Book Review: Losing My Religion

Summary: A hard-hitting and emotionally moving story of a religion reporter's deconversion, despite a few lingering blind spots.

Losing My Religion is the autobiography of William Lobdell, the religion reporter turned atheist whom I wrote about in 2007. I briefly mentioned the outline of his story in my previous post, but this book is a much more in-depth account of how he found, and then ultimately lost, his faith. Despite some significant weaknesses, which I'll get to, it's a powerful, honest story and definitely worth the time to read.

When Lobdell opens the story, his life was at a low point. By age 28, he was divorced and remarried, his career at a local magazine had stalled, he was in bad health and drinking too much, and he and his new wife were having a son whom he felt completely unprepared to parent. When he confessed his troubles to a colleague who told him, "You need God," he was willing to try anything that promised to change his situation for the better. (He wryly confesses that if his colleague had said, "You need crack cocaine," he'd probably have tried that too [p.4]).

He joined a nondenominational church, Mariners, near his home in Newport Beach. At first uncertain, he slowly warmed to its message of "unconditional love", which he "eagerly lapped up" [p.12]. But more important was his friendship with the right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt, who persuaded him to attend an evangelical men's retreat in the San Bernardino Mountains. Lobdell initially resisted, mortified by the thought of sharing teary confessionals with complete strangers, but the exhausting schedule of singing, preaching, work and testimonials gradually wore down his defenses (as, he rightly notes, it's designed to do), and the weekend ended with him unexpectedly having a born-again experience:

When I repeated the line "I invite Jesus into my heart," I experienced what I can only call a vision. Time slowed. In my mind's eye, my heart opened into halves, and a warm, glowing light flowed right in... I felt instantly the light was Jesus, who now lived inside me. A tingling warmth spread across my chest. This, I thought - no, I knew - was what it meant to be born-again. [p.22]

With his conversion and newfound sense of purpose in life, both his career and his marriage improved. When he landed a coveted job on the religion beat at the Los Angeles Times, he took this as a sign that God was guiding him, and believed that he'd found his calling: using his journalistic talents to tell stories of how God worked in the lives of the faithful, the kind of story he felt was routinely overlooked in the media.

Lobdell's career was thriving, but he was growing disenchanted with the simplistic theology of Mariners. His wife had been raised Roman Catholic and wanted to rejoin the church, and he found himself drawn to Catholicism's long history and complex liturgy. But fate intervened dramatically: just as he was on the verge of converting, the Catholic child-rape scandal began to break in a big way. Lobdell himself reported on one of the earliest cases, Monsignor Michael Harris, who was so photogenic and beloved in his community that he was referred to as "Father Hollywood" - until the diocese reached an embarrassingly public settlement with a young man who claimed that Harris had molested him. At first, Lobdell dismissed it as an isolated case, but as more and more similar cases broke nationwide, and as he attended survivors' meetings and witnessed for himself how the church treated abuse victims, his mind was changed:

I discovered that as horrific as the abuse was, most survivors experienced the most lasting damage from church leaders whom they approached for help. Instead of receiving protection and justice, these children and their parents were vilified for coming forward, called liars or accused of being bad Catholics for trying to bring scandal upon the church. The victims and their families were routinely told that they were the first to complain about a priest's behavior, though it often wasn't true. [p.102]

At the very last minute, Lobdell decided not to convert to Catholicism after all. Doubt was whispering at the edges of his mind, but he tried to suppress it. Disillusioned by Catholicism, but still a theist, he decided he had a new mission: he would "rebuild the church", finding and exposing the hypocrites who claimed to speak in God's name, and cleanse the institution of Christianity of these evils so that it would emerge stronger.

Now that he was looking for it, he found that Christianity was rife with corruption - faith-healing con men, powerful pastors who were blatant hypocrites, televangelists who lived lavishly off their followers' donations. But the more exposés he reported, the more discouraged he got. He found that most believers didn't want to hear bad news; their usual reaction was to cling even more tightly to whoever was scamming them. The preachers he exposed, meanwhile, denounced him and used his name in fundraising appeals. And it wasn't just him: in one story he tells, a young evangelical named Jen Hubbard tried to blow the whistle on fishy expenditures by the apologist Hank Hanegraaff, who used followers' donations on sports cars and country club dues, only to end up fired from her job and shunned by the Christian community [p.72].

Under the pressure of these contradictions, the proof that Christians lived no more morally than everyone else, and growing fissures of doubt about the irreconcilable contradictions of faith, Lobdell's religious beliefs finally collapsed. "[A]s deeply as I missed my faith, as hard as I tried to keep it, my head could not command my gut... I just didn't believe in God anymore" [p.244]. In a moving epilogue, he writes of the profound relief he's experienced, the liberating feeling of freedom and the "tremendous sense of gratitude" [p.278] he now feels at being alive. (He's since written to tell Christians to stop trying to reconvert him.)

That's the summary, and I hope it shows what I liked best about the book: a painfully honest deconversion story, interwoven with devastating first-hand reporting about the Catholic child molestation scandal, as well as some hard-hitting takedowns of other Christian preachers. Lobdell chronicles both how he came to faith and how he ultimately left it in detail, with a reporter's practiced eye and an undeniable, disarming sincerity.

