Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Don't, Please: An Atheist's Defense

Charlotte Allen is wrong about everything; except this: I'm an Atheist, and I'm angry. Recently, the Los Angeles Times suspended their editorial judgment and ran Allen's bigoted op-ed, an exercise in blatant insecurity and panic. In it, Allen rants angrily for an entire article in an attempt to trivialize the Atheist movement on the basis that we are boring, even if angry, fanatics who whine about being oppressed. Allen is apparently incapable of seeing the irony in beginning her article with the claim that Atheists are "crashing bores," and then fuming about them all throughout her 1,300-word fatwa.
Allen is not inclined to argue her point rationally, resorting repeatedly to the childish schoolyard name-calling she so decries. Apart from the "crashing bores" remark, she characterizes non-believers as unpopular "excruciating snoozes" belonging to the "pity-poor-me" school of atheism and "boohoo victimhood." The entire tirade is a lesson in misrepresentation. It is designed only to appeal to the limbic part of our brains, not to debate a position within the framework of reason, much less honor.
    Allen, author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus, lest her predilections be unknown, claims that fellow author Terry Eagleton's new book, Faith, Reason, and Revolution, takes Atheists "to task... for indulging in a philosophically primitive opposition of faith and reason that assumes that if science can't prove something, it doesn't exist." I insist, in turn, that we take Charlotte Allen, herself, "to task" for this ridiculous allegation. I challenge Allen to name a single reputable Atheist, or scientist, who makes the claim that because science can't prove something, it does not exist. Just one would suffice, but she will, unsurprisingly, fail to respond to this challenge, for no such reputable person exists. Science is not in the practice of denying things for which there exist no evidence, only explaining phenomenon based on evidence. However, it does not follow to infer that because science cannot disprove the existence of Apollo, the Sun god Ra, the ghost of Elvis Presley, and the "flying spaghetti monster," that we should give credence, not to mention unquestioning respect, to belief in these entities. If Allen finds it acceptable that we do not believe in thousands of other historical (and contemporary) gods and religions, then, as Christopher Hitchens so piercingly puts it, let her defend her God, the Christian god (or any god), as the right one, the superior one; so that the followers of all other creeds may burn in hell for an eternity, for inadvertently picking (or most likely, being born into) the wrong belief.
    The title of Allen's critique, "Atheists: No God, no reason, just whining - Superstar atheists are motivated by anger - and boohoo victimhood," exposes her hypocrisy outright. Nowhere does she give an example of an Atheist being motivated by anger, or victimhood. Quite the reverse, she is blind to her own argument as she spews vitriol throughout. The quotes she cites are either taken out of context, with some clever editing, or false altogether. Sam Harris is quoted as saying "that it 'may be ethical to kill people' on the basis of their beliefs." This is a blatant misrepresentation. Harris, in fact, makes plain that only if one believes that the canon they subscribe to is the divine word of god, does it become ethical, or seem reasonable, to kill someone for their religious belief. Suicide bombing anyone?
    Just as treacherous is Allen's mockery of what she calls "atheist victimology: Boohoo everybody hates us 'cuz we don't believe in God. Although a recent Pew Forum survey on religion found that 16% of Americans describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, only 1.6% call themselves atheists, with another 2.4% weighing in as agnostics." First of all, the percentage of Atheists within the U.S. has no bearing on our alleged whining about victimization. Second, claiming the contentions Atheists have with the status quo are trivial, simply because our market share is low in comparison to believers is ridiculous. If you take as fact the figures upon which Allen's phony argument relies, mindful that they are based on peoples' admitted beliefs, non-believers would then total 4% of the American population; by comparison, Jews make up 1.3% of the population (ARIS, 2001). Hemant Metha, moderator of Friendly Atheist, points out that no periodical would ever print Allen's argument, if the target were any other subset of the population. He asks what would happen if he wrote, "Here's why I can't stand Jews:
  • They're boring.
  • They keep complaining about being oppressed.
  • They keep talking about the same damn things all the time -- holocaust this and Israel that.
  • They always claim they're victims.
  • They only constitute a small percentage of Americans -- probably because they can't win over any converts...
  • They want affirmative action for their kind -- one representative from the "pity-poor-me" school of Jews even said they need "safe spaces" at colleges...
