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Being an Atheist V: The Dumb Arguments or Great You Mentioned Stalin

October 26, 2012 34 comments

Since the shift of this blog oh so many months ago I have been mostly focusing on what it was like to go from being a religious person (Catholic believer specifically) to being an atheist. I’ve also been explaining what it’s like psychologically after the shift and there has been some off topic rants, mostly of a political nature. One problem that I notice amongst the various atheists, atheist blogs, skeptic podcasts, and all else that comprises the great conspiracy is that there are a number of people just making the wrong arguments. I made mention of this before discussing the standards of evidence. The religious need one hundred percent accuracy on my part to prove them wrong when all they have on their side is the say-so of a book that is at the latest fifty years old (Dianetics) or several thousand years old (Judaism). For me to prove to these people that, say, evolution actually happens I need a live feed video of it happening, but to for them disprove the literal mountains of literature they just need one book. One of the side effects of this is that people on my side tend to get upset over what they see as the inablity of people to accept what is so obviously a confirmed theory. As a skeptic, I get this as well when I go through something non-religious like the anti-vaccination wackos or the flat-earthers. I can see a flat out refusal to accept what is rational, reasonable, and demonstrable. Not to mention that their own theory (in the case of the flat earth people) contradicts itself [it relies on the principles of physics to disprove physics]. 

So, we’re at an impasse. Can’t we just agree to disagree? Well no, it’s not that simple and believe me I wish it was. The problem is, as I see it, that these ways of life influence others. We see this with Todd Akin and Jim Inhofe in the US, they deny fundamental principles of science because the bible tells them they aren’t true. It’s a tough mountain to climb and sure, it might be fun to point out that if evolution were a lie then isn’t it a bit hypocritical to get a flu shot or to accept any of the productions of modern science given that they are the results of the same method. Yet that isn’t the focus of this argument. When a person is faced with a stone wall of flat out denial, a person can be tempted to go a bit over the top in order to prove their point. Unfortunately this isn’t the best argument to make. 

Ignoring the science for the rest of this discussion, we can turn to morality. Simultaneously the most complex yet easiest to grasp point of contention that atheists and theists argue about. The theistic argument almost universally runs like this: that religion teaches morals and society is better if it is moral than not. I know that is horribly simplifying the argument, just bear with me. The atheist counter universally runs like this: well if the religions are so moral then how come X happened under the guise of religion Y? (substitute X for whatever religion and Y for its appropriate massacre or oppression–they all have at least one) For this the theist has one of two counters: the first is to point out that those things were politically motivated and used religion as a tool to incentivize the masses. This is a bad argument because it just lobs a softball counter argument which just asks about removing that tool that so easily tricks the masses. The second is to point out that Stalin didn’t have religion and he killed more people than Hitler so, bam, atheism is worse. The second argument is bad for two reasons, first, it is contradictory to the first, so you can’t have both. Secondly, that argument only works if you are ignoring the death toll of all combined religions as opposed to just one religion. Sure, Stalin killed more people than Hitler but did he kill more people than every other religiously motivated massacre in the history of the world? Probably not, but then again I’m not trying to make that argument. I actually don’t care. 

Let me explain: sure I think it’s horrible that any system of belief can be used to kill another group of people and such systems of belief ought to go. Yet, the Stalin counter doesn’t really work because while Stalin openly persecuted Christianity he did it because he was a paranoid megalomaniac who replaced “god” with the state. It’s a problem of Marxism and its descendants in general. They are secular religions. They appeal to the same instincts and in the case of Marxism specifically even posit an apocalypse and a paradise. The only difference is that it eschews a supernatural role in it. The problem with using Stalinism to equate what, say, Christianity did as far as massacres go is that it doesn’t excuse either. So the theist that points out that Stalin killed a whole bunch of people in the name of atheism is double wrong. The second reason is that Stalin did it because the loyalty competed with the state and that was something he couldn’t have. 