That said, there were a few passages in the book that irked me. One was his treatment of Rick Warren, whom he's met in person and whom he describes as a warm, friendly and genuinely sincere person who remains "grounded" [p.71] "different from most" Christian leaders and "careful to keep clear of controversy" [p.70]. This is the same Rick Warren who's rabidly anti-choice, anti-gay and doesn't think an atheist is qualified to be president. He even refused to denounce a Ugandan law, sponsored by one of his proteges, that would put gay people to death, relenting and offering a grudging condemnation only after an onslaught of bad press.

Second: I'm not sure Lobdell fully realizes the extent to which his former religious beliefs affected his coverage. He says that "My only agenda was to make religion as fascinating to others as it was to me... I didn't think my role was to promote the faith" [p.46]. But some of his old stories which he quotes with pride - including one in particular about an investment manager who says he uses the Bible as his financial guide - sound like they could have come from a Christian apologetics pamphlet. He writes that he still believes there's a "liberal slant" in the media, a long-debunked trope, but doesn't seem to notice how his own beliefs shaped the tone of his writing.

Third, and the one that piqued me the most: Lobdell has scornful words for the New Atheists, saying things like, "I am not as confident in my disbelief as [Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens] are. Their disbelief has a religious quality to it that I'm not ready to take on" [p.271].

This tiresome, patronizing rhetoric is especially strange because, from reading the book, it's clear that he agrees with every argument they make: the moral culpability of an all-powerful god who permits evil, the way believers rationalize the failure of prayer as God's ineffable will, the abundant harm caused by religious beliefs which Lobdell himself has exhaustively chronicled. But even though there's nothing he disagrees with the New Atheists about, he still doesn't feel as comfortable as they do saying so in public. I think this is a remnant of his past theism: the idea that religious beliefs deserve "respect" even when they're patently false and harmful. But despite this lingering blind spot, Losing My Religion was a hard-hitting and emotionally moving story, and well worth my recommendation and endorsement.

June 27, 2011, 6:32 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink13 comments

Atheists Are Not Fascists

This week, my first article on Alternet was published, which spurred several comments asking that we not forget about libertarian and conservative atheists. That's why it's so amusing that this same week, PZ Myers points out the curious tale of a pundit named Jeff Sparrow, who's convinced that the New Atheist movement is so right-wing and "Islamophobic" as to be verging on fascist:

The so-called New Atheist movement, in which [Christopher] Hitchens is a key figure, is not progressive in the slightest. On the contrary, it represents a rightwing appropriation of a once-radical tradition ...

Although it's been said before, it needs to be said again: "New Atheism" isn't a comprehensive creed. It can't be "appropriated" because no one owns it in the first place. There is no Institute of New Atheism, no authorized journal which promulgates the official New Atheist views. It's more like a statistical average of the views of many people - and despite his contempt for us, Sparrow is notably incurious as to who does make up the New Atheist movement. He doesn't cite any surveys or interview any ordinary atheists on the street. Instead, he assumes that a single individual or a small handful of individuals are diagnostic of an entire movement, and makes no effort to investigate further. If he'd even looked at the rest of the lineup for the convention he's criticizing, he'd see that some of the other headline speakers include individuals who are known for strong progressive views. But somehow, this is completely omitted from his analysis.

I grant that New Atheists don't fit neatly on the usual left-right political axis. For the most part, we're defenders of the secular state, of stem-cell research, of marriage equality, and of reproductive choice. All of these are stereotyped as "liberal" positions (although there's no reason why conservatives and libertarians shouldn't also support them). On the other hand, we don't hesitate to oppose "hate speech" laws, to denounce ignorant and brutal customs like compulsory veiling and female genital cutting, and to proclaim that "culture" is no defense for trespassing on the rights of human beings. In many places, this puts us in the company of right-wing political parties (although, truthfully, any self-respecting liberal or progressive ought to get behind this as well). All this shows is that the usual left-right axis isn't a suitable lens through which to view every social movement.

It's regrettably true that Christopher Hitchens endorsed the Iraq war, a position not shared by the vast majority of atheists. No one else, as far as I know, is defending this position, much less declaring it to be representative of all atheists. The only difference is in how we respond. Sparrow's position, apparently, is that the only acceptable response is to anathematize him and cast him out, and if we don't, then it proves that we must agree with everything he says. This is intellectual McCarthyism at its finest.

Although atheists don't agree on politics, here's one generalization that you can rely on: we don't share Sparrow's instinctive desire to shut out opinions that differ from our own. We'd much rather debate, argue, have it out in public; we're known for that. I've personally seen Hitchens draw fierce opposition from other atheists. But the consensus - which I share - is that he's eloquent enough, intelligent enough, fearless enough that he's worth listening to even when we think he's completely wrong. We trust ourselves to be able to tell the good bits apart from the crazy ones.

Garden Lantern

Image by lapideo.

