The sad, naive atheist-bashing of Rabbi Yoffie

I wish Eric MacDonald would stick to Anglicans, Catholics, and other Christians, and leave the rabbis to me.  I noticed that, at Choice in Dying, Eric took down Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who wrote a dire piece at PuffHo called “The sad, naive atheism of Christopher Hitchens,” referring to Hitchens’s wonderful letter to the American Atheist convention.  (We’ve seen Yoffie before, arguing that a god must exist because it gives our lives meaning and purpose.)  Curious to see what is sad and naive about Hitchens, who doesn’t usually evoke such adjectives, I vowed not to read Eric’s piece until I wrote my own.  After all, Yoffie is nominally one of my people.

Yoffie’s piece is short and can be disposed of quickly.  It makes two untenable claims about Hitchens:

  • His view of religion was naive, for he neglected the benign and sophisticated faiths.  Yoffie sez:

In his missive, Hitchens equated religion with the actions and proclamations of bullies, tyrants and “nuclear-armed mullahs,” all of whom promote “sinister nonsense” and carry out unspeakable crimes while claiming that God is on their side. Hitchens has done this many times before. There is nothing new in these claims and neither do they have any merit. He is not attacking religion but extremism carried out in religion’s name, often as a cover for political and ideological radicalism.

Any system of belief or action can be distorted or carried to extreme lengths. But if one washes oneself a hundred times a day, one is not discrediting soap; rather, one is raising questions about its obsessive and inappropriate use.

This is an extremely common argument against Gnu atheism.  We’re only attacking the “bad faiths” (usually taken to mean Southern Baptists and radical, jihad-bent Muslims), not the “good ones” (presumably including everyone else).  And even the bad ones aren’t religions, they represent “extremism carried out in religion’s name.”  But, as I’ve argued before, religion often enables bad behavior, and much of that behavior wouldn’t occur without religion (see my earlier post on “What does it take to blame religion?”)

I do think there’s a lot of truth in Steve Weinberg’s claim that “for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”  I won’t recount the list of religions whose adherents practice nefarious, faith-based behavior, but they include Catholicism, mainstream Islam, Mormonism, many evangelical Christian sects, and yes, Eric’s own old faith, Anglicanism (Eric left the church because it resolutely opposed the assisted suicide of his terminally ill wife).  And I’ve already listed the malfeasances, which include repression of women, sexual fear and loathing, opposition to divorce, refusal to sanction condoms and birth control, leading to the spread of AIDS and the proliferation of unwanted children, instilling guilt and terror in the young, opposition to gays and lesbians, as well as stem-cell research, and many more.

This is not, contra Yoffie, “extremism carried out in religion’s name, often as a cover for political and ideological radicalism.”  These are views and actions that come straight from religious doctrine.  Hitchens had it right.  Yes, there are almost completely benign forms of faith, like that practiced by the Methodists I visited this January, and I don’t spend a lot of time grousing about them.  But it’s absurd to claim that only a tiny minority of faiths have pernicious doctrines, or inspire pernicious behavior.

  • Contrary to Hitchens’s claim, there is no “innate solidarity” of humans—a solidarity that gives strength to Hitch during his illness. Any intra-human solidarity comes from religion.  The Yoffster:

As a religious person, I believe that human beings have a tendency toward solidarity — and indeed, that it is divinely implanted. Nonetheless, it is no more than a tendency, and a rather weak one at that. (The word used by Judaism is “inclination.”) By itself, it is incapable of impacting our behavior in a significant way or of creating strong moral bonds. The purpose of all major religions is to cultivate and strengthen this tendency and to develop it into compassionate concern; compassion, after all, is the basis of moral thinking and the foundation of that fundamental decency to which Hitchens refers. But the point is that it is a mistake to speak of solidarity as “innate.” Solidarity is not the starting point; it is the result of systems of belief and behavior that have been developed and practiced by communities of common concern — and without question, it is religious systems of belief and religious communities that are the most effective vehicles for developing solidarity and offering compassion over time.

For a rabbi, Yoffie is deeply muddled.  He argues that it is “a mistake to speak of solidarity as ‘innate'”, but then argues in the same paragraph that some of it is innate, and that was implanted by God. Second, Yoffie seems oblivious to the fact that humans are social animals, and we’ve evolved to be so.  In a very real way we need the cooperation of our fellows, and have evolved to feel solidarity with them.  But we’re also evolved to look out for ourselves (for example, we favor our children and our tribe over others), so there will be constant conflict between our social and selfish tendencies, particularly in modern societies that are very different from the environments in which we evolved.   (Bob Trivers’s ideas on the evolution of parent-offspring conflict are only one example of the war between solidarity and selfishness).  Solidarity with a broader humanity can come from secular moral reasoning that takes off from our tribal instincts; Peter Singer’s The Expanding Circle makes a persuasive case for this expansion.

And religion creates human solidarity? Don’t make me laugh—religion is one of the most divisive human institutions ever devised.  Think of Sunni versus Shia, Muslim versus infidel, Catholics who think everyone else will burn in hell, Southern Baptists versus Methodists—the list is very long. It is inherent in religion to think that you alone have the eternal verities, and everyone else is wrong.  Not a great recipe for “solidarity and compassion.”

Once again, a mush-headed rabbi has made me ashamed to be a Jew.  Still, I’d be interested in readers’ answers to this question: to what extent has Gnu Atheism hurt itself by conflating all faiths, including the “benign ones”, as being harmful?

107 Comments

  1. Posted May 7, 2011 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    Ah, well, only when you give up on criticising popes and archbishops, can you put rabbis out of bounds! 🙂 All religions are fair game, and none is immune to criticism, because all of them are based on nothing more than delusions, however comforting or self-affirming.

    • Papalinton
      Posted May 7, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

      All religions stem from the need to make sense of the world, a narrative, right or wrong, that fills the void in our limited understanding of the world and our relationship with and in it. And science, still in relative infancy compared to the 2,000-plus years of the judeo-christian perspective, has demonstrated an exponential capacity to provide a far more powerful and meaningful explanations of our universe and our part in it. As old habits die hard, christians [and jews] have yet to acknowledge and appreciate the trend, by virtue of our ever-growing knowledge-base and understanding through the sciences, that is beginning not only to supersede the prevailing ‘religious model’ of the world, but to subsume religion as a social experiment that has since passed its use-by date..

  2. Ray Thaw
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 5:20 am | Permalink

    “Gnu” atheism has fuelled the fire of open debate by purposely being controversial; to that end no harm has been done.

    • Rob
      Posted May 7, 2011 at 7:50 am | Permalink

      Gnu atheism can be boiled down to the phrase “put up or shut up”

      It’s sad when that stance is considered controversial.

      • Aratina Cage
        Posted May 7, 2011 at 8:31 am | Permalink

        But there is also an educative component to it as we see on nearly every Gnu Atheism-oriented thread where atheists challenge theists in that way but also offer their own knowledge and resources or critical analyses that refute the claims of the theists.

  3. Posted May 7, 2011 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    Oh no, these extremists are acting “in the name of” religion.

    Do they not see that this is exactly the problem? The whole prophethood system says that people should be willing to lay down their lives based on what god wants, and in order to know what god wants they should rely on another human to tell them.

    For example, football hooligans might kill each other due to some kind of link to football – but they don’t kill each other “in the name of football” do they?

