Month: September 2015

Why I Am an Anti-Theist (and Why You Should Be Too)

I was an anti-theist before I had ever heard the term. Hell, I was an anti-theist before I even knew I was an atheist. As far back as I can remember, organized religion has struck me as an end unto itself, dissociated from whatever personal connections its adherents may feel towards their god and concerned instead with its own goals of self-preservation and self-perpetuation. Now, these many years later – years of life experience, watching the world in action, and reading lots and lots of history – this is no longer a gut impression but, it seems to me, an evidence-based worldview grounded in centuries of documented institutional religious malfeasance.

Let’s take the Catholic Church as an example. There were the Crusades, of course, which theists tend to dismiss as irrelevant due to having occurred hundreds of years ago, and which at any rate we can set aside in light of abundant, more recent examples. For the most egregious we have to look back a mere 75 years or so to World War II, when the Church was in bed with fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. From praying for the Reich from the pulpit to hiding Nazi gold to giving material aid to Nazi war criminals to help them evade justice after the war, the Church was complicit in the Holocaust even under the most charitable reading of history. (This, incidentally, is quite relevant to those who falsely claim that the Holocaust was an atheist undertaking – not only was Hitler himself a Catholic, even if he had been an atheist he did what he did with the full endorsement and backing of the Vatican.)

Then there was the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the most Catholic nation in Africa, in which 800,000 people were murdered in a mere 100 days, most by being hacked to death with machetes. Of the millions more who were injured, orphaned, and displaced, many thousands perished in the squalid conditions of refugee camps. Several members of the Church clergy have since been indicted or convicted of crimes against humanity for their roles in the genocide, including the priest who encouraged 2,000 people to take refuge in his church and then had it bulldozed with them inside.

And let us not forget the child sex abuse scandal, still unfolding after more than 20 years, that has resulted in individual dioceses paying out billions of dollars in settlements (and billions more on defense lawyers) to hundreds of thousands of victims molested and raped by priests – and that is in the United States alone. Not only did Church officials fail to protect these children, for all intents and purposes they knowingly sacrificed them in favor of protecting themselves by, among other strategies, moving perpetrators from parish to parish (to offend and re-offend); quietly paying off accusers in exchange for their silence; implementing policies making it harder to remove offenders from the priesthood; and lobbying state legislatures to block laws that would require priests to report crimes against children to secular authorities. They invested no less energy in protecting themselves financially, ensuring that every diocese was an entity unto itself and that no diocese could be held responsible for the judgments against any other diocese – and, most importantly, shielding the massive wealth of the Vatican from any claims by victims.

Any one of these things would be reprehensible for a person or institution to have committed. But the Catholic Church isn’t just any institution. It is an organization that proclaims itself to be The One True Church, led by the vicar of Christ on earth, the ultimate authority on righteous and godly behavior. It claims the right and wields the power to legislate the morality not just of its 1.4 billion followers, but of millions of non-Catholics in many parts of the world where it has the influence to ensure that secular laws adhere to Catholic doctrine. And it is corrupt and morally bankrupt to its very core.

Catholicism is by no means alone in its corruption, of course, but it does provide a compelling illustration of what plagues every other organized religion to greater or lesser degrees: The exploitation of power inherent in the possession of religious authority. If anything, religions are likely to be even more susceptible to this kind of corruption than secular institutions because of the cultural assumption that religious institutions and officials are by default imbued with integrity and entitled to respect, and that shies away from harsh questions or scrutiny.

While I tend to think that faith on its own does more harm to society than good for encouraging belief in that for which there is no evidence, I do not see faith as the enemy of civilization. Religion, on the other hand, presents a grave threat to human progress and indeed to our very survival. It is not faith but religion that builds wealthy institutions. It is not faith but religion that tells individuals to forsake their own better judgement in favor of other humans who claim to speak with god’s authority. It is not faith but religion that lobbies governments to pass or block laws; that trains billions of people how to use ancient scriptures as a pretext for claiming temporal power; and that deploys vast resources and global infrastructure to advance its own agenda.

Would the eradication of organized religion solve all of the world’s problems?  Of course not.  Would it alleviate many of them by removing barriers to freedom and cutting off avenues for indoctrination?  It’s hard to argue otherwise.  For history has time and again proven Steven Weinberg right: That in the morally normal universe, “you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

Religion Gives Comfort. So What?

If you are reading this you are likely of the atheist persuasion, and thus have most likely seen, among the 9/11 remembrances in your news feed yesterday, at least a few pointing out that religion was at the heart of the tragedy. You may have also seen some of the backlash against those comments – most often some variant of the proclamation, “How dare you criticize something that gives people comfort!”

Let me now explain why that makes no fucking sense.

First and most obviously is that something being a comfort is entirely irrelevant to whether it should be subjected to criticism. What if some people take comfort in shooting heroin? Or setting houses on fire? Or smothering kittens? And before you say I can’t make those comparisons, recall that the claim is strictly that that which gives comfort is off limits for criticism, not that which gives comfort and is also innocuous. Something giving comfort is not evidence that said something is inherently good, or entitled to deferential treatment.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that what they’re claiming is, in fact, we should not criticize that which gives comfort and is also harmless. This still does not exempt religion because of the mountains of empirical evidence which show beyond any doubt that religion is far from harmless – including the point that religion caused the 9/11 tragedy in the first place.

Third, even if we concede that many people do find comfort in their religious beliefs, why should that immunize religion from criticism? Okay, it gives comfort . . . So fucking what? Are you suggesting that the little people are too weak-minded to survive if the rest of us don’t kowtow to their precious beliefs? Or are you inadvertently admitting that the self-delusion required to maintain faith in a just and loving god in the face of a devastating tragedy like 9/11 cannot withstand pointed questions without collapsing in on itself? And if it’s the latter, is that really so terrible? Atheists know well that it is entirely possible to cope with the harsh realities of life without relying on invisible friends; indeed, for many atheists it is more comforting to understand that disasters are the result of human frailty or natural processes beyond our control without having to reconcile human suffering with an omnipotent, omnibenevolent god who could prevent suffering, but doesn’t.

Beyond its common theme that religion should be privileged above all other endeavors, perhaps the most insidious effect of “don’t criticize religion because it gives comfort” is that it enables continued religious harm. It is not in dispute that religion caused the terrible events of September 11, 2001 – but for reasons that escape me it is considered worse to acknowledge that reality than to perpetuate the conditions that inevitably result in more violence and pointless loss of life. It’s like a terrible cycle of “religion caused this tragedy – but don’t point out that religion caused this tragedy – because people need religion for comfort – which they will need when religion causes another tragedy.” If we instead were willing to look reality in the eye it might be possible for us to find solutions – but as Dr. Phil used to say, you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.

Perhaps it is time to take a more critical and realistic look at what religion actually does in society. Perhaps if we stop pretending that atrocities are not committed in its name there would be fewer atrocities, and we would not require so much of it for comfort.

A Few Words About Apologetics

I caught some flak over my last blog post, Ten Reasons Why Christianity Makes No Sense, mostly from would-be apologists claiming that my arguments were “unsophisticated” and “show how little” I know about the bible. I even had one person cite what he claimed were marriage laws from Old Testament times to show how the prohibition against coveting one’s neighbor’s wife is perfectly reasonable as one of god’s highest priorities. I’ll admit, that one made me chuckle.

To the people who claim that arguments against religion in general and Christianity in particular must be “sophisticated” to be relevant, I have this response: Thank you for proving my point. From where I sit, the mere existence of apologetics reflects the weakness of the argument for Christianity. If someone needs to be a scholar on the marriage laws of the pre-literate Middle East in order to accept why “don’t check out your neighbor’s wife’s ass” makes the short list of divine moral instructions but “don’t rape your neighbor’s daughter” doesn’t, that simply demonstrates – rather explicitly, in fact – that the proposition is absurd on its face. When your claim requires elaborate rationalization and broad interpretation to be reconciled with a pre-existing notion of a loving and just god, it’s a clue that your claim isn’t a very strong one.

bible-Sunlight

Apologists and theologians in general love to tell atheists why their interpretations of bible passages that portray their god and their religion in a poor light are incorrect. But the contradictions and ambiguity of the texts themselves, and the myriad ways of reading them, belie that there is no wrong interpretation, and no right one either. There are thousands of sects of Christianity, none of which has 100% uniformity of belief, resulting in literally millions of interpretations  of what the bible is really saying. And yet, when an atheist points out the missed opportunity of the Ten Commandments to not issue proscriptions against rape and slavery, apologists expect to be taken seriously when they say we only think that because we are too “unsophisticated” to apply a more favorable interpretation.

I don’t debate apologists for this very reason. It is an exercise in futility and a waste of time to engage in a process in which one’s opponent, by making the argument at all, has already admitted defeat.