Let Them Eat Cake – Just Kidding! Let Them Starve

starving child
Image credit AP/Rebecca Blackwell

I recently had the misfortune of encountering an article by one Peter Guirguis titled “3 Strange But True Reasons Why God Doesn’t Feed All the Starving Children in The World.” (I will not link to the article because I cannot in good conscience send traffic there, but intrepid readers will be able to find it easily enough.) The author explains in great detail why his god – who, you may recall, is supposedly omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipresent – prefers to let children suffer and die in agony through malnutrition rather than put his considerable talent to use to, you know, make some food. Alas that the title is rather misleading, given that the reasons he cites are not strange – at least not to those of us who are used to hearing theists make excuses for the failure of their god to alleviate starvation – and whether or not they are true is a matter of some dispute.

Reason #1: It Isn’t God’s Responsibility to Feed the Starving Children of the World

“Of all the times that I have read the Bible from cover to cover, I can’t think of a single Bible verse in which God makes a promise to feed all the starving children in the world.”

Well then, since there is no bible verse in which god is quoted as saying, “I promise to feed all the starving children in the world,” that totes lets god off the hook! Of course there are verses in which he promises to sustain us (Isaiah 46:4), prosper us (Jeremiah 29:11), meet all our needs (Philippians 4:13), give us plenty to eat (Joel 2:26), help us (Isaiah 41:13), satisfy the appetites of the righteous (Proverbs 13:25), and give us whatever it is we pray for (Mark 11:24); but apparently those should in no way be misconstrued to infer that god will actually sustain us, meet all our needs, give us plenty to eat, help us, satisfy the appetites of the righteous, or give us whatever it is we pray for. On the issues of what god was in fact promising in these passages and why he is seemingly constrained to doing only that which he explicitly promised, Guirguis remains silent.

He then goes on to spout the usual nonsense about how it is our job, not god’s, to feed starving children. Never mind that the majority of humans on earth live under circumstances that preclude their ability to influence whether, how, or where food is grown and distributed: They themselves live in or near poverty; or suffer food insecurity of their own; or lack access to information or freedom of movement or other resources; or haven’t the skills or power to implement political and scientific programs to improve food production and distribution; and so on. For most of us with the ability to take some action, the extent of what we can reasonably do is donate to the local food pantry or give money to NGOs, neither of which is going to eradicate hunger. Oh, and how humans were supposed to harvest, preserve, transport, and distribute adequate food across the globe to famine-stricken areas before the advent of modern technology (i.e., for the nearly the whole of human history) is anyone’s guess.

Reason #2 – God Isn’t Like Humans

Atheists make a mistake when they say things like, “If I saw a starving child and had the power to feed him and I don’t, then I am evil. That’s the same thing with God, He is evil because He has the power to feed starving children and He doesn’t.” The mistake that atheists make here is that they compare themselves to God, or they compare God to themselves. They put themselves in God’s shoes. God’s goals are different than our goals. His purposes are different than our purposes. His way of justice is different than the human way of justice.”

This is the claim that theists always make when confronted with the problem of evil: That we can’t apply our own standards of morality to god, which of course begs the question: Why not? And why, if nearly all reasonable and morally normal people would feed starving children if they had the power to do so, and many (if not most) theists at some point struggle with why their god does not do so, is the ethical instinct of all humankind chucked out the window and deemed inferior to a god whose actions are manifestly unethical?  Furthermore, this is not so much a reason why god doesn’t feed starving children as it is an admonishment that we should not ask for one.

Reason #3 – God’s Justice is Coming Soon For All

“While God does see hate crimes, rapes, and murders as sins, He also sees lying, cheating, and hating people as sins too. So since God is a just God, then He’s going to have to give justice to all if He were to judge the world today. That means that there would be a lot of people who would receive punishment for eternity for breaking God’s standards. So instead, God is saving His judgment for Judgment Day . . . So when you don’t see justice taking place immediately, it’s because God is giving everyone a chance to repent, and put their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.”