    • Microraptor
      Posted May 7, 2011 at 9:20 am | Permalink

      If football somehow morphed into a religion they would.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted May 7, 2011 at 11:06 am | Permalink

        I offer these two snippets in jest:

        La guerra del fútbol

        The contrary Hitch on the cult of sport ~ “…the Olympics and other international competitions breed conflict and bring out the worst in human nature”: Fool’s Gold

        …Have you ever had a discussion about higher education that wasn’t polluted with babble about the college team and the amazingly lavish on-campus facilities for the cult of athletic warfare? Noticed how the sign of a bad high school getting toward its Columbine moment is that the jocks are in the saddle? Worried when retired generals appear on the screen and talk stupidly about “touchdowns” in Afghanistan? By a sort of Gresham’s law, the emphasis on sports has a steadily reducing effect on the lowest common denominator, in its own field and in every other one that allows itself to be infected by it

  4. Insightful Ape
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    “As a religious person, I believe that human beings have a tendency toward solidarity — and indeed, that it is divinely implanted. Nonetheless, it is no more than a tendency, and a rather weak one at that.”
    Wait a second. Isn’t this an indictment against god himself? How come his handiwork is so crappy?

  5. Posted May 7, 2011 at 5:27 am | Permalink

    As far as I’m concerned, the key question is not whether all religions are harmful, it’s whether supernatural beings exist. I agree with others that the fight is between rationalism and superstition.

    Attacking the moral behavior of atheists and theists is a major distraction, in my opinion: although I do concede that believers bring it upon themselves by pretending to be more virtuous than the rest of us.

    So, to answer your question directly, I think that the Gnu Atheist have gone overboard in attacking the harmful effects of religion. We need to concentrate more on the real issue, forcing rabbi’s and preachers to defend their gods and not their moral behavior.

    • Brian
      Posted May 7, 2011 at 5:30 am | Permalink

      But if their argument is ‘we’re more moral, therefore it doesn’t follow God’?

    • Posted May 7, 2011 at 5:33 am | Permalink

      But WHY spend a lot of energy making people defend their gods if there are no harmful effects of religion? Doesn’t that just become a philosophical exercise in one-upsmanship? I’d contend that that is a waste of energy unless defense of gods has bad side effects.

      • Brian
        Posted May 7, 2011 at 5:35 am | Permalink

        I’m with you ceiling cat. I have not problem with religions that fit into a secular program.

      • Posted May 7, 2011 at 6:22 am | Permalink

        I think it’s always better to believe things that are true rather than things that are false. That’s why I’m against astrology even though it may be perfectly harmless.

        I’d like to live in a society where rational thought and crtical thinking are the criteria we use to decide whether something is true or not. In the long run I believe it is harmful to condone superstition and faith as valid ways of knowing. To that extent, belief in supernatural beings is harmful because it encourages irrational though in other domains.

        I can imagine a religion that does no harm and even does a lot of good in the world. That would not stop me from saying that the fundamental beliefs of that religion are wrong. Are there Gnu Atheists who would hesitate to question the superstitious beliefs of such a good religion? If the answer is “no” then surely the goodness or badness of a religion is irrelevant, right?

        Let’s take a more specific example. Francis Collims, Ken Miller, and Simon Conway-Morris seem to be very nice people but they are stll wrong, aren’t they?

        • Brian
          Posted May 7, 2011 at 6:42 am | Permalink

          I think it’s always better to believe things that are true rather than things that are false.

          Who here doesn’t?

          I’d like to live in a society where rational thought and crtical thinking are the criteria we use to decide whether something is true or not.
          Who here wouldn’t?

          In the long run I believe it is harmful to condone superstition and faith as valid ways of knowing. To that extent, belief in supernatural beings is harmful because it encourages irrational though in other domains.
          I agree with the sentiment, but you’re begging the question. Does believing in superstition (any superstition, no matter how small) mean they’re valid ways of knowing? I might always exit my door left foot last, but not think it’s a valid way of knowing.

          I can imagine a religion that does no harm and even does a lot of good in the world. That would not stop me from saying that the fundamental beliefs of that religion are wrong.
          Then you say doing no harm is wrong. And doing good is wrong.

          You might even be someone who thinks rules are to be followed not matter what. Though I doubt you are. Here’s a text as to why holding to rules can be bad.

          http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/jfb/huckfinn.pdf

          If the answer is “no” then surely the goodness or badness of a religion is irrelevant, right?
          Yes, but if it’s acheieved without harm and does a lot of good, what do you care, right? Unless it’s about rules.

          Let’s take a more specific example. Francis Collims, Ken Miller, and Simon Conway-Morris seem to be very nice people but they are stll wrong, aren’t they?
          Maybe, but they’re still nice people and if that was the extent of religious troubles I’d have no issued.

          • Brian
            Posted May 7, 2011 at 6:46 am | Permalink

            I wrote:
            Then you say doing no harm is wrong. And doing good is wrong.
            I misread what I was quoting and I answered suchly. I apologize. You should never be stopped from saying what you think is wrong. I therefore retract this:

            Then you say doing no harm is wrong. And doing good is wrong.

            You might even be someone who thinks rules are to be followed not matter what. Though I doubt you are. Here’s a text as to why holding to rules can be bad.

            http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/jfb/huckfinn.pdf
            Apologies Dr. Moran and Jerry.

            I’m off to bed. Too tired to engage with intelligent people.

        • Marta
          Posted May 7, 2011 at 6:47 am | Permalink

          “surely the goodness or badness of a religion is irrelevant, right?”

          No, wrong, actually.

          Forgive me. I don’t mean to be offensive, but I’m doubting you would have this point of view if you were a woman. Or gay.

          • Posted May 7, 2011 at 8:28 am | Permalink

            I think the point Dr. Moran us making is that, while the oppression of homosexuals and women is a very good reason to oppose religion, even if these evils were done away with, religion would still be worth opposing. It stands in the way of accurately assessing our environment, how our bodies work, all sorts of phenomena, etc. These kinds of assessment (and making sure they are accurate and reliable) are crucial for maintaining quality of life.

            • Marta
              Posted May 7, 2011 at 9:13 am | Permalink

              And it’s an excellent point.

              However, when or if we successfully motor through the problems of the “badness” of religion, we may have the time and inclination to continue on to the problems created by the “goodness” of religion.

    • Marta
      Posted May 7, 2011 at 5:49 am | Permalink

      “the key question is not whether all religions are harmful, it’s whether supernatural beings exist”

      This IS an important question, Dr. Moran, but it cannot be the KEY question; if believers were unobtrusively benign, it would be very difficult to work up much enthusiasm to engage them and their superstitions. One would simply discard them as cranks and move on.

      • Posted May 7, 2011 at 7:52 am | Permalink

        As examples: belief in astrology is quite widespread, with lots of people reading their horoscopes right after they’ve scanned the headlines. I’d guess the majority of people have a lucky talisman of some sort or other. And who doesn’t knock on wood?

        You can find extreme examples that are problematic, but they’re mostly associated with easily-identifiable psychoses or confidence scams.

        None of my examples are societal problems.

        Religion…well, if all religion were was a hobby of reciting poetry before meals and a favorite mythos to draw on for artistic inspiration, none of us would have a problem with it. But when people start speaking on behalf of the gods, they take upon themselves divine authority and thus gain divine power. And that’s just not good.

        Cheers,

        b&

    • Kevin
      Posted May 8, 2011 at 7:21 am | Permalink

      To a certain extent, I agree with your premise.

      All of this attack on the Gnus is merely a distraction from the fundamental issue of the concrete fact that all gods are mythological. “Pay no attention to the man behind that curtain.”

      But by attacking the pernicious effect of religion in our modern world, I think the Gnus are providing a valuable service over and above that argument.

      Because there are some “faithful” (that word again) who cannot see themselves outside of their self-imposed theological prisons. Who drip with condescension and complacency. “Oh, you can’t mean me. I belong to a nice religion.”

