In a column in The Raw Story, Melinda Barton argues that just as the right has a problem with “religious nutballs” on their extreme, so the left has a problem with “atheist whackjobs” on the extreme left. Sounds plausible to me, since every group and viewpoint has extremes. Plausible, that is, until I realize that her definition of “atheist whackjob” includes me. In fact, includes every atheist I ever met. The left needs to kick us out, she says. (All quotes of Barton are from her article, “The Left’s Own Religious Extremists”).
“Why face off with the atheist whackjobs? Because extremism is extremism is extremism. No rational movement dedicated to intellectual courage and honesty should maintain a relationship with those for whom intellectual laziness, dishonesty, and cowardice are a way of life. Doing what must be done to insure the integrity of the left will require identifying our extremists, countering their mythologies, and acknowledging the dangers they pose to a truly liberal society.”
“For whom intellectual laziness, dishonesty, and cowardice are a way of life” — ouch! Charitably, she goes on to explain that “not all atheists are atheist extremists,” though we will see presently that by her criteria it would appear that all atheists are.
Barton lists 5 “outrageous” claims made by atheist extremists. PZ Myers, a biologist who writes the blog Pharyngula, has already made an excellent point-by-point reply, however since my perspective is slightly different, I’m going to attempt to do the same.
Is Atheism a Matter of Faith?
The first of the “extremist” claims made by atheist whackjobs, says Barton, is the following:
“Outrageous claim number 1: Atheism is based on evidence and reason and is philosophically provable or proven. Atheism is a matter of thought not belief. In other words, atheism is true; religion is false.”
Which strikes me as 3 distinct claims in one; let’s try to dissect them individually beginning with the last, which appears to be presented as a summary of the other two. “In other words, atheism is true; religion is false.” In Barton’s mind, evidently, it is extreme for any atheist to claim that atheism is true. Yet how could it be otherwise? To be an atheist, ipso facto, is to believe atheism true and its opposite false. Likewise, to be a theist is to believe that theism is true and atheism false.
Put another way, if you don’t believe theism is true, you’re not a theist; if you don’t believe atheism is true, you’re not an atheist. One goes with the other as a matter of definition. Hardly seems extreme.
But perhaps Barton means to concentrate on the second part: “religion is false.” Now, I’d be the first to argue that’s very vague phraseology. Religion is such an all-encompassing word. It includes various belief systems but also feelings, states of being, intuitons, institutions, you name it — and many of those things are neither true nor false. They are not the kinds of things truth or falsity can be applied to.
I won’t deny that some atheist writing quickly somewhere hasn’t written that religion is false, but what they meant by that, surely, is that religous beliefs are false. Now obviously it would go too far to argue that all beliefs held in the name of religion are false, since that would indict “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” as well as “Accept Jesus Christ or you will go to hell.” I doubt anyone on the left, much less left-leaning atheists, object to the Golden Rule. On the other hand, we can be quite sure that every atheist rejects the divinity of Jesus as well as hell and divine punishment. It sort of goes with the atheist territory, you might say.
So we see that what Barton considers an outrageous claim, “atheism is true; religion is false,” is too loose of a summation of what atheists actually claim. It needs to be rewritten this way,
“Atheism is true; religious beliefs based on theism are false.”
I can’t imagine any atheist disagreeing with that. Yet in Barton’s view, this apparently paints us all as extreme.
But surely that can’t be what Barton means — that atheists are “extreme whackjobs” simply because they believe their belief in atheism is true. She asserted earlier after all that not all atheists are extremist. Problem is, she doesn’t seem to leave any way for an atheist not to be an extremist by her criteria if the atheist actually believes there is no God — if, that is to say, they are an atheist.
But maybe she’s just being inexact with her language. Let’s look at the rest of the first “outrageous claim” she attributes to atheists. “Atheism is a matter of thought not belief.” This also strikes me as inexact phraseology, since thought and belief aren’t (under most definitions) opposites. What she means, I suspect, is that whackjob atheists claim that atheism is a matter of reason not faith.