I acknowledge that there's a historical quirk here, in that some of the best-known atheist speakers and writers hold some views that aren't representative of atheists as a whole. But that just shows that we don't subject our spokespeople to a battery of litmus tests. Rather, we praise them for doing one thing and doing it well - making a strong, public case for atheism, and being among the first to do so - which doesn't necessarily mean we agree with or endorse all of their other views.

To return to an analogy I've used before, the atheist movement is less like building a cathedral, in which there's one master plan which all the builders must follow, and more like the advance of a wild garden. There are many different species of plants, each filling a different niche in the ecosystem, some of them competing fiercely with each other, but all of them playing a role in the pattern of natural succession.

Sparrow is like an explorer who steps into the spreading garden, pricks his hand on a thorn, and angrily concludes that the entire field must be thistles and nettles. If he'd looked around a bit more before jumping to this conclusion, he'd have seen the flowering plants that attract bees and butterflies, the spreading young trees shading cool pools of water, the berries growing ripe and sweet on green bushes. To anyone who takes the time to look around and explore the garden, the diversity is obvious. But if you dislike one plant and just want an excuse to clear-cut, it's obvious why you'd say that there's nothing growing there but weeds.

June 15, 2011, 5:41 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink77 comments

Adapt or Die

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked.  Adam is on vacation.

My previous two posts on mockery have drawn a lot of criticism, including charges that I am an accommodationist.  If that were the case, the definition of accommodationism had gotten way too broad.  Trying to treat people with respect is different from asserting that their beliefs are true, or, at a minimum, not actively harmful.  Accommodationists have no desire to deconvert Christians or other believers, but there's a lot of room in the atheist movement for people like me, who want to change the minds of the other side and have grave doubts that mockery and disdain are the right tools for our goal.

Most atheists won't meet Christians who have never had their beliefs mocked, so few of us will plausibly shake their confidence by being the first person not to give their claims automatic credence.  There may still be misconceptions you can be the first to correct (I've heard plenty of "Why are you angry at God" and had to explain I don't believe in a God that would attract my ire), but you're less likely to get to a productive conversation about nuances if you open with anger.

And if Christians have been criticized before, why do we expect it will be our sneer that does them in.  After all, even if they aren't particularly well versed in their faith, they've probably heard the Beatitudes, specifically Matthew 5:10-12.

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

Most Christians are braced for criticism and welcome it.  Whether they see an attack as an opportunity to evangelize, a moment to demonstrate righteousness in defense of their god or a chance to play the victim on the public stage, they're ready to take advantage of it.  And they didn't last for 2000 years by being flat out dumb; their responses have undergone a kind of evolutionary selection.   Almost all Christians have answers to common atheists or denominational questions, so a quippy attack is of limited efficacy.

In the long history of the various Christian traditions, those who couldn't offer something plausible enough to hold on to followers (or those who had unsustainable teachings, cf. the Shakers) died out.  Plenty of smart people have been Christians, and they've had a long time to kludge together apologetic responses to objections.  Sometimes, the relentless expansion of theology results in cruft that I like to label scriptural fanfiction, but the end result is a tangle of ripostes to any entry-level criticism you have to offer.

The simplest (and worst) response are the ones we're most familiar with, the fundamentalists who deny the scientific method, the legitimacy of any kind of statistical analysis, and even any human grasp of causality.  It's well nigh impossible to argue with these people.  You can always try pointing out they trust the conclusions of scientists in their day to day life, and ought to give them credence on bigger questions like evolution or the age of the universe, but you'll find some sects (esp Christian Scientists) have already embraced the reductio ad absurdum you were trying to set up and have rejected any semblance of an intelligible world in the here and now.  You're not likely to get very far with rational argument, and, although mockery may give you a spiteful pleasure, it's not likely to do the self-deceived much good.

Plenty of other Christians believe that their faith is compatible with the more ordinary truths of the world they live in, and they've been working to harmonize their dogma with the data on the ground.  Their answers may be convoluted or unverifiable, but they satisfy the people in the tradition.  It's  no good raising questions and smirking if you can't rebut the next reply.  When atheists overreach, they discredit our whole movement.

Luke of Common Sense Atheism joined Andrew of Evaluating Christianity to make the case that most atheists who debate William Lane Craig shouldn't.  You might know that WLC's arguments are bunk, but if you can't make the case against him cogently and quickly, your smugness hurts our image.  Arrogance can win you an audience, but if you can't back it up with argument, you're handing weapons to the enemy.

If your goal isn't deconversion, or, at the very least, sapping public support for policies sourced in Christian doctrine, then I'm not sure why you're having hostile confrontations in the first place.  Some commenters made the case that the stupidity of our opponents or the harm they do is sufficient justification for holding them up to ridicule.  I disagree.  If you're in it for the bloodsport, knock it off.  It's one thing to take an aggressive stance because you honestly believe you have the best interest of your target at heart and quite another to think that your own intelligence or skepticism entitles you to make the less privileged suffer.

I've spent more of my time here at Daylight Atheism talking about poor deconversion tactics than I planned.  Tomorrow, you can count on a more constructive post on strategy inspired by my recent trip to see Broadway's The Book of Mormon.  In the meantime, I do have a list of three avenues of questioning I offered in argument with a campus ministry group.

