oath and which he described as "just a goddamn piece of paper."


Anonymous said...

"Charles Carl Roberts...,Brian K. White...,Joshua Royce Mauldin..."

You can add Paul Hill and Eric Rudolph to the list of religious crazies.

kemibe said...

Ignorance and confusion may sow the seeds of dishonesty, but the end product is simply a weed-choked garden of unapolegetic lies. I'm no longer willing to give these prevaricating sacks of shit the benefit of the doubt. They're just as detestable as any other liars.

Anonymous said...

To bugaboo:

I’m not sure I quite understand your response. You say that I’m “superficially” correct that Islam is a greater danger than right-wing Christianity. You even explain, correctly, I think, why the US was founded as a secular state and why both the US and Europe have largely succeeded in separating religion from the state. But then you go on to explain that the Islamic threat is merely a physical danger while the threat from the radical Christians is greater because it seeks to shift our philosophy.

With all due respect, this is exactly the sort of thinking I was criticizing in my original post. I’m deeply concerned about the creationists gaining control of the science classrooms. I’m worried to read about prayer groups at the Pentagon. I’m angry to think important medical advances will be delayed due to medieval thinking. But all of this pales in comparison to the dangers facing us from Islam. Bin Laden and Zawahiri don’t want to change the curriculum – they want to kill us.

Bush and his evangelical minions say they want to reform our culture and to return this country to the Christian nation they incorrectly claim it once was. This is scary stuff and I’m proud to oppose it. But after six years in office they don’t really have much to show for it. Intelligent Design has lost in court. Gays and lesbians have, if anything, a few more rights, at least in a few states. Abortion remains legal. If book sales are any measure, atheism is gaining in popularity. If the radical Christians can’t move us closer to Mosaic law when they control all three branches of government, then we can, if not rest easy, at least stop worrying that our secular civilization is on the precipice. And we ought to avoid equating this real but lesser threat with the reality that well-financed, technologically sophisticated men are planning our demise while we engage in this debate.


Anonymous said...


I think our fears are juxtaposed. My argument is of the "pen is mightier than the sword" variety while yours is of the "stick and stones may break my bones" variety. I fear the continuous assaults on the foundational principles of the US and the fact that many, if not most, seem to buy into the idea that there is true controversy in biology over whether evolution is real. It is a slippery slope argument, i.e., they keep trying to find chinks in the secular Constitution armor and now we have many in positions who believe the propaganda of the anti-science side. Additionally, they will continue to repackage their ideas as they are found out and, with the help of those plants, may one day be able to succeed. Just because they haven't been able to win the day over the past couple of years does not mean they are finished. Our students are being ill-taught and have less information with which to combat the nonsense and knowledge of basic scientific principles are further marginalized as education progresses unless one concentrates in a specific area of interest meaning our future politicians and judges may be less capable of understanding what needs to be understood.

I fear less physical death of person than philosophical of my nation.

Unknown said...

I'm an atheist because my ex was Christian. Honest to god that's the truth! :)