Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Idiot Wind

Posted by Matt Homer

Today's* lesson in absurdity comes via Dennis Prager at WingNut Daily. I really need to stay way from this site; every time I go there I end up really pissy all night. Reading through this abortion of an argument I ended up pounding my palm into my face every other sentence. I his article Prager gives "14" reasons why it would be bad if there is no god, in reality these reasons boil down 7 basic objections and a big fat argumentum ad consequentiam. More below the fold.


Lets get started. Bonus exercise see if you can count how many logical fallacies appear in the article.
What one almost never hears described are the deleterious consequences of secularism – the terrible developments that have accompanied the breakdown of traditional religion and belief in God. For every thousand students who learn about the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials, maybe two learn to associate Gulag, Auschwitz, the Cultural Revolution and the Cambodian genocide with secular regimes and ideologies.
Can Christians please come up with some with some new arguments? Please? This canard has been dealt with innumerable times. Richard Dawkins covers it effectively in The God Delusion. Christopher Hitchens demolishes it in God Is Not Great. Sam Harris debunked it in The End Of Faith, then, when Christians missed the point and brought it up he covered it again in the afterword to the paperback edition. I'll deal with it in more depth a little bit later.
For all the problems associated with belief in God, the death of God leads to far more of them.
That remains to be seen.
  1. Without God, there is no good and evil; there are only subjective opinions that we then label "good" and "evil." This does not mean that an atheist cannot be a good person. Nor does it mean that all those who believe in God are good; there are good atheists and there are bad believers in God. It simply means that unless there is a moral authority that transcends humans from which emanates an objective right and wrong, "right" and "wrong" no more objectively exist than do "beautiful" and "ugly."