May 26, 2011, 10:30 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink40 comments

Whom Should We Mock?

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked.  Adam is on vacation.

My last post on Daylight Atheism, asking non-believers to tone down the contempt for Harold Camping and his followers, and many of you disagreed.  Some commenters didn't believe there was anything intrinsically destructive about mocking others, others argued that ridicule was a necessary tactic to help people deconvert.  TommyP commented to say deconversion was catalyzed by the confrontational attitudes of unbelievers, while Elizabeth Esther wrote on her blog that she was alienated by the people outside her cult who treated her beliefs with contempt, so she could not share her doubts with them.

John Loftus and PZ Myers take an extremely confrontational, contemptuous tone towards Christians, and they've caught a lot of flack, both from accommodationists like Chris Mooney and more hard-line atheists.  I'm skeptical about the efficacy of these tactics, but I'd love to hear from commenters like TommyP in more detail about how mockery and contempt helped them give up their old beliefs.  Even if ridicule is helpful, and worth the danger of alienation and unwarranted pride, we should be careful of  adopting condescension as a default approach if we truly want to convince people.  Before you unleash your disdain, think about these factors.

Consider your audience

Assuming that mockery can work as a shock tactic, it still won't do any good if you write a blog for a primarily atheist audience or if you're joking around with non-believing friends.  If your criticism isn't accessible to the people you're ostensibly trying to help, it's hard to defend jeremiads as tactical rather than self-congratulatory.  And I don't think the Christian trolls who frequent atheist blogs promising hell are likely to be reachable enough to justify any rancor as public-spirited.

They have to care about your opinion to be shamed.

For plenty of fundamentalists, the fact that we're criticizing their beliefs is proof that we can't be trusted.  We're either deliberately in league with Satan or sadly deceived.  But even in milder cases, outright contempt is often a bad opening gambit.  You wouldn't be likely to be shaken by the contrary opinions of a complete stranger, so why do you expect a Christian will take your disbelief as disproof?  This kind of strategy is most likely to work with friends or family, who have a reason to want you to think well of them.  But if you already have built up trust and respect, you can probably mound a more nuanced, substantive attack (and if you can't, it's time to hit the books).

What's the marginal utility of your mocking?

The shocking fact of your disagreement will only make an impression of sheltered believers who are unaccustomed to dissent, and most of us won't have the opportunity to try to deconvert them.  For believers who are routinely exposed to criticism, whether the universally mocked Camping or more mainstream religions that still take fire, it's worth asking yourself how it is that your contempt will make a critical difference.  If you doubt it will, your time is probably better spent coordinating lobbying campaigns against culture war legislation or making your own beliefs defensible and accessible than writing invective on the internet.

Don't lose your compassion

If you do take up the weapons of mockery and ridicule, have an eye to your own character.  It's sad when people are dumb or gullible, and it's scary when those people are in power, but the more foolish you think they are, the less culpable they must be for their error, no matter how destructive.  Intervention may be necessary, but the mentally unstable aren't deserving of contempt of hatred, even if their actions harm themselves or others.  Abandon these tactics if they lead you into overweening pride and teach you that your intelligence/upbringing/etc gives you the right to humiliate and punish others.

So, if you're going to take a sarcastic, mocking approach, you'd best make sure:

  1. You're actually being heard by Christians
  2. Who care about your opinion
  3. Who need your unique brand of contempt
  4. and that you can hate the belief while loving the believer

Else, you should probably make a different use of your talents.

May 25, 2011, 6:43 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink42 comments

Charity Yes, Interfaith No?

We atheists are nothing if not argumentative, and the latest argument is over whether an atheist can or should participate in "interfaith" charitable work. Chris Stedman, a member of the humanist chaplaincy at Harvard, asserts that "we must actualize our commitments to justice and compassion" by participating in interfaith projects as often as possible. Ophelia Benson and Jen McCreight were unimpressed, pointing out that there's something paradoxical in a nonbeliever participating in a movement explicitly based on faith. I especially like Jen's comment:

What do you call interfaith volunteering where atheists participate?


...Atheism is not a faith. In fact, it's the complete absence of faith. Therefore, it is not interfaith.

This is a personal dilemma for me: the Unitarian Universalist church my wife and I attend supports a local food bank called the Interfaith Nutrition Network, and I've donated money to support their efforts in the past. I felt some uneasiness about donating for just this reason, but as the INN is non-sectarian and the need is great, I decided at the time that the potential good to be done outweighed other considerations. I suppose, then, that I either have to declare myself a hypocrite or else conclude that atheists can rightfully participate in interfaith efforts at least sometimes.

Still, something about the notion leaves a bad taste in my mouth. And to be honest, I think it's Chris' scolding, condescending tone. (Yes, I'm making a tone argument!) For one, he describes himself as a former "rejectionist atheist". This is clearly meant as a pejorative, but I can't see how it wouldn't apply to all atheists, unless he means to compare the "bad" atheists who speak out forthrightly about their rejection of religious belief with the "good" atheists who don't. And then there's this:

Can we set aside intellectualizing and debating, even just for a moment, and start putting our money where other people's mouths are? I hear a lot of talk among my fellow Humanists about truth and knowledge - but not yet enough about love and compassion... Until we can show that the nonreligious care just as much about improving the world as the religious do, we've got no business saying that "religion poisons everything."

