Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Double Standard of Religious Criticism

Many persons criticize Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Vic Stenger and others for their blunt treatment of religious belief and religion itself.  Indeed, the criticism comes from not only the religious, but from other non-theists as well.

Take regular CFI Community of Long Island INQUIRER contributor Dr. Massimo Pigliucci, for example.  He has criticized Dr. Dawkins in print, and the following could be found on Massimo’s blog: “Skeptical Inquirer has just published the third and last entry of my unofficial “Dawkins trilogy,” three short pieces where I take Richard to task about his views on science and religion, his idea of memetics, and, of course, the selfish gene stuff…”  (For the whole blog go to http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2007_10_01_archive.html .)

The memetics and selfish gene issues, while important, are not crucial issues when debating God’s existence, or the truth or usefulness of religious beliefs.  These are issues that are of secondary interest to the topic at hand.

Even the portion of theabove noted critique of Dawkins on “Science & Religion” deals with a point that one can argue that Dawkins doesn’t really make (at least as much as Vic Stenger does); that science can “disprove” the existence of God.  In any case, whether Dawkins really argues this or not, as Dr. Pigliucci notes disproof of “God” is more of a philosophical question than a scientific one; Dawkins may be overstating the ability of science to disprove God (or maybe not) but he is not being dishonest; at the worst he has made some mistake in logic.  So note that non-theists, often being fanatics for good reasoning, healthily and securely will take exception to the shortcomings of even their heroes, like Richard Dawkins.

So here’s a contrasting question: Are religious moderates being hypocritical when they criticize atheists for religion bashing when in fact they do far worse?

It would be hard to defend, in this argument, religious fundamentalists who see things simply and clearly in black and white and who begin at a point that is in contradiction to reality: they assume a conclusion on complete faith, which in this context means a firm belief without evidence.  How does one rationally defend that?  One does not.

But what about non-fundamentalists?  What about the largest Christian denomination in existence, the Roman Catholic Church?  What about the Pope himself?

For all the flack that Dawkins, Hitchens, et al, receive for their attacks on religion, is the Pope more inflammatory, hypocritical, dishonest and hateful toward atheists and atheism, yet is seen as a symbol of peace, unity and acceptance by many?

The Pope is easy to dispose of in this argument.  In an encyclical issued 11/30/07 and entitled “SPE SALVI,” the Pope claims that “According to the Christian faith, “redemption”—salvation—is not simply a given. Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey.”

Yes, the Pope is saying that salvation gives us hope even if we are living a miserable life.  Unfortunately he does not mention that it is the Christian religion that invented the idea of original sin in the first place which then requires the above noted redemption (and the hope/faith that one will indeed be unworthily chosen to receive this redemption) and contrarily, eternal misery if one does not “accept” this gift of salvation through an evidence-free faith; and, by the way, this faith will not make one’s actual life any better.  Thanks for almost nothing!

Is this overstating the case?  Is the Pope really saying that hoping something is true is the same as having faith that something is true?  Is he really saying that life is that bleak unless you blindly believe in something that gives you hope?

The Pope continues, “Likewise, when the First Letter of Peter exhorts Christians to be always ready to give an answer concerning the logos—the meaning and the reason—of their hope (cf. 3:15),“hope” is equivalent to “faith”.”

Well, yes, he is sort of saying that life sucks except for the possession of the hope/faith that one will be “saved.”  Well sort of, however, but not quite…

The Pope continues writing, “We see how decisively the self-understanding of the early Christians was shaped by their having received the gift of a trustworthy hope, when we compare the Christian life with life prior to faith, or with the situation of the followers of other religions.  Paul reminds the Ephesians that before their encounter with Christ they were “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). Of course he knew they had had gods, he knew they had had a religion, but their gods had proved questionable, and no hope emerged from their contradictory myths.”

Well shut my mouth!!!

Could Richard Dawkins have uttered a more atheistic and dismissive sentence than Of course he knew they had had gods, he knew they had had a religion, but their gods had proved questionable, and no hope emerged from their contradictory myths.”

