The Abolition Spirit Is Undeniably Atheistic

Having written recently about what really caused the Confederacy to secede, I wanted to say some more about the topic. I've previously discussed the religious foundations of the CSA and how they repeatedly appealed to God and Christianity as a defense of the rightness of slavery, and I'd like to add some more evidence on that subject.

Benjamin Palmer was born in Charleston in 1818 and became one of the preeminent Christian preachers of the antebellum era. He served as Moderator of the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. - the highest elected position in that body - and wrote several works on theology which, according to the Southern Presbyterian Review, are still in print. When he died in 1902, a Christian magazine, The Interior, eulogized that "Dr. Palmer served God and his generation as a symbol of the immutability of the great essentials of our religion" and praised "his faithful witness to Jesus Christ in the word of his preaching", which "gave him such power... as few of the Lord's ambassadors have ever wielded in any age of the church".

But Palmer was known for one other thing as well. In November 1860, just days after Abraham Lincoln's election, he gave a famous sermon at his church in South Carolina. In that sermon, he said that "I have never intermeddled with political questions," but that he was compelled to speak on politics because "we are in the most fearful and perilous crisis which has occurred in our history as a nation". Since Palmer was the representative of "a class whose opinions in such a controversy are of cardinal importance", namely the clergy, he felt that it was now his obligation to speak out.

And what vital message did he have to impart?

A nation often has a character as well defined and intense as that of an individual.... this individuality of character alone makes any people truly historic, competent to work out its specific mission, and to become a factor in the world's progress. The particular trust assigned to such a people becomes the pledge of the divine protection; and their fidelity to it determines the fate by which it is finally overtaken... If then the South is such a people, what, at this juncture, is their providential trust? I answer, that it is to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as now existing.

Palmer argued that enslaving black men and women wasn't just the South's divine mission, but that it was doing them a kindness, since "their character fits them for dependence and servitude", and that if liberated, they would be helpless, would soon "relapse into their primitive barbarism" and die of starvation or anarchy. But most of all, he was convinced that God was on the South's side in this struggle, since after all, slavery was "recognized and sanctioned in the scriptures of God".

Without, therefore, determining the question of duty for future generations, I simply say that for us as now situated, the duty is plain of conserving and transmitting the system of slavery, with the freest scope for its natural development and extension... My own conviction is, that we should at once lift ourselves, intelligently, to the highest moral ground and proclaim to all the world that we hold this trust from God, and in its occupancy we are prepared to stand or fall as God may appoint. If the critical moment has arrived at which the great issue is joined, let us say that, in the sight of all perils, we will stand by our trust; and God be with the right!

And if God was on the side of the slaveholders, then what motivated the abolitionists? Well, Palmer had the answer to that one too: this great struggle, we defend the cause of God and religion. The abolition spirit is undeniably atheistic. The demon which erected its throne upon the guillotine in the days of Robespierre and Marat, which abolished the Sabbath and worshipped reason in the person of a harlot, yet survives to work other horrors, of which those of the French Revolution are but the type. Among a people so generally religious as the American, a disguise must be worn; but it is the same old threadbare disguise of the advocacy of human rights. From a thousand Jacobin clubs here, as in France, the decree has gone forth which strikes at God by striking at all subordination and law.

...This spirit of atheism, which knows no God who tolerates evil, no Bible which sanctions law, and no conscience that can be bound by oaths and covenants, has selected us for its victims, and slavery for its issue. Its banner-cry rings out already upon the air — "liberty, equality, fraternity," which simply interpreted mean bondage, confiscation and massacre.

Speaking on behalf of the modern atheist movement, let me just say: Thanks, Dr. Palmer! I realize you meant that passage as a polemical insult against your adversaries, not as an actual description of their beliefs - but if you want to give us atheists the credit for abolishing slavery, I'm happy to accept it.

We see this pattern repeated throughout history: every social or political reform movement is demonized by the religious conservatives of its day as sinful, heretical, atheist - and then when the good guys win out and the cause is triumphant, the believers of the next generation claim that it was a religious movement all along. (This is exactly what happened with the U.S. Constitution, to name another example, and there are others.)

Whatever the evil of the day, religion almost always plays a major role in justifying it. That's because the unknown will of an unseen deity can be appealed to as a means of sanctifying any injustice, whereas a morality based on human rights and equality isn't nearly so flexible and accomodating. Small wonder, then, that the preachers have always seen atheists lurking in every corner of the opposition. In a sense, they're quite right - because we're the defenders of the morality of human beings, the morality of this world. Even back then, preachers like Benjamin Palmer must have known that ceasing our reliance on the alleged will of God, and unleashing reason as a source of morality, could only lead to the rise and growth of atheism. The only difference is that he refused to admit that was a good thing!

