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Dumb Things Atheists Say and Do, and Fail to Do Enough
By The Libertarian Heretic
One might think with the title above that I am here to condemn atheism as a concept.
Nope. I intend neither to bury nor to praise it.
For all I directly know, atheism may be central to the ultimately correct grand explanation of things – it may truly be The True Story, The Real Deal.
So instead, I am taking on something different. I am taking on the specific stupid themes heard from modern atheists, namely those arguments and tropes that reflect a rather dumb anti-religious fanaticism and which are themselves sprinkled with pseudo-rational and fully irrational subthemes.
I am particularly reacting to the general characteristic smug and foolish styles in modern public atheism that have arisen in the era of Dawkins, Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens.
I also wish to show that the frequent narrow-mindedness in modern atheist rhetoric undercuts the genuinely powerful arguments atheists and other non-believers do indeed have, which are well worth hearing. I will turn more positively to those at the end of this essay.
Of course, noting the widespread doltishness of many on today’s atheist team is hardly an original observation. It is so sufficiently obvious that the creative team of the cartoon South Park, who normally relentlessly torment latter-day religious believers, also found it easy and desirable <a href=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Go_God_Go> to spoof and caricature the personalities of latter-day atheism</a>.
So it’s worth it to take a closer look.
So let’s tour modern atheist pretensions and idiocy, along with their origins. Then, let’s wrap it up by examining the valid and sound side to atheism’s contribution, that is, those overlooked genuine strengths that modern atheists offer too little of and too infrequently.
But first, to the foolishness . . .
Atheist Dopey Theme #1 – Unintentional Self-Parody: God, the Darwin Fish, & the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM).
Many modern atheists scamper about with <a href=“http://www.darwinfish.co.uk/spagmonster.html”> their satirical “Darwin Fish” and “Flying Spaghetti Monsters” (FSMs).</a> They are apparently oblivious that those little trinkets (a “Jesus fish” with feet and Darwin’s name substituted; and a postulated spaghetti monster intelligent designer as a ridicule to that theory) are more likely to be unintentional atheist self-parody.
They are certainly not especially good religion-parody, or Christianity-parody. They actually parody atheists’ own misperceptions of religious believers’ self-perception better than they parody actual believer self-perception.
The poor attempted satire ultimately comes from the ridiculous overconfidence and near-faith that a lot of atheist types have in the alleged power of Darwinian theory -- and related anti-“intelligent design” arguments -- to overthrow religious belief.
Now, why specifically are the Darwin Fish and the FSM ridiculous and dumb?
Why? Because Darwin and anti-intelligent-design theory do not represent any substantial refutation of, or threat to, traditional Judeo-Christian religion, much less others. In fact, the overestimation of such parody indicates that many atheist self-proclaimed champions of Science, Reason and Empiricism apparently don’t . . . empiricize . . . very well. (Empiricism means drawing logical conclusions from solid observable data.)
You see, those employing the Spaghetti Monster and Darwin Fish totems of atheist self-congratulation apparently haven’t noticed one very in-your-face empirical fact: most modern Christianity – and other faiths or religious philosophies-- have encountered Darwin as little more than a speed bump. The religions have incorporated science and Darwin’s natural selection theories into their own schools’ science departments, and moved on.
Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and mainstream Protestantism have basically been saying about Darwin: “natural selection . . . billions of years. . . hominids. . . interesting. . . .whatever . . . um, so what?”.
It is of course no coincidence that the atheist-type people who think Darwin’s natural selection theory is some great religion-destroying kryptonite tend to be from the Anglo-Saxon countries. Why is that? Because only in the Anglo-Saxon countries has there really been, among believing religionists, a specific vocal organized Christian subgroup, typically called “inerrantists” or, less accurately, “fundamentalists” that insists upon a hyperliteral reading of the Bible’s Book of Genesis creation story and its implicit 6000-year genealogies.
Such literalist thinking actually tends to be U.S. Appalachian-centered in geography, reflecting an old, isolated, and ignorant Anglo-settler strain of traditionalist Protestantism. That narrow tradition is why legal and political controversies about teaching evolution (like the famed Scopes “Monkey trial” in Tennessee) tend to occur in places not too remote from that mountain range, if not within it.