There is a great deal with that statement that is problematic, the most obvious being that it is entirely irrelevant to the question of why god does not feed starving children – unless Guirguis is saying that since Judgment Day will happen someday, there’s no point in feeding starving kids in the meantime. Regardless, it is yet more transparent rationalization of god’s inaction: “It may seem like he isn’t doing anything, but that’s just because he isn’t doing anything right now.  He has to wait and see how many more people will come groveling to him before he decides he’s ready to get his Armageddon on.” In other words, we can’t see god’s ethics, and we can’t see his mercy, and we can’t see his love, and we can’t see his justice, but we still somehow know he is ethical, merciful, loving, and just, so let’s all just accept suffering as inevitable in the meantime and STFU.

Let me be clear that I am not refuting the good Mr. Guirguis because I am seeking to refute the existence of god. Indeed, the god hypothesis has been resoundingly refuted (or at least sufficiently challenged) by many others before me so I have no need or desire to re-invent that wheel. My point is rather that religion – especially the Abrahamic ones – require people to question and suppress their own innate senses of right and wrong, empathy, and compassion in order to reconcile the action (or more accurately the inaction) of their deity. It desensitizes people to suffering and injustice – after all, if god is allowing it, he must have a reason, so who are we to argue? I can only hope that one day people will decide that if god is allowing suffering, maybe it’s his ethics that are questionable, and proceed to embrace and heed their own conscience.

Setting the Record Straight

tin foil hat
Image credit Getty Images

Those who follow my facebook page may have seen my recent post in which I rattled off a list of things that are true – as in, are fully established facts or are overwhelmingly supported by all available evidence. Being that I was in a state of irritation from hours of dealing with Regressive Skeptics I left out a great many items that I wish I had included. This is the list I wish I had posted. For those who have seen the original, please accept my apologies for the repetition, and my thanks to the folks who pointed out conspicuous omissions. For everyone reading, if you want to challenge any of this, please note: The burden of proof is on you.

Let’s clear a few things up, shall we?

  • 9/11 was not an inside job.
  • Sandy Hook was not a “false flag.”
  • Neither was the Boston Marathon bombing, the San Bernardino shooting, the Paris attacks, or any other bombing or shooting.
  • In fact, there is no such thing as a “false flag” (as the term is used in conspiracy circles).
  • We really did land on the moon.
  • The Holocaust really happened.
  • Fluoride in the water supply isn’t a mind control experiment – it really is just good for your teeth.
  • There are no chemtrails, just contrails.
  • GMOs are just as safe as conventional foods.
  • Organic isn’t healthier.
  • It’s not better for the environment either.
  • Vaccines work and they don’t cause autism.
  • Homeopathy doesn’t work.
  • Alternative medicine is not medicine.
  • For people who have type I diabetes, insulin is not optional.
  • Pot doesn’t cure everything.
  • Big Pharma is not suppressing a known cure for cancer.
  • Everything is made of chemicals.
  • The relative positions of the planets do not determine your personality or your future.
  • The past was not romantic. Life was not idyllic, easy, healthy, or long 50,000 years ago.
  • Not 5,000 years ago or 500 years ago either.
  • Guns don’t make you safer.
  • And jack-booted thugs are not going to kick your door in any minute now to take them away from you.
  • Gay sex does not cause earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, tsunamis, fires, volcano eruptions, landslides, stock market crashes, train derailments, bridge collapses, oil spills, or anything else.
  • Big Government is not secretly controlling every aspect of human life.
  • Speed limits are not tyranny.
  • Making health insurance affordable is not actually just as bad as slavery.
  • Taxes are not theft.
  • Nuclear power is safe.
  • The zombie apocalypse is not coming.
  • The universe started with the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago.
  • The earth is a sphere that orbits the sun.
  • And it is 4.54 billion years old.
  • Anthropogenic climate change is real.
  • Evolution by natural selection really happened. In fact, it is still happening.
  • There is no evidence for ghosts, an afterlife, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, ancient aliens, alien abductions, reincarnation, telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance, precognition, the soul, demons, spirits, angels, witchcraft, or magic.
  • There almost certainly is no god.

Evidence matters. Even when you don’t like it. Even when it contradicts your deeply held beliefs. Even when it makes you really uncomfortable.