This treads dangerously close to saying that our arguments against religion are invalid if we don't do as much interfaith charity work as Chris Stedman thinks we should. I happen to agree that everyone should do whatever they reasonably can to make this a better world. But I emphatically deny that this has any bearing on whether one's views on religion are factually correct or should be voiced in public. We can (and should) say that religion poisons everything as often and as loudly as we like, no matter how many dollars we've donated or hours we've volunteered.

There's nothing wrong with atheists working together with religious believers to advance moral goals that we have in common. I've advocated this myself in the past. But when we cooperate with religious groups, we should be very careful to do so as equals. Participating in "interfaith" work undermines this. It means that you're starting out on their turf, and it lends credibility to the harmful frame that faith is necessary as a source of morality - especially when you make a big deal out of how it's essential for atheists to do "interfaith" work. I have an alternative suggestion: Why not just do regular charitable work?

It's not as if we're not doing this already. Atheists have the largest lending group on Kiva. We have the Foundation Beyond Belief and other secular charities. We organize food and clothing drives, book drives, blood drives. We participate in disaster relief.

It's perfectly fine for Chris Stedman to call on atheists to do more, but he should acknowledge these already meaningful and substantial efforts. To do anything less is insulting to the nonbelievers who do work toward making a better world (and, again, reinforces a pernicious religious stereotype that no genuine good can happen that's not done in the name of "faith"). Interfaith work per se isn't necessarily bad, but using it to scold your fellow atheists most definitely is. Rather than trying to prove that we can be good people just like theists, we should just be doing good, in whatever ways the opportunity presents itself. The rest will follow naturally.

April 25, 2011, 8:16 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink20 comments

Activists, Beware the Veal Pen

Ophelia and Hemant have pointed out that the White House is creating an "Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge" to encourage college students and religious groups to work on community-service projects. What's more, Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard, was invited to the kickoff meeting, and he's overjoyed:

I can vouch for the fact that we have been included every step of the way; not only in big public moments like the inaugural speech shout-out to "nonbelievers", but also behind the scenes. Last June, I was invited to visit the White House as part of a small gathering of University and college presidents, deans, chaplains, and interfaith student leaders to discuss the initial plans that led to this initiative. I'll never forget the moment when Joshua Dubois, the convener of that gathering and Director of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, greeted us.

Dubois, a young African American Pentacostalist [sic], took the podium and talked about how the group gathered that day was one of the most diverse in the history of the White House. It included many different kinds of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others - and, he emphasized, there were even secular activists in attendance... To emphasize that point, Dubois even mentioned me by name and title, had me raise my hand, and everyone in the room applauded at the idea that we were there.

Look: I'm not saying it's a bad thing that nonbelievers are being acknowledged and invited to participate in political events. I'm glad to see representatives of secular groups at the White House - it's a good sign and an indicator of our growing political influence. But does anyone else get the sense, from Epstein's rapturous verbiage, that he's far too easily pleased? Literally, all he got was the most perfunctory nod, and it seems to have sent him into paroxysms of joy. Especially under a Democratic administration, we should expect more than token recognition of our existence.

I'm glad to see atheists meeting with the White House, but only if we use that access as a means to push Obama on issues that matter to us: ending military proselytization, supporting same-sex marriage, protecting access to abortion, to name a few. (He's made it clear that he'll never take a stand on any of these issues unless he's pushed.) Instead, I get the worrying impression that Epstein was happy just to be "included", and that he would deem it discourteous to ask for anything more.

There's an evocative term for this, coined by the blog Firedoglake: the veal pen. The veal pen is shorthand for the way that political leaders try to coopt and silence activists among their own base: bribing them with "insider access", flattering them with empty rhetoric, and ultimately training them to accept meaningless symbolic gestures in lieu of actually doing something about the issues that matter to them. The analogy, of course, is to veal calves that are kept confined in darkness and fed occasionally to make them fat and soft. (The term was coined to describe the Obama administration's behavior toward groups pressing them to take a more liberal stance on issues like health care and gay rights, but there are conservative equivalents as well. See also.)

In my opinion, atheists shouldn't be participating in anything run by the "Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships" at all. This is the group that funnels money to churches of the president's choice, with no statutory restrictions on who's eligible or how they can spend it - a horrendous scheme that the Supreme Court blessed. What's worse, President Obama promised to repeal the Bush executive order permitting charities that receive public money to discriminate on the basis of religion, a promise that he has not kept.

I have no objection to working together with religious groups in the right circumstance, but this isn't it. By our presence at this event, we legitimize this group's activities (which is doubtless part of the reason atheists were invited - to provide political cover for the next state-church lawsuit against it). A better option would have been for secular activists to boycott this meeting, accompanied by a clear statement that we refuse to support in any way, shape or form a political organization that exists in violation of the First Amendment. That would send a strong message, to politicians in general and President Obama specifically, that they can't purchase our support for cheap.