That literalist minority of a minority pretty much represents the whole extent of Christian types who get worked up about evolution, at least in the developed world. Darwin, with or without a fish, actually had no great negative effect on religious or even specifically Judeo-Christian thinking.
Now we come to that Flying Spaghetti Monster thing (FSM).
FSM is a parody that is definitely anything but Swiftian or Twainish in its wittiness or brilliance. (“Pastafarians!” Get it! Yuck yuck! Hysterical! Insightful!)
Here’s the problem with the FSM. If there was an intelligent design, then there was; if not, there was not. It is not effectively parodied by imagining one silly version of a range of alternative possibilities.
You don’t effectively parody the idea of a default creator by postulating a silly version of it. Calling the Big Bang, for example, by a misleading, silly, and inprecise satirical name like oh, the, um-- “Big Bang”, makes that underlying theory no less real or unreal.
The Flying Spaghetti Monster is simply a silly atheist masturbatory self-amusement concept: it is the intellectual -- actually not very intellectual -- mirror image of the fundamentalists’ pathetic and cutely lame retort to gays: “God didn’t make Adam and Steve, but Adam and Eve.” But probably even less profound. The Flying Spaghetti Monster has all the equivalent wit and persuasive depth of the anti-evolution cliche that screams: “I‘m not descended from a monkey!”.
Dopey Theme #2 --God, Unicorns, and the “God’s not proven, so God can’t be asserted/believed”.
You hear the above drivel a lot from atheists these days.
Now, are you modern atheist gals and guys really getting this “God” thing, even if the deity concept is false and dangerous?
Probably not. And perhaps even understandably not. But it you want to refute something, it helps to understand and be rationally logical about it.
And if one does understand it rationally, the dumb refrain of many modern day atheists and to a lesser extent agnostics --“God’s not proven to exist!” would not be seriously asserted by any serious atheist as a compelling argument against belief in God.
A libertarian science writer, whose personal integrity and intelligence I otherwise respect, explained his atheism/agnosticism to me this way: “I am essentially an a-unicornist. I have heard stories about unicorns, but haven’t seen a unicorn, nor has any serious documented observer. So I don’t know if unicorns exist, but I certainly can’t assert they do.”
He then noted that “since they aren’t proven, I assume they don’t exist and act as if that is the case”.
Well, that’s fair enough and probably actually wise . . . but only if one is about agnosticism regarding actual literal unicorns, or perhaps, to be generous, a more general skepticism towards legendary mammals of all kinds.
But that logic doesn’t apply to the God-thing issue. The concept of a God is not one of a mere finite creature testable by spectrometry. It is more accurately the idea of a transcendent “something”. It’s not a thing like mutant goats or yetis, discoverable in the Himalayas, or any other alleged thing measurable by a zoologist, or claimable via blurry-photographed tabloid “sightings”.
You see: a God -- if any – is a concept beyond the universe and is not going to be detected or refuted by DNA forensics, or by telescopes, microscopes, MRIs or other empirical scientific instruments.
The case for believing in a deity (or two or three) is not dependent on those. In fact, if you could time-travel to the original Big Bang itself, armed with an intact Hubble telescope and the entire Internet as database and processor, it would still be the case that that God, real or not, is not going to be proved or disproved with that dataset and toolset.
A God is not going to be found crouching inside a quasar or on top of Mt. Olympus. Or in a Higgs boson.
The elusive is-it-real-or-it-is-not deity is not subject to empirical measurement tools any more than mathematics is. Just as you can’t bombard the square root of 2 with alpha particles, you can’t prove or disprove God with the scientific method. You don’t disprove the existence of an architect, or impugn those who assert his/her existence, by showing an empty house.
A logical “proof” or disproof of a deity is going to be via deduction, agreement on axioms, and, yes, intuition. It will not be via laboratory measurements and peer-reviewed study results. And it is non-rational to expect an empirical demonstration or to demand it, as the modern fundamentalist atheist superstition insists.
Thus the modern simplistic atheist quite often is a pseudorationalist. He or she insists stupidly, and not rationally, upon an empirical proof of a God whose existence -- if that is the right word -- is not subject to the empirical observation principles of the physical universe, and if existent, set those rules.