January 17, 2011, 11:21 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink9 comments

Protesting the Pope

You've no doubt heard by now about Pope Benedict's visit to the U.K., where one of his first statements was an accusation that the Nazis were atheists. To be honest, it makes me worried for the old fellow. After all, he himself served in the Hitler Youth as a teenager, yet he doesn't seem to remember that the Nazis distributed Bibles, emblazoned their uniforms with the slogan "God With Us", and gave speeches in which they boasted that they were doing Jesus' work. This strange historical amnesia on the Pope's part could be a symptom of oncoming senility, and I certainly hope that isn't the case.

Meanwhile, the story continues to widen in Belgium, the latest country rocked by revelations of molesting priests protected by their superiors. In late August, Cardinal Godfried Danneels was caught on tape urging one victim to keep quiet so that his abuser, Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, could retire without scandal. The victim's response was unsurpassable:

"The bishop will resign next year, so actually it would be better for you to wait," the cardinal told the victim. "I don't think you'd do yourself or him a favor by shouting this from the rooftops." The cardinal warned the victim against trying to blackmail the church and suggested that he accept a private apology from the bishop and not drag "his name through the mud."

The victim responded, "He has dragged my whole life through the mud, from 5 until 18 years old," and asked, "Why do you feel sorry for him and not for me?"

And this case was just the tip of the iceberg. A report released two weeks later found that sex abuse in the Belgian church was pervasive, with "almost every institution, every school" harboring predators over a four-decade period. Almost 500 victims have come forward so far, and at least 13 committed suicide.

But don't worry, Catholic apologists, the church has a perfectly good explanation for why they covered this all up. This brilliant defense comes to us by way of another Belgian bishop, Guy Harpigny:

"We did not dare. If you officially apologise, then you are acknowledging moral and legal responsibility. Then there are people who ask for money and we don't know what lawyers and the courts will do about that," he said.

See? It's too expensive for the church to accept responsibility for crimes it's committed. How can you possibly doubt their benevolence of spirit after hearing that perfectly reasonable and legitimate defense? In fact, this is such a faultless excuse, I should rob a bank and then use the same reasoning to the police: "Your Honor, I would have turned myself in, but I just couldn't go to jail. My schedule is much too full!"

Rest assured, however, that although the Vatican finds obeying the law too expensive, they've sprung into action with their usual alacrity and taken their own corrective measures. The Pope's office has stressed that serial child molesters like Roger Vangheluwe have been punished more than adequately:

"Vangheluwe is no longer allowed to say mass in public. At the moment I have no knowledge of other specific measures that will be taken," said [Vatican spokesman] Father Lombardi.

Take that, pedophiles! Yes, it seems harsh, but the Vatican had to send a strong message about its stance on child rape. Of course, they're not going to take away Vangheluwe's $3600-a-month pension - they're not monsters, after all.

But in all seriousness, the Times article cites one other statistic that's no laughing matter: despite declining attendance and a plummeting number of new priests, the Belgian church is being kept afloat by over $350 million of annual state subsidies. It's outrages like this - the church being propped up, even rewarded, despite its sickening abuses of power - that made me glad to see freethinkers turn out in force to protest the Pope's visit to the U.K., with heavy hitters like Richard Dawkins showing up to rally the troops. (Dominic Self, who wrote an excellent post about the protests, also contributed the pictures seen in this one.)

The Pope and his top henchmen ought to be greeted like this everywhere they go. This is exactly what we need to be doing - tearing off the robes of magisterial dignity in which this corrupt and wicked old fraud has tried to cloak himself. The Catholic church loves to surround its emissaries with pomp and circumstance, wishing us to consider this evidence of their credibility. But that credibility hasn't been earned, and its lavish spectacle is nothing but a hypocritical sham.

Neither the Pope nor the church is a sacrosanct moral authority, as much as they'd like us to believe that. They're just one voice among many, one particular perspective on the world that can and should be challenged and criticized just like everyone else. And they've more than earned that criticism, given the manifest evidence of their immorality: their unapologetic bigotry against women and gays, their life-destroying dogmas forbidding contraception, their monstrous hypocrisy in portraying themselves as the source of all moral virtue while at the same time they're protecting and excusing child rape. Religious institutions going unchallenged in public discourse, being allowed to portray themselves as supreme moral authorities, is precisely what made it possible for the horrors of clergy sex abuse to continue for so long in secret.

September 21, 2010, 5:46 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink29 comments

The Language of God: Rusty Containers

The Language of God, Chapter 2

By B.J. Marshall

Chapter 2 reminds me of a Tim Minchin song, Storm, where one line goes "Keeps firing off clichés with startling precision / Like a sniper using bollocks for ammunition." The next theme Collins discusses in this chapter involves addressing all the harm done in the name of religion and wondering how anyone could subscribe to the tenets of any religion that perpetrates such wrongs in the world. He gives two answers, but one is really a diversion: 1) keep in mind all the good that churches have done, and 2) the church is made of fallen people. Basically, the church and its people are "rusty containers" so you shouldn't equate it with the pure water of the Moral Law.