March 23, 2011, 5:47 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink16 comments

The Language of God: Collins vs. Dawkins

The Language of God, Chapter 7

By B.J. Marshall

The next part of Francis Collins' discussion of atheism is largely an attack on Richard Dawkins. Given that The Language of God is about biology, I suppose it would seem natural to attack an evolutionary biologist like Dawkins.

Collins' first attack is that Dawkins, in The God Delusion, argues that evolution fully accounts for biological complexity so there is no more need for God. "While this argument rightly relieves God of the responsibility ... it certainly does not disprove the idea that God worked out His creative plan by means of evolution" (p.163). Because Collins holds a different view of God, he sees Dawkins' argument as irrelevant to the god that he worships. Collins calls Dawkins' "repeated mischaracterizations of faith" as betraying a vitriolic personal agenda.

Nothing could disprove Collins' idea of God using evolution, but that doesn't mean Collins' idea is a good one, any more than positing that gravity works does not disprove that maybe God is sitting outside of space-time, pulling on the fabric of the cosmos to create the gravity wells that massive bodies appear to create. His argument is just as absurd as Intelligent Falling is for gravity and flies defiantly in the face of Ockham's Razor, and yet Collins is the one calling out Dawkins on building straw men? With 38,000 brands of Christianity, how could Dawkins - assuming he was even talking to Collins face to face - have any idea which characterization of God Collins maintains? I'll grant that Dawkins doesn't pull punches, and he sometimes chooses words that bite intentionally; however, Dawkins shows (to me, anyway) remarkable patience dealing with Creationists, and he has often said and written that his goal is consciousness-raising.

Collins' second attack is another Dawkinsian straw man: Religion is antirational. Dawkins describes faith as "blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence" (The Selfish Gene, p.198). Collins states that certainly doesn't describe his view of faith, nor the view of most of his acquaintances. Collins then argues that serious thinkers throughout the ages "have demonstrated that a belief in God is intensely plausible" (p.164).

I'm not quite sure how much of a straw man this is, especially if you're talking about the sects which think the Bible is inerrant and believe in stories about God stopping the sun so Joshua can kill more Amorites or loads of zombies walking into Jerusalem. That seems awfully irrational to me. Rational is given by the Oxford English Dictionary as "Having the faculty of reasoning; endowed with reason." George H. Smith talks about reason at length (Section IV - Reason Versus Faith), and it seems that he and Dawkins are of one mind on this one: "Faith is belief without, or in spite of, reason" (Atheism: A Case Against God, p. 59).

Dawkins' attack most certainly does address the type of faith Collins possesses. Collins holds a belief that there's a god who uses evolution as his amazingly slow, horribly inefficient, and almost infinitely error-riddled process of seemingly blind trial and error to create life; he holds this belief without a shred of anything we would call evidence. Sorry, but mapping the history of cosmology since the Big Bang to the creation myth doesn't cut it for me. Finally, I wouldn't say that a belief in God is intensely plausible, but I understand apologists attempts to persuade people that the existence of God is possible. Sorry again, but I want probable - not just possible.

Collins' third attack is Dawkins' objection that great harm has been done in the name of religion. Collins doesn't deny this, but he asserts that evil acts committed in the name of religion don't impugn the "truth of the faith" (p.164); those acts instead indict the humans practicing the faith.

We've discussed the whole "rusty container" thing before. But I can't stop myself from commenting on "truth of the faith." On what basis, or against what criteria, can Collins base the truth of his faith? I have a hard time getting around the circle: The Bible says there's a God and this stuff is true, and God says the Bible is true. This Holy Circle of Logic makes for a nice t-shirt, really.

Collins' last attack on Dawkins is that Dawkins' claim that science demands atheism goes beyond the evidence. "If God is outside of nature, then science can neither prove nor disprove His existence" (p.165). Atheism itself must be a form of blind faith.

First, I don't recall Dawkins ever actually saying that science demands atheism; Dawkins usually goes only so far as to say that the existence is God is highly improbable. I won't try to defend Dawkins' thesis in The God Delusion further because, as far as philosophical treatises go, it falls short. Aside from that, science goes just as far as it can with the evidence; that is to say, it has found none, and not for lack of trying. This is certainly farther than Collins, who simply asserts with no evidence that God is outside of nature.

Collins ends this section on atheism with the following:

So those who choose to be atheists must find some other basis for taking that position. Evolution won't do (p.167).

Fortunately, there are plenty of them.

Other posts in this series:

March 4, 2011, 11:52 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink20 comments

An Open Letter to Jeremy Stangroom

Dear Mr. Stangroom:

It's come to my attention that you've recently devoted your blog to the purpose of highlighting uncivil statements by the so-called New Atheists. This is a laudable pursuit, as I strongly believe that the world needs to know exactly who these people are and what they stand for. To that end, may I submit some statements from my own blog, Daylight Atheism, for your consideration? After all, if you're showcasing the viciousness and rudeness of outspoken atheists, I wouldn't want to be overlooked.