Evidence. Fucking. Matters.

Ten Contradictions Theists Just Can’t Stop Making

Image via parade.com
Image via parade.com

Talking with theists about religion sometimes – and by sometimes I mean almost always – feels like Groundhog Day,  a painful and monotonous slog that simply travels the same territory over and over and over.  I get weary of both hearing and repeating the same arguments so frequently, so I decided to compile the most tired (not to mention the most tiresome) themes that I encounter, so that going forward I can simply point people here when they trot out these inevitable gems.

1. Explaining what god is or wants, then saying humans cannot understand god.

The conversation goes like this:

Theist: “God loves us and wants us to be saved. God is just and merciful. God will provide. God always gives us what we need, not just what we want.”

Atheist: “If god loves us, is merciful, provides, and always gives us what we need, why do children starve to death?”

Theist: “We are mere mortals and can’t expect to understand His ways. You can’t apply human standards to god.”

Uh . . . If we can’t apply human standards to god when it comes to figuring out why he lets children starve, why can we apply human standards to establish that he loves us, is just and merciful, and will provide?  By what means do you ascertain these attributes in the first place if not by human standards?  God is either knowable or he isn’t; you either understand him or you don’t. If his reasons for allowing innocent children to suffer and die are inscrutable, so too must be his reasons for everything else, and to claim otherwise is to admit that you in fact know nothing of god, but have opted to believe what is most comforting to you – something that is manifestly apparent to atheists already, but which most theists would not confess in so many words.

2. Claiming that god loves us all, then rationalizing human suffering.

Theists most often dismiss human suffering by victim-blaming – declaring that our own free will causes us to make bad choices, which cause us to suffer as a result. Once we get past the inherent privilege of a claim that assumes everyone has an array of both good and bad options from which to choose (or has a choice at all), we are still left with the problem of suffering that is not the direct result of our own actions. “Free will,” they repeat. “Some people use theirs to hurt others.” Ah, okay – so god is willing to stand idly by and watch innocents be tortured and murdered because he prioritizes the free will of evil people to do harm over that of their victims? That’s not much of a resume-builder for god, but for the sake of argument I’ll give you that one too. What about illness and natural disasters then? Even the most nefarious of minds cannot will a tumor or an earthquake or a tsunami into being. That’s when, if we don’t hear “Oh, free will causes climate change which causes those disasters,” we hear (again), “We are mere mortals and can’t expect to understand god’s ways.”

In this world, deliberately inflicting pain and hardship on someone we claim to love is called abuse. In religion, it’s called grace. When we regard human suffering as not only inevitable but as an expression of love by an omnipotent being, we trivialize the experience of those who must endure it and stifle the otherwise natural human impulse to alleviate it.

3. Pretending that free will and a divine plan are not mutually exclusive.

When asked once if he believed we all have free will, Christopher Hitchens ironically replied, “Of course I have free will; I don’t have a choice.” In other words, an omnipotent god endowing humans with free will and commanding that they use it negates the very notion of free will in the first place – with or without it, we are still exactly as god made us, choosing exactly as he already knows we will. Conveniently, free will seems to only ever cause humans to behave badly; when they are charitable, kind, generous, selfless, humble, honest, and virtuous, it is always because they were following the example set by god, but when they are selfish, cruel, and violent their actions are the result of their own frailty, thus ensuring that god continues to reap the credit when we choose well and remain blameless when we don’t.

As if this weren’t bad enough, many of the same folks who talk about free will also claim that god has a plan. Take a common trope on prayer, for example, that says when you pray, “God answers in one of three ways: 1. Yes; 2. No; 3. I have something even better in store.” All three of those responses entail a god who is actively shaping your life, and who is giving or withholding things based on what he either intends or knows will happen. So which is it? Because it can’t be both.

4. Behaving hatefully, then saying “god bless.”

I recently had the pleasure of conversing with a theist on my Facebook page who called me “ignorant;” a “liar;” a “child;” “dense;” “trash;” laughed that I was “probably not” in a stable relationship and therefore infected with “the latest STD;” that my jokes aren’t funny (O, the humanity!); and, predictably, that she wished she could be there when I stand before god after death to see me receive my eternal sentence for disbelief. She topped off this love-fest by saying, “May God bless you and keep you in the New Year and many more to come.” Wait, I thought you were being an arrogant ass, but you want god to bless me? Well, in that case, right back atcha! Hugs and kisses!