Really? You're gonna open with that? The Euthyphro dilemma was first put forward by Plato; basically Socrates asks "Is that which is good commanded by God because it's good, or is it good because God commands it?" The dilemma shows us that morality dictated by a god is just as arbitrary as the relative morality decried by Prager and his ilk. The fact that the Buddha and Confucius had conceptions of the golden rule and other moral precepts five hundred years prior to the life of Jesus and with no exposure to Judeo-Christian writings or philosophy stands in stark contrast to Prager's claim. In addition there is relatively new research in to the evolutionary origins of morality. These evolutionary origins are a very interesting topic that deserves a post of its own at some other time. Suffice it to say that god did it is not a sufficient explanation for proto-morality in great apes.
Without God, there is no objective meaning to life. We are all merely random creations of natural selection whose existence has no more intrinsic purpose or meaning than that of a pebble equally randomly produced.
This is true enough, I could facetiously say that our purpose in life is to pass on our genes with as little error as possible, but that is not what Prager means. Prager is appealing to the worst solipsism in our nature, claiming that we need to be special - the universe was created with me in mind. This is simply vanity; the universe couldn't care less if you live or die, if you fail or achieve, if are good or bad. That scares people, they want to be important, they want to make a difference. And they do. We have an impact on the people we encounter in our lives, and isn't that enough? We make our own purpose in life and that's fine. For more on this subject check out this essay by Penn Jillette.
Life is ultimately a tragic fare if there is no God. We live, we suffer, we die – some horrifically, many prematurely – and there is only oblivion afterward.
Somebody call the whambulance. Do you really want to live forever, doing nothing but praising god forever? As Christopher Hitchens says a "Celestial North Korea." Ya it sucks that some people die early, get over it. Its only the people who survive that care. To quote/paraphrase Epicurus:
Why should I fear death? When I am, death is not. When death is, I am not. Why should I fear that which cannot exist when I do?
These words really struck me the first time I heard them and I haven't been afraid of death since then. I don't want to die but I will and that's ok.
Human beings need instruction manuals. This is as true for acting morally and wisely as it is for properly flying an airplane. One's heart is often no better a guide to what is right and wrong than it is to the right and wrong way to fly an airplane. The post-religious secular world claims to need no manual; the heart and reason are sufficient guides to leading a good life and to making a good world.
This is basically the same point as number two and it didn't become any more cogent the second time around. We are evolutionarily programmed to be able to survive - just like any other animal. Homo sapiens has been a distinct species on this planet at least 100,000 years and maybe as long as 250,000 years; Judaism has been around 6,000 years at most, Christianity 2000. Humanity survived for 194,000 years without some Judeo-Christian instruction manual we can do it again.
If there is no God, the kindest and most innocent victims of torture and murder have no better a fate after death than do the most cruel torturers and mass murderers. Only if there is a good God do Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler have different fates.
Hey this looks familiar, oh its the same as point three and its still irrelevant(this is going to be a recurring theme). If you read the Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice by Christopher Hitchens you might come to the conclusion that Mother Teresa is vastly over praised and not deserving of the respect she gets. Regardless it doesn't matter, death is final accept it and be happy, enjoy the one life you do get.
With the death of Judeo-Christian values in the West, many Westerners believe in little. That is why secular Western Europe has been unwilling and therefore unable to confront evil, whether it was Communism during the Cold War or Islamic totalitarians in its midst today.
Please. Some of the most famous atheists in the world are very loud in their condemnation of Islamic extremism. Christopher Hitchens is one of the biggest warhawks around and led a demonstration in support of the Danish cartoonists. Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Sam Harris are also staunch critics of Islam. I do agree that often times liberals are unwilling to criticize Islam to the degree that it should, but these tend to be liberal Christians, and even President Bush is quick to say that Islam is a religion of peace, and that we are only fighting the extremists in it.
Without God, people in the West often become less, not more, rational. It was largely the secular, not the religious, who believed in the utterly irrational doctrine of Marxism. It was largely the secular, not the religious, who believed that men's and women's natures are basically the same, that perceived differences between the sexes are all socially induced. Religious people in Judeo-Christian countries largely confine their irrational beliefs to religious beliefs (theology), while the secular, without religion to enable the non-rational to express itself, end up applying their irrational beliefs to society, where such irrationalities do immense harm.
Wow. Abandoning irrational religious beliefs makes people more irrational. Also religious people don't inject their irrationality in to society? George Bush thinking God is telling him to invade Iraq isn't doing immense harm? The position of the Catholic Church on contraception is one of the most harmful beliefs in the world today. In sub-saharan Africa where huge swaths of the population are infected with HIV the Catholic clergy lies to people saying condoms don't prevent HIV and that AIDS is a conspiracy to kill blacks. Millions of people hear them spew these lies, often times in remote villages where the clergy is the only authority on contraception. Because of the lies that these people spew millions of people have been infected and millions more will become infected and die from HIV. The story is nearly identical here in the U.S. where religiously motivated politicians are blocking research involving stem cells - research that could save thousands of lives and alleviate the suffering of millions more here in the U.S. And Dennis Prager has the gall to say that religious people are more rational than non-religious people.
If there is no God, the human being has no free will. He is a robot whose every action is dictated by genes and environment. Only if one posits human creation by a Creator that transcends genes and environment who implanted the ability to transcend genes and environment can humans have free will.
This has to be a joke. Free will is impossible in a world with a being such as the Abrahamic god. By definition an omnipotent and omniscient being would know everything past present and future. Meaning that the future is set and there is no free will.
If there is no God, humans and "other" animals are of equal value. Only if one posits that humans, not animals, are created in the image of God do humans have any greater intrinsic sanctity than baboons. This explains the movement among the secularized elite to equate humans and animals.
Why put other in scare quotes? We are animals and there is nothing wrong with that. Most behavior expressed in humans is also expressed in many animals. We see proto-morality in both great apes and cetaceans. We see language abilities in Gorilla who learn sign language and Orcas have distinct dialogues in their speech patterns broken down by pods. We are not all that far off from many animals and that does raise some ethical questions with regards to their treatment. Note one behavior exhibited in humans that to the best of my knowledge does not appear in the animal kingdom - war.
Without God, there is little to inspire people to create inspiring art. That is why contemporary art galleries and museums are filled with "art" that celebrates the scatological, the ugly and the shocking. Compare this art to Michelangelo's art in the Sistine Chapel. The latter elevates the viewer – because Michelangelo believed in something higher than himself and higher than all men

Without God, nothing is holy. This is definitional. Holiness emanates from a belief in the holy. This explains, for example, the far more widespread acceptance of public cursing in secular society than in religious society. To the religious, there is holy speech and profane speech. In much of secular society, the very notion of profane speech is mocked.
Atheists can't create art? Berlioz (Life of Berlioz, 1903, p. 298) didn't create art? Brahms (Letters of J. Brahms: The Hersogenberg Correspondence, English translation 1909) Bizet? John Lennon? Pink Floyd? This is the same asinine crap as the instruction manual from number four.
Without God, humanist hubris is almost inevitable. If there is nothing higher than man, no Supreme Being, man becomes the supreme being.
With or with out god religious hubris is a given. It is somewhat poetic that the man who was just whining about how humans have to be special and set apart from animals is going to accuse someone else of hubris. This man claims to know the mind of a god, to know who this god character wants you to sleep with, what you are supposed to eat, how you are supposed worship, and that this god cares about him personally; and hes going to talk about arrogance?
Without God, there are no inalienable human rights. Evolution confers no rights. Molecules confer no rights. Energy has no moral concerns. That is why America's founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence that we are endowed "by our Creator" with certain inalienable rights. Rights depend upon a moral source, a rights giver.
I have to be honest here, I don't really have an understanding of the philosophy involved in this question. So here is a collection of essays on morality and atheism.
"Without God," Dostoevsky famously wrote, "all is permitted." There has been plenty of evil committed by believers in God, but the widespread cruelties and the sheer number of innocents murdered by secular regimes – specifically Nazi, Fascist and Communist regimes – dwarfs the evil done in the name of religion.
Here Prager opens with Dostoevsky's famous quote. There is just one problem with that: Dostoevsky never actually wrote it. It is an accurate description of the philosophy espoused by Ivan Karamazov in Brothers Karamazov, but Ivan admits in the book that he doesn't really believe this, and it is unclear if Dostoevsky actually believed it either. Not that relevant but still, can we have some fact checking?

