Saturday, March 31, 2012

Today's Hot Topic: Atheism

On his always excellent blog, Jason Miller posted an entertaining complaint about the behavior of the "New Atheists," then took it down for the reasons he describes in the linked post.  Since I had added a couple of my own thoughts to the deleted post - and since several of the "New Atheists" are still acting out in exactly the fashion he described him - I thought I'd touch upon the subject here.

First of all, let's talk about that favorite atheist slogan: "Morality is doing what is right regardless of what you are told.  Religion is doing what you are told regardless of what is right."


Ted "the Unabomber" Kaczynski believed he was doing right despite what he was told.  So did Charles Manson.  So does every garden-variety sociopath.   Hell, I'd go so far as to say just about everyone does - or tries to do - what they believe is right. Outside of horror movies there are very few people who knowingly and willfully do evil for the sake of being evil.  Sure, there's often a whole lot of self-justification and reframing of events involved in the decision that "I was right to do that." But that's hardly confined to religious folks. You can certainly use your religious text of choice to assuage your conscience. But you can also use your troubled childhood, your political opinions, your end which justifies the means or any number of other excuses that have nothing to do with deities. 

Now let's take a look at some of those people doing repellent things in the name of "religion." The folks who bomb abortion clinics and shoot abortion providers believe they are doing right regardless of what they have been told.  Their actions aren't just illegal, they are strongly discouraged by the vast majority of Christian pastors.  Yet they decide that "God's law" - what they believe is right - trumps man's law and trumps the simpering milquetoast claims of all those self-proclaimed Christians who don't want to walk the walk.  Do people become monsters because of religion, or do they use religion to justify their monstrosity? Religion can become dangerous in the hands of dangerous people - but so can just about anything.  People kill each other in the name of various deities, but they also kill each other in the name of gang affiliation, ethnicity and favorite sports teams.

If religion is "doing what you are told regardless of what is right," what are we to make of Stalinism, Maoism and the various other Marxism-inspired political systems which place a premium on toeing the "Party Line?" If we're going to tar all Christians as potential inquisitioners and all Muslims as potential terrorists, then should we assume that inside every atheist there's a Kim Jong-Il waiting to get out?  What about groups like the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, or various other revolutionaries who were inspired to commit all sorts of atrocities in the name of a secular utopia-to-come?

And while we're on the subject: who is arrogant enough to think that they always know enough to "do right" without any input from others on the subject at hand?  Ethical questions are rarely clear-cut and frequently have enormous consequences at stake. Most people are happy to take expert advice on difficult topics. Everyone from Socrates to Tucker Max is consulted in the quest to a more ethical life: in the vast majority of cases they are given a vote but not a veto. And if we are capable of using Anthony Robbins or Jean-Paul Sartre as a guide toward rational decisions, why could we not use the Rig Vedas or the Q'uran in a similar fashion?

The answer, of course, is that most religious people do just that. Their religion shapes their worldview but doesn't trump their common sense.  But that's not what the Loud Atheists (i.e. strong atheists who won't shut up and stop waving their godless pee-pees in everyone's face) want to hear.  For all their talk about simple-minded religious mythologizing, they are desperately seeking a nice clean black-and-white world with clearly defined enemies and unquestionable answers.  Where their hated "Fundamentalists" divide the universe into "God's people" and "the Devil's servants," they see society as a battle of Enlightened Atheists vs. Silly Superstitious Religious Fanatics. 

Elf Sternberg commented that the mind is like a barrel of fine wine and religion is the teaspoonful of sewage that ruins said fine wine.  I note that Galileo was a devout Catholic, even after that unpleasantness with the Inquisition.  And while I remember some of Elf's contributions to the various alt.sex.* groups with fondness, I gotta say it: you, Mr. Sternberg, are no Galileo.  You are no Einstein.  You are no Olivier Messiaen, no Henryk Gorecki, no Shusaku Endo.  Hell, looking at your science fiction I'd say that you're not even up to filling Orson Scott Card's magic underwear.  Whatever one may think about the merits of Theism, only the most deluded dipshit would deny the contributions made to the world by people who believed in one deity or another.

Another anonymous atheist commented "We're assholes. Reality is an asshole. Get over it."  This is exactly the kind of behavior Jason was complaining about in his earlier post.  It's not exactly the height of rational argument - but then, the commenter wasn't interested in rational argument. He wants to scream his rage at Big Daddy God and the Sky Fairies into the abyss, hoping he can find other disgruntled unbelievers to share the emptiness with him.  Which is fine: we all make decisions based on emotion as well as logic. But don't kid yourself into believing that "the Bible said it, I don't believe it and that settles it" is more rational than any other ardent declaration of faith.

Do I have a particular problem with atheism in and of itself? Not at all. Like most other belief systems, it produces reasonably moral behavior when followed by reasonably moral people.  But neither do I see any particular evidence that its followers are in any way ethically or intellectually superior to those poor benighted believers they mock.  Believing in God/s doesn't automatically make one a sinner: neither does disbelieving in them automatically give the disbeliever any kind of special enlightenment.