These people seem to think that no matter how nasty they act or how mean-spirited their words,  it is all permissible and forgiven as long as they conclude with an insincere blessing.  Some of them will further justify their unpleasantness by claiming they were only fulfilling their godly responsibility to love their enemies by pointing out the error of their ways.  Hence we end up with comments like, “Your ignorance and your unfunny jokes make baby Jesus cry, you slutty, disease-infested piece of trash! I’ll be laughing while you burn in hell! God bless!”

5. Declaring god as the source of objective morality, then interpreting scripture.

It is frustrating and disheartening that the myth that one needs to believe in the supernatural to live ethically persists in the face of thousands of years of evidence to the contrary. Beyond this obvious fallacy, however, lies the transparent manner in which theists lay claim to the objective correctness of their morals while simultaneously applying their own contemporary cultural morality to the world. “Look here,” you say, pointing at the words on the page, “it says to murder your loved ones if they worship any other god.” “You’re taking that out of context,” comes the reply. Or maybe it’s, “You have to consider the culture at the time this was written.” Or perhaps, “That isn’t meant to be taken literally.”

If objective morality comes from god, then the only way to determine that morality is through scripture.  If you are not going to take scripture at face value, then you are admitting that your morals are inherent within you and influenced by the society around you, not handed down from the outside.

6. Labeling god as omnipotent, then blaming evil on the devil.

Is it that god cannot defeat the devil, or is it that he chooses not to? Not that anyone could blame him if it was the latter, seeing as how the devil makes such an outstanding scapegoat. But seriously – if you believe god is omnipotent and you also believe in the devil, then you have to believe that god has made a decision to let the devil do his thing. If god cannot in fact defeat the devil then he is not omnipotent, in which case it makes little sense to worship and pray to him at all. In either case, though, god sure as shit has both the power and inclination to get involved once you’re dead – by sending you straight to hell for doing whatever it was the devil talked you into while god stood by and watched.

7. Seizing upon minuscule inconsistencies in highly specialized scientific disciplines as a failure of science to explain the universe while accepting supernatural explanations for which there is no evidence.

There are mountains of evidence in support of evolution by natural selection and the Big Bang. Virtually all of modern biology and cosmology are predicated upon these theories; the elegance of their explanations and success of their predictions continually reaffirm their validity. Furthermore, there is no small amount of evidence to suggest that under the right conditions, complex molecules can become self-replicating – the first step towards the creation of life. Meanwhile, there is no evidence for god. As in, zero. Zilch. None.

It has always struck me as odd that an institution that not only extols the virtue of faith but requires it as a matter of course and as a prerequisite of salvation would turn to science at all to justify its claims; after all, if the religious are so certain they are correct, shouldn’t faith be sufficient to maintain belief?  The answer is, of course it isn’t, and their desire to claim the legitimacy of science betrays their understanding (and fear) of this fact.  Furthermore, you cannot pretend to be concerned about the quality or weight of the evidence for a natural explanation of the universe while simultaneously advancing a hypothesis for which thousands of years of inquiry have failed to produce a single shred of evidence.

8. Subscribing to religion, then labeling the religious beliefs of others as “crazy.”

Protestants say Catholics aren’t really Christians. Baptists say Pentecostalism is a cult. Mormons say creationists are nutty. And yet all of these people believe more or less the same thing: That an invisible, omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving deity created the entire universe and was subsequently so displeased with his own creation that he made a virgin pregnant with himself in human form; condemned himself to be tortured and sacrificed to atone for the sins of his creation; rose from the dead and ascended bodily into the sky; and now presides over the affairs of all humans and keeps track of where they put their car keys and whether they masturbate so that he knows who to help while they are alive and who to torture for all eternity after they die.

Anyone who thinks this is plausible forfeits the right to comment on the sanity of anyone else’s ideas.