Prior to my leaving the church, I had no problems giving generously to it. But my leaving has caused me to think this over more deeply. I'm sure the church does some good in the world, but it's grossly inefficient and highly particular about doling out those funds. The Church of England's Archbishop's Council has an overview of their annual budget:

So out of 27.7 million pounds in donations, the church only sends 5.4% to charity? I have not been able to find statistics on how much in donations to other Christian churches actually go to charity, but I have found some other pertinent information. Just two examples here: The Mormon Church spent $3 billion on a shopping mall in Salt Lake City, and spends less than one percent on helping the poor.

My wife used to work as secretary for a Roman Catholic parish. She said that she felt fine knowing that the donations of parishioners were going to help pay for others' incomes. I tried to explain as tactfully as I could (knowing that these were very dangerous waters I was treading in) that people donating to charities should look to pay as few administrative expenses as possible. She countered that the Church was actually providing a service to its parishioners, so it was not just engaged in charity work. I decided not to pursue the argument further, thinking that it wouldn't help matters to point out how misguided I thought the Church's "service" was.

Collins' evasion tactic is made funnier still by the examples he presents. In arguing how the church has played pivotal roles in "supporting justice and benevolence" (p.40), he cites Moses' leading the Israelites out of bondage. There is absolutely no evidence for this. Another case of the church supporting justice and benevolence: "William Wilberforce's ultimate victory in convincing the English Parliament to oppose the practice of slavery." Really, you mean the slavery that the Bible itself endorses? Interesting.

Onto Collins' second point: the church being comprised by rusty containers of fallen men. He asserts that the church has done some pretty bad stuff throughout history, but that you can't blame the pure, clean water of spiritual truth. He continues by listing some examples of violence that "sully the truth of religious faith." What's worse, Collins thinks that "[p]erhaps even more insidious and widespread [than the violence done throughout history] is the emergence in many churches of a spiritually dead, secular faith, which strips out all of the numinous aspects of traditional belief, presenting a version of spiritual life that is all about social events and/or tradition, and nothing about the search for God" (p.41). What's more insidious than the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, or Islamic terrorism? How about blasé modern worship in community-centered settings. I mean, I can handle genocide and torture. But all these spaghetti suppers, church group outings, and other non-traditional crap have just got to go! I guess genocide and torture does get closer to the pure, clean, petty, violent bully of a god we find in the Bible.

Let's be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, though, because atheism is just as bad, Collins warns. He points to the Marxist Soviet Union and Mao's China. In this post, I won't go into the details of why atheism has nothing to do with communism's failure, except to say I think that some factors that play heavily into it are a lack of incentive to excel, a disconnect between prices and the supply and demand of goods, and a gross disparity in property rights. In any event, for Collins to point to atheism as if it were the sole cause of atrocity is preposterous. "In fact, by denying the existence of any higher authority, atheism has the now-realized potential to free humans completely from any responsibility not to oppress each other" (p.43). I suppose this is always a possibility, although it has a hard time explaining how atheists are just as ethical as church-goers. Collins can't see that a moral system can be built around individual desires in a cooperative environment.

Other posts in this series:

September 12, 2010, 5:47 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink14 comments

Standing on Air

Despite endless reiterations of how atheists find justification for morality, we all routinely hear from apologists who claim that without believing in God, we can have no basis for ethical behavior. That's one thing, but today I want to discuss a far stranger and more disturbing variant of this argument.

Regardless of whether we agree about the existence of God, you would think that atheists and believers would agree that good behavior should be encouraged. You would think that a religious evangelist would say to an atheist, "I may not understand how you can justify acting ethically, but I'm glad you do and I hope you continue treating others with kindness and doing good deeds." But often, that's not what we get. Instead, we see apologists not just scorning the idea that atheists can have moral principles, but actively trying to convince us that we should be evil!

Consider three recent examples from comment threads on Daylight Atheism:

Why is the next step [after becoming an atheist] to treat others with kindness? We don't have to do that at all. If there's no God telling us to be kind, then I say its survival of the fittest. I should oppress as many as possible to make my own position better. (source)

You have nothing but your own mind, a clump of chemicals, to judge the actions of another clump of chemicals. It's like a dog judging the way a cat runs his life, or Uranus criticizing the orbit of Pluto. It's ridiculous, incoherent nonsense. If you were consistent, you would just shut your mouths and do whatever pleases you at any moment, and not criticize when someone else did what pleases them.... (source)

Nonetheless, why do you even care about this? As atheists I would think that survival of the fittest at any cost would be acceptable. You have no accountability to anything. Truth and right is subjective in your eyes, so why is scamming a few suckers so bad? (source)

One might assume that the apologists engage in this bizarre behavior because they want us to conform to their stereotype of atheists as selfish, amoral nihilists - making it easier for them to frighten others away from joining us. And I think, at least in some cases, there's truth to that. The atheist movement is a convenient scapegoat for religious preachers who blame every evil in the world on our wickedness. There's nothing like a good atheist-bashing sermon to get the congregation reliably riled up, and if we persist in doing good deeds, helping people, and being productive citizens, it's going to make things very awkward for the sermon-writers (especially since it's no longer socially acceptable to bash the previous scapegoat du jour).