      Well, maybe. And just maybe if you look at your religion’s history, you’ll see just as much intolerance, bigotry, hatred of non-adherents as most fundamentalist sects.

      And (to your point, Dr. Moran) you’ll find at the core of those nice religions nothing more and nothing less than a lie. You can’t separate the nice from the lie. And so, it all has to go.

  6. Posted May 7, 2011 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    To what extent has Gamblers Anonymous hurt itself by conflating all casinos, including the “fun ones” as being harmful?

  7. Brian
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I think you’ve hit upon the biggest problem with religion. Oh shit, such a stupid statment. Let me refrase…
    Jerry, you’ve hit upon one of the biggest problems of religion. We are social animals, but only with our tribe (however construed) and we are anti-social animals to non-tribals. Religion creates a tribe (don’t you just lurve it when muslims or catlics tell you that all races belong? but neglect to tell you that infidels must be screwed?), and within that tribe our social instincts are fostered and can be allowed to do useful or good things. But when someone steps outside that tribe, however defined, then, screw you hippy!

    • Brian
      Posted May 7, 2011 at 5:36 am | Permalink

      Did I just write ‘refrase’ instead of rephrase?
      Yes, I did. I offer two excuses. One, it’s Saturday and, two I lived in a Spanish speaking country for a while.

      • `
        Posted May 7, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

        refrazay! that’s what you meant. it’s a special spanish breakfast cocktail isn’t it? refrazay!

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 7, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      Which sentiment (out of tribe = screw you) could not be more prominent in the Bible…

    • gk4c4
      Posted May 7, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

      Well said. We are social-animals within our own tribe, and non-social-animals for non-tribes. Inclusiveness is not a natural trait. This, I believe is a natural evolutionary trait, same thing with dogs, horses and other animal (esp social mammals).

      Religions create super-tribes, with artificial boundaries, enable them to be larger then just biological or geographical.

      This is the crux of morality, since what we do to in-group are what we define as moral, and what we (evolutionary driven too) do to out-group are what we say heinous.

      The key is being a thinking person, this is the main reason I found religions (and astrology) stupid and demeaning.

  8. TrineBM
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    As soon as the milder versions of religions begin seriously condemning the the hardliners, the extremists of all religions (even their own) then I’ll, consider putting in a “… (criticismcriticism)… maybe except the few, who go against … (criticismcriticism)”.
    The point is that even the most vague, wishywashy kind of religion (we’ve got them in Denmark a lot) still see it as a bigger problem that the infamous cartoons were published, than that the reactions were so violent.
    So no – until I can see a religion/church/priest actively distancing her/himself from all the absurdness, badness and vileness of religion – I won’t begin making any differences: religion is religion.

    • Brian
      Posted May 7, 2011 at 5:53 am | Permalink

      You do realize this is holding up the white flag? Religion can only critisize religion when it has hegemeony. If there is plurality, then religion is open to question and questioning another religion invites those same questions back on all other religions.
      So no, liberal religions won’t question , but will pretend it’s painfully obvious, that other religions are wrong. When you infect one with an incurable disease, you infect all. Better for religions to pretend there is no issue, until godlessness is cured.

      • TrineBM
        Posted May 7, 2011 at 6:30 am | Permalink

        Yes, I realize that I sounded almost accomodationist there! But my point is, that I do not believe that it is ever going to happen. I have, at least, never experienced any believer/religion attack or even question another or his or ers own religion. It just doesn’t happen very often does it? So until it DOES happen – I can’t see myself making any difference in argumentation.

        • Dominic
          Posted May 7, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

          We are never going to get to the promised rational non-religious world, are we?
          😦

          • Posted May 7, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

            Whoever made that promise was more naive than Rabbi Yolfie.

      • tomh
        Posted May 7, 2011 at 7:44 am | Permalink

        Brian wrote:
        Religion can only criticize religion when it has hegemony. If there is plurality, then religion is open to question and questioning another religion invites those same questions back on all other religions.
        So no, liberal religions won’t question …

        This is an important point, and where it really shows up is in the US legal system. You don’t find so-called liberal religions arguing against religious exemptions in the law that only seem to benefit hard line religions, for instance, exemptions to child abuse laws that accommodate biblical literalists, (spare the rod types), exemptions to health care for children that accommodate Christian Scientists or evangelicals, (pray for health types), and on and on. Liberal religionists are silent on these matters for fear their own privileges might be affected. Hypocrites all.

        Trying to parse the differences between one sect and another,(or figuring out which one does harm and which doesn’t), seems like a useless endeavor. As the old saw goes, to sheep no doubt other sheep look different. To an outsider (at least, to me) the similarities among religions so far outweigh the differences that religion looks like one giant morass of self interest whose main concern is protecting their privileges.

        • Michelle B
          Posted May 7, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

          ‘Moderates’ need the extremists because the extremists make ‘moderates’ seem moderate. Do in the extremists, then the moderates will be the new extreme.

          • TrineBM
            Posted May 7, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

            QFT

          • Posted May 7, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

            QFT (quite f.cking true)

            “Sure, I might be campaigning against marriage equality, but at least I aint shooting abortion doctors!”

          • Diane G.
            Posted May 8, 2011 at 1:13 am | Permalink

            Words to live by!

    • Posted May 7, 2011 at 6:16 am | Permalink

      As Sam Harris put it, moderate religion is the shade-tree under which extreme religion is allowed to luxuriate.

      And you’re right. Religion is religion. It all gets in the way of us discovering actual truths about the world we live in; truths the knowledge of which might increase our quality of life. I make no appreciable distinction between “moderate” and “extreme.”

      • David Johnson
        Posted May 7, 2011 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

        Mr. Harris made a legitimate point, but so, I think, did rabbi David Wolpe in a debate with him. It was that if a prime motivator of “new” atheism is concern that religious belief is motivating some truly heinous behavior (such as 9/11), then one might consider whether someone who has religious beliefs of that dangerous sort is more susceptible to being persuaded that (a) all notions of a personal God are completely fictitious, nothing more than wishful thinking, or (b) God exists, and one can take comfort in that, but fanatics’ interpretations of His will are erroneous. If it’s the latter, then perhaps broadsides against liberal versions of religions are ultimately counter-productive. To extend Mr. Harris’s metaphor, perhaps one who luxuriates under a tree may be tempted to climb into that tree some day, and they can’t do that if you chop it down.

    • AR
      Posted May 7, 2011 at 6:29 am | Permalink

      While repudiation of extremism from the moderate and liberal religious would be nice, and deserving of friendly acknowledgment — which may also involve tempering gnu “aggression” in some ways — I’m not sure that it would justify inserting those kinds of caveats into our criticisms of religion. While we focus sometimes on the evils of religion, that’s not all we gnus are after. The moderates and liberals still have at least one absolute truth — God — and that absolute comes from a holy book shared with the extremists. No amount of repudiation is going to change the fact that malignant and benign flavours of the same faith are at least structurally the same. As long as that’s shared, no such caveats are required.

  9. DaveG
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    I don’t think it matters if (or that) GnuA seeks to abolish religion. The religion itself doesn’t matter, its all the ancillary garbage that religion brings to the table that the world should be rid of. We GnuAs may be haters and bigots, but that doesn’t matter either – religion is a blight that should go away. But clearly Religion is an awfully easy target because it unites so many types of human failure. It’s interesting to consider that a world without religion doesn’t mean a world without human evil – and if we are self-appointed cultural police, what bad institutions will we attack after religions are gone but venal behaviors remain? I doubt child rapists and abortion-clinic murderers will be forming coalitions.