The “hasn’t been proven to exist” is probably the single dumbest atheist/anti-religion pseudo-rational cliché ever. (And that is why I am beating it to death in frustration.) In fact, anyone who insists in that direction should be laughed out of the discussion. It is literally irrational to think you can win a case by asserting “We haven’t seen something that is . . . unseeable”.
Death-beating, again: The concept of deity isn’t refuted by Scientific Empiricism. And it is irrational to assert or to think it has or can be.
Dopey Theme #3 -- The “Faith v. Reason” Cliché. Related to the above, another absurd non-rational contention from the primitive atheist school is the pride taken in this moronically invoked cliché: if something is believed by faith, it is not a rational belief.
Well, to the extent that the above is true, it’s an obvious truism, and thus of no use. And the fact that some parts of belief in God or all is by faith remains a fact that is readily conceded by theists, and without any damage to any validity they may have.
Why is that? Simply that just because reason doesn’t compel a conclusion, it does not mean a conclusion or belief is necessarily wrong. And to the extent that the principle that faith-is-not-reason matters, its assertion in this argument is dumb and self-defeating, and misses the core of the human condition.
In fact, the widespread repeating of this cliché shows that people of religious faith are actually often more rational than the modern primitive atheist.
Because the believer rationally concedes the non-rationality of his or her core beliefs. He or she does so by agreeing that the basis of conviction in those beliefs is “faith”, and by not locating that basis in “reason”. Religionists are making a very clear – and very rational distinction. It is a valid one for the basis of their belief.
And the belief-by-faith thing is rationally and empirically defensible. When someone says they accept something by faith, it isn’t per se an anti-rational leap. For as the great scientist Pascal correctly said: “The heart has reasons that reason does not know”.
Life and its choices are not chemical equations, at least not as perceived and communicated by rational subjectively-alive beings. There is more to human perception, experience, knowledge, evaluation, and questioning than the crude mechanical abacus of reason and the quasi-scriptural canon of dense peer-reviewed literature can deliver.
The person that relies only on reason, and claims that it alone is sovereign, is not thinking like a human being in the real world.
We actually experience reality differently and we act under what manifest as non-physical ideas and urgings, even if they are transmitted by the processes of cellular neurons and honed by evolution.
We perceive and assign intangible values. We make shorthand decisions – rational ones -- based on trust and probabilities. We recognize value in things like beauty and morality which are powerless in themselves and unfound in a microscope.
Such are solid bases for the belief that reason cannot be the sole source that takes us to meaningful conclusions.
Human life and perceptions are not a pile of rational and empirical turtles, going all the way down.
To think so is to be irrational. It is irrational in part because it is also unempirical – not an accurate understanding of what makes people choose what to think and believe. Faith is a normal observable meaningful and practical part of human awareness and life.
Faith simply means a reasonable or unreasonable use of a normal useful non-irrational human thinking tool: trust.
“Trust” is basically the other less loaded term for “faith”, and it is often the basis for meaningfulness in life and it is not necessarily an irrational or unreliable method of reaching conclusions about matters that transcend mathematical formulae.
“I have insufficient information, so I therefore make a decision on how to act by trusting (i.e., putting faith in) source A, or tradition B, or habit C, etc.”
This is how a great deal of life is actually done by all of us, since we are not even certain of the physical and moral realities of the next few minutes.
Now many or all of those above-mentioned A’s, B’s, and C’s can and should be tested as much as possible by rational critical thinking. But many are not, and some cannot ever fully be.
In the end a commitment to believe, think, and act is made constantly and daily by all of us based on a high-measure of trust (faith/trust in authority, or community, family, friends, or unproveable values) or by assumption (hypothesis, anecdotal experience, probabilities without proof, and -- on the bad side -- raw prejudice). Reason tests and adds to all that, the more so in rational people obviously, but it cannot decide everything in an existence that is so ill-explained that we still have jokey names for its still-puzzling manner of origin (cf. again, “the Big Bang”).
The religious faith of previous centuries is actually not much different than the pseudo-scientific credulity of today. Most people in the previous centuries, for example, believed the world was round, and accurately so. And they did so on the basis of a faith in an educated – typically clergy, ironically -- authority.
Today we rely on much the same method of trusting authority for our official information. Only the clergy is a broad sweep of not always wise or accurate professional experts.
While it is fair to say that more scientific methods are used more of the time nowadays, and that that is a better and more rational way, it does not refute the fact that human outlook and our interpretations of experience and data are still determined by a sense of trust (faith) in people and institutions far more than through rigorously applied reason.
To bolster the point, especially for those who think neuroscience explains all, let’s see what biological evolutionists have to say, in addition to the believer Pascal, on human decision-making:
<a href=http://mybrainnotes.com/fear-rage-panic.html> neuroscientists assert </a> regarding the structure of human and animal brains, and regarding the presence of reason and unreason within them:
"We humans tend to think of emotions as dangerous forces that need to be strictly controlled by reason and logic. But that's not how the brain works. In the brain logic and reason are never separate from emotion.
Even nonsense syllables have an emotional charge, either positive or negative. Nothing is neutral."
No, reason is not the universal decider of our beliefs and decisions. Yes, a commitment to it is vital to make all believed things more validly grounded in reality. But the desire to go beyond reason is not irrational especially when it is done in order to resolve a core question that empiricism does not address fully and possibly cannot.
Again, to appeal to reason alone is to not appeal to what makes humans human. It is also not very rational to make arguments to persuade fellow human beings by citing as absolute such a limited information-holding thing as reason. Such do not embrace the full measure of subjective experience, the broad uncertainties of a real universe, and the common decision-making processes of humankind.
With the above said, or ranted, let’s pull punches now . . . and go positive!
Let us look now with the above in mind at the much more worthy arguments of the anti-religionist fundamentalists. Underreliance on the stronger premises set out below by religion-attackers is another reflection of the sad state of modern atheism.
Modern Atheism & Anti-Religion’s Hidden Strength: The Moral Case.
In these recent times in the Western world, secular humanism, atheism, anti-clericalism, and anti-religionism have increasingly thrived philosophically and popularly. But that has not been especially because of the non-believers’ characteristic pretensions of adherence to the superior use of rational and scientific thought.
No, instead rather, such skeptical persons and their challenges to God-belief have gained a wider acceptance because of the moral case that atheists and humanists make.
That moral case is found in the non-believer’s forceful rejection of the principles of the older religions that are increasingly seen, and often correctly seen in my opinion, as unjust and harmful. The established religions are more and more rejected primarily because they are seen as being transmitters of moral – or more precisely immoral -- values that are less and less acceptable to a modern world in which we are more aware of the commonness and good-faith diversity within our humanity, and of our naturalness in nature.
Traditional religion is not failing greatly because of its supernatural claims or because of its reliance on suspect “irrational” faith. Nor even because of the fairytale-like legends in Scriptural texts. No, while traditional religion’s beliefs in much of the supernatural may indeed provoke eyerolls and skeptical shrugs, even from within the believers’ camp these days, that alone doesn’t stop it. The fact is that the moral poetry of religion continues to be embraced well within our scientifically skeptical era, and sometimes by credible scientists too! (And as to the perpetuation of superstition, it’s not like astrology columns have vanished under the crushing weight of astrophysics.)
Further still, the concept of a Deity has long been a part of rationalist philosophical reasoning (cf. Socrates) which has existed quite apart from the supernaturalist assertions within the claimed revelations of traditional Judeo-Christianity, and other religious groupings. And some “religions” like Buddhism have supernaturalist and superstitious manifestations despite the relative agnosticism of the founder and his system.
So it is not modern Science and the Reason of the philosophers that is the source of effective challenge to the claims made in favor of the God of the traditional Judeo-Christian religions.
No, it is in the area of morality that challenge has really taken hold.
The increasingly reviled practical principles of the older religions have been what has mostly undermined them, and made them targets of anger. It is the history of negative attitudes -- moral, political, and esthetic -- that actually has pushed people away from the old altars.
It is not the Scripture of 7-day creations and of parted Red Seas that has caused doubt. No, it is the Scripture of a God-ordered slaughtering of peoples, of stoned-to-death homosexuals, of women being declared to be intrinsic risks and sources of moral danger who are best relegated to the back seats.
In fact, the specific rejected values which have lured folks from traditional religion are legion.