Speaking of fact checking, Prager's ignorance of history is almost embarrassing. To call fascism a secular ideology is abjectly false. Fascism was, if anything, a movement of the Roman Catholic right wing in Europe and later in Latin America. Mussolini, Franco, Pavelić (Croatia), and Pinochet were all practicing Catholics in majority Catholic countries. Hell Andrej Hlinka, the leader of the fascist movement in Slovakia, was an ordained Catholic priest. The fascist movement as a whole had a close relationship with the Vatican. This is not to say that the Catholicism in these countries was the cause of fascism and the brutality associated with it (with the exception of Croatia where religion probably played the major role). There were numerous economic and nationalistic factors that also played major roles in the turmoil of the time. My point is a) fascism was certainly not a secular ideology and b) the religiosity of those countries did nothing to mitigate the atrocity.

Of particular note is the extreme brutality of the Ustaše regime in Croatia. The Ustaše engaged in a brutal campaign of persecution against the orthodox Serbs that lived in Croatia. Estimates range from 300,000 to 700,000 Serbs murdered, with another 250,000 forcibly expelled from Croatia, and a further 250,000 forced to convert to Catholicism. The brutality of the Ustaše regime was so extreme that the German army officers stationed in Croatia were stunned by the horror.

The Catholic clergy was also complicit in the smuggling of war criminals, such as Klaus Barbie and Dr. Joseph Mengele, out of postwar Europe and into South America where they would aid the brutal dictators of that region during the 1970's.

Nazi Germany was a more complex situation. Adolf Hitler was most certainly not an atheist. However it is not fair to call him a Christian. Hitler's beliefs were a mash up of the Catholicism he was raised in, the Lutheranism that was prevalent in Germany, and Aryan blood myths.

Now, Stalin probably was an atheist, and he did engage in persecutions of religious groups in the Soviet Union. However, as is often the case there are multiple factors to consider. First we have to look at the context of the Soviet Union in the 1930's. Russia was not that far removed from the brutality of the Tsarist government; a government that was among the most brutal in history. In Tsarist Russia the Russian Orthodox church controlled massive amounts of money and land. The Tsar ruled by divine right and was considered to be something a little more than human. After the Bolsheviks took over they engaged in systematic persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church because the church was a threat to them, other religious groups also got caught in that net. It is also worth noting that Stalin's atheism was very different from the rational atheism of Richard Dawkins. For example Stalin rejected Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection as too capitalistic. In summation Stalin was an atheist who committed great atrocities, but he committed those atrocities in the name of communism not atheism.

All that said, this article is just a big fat red herring. None of the arguments put forward by Prager are at all relevant to the question of the existence of any god, much less the existence of the specific god of his choosing.
As noted at the beginning, none of this proves, or even necessarily argues for, God's existence. It makes the case for the necessity, not the existence, of God.
Oh so you know that, and yet you still wrote the article. Even if every point he made were true; it wouldn't mean a damn thing. To quote the great Bob Dylan, "You're an idiot babe, its a wonder that you still know how to breathe."

Hat tip to The Atheist Experience for pointing me to this steaming pile of stupidity.

* The article is actually a couple of days old, I started writing this the day it came out but my abstract algebra midterm today got in the way.

1 comment:

Garrick Garcia said...

Wow Matt. Beautiful job. I'm applauding as I'm typing, and yes it is very awkward. I must say this makes me feel quite intellectually inferior right now. Your analysis of this bloak's writing hits many common points we freethinkers have to constantly address.

One thing though, war isn't only a human phenomena. Well, at least in the sense of politically charged murder over imaginary lines in the ground. Chimpanzees exhibit some behavior that is warfare-like; small groups of males may strategically attack another group, establishing social status and dominance. Chimps can be very violent, but nothing as violent as many humans have displayed.

Besides the bad humans have committed, human morality is something one must think about in evolutionary terms. I'll go into further detail in a much deserves post of it's own, but morality is a system of intricate social bonds based on give and take. Social exchange and being altruistic is actually an evolved aspect of human behavior, as with many other species like gorillas and vampire bats. The idea that we must have a big authority figure policing our actions is really very immoral in itself. An evolved morality explains much more and does so much more justice to such complex human behavior.

Anyway, this sounds like this could be a regular post: "Lesson in Absurdity". Maybe something to think about in print??

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