Faith boils down to something like this:
“God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
Which begs the question of how one knows God said it, much less the question of whether there is, in fact, a God at all. Yet to a great many religious people, faith is sufficient. They fail to appreciate that faith has an achilles heel: it justifies every belief. One might as well say,
“Isis said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
All it settles is your gullibility.
You won’t find an atheist who doesn’t find faith insufficient for belief. According to Barton, apparently, that makes us wackos.
No Proof, only Faith?
Working backwards to the first sentence in her claim, we come to “Atheism is based on evidence and reason and is philosophically provable or proven,” which obviously she considers to be nonsense. Now, the key word here is “philosophically”. Atheism is essentially the opposite of theism, and theism has a multitude of forms. There are many gods under the banner of theism, including God. Atheist arguments differ — often remarkably — depending upon which god or God is the subject of debate.
For the vast majority of supernatural beings denied by atheists, no “philosophical” proof is possible: you can’t devise a deductive argument to prove convincingly that ghosts don’t exist, any more than a deductive argument can prove the non-existence of aliens roaming around the earth. Deductive arguments, in fact, don’t work to settle purely factual questions, as I have explained elsewhere.
But that doesn’t mean factual questions can’t for practical purposes be settled. Settling factual questions is what science excels at. It is a matter of weighing evidence and competing claims and determining which ones work best. Science does it all the time. It is a method which has allowed us to cure diseases and send men to the moon.
If there’s no evidence for ghosts or aliens a la Hollywood, it hardly seems extreme to disbelieve in them. It hardly makes you a whackjob. And if it did, we’d have to paint science itself with the same brush.
Drawing conclusions about existence or non-existence simply doesn’t require deductive proof. Yet, as it turns out, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God is a special case because that God is defined as perfect (omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent) and the creator of the world. That exposes this specific God to the possibility of philosophical disproof. And the case for disproof is surprisingly strong. Although atheists may ultimately be wrong in asserting it, there is nothing inherently outrageous in the claim that the non-existence of this perfect creator-God is provable.
(Note: I term the case against the perfect God of monotheism “specific atheism” and the case against other gods and entities “general atheism” in order to make this crucial distinction between the type of deity being debated.)
Barton attempts to defend her position this way:
“Ultimately, however, the supernatural’s existence or nonexistence cannot be supported by evidence or proven by reason. Both [atheism & theism] are a matter of faith and therefore belief. In the absense of verifiability, neither can claim to be absolute truth.”
But this is simply a fallacious either-or. In essense she is saying that either something can be verified as absolutely true, or it is simply “a matter of faith”. But no factual matter — and God’s existence/non-existence is a factual matter — can be deductively proved or absolutely verified (the exception being when the claim in question is logically self-contradictory). Every scientific statement is subject to possible future falsifiability simply because science deals with factual questions. Is Barton therefore going to castigate scientists as extremists or whackjobs for believing in evolution or arguing that continents move? Of course not.
The flaw in Barton’s reasoning is that she relies on the old agnostic canard that both theism and atheism rely on faith. That shows an ignorance of the arguments on both sides. Sure, some theologicans do rely ultimately on faith, but most do not. Most believe they have a convincing case for God’s existence; atheologians believe they have a convincing case on the other side. Obviously there is disagreement, but it doesn’t follow because intelligent people disagree with each other that their arguments are based on faith.
True enough, the ignorant agnostic, who hasn’t examined the arguments closely enough to make a determination as to which side has the best case, may conclude that they personally could only decide the issue by tossing a coin — i.e. by faith. For them to make a call between the two positions would require faith — but it does not follow logically that theists or atheists therefore base their position on faith.
There is, in short, an arrogance born of ignorance in the claim that intellectual disputes about God’s existence boil down to faith. I don’t say this idly. Consider for example the recent “conversion” of long-time atheist philosopher Antony Flew to theism (specifically deism). Anyone who tried to argued that Flew’s change of position was a matter of “faith” — or of switching from one “faith” to another” — would demonstrate only their profound ignorance of the issues and arguments involved.