However, I think the real roots of this behavior go deeper. Religious evangelists aren't just calling atheists immoral because it's on their list of talking points. I think most of them truly believe it: it's an article of faith for them, a cornerstone of their worldview. And when they see that expectation violated, it induces a profound and frightening feeling of cognitive vertigo that they'll try to cure by any means possible.

Imagine you were walking along the rim of a high cliff when you saw someone, a dozen paces beyond the edge, apparently standing on thin air with no visible means of support. Most likely, you wouldn't placidly accept this. Wouldn't you be stunned, amazed, terrified? Wouldn't you cry out that this was impossible? Wouldn't you demand, "Why don't you fall?"

Just so is the situation with religious apologists encountering ethical atheists. They believe, because they've been taught to believe, that belief in God is vital and necessary both to provide moral guidance to individuals and also to hold the fabric of society together. They believe that humans are inherently sinful and that only God provides a moral law that can check our selfish impulses. Thus, the conclusion that atheists have no morals isn't just a claim of no consequence; it's a link in the chain of interconnected assumptions that constitutes their worldview. It's something that, as far as they're concerned, has to be true.

No wonder, then, that they react so strongly when they see atheists who are moral. Their missives betray not just anger and denial - the usual response to someone whose worldview is threatened - but maybe even a hint of fear. ("Why do you even care about this?" has more than a hint of pleading, doesn't it?) After all, an argument that God doesn't exist or that the Bible contains contradictions is a worldview threat that most Christians are familiar with, and they have well-rehearsed apologetics to soothe their own minds. But the discovery that atheists are moral is something they can't dismiss as easily; it just doesn't fit into their worldview. (Some apologists employ the face-saving gambit of claiming that even if atheists are moral, it's only because we're unknowingly following the law of God written in our hearts - but this amounts to much the same thing, and in any case this claim tends to evaporate when we point out how our morals lead us to conclusions that differ from what's written in their holy books.)

And as a consequence, we see claims that boil down to, "If I were in your position, I'd be evil and selfish! Why aren't you?" It's the same intellectual anguish we'd experience upon seeing someone standing on thin air: "If I were in your position, I'd be plummeting to the ground! What's keeping you up?" It's the shock of someone confronted with what they believe cannot exist, the existential dizziness induced by trying desperately to explain the inexplicable. In a way, a good and moral atheist is far more threatening to them than any kind of intellectual argument against God. A committed theist can use faith to overcome any evidence or reason used against them, but they can't use faith to wish us away. But they clearly wish they could, which is what leads to the bizarre spectacle of apologists trying to persuade us to do evil.

Of course, the existence of a moral atheist isn't inexplicable in general. It's only inexplicable to people who start with the presupposition that believing in God is the only possible source of morality. To atheists who have moral principles, the answer is clear enough: we're motivated not by the fear of divine punishment, but by the emotional experience of the unpleasantness of suffering, coupled with the intellectual realization that the world is populated by other human beings who probably feel the same way. Our morality, in other words, arises from reason blended with compassion, and when you try it, it turns out to be a perfectly workable basis. We're not standing on air after all, but on good solid ground - it's just that it's invisible to the apologists who've convinced themselves that it can't exist. If they'd open their eyes and their minds, they'd see it for themselves, and maybe even consider stepping out onto it and exploring it with us.

May 14, 2010, 7:35 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink35 comments

Why the Religious Right Fears Empathy

In the days before Justice Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation, we witnessed a strange spectacle: religious-right Christian after religious-right Christian spoke out against her nomination on the grounds that she valued empathy, and that this was an undesirable quality for a judge to have.

Coming from a religion whose founder supposedly said, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me," this is laughably absurd. Empathy is one of the founding moral teachings of Christianity, and here we see prominent Christians viciously attacking it. But in a deeper sense, I think this tells us something important. I don't believe attacks on empathy are a temporary position employed by the religious right for political advantage. I think that they're sincere when they claim to detest empathy, and that their abhorrence for it is an essential part of their worldview.

Let me refer again to Dave Schmelzer's Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist. Although Schmelzer's more willing than most to credit atheism for the good it's brought about, he still seems unable to avoid the atheists-are-angry-misanthropes invective that's ubiquitous in Christian apologetics books:

"[T]he tone... in the case of the 'nastiest' atheist writers, at least - does tend toward arrogance and sanctimony. I mean, do these authors seem happy to you? Is that worth noting?" [p.38]

and then there's this classic bit of propaganda, an exchange which he claims happened while he was speaking to an atheist students' club at a local university:

"In my presentation, I had told some inspiring (to me) stories about heroic, faith-driven responses to Hurricane Katrina, so I hazarded, 'To you, then, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina is not so much that so many people were killed or driven away from their homes, families, and community. You're saying that that's no more tragic than, say, whatever damage was done to the coastline.' He agreed with that and pressed his point by saying, 'A person's death and a tree's death should have the same value in the big picture.'" [p.111]

Atheists think humans are no more valuable than trees! (Insert gasp of horror from Christian readers here.)

Call me a skeptic, but I just can't take this story seriously. I think I can say that I'm pretty familiar with what atheists tend to believe, and I've never met or heard of an atheist who believes anything remotely like this. I'm all but certain that Schmelzer has misreported this conversation. It may not have been intentional: knowing what we know about the fallibility of memory, he may have misremembered it in a way that fits with his conception of how atheists think.

What does this have to do with empathy? I'm coming around to that.

Having read countless deconversion stories, I've seen one element that reappears in many of them: the moment when a person, on the brink of losing their faith, begins to see atheism as a genuine possibility, as a live option, and is exhilarated by the thought:

For a few seconds, I was not a religious mind, viewing atheism from behind a plexiglass shield and handling it with industrial gloves, but a neutral mind, considering what the world looked like through both religious and atheistic eyes. For an ephemeral moment, I saw that the anomalies present in my religious perspective dissolved in the light of atheism. (source)

The more time that I spent reading essays by atheists, agnostics and freethinkers/humanists, the more I began to realize with a mixture of both fear and joy that I was thinking more like an unbeliever, similar to before I actually became a Christian approximately seventeen years earlier. I felt a certain kind of excitement building inside of me that was a very freeing experience. (source)

Perhaps more than any strictly intellectual argument, this is the factor that makes you most likely to convert to a given worldview: whether you truly empathize with the people who hold it, whether you can put yourself in their place and understand their reasoning.

The religious right, of course, has no interest in people coming to think this way about any worldview other than their own, which is why they disparage empathy in general. But they're especially terrified of people coming to think this way about atheism. This is why every presentation of atheism in their writing is carefully tailored to horrify ordinary Christians - to depict atheists as evil, immoral misanthropes (people no more important than trees!) whose views are so obviously beyond the pale that they can be dismissed without further reflection.

This is why, if you ask a theist why they think people become atheists, you rarely get an answer other than cartoonish stereotypes like, "They hate God and want to rebel against him." They can't give good answers to this question because they've never thought about it themselves. By design, they specifically steer away from thinking about it.

This is also why proselytizers so often spread the lie that atheists have no basis for morality, and try to blame us for every evil under the sun. I've attacked this falsehood often, but I've come to realize that it's more than a merely factual confusion. We can't just point out that apologists are wrong about this and expect them to stop saying it. They say it because they need to say it - because it's a crucial part of their worldview that atheism be blamed for everything bad that happens, in order to keep their followers safely away from it.

Although we need to keep speaking out against this tactic, it isn't a battle we can win by words alone. As I said, the religious right says this because they need to, because instilling fear of different viewpoints is a vital part of their strategy, and no correction we offer will convince them otherwise. What we need to do is to be visible - be outspoken, be loud and proud, and don't be afraid to introduce ourselves as atheists. The more people get to know us, the more they'll see that religious stereotypes about us have no basis in reality, and the more isolated and ineffectual the people who insist on pushing those stereotypes will become.

August 14, 2009, 6:57 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink33 comments

Stalin the Divine Savior

Via Making My Way (a great atheist blog, although its author doesn't update often enough!), this amazing historical fact.

I wrote in "Red Crimes" about how communism, demonized by religious apologists as an atheistic ideology, was more in the nature of a political system: willing to work with anyone who supported its goals and to persecute anyone who opposed its goals, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. As evidence of this, I cited the story of Andrei Sakharov, an atheist and a brilliant physicist who helped the Soviet Union develop nuclear weapons, but was exiled and placed under house arrest when he spoke out against the Soviet regime and in favor of human rights. On the other side of the equation, there's evidence that dozens of clergy members, including the one-time Archbishop of Warsaw, were Soviet collaborators who assisted the regime in spying on its enemies.

Now we can add another piece of evidence to this cumulative case. From the website Seventeen Moments in Soviet History:

The enmity between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Soviet state came to an official end in September 1943 with the election of Patriarchal Locum Tenens Metropolitan Sergii Stragorodskii, de facto leader of the church for seventeen years, as Patriarch. The election had been preceded by a momentous September 4 meeting in the Kremlin between Joseph Stalin and three leading Metropolitans: Sergei, Aleksei Simanskii of Leningrad and Nikolai Iarushevich of Kiev. Stalin granted them the right to open a limited number of churches and religious schools, and to convene a national synod on September 8, which duly elected Sergei patriarch. Upon his elevation, Sergei immediately declared Stalin the divinely anointed ruler, initiating an uneasy collaboration between church and state that survived the Soviet system.