Such rejected and skepticism-inducing values include: the traditional God and associated faiths’ just-described disdainful attitudes toward women and gays, the insistence on extreme punishments (socially or legally) for acting on normal sexual urges and romantic drives, the endorsements of slavery and unfair socioeconomic class systems by representatives of the faiths, the presence of acute authoritarianism, intolerance, and bigotry inside religious institutions and scriptures, the hypocritical actions by trusted religious leaderships especially in morally shocking areas (e.g. bribery in old times, clergy protection of sexual abusers modernly), the acts of blessing -- by the institutions of religion -- of mass repression of thought, of aggressive war, of autocratic governance, and the championing of persecutions and the promise of a brutal eternity direct towards outsiders and others who simply rationally and honestly disagree.
One can also add very modernly to the list the oft-encountered indifference within Western religious tradition to increasingly common environmental, natural, and animal-life concerns.
None of the above are problematic because they are supernatural claims; most or all are not even that, except eternal punishment (which can even be seen as somewhat metaphoric).
No, the values and historical record of traditional religion in promoting principles and practices that are nowadays considered noxious are the actual things that have really led people in modernity to flee God and clergy, and even to violently deny them. Darwin and Galileo and science are only background noise for science geek philosophers and angry atheist rants.
It is a far more consequential fact in eroding religion that the Biblical God of Abraham comes across in these days’ standards as basically “a prick”-- in the words of comedian Lewis Black . (Give or take, Black notes, more benign things about God in the New Testament, “after having a kid seemed to have mellowed Him out”).
Because that God has been the only personalized god handed down to this generation by Western civilization, the societies most advanced in terms of influence, power, and technology, it has led to an understandable – and perhaps accurate – questioning of the whole deity concept.
Sure, science and the reverence of reason have indeed helped undermine the old deity. As key tools for interpreting reality and vetting claims, science and reason have rationally demanded that supernatural reports not to be taken at such ready face value as they have been. As science has become more popular, more people ask questions about alleged miracles and supernatural claims, and demand tighter rules for observation, for cause and effect, and for proof of claims to go beyond normal cause and effect
Science and rational skepticism assist also by encouraging general habits of critical reflection, allowing us to more readily question even the primary values we hold.
But science and even reason are not enough to overthrow belief in God.
As subject-matters science and reason remain limited in their jurisdictions. They do not tell us important things like what is right and wrong, and what is beautiful or desirable. They can tell us what red is on the electromagnetic spectrum, but not whether it is less pretty than violet. Nor do science and reason tell us why or how we experience ourselves here and now. So they are insufficient as the bases for refutation and rejection of religion.
Thus, the anti-religion/atheist fanatics waste energy and even discredit themselves by their petulant and essentially inaccurate obsession with claiming superior reasoning powers.
The more effective area of persuasion again is actually not from inside the domain of reason but from visions of moral order – from the beyond-rational searching by humans for transcendence and a meaningful valuable existence in a shared world, from inside the very areas where religion has ruled to date, namely finding transcendent purpose, distinguishing right from wrong, and weighing matters of “the heart” and optimal human interaction.
Thus we see that to scold the religious for being non-rational is not merely irrational – it is counterproductive. It is abusing them for merely being human and wading into the non-rational part of human life, where all of us actually and necessarily reside. Religion’s strength is that, through its very rational claim not to be purely rational, it does allow itself to take on issues of meaning and wonder in life. And it does so far more competently than the “reason alone” superstition of the dopey fundamentalist non-believer.
One or all religions may ultimately be both wrong and irrational, but they remains so with a fluent comfort and even poetry. These are born of its facing up to the subjective uncertainties and mysteries intrinsic to the human condition. So it is there then that religion can and must be challenged most effectively.
The non-religionist instead surrenders his or her best card -- the fostering of growing intelligent widespread doubt regarding the moral, esthetic, and intellectual trustworthiness of the prevailing claims of existing religions – by declaring religious followers to be ignorant fools.
The real questioning of religion should start by asking a moral question of the other person. That question might be: Why, if your alleged deity is a transcendently Supreme Moral Judge, has It asked you or others to adopt a system that allows and even requires a person to think and act like a complete ignorant asshole?