Logically, Barton’s accusation of extremism applies equally to every theists who believes there is a solid case for believing in God and that “therefore theism is true.” This makes it clear, I think, that for this first “claim” at least, it is actually Barton who is the extremist.
Is Naturalism Extremism?
The 2nd of the 5 outrageous claims Melinda Barton attributes to atheist extremists is as off-the-wall as the first.
“Outrageous claim number 2: Since the natural is all that we have or can scientifically observe and/or measure, it is all that exists.”
According to Barton this is easy to refute: “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” To which this atheist replies that it is even less true that absence of evidence is evidence of presence.
What exactly is so outlandish about wanting evidence before believing something?
Barton apparently does think that asking for evidence is outrageous. She writes,
“[T]he supernatural’s existence cannot be refuted solely by our inability to observe it. Maybe a supreme being’s properties or our own are simply preventing direct observation. It’s a logical possibility. It is simply not one for science to consider. In the end, however, it is almost certain that there are things that exist that are beyond any of our philosophies.”
But even if we accept Barton’s line of argument here, we can’t—based on lack of evidence—determine which unevidenced entities (of the hundreds of billions of possibilities) actually exist and which don’t. Thus it becomes as necessary to believe in Astarte as in Aten, in the God who hates Christians as in the God who loves Christians. For by Barton’s reasoning, not to believe in the God who hates Christians is as extreme as not to believe in the God who loves Christians: without a requirement of evidence there is simply no way to distinguish the validity of the one belief from the validity of the other. All beliefs must be accepted as equally valid and equally likely.
In my book, it is not the atheist insisting on evidence who is being extremist, but Barton whose philosophy of giving equal weight to lack of evidence makes it impossible to choose rationally between beliefs. Nor can her argument be confined to religious matters, for lack of evidence can be applied to hypothetical physical as well as hypothetical non-physical claims.
Let’s be clear. Scientists do sometimes conclude that undetectable things exist, but they do so not because there is no evidence but rather because there is indirect evidence which makes the hypothesis reasonable. Likewise most theologians don’t base their theology on lack of evidence, as Barton seems to think, but rather on what they maintain is indirect evidence for a God.
No atheist I’ve ever met rejects the possibility of indirect evidence for deity. We remain atheists because the arguments from indirect evidence we’ve encountered so far (the design argument is one such example) seem to us less convincing than alternatives.
Is All Religion Oppressive?
That is the next indictment Barton levels against atheists.
“Outrageous claim number 3: All religion is oppressive.”
Here the key word is “all”, since virtually any sociological claim that includes the words all or every should be suspect upfront as likely to be false. A thoughtful atheist would never say all religions are oppressive because it is quite obvious that at least some religions (Sufis, Quakers, and Zen Buddhists come immediately to my mind) don’t fit the claim. Tellingly, the quote Barton finds to support her assertion that some atheists make this claim does not in fact contain the word “all”. She quotes from “The International Manifesto for Atheistic Humanism” as follows:
“Religion is oppressive. The act of subjugating human will to ‘divine will’ is oppressive. The practice of obeying clergy, of letting them make our decisions for us, is oppressive and irresponsible.”
I don’t agree with the manifesto on this point (where they see oppression I see something quite different: an abrogation of individual moral responsibility). But the key thing is that their generalization does not include the word “all.” They seem to be arguing that religion in general is oppressive. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps they are wrong. But it doesn not seem to be necessarily false on its face the way the claim that “all religion is oppressive” would be clearly false.
Barton admits that “it’s every easy to show many instances of oppression stemming from religion”, so it does not appear that she would object to the claim that religion is sometimes oppressive. Nevertheless, she argues that religion sometimes spearheads social and political liberation and other positive things. I agree. I certainly don’t buy into the notion that religion is necessarily oppressive or always oppressive. It may be that some atheists do. If so I would agree that they are extremist.
Will Eradicating Religion Bring About Utopia?
The 4th claim Barton attributes to whackjob atheists is one I’ve never heard anyone claim.
“Outrageous claim number 4: The eradication of religion in favor of secularism will bring about utopia.”
The closest thing I find to this sentiment is in John Lennon’s song Imagine. Barton says Marxists and anarchists hold this viewpoint in particular. Anarchy, it would seem to me, is not a goal people on the left should have. Anarchy, in fact, is what you get when you decapitate a government, as the United States did to Iraq with its “Shock and Awe” bombing campaign. Anarchy is pretty much the result in Iraq, and it’s not pretty. Marxism, with its eventual “withering away of the State” is equally undesirable, either because the State “withers away” (resulting in something like Iraq) or more likely because it fails to wither away and instead becomes oppressive the way the Soviet Union was and China is.
Neither is an appropriate vision for the left, quite regardless of whether one is an atheist or not.
Nevertheless, religion as it generally exists today is a barrier to a progressive vision of life. It is not coincidence that Bush’s strongest support comes from the most religious Americans, with those who attend church most often being the most likely to have voted for him in 2000 and 2004. They supported him on detaining suspected terrorists forever, without trial or charges; they supported him on “taking the gloves off” during interrogations; they supported him on attacking Iraq; supported him on the Patriot Act, supported him on denying global warming, on Faith-based government, on free-speech zones, on opposition to gay marriage.
Perhaps that support is due to their tendency to rely on faith, on blind allegiance to a church which can be transferred easily to blind allegiance to a party or a President. Perhaps it is simply because they think like Bush does. Or perhaps their belief in afterlife prevents them from caring enough about life to embrace progressive causes. I don’t know. But I do know that in America, liberal churches are greatly outnumbered by conservative churches, and that makes religion more the problem than the solution. Of course, religious fundamentalism is a worldwide problem, one which plausibly threatens to tear apart the fabric of civilization — particularly if we attack Iran with tactical nukes.
Our problem is that science has provided us with tremendous and powerful technologies, but our morality is mired in dinosaur religions thousands of years old. The gap is gradually becoming too wide to hold together. Unless we can flush out the afterlife religions and replace them with life religions, the future does not look pretty.
In Barton’s mind, I suppose, such opinions paint me as an extremist. But it is not utopia I dream of, but simply the survival of civilization.
Do Religions Force or Convince or Coerce?
For her last missive, Barton launches the following:
“Outrageous claim number 5: All religious people want to force you or convince you or coerce you to believe as they do.”
Once again we see the word “all” in order to attempt to make atheists seem more extreme than they actually are. Nor, Barton admits, can she find a quote including the word “all” to back her assertion up. But it is, she asserts, “the claim I’ve heard most often in conversations with friends and readers of the atheist persuasion”. My suspicion, however, is that it is Barton — not her atheist friends and acquaintences — who applied the word “all” in this context.
If you take the “all” away and replace it with “most”, it becomes a reasonable claim. Barton would object, I gather, even here, since she castigates atheists for “judg[ing] all religions by their negative experiences with or feelings about Christianity”. She stresses that her religion (she’s “a practitioner of Judaism”) doesn’t attempt to force anyone to change their beliefs — either by proselytizing or coercion. Well, I’ve never met an atheist who claimed otherwise about Judaism. Maybe there are some ignorant teenage anti-Semitic atheists somewhere who think otherwise, but whatever they are they are not progressives.
No, Barton sets up a strawman argument by adding the word “all”. The reality is that the vast majority of Americans are Christians — and don’t forget that worldwide there are some 2 billion Christians (1 billion Muslims). Christianity grew to such a size because it very much is in the business of converting non-believers to belief. That’s the whole idea behind revivals and missionaries. The entire Protestant game is to save souls by turning them to Jesus.
Nor is there anything wrong with that. I fully support the right of every human being to try to convince others of the rightness of their particular religious beliefs.
