Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Yet More on Atheism: Responding to Commenters

In response to "Today's Hot Topic: Atheism," Matt Grossman said:
I agree with most of what you've written here, but I do wonder whether religion is potentially more destructive then secular philosophies insofar as it feeds the worst tribalisms. Certainly the intensity of the endless conflicts in the Middle East seems heightened by the religious sentiment fueling already violent geographic disputes. There are plenty of nuts in the world, and plenty of nationalistic strife, but religion seems uniquely adept at bringing the two together and turning people involved in the latter into the former.
I'd flip the equation around. In my opinion, geographic and political disputes fuel a great deal of the religious conflict. Keep in mind that Israel was founded by secular Jews and that at the time of its founding many Orthodox Jews felt it was an abomination to return to the Holy Land before moshiach came. I'd also note that for most of its history Islam was far, far more tolerant of Judaism than Christianity was. A Jew in medieval Cairo or Istanbul had far more opportunities and was far less likely to be persecuted than a Jew in Warsaw or Minsk.

To me it seems religion largely provides justification to people who already have decided on a particular course of action.  If we're going to talk about a "god delusion," we should also mention our "ethical delusion" - a concern for being "moral" or "ethically correct" which appears to be even more deeply etched into our wiring than our religious instincts.  Most often our ethical thought appears to be a priori: we decide what we want to do based on self-interest or emotional drives, then seek evidence that we are indeed "doing the right thing." It's not like Baruch Goldstein was a member of Peace Now before he suddenly converted to an extreme right-wing sect of Orthodox Judaism and decided to shoot up a Hebron mosque. Nor are most Palestinian suicide bombers peace-loving Sufis who are seduced by radical imams.

That being said, religious leaders have built-in soapboxes from which they can fan flames and encourage their congregants to give free rein to their baser instincts. But the same can be said of journalists, political leaders, radio and television personalities and other public figures. Demagogues may find religion a useful tool, but there are many other equally useful ones available to the ambitious, charismatic and unscrupulous.

And Shoku said:
I'd say they are probably going too far but we've now left the issue that brought me to post among you; you're just annoyed with people that are rude to you and I have no objection (or right to object) to you feeling that way.

What metric do you use to tell apart insulting things that don't describe you very well and ones that probably do have a little something to do with how you behave?

-I like wit and comedy but a few years back I took a look at the Asian American community. That's been their approach and... well we're still really fucking racist to them as a society. I can't point to any group that's been a big part of the population for that long and still has to deal with open racism except maybe in really backwoods towns where you get the impression that people are inbred anyway. So really that just means that people from the middle east have it worse and Hispanic people might face similar troubles (I'm a bit ignorant about that group.)

The "anger isn't an appropriate way to respond" implication worries me though. I've seen judges decide to keep one monument but not others just because nobody seemed mad about it before (though that would have required them to speak out at a time when they'd be heavily persecuted for it.)

It really looks like you're only comfortable with methods that aren't effective.
I think there are times and places when anger (or, more often, a firm refusal to stand down and be ignored) is justified and useful.  But I'm not sure how effective behaving like an asshat on the Internetz is at promoting the Atheist cause.  And I find the approach of desecrating holy symbols to prove a point or Shock the Superstitious Fools to be both offensive and counterproductive.  Throughout history attacking a city's gods and looting their temple has been the ultimate way of showing your contempt for them.  Whether it's burning Torah scrolls to show your hatred of Jews or burning indigenous artifacts to show your hatred of "superstitious witchcraft," the message is the same: your faith is vile and should be eradicated completely.  Yes, I saw the arguments on freethoughtblogs that "it's just a cracker. Get over it. And what about the pedophile priests, Inquisition, etc.?"  I see those arguments and raise you another two.
"It's just a mosque: they can wash the spray paint off.  Get over it.  And what about all the people who are killed by Muslim terrorists?"

"It's a grave. The guy is dead: he doesn't care whether or not we took a steaming shit on his tombstone and put the video on Youtube. And what about all the terrible things his religion/political party/business did?"
As far as mutilating the Q'uran goes, I'm a writer.  Historically, those who start out burning books tend to move on to burning authors at their earliest opportunity. So I tend to react strongly to that sort of behavior both out of a sense of outrage and a sense of self-preservation.

Ultimately this sort of behavior is cowardice masquerading as courage. It's a small yappy dog baring its teeth behind a wrought iron fence: it's a bratty child sticking out his tongue over his mother's shoulder.  It's an attempt to be offensive knowing that there will be no consequences, that you are doing it, in the words of PZ Myers "because you can."  Of course you have the right to antics like host desecration, just as you have the right to march down the street wearing a FUCK AUTHORITY T-shirt and a matching tutu.  But don't be surprised if people stop taking you seriously when you exercise that right.

There's also the problem of the New Atheism's veneration of logic and rationality. If you are claiming that your creed (let's avoid that troublesome word, "faith" and use instead a word which means "statement of belief") is a more rational choice than theism, it behooves you to prove it by acting more rational than the Bible-thumping hoi polloi. Claiming you're a "Bright" and then responding to questions with ranting obscenities is rather like claiming you are tolerant and open-minded, except insofar as fags, spics and Chinamen are concerned.