Friday, June 6, 2008

Credulous Atheists?

Alan Jacobs accuses "vigorous atheists" of credulity:

Most of today's leading critics of religion are remarkably trusting ... Card-carrying members of the intelligentsia like Mr. Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris would surely be doubtful, even incredulous, if a politician who had illegally seized power claimed that his motives for doing so were purely patriotic; or if a CEO of a drug company explained a sudden drop in prices by professing her undying compassion for those unable to afford her company's products. Discerning a difference between people's professed aims and their real aims is just what intellectuals do.

Yet when someone does something nasty and claims to have done it in the name of religion, our leading atheists suddenly become paragons of credulity: If Osama bin Laden claims to be carrying out his program of terrorism in the name of Allah and for the cause of Islam, then what grounds have we to doubt him? It's not like anyone would lie about something like that as a strategy for justifying the unjustifiable, is it?
First, note that transition beginning in the second paragraph quoted: Jacobs goes from the broad generalization, "... when someone does something ...", to the very specific case of Osama Bin Laden. The remainder of the column rather conveniently maintains this focus on Osama Bin Laden as a representative of every religious someone.

Even if we accept the asserted claim that Bin Laden's motivations are not really religious, are we safe to dismiss religious justifications and rationalizations more broadly -- do we dismiss the religious motivations given for riots over cartoons? For stands taken against birth control and family planning? For tithing to a religious body instead of donating to disaster relief, anti-hunger causes, medical research?

To turn it around, will Jacobs apply the same doubts when people say they're doing good deeds for religious reasons?

It's useful to be clear-eyed about motivations: we don't need Alan Jacobs to remind us that people sometimes operate according to motives they'd prefer to hide.

The supporters of a belief system will tend to want to count the good deeds and discount the evil deeds done in its name; the opponents will want to do the reverse. There's no substitute for judgment and even-handedness in finding the truth of the matter.


Laura said...

Well, I think he's lumping two unrelated ideas together as if they were one. The fact that the atheist intelligentsia point to people like Bin Laden to cite the evils of religion creates a portal through which all religious people may get a glimpse of themselves and how religion 'can' poison everything (which, if I remember correctly, Hitchens was not so fond of this subtitle but was encouraged by his publisher to use it because it was very provocative and thus would increase sales. The fact that the Hitchens I know could be pressured in this way seems incongruent with the persona he projects, but that's a separate post).

I agree with Jacobs here though: "But the idea that without religion people would stop seeking power, stop manipulating, stop deceiving, is just wishful thinking of the silliest kind... it's time to talk less about the power of religion and remember instead the dark forces in all human lives that religious language is too often used to hide."

As I've said before, good people will do good with or without religion, and bad people will do bad with or without religion. To which you've replied that for good people to do bad, it takes religion. I think we disagree, though you've made some compelling arguments ie: the people who let their daughter die rather than bring her to a doctor because of religious reasons.

But I still say religion goes bad when bad people get a hold of it.

Dale said...

Laura, Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe in the divine provenance of books that demand the subordination of women, the criminalization of nonbelief, the condemnation of homosexuals, and the regulated legalization of slavery. (I could go on.)

That's quite a load of poison right there. And it has been used as such countless times.

So long as these books are kept around and revered as the productions of divinity, they are a loaded gun sitting on the table.

If, on the other hand, they are demoted to the status of mere books -- the products of mere humans trying to work things out in writing over the ages -- then the poison is easily seen for what it is and dismissed. At that point, religion becomes just another ideology. It becomes a body of ideas from which we can freely pick and choose according to the standard of reason, observation, and experience.

So long as GOD is considered the author, we have books and traditions that occupy a separate, higher threat level -- higher than even the most nefarious of works, the works of de Sade, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, the KKK. All of those can and are dismissed the imperfect products of imperfect men. That is: whatever the claims to authority offered, when the books fail in the light of experience, reason, and observation, people notice it and it wears away at the authority. It becomes clearer and clearer that these books aren't what they claim to be. They aren't wise after all. They produce cruelty and injustice because their source just wasn't as wise as he said he was.

When GOD is assumed to exist and to have inspired (if not dictated) the books, the distancing and doubt in the light of experience and reason becomes extremely difficult.

I take the point that lots of ideologies -- many of them not religious -- condone, advance, and excuse lots of evils. The 'tu quoque' gesture shoots and scores to a degree. But it doesn't get around the books and their putative divinity.

Don said...

Das Kapital was just a book, so was the little red book, as was Mein Kampf. And yet without being inspired by the 'divine', they still managed to kill tens of millions. I fail to see how religious texts are somehow a grade 'higher' in awfulness. It is no more awful for someone to be killed in the name of God than in the name of Socialist progress, or the state, or because of their race, or for no reason whatsoever.

Words on paper don't do anything. At some point they have to be interpreted by people who read it.

Dale said...

Don, thanks for the comment. I feel I'm repeating myself with this (even more than usual) and I strongly suspect I'm trying Laura's patience.

I've conceded that any ideology, religious or not, can inspire evil deeds. But I've tried to spell out what makes religion a special and worse case (not every religion, but definitely the Abrahamic religions). I did so here:

I could be wrong, but that's my take on it. I don't think Moses-Stalin is a true apples-to-apples comparison.

No one reads anything Stalin wrote or said any more (maybe a few wackos on the margins somewhere) -- not even the instances where he got something right in the manner of a broken clock.

We freely drop Stalin in a way we don't freely drop GOD. GOD is different. The background story that makes us take GOD's words seriously in the first place is a very different sort of background story. He's a different sort of authority and his books stay around -- unedited -- for reasons closely bound to that particular background story. He's the creator of the universe, not just some dude with a pen and some free time.

But again I'm repeating myself. I'll stop now.