  10. AR
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    “To what extent has Gnu Atheism hurt itself by conflating all faiths, including the “benign ones”, as being harmful?”

    Aside from the fact the gnus have to waste a significant amount of time defending themselves against this sort of criticism, I don’t really see what harm has come of “conflating all faiths”. All faiths, whether dangerous or not, depend on the same holy books, the same absolute truth. What makes one benign and another malignant is simply interpretation — usually of how absolute the claims of the holy book are intended to be — and the real-worls effects of that interpretation. What conflating we do is not, then, false or artificial. It’s simply the nature of the beast that, benign or malignant, they’re all, at base, essentially the same.

    Moderate to liberal Christians who sweep fundamentalism and extremism under the carpet — because “that’s not the true faith” but a misinterpretation or something like that — bug me. Even if we accept that there is a right and wrong interpretation of any given faith’s holy book, who exactly is qualified to decide which one is it?* We all, whether adherents to one or the other, or those of us who stand outside all faiths, face an insurmountable epistemological problem in making that determination.

    This epistemological problem lends itself to a problem more directly related to the question you ask. If we can’t make that determination then all this “extremism isn’t really part of faith X” is just that much guff. Malignant interpretations differ from benign ones and have different real-world effects — none of us want to deny that, I don’t think — but that doesn’t show either to be more right. Is fundamentalist Islam the real Islam, or is moderate Islam? I like the moderates better but is this reason enough to distinguish between them in the way Yoffie et al. want us to?

    In short, we have no criteria to decide between true faiths (or true interpretations of any given faith) that legitimizes any distinction between the benign and malignant ones – aside, again, from real-world effects, which no one wants to deny. At base, they’re all the same in an important way: the problem with all of them is that they have the absolute truth, garnered by a holy book — and that’s scary, no matter the face of the sect — and an attack on that must be an attack on all faiths, not just a cherry-picked and obvious few. All of these religions have the same bones. It’s how you dress it up that’s different. Gnus aren’t after the dressings, as I understand it, but are trying to get to and dismantle the skeleton or framework of religious faith. The most gnus need to do is to keep explaining this and, though perhaps a waste of time, this doesn’t strike me as a significant harm.

    *I know that theology attmepts to give good grounds for something like this, and I’m no theologian, but I’m not sure how convincing we should find an “internal review” of holy books and their meanings.

    • AR
      Posted May 7, 2011 at 6:33 am | Permalink

      Hm. Thought those were two problems. Now don’t think they are / can’t think why I thought they were. Oooops.

    • Graham Martin-Royle
      Posted May 7, 2011 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      Well put, I agree & have nothing more to add.

  11. Dan McLeran
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    I think it is a little harmful to treat all religions as equally harmful. First off, it isn’t true. Islam is far more harmful in this day and age than most Christian sects. But, attacking irrationality wherever it rears its ugly head is a noble goal I think. Also, it becomes difficult to criticize Islam while leaving everyone else alone. I think criticizing bad ideas wherever they appear is the best way to go.

    • Jeff Engel
      Posted May 7, 2011 at 8:41 am | Permalink

      I don’t know that there has been much or any treatment of all religions as _equally_ harmful.

      They’re all harmful in that they reject rational, empirically-based thought in favor of supernatural “ways of knowing”. They’re all harmful for leaving that unquestioned with regard to all the other faiths.

      But different religions, sects, cults, wings, etc., will be differently harmful, if at all, depending on those irrational beliefs, and how willing they are favor them over common human values.

      I haven’t seen much if any Gnu blindness to that – we certainly haven’t blamed every single religion for, e.g., female genital mutilation, discouraging reasonable AIDS prevention in Africa, or rioting over cartoons or a book burned.

      • Posted May 7, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

        I don’t know that there has been much or any treatment of all religions as _equally_ harmful.

        All cancers are bad. But, if I have to have cancer, I’d much rather have a small polyp detected and removed as part of a routine decennial colonoscopy than metastatic pancreatic cancer.

        I’d really rather not have any polyps, either.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted May 7, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

          MORE INTESTINE FETISH!

        • Diane G.
          Posted May 7, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

          LOL!

          And don’t expect us to fondle your polyps…

        • ritebrother
          Posted May 10, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink

          Can I have your polyp? I need to increase my patient sample size, and don’t feel like dealing with the IRB.

  12. Filippo
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    Strikes me that it goes back to considering whether one couches his opinions in dulcet or sharp tone of voice. I surely revel in Hitchens’s and Dawkins’s occasional barbed locutions. I think there’s much merit in Philip Kitcher’s and A.C. Grayling’s moderate (or so it seems) tones.

    Seems the (not necessarily reasonable)optimum position is to to speak as pleasantly as an opponent will allow – to meet him more than halfway in that regard – and, if the opponent doesn’t so allow, then one has done his best to be civil, and off with the gloves and have at it with the least amount of rhetorical deadly force necessary. (No name-calling unless one gets called a name first?)

    The benignity of any member of any allegedly “benign” religious group is to be questioned if s/he opines that any non-theist should simply be quiet.

  13. Riptide
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    The only time religion breeds any kind of solidarity is among the churched when an atheist dares to critique religion. Then they have a common enemy, and close ranks to avoid destruction; otherwise the only solidarity to be found from the religious is the same kind of mendacious tribalism that any other brand or organization can provide just as easily. Pepsi or Coke? Ford or Chevy? Jesus or Ganesh? Rugby or football (the one you actually play with your foot, not the ‘padded rugby’ you Yanks have)?

    Thus the only harm in atheists criticising the “good faiths” along with the “bad” is that it gives the “good faiths” a decent excuse to come to the same defense of their faithful brethren that they’d have come to in any case, for at its core any religion knows that when the foundations of faith have been gutted, no faith is secure.

    Indeed this might even have a moderating effect on religion itself; has Pope Ratzi tried any inflammatory comments with respect to Islam lately, for example? Perhaps by us mounting a general assault and driving the religious together, we can help mend the divisive nature of disparate faiths? But perhaps that’s being too optimistic…

    • Sastra
      Posted May 7, 2011 at 9:02 am | Permalink

      Perhaps by us mounting a general assault and driving the religious together, we can help mend the divisive nature of disparate faiths?

      In the religious debate rooms on IRC, we used to say that the easiest way to bring together all faiths in ecumenical harmony was to bring in the atheists. Suddenly, Catholics and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Born Again Christians and Wiccans, were all singing kumbaya with the refrain of “Hey! Hey! At least we aren’t atheists!”

      “Let’s all get together and attack the Jews/blacks/atheists/minority of choice” is a tried and true method of reaching out in brotherhood, and it’s not particularly ‘optimistic’ to think it might work. It’s only optimistic maybe to think that if it works, then it’s better in the long run for the minority, too. Maybe.

  14. Hempenstein
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    Hilarious opening line!

    And re. Methodists being almost completely benign, WC Fields would’ve been happy to take you up on that one.

    Meanwhile, all this solidarity that religions promote – they of course can’t even keep themselves together, as much history attests. And also recent history – most recently at least here in Pittsburgh, the Episcopalians and Anglicans have had a schism and now there are fights over property rights, fueled, per someone I know who is sadly invested in this nonsense, by the bishop’s ego.

  15. 386sx
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    Still, I’d be interested in readers’ answers to this question: to what extent has Gnu Atheism hurt itself by conflating all faiths, including the “benign ones”, as being harmful?

    Each one thinks of itself as the benign one. So I would say, if you made an exception for just the benign ones, then the other ones would get mad because they were left out of the “benign” category. Religion, being the scapegoater that it is, would take it out on the “benigners”. All hell would break loose.

    • AR
      Posted May 7, 2011 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      “Each one thinks of itself as the benign one.”

      QFT. Great point.

      • Sastra
        Posted May 7, 2011 at 11:29 am | Permalink

        Yes. They also all tend to think of themselves as “moderates” — the reasonable middle between two unreasonable extremes.

        Even raging terrorist cults probably shake their heads over the extremists who want to mount the skulls of all the infidels on spikes, instead of exercising a godly and temperate restraint by just sticking maybe one decapitated heretic up by the entrance or something.

  16. Posted May 7, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    In his missive, Hitchens equated religion with the actions and proclamations of bullies, tyrants and “nuclear-armed mullahs,” all of whom promote “sinister nonsense” and carry out unspeakable crimes while claiming that God is on their side. Hitchens has done this many times before. There is nothing new in these claims and neither do they have any merit. He is not attacking religion but extremism carried out in religion’s name, often as a cover for political and ideological radicalism.

    Excuse me, but — last time I checked — the Fall, the Flood, and the Plagues were all essential elements of all Abrahamic religions. They’re among the first stories told to young children, and I can’t even begin to imagine how many sermons have been preached on them.

    Any parent who behaved as God did towards Adam and Eve would be serving a long prison sentence for child abuse, reckless endangerment, and anything else the prosecutor could find (and that list would be a long one). The prisoner would then himself be at serious risk for abuse at the hands of the prison population.

    The Plagues are a textbook example of biochemical terrorism. If modern-day “freedom fighters” were to wage such a campaign against even our most hated enemies, even North Korea, the United States would be joined by all the other nation-states in the world in hunting down the terrorists and exterminating them.

    And the Flood! Global annihilation! “Universal terminal waterboarding” doesn’t even do it justice as a euphoniumism.

    So, Rabbi Yoffie, care to explain why a fictional character who did all of that, who commanded the rape of Midian, who orchestrated the Job incident, who demanded child sacrifices in his name, who sent bears to sacrifice children to himself, and on and on and on and on…why shouldn’t such a character be equated with bullies, tyrants, nuclear-armed mullahs — and even people who drown kittens?

    The thing that amazes me the most is that the Abrahamic religions claim to be worshipping a love god. Believe me, love gods are nothing like the primary god of the Bible. And how anybody could make that mistrake in the first place I find simply incomprehensible.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Sastra
      Posted May 7, 2011 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      That’s a very good point. It’s hard to argue that the “extremism” of the Bible itself is completely divorced from Biblical religions. The blithe idea that everyone of good faith will of course recognize that it’s metaphor and the Bible doesn’t say or advocate what it all too plainly does relies on the possession of a faith which passeth all understanding — not faith in God, but in humanity. Left to itself, fruit usually doesn’t fall all that far from the tree.

      • Posted May 7, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

        I’ll even grant them that it’s all a metaphor or an allegory or whatever.

        What, exactly, is the message being advocated? That it’s good to leave poison in easy reach of children and to evict them if they eat it? That biochemical terrorism is a good and effective method for achieving political reform? That sterilizing the face of the planet from time to time isn’t such a bad idea?

        Remember, these aren’t cautionary tales. And it’s not just the heroes going off the reservation, either. It’s the Head Honcho Hisself doing the dirty deeds.

        What’s the moral of a story where the universal pinnacle of wisdom and the ultimate source of all moral authority powers the annihilation of twenty towns at the hands of a ruthless warlord, and then commands the warlord to burn his daughter at the stake by way of payment?

        Cheers,

        b&

        • swences
          Posted May 7, 2011 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

          I agree.
          When it is pointed out that there are some rather horrid tales found in the Old Testament, they are often waved away with the empty statement, “well, those are just meant as metaphors”.
          But, even if those are only metaphors, they are still some rather horrid metaphors, with the most brutish and primitive types of morality imaginable being conveyed through them….makes you think that perhaps some of these tales were written by some sort of primitive stone age tribe…

  17. Posted May 7, 2011 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    To what extent has Gnu Atheism hurt itself by conflating all faiths, including the “benign ones”, as being harmful?

    The short answer is “none”.

    The long answer is that the whole “hurting your cause” argument is a classic example of the Briar Patch Gambit. A more honest formulation would be, “I hate you mentioning all the bad things about my religion; please make it easier for me to ignore you”.

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 7, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      Nicely put.

  18. Steve Carballeira
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    “to what extent has Gnu Atheism hurt itself by conflating all faiths, including the “benign ones”, as being harmful?”

    Not at all. It is all about the fact that religions base their systems on nonsense. Benign or heinous, the bottom line is bunk. So criticism of all of the different faces of hogwash is not only the right way, but the only way to start to deconstruct religion.

  19. Sastra
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Still, I’d be interested in readers’ answers to this question: to what extent has Gnu Atheism hurt itself by conflating all faiths, including the “benign ones”, as being harmful?

    I don’t think gnu atheism has hurt itself in any significant way, because gnu atheism has specifically taken on itself the task of being honest enough to criticize the underlying problem of religious “extremism:” the nature of religion itself.

    Religion, which is defined by its supernatural beliefs (and not by its morality or communal spirit), is analogous to pseudoscience. It may even be a form of pseudoscience itself, in that its explanations are ultimately based on evidence and experience and would, in theory, be open to objective/inter-subjective confirmation.

    So, whenever anyone talks about the ‘benign’ or ‘dangerous’ forms of religion, try a little experiment and substitute the term “pseudoscience” for “religion.” Then see if it makes sense — from the standpoint of an appreciation of the problem and consistency — to argue that skeptics, rationalists, and scientists need to stay away from popular, pervasive, deeply-entrenched forms of pseudoscience, and just go after the stuff that’s harmful.

    So what is harmless? Homeopathy? Astrology? Pet psychics? What is deeply disturbing and needs correction? Chelation therapy and ear candling? Psychics who talk to the dead? Where the hell is the line — the obviously false, or just actual physical harm? What is the test for pseudoscience which goes “too far,” so that it’s no longer okay?

    As one of the commenters on this website once said (I forget who), “once you’re on the crazy train it doesn’t matter how far off the tracks you go.” There are no reasonable checks.

    I think it’s easier to see with this example that the problem can’t just be attacking forms of pseudoscience one by one by some arbitrary method of cherry-picking. The problem is that the way of thinking is mixed up. It’s dishonest, and sloppy, and wrong. Anything is valid if it’s a “faith” belief. Everything is science in pseudoscience. We can use “just a little of that” bad science with no problem to good science, as long as it’s general enough to have incorporated some common sense in it?

    No. Somebody needs to say how and why it is not “okay” to believe in bullshit as long as it’s nice bullshit. We can’t all be nice.

    It is not always better to be nice than right.

  20. Posted May 7, 2011 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    To no extent.
    What would be the point for a doctor to fight illness while allowing the patient to drink dirty water?

    BTW “The purpose of all major religions is to cultivate and strengthen this tendency and to develop it into compassionate concern” I doubt his god agrees, not the one whose first commandment is “Adore me.”

  21. Posted May 7, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne asks:
    to what extent has Gnu Atheism hurt itself by conflating all faiths, including the “benign ones”, as being harmful?

    Sam Harris does mention Unitarian Universalism as an example of a religious faith that is more benign than its more literal customs. In an interview with “UU World” magazine (denominational periodical), he says the following:

    Does Harris’s criticism extend to Unitarian Universalism? Since he doesn’t mention our denomination in his book, I called him to find out. His initial response was comforting. “If I could wave a magic wand and make everyone a Unitarian Universalist,” he began, “I’d be tempted to do so, because I doubt that people would then fly planes into buildings, blow up children at street corners, or bend U.S. foreign policy to conform with biblical prophecy.”
    http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/5817.shtml

    But he then goes on to say:

    “Insofar as you’re reluctant to criticize irrationality and sectarianism,” he adds, “you’re not offering what wisdom and rationality you could offer. No one is winning any points for holding their tongue, and to the extent that you are reluctant to offer a religious counterpoint, you are conceding the field to the dogmatists. Your position is that all religious traditions can be seen in a universalist light, that we should emphasize the common virtues of peace and justice and fair play. But there is a limit to that kind of discourse because there are beliefs that lead people to blow themselves up in public and those that don’t, and that distinction is becoming extraordinarily relevant.”

    The good and bad things that Harris points out about Unitarian Universalism could probably be said about other benign religious traditions — United Church of Christ (aka Congregationalism), Quakers, and Ethical Culture.

    • Sastra
      Posted May 7, 2011 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      One of the ‘bad things’ I’ve noticed about very liberal faiths such as UU and Quaker is a tendency towards advocacy of, and tolerance for, pseudoscience and sloppy thinking. Alternative medicine, ghosts, space aliens, vitalism, psychic powers, reincarnation, angels, etc. etc. — and nobody is supposed to criticize anything. It’s all “possible.” We need to be “open minded.” Science doesn’t know everything. There are no coincidences. Everything happens for a reason. Look for signs. Think with your heart. Follow spirit and find what you’re meant to do.

      And above all, don’t tell anyone else their poorly-evidenced, implausible, unscientific, irrational belief is “wrong” and shouldn’t be trusted.

      Freaking recipe for disaster. No, they’re not flying planes into buildings: they’re walking into walls.

      • Jeanine
        Posted May 7, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

        Alas, I was one of these types when I was younger. I truly wanted to believe that there was some type of insurance against being permanently separated from our loved ones. I was new-agey in the sense that I did a LOT of reading in the genre. However, I was always a science nerd – and my respect for science (luckily, I was able to distinguish real science from pseudo-science) ended up tipping the scales to agnosticism. Then ‘End of Faith’ slam dunked the scale deep into atheist territory, where I remain. I do agree that this type of “one size fits all” accommodationism does nothing positive for our society. We need to insist that logic and reason be the foundation on which we build our future.
        I do not care if people have a personal spiritualism – even though I do not believe in any form of supernaturlism – I do not feel that someone who follows Buddhism has as much of a negative effect on our society as say..a southern Baptist or a Catholic. I think we have to separate political faiths from personal faiths and address them accordingly.

  22. Posted May 7, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, if you were to mention somewhere up at the top that Yoffie’s piece was specifically about Hitchens’s recent letter to the AAC, it might reduce the number of readers who (like me) read “His view of religion was naive” and thought “Was? Oh ****, has he died?”.

    (Replacing “was” with “is” would also do the job.)

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted May 7, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      Replacement made–thanks!

  23. Diane G.
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    to what extent has Gnu Atheism hurt itself by conflating all faiths, including the “benign ones”, as being harmful?

    None. “There is nothing new in these claims and neither do they have any merit.”
    –Rabbi Yoffie

  24. articulett
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    To what extent has Gnu Atheism hurt itself by conflating all faiths, including the “benign ones”, as being harmful?

    The message of this gnu atheist isn’t that all religions are harmful– it’s that all faith-based beliefs are untrue– they are as wrong, ridiculous, and potentially harmful as believers think other myths, cults, and conflicting faiths are. Christians are as wrong and can cause as much harm as Scientologists and Muslims. It’s religion that elevates faith (credulity) into a salvation worthy virtue. It’s faith that encourages people to claim access to divine truths and imagine themselves following a “higher law” while causing the suffering of others.

    Religion is responsible for the meme that we can suffer forever or live “happily ever after” so long as we are faithful to the right faith and follow the purported directives of the right invisible guy. There is nothing in the secular world that can motivate others like that illusion– and often the consequences are horrific even as the harm doers imagine they are doing good. Is there anything you couldn’t get a believer to do by convincing him that his ETERNITY (or the ETERNITY of his loved ones) depended on it?

    Believers are forced to fight straw men or imagine us as strident in order to keep the faith. I don’t think all faiths are equally harmful– but I do think they are all equally untrue. Moreover, they all support this idea of divine truths that can be know by immeasurable means. They also all give lip service to the idea that faith is a virtue. And they all respect the idea that a divine being communicates with mortals. As such, to me they are all responsible when harm results from people confusing the voices in their head or the confirmation bias of their culture as communications from god.

    When children die because their parents prayed rather than seek medical care, I think all faiths are partially to blame for propping up the notion that faith is a virtue. When Andrea Yates killed her children to ensure that they’d live happily ever after in heaven (and never risk going to hell by growing up to be gay, atheist, or some other hell worthy adult)– I blame all those who teach the same beliefs she had: the idea children who die are guaranteed to be saved while those who live to adulthood risk eternal damnation.

    From my observations, people who claim that the gnu atheists are saying “all religion is bad” are going out of their way not to hear us say, “there is no more reason for us to believe your supernatural claims than there is for us to believe the supernatural claims you reject.”

    I don’t trust theists to know whether gnu atheists are hurting some cause. After all, they have a vested interest in keeping the faith that atheists dismiss. If the cause is to win people to the side of reason, then the evidence shows that the gnu atheists are more successful than any of their predecessors and critics have been.

  25. colluvial
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    “to what extent has Gnu Atheism hurt itself by conflating all faiths, including the “benign ones”, as being harmful?”

    I think Gnus are right to hold to the position that any degree of being deluded and deluding one’s children is not healthy. To differentiate between harmful and benign religions would be like differentiating between harmful and benign rapists.

  26. Ilya
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to hear Jerry’s (and others) response to the following. Do you really think that all faiths are harmful? I don’t consider myself an atheist because I believe in God but I don’t think that any claims in the Bible regarding the physical world should be taken on faith only – no, when they contradict physical laws and evidence, they’re patently false. However, I do not think that faith is inherently harmful. Yes, it does not represent “a way of knowing” an objective truth in the same way as scientific method does. And obviously if you have diabetes and you believe that you should just pray and you’ll be healed instead of taking insulin, well, then you’re a deluded idiot. But there’re some things that people do take on faith. Usually you take on faith that your loved one loves you back instead of setting up double-blind experiments and collecting scientific evidence. So I don’t accept that all faith in God is inherently harmful and do not think it interferes with my ability to do good science. What is your position, Jerry, as a GNU?

    • Posted May 7, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      You’re equivocating between between two different meanings of the word “faith”. The word can refer to belief unsupported by evidence, but it can also mean trust built up by evidence. For example, the phrase “I have faith in you” doesn’t mean “I’m going to trust you for no particular reason”; it implies that the speaker is inducing trustworthiness from past observations.

      Determining whether or not someone loves you is an evidence based process. It may not be rigorously scientific, but it is ultimately based on observational evidence. If such evidence is dispensed with, it leads to tragic cases, like stalkers who “just know” that their target loves them.

      As for all faiths being harmful, no they’re not. However the very notion of “faith” (in the first sense of the word) is dangerous. Belief in a particular nonsense may not be harmful, but a susceptibility to belief in nonsense can lead to belief in dangerous nonsense.

      • Ilya
        Posted May 7, 2011 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

        Obviously I agree that a propensity to dispense with evidence and believe in nonsense is harmful. However, we all take some things on faith. Should science (hypothetically) prove that, say, white and black people have different intelligence, surely you would still *believe* they ought to be treated equally? Just goes to show that not all belief is belief in nonsense and some ideas deserve to be believed in even without 5-sigma scientific evidence.

        • Posted May 8, 2011 at 3:35 am | Permalink

          You’re assuming that if a particular group is inferior, then the logical position is that they ought to be treated in an inferior manner. Why is this the case?

          • Ilya
            Posted May 8, 2011 at 8:40 am | Permalink

            ‘inferior’ is your word – it’s not in my post. My point is you can’t disparage all beliefs because they’re unscientific. People have strong beliefs and will continue to take things on faith and I can’t see anything harmful in that. Now when it impedes with their ability to rationally interact with the world, then a belief becomes an irrational prejudice or delusion.

            • articulett
              Posted May 8, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

              If you believe that immaterial beings exist– and that such beings have no measurable qualities that distinguish them from non-existent entities, myths, or illusions/delusions…then you are being irrational according to my definition of the word.

              I think real things should be distinguishable imaginary things– I don’t know any gods that are. I think your belief in god impedes your ability to have a rational discussion on this subject even if you don’t think it does. I also think that it makes you prejudice against those who don’t defer to your beliefs. You will find a reason to take issue with their tone or things you imagine them to be saying– rather than hearing what is actually said.

              I’m sure Tom Cruise thinks that he’s perfectly rational and that Scientology has done nothing but help him and that skeptics are prejudice anti- Scientology– I’m sure he thinks he’s perfectly scientific too. I think all believers in the supernatural are making the same sort of errors he is making.

        • articulett
          Posted May 8, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

          Why would you confuse belief about social programs with belief about whether certain invisible/divine beings exist?

          Has your faith really made you that muddled on your thinking that you confuse the two? Is your brain working that hard to produce a tangent so that you can feel like your faith is doing you some good? This isn’t a thread about peoples social opinions or how we might utilize I.Q. data. Any evolutionary biologist will tell you that there really isn’t such thing as “races” anyhow. We all come from the same people and appearance may or may not be indicative of your closest relatives.

          You do understand the difference between a fact like “Venus exists” and an opinion “Random acts of kindness are good”… right?

          You can make the latter scientific by finding ways to measure “good” (happiness, health, etc.) but you can’t make god belief scientific unless you can define what you mean by god and show that it exists. “God exists” is an unsupported fact based claim that you believe.

          I suspect you are attempting to convince yourself that it’s GOOD to believe “god exists” with your tangents and straw men assertions about what others are saying. But you’d need a measurable definition of good for that to work… so you are trying to convince yourself that you’d make more humane choices somehow because of this belief as opposed to all the atheists here. I don’t think you would. And I don’t think your belief in god makes you more moral or kinder either. It just makes you bent on fuzzing up the issue and defining non-believers through with straw men.

          (This could be why Jerry and others are ignoring your posts… it’s a very common thing that believers and apologists who post here do.)

          • articulett
            Posted May 8, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

            Ugh… please excuse all my errors… I am in desperate need of an “edit” button here.

    • articulett
      Posted May 7, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      Do you think all demon belief is harmful?

      I’d say that all demon belief has the potential to cause harm, and it’s all untrue– demon belief is not something that I want to see flourish or be respected. It’s like curses and rain dances and other superstitions in my mind– though I wouldn’t call all such beliefs harmful nor would I say they were equally harmful when they do lead to harm. They just aren’t scientific. I feel the same way about gods and all purported divine beings and supernatural beliefs.

      I suspect most gnu atheists feel similarly towards your supernatural beliefs as you feel toward the supernatural beliefs you don’t share. I don’t want to be a part of encouraging or showing deference to such beliefs– whether I find them harmful or not. I think it leads to problems when people imagine themselves special or saved or moral because of what they believe. I think these are the sorts of beliefs people should be encouraged to keep to themselves– especially if criticism of such beliefs makes them defensive.

      Instead of worrying about other peoples opinions of your beliefs, shouldn’t you be more interested in whether they are true? Why should others have to know or care about your supernatural beliefs? How would you answer your own question if the person was asking about their tendency to give some credence to astrology?

      I think it’s weird when people use science or scientists to try and convince themselves that their beliefs are rational or good or worthwhile or true. It puts the non-believer in a weird position of having to hurt the feelings of the believer or inadvertently give their support to such notions by remaining silent or obfuscating or accommodating something that they find wrong.

      • Ilya
        Posted May 7, 2011 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

        I agree that there are all sorts of beliefs which while not being directly harmful may still be detrimental because of the way they make individual holding them sanctimonious or dismissive of other people’s opinions. What I’m driving at is another point. It’s this purist position that basically all belief is not scientific and hence we’re not going to countenance it – since we’ve evolved reason and developed scientific method, we better use it. I just think it’s unrealistic to go about your life subjecting every decision and every opinion to rigorous scientific evaluation. No one actually does it. Sometimes it is simply impossible. That’s why I think that some beliefs unsupported by scientific evidence can still be in agreement with science and provide some comfort to person holding them. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

        Though I definitely understand that from the point of view of fighting religious influence it’s better to stake out an uncompromising position that all unsubstantiated belief is inherently bad rather than a more nuanced one laid out above.

        • articulett
          Posted May 8, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think anyone is staking out “uncompromising position that all unsubstantiated belief is inherently bad.” I think believers like you need to imagine that we are saying this so you can keep believing in your version of god. You are afraid to examine whether you are fooling yourself in the same manner you think myth believers of yore were– so, instead, you pretend we are saying something we are not and then you comfort yourself by knocking down that straw man.

          I also do not think you gave a more nuanced version– you just muddled things up so you can imagine that we are saying your faith is bad rather than untrue. You are confusing faith and trust. You are confusing the belief that certain invisible beings exist with feelings and human constructs. This isn’t “nuanced” thinking– it’s the sort of muddled thinking all believers in the supernatural do to convince themselves that their beliefs are rational– even those who believe in supernatural things you don’t believe in!

          Of course it’s unrealistic to go about your life subjecting every decision and every opinion to rigorous scientific evaluation– it’s a straw man if you think anyone was suggesting otherwise. But that doesn’t mean that it makes sense or that it’s good or right to believe in gods, demons, souls, fairies and/or any other invisible divine beings or things people can imagine. Believing in such things makes people prone to manipulation by those who can convince them they know about such things.

          We now understand why people make up such beings– and why they are all likely to be products of the human brain– not real beings. Are those who understand this supposed to pretend that they don’t? Why? Are they supposed to say, “well the emperor COULD be wearing magical robes that only the chosen can see” since they can’t prove otherwise? Isn’t it enough to point out that there is no scientific reason for believing in immaterial clothing or immaterial beings? Some of us see that there are harms that can and have come from such beliefs –even if most brands are “benign”. We want no part of enabling them. I don’t want the responsibility of walking on eggshells to protect peoples magical beliefs either. I shouldn’t have to care what people believe any more than they care what I believe.

          You are free to believe and coddle belief to your hearts content, of course. But your straw men don’t make you beliefs true. If you need to put others down to keep feeling good about your beliefs, then maybe you ought to examine your beliefs a bit closer. We are not saying what you are imagining we are saying. We just find the invisible beings you do believe in as unlikely as the invisible beings you don’t believe in– probably for the same reasons.

          Apparently, this bothers you and so your brain is bent on hearing us say something that you can get angry at or imagine yourself superior to–
          (I did the same when I was a believer.)

          Your belief in some brands of invisible beings might be completely benign… just like the rain dancers belief in their rain dances… but it doesn’t make it true and it doesn’t make it scientific.

          Even if you don’t think it affects your thinking to believe, I’d suggest the fact that you are arguing straw men indicates otherwise. Why not discuss what is actually said instead of the undertones you imagine?

          Do you take issue with the actual words of anyone here as opposed to what you imagine people are saying?

    • Posted May 8, 2011 at 5:52 am | Permalink

      Greta Christina wrote an essay about the differences between secular and religious faith a few years ago:

      http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2008/05/what-would-conv.html

      The difference between secular and religious faith is that secular faith has some evidence backing it up.

    • articulett
      Posted May 8, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

      Why shouldn’t a person who believes that god can do anything pray for a healing instead of getting medical treatment? Isn’t their lack of medical treatment proof of their faith? How else do you prove to god that you really have faith except by doing things that you’d never do unless you had faith? What if you believe your salvation depends upon proving your faith– then the most important thing in life is proving it, right? That’s more important than life itself. What about the Jehovahs witness who believes they won’t be saved if they have a blood transfusion based on their interpretation of a bible passage? How do you tell a true faith from a false one? A good one from a bad one? If a JW parent believes that their child will live happily ever after after death if they refuse a blood transfusion, can you prove them wrong? It’s a benign belief so long as their kid never needs a blood transfusion, right?

      I think that everyone thinks their faith is harmless, don’t they? Every believer in the supernatural believes that their beliefs are good and true and perhaps a potential path towards nirvana or paradise or “happily ever after”. Would you trust a believer in Islam or Scientology to accurately be able to assess the potential harm from their supernatural beliefs? How about a believer in demon possession? Would you expect a believer in such to see themselves as rational? Would you see them as rational?

      Why should an atheist feel differently about your supernatural beliefs than you feel about the above? We can all agree that those beliefs aren’t all bad. In fact, I bet you have the same sorts of opinions regarding those beliefs as the new atheists have.

      But would an honest scientist want to endorse or defer to such beliefs? (And wouldn’t you suspect that all believers in such things would or could come up with the kind of tangents you use to defend their beliefs against those skeptical of their faith?)

      You come across as not really wanting an answer to your question… instead you seem to be seeking to confirm your biases about gnu atheists so that you don’t have to look at your supernatural beliefs the way you’d look at others.

  27. Michael Fisher
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    Ilya did you trouble to read the 68 comments that are timestamped earlier than your question ?

    There’s a handful that answer your question ~ I guess they must have known (in some sense) that you were coming 🙂

    • Ilya
      Posted May 7, 2011 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps I have conflated two meanings of the word “faiths” in Jerry’s question. I understood it in its broadest sense including all kinds of beliefs whereas Jerry meant it perhaps in narrower sense of organized religions.
      I haven’t read all the 68 comments before mine but you’re more than welcome to express your opinion in reply to this post and I’ll make sure to read it 😉

  28. Joshua
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    Prof. Coyne,

    I know you said that you wouldn’t completely “recount the list of religions whose adherents practice nefarious, faith-based behavior,” but since you gave a partial list anyways, I just wanted to point out (since the post was about a rabbi) that certain types of Judaism are at least as nefarious as some of the religions you do recount. For example, I was raised in a particularly disgusting brand of Hasidic Orthodox Judaism whose “malfeasances” include many of those you listed, particularly: repression of women, sexual fear and loathing, refusal to sanction condoms and birth control, instilling guilt and terror in the young (this, along with sexual repression is what damaged me the most), opposition to gays and lesbians, as well as stem-cell research, and many more. I’d also add that they are young earth creationists who raise their children to have a great disdain for science, in addition to the general disdain of anyone or anything non-Jewish.

    • Josh
      Posted May 7, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

      (Oops, I think my comment went to moderation because I entered my name as Joshua instead of Josh. I have indeed commented here before.)

  29. Neil
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    I have often been told that Judaism is not as “nutty” as Christianity.

    For anyone who believes that, I’ve got some bad gnus.

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 8, 2011 at 1:04 am | Permalink

      🙂

      Yes, but…at least, for whatever reason, the hardcore Jews are seldom in our faces about it the way Xtians & Muslims are.

    • AR
      Posted May 8, 2011 at 5:56 am | Permalink

      “… I’ve got some bad gnus.”

      Oh dear. Granted, I’m as high as a kite on cold meds right now, but that’s the funniest thing I’ve read/heard in a long time. Puns are punny.

  30. Nathan
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    If anything, it is the modern incarnation of Christianity that is distorted. Not fundamentalist Christianity.

  31. madamX
    Posted May 7, 2011 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    Conflating the ridiculous with the good is exactly what religions do, and that is always far from benign.

  32. Posted May 8, 2011 at 12:29 am | Permalink

    The gnu atheists are only growing stronger. By coming to agreement on almost all of the drawbacks of religion. It is obvious in this rabbis message that he like the christians and the muslims are attempting to hi-jack morality. This only makes us stand in solidarity against this travesty.

  33. Posted May 8, 2011 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    Larry Moran says

    “the key question is not whether all religions are harmful, it’s whether supernatural beings exist.”

    That is a very simplistic assessment.

    There are people commenting that “think” they know what point Larry Moran is making. Maybe Moran should post, on Sandwalk, an explanation of his position.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted May 8, 2011 at 5:13 am | Permalink

      Yes, I’d encourage that, too!

      • articulett
        Posted May 8, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

        I think piece by Sam Harris captures what Larry Moran is saying:

        The point is not that all religious people are bad; it is not that all bad things are done in the name of religion; and it is not that scientists are never bad, or wrong, or self-deceived. The point is this: intellectual honesty is better (more enlightened, more useful, less dangerous, more in touch with reality, etc. ) than dogmatism. The degree to which science is committed to the former, and religion to the latter remains one of the most salient and appalling disparities to be found in human discourse.

        http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/beyond-belief-the-debate-continues/

        • Michael X
          Posted May 9, 2011 at 12:22 am | Permalink

          Winner. Good on Harris for stating it, and good on you for repeating it.

  34. Sili
    Posted May 8, 2011 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    I wish Eric MacDonald would stick to Anglicans, Catholics, and other Christians, and leave the rabbis to me.

    So you’re telling him to shut up?

    😉

  35. Kevin
    Posted May 8, 2011 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    “As a religious person, I believe that human beings have a tendency toward solidarity — and indeed, that it is divinely implanted.”

    Really, Mr. Yoffie? Then why are the Jews the “chosen people” of your god? Deserving of special favors, special treatment all the way down the line to a homeland taken from an already implanted populace? … Oh, and I’m not even talking about modern Israel. Why would Joshua have to fight the battle of Jericho if his god had wanted the Jews to have that land? Why not leave it unpopulated until they got there?

    The entire religion is built on exceptionalism. “We’re special and you’re not.”

    You can’t be a Jew and make Yoffie’s statement. It’s hypocrisy per se.

  36. Vaal
    Posted May 8, 2011 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    So…Yoffie is telling us that God divinely planted within humans a tendency for human solidarity…but that it is no more than a tendency and “a weak one at that.”

    Well done God. Well done.

    Message to the Almighty: You might want to re-think your recipe. Next time try notching up the “solidarity” a little stronger. In case your omniscience went on the blink for a while: people have been suffering and dying in countless numbers from human conflict, and continue to do so.

    Seems to be rather poor planning on God’s part.

    Oh, wait, I’ve learned from people like William L. Craig that our creator, God, is the Greatest Conceivable Being. How silly of me to think I could imagine a better world. There, that fixes things…back to my meagre, grovelling, human humility…

    Vaal.


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