  • They're not rational. They're just angry. Angry because they think the world is unfair to them..."
And so on. These are the same logistical constructs that Allen employs, and yet it is clear that no reputable publication would ever print these arguments. Were they ever to be published (substituting any other minority) their author would quickly be labeled a hateful, bigoted ignoramus.
    Furthermore, consider Allen's mockery of the oppression Atheists certainly do face. Would she mock the fact that a professed non-believer would be beheaded in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, or Iran; and in other Muslim countries, if not beheaded, certainly jailed or socially ostracized? To be sure, the oppression and subjugation in our great nation is of a far different magnitude, but I can't think of a reasonable person who would deny its existence. Oppression, for millennia, has been the domain of the faithful. Allen actually disputes Sam Harris' observation, that "no person, whatever his qualifications, can seek public office in the United States without pretending to be certain that... God exists.' The evidence?" she replies, " Antique clauses in the constitutions of six -- count 'em -- states barring atheists from office." Forgive me for being a bit informal and sarcastic here and saying: "Oh my God..." Does she sincerely believe that the judicially overturned clauses in the constitutions of six states are what Sam Harris is referring to? I think not.
    "Maybe atheists wouldn't be so unpopular if they stopped beating the drum until the hide splits on their second-favorite topic: How stupid people are who believe in God," she snaps. Who, pray tell, is beating the drum? Who, for millennia, has beaten the drum of fear into the hearts of followers, relentlessly, lest they stray from the one true word of god himself? I dare say she cannot find one prominent non-believer, who claims that people who believe in a concept that's been "drummed" into them every day since birth are stupid. One can find the specific belief itself unfounded or misinformed, but that's where it stops. A stupid person can believe in god, but so can a smart one.
    Allen then makes a very revealing mistake, in calling the legal wrangling over education what it actually is: "Darwinism vs. Creationism" (F.Y.I. the word is evolution, not Darwinism). Take note that Creationists have long since changed the name of their lobby, having lost their case in the judiciary, to "intelligent design," which they argue, does not have the implicit religious element that "creationism" has. Whether you think it has religious implications or not, it's not science, and there is no controversy over that. To be sure, keeping religion out of the classroom is an issue that Atheists are passionate about. "But haven't atheists heard that many religious people (including Pope John Paul II) don't have a problem with evolution" she asks. Well, that may be, but the assault on science in the classroom can't be attributed to anything other than a religious movement. By the way, plenty of believers are passionate about keeping the classroom secular.
    Finally, let's take Allen to task for perhaps the most insulting, most egregious offense propagated by her angry complaint: that the arguments which Atheists put forth in support of their belief are the equivalent of "lobbing a few Gaza style rockets accusing God of failing to create a world more to their liking ('if there's a God, why aren't I rich?)" I challenge you, Ms. Allen, for nothing less than the defense of your very credibility, please name one prominent Atheist who claims this as the foundation for their belief. I submit that you can't. By the way, is it just me, or did you just compare us with terrorists? That makes me angry, so I guess I'm one of your "angry atheists" (though I prefer Secular Humanist to that ancient and weighted misnomer).
    Don't, please, speak as if you understand non-believers when you haven't represented a single one of us honestly. Don't, please, cleverly quote scientists, and philosophers, and rationalists, and journalists, if you're not going to reflect their actual views with your citations; it's surprisingly easy to read what they've written and be truthful about it. Don't, please, disparage and mock Atheists, or Agnostics, or Secularists, or anyone for that matter, and then go on claiming they should raise no objection to the very treatment, or worse, deny its existence. Don't, please, invoke emotion over reason in support of your argument, and compare us to terrorists. Don't, please, do all these things, and I won't be an angry Atheist. Rational people can only argue with the truth, Ms. Allen, so perhaps that puts us at a disadvantage, but we will argue our point, we will not be disparaged, nor will we be silent any longer. We've just realized, with your help, that we're a massive portion of the voting bloc, and we won't soon forget it.

The preceding was originally published on The Huffington Post.  You can find links to my other articles on the feed to the right...

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