Month: October 2015

Ten Things I Really Wish Atheists Would Stop Doing

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I confess: Usually when I read articles by atheists criticizing other atheists, I feel annoyed and maybe a little betrayed. “Why,” I ask myself, “are we picking on each other for atheism-ing wrong when we should be calling out public officials for governing wrong, and religious leaders for morality-ing wrong?”

Why indeed. Secularism may be the single most effective means of improving human rights around the globe, considering that oppression of women, discrimination against LGBT people, racism, limitations on women’s reproductive freedom, and many other injustices result from the injection of religious doctrine into public policy. That is why it pains me so to see those who should be comrades in arms obstructing this noble and important endeavor, and what leads me to become what I once disdained: An atheist calling for her fellows to just cut this shit out.

1. Saying faith is harmless. 

This is what evolutionary biologist and author Jerry Coyne refers to as “the little people argument:” That you are too sophisticated to have need of comforting lies, but the unwashed masses need something to hold onto. If we put aside the condescension inherent in such a pronouncement, we are still left with a statement that is demonstrably false. Religion has for centuries served as justification for oppression and atrocities and continues to do so today. “No no,” you say, “the real cause is greed / imperialism / desire for power / psychological phenomena / something-else-totally-not-related-to-religion.” This excuse fails in two ways: First, because it ignores the convenient cover (not to mention the vast resources) that religion, as an institution, provides for those who would exploit it for their own worldly ends; and second, because it discounts the sincerity of those who hurt others, intentionally or not, as a result of doing what they truly believe is ordained by god. In a world where children die because their parents pray over them instead of taking them to the doctor, the claim that faith is harmless is both empirically untrue and callously indifferent to those who have, in fact, been harmed by faith.

2. Conflating criticism of religion with hatred of religious people.

I have been told more than once by other atheists something along the lines of, “You can’t separate criticism of Religion X from criticism of followers of Religion X. Their beliefs are who they are, so if you say Religion X is bad, you are saying THEY are bad.” And woe unto him who dares speak ill of Islam, which will precipitate anguished cries of Islamophobia, racism, and accusations that you are indicting every Muslim on the face of the earth because of the actions of a radical few.

Sigh. How many times must we explain this? A religion is a set of ideas. It is an ideology. It is NOT a person. Ideas don’t have rights or feelings. Ideas cannot and should not be immune from criticism, and certainly not ideas that form the basis of governments, shape cultural norms, and otherwise directly affect the lives of billions of humans – including humans who do not share those ideas. No one gets upset when I say that I think licorice is disgusting, because they know I am not passing judgment on people who like licorice as also disgusting. Why is it, then, that when I say that I think the Bible, or the Qur’an, or the Torah are nonsense, all of a sudden it means I must thereby despise all people who follow them?

3. Hating on Richard Dawkins.

We get it. He isn’t good at Twitter. He can be condescending. He occasionally loses his patience. Maybe his writing style doesn’t set you on fire. That all leads me to the question: So the fuck what? Dawkins is an accomplished scientist and, like it or not, the path we secularists now tread has been cleared in no small part by Dawkins and others like him who have refused to remain silent: Silent about the existence and rights of non-believers, about the falsity of religious claims about the universe, about the irrationality and injustice of religious privilege. I have to wonder to what degree some criticisms are sour grapes over the success he has had as a public skeptic, and how much of it is simple accommodationism – a means for some critics to ingratiate themselves with the religious majority so as not to end up on the wrong side of their considerable power and influence (not to mention wrath). Does Dawkins occasionally step in it? Sure. Is it fair that he just rubs some people the wrong way? That’s bound to be the case with any public figure. But Dawkins-bashing has become something of a status symbol, a way for wannabe skeptical superstars to flout their intellectual bona fides like Hollywood ingénues who just happen to show up at all the right clubs. (A recent example of this phenomenon can be found here.) At any rate, Dawkins is not going anywhere and his contributions to science and the process of questioning That Which We Dare Not Question are irrefutable. Don’t like him? Great. But for the love of all that is chocolatey, STFU about it already.

4. Claiming that atheism is “dogmatic.”

A commenter on a science page said to me recently, “While I share your criticisms of Judeo-Christian explanations, [atheists hold] that any belief in the existence of a non-corporeal world undetectable in the corporeal world is an indication of intellectual shortcomings and a deflection of responsibility. This is an equally dogmatic concept.” Uh, wrong.

First, this is a generalization which simply doesn’t hold up, as is so often the case with generalizations. It’s probably true that some atheists think this, but since atheists are as diverse a group as anyone else, there is very little one can claim that “atheists” hold other than a non-belief in a god or gods. Second, even for those atheists who do think this way, this is still not dogma. Dogma is “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true” that “serves as part of the primary basis of an ideology or belief system,” according to Wikipedia. Further, I most often see claims of dogmatic atheism when atheists refuse to yield to arguments that offer either no compelling evidence or no evidence at all – but dismissing an unfalsifiable proposition for which there is precisely zero evidence is not remotely the same as dismissing a proposition because it contradicts a closely held belief. In other words, don’t cry about dogma when your opponent is simply siding with the evidence.

5. Pretending that trust in science is identical to faith in the supernatural.

This is an offense similar to item 4 in which those who hold that science is the best method for understanding the universe are accused of “worshipping science” (or even worse, of the dreaded “scientism”) as though it were an infallible deity (such as we see here). It is a silly enough accusation when it comes from theists, but truly perplexing when made by fellow atheists. To begin with, it assumes that people are hard-wired to have irrational faith in something, so if it isn’t in the supernatural, it must be an unfounded trust in the conclusions of science. Of course, anyone with even a cursory understanding of the scientific process knows that there are few, if any, absolutes in science, and that what scientists claim to know always comes with the caveat that it is based on the best available evidence. This is why people often say that science has been wrong. Well, yes and no – it drew a conclusion that turned out not to be correct, but it was still the best conclusion based on the evidence on hand at the time.

Further, as others have said, trusting something based on evidence and prior experience is not remotely comparable to believing in that for which there is no evidence. Belief in god requires faith. Belief that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that if I strike a match it will burn, or that taking penicillin will cure an infection do not.

6. Comparing secular activism to proselytizing.

How often do we hear the charge that atheists who are vocal in their animus towards religion are “no better than religious fundamentalists,” guilty of “shoving their beliefs down others’ throats?” Too often, as far as I am concerned. To clarify why this accusation is – well, stupid – let’s review a few things. First, atheism is not a belief system; there are no “fundamentals” other than not believing in a god or gods. Second, atheists rarely go on faraway missions to convert people to atheism, knock on doors to spread the good news of the Big Bang, put fliers under windshield wipers explaining why everyone should accept evolution, or shout at strangers on street corners that they are doomed for eternity if they do not become atheists. Third, atheists get no special get-out-of-jail-free passes allowing them to disregard laws and rules they dislike, unlike their believing counterparts who can opt out of countless responsibilities if they claim that their religion demands it.

Speaking out about the absurdity of religious faith – even if you’re really, really obnoxious about it – does not a “fundamentalist” make. Unless you are trying to convince the faithful to abandon their beliefs and come over to The Dark Side, whatever you’re doing is not, in fact, proselytizing.

7. Using “freethinker” and “humanist” as synonyms for “atheist.”

In an atheist forum I used to frequent, one member confided that he had been repeatedly sexually abused as a child. During a disagreement with this person another member commented, “Is the reason you’re such a dick because you had to suck so much of it as a kid?” I don’t think I have to explain how repugnant that remark is or why it is inconsistent with the concept of humanism. In another group – one that even had the word “humanist” in the name – a member referred to children as “crotch goblins” and “disgusting little monsters.” Then there are the folks who will laugh at theists in one breath and endorse homeopathy in the next.

As has so often been observed, everyone’s a “freethinker” until you get too close to their own pet bullshit. I’d wager that most humans, regardless of whether they do or do not believe in any gods, are probably not freethinkers. That territory is reserved for professional scientists and philosophers, and even then, as humans they are subject to the same biases and frailties as the rest of us, if perhaps to a significantly lesser degree. If you don’t believe in god, you’re just an atheist. These other labels may be more palatable, but they aren’t interchangeable.

8. Infighting.

We’ve all heard the analogy comparing organizing atheists to herding cats. I desperately want this not to be true, and I just as fervently believe it doesn’t have to be, but for the time being it remains, alas, an accurate metaphor. It is true that, as Sam Harris said, knowing someone is an atheist is to know almost nothing about that person. And yet, almost nothing isn’t nothing. Can we not find some way to leverage that commonality among us to some greater good? Yes, it is important to recognize the diversity of our demographic. Yes, it is important to police ourselves, to ensure that as we seek better protections for non-believers in the wider world we are not guilty of the offenses we condemn. But too often this crosses into accusations and counter-accusations: “Stop being so angry!” “You’re not angry enough!” “Stop trying to disprove god!” “Atheists need to stand up for causes unrelated to atheism!” “Stop worshipping Dawkins!” And on it goes.

The secular movement will likely remain fragmented and diverse into perpetuity. Differences of style, opinion, priority, and approach are inevitable and, as I point out below, necessary. But we must take care not to devour each other and ourselves in the process. We have a common opponent. Let’s not forget that.

9. Having tunnel vision.

In fairness, this is something that applies to people in general and is not specific to atheists, but to the degree that it holds back the secular movement it deserves some attention. Humans have a tendency not to see much farther than the end of their own nose, shrugging off or even denying problems that don’t affect them directly and assuming that what has worked for them will work for everyone. This is fair to an extent, as we can take on only so much concern and responsibility and still maintain our mental health.

That being said, cultural change does not occur by being complacent. It cannot be effected using a single, limited strategy. There is a place for calling out micro aggressions, just as there is a place for conciliation, just as there is a place for satire, just as there is a place for negotiation, just as there is a place for fighting against blatant abuses of power. If a particular strategy is not in your wheelhouse, that’s OK. If you have no strategy at all and just want to sit it out, that’s OK too. No one expects everyone to have the same skills or priorities. But it harms us all when we try to stop others from being effective in the best way they can.

10. Believing in bullshit.

I know atheists who are anti-vaxxers, 9/11 truthers, GMO-opposers, climate change deniers, chiropractor patrons, anti-choicers, second amendment fanatics, and paranormal-believers. They cling to these opinions sometimes in the absence of evidence, and in sometimes in spite of overwhelming and unimpeachable contravening evidence – and then they will laugh at the silly theists who believe an invisible sky daddy created the whole universe in six days and CAN YOU BELIEVE HOW SILLY THOSE PEOPLE ARE, HAHA!

It has been disillusioning, to say the least, to discover that while most evidence-based thinkers are atheists, too many atheists are not evidence-based thinkers. More atheists need to take the critical thinking and objectivity they apply to the god question and turn it inward, examining the foundations of their own worldview. It can be discomfiting – threatening, even – to shine a spotlight on those things that define who we are, and the more strongly we identify with those things, the riskier the exercise becomes. What if we discover those ideas really aren’t based on reality? What if we have been wrong all this time? How will we live with that humiliation? Who will we be then? And yet, this is the very essence of rational thought – the willingness not just to tip other people’s sacred cows, but to take a good, long, hard look at our own and decide whether it’s time to put them out to pasture.

No, Actually, Murder is Way Worse than Abortion

Some 2,500 people attend a Pro Choice rally sponsored by the National Organization for Women, NOW, in Hollywood, Fla., Sunday, Sept. 17, 1989. Feminists and pro-choice advocates staged the rally to kick off an offensive to ease Florida's current abortion restrictions and to gather support for the issue which comes before Florida's legislature in a three-day special session beginning Oct. 10. (AP Photo/Todd Essick)
(AP Photo/Todd Essick)

Now that I have stopped seething over it, I feel compelled to respond to Dwight Longnecker’s September 15 article explaining why abortion is “more serious than simple murder.”  Yes, that’s right, folks: The destruction of a clump of non-viable cells with no consciousness or nervous system is a worse transgression than the mere deliberate taking of a living, breathing, sentient human life.  While Longnecker’s position does appear to be in line with Church doctrine, which allows priests to absolve the sin of murder but requires a bishop to absolve the sin of abortion (the pope’s year of mercy notwithstanding), it is nonetheless reprehensible and further evidence (as if we needed it) of the yawning chasm between religious dogma and basic human decency.

Let’s begin by reiterating, for the gazillionth time, that about 90% of abortions in the U.S. occur within the first twelve weeks of pregnancy, with nearly half of those being within the first six weeks.  Almost all the rest occur between 13-20 weeks, and only about 1% occur after 20 weeks.  (The Guttmacher Institute has these and more statistics here.)  While reliable data on why women seek abortion after 20 weeks are hard to come by, one major reason is that many of the tests that identify severe abnormalities cannot be done until 20 weeks.  Remember too that the pregnancy is an embryo for the first 10 weeks of gestation.  This means that for very close to 100% of abortions, what is being destroyed is not the chubby-cheeked, fully-formed, full-term infant shown in anti-choice propaganda, but a tiny lump of tissue somewhere between an eighth of an inch to three inches long that has no nerve endings and is completely unable to survive on its own outside the woman’s body.  And this is what we are told is worse to destroy than an actual person.  Let’s look more closely at the qualities he says apply only to abortion and see whether they are not also true of “simple murder.”

  1. The crime is pre meditated [sic] – Even if the woman in the crisis pregnancy is young and ignorant, the others involved in the crime are not. The person procuring the abortion–maybe the father of the child or the parent of the woman who is pregnant–know what they are doing. The abortionist and his staff know what they are doing and usually the woman also knows what she is doing. If the crime is planned and premeditated the culpability is greater.

In June of this year, a Maryland woman poisoned her young son by forcing him to swallow at least one full bottle of pills, and then once he was dead she stuffed his body into her car before setting it on fire.  She has been charged with first degree murder – and yet is somehow less culpable in the boy’s death than if she had had an abortion.

  1. The helplessness of the victim – An unborn child is unable to resist the crime. They are trapped in the womb and completely vulnerable. A crime against a helpless victim is worse than one against a person who can fight back or resist in some way. This is a raw action of violence of the strong against the weak and so the crime of killing is compounded.

In November 2014, a 255-pound man killed his seven-month-old infant son by kneeling on him and crushing him to death because the baby had been “fussy.”  I wonder how Father Longnecker presumes this baby was able to “fight back or resist” an assailant who outweighed him by a factor of 20, or by what criteria he determines the baby was not “completely vulnerable.”

  1. The innocence of the victim – An unborn child did nothing wrong. The unborn child did not offend against anyone. The unborn child is innocent of any crime at all and yet it is destroyed by the guilty. A crime against the guilty is bad, but a violent crime against the innocent cries out to heaven because of its wanton wickedness.

Homicide accounts for 7.2 infant deaths in the United States.  However, whereas their embryonic counterparts “did nothing wrong,” these babies apparently have had the opportunity to commit some offense that makes them less innocent.  Or perhaps the mere act of emerging from the womb taints them with original sin, making their killings cases of “simple murder” rather than of “wanton wickedness.”

  1. The natural duty of care for a child by the parent is violated – a mother and father have a natural and inborn duty to care for the child they have conceived. This natural duty of affection, love and protection is violated by abortion. In abortion a mother and father kill their own child. Therefore the killing is compounded by the sin of betrayal of trust and the destruction of one of nature’s most strong and inviolable relationships: the relationship between mother and child and between father and child.

Six-year-old D’Naja Fields was beaten to death by her parents in July.  The aborted embryo feels no fear or pain and is unaware even of its own existence, let alone any bond with parents.  Little D’Naja felt every bit of the terror and physical and emotional pain that her parents inflicted on her over the course of her short life and horrific death, yet we are to believe that the betrayal against the embryo is the worse offense.

  1. The sanctity of the family is violated – The family is the locus for human flourishing, security, peace and happiness. Abortion violates the family bond and destroys the happiness and security that should begin in the womb and extend to the home. If the womb is not safe for a child, why would the home be safe for a child? If the womb is a place of violence and killing how can the home be a place of love and security?

In the fall of 2014 three-year-old Scott McMillan was tortured by his parents for three days until he died.  He was safer in the womb than outside of it, where he had neither security, happiness, nor peace.

  1. The sexual act is violated – A child is the result of what should be a self giving, secure and tender act of love between man and woman. The child should be the fruit of that action. An abortion not only kills the child it violates and interrupts the natural fruit of the sexual act.

Children are not just the result of the sexual act; they are frequently victims of it. 80% of perpetrators of juvenile sexual abuse, evidencing the ugly fact that all too often sex is not a “tender act of love between a man and a woman” but a traumatic and sometimes fatal act of violence between an aggressor and a helpless victim – a victim like Allorah Warner, whose father raped and murdered her when she was only 19 days old.

  1. Society is damaged – A healthy birth rate means a healthy society. To kill the next generation is to kill the future. Society cannot prosper without children and young people and if the children and young people are killed before they are born society, in the long term, is damaged.

Abortion is not killing the next generation in the US: Of the roughly 6.6 million annual pregnancies in this country, about 18% end in abortion, roughly the same percentage as end in miscarriage.  Furthermore, nearly two-thirds of abortions are sought by women who already have at least one child, making the argument that humans will go extinct due to abortion rather absurd.  Additionally, one wonders whether Longnecker considers the fact of homicide being in the top five causes of death for children aged 18 and under as a sign of a damaged or a healthy society.

  1. The human person is devalued – Instead of seeing each life as sacred abortion treats the human being as a weed to be pulled–a problem to be solved. When the child in the womb is killed every human being dies a little. The result is a change in our attitude to individuals. Those who are weak, vulnerable, helpless and poor can be trampled on. Those who are needy, dependent, disabled and suffering can be eliminated.

The culture of American right-wing evangelicalism has done more to trample the weak, vulnerable, and poor than legal abortion could ever do.  Consider the high degree of overlap of the states with the highest religiosity and those whose legislators refused to expand health care for the poor under the Affordable Care Act; those with the most permissive gun laws (and most gun deaths); and the highest numbers of death penalty executions.

  1. The human body is violated – Even in death the human person is to be respected and the human remains treated with dignity and respect. Abortion shreds a baby’s body. It chops up a baby and sucks or scrapes it out of the mother’s womb. The remains are burnt, sold, shredded or just thrown away. If human bodies are treated like scrap humans will be treated like scrap.

First, I’m not sure how often Longnecker visits the current decade, but non-surgical abortions have been available in the US for fifteen years now and account for about a third of all abortions.  But what if 100% were surgical?  Those of us who are old enough remember well the case of Adam Walsh, a six-year-old boy who was abducted, strangled, and decapitated in Florida in 1981. But we don’t have to go back 34 years for an example of a child’s body being “chopped up” – just a week before Father Longnecker wrote his article, the severed head of a toddler was found in Chicago; more body parts have since been recovered.  Or, he could Google “dismembered children” and still have to choose – the one in Colorado?  Or Louisiana? Or the other one in Louisiana? Or California?  Is the termination of an embryo that does not even have limbs (let alone a functioning nervous system) really more gruesome than the dismemberment of a living – or dead – child?

  1. God’s law is intentionally disobeyed One of the first commandments is “Be fruitful and multiply”. A new child is life. A new child is a gift. A new child is the future. A new child is hope. A new child is innocence. A new child is a blessing. Abortion kills all these things and in disobeying God, God is also aborted from life and society. It is not a co incidence [sic] that where abortion thrives atheism soon follows.

I seem to recall another of god’s commandments making reference to not committing murder.  Then too are the passages in the bible that indicate life begins at the first breath (Genesis 2:7), and provide a recipe for abortion (Numbers 5:12 – 31). These would seem to contradict the good father’s claim that abortion is a more grievous sin in god’s eyes than the killing of the already born. With regard to his claim that “where abortion thrives atheism soon follows,” this is of course refuted by the fact that women who obtain abortion are only slightly less religious than the overall population of American women, and that the most religious states in the union do not have the lowest rates of abortion. Or did Longnecker accidentally give away the game with this statement, revealing that his true concern is not with the lives of the unborn, but with the growth of non-belief?

One has to wonder what kind of person thinks that it is preferable for a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term and then murder her infant than for her to take some hormone pills at 6 weeks gestation to expel a tiny clump of cells from her uterus – which is, of course, precisely the claim that Longnecker has made. In the morally normal universe such outrageous cruelty would be swiftly and unequivocally rejected and its sponsors relieved of any further claim to moral authority. But as is forever evidenced by the statements and behavior of the faith-deranged, we do not live in the morally normal universe – we live in the universe where people honestly think abortion is worse than murder, and where those people hold political power and cultural influence.  And that, friends, should frighten us all.

This article was originally published by Rationality Unleashed on October 16, 2015.