But Christianity has long been in the coercion business too, as any overview of the history of the religion makes more than plain. During the middle ages it wasn’t unknown for Jews to be given the choice of converting to Christianity or leaving the country — or worse. Everyone knows about the inquisition and the burning of witches, and everyone should know about the equally horrific treatment of other people and groups deemed heretics and infidels.
Historically, Christians have rarely hesitated at using the power of government to force their religious beliefs upon others — even (or especially) upon other Christian denominations. Our American forebears suffered greatly under the oppression of the Church of England backed by the power of Colonial governments, and for that reason insisted on the separation of church and state. Still, in the United States the last imprisonment for blasphemy (of an atheist) was a scant hundred years ago.
In the 1860’s Christians pressured the U. S. Government into putting “In God We Trust” on coinage and in the following century on all money. In 1954, “under God” was made part of the Pledge of Allegiance, implying that theism was an integral aspect of allegiance to country. President Bush Sr. suggested during a Presidential campaign that atheists could not be good citizens. There are fringe Christians today (fringe, except that some of their followers have gotten positions in the Bush administration) who want to see the United States turned into a theocracy and atheists put to death.
Christianity is coercive by nature because it is based on the belief that life on earth is fodder for afterlife. Better to threaten someone in an effort to “save their soul” or kill them in order to safeguard others from the risk of “eternal torture” in hell. Worse, Christianity is hinged on the concept of collective punishment. Just as God collectively punished all mankind for the sins of Adam, many Christian Americans today believe God punishes the United States because of its non-believers.
Of course, it is pretty evident nowadays that Islam is worse than Christianity.
Don’t misunderstand me. Most Christians and Muslims are moral and decent folk who are not coercive. But their decency derives from their humanity and not, unfortunately, from their religion.
Barton’s Judaism to the contrary, the dominant religions today — Christianity and Islam — do try to “force or convince or coerce” people under their jurisdiction “to believe as they do”. To point that fact out is not extremist. Not in my book.
Is Atheism the Enemy of Freedom and Liberty?
In conclusion Barton admits that atheists — or atheist extremists as she prefers to call us — are a small minority who currently endanger no one’s liberty. But she warns, someday that could change.
“While most who believe in the separation of church and state hold that only government support of religion in the public sphere should be forbidden, the atheist extremist may take it one step further to forbid the private display of religious symbols in public places.”
All I can say is that I’ve never met an atheist who would support something like that, and I seriously doubt that Barton has either. She brings up the example of France “forbidding the wearing of yarmulkes, crosses, hijabs, and the like” in public schools — but let’s face it, France does a lot of things (like forbidding foreign words on billboards) that no American, atheist or otherwise, would ever countenance.
Finally, Barton says,
“. . . the greatest danger the atheist extremist poses now is to the integrity and success of progressive movements. If we are to truly uphold the liberal ideals of freedom and liberty, we must stand against extremists of all stripes who would threaten those ideals. Secondly, in a nation comprised predominantly of those who believe in some sort of supreme being, our success as a movement depends on disavowing the atheist extremist as a legitimate voice of the left. Finally, our commitment to truth demands we counter the fallacies being perpetuated in our name.”
Given that most of the supposedly outrageous “fallacies” Barton lists are, as we have seen, either not so outrageous after all or not spouted by atheists of any stripe, one begins to wonder if Barton’s real argument is strategic. Maybe all the whackjobbery business is nothing but a smokescreen for her real message, which is that progressives should expell atheists from their number for reasons of strategy.
“. . . in a nation comprised predominantly of those who believe in some sort of supreme being, our success as a movement depends on disavowing the atheist . . .”
Perhaps that would be good strategy, though it doesn’t strike me as very progressive. But if this is Barton’s real messge, why not just come out and say so? Why smoke up the message with so many weak arguments?
Come to think of it, there’s already an organization on the left side of the political spectrum with a sign out that says “atheists not welcome.” It’s called the Democratic Party.
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You can read Melinda Barton’s full article here: “The Left’s Own Religious Extremists”