"As you'd expect, most doctors [in Catholic hospitals] suffer agonies of conscience when forbidden to save the life of a dying woman... regardless of the actual outcomes, these accounts show the Catholic hierarchy's cold, callous attitude. Whether a woman dies is of no importance to them, so long as their dogma is respected, and they're ready and willing to enforce that on every woman who comes into their power. The most hideous absurdity is that these monsters have the audacity to label themselves 'pro-life', when their beliefs have the exact opposite effect in practice."

"In all these stories, we're hearing the shrill screams of Christians who've discovered that they're not the only ones allowed to speak in public, and are furious over the perceived loss of that privilege. It doesn't matter what the actual message atheists are promoting is. No matter how meek, how inoffensive, how conciliatory we make it, its mere existence will draw hatred and fury from religious bigots, because they really want is for us not to exist. Nothing less will satisfy them."

"It's no wonder that so many believers react with outrage and try to censor us when atheists unapologetically stand up and proclaim our existence - especially if the message is that the godless can be good people too. As peaceable as that is, from the standpoint of religious culture warriors, it's the most dangerous message we can possibly convey."

"Ridicule has its uses: If skillfully deployed in an argument, it can be more persuasive than anything else - nothing gets someone on your side like making them laugh. It helps break down the stifling aura of solemnity and respect that religions have convinced themselves they deserve, and that they use to smother legitimate criticism. And it communicates, more eloquently than any cool and dispassionate argument ever could, that it's okay not to believe this stuff!"

"The one thing that absolutely terrifies a prejudiced majority is anger, no matter how righteous or how justified, from any oppressed or marginalized group. That's why any member of such a group who does express anger for any reason whatsoever will immediately be tarred with the standard, well-worn insults used to belittle and dismiss the speaker's concerns and equate their passion for justice to irrational insanity... The reason why they do this is obvious: because a movement led by its least ambitious, most conciliatory members isn't going to get anything done. The guardians of tone are really the guardians of popular prejudice, concern-trolling for all they're worth in an effort to prevent us from making anything more than cosmetic changes. They counsel us to be meek, to be mild, to be small and bland and inoffensive, because that makes it much easier to ignore us altogether."

Thanks for your consideration! I hope you'll post about some of these statements, as it would be just awful if I was allowed to get away with saying such things in public.

Adam Lee

UPDATE: I get a response!

March 3, 2011, 7:29 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink27 comments

The Language of God: A Flurry of Fallacies

The Language of God, Chapter 7

By B.J. Marshall

Chapter 7 covers Collins' first option: "Atheism and Agnosticism: When Science Trumps Faith." I expect to cover this chapter in a number of posts - probably no fewer than four. He goes into more specific detail on agnosticism later in the chapter, so we'll save that for now. In fact, I can't even get to Collins' position on atheism until the next post. The first three pages of this chapter are enough to blog about, given how Collins falls into enough fallacies that he gives ample material.

The chapter starts with Collins relating that, despite a trove of negative events ranging from Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia to the escalation of the Vietnam War and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the launch of Apollo 8 marked a much more positive event. I won't spend more time on that sentence other that to say this: As I read that passage, I thought of a balance of scales. On the negative end, we have wars and assassinations; on the positive, the moon landing. I read it as if Collins were saying that the moon landing makes all the rest of the bad stuff equal to a net positive. I may have read it wrong, but that left a bad taste in my mouth.

Anyway, Collins talks about how three astronauts broadcast on live television on Christmas Eve a joint reading of the first ten verses of Genesis. Shortly after, American atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair filed suit against NASA for permitting the reading. She wished to ban the astronauts - who were Federal employees - from public prayer. The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction. Collins refers to this "militant atheist taking legal action against a Bible reading" (p.160) as a "symbol of the escalating hostility between believers and nonbelievers in our modern world" (p.160). He points out that no one objected in 1844 when Samuel Morse's first telegraph message was "What hath God wrought?"

PZ Myers' blog Pharyngula had a blog post about how long child molestation had been going on in the Catholic Church. He points out how Mary MacKillop was banned for uncovering sex abuse back in 1871. Now, following Collins' fallacious logic, the public never seemed to get all up in a tizzy over that one, so why should the public be decrying sex abuse now? Collins seems to me to be an example of an Argument from Tradition. I also think comparing the world-wide live transmission from space to a telegraph is a bad analogy.

Collins is writing a book to persuade users that evolution is true and can fit nicely with Christian theism, so it makes perfect sense to say that "it is not secular activities like O'Hair who make up [atheism's] vanguard - it is evolutionists" (p.160). He marks Dawkins and Dennett as articulate academics, but that's only naming two. What about Hitchens (Vanity Fair columnist), Harris (neuroscientist Ph.D. and author), Loftus (former pastor), or any of the other atheist proponents who have taken to the Interwebz? Way to take two data points and generalize their class (evolutionists) as being atheism's vanguard. This looks like a case of Hasty Generalization, but it also looks like the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy where he draws the bullseye around the opponents of his intended audience.

Collins briefly points out that people like Dawkins and Dennett proclaim that acceptance of evolution requires an acceptance of atheism. Enter the Strawman Fallacy. In The God Delusion, Dawkins ranks belief on a seven-point scale, with 7 being "strong atheist - I know there is no God" (p.51 of TGD). On that same page, Dawkins ranks himself a 6, saying that he doesn't know there is a god to the same extent that he doesn't know there fairies at the bottom of the garden. Dawkins defines his rating of 6 as "de facto atheist. 'I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there'" (p.50-1 TGD).