That aside, none of it really matters because if you are going to argue about it stick to the point. Don’t offer historical evidence that doesn’t really apply anymore. I’m saying this and I’m the person who actually has more and more of the historical evidence. I think theist and atheist alike we can all agree that genocide is bad. We may use different adjectives to describe it but bringing it up isn’t serving anyone anything. Those examples don’t prove that religion is false, or that god doesn’t exist; they just prove that people will abuse anything to accumulate power. Do we really need a lengthy argument to prove that? 

 

One caveat though: The whole massacre argument works in exactly one situation. ONE. That lone situation is when a person says that religious people are more moral than non-religious or atheists. Then you should let the examples fly. 

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Categories: philosophy, religion

Being An Atheist IV: Clothing Absurdity

October 18, 2012 Leave a comment

In High School I had a friend that made up his own religion on the spot. He was bored one day and he began to think that if he founded his own religion he could be famous and popular (exactly like L. Ron Hubbard). It was utter bullshit of course, but we knew that. His idea was to claim that all of the world was forged, the stars were sparks from the great anvil and the like. It was based very loosely on the Haephaestus (or Vulcan from the Roman Tradition) some AD&D ideas and whatever else he made up that went along with it. As far as I can remember he never really got past the cosmogony of the religion, there was a thing about fire being sacrosanct, but there were no rules of morality, no complete mythology, or any rites or cermonies. It lasted comparatively long with respect to some of the other goofy plans we made up during our high school years, but it was just as ridiculous. The idea that the earth was created out of an anvil, being literally forged is an absurdity that invited ridicule. 

One of the strangest feelings that accompanies the shift from theism to atheism, is the sense of incredulity at what I, as a religious person, used to believe. What I mean is that we look at the stories of the various religions as true for the believers of the religions, but if someone were to tell us these stories as though they happened to them we would back away slowly while whistling. We would begin to think that they were crazy. For instance if next week I posted with the title “becoming a theist” and the entire post was about how a spirit came to me, directed me to a spot in the ground, where I dug up a book made up of solid gold pages. Whereupon the spirit gave me a crystal by which I could read the language written on the pages and now I have a new outlook on the world and am recruiting followers (which by the way you don’t get to view either the book or the crystal) no one would believe me. Yet when a convicted con man tells this story we get the state of Utah. What is it that takes an otherwise incredibly ridiculous story and makes it not only believable by a select group of people but also changes it so that other people are afraid to say anything about it out of some idea of respect? 

Something is certainly at play here because not only do people accept these stories but they also use this acceptance to shape public policy that forces others to accept their stories as well. Although the public policy part is a discussion for another post. For now let’s focus on how adding religion to a story changes in such a way that makes it believable when otherwise it would not be. An exhaustive list of the types of stories that I am talking about would fill a book (as they often do) yet I ought to at least list a couple of them so that I don’t get accused of just picking on Mormons (above is the story of Joseph Smith and the Tablets). For fun I’m going to throw in some other tales as well, we should be able to spot the difference right? 

1) A man buries his money in order to save it, but has it stolen from him when thieves follow him. Leaving him to realize that he might as well not have the money if all he was going to do was bury it. 

2) A person in desparate need is given an army of the dead in order to restore a kingdom to a lost and scattered people.

3) In order to generate the correct color horses a man takes sticks of a certain color and places them near the horses when they mate. 

4) A man facing difficulty appeals to the divine for aid (helping to get his cart out of the mud) and discovers that the divine helps those who are willing to do the work themself.

5) A young man realizes that the only way to win a war is to avoid war altogether for all the damage that it does. 