From Google Books, this excerpt from Robert W. Thurston and Bernd Bonwetsch's The People's War confirms this story and adds more detail:

Stalin abolished the League of the Godless (founded in the 1920s) and arranged a temporary truce with the Orthodox Church; in return, the Metropolitan of Moscow publicly announced in 1942 that Stalin was "the divinely anointed leader of our armed and cultural forces leading us to victory over the barbarian invasion." Church reopenings were attended by multitudes of devout believers. The regime proudly communicated news about fund-raising efforts by churchmen and congregations to purchase tanks for the army; Ehrenburg openly described people praying, and Simonov wrote poetically and movingly of "the simple crosses on Russian graves."

The official allegiance between Stalin and the Russian Orthodox Church shows that communism's relationship with religion was nowhere near as black-and-white as modern Christian apologists portray it. While communists did persecute some churches, they happily made alliances with others - and those churches were more than happy to reciprocate.

June 22, 2009, 7:53 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink23 comments

The Case for a Creator: Paging Dr. Provine

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 1

At the close of the first chapter, Lee Strobel scales to an incredible height of lunacy:

I knew intuitively what prominent evolutionary biologist and historian William Provine of Cornell University would spell out explicitly in a debate years later. If Darwinism is true, he said, then there are five inescapable conclusions:

  • there's no evidence for God
  • there's no life after death
  • there's no absolute foundation for right and wrong
  • there's no ultimate meaning for life
  • people don't really have free will [p.16]

These incredible assertions are presented without any hint of supporting evidence or argument, other than to call them "inescapable" and to say that he "knew [them] intuitively".

Something worth noting here is that, despite the book's title - The Case for a Creator - which would imply that the book's contents contain a set of factual arguments and supporting evidence worthy of the description "case", Strobel here does nothing of the kind. In fact, what he's doing is exactly the same thing that his West Virginian interviewees were doing: trying to warn people away from accepting evolution by painting a frightening picture of its imagined consequences. Looked at in this light, it's no surprise that he doesn't attempt to cite supporting arguments for this staggering set of claims. Their sole purpose in being here is to evoke a gasp of horror from Strobel's Christian readers, and for that purpose, it's sufficient to cite just one scary-sounding atheist.

The obvious thing to do would be to e-mail Dr. Provine to find out if this quote really represents what he believes. I tried contacting him, but didn't get an answer. Instead, I'll respond to these five points myself, pointing out atheists who dissent from Strobel's "inescapable" conclusions along the way.

Evidence for God: Why on earth would the truth of evolution imply the nonexistence of God? The whole point of faith in God, as atheists often complain, is that it is unfalsifiable - consistent with any possible evidence, disproved by none. You may look and fail to confirm the existence of God, but no matter how closely you investigate, you can never rule out a sufficiently subtle deity. This is as true for evolutionary biology as it is for any other branch of science.

Of course, some versions of God have more empirical contact with the world than others. I grant that, if your religion requires belief in two human beings created 6,000 years ago from mud by a local deity in a garden somewhere in Mesopotamia, then evolution probably does contradict it. (In much the same way, people who believe that thunder and lightning emanate from Thor's almighty hammer have their beliefs contradicted by modern meteorology.) But that's a far cry from claiming, as Strobel does, that the truth of evolution logically implies that no evidence whatsoever for the existence of any god has ever been or ever will be discovered. As I said last time, as an atheist, I'd be greatly pleased if that were true. But it simply isn't the case.

Life after death: Although I don't believe in life after death, I see no reason why that belief would be incompatible with evolution. The obvious reconciliation would be to believe that God created life on Earth through evolutionary processes, but at some point instilled the ancestors of human beings with a soul that survives bodily death. Indeed, that is exactly the position of the Roman Catholic church, as well as many mainstream Christian denominations. That's over a billion Christian believers worldwide who hold to this theology - a rather large number for Strobel to sweep under the carpet!

Absolute right and wrong: The existence of right and wrong is a philosophical question that does not depend on any particular set of facts about the world. As atheists have noted ad nauseam, science deals only in questions of fact, what did or did not happen, while the job of moral philosophy is to evaluate whether those things should happen, and that is a separate question entirely. Therefore, the truth or falsehood of evolution has no bearing on whether there is such a thing as a universal moral standard.

Ultimate meaning for life: Assuming these are accurate quotes from Dr. Provine, I suspect that this point exploits a common apologist confusion of terms. Atheists do not believe in "ultimate" meaning for life, in the sense of a transcendent purpose handed down from above. But we do believe that there is meaning in life, which we choose to create for ourselves by participating in fulfilling actions. This point is made forcefully in atheist books like The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality or The Atheist's Way. The difference is largely one of semantics, and again, what this has to do with evolution is left unexplained.

