Friday, 18 February 2011

Help That Isn't

Over at the Huffington Post Phil Zuckerman offers his two cents ostensibly trying to help out us poor atheist who are so sadly misguided when we criticise religion and religious. Mr Zuckerman offers nine points, nine mistakes, that atheists make. In his opinion. I must say that most if not all of items on his list are very far from anything a serious critic of religion would deem reasonable or even polite. Professor of sociology Mr Zuckerman may well be, but he seems to be moving in very strange social circles indeed. But, let me address his points one by one.

I would strongly advise you to go read the article first, or better yet keep it open alongside my post. I can't quote as much as I'd like without copying most, if not all, and that's a serious copyright no-no. I will, however, quote the titles of his points verbatim so you can easily find them in his text (each will have his expanded objections right below).

1. Insisting that science can, or will, answer everything.

Why is this a mistake, truly escapes me. Unless, of course, Mr Zuckerman thinks that religious people are beyond hope when it comes to seeing reason - which, frankly, they may just be. Still, to forbid upfront statement of confidence in science is not giving good advice - it is in fact forbidding any discussion as to the possibility that, yes, something other than fairy tales can explain the world we live in. It may take a while, and we may never have an explanation about absolutely everything, but to say "please don't be silly and claim science is an answer" is, to say the least, disingenuous.

2. Condemning all religion, rather then just the bad aspects thereof.

If I wanted to be facetious I could say: why not? If a religion (or any other set of beliefs, for that matter) does have its bad aspects then why shouldn't we condemn it - especially if it is a set of beliefs that purports to be all goody-two-shoes, as all religions are? In other words, any religion and/or philosophy/set of beliefs that has bad aspects is fair game for condemnation - atheism included. But I am not going to be facetious (at least not a lot, and not right now) and I'll just say that I am yet to see a sensible and reasonable atheist who will deny any religion having any good things going for it. Most of them do (have good things going for them), but sadly all of them also necessarily lead to poor outcomes through limiting the scope of allowed human endeavour.

3. Condemning the Bible as a wretched, silly book, rather than seeing it as a work full of good and insightful things as well.

Here we come to the question of circles Mr Zuckerman frequents. I am yet to find an atheist who will call Bible "silly". A book of fairy tales and legends? Yes. But silly? No. And yes, every reasonable person, atheist and otherwise, will freely admit that Bible does have a lot to offer in terms of moral and similar teachings. The problem is, however, how to tell the good bits from the bad, and indeed was it really meant to be taken piecemeal? I mean, you shalt not kill is all fine and good, but if I take it as good advice, do I also have to take the bit that condemns women, homosexuals, and other things like that? Surely not. But if you're gonna tell me I do, then yes, I may have to bestow a label of "silly" - on you.

4. Failing to understand and appreciate "cultural religion."

For one, I don't think there's any such thing as "cultural religion". One is either religious or one isn't. I don't believe in the "gray out there" in this respect. Plus, here again we have a criticism levelled on atheist for allegedly calling church-goers, "cultural" and otherwise, "wicked". Come on, Mr Zuckerman! Where on Earth did you hear this? I mean, I could say - why, I do say - that church-goers are misguided and wrong. But wicked? Why? When? I must say it is much more likely that a church-goer will label me, or someone of a different faith to his, wicked. That, I have come across. What you're alleging, sorry, but no.

5. Critiquing God as nasty, wicked, and immoral.

And here we have "wicked" again, but this time it's for a god (I guess any god, since atheists do not believe there is any, let alone one and only as implied by capitalising). Here I must agree with Mr Zuckerman, but only up to a point. First let me qualify this by saying that atheists, on the whole, are as polite and well mannered as the next person - including a religious one. So, while we may say things that religious people may find offensive, it is highly unusual we are rude when going about it. Also, we do not critique god as a "person", as it were. How could we, when we do not believe there is one (nor many)? What we may, and often do, level our critique at are inconsistencies in the view of all seeing, all powerful, and all good deity. Rare is a religion - if it even exists, and Christianity is certainly not one - that can honestly explain and defend suffering of the innocents under the watchful eye of an all good, all seeing, all powerful deity. Or is Mr Zuckerman going to join the ranks of those who can find justification in the suffering of children? So, in the sense of his own moral philosophy being inconsistent, yes, I must question morality of most if not all gods. Are they wicked and evil? Well, I think they actually might be - if they existed in the way their followers seem to think they do.

6. Focusing on arguments against the existence of God, rather than working to make the world a better, more just place.

Here, Mr Zuckerman misses the point so completely that it gets difficult to see where his shot actually ended up. No, Mr Zuckerman, atheists do not spend a second of their lives "arguing against the existence" of god(s). Quite to the contrary, what we say is that we do not believe there is a god (one or many, it doesn't matter). An that, Mr Zuckerman, places the onus of proving otherwise squarely on the religious lot (of which I suspect you are one, too). Sadly, the only "evidence" this lot has to offer amounts to ancient writings - of other humans, and suspicious, unproven and/or unprovable "miracles" (ranging from sightings of Virgin Mary herself, to pieces of toast with a bearded face on them, supposedly sightings of Jesus himself). And that, Mr Zuckerman, just does not cut it. I don't even have to spend time refuting such "proofs", at least not more than just shaking my head.

7. Arguing about morality in the abstract.

I must admit I do not fully understand why arguing about morality, in abstract or otherwise, should be a problem. In fact, I even agree with Mr Zuckerman that "morality is ultimately revealed and shown through human action and deed". However, "human actions and deed" are informed by certain moral principles, and these, as all principles, are in fact abstract by their very nature. So, while we may discuss morality using examples of "human actions and deed" we cannot escape also talking about moral principles in abstract. Or is Mr Zuckerman suggesting we only ever base our moral actions on moral actions of others, previously observed? Well, maybe he does if he believes religious scripts describe just such actions. Which again would be all well and good if we are allowed to decide which ones described in there are actually good examples to follow, since, and Mr Zuckerman must agree with me here, not all things described as good in the Bible would be regarded as such these days. And to weed those out we'd have to discuss their morality in, you guessed it, the abstract.

8. Not having more kids.

And here we have Mr Zuckerman being facetious, obviously hinting at the recent outrageously poor "scientific" treatise of fertility versus religiosity (or lack thereof). If you followed the link from the previous sentence you already know what I have to say to all this (and you can also get to the abstract of said monstrosity). Having Mr Zuckerman resort to argumentum de bambini infinitum tells two things, really: 1) Mr Zuckerman has run out of steam on this topic, 2) Mr Zuckerman really has a chip on his shoulder when it comes to atheism. Disappointing, for someone apparently from academia.

9. Always making top ten lists.

Well, as it turns out, there is no number nine. Not that there was really a number eight, either. Which is all for the good, I guess, allowing me to wind down this sorry affair sooner rather than later. And it is best wound down soonest.

To recap: Mr Zuckerman, next time you want to say something against atheists either do a much better job, or just keep your mouth shut. OK? And a message to AOL: acquiring Huffington Post may not have been such a brilliant idea, after all. Or maybe it was...