Monday, December 06, 2010

Dear Charles Lewis: You're a Dishonest Bigot

If you can stomach it, read this appalling piece of dreck by Charles Lewis, religion writer for the National Post.

It's hard to know what to make of it, other than that Lewis is terribly, terribly threatened by the rising popularity of atheism and atheist writers. He doesn't seem to know a damn thing about atheists, but believes they are all horrible, boring utopians.

As evidence of this, he trots out Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and labels them "dreary". Hitchens, dreary? Lewis must be living in some bizarro universe where dreary means "vastly entertaining".

If I had to name a single famous person I'd love to have dinner with, it would be Hitchens, who knows much more about politics and history than I do, and is witty to boot. Dawkins would be a close second. Come to think of it, having them both for dinner would be perfect: Hitchens can talk about art, history, and politics, and Dawkins can talk about science.

I understand perfectly well why Lewis feels threatened by Hitchens. It was Hitchens who wrote The Missionary Position, exposing Mother Teresa as a pious fraud who loved poverty and suffering for everyone except herself. Lewis, who himself wrote on Mother Teresa, can't accept that characterization. But it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.

Lewis claims "most atheists do not have a clue what religion is about". Like most bigots, though, he doesn't present a shred of evidence for this claim. If he bothered to look at the evidence, though, he'd conclude just the opposite: atheists know more about religion than Protestants and Catholics.

Lewis gives North Korea as an example of a "godless society". But he doesn't dare mention the European social democracies, such as Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, all of which are good examples of peaceful, prosperous societies with significantly lower levels of religious belief than either Canada or the US. Nor does Lewis mention the behavior of officially religious societies, such as Afghanistan. That's simple dishonesty. Perhaps Lewis should review the Ten Commandments -- as I recall, there was this prohibition against "bear[ing] false witness".

Lewis claims "Atheists are under the ridiculous illusion that religious people think that all they have to do is call out to God and help will be on the way". Well, no. Atheists know that there is a huge variety of religious belief, and we also know that many Christians do believe exactly what Lewis says they don't. Pretending that this is not a large strain of North American religious belief is, simply, dishonest.

Lewis says "Faith is not up for debate". Well, I've got news for you, Chuck: you're wrong. In a free society, you don't get a pass because you call your beliefs "faith" and pronounce them off limits. Can't justify them? Fine with me. Just don't expect me, or anyone else to take you seriously.

I can just imagine the reaction if Lewis wrote a column entitled "Dear Jews: most of us don't care what you think". No doubt he'd be fired in a minute. But criticizing atheists is just fine.

Why on earth is the National Post employing this ignorant bigot?


Unknown said...

The North Korean government persecutes free religious expression, but that doesn't necessarily make it "godless." Theocracies are notorious for persecution as well, so this is a poor way to make the case that North Korea is "godless." The North Korean government is secular to be sure, but what is the breakdown of adherents to different faiths by proportion of the population? The CIA Factbook has no data on North Korean religious belief, but they do point out that 49.3% of South Koreans identify as non-religious. South Korea could reasonably be branded "godless," but I suppose South Korea isn't the example Lewis wanted to make.

TomH said...

Lewis' statement that "most atheists do not have a clue what religion is about" raises, perhaps inadvertently, an interesting point. In my experience, atheists know the official statements of religions (e.g. the Bible) better than those religions' followers.

However, it is also my experience that the reason that people subscribe to a religion and attend church has nothing to do with official religion, and everything to do with social relationships and the sense of belonging that comes from sharing a common activity and (rather fuzzy) belief system.

In this way, atheists arguing over what the Bible says, or the nature of God, and so on, completely miss the point, as Lewis's statement implies.

Of course, no one every won a debate by saying, "well, I'm a Christian because my friends are," and I suspect that people defend their articles of faith because it maintains solidarity with their "in" group. In the end, us atheists get sucked into debates over philosophical or scientific details that don't actually matter to the religious audience, because that audience is defending its social relationships, and the details of their religion are just one vehicle for that defense.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


Except that many atheists started as believers. For example, I was raised as an Episcopalian, and believed what everyone told me to, until I realized that there was no evidence for any of it.

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

Lewis claims "most atheists do not have a clue what religion is about".

(Pssst - it's about money.)

Chris said...

I don't know if the North Korean government can really be characterized as 'secular.' Isn't there an element of divinity ascribed to Kim Jong-il, as there was to his father? Admittedly I am no expert on North Korea (can there even be such a thing?), but it has always seemed to me that any transfer of power to the son there has been accompanied by elements of 'divine accession.'


Mr. Lewis, here's a simple quiz for you:

* Atheism plus Totalitarianism makes for an unhealthy society (North Korea, Stalin's Russia, etc.)
* Religion plus Totalitarianism makes for an unhealthy society (Nazi Germany, Saudi Arabia, etc.)

Can you spot what those two items have in common?

Anonymous said...

Why on earth is the National Post employing this ignorant bigot?