The Pope does not stop here; he cannot stop here.  Since the Pope has an interest in promoting the Roman Catholic religion, and no other, he cannot simply defend the concept of faith in general; he must attack all those and all religions that do not share the Pope’s faith and defend the concept of believe without evidence in his belief only!  He must remove all hope and all happiness from everything in the world except for the Roman Catholic faith in God.  Pope Benedict XVI must turn to attacking atheism, which in the Pope’s mind, is everything but Roman Catholicism!

He writes, “The atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is—in its origins and aims—a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history.  A world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering, and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God.  A God with responsibility for such a world would not be a just God, much less a good God.  It is for the sake of morality that this God has to be contested.  Since there is no God to create justice (Ed.’s note: The Pope cannot seem to decide if non-believers don’t believe in God or think God exists but is not good.  Here’s a clue–non-believers don’t believe in God.), it seems man himself is now called to establish justice.  If in the face of this world's suffering, protest against God (Ed.’s note: He’s doing it again.) is understandable, the claim that humanity can and must do what no God actually does or is able to do is both presumptuous and intrinsically false.  It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice; rather, it is grounded in the intrinsic falsity of the claim.  A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope.

For thosewho cannot believe their eyes, the Pope is arguing that humanity’s quest for a just world is doomed not only to failure, but destined to create misery and remove all hope from the world!

How can one debate or have a reasoned conversation with someone who claims, “To protest against God in the name of justice is not helpful.  A world without God is a world without hope (cf. Eph 2:12).  Only God can create justice.  And faith gives us the certainty that he does so.”  (For the whole encyclical go to http://www.catholic.org/printer_friendly.php?id=26060&section=Cathcom.)

What religious charlatan could NOT make the above claim?  Bin Laden could endorse the above statement!

All godless lovers of justice take note: you are the cause of all human misery, according to the Pope.

Now you might say, “That’s the Pope.  Most religious persons are far more moderate in their opinions of the godless.  Most people never get as nasty about atheists as Richard Dawkins gets about religion!”  Or do they?

So what does an average person in the US, a so-called “religious moderate” say about atheists?

From the American Mosaic Project out of the University of Minnesota is the research paper “Atheists as “Other”: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society”:

“(Researchers) conclude that widespread political rejection of atheists and others who profess no religion provides a “glaring exception” to the general rule of increasing social tolerance over the last thirty years of the twentieth century...”

“Respondents had various interpretations of what atheists are like and what that label means.  Those whom we interviewed view atheists in two different ways.  Some people view atheists as problematic because they associate them with illegality, such as drug use and prostitution—that is, with immoral people who threaten respectable community from the lower end of the status hierarchy.  Others saw atheists as rampant materialists and cultural elitists that threaten common values from above—the ostentatiously wealthy who make a lifestyle out of consumption or the cultural elites who think they know better than everyone else.  Both of these themes rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individualists who are not concerned with the common good…”  (Go to http://www.soc.umn.edu/hartmann/files/atheist%20as%20the%20other.pdf.)

Please note that the above unfounded critiques are of atheists as persons, not simply atheism!  Yes, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens bluntly attack religious belief but “average” or “moderate” Americans impugn atheists themselves and ascribe to them all sorts of specific-to-them-only attributes that have no relation to reality.  No one bothers with evidence or facts.

Even religious moderates make the argument that “without God, all is permitted,” implying that those who do not believe have no reason for morality.  By extension they come to believe that the jails are filled with non-believers or that non-believers are selfish hedonists who care about no one else.

In contrast, from a godless standpoint, all persons, theist and non-theist alike have the same opportunity and motivation for good behavior; their innate concern for others.  Although many theists will make the magical and free-will killing assertion that God placed love and concern in our human hearts, Natural Selection offers a perfectly good alternative and well-evidenced explanation in its place.  Either way, non-theists do not see themselves as superior but only see dogma as an obstacle to human kindness prevailing.

Ultimately it is hard to see how anything that Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett or Stenger have ever said that comes even close to hatefulness and dishonesty that religious fundamentalists, the Pope, and yes, the even the average religious person commonly believes about atheists.

For it is written, “The fool says in his heart, "There is no God."  They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.”  (Psalms 14:1.)

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