Free will: Again, semantics are important. If you're referring to the libertarian, theistic version of free will - the one where people are possessed by a supernatural soul that has the magical power to make decisions that are completely without prior cause - then I agree that we don't have that, and I also agree that science disproves that. But the science in question isn't evolution, but rather neurology, which shows in increasingly greater detail how human decision-making originates from the structure of our neurons. Unless Strobel intends to devote his next book to arguing that human beings don't really have brains, he seems to have chosen the wrong target here.

On the other hand, if you're referring to compatibilist free will - that freedom means the ability to choose in accordance with our desires - then evolution not only allows for that view, it arguably requires it. That's the thesis of prominent atheist Daniel Dennett, whose book on the topic is titled - what else? - Freedom Evolves. Needless to say, this isn't a view explored by Strobel, who would evidently rather emphasize the one atheist view calculated to cause his audience the most shock and fright, as opposed to letting them know the true range of atheist thought on these topics.

Other posts in this series:

April 17, 2009, 6:49 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink54 comments

Mental Slavery and Creeping Atheism

Evangelical pastor Ray Stedman knows the root cause of everything that's wrong with the world:

It is not nationalism, it is not racism... it is the human heart. It is the pride of man that fancies he can get along without God.

But not to worry, because he advises us how we can conquer this obstacle. To achieve that, we must

...take captive every thought to the obedience of Christ. This is extremely important.

...It is absolutely necessary to do this if you want to have permanent victory. Allow these unChristian thoughts to remain unconquered, and you will soon have to take the fortress all over again. They will creep out of their hiding places and take over and you will find that that which God has delivered you from has taken control once again.

Granted, the job of "taking every thought captive" can be difficult, even for a believing Christian. Stedman observes that:

...the intellectual life is often the last part of a Christian to be yielded to the right of Jesus Christ to rule. Somehow we love to retain some area of our intellect, of our thought-life, reserved from the control of Jesus Christ. For instance, we reserve the right to judge Scripture, as to what we will or will not agree with, what we will or will not accept. I find many Christians struggling in this area.

One of our women told us, a few years ago, of a struggle in this respect in her life. She said she would read through the New Testament and sometimes write in the margin opposite a verse, "I don't agree!" Well, she was honest enough to put it down in writing. There are many of us who do not agree but we do not write it down, or even admit it to ourselves. It was honest of her to do that, but it represents a struggle with the Lordship of Christ; his right to rule over every area of life, his right to control the thought-life, every thought taken captive to obey him.

...Dr. Francis Schaeffer has put it very accurately beautifully in these words:

I am false or confused if I sing about Christ's Lordship and contrive to retain areas of my own life that are autonomous. This is true if it is my sexual life that is autonomous, but it is at least equally true if it is my intellectual life that is autonomous, or even my intellectual life in a highly selective area. Any autonomy is wrong.

Similar to C.S. Lewis saying that obedience is an "intrinsically good" habit to get into, or the Pope saying that a Catholic's only role is to obey the Vatican with sheeplike docility, both Stedman and Schaeffer agree that "any autonomy is wrong" and that we must never question, disagree with, or doubt the teachings of the Bible, lest we lose faith and be overcome by atheism. We atheists often say that religion "hardens hearts and enslaves minds", but it's interesting to see theists who openly agree with us and admit that this is exactly what they are trying to achieve.

What I find most revealing about all this is the sentiment that if you allow un-Christian thoughts to "remain unconquered", they will soon gain strength and overcome you; that the only way to maintain your faith is to crush all doubts and skepticism and force "every thought" into the Christian mold. It's bizarre that so many preachers say this is necessary. In what other areas of life do people do this? Do scientists tell each other that they must take captive every thought to the reigning theory, that even a seed of doubt may grow out of control? Do doctors constantly struggle to persuade themselves that they can heal sick people? Do chemists grapple with belief in the periodic table?

A New Yorker book review, Prisoner of Narnia, makes a similar point about C.S. Lewis' writing:

A startling thing in Lewis's letters to other believers is how much energy and practical advice is dispensed about how to keep your belief going: they are constantly writing to each other about the state of their beliefs, as chronic sinus sufferers might write to each other about the state of their noses. Keep your belief going, no matter what it takes — the thought not occurring that a belief that needs this much work to believe in isn't really a belief but a very strong desire to believe.

It seems that many believers wrestle with doubt; and since they haven't been able to get rid of it, they've elevated it into a virtue, saying that by its nature faith is hard to hold onto. In fact, this sentiment is so common that they don't realize how strange it is, or what it implies: that their reason is not entirely dormant, that it rejects the absurdities of faith, creating mental tension and doubt when it comes into contact with the will to believe. I've noted a similar phenomenon in those theists who feel flickers of conscience that cause them to agonize over their faith's cruel teachings of punishment and damnation. Neither the moral nor the rational sense, it seems, are easily quieted, and that is a heartening thought.

