By Be Scofield
Cross-posted from Tikkun Daily, June 22, 2011
Prominent atheist and scientist PZ Myers has written a rebuttal called “Myth-bustin’ bad arguments about atheism” to my article “5 Myths Atheists Believe About Religion.” I respond to his criticism below but I must say it seems he largely misunderstood the points I was making. I’m not saying this just to try and prime my audience, but I found myself mostly answering to claims that I’ve never made.
I do appreciate the discussion and hope that it spurs healthy debate. We need more dialogue and engagement with these very important issues. His comments are in blue.
Liberal and Moderate Religion Justifies Religious Extremism. Scofield has completely missed the point. Liberal religion isn’t blamed for promoting illiberalism, it’s guilty of promoting religion. Nobody is arguing that the antithesis is responsible for the thesis, but that liberal religion and extremist religion hold something in common: the abdication of reason in favor of faith. They are both philosophies that undermine critical thinking. And without that safeguard of demanding reasonable evidence for propositions, they’re left vulnerable to bad ideas.
PZ Myers proves my point exactly and simultaneously points out his own hypocrisy.
Liberal and extremist forms of government also share many of the same harmful common foundations: the use of propaganda, social control, loss of self identity for the country (nationalism), stifling of critical thinking, faith in leaders, manipulation…etc. When these are taken to the extremes the results are horrific. For militant anarchists the answer is clear: ALL government is the problem because moderate government is an “open invitation to extremism.” They BOTH share the same problem – government and the things that go along with it. Unless Myers also believes the same is true for government then he is already able to make the meaningful distinctions that I’m asking him to make about religion. Whatever the reasons that Myers might give for seeing gradations and variations in government without denouncing it entirely, (despite the presence of shared harmful and irrational elements in both its liberal and extremist forms that can lead to very dangerous outcomes) I am asking him to make the same types of distinctions in regards to religion. If he can do it in relation to government he can do it in relation to religion. Otherwise he needs to explain why religion should be singled out to be denounced entirely when many of the same extremely irrational and problematic conditions (faith in the state/leaders and stifling of free/critical thinking) have existed in government. Why doesn’t tolerant and democratic government receive the same blame that liberal religion does when they both share harmful elements of their extremist counterparts? If a shared common foundation of things that stifle critical thinking is the reasoning for denouncing an entire category then it must apply to government.
And secondly not all liberal religion stifles reason and chooses faith, nor does all liberal religion undermine critical thinking. Therefore the premise of his logic above is flawed as there are liberal religious expressions which don’t share the things in common he stated with extremist religion. But certainly there is much liberal/moderate religion that does share the same disregard for belief and stifling of critical thinking that the more extremist forms do.
Religion Requires a Belief in a Supernatural God. This is a familiar and contemptible dodge, pure and simple. Let us pretend all atheists believe all religious people are Pat Robertson; therefore, when we mention someone who is not Pat Robertson, the atheists are routed! Huzzah!..So what about Pat Robertson? And Tony Perkins? And John Boehner? And the local Catholic priest? Are these not religious people? This pretense that criticism of religious gullibility can be dealt with by a tactical denial of the reality of religious belief is absurd and dishonest. If those believers really did just consider their god a metaphor for the natural world, we wouldn’t be having a problem here, now would we?
Either religion requires a belief in the supernatural or it doesn’t. The evidence is overwhelming that there are numerous religious expressions which don’t carry supernatural beliefs. Thus, having supernatural beliefs is not required to be in the category of religion. It’s as simple as that. I’ve never claimed that any of those people aren’t religious. I’m merely claiming that both groups are religious.
Myers is completely confusing the issue here. By some twisted logic he thinks that my merely pointing out the existence of non-supernatural religions is somehow trying to give cover for all of the unreasonable and fundamentalist aspects of religion. This is Myers logic: Be states religion includes people who don’t believe in the supernatural –> Thus he believes religious fundamentalism and irrationality is justified. This is what Myers is claiming that I’m saying. It is patently false.
You can be a tolerant, liberal, generous, kind-hearted Christian who rejects fundamentalism, and that does not grant your goofier beliefs protection from criticism.
I never claimed anyone’s belief should be protected from criticism. It’s astonishing how easily PZ Myers can manufacture things.
I’m merely trying to point out that there are millions of people who deny the supernatural and god but yet worship in religious services, use sacred texts, practice in community and find support and meaning in life. Religion includes both Pat Robertson and my atheist friend who is in seminary studying to be a minister and religious leader. That’s all I’m asking be recognized. This is simply an undeniable fact. Myers obviously still has a problem with religious people who consider God a metaphor for the natural world because he is completely unwilling to acknowledge them for what they are.