One last fallacy to round them out. Collins mentions how, as a marketing ploy, the atheist community has attempted to promote the term "bright" as an alternative to atheist. Collins expands: "The implied corollary, that believers must be 'dim,' may be one good reason why the term has yet to catch on" (p.161). I agree that implied corollary probably does hurt the efforts for "brights" to catch on, but that implied corollary is fallacious: Denying the Antecedent. It's fallacious to say "If atheists are bright, then non-atheists are non-bright."

Other posts in this series:

February 13, 2011, 5:38 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink11 comments

The Guardians of Tone
Women's Anti-Suffrage Association

Image via.

I was tipped off to this excellent essay by a reader (thanks, bbk, even if it was unintentional!) and since it got buried in the comments on the other thread, I wanted to call special attention to it. It's about the virtues of anger, specifically with reference to the feminist movement, but it contains some valuable lessons that are applicable to atheism and other progressive social causes as well.

The one thing that absolutely terrifies a prejudiced majority is anger, no matter how righteous or how justified, from any oppressed or marginalized group. That's why any member of such a group who does express anger for any reason whatsoever will immediately be tarred with the standard, well-worn insults used to belittle and dismiss the speaker's concerns and equate their passion for justice to irrational insanity.

We should all be familiar with these labels by now. Feminists are crazed man-haters; atheists are rude venom-spewers who want to tear down the harmless beliefs that give people comfort; gays and lesbians are perverts and sex fiends; and heaven help you if you're a black person running for office who dares to suggest that maybe the treatment black people receive is somewhat less than fully equal. That's why Barack Obama only won the presidency by being one of the coolest and most conciliatory presidents in American history, and even so, the right-wing noise machine still writes attack books with titles like The Roots of Obama's Rage. (When a black person with some connection to Obama did express anger at something, the soundbites, predictably stripped of context, circulated in the media for weeks.)

The guardians of tone always stand ready to demonize any member of a minority who displays anger or passion, no matter how well-founded it is in actual, ongoing injustices. The only way to avoid their slanders is to bend over backwards to be mild and inoffensive, not rock the boat, and not make the majority in any way uncomfortable. You'll get bonus points if you're a member of the group in question who's willing to affirm popular prejudices and piously wag your finger at activists for being too zealous or "extremist" - Fox News and the Templeton Foundation, to name two, will richly reward their useful pawns. Religious apologists, also, will fulsomely praise atheists who publicly wish they were believers.

The reason why they do this is obvious: because a movement led by its least ambitious, most conciliatory members isn't going to get anything done. The guardians of tone are really the guardians of popular prejudice, concern-trolling for all they're worth in an effort to prevent us from making anything more than cosmetic changes. They counsel us to be meek, to be mild, to be small and bland and inoffensive, because that makes it much easier to ignore us altogether. Suzanne Moore's essay argues that feminism has, in part, fallen victim to this:

Nowadays, saying bad stuff about men is not how feminism conducts itself. We all lurve men. We are all smiley for fear of being labelled man-haters. And what is the result of this people-pleasing, ultra-feminine, crowd-sourced sexual politics? Sod all. Reasonably sitting around waiting for equality while empowering oneself with some silicone implants does not really seem to have worked wonders, does it ladeez?

Conversely, the way to rouse large numbers of people into action is to get them angry, to make them aware of the evils that are being committed against them or in their name. Anger motivates people, and when properly directed and focused, it makes them unignorable. The guardians of tone know this, which is why they try to belittle and disperse it. A reform movement lacking any tangible sense of anger at the injustice it's trying to end is like a person without a circulatory system. Of course, those who most visibly embody that progressive anger come in for the most demonization:

God, how I miss those troublesome women like Andrea Dworkin and Shulamith Firestone. They may have been batty as hell but they had passion. And balls. They were properly furious at the horrible things men do to women. Who in their right mind, male or female, isn't?

And possibly my favorite line from the whole essay:

We need fire in our belly for this fight, not a bleedin' gastric bypass.

This doesn't mean that a successful progressive movement has no room for diplomats, or for other "polite and smiley" advocates. On the contrary, we need people who can represent us to the existing power brokers. But diplomats by themselves are like people stranded on a melting ice floe, negotiating for a few extra moments of footing. They offer no reason to change the status quo. When diplomats are backed up by a passionate, angry and motivated crowd tugging furiously on the far end of the Overton window - that's a combination that can achieve a lot. Diplomats of any stripe are far more effective when they can credibly claim that, if you won't deal with them, the alternative is unleashing the dogs of war.

That's why, when it's justified by outrageous unfairness, we atheists and progressive activists should get angry - in a focused way, at the people who are responsible - and ignore the squawks of the guardians of tone and their well-paid pawns. They only want to silence us, and we don't answer to them. And if we follow this advice and let our passion guide us, the day will soon come when these officious cultural enforcers will be cast down for good.

January 28, 2011, 6:23 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink201 comments

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