Five stories all of which will be given at the end of this post. For now some of these above examples (I did not make any of them up) sound pretty reasonable, others do not. Yet all of them are at least plausible as being religious stories, yet only two of them are. The others are from various sources, but in the end are they really that different? The two religious stories can’t be questioned, and if someone called the story bullshit or some other pejorative he would quickly back off when he found out that it was a religious belief. Which is what is deemed socially correct. That no matter how crazy a story is, as long as it is couched in religion we’re supposed to treat it respectfully no matter how crazy it sounds. If my four year old tells me that her pajamas make her bulletproof, all I do is nod my head. Yet if I’m in Utah, and someone tells me their underwear makes them bulletproof I’m not supposed to greet that claim with anything other polite respect. Same with someone who refuses to operate a light switch on a particular evening even though the same behavior from my kid makes me think she’s gone bonkers. 

What changes, how does it change? It would be almost universally understood to be child abuse if someone refused to allow a doctor to see a sick child, but when a 16 year old dies from a burst appendix for the only reason that his parents thought they could pray it away, they don’t get jail time. Somehow their idea is more believable, more understandable, somehow when it involves their deity. Take away religion and you have an obvious case of criminal neglect. Superstitious bullshit apparently mitigates the damage, even when this isn’t the first time (for the church and this family). Yet somehow it’s Atheism that’s the bad way of thinking. 

Answers:

1) This one sounds like a Jesus parable but again, we’re at Aesop. Jesus told two parables similar: one was about a king who sent out three subjects with money and one hid it in a hole. The other was about a lamp being hidden in a basket. This story is Aesop’s “the miser and the gold.” 

2) While it sounds like Aragorn’s predicament in the Return of the King, that one is from Ez 37: 1-14. God lets one of his prophets preach to the dead and they rise up to assist in the repopulation of Israel.

3) Rudyard Kipling has some strange stories regarding how elephants get their trunks and how leopards get their spots, but this isn’t one of them. This my friends is from Genesis 30: 37-39, that utterly factual book that teaches us that evolution is wrong because mating in front of sticks will get you stripes or something. 

4) This is a curious one because over 50% of Christians, and over 60% of born agains think this is in the bible but it in no way appears in it. It’s from Aesop’s Fable about Hercules and the waggoneer. The message that “the lord helps those who help themselves” actually runs counter to everything taught about grace and the will of god in the bible. 

5) Actually this is the lesson the computer gives at the end of the movie War Games (it was one when I wrote this.).

Categories: philosophy, religion

Road to Atheism Part XIX: Religions Instruction

October 9, 2012 2 comments

We’re actually getting to the point were the phrase “Road to” is becoming permanently obsolete. I’ve done a couple of entries that take place in the present and are reflections on being an actual atheist, and thoughts on religion or issues regarding religion are going to be told through the atheist lense. But we’re coming to a point where in my past the idea of being an atheist is becoming less and less an idea and more the reality of the situation. It’s rather annoying because after that point, I’m not sure what I can write about. (these are easily my more popular posts which explains why I haven’t been doing anything else, it’s nice to know that someone is reading…which isn’t to say I stopped writing I just write more on paper now). 

The first time I ever stood in front of a classroom as an instructor was back in high school. It was Junior year in High School (so 11th grade for non US, English speakers out there) and it was time for Confirmation. Now, I’ve written about the sacrament before and the more that I think about it, the more that I realize that this was definitely a turning point for me. This is the third time I’ve mentioned this age for me (the second time can be read here) so it must have been something. Perhaps the Catholics are right and this is the age you begin to choose things for yourself, although it just didn’t work out that I chose not them. So the deal was that in order to graduate from high school and receive the Sacrament of Confirmation you had to do “forced volunteerism.” This is when you serve the community in some fashion that you would normally have to be convicted of petty crime to get a judge to force you to do it. They told us that we wanted to serve the community, we as a class disagreed. They (our priestly class advisors) explained that if we wanted to move on to our senior years we would do the community service, thus we wanted to do the service. I know now that the tautology doesn’t connect. “Wanting” isn’t the same as “being forced,” and their argument would be like explaining that the bank teller really wanted to give the robber the money because she wanted to continue her life. 