FYI: Hitchens might disagree with Meyers on what would allow an atheist to not have a problem about religion. In my recent post “Is Christopher Hitchens a Religious Apologist?” he claims that he could be indifferent to all of the weird exhorations in the Koran as long as a religious person behaved kindly. I then used a quote from Greta Christina saying how problematic Hitchens’s line of thinking is.
Religion Causes Bad Behavior. Scofield’s evidence for this is the claim that atheists like to list evils done in the name of faith or by the failthful and then denounce religion as the cause. Strangely, he then cites Hitchens explaining that religion is only a reinforcer of a very human tribalism that is the actual root cause. So apparently this isn’t a myth held by atheists. How strange then to say it is!
Hitchens has also argued against his own position above. If I had more room I would have included it, but the piece was already long. He stated, “[Religion] has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow.” His arguments that religion does cause bad behavior closely represent what I have seen from other atheists and really make up the thrust of his work. I pointed out his double standard in a post called “Does Religion Cause Bad Behavior? Hitchens Can’t Decide.”
Atheists are Anti-Religious. In this “myth”, Scofield lectures atheists on what atheism really means. He decides that he, not Greta Christina who wrote that “Atheists, by definition, don’t think any religion has any reasonable likelihood of being true”, is the privileged arbiter of the definition of atheism. And to back that up, he cites a personal friend at seminary who says he is an atheist but thinks that “religion has a lot to offer.” Argument by confused and inconsistent buddy is not very persuasive. I think I’ll trust the ideas of prominent atheists over that of a pair of incoherent seminarians who want to apologize for religion.
I never lectured “atheists on what atheism really means.” My only statements that had anything to do with the meaning of atheism stuck to the definition that is widely accepted. Atheism is lack of a belief in gods. Is there any debate about this definition? Seriously? When someone claims atheism is something other than this like Christina did by saying atheism was belief about religion then it violates the definition. It’s pretty simple actually.
For some odd reason Myers believes that I think I’m the “privileged arbiter of the definition of atheism,” because I included a quote from an atheist who supports religion and is religious herself. But including her voice had nothing to do with my definition of atheism as atheism is again a lack of belief in gods. Rather I included her voice to illustrate merely that atheists can be religious and support religion.
The point of describing the evils isn’t to claim religion is the exclusive cause, but to show that a primary claim, that it encourages greater morality, is patently and empirically false.
I’ve challenged the idea that the religious are morally superior. See my post “We’re All Born Atheists: A Religious Person Defends Atheism.”
Atheists will not accept the widely held beliefs of the religious that there is a supernatural, personal force influencing their lives. We will not accept faith as a substitute for evidence in any way. We will not pretend that your beliefs in magical forces or unseen involved entities is in any way rational or supported by science.
Uh, ok. Cool. I never suggested that anyone do any of the above. Again, Myers is coming out of left field with his claims. He thinks that because I’m arguing for a more nuanced definition of religion that I’m asking atheists to accept faith claims. I’m only suggesting that if most Americans support U.S. Wars then don’t claim all Americans do. If most men are sexist don’t claim all men are sexist…etc. If most religions contain supernatural beliefs then don’t claim all of them do. It’s very simple. Plus I don’t believe in “magical forces.”
All Religions are the Same and are “Equally Crazy”. To Scofield, all atheists equate Martin Luther King with Osama Bin Laden, and see no difference at all between different religions.
Many atheists treat the religion of Dr. King and the religion of Osama Bin Laden equally. If Greta Christina were to claim all government crazy as she did with religion, what meaningful distinctions or qualifications would there be between Costa Rica vs. Stalin? All government is crazy – no exceptions. This flattens all governments into one category…crazy. Myers doesn’t say that some religions have some flaws and others are crazy. Nope. The same negative word (crazy) is applied equally to Dr. King and Bin Laden. This is what many (not all) atheists do. PZ Myers himself claims that all religion is crazy. Therefore he flattens Dr. King and Bin Laden into one category…crazy religion. If all of one thing is crazy and therefore dismissed it is hard to convince me that the person is actually interested in understanding the variations among them. Again, as I mention in my first point, PZ Myers doesn’t call all government crazy despite the presence of disturbing elements such as propaganda, control, manipulation. Thus he is already demonstrating the ability to not call all of something crazy merely because of some elements that are. All I’m asking is for Myers to apply his same thinking about government to religion.
Robert James Scofield, "Be," is a San Francisco based activist working to combine spirituality with anti-racism and social justice. Be is the founder of God Bless the Whole World, a free online resource with hundreds of videos of leading visionaries related to social justice and spirituality. He writes for Tikkun magazine and his work has appeared on Alternet.org, IntegralWorld and FactNet.