Likely the same reason Fox News employs Sean Hannity: he panders to a significant chunk (perhaps majority) of their audience.

GreatBigBore said...

Jeffrey, thanks so much for posting this. I was so pissed off when I first read the article that I started mulling over a YouTube video to denounce that guy. You've said it all far better than I would have. Thanks.

GreatBigBore said...

I may be naive, but I'm starting to wonder about this idiotic claim Christians always make about "godless" nations that are always full of murder and mayhem. Probably someone has already written a lot about this, but I'm just now realizing: a murderous dictator who stifles religion is doing so not "to get rid of god," as the Christians would say, but to get rid of the competition--religious institutions wield enormous political power, and any maniacal dictator would do well to get rid of them.

TomH said...

Jeffrey: I completely understand your point. I myself started off as a Methodist, and my questions and disagreements grew until Christianity could no longer support them.

On a related note, ScienceDaily reports that a new study finds that the "secret ingredient" that makes religious people happier (or, perhaps, "happy about their religion) is social interactions, particularly friendships, rather than theology or spirituality.

Perhaps those of us who started in a church and later became atheists represent a minority for whom those social interactions are not sufficient to overcome the inherent contradictions of the theology.

James Cranch said...

That research about the happiness of religious people is interesting, TomH.

Naturally, there are all sorts of activities which both do something useful and encourage friendships. I think many people enjoy doing volunteer work for charities partly because they meet likeminded and pleasant people by doing so. Presumably the personal benefits are similar to those of religion?

Anonymous said...

In Westminster Abbey, purchase your hotdogs (as you only) on those interred during the 12th Century.

You'll never go thirsty (for a pint) in Sunni North Africa if you're near an enterprising merchant.

Blaise Pascal hedged his bets regarding the existence of God and Euler was honest and hardly ever wrong. Archimedes..well..who knows.

If you're in Ireland, they'll figure your religion out by your first name. M'boko from Iceland may get them thinking though.

My dogs don't believe in me but they like and trust me (despite the Stockholm Syndrome overtones).

Ask a dead person what they think of the afterlife ;)

cody said...

Chris, I heard the first game of golf that Kim Jong Il played he got 11 hole-in-ones, (though who knows if that story originated in North Korea in seriousness or elsewhere in mockery). And The Onion had a great video a while back about Kim Jong Il announcing a plan to bring the moon to North Korea. (They also had a great article with the headline, "North Korea detonates 50 years of GDP".)

TomH, I think the vocal atheist community does see the social value that religion carries, I know in my case I just think the all the harm religion does far outweighs that good, (in addition to religion having no monopoly on culturing social relationships). I think you're right about the debates, how they don't care about the science & philosophy. My roommate lately has been fond of something he heard a while back, saying, "they didn't reason themselves into these beliefs, so you can't reason them out." Which I have mixed feelings about... Obviously some people do reason themselves out, with or without the help of others.

Curt Cameron said...

TomH wrote:
> "Perhaps those of us who started in a church and later became atheists represent a minority for whom those social interactions are not sufficient to overcome the inherent contradictions of the theology."

In my experience, those of us who have left the churches have done so because we actually took the theology seriously.

GreatBigBore said...

Curt Cameron said, "we actually took the theology seriously."

Exactly! It's because I care deeply about truth that I can't believe any of the stuff in the bible, especially the claims to some higher sort of morality.

Leo said...

"Dear Jews": not fair. There's a Jewish people and culture independently from religion ("Protestant atheist" is ridiculous, "Jewish atheist" isn't). This would be a "fuck you", not a "fuck your ideas".

Also, Jews have a history of systematic, targeted persecution; atheists just get standard nonconformist persecution, so there are extra Jew-protecting norms. Lewis could get fired from these alone.

Fairer would be e.g. "Dear Hindus" or "Dear Buddhists" or "Dear Mormons". Probably still more fireable, but less so.

(Also, we can't argue we want religion to stop being above debate and then ask for the same protection for atheism.)

Jeffrey Shallit said...


Who said anything about atheists being above debate? I just find the title of his piece offensive. Who's the "us" meant to be, anyway?

Unknown said...

I'm still not sure why I'm a bigot. I only hate Stalin and HItler and men of that ilk. Otherwise I don't hate anyone. So why a bigot? Isn't that kind of nasty. Find the line in my story that identifies me as a bigot and then email me at

In the meantime: Peace on Earth, goodwill towards men.

Charles Lewis

Anonymous said...

I rarely post, even to my poker forum, but many of the observation here seem 2nd or 3rd hand. There are excellent opinions such as Elias Cannetti, G. Carlin's 40th anniversary take on religion etc.. and there will never be a shortage of moral caricatures. One's world view is shaped by opportunity. If anyone has ever faced the prospect of their imminent demise or saved lives, persons, cats, dogs, bugs etc then one should have learned to appreciate those things alive and not. So called Zen paradoxes are true but be filled in with experience and eventual comprehension and wisdom. Fools will always exist and dangerous fools usually lead schools of fish.
Good for poker but not good for politics.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Here is what I wrote back to Charles Lewis, slightly edited for clarity:

My definition of "bigot" is "someone irrationally devoted to his own prejudices".