I'm aware this is anecdotal, but what strikes me is that I've never seen a comparable phenomenon among atheists. What atheist books or websites speak of atheism as something that's a constant struggle to keep up, or warn that if we read the Bible or consider arguments for the existence of God, religious thoughts may "creep out" and overpower us? I grant that many theists who claim to be ex-atheists assert that this can happen, but evidence for the phenomenon among actual atheists, in the same way Stedman discusses seeing among Christians, is conspicuously lacking.

And this leads to a simple, stunning realization: our apologist opponents are afraid of us. They boast of how their church is founded on the solid bedrock of the word of God, how their faith is strong and impregnable to contrary argument. But look past the surface, and in many cases, you'll find them constantly advising each other how best to stifle doubts, warning each other that our arguments must not be considered, our case not given heed. You'll find sermons sternly warning about the dangers of autonomy, of independent thought, and of using one's own best judgment. Why would they write so extensively about the necessity of taking your own mind captive - unless they fear what it would uncover if it was free?

February 23, 2009, 7:51 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink55 comments

Ambassadors for Atheism

In the world of Philip Pullman's fantasy series His Dark Materials, each human being is accompanied everywhere by their daemon, an intelligent animal-shaped spirit that is the outward manifestation of their soul. When Pullman's heroine, Lyra, meets a boy who's been severed from his daemon by a cruel experiment, her reaction is one of disgust and horror:

Her first impulse was to turn and run, or to be sick. A human being with no daemon was like someone without a face, or with their ribs laid open and their heart torn out: something unnatural and uncanny that belonged to the world of night-ghasts, not the waking world of sense.

There are no daemons in our world, but we atheists often face a similar situation. We have the ability to arrive at a code of ethics without the dubious help of revelation, basing our moral decisions on reason and a sense of empathy for our fellow human beings. But still, far too often, we meet believers who insist that this is impossible. They're used to following a code of rules handed down by authority - by a text, or by other religious believers - and have become so accustomed to obeying that they literally believe it's not possible to come up with an ethical code on your own. They've lost the capacity even to imagine how this might be done.

One would think the existence of the vast majority of atheists who are ordinary, decent people would force these people to reconsider, but often it doesn't. Instead, they perceive atheists the way Lyra perceives that daemonless boy: as freaks, as bizarre and unnatural aberrations - and the evidence of our manifestly moral lives does not change that.

The flip side of this coin is that people who are unquestionably evil (or ones whom the speaker merely disagrees with) are often labeled "atheist", as though the word were just a generic synonym for "wicked". I've written about this before in "The Atheist Crew", but this example from David Hankins of the Baptist Press surpasses them all:

We do have some recent examples of societies that do not believe in God nor recognize a mandated divine value on human beings. They are associated with names like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, Idi Amin, and Saddam Hussein. Devoid of any sense of God or godliness, they created a social order of mayhem and evil that destroyed millions of lives. So much for the morality of godlessness.

Yes, you read that last one right: this apologist claims that Saddam Hussein was an atheist. That would be the same Saddam who died while reciting a Muslim prayer, the same Saddam who ordered the Muslim creed called the takbir placed on the Iraqi flag, allegedly in his own handwriting. By the standards of the Islamic world, Saddam's Iraq was a relatively secular state, but to call it a "godless" or atheist state is insanity. (I've written also about how Hitler was emphatically not an atheist. Idi Amin was also a Muslim. I should probably write some later posts on the beliefs of the other tyrants cited.)

As I said, as a purely factual claim, this would be insane. But I don't think Hankins intended it as a factual claim, but as a statement of the way he divides up the world: in his eyes, there are the good Christians, whom he agrees with, and then there's everyone else, the evil and wicked atheists. (The first Christians were accused of atheism by the Roman Empire for similar reasons. The fact that he's using the logic of the Christians' erstwhile persecutors is an irony he undoubtedly fails to appreciate.)

For people who think this way, there's probably no hope. They're clearly not concerned about what the facts say, just as racists are not concerned about the facts regarding the intellectual ability and capacity for achievement of blacks. But I think most people are not so set in their prejudices, and their minds can be changed. If they see that atheists are good people, the notion may become less unnatural to them, and in time they may come to accept it as normal and expected.

It's important to remember, therefore, that we are ambassadors for atheism. Fairly or unfairly, atheism in general will be judged by the standards of behavior that individual atheists display. Thus it's important that we be the best ambassadors possible - that we show ourselves to be moral people and present a good image of atheism to the world. This means of changing minds, in the long run, is more likely to help us than any number of rational arguments.

January 28, 2009, 8:23 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink39 comments

New on Ebon Musings: Red Crimes

A new essay, "Red Crimes", has been posted on Ebon Musings. The essay surveys the crimes committed during the 20th century by totalitarian communist regimes, and critically examines the claim that atheism was in some way responsible for the bloodshed they caused.

This is an open thread. Comments and discussion are welcome.

January 29, 2007, 9:20 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink18 comments

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