What I ended up teaching were a bunch of eighth graders (or seventh) religious instruction at my local church. It was pretty lame, but for one hour a week I was in charge and they were listening or whatever. I sucked at it. I’ll admit it. I think it had to do with a combination of apathy of the subject material and apathy of the assignment, coupled with being forced to do it by ransom. The forced-volunteerism was supposed to engender in us a desire to serve our community…kind of a fake it until you make it kind of thing. The workbook I was being taught was badly worded, it talked down to the students, and it rehashed the very same stories they would ignore in their weekly church service. When Jesus does the loaves and fishes thing (Mk 6:40-42, Mat 14:19), it’s pretty self-explanatory. I mean, I don’t buy the story at all, but I get what it’s about, it doesn’t need to be dumbed down any further. This book did that, in a misguided effort to get barely teenagers into religion. I would think that elevating the level of intelligence would be a better move but we wouldn’t want them to begin thinking on their own. 

The point is that I did it, and it was done. All it taught me was that workbooks are lame, and that people can apparently resolve a self-contradicting idea like “forced-volunteerism” for pragmatic reasons. 

Many many years later….

I’ve taught at the college lever for five semesters, several summer sessions, and I’ve TA’d a bunch of times. One question that I have been asked with regard to my courses is how, as an atheist, I handled discussing two subjects: religion and abortion. These questions are almost always asked by one type of person, the type that is afraid I am teaching my students the wrong thing, i.e. not what they would teach them. The second groups is usually genuinely curious about how to teach delicate and potentially volatile subjects. The fear of the first group is that the students who take my class are going to be indoctrinated with an opinion that they wouldn’t have had if they had not taken my class. 

I’m not going to talk about the abortion issue here: it’s out of the scope of this post, and because as a subject, I think it has outgrown it’s usefulness. The way people talk about it you’d think that the abortion rate per pregnancy is something like 75%. It never becomes apparent that all of the money and energy spent in trying to outlaw abortion could be used to alleviate the conditions that lead to unwanted (in the case of elective abortion) pregnancies in the first place, such as poverty, ignorance, the insipid idea of abstinence only education. 

As far as the classes are concerned is that when people here that I used to teach at the college level, find out that I’m an atheist, assume that I am indoctrinating poor innocent kids. They fail to understand that one of the colleges that I taught at was a Catholic college and my boss was a priest. Yet I wasn’t fired. The reason I was able to keep my job was that I didn’t teach people what to think but merely how to think. Unlike say, the ironically named “Liberty University” where a person like myself would be discriminated against for not sharing their beliefs. I only required that the students read the assignments, do the test, and turn in a research paper. What people are afraid of, is that I will do to my classes what they would do in my place: indoctrinate. 

Sure, I taught philosophy of religion and in that class made my students comprehend four specific arguments which were alternative explanations for belief in the divine (because you can’t prove a negative). Although I also made them learn five arguments for the existence of god (technically that is: two of them were reformulations of the Cosmological Argument so I’m not sure how to count them). I felt that if you were going to teach one side, you might as well teach the other. It just makes good sense. I never had a complaint from a student in that regard, yet somehow, college professors and atheists like me are going to destroy American and Christianity. I’ve had complaints, but those were more of the “why did you fail me?” type. 

I think it was my job to teach both sides of the issue, unless I was a math/science teacher and then there aren’t really two sides, there’s the method. The method is correct, and thus so are conclusions based on that method. The only way to escape dogmatism and fundamentalism is to have the conversation and expose ourselves to other ideas. Rational belief actually becomes stronger when they have to face challenges, and if they fail in those challenges they aren’t rational to begin with. 

What is the problem? Is it insecurity? Is their hold on their religious belief so tenuous that the very existence of a counter opinion enough to destroy them? If so, then they are merely deluding themselves and my presentation is merely confirming a seed of doubt that they already have. I have thus, done nothing but bring into the light that which they have purposely kept in the dark. What they fear is not myself, or what they think I am teaching, but themselves. Otherwise what could possibly be wrong with what I have taught? 

Categories: philosophy, religion