In my opinion, there are several kinds of bigotry displayed in your column:

1. The title. There is simply *no way* you would have written "Dear Jews: Most of us don't care what you think".

It might have been fair to say "Dear Christopher Hitchens: I don't care what you think". But lumping all atheists together is no different from lumping all Jews together, or all Catholics together, etc.

Furthermore, saying "Most of us" rather than "I" is not fair, because it labels you as having some kind of moral high ground surrounded by others ("We").

2. The dishonest argumentation. It is not honest, or fair, to cite North Korea as your only example of an atheist country. You should have also mentioned Sweden, Norway, Denmark, etc. The commenters to my site agree, and so do the commenters to your National Post site. So why not be a big man, and withdraw that one?

Similarly, it is not honest, or fair, to say that "most atheists do not have a clue what religion is about". Would you say "most Jews do not have a clue what Christianity is about"? And statistics say just the opposite. So why not be a big man and withdraw that one, too?

Similarly, it is not honest, or fair, to say that "Atheists are under the ridiculous illusion that religious people think that all they have to do is call out to God and help will be on the way" when (i) many atheists know very well about different kinds of Christianity and (ii) many religious people do believe what you say they don't.

Being a bigot does necessarily entail being a "hater". I never said you were. But employing arguments like the ones you used, and using the blanket phrasing like you did, do indeed suggest you are "irrationally devoted to your own prejudices".

GreatBigBore said...

Jeffrey, thanks for posting it publicly! I figured you would, in spite of his request to send it to him personally. Thanks!

386sx said...

But the debate is useless for one simple reason: most atheists do not have a clue what religion is about.

Well most of your article was about how faith is talking yourself into believing stuff, and then ignoring your doubts with all the will you can muster. Ya, we already knew dat...

Shane said...

I have often heard the classic canard 'athiest societies spawn
atrocities etc' with the frequent reference to Stalin the Nazis and
North Korea. How can those conclusions be drawn from such a one dimensional analysis of the complex historical, social and economic factors that contributed to the situations in those countries at that time? If one wishes to take such an infantile approach one could point out that those particular totalitarian regimes occupy only a small part
of human history. One could therefore conclude on that basis that all of the other atrocities that have ocurred throughout recorded human history must be the result of theistic governments? As communism etc only lasted for some 70 years? I could also point out that the latin american countries who self profess a 90% christian population also spawn such regimes with massacres, abuse of human rights, institutionalised death squads etc. Or that the regimes in those countries before nazism and communism were not exactly resting on any moral high ground - how many athiest countries started WW1? Even a cursory examination of the abuses in tsarist russia and imperial germany in the congo makes one quickly aware of how theist governments are just as capable of such behaviour. Yet somehow these points never get mentioned.....

Rocky said...

"(ii) many religious people do believe [that all they have to do is call out to God and help will be on the way]".

Indeed, here are two such examples from the last few years where religious groups in Georgia and Alabama thought they could pray to God to induce rainfall during dry spells:

There have been other more serious instances of people attempting to pray away diabetes in their children (even more absurd when you consider something can actually be done about diabetes whereas this isn't the case for influencing rainfall), which resulted in the child's death in this particular instance:

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

Follow-up from Charles Lewis: Dear atheists: can’t we all just get along or whatever?

One professor wrote on his own blog that I was a “dishonest bigot” and my story “was an appalling piece of dreck.” I wrote back to him to wish him a Merry Christmas; he wrote back to say I was passive aggressive. I also wanted to know why he called me a bigot. We will not be going on holidays together in the near future or ever.

Mr. Lewis: He also explained why he thinks you're a bigot. And he linked to your original column so people could judge for themselves. These are courtesies which are apparently beyond you.

Unknown said...

Nice. I see our old pal Charles Lewis still repeating the claim that atheists don't understand religion or faith, despite that claim having already been addressed here prior to his visit.

Anonymous said...

while I agree with much of what you said, I characterize Harris, Hitches and Dawkins as what Martin Heideggar called "cheap atheists." They fail to realize that they, themselves, profess faith in various kinds of dogma in, ironically, their atheism. Rattling sword with pious Christians, unfortunately, has become the ultimate battle for the trio of militant atheist (I consider Dan Dennet on a higher, sounder level than the other three) and as such has shunned them to answer philosophically interesting questions.

For a starter, I think that "God does not exist" proposition is true (yet trivial and uninteresting), nonsense or false depending on the sense you ascribe to "existence" and what it means "to be." In short, the right kind of atheism is the one that conceives God as an institution. As such, its erstwhile existence is obvious, about which Nietzsche was right on the money: God is *dead*; we killed him. The likes of Charles Lewis only help promulgate the news.