9. Accusing atheists of cherry-picking scripture to make it look bad.

This one always makes me laugh.  For one thing, no one needs to try to make scripture look bad; it does that all by itself with its genocide and rape and slavery and conquest and general bloodthirsty, vengeful douchebaggery.  For another thing, scripture is packed with so many mutually exclusive commands and prohibitions that cherry-picking is required if one is to follow or even just discuss it.  The only question is which cherries one will pick.  Some will pick the ones about love and kindness and charity and claim these are the “real” version of their religion, leaving the others – the ones about torture and violence and cruelty – on the branch, hoping no one will notice them.  Perhaps cherry-picking isn’t even the right metaphor.  I think a better one is the Tree of 40 Fruit:  Some of what it has to offer is sweet, some is bitter, and some may even be poisonous, but it all grows from the same plant.

10.  Claiming membership in one of thousands of sects of religion as authority for telling non-believers why our interpretation of religion is wrong.

How often do we hear from theists that we misunderstand, misrepresent, misinterpret, or are ignorant of their scriptures? “What the bible (Qur’an / Torah / etc.) really says is X,” they say, or “When god said that he meant Y.” Setting aside for the moment the fact that many atheists are former believers who are intimately familiar with scripture, what do we make of the fact that other people who also identify as belonging to that religion claim that actually, god didn’t mean Y either, but Z? And what of the ones who say not Z, but A? Theists themselves cannot agree with one another on what god really meant or wants and none of them can produce a single valid reason why their interpretation is more likely to be right than anyone else’s. Why then is the interpretation of a non-believer any less credible – or to be more precise, any more incredible?

What most believers refuse to see, or at least to admit, is that there is no wrong interpretation of scripture. What is “known” about god resides inside people’s heads; there is no objective, external yardstick by which it can be measured, nothing that can be observed, and no source to clarify what was truly intended by any given chapter or verse. Furthermore, even if we could eliminate the ambiguity of scripture we would still be left with the contradictions: For virtually every instruction, elsewhere in the text is its prohibition or the command to do the opposite, and since no one can ring up Yahweh or Allah to ask which one is the right one it is left to the individual to decide. Said another way, scripture is sufficiently ambiguous and contradictory that all interpretations are justifiable – in which case we are left with nothing more than a free-for-all in which religion is whatever any given believer says it is.


In defense of theists, contradictions are the inevitable consequence of belief in monotheistic religion, given its outlandish claims and its incoherence. It is hard not to wonder, though, to what degree these contradictions are the result of intellectual dishonesty and what can be attributed to a mere extreme absence of self-awareness.  Whatever the case, now that I have (hopefully) saved myself some time in future discussions, maybe I can at least spend less of the next Groundhog Day trapped in tedious debates and more of it sipping Mai-tais with Punxutawney Phil.

Ten Signs You Might Be a Regressive Skeptic

Image credit: Internet Reaction Face Archive
At this point there is little I could say about the tragic comedy that is the Regressive Left in the wake of the terrible attacks in Paris of November 13 that hasn’t already been said, probably better than I could have said it (most especially here and here). As people discussed the attacks and the ideologies and policies implicated therein in the many atheism- and skepticism-centered groups that I frequent, a similarly alarming realization has dawned on me: That just as there are Regressive Leftists who are actively betraying liberal ideals, so too are there what I will henceforth call Regressive Skeptics who are undermining the credibility and effectiveness of the skeptical community. Here are a few behaviors that should raise your antenna when observed in a fellow “skeptic.”

1. They treat constructive feedback as a personal attack.

Let’s face it: No one really likes getting constructive feedback. Hearing about the things that other people think you did wrong or could have done better is not usually a lot of fun, but when offered from a place of authenticity and backed up with sound reasoning, it can be incredibly enlightening. Back in my corporate days, my mentor was someone whose brain could not have been wired more differently from my own, and that dichotomy proved to be of great value because he saw things in a way that would never in a million years have occurred to me. Sometimes his observations hurt, and sometimes I disagreed with him, but they were always worth considering.

The Regressive Skeptic, on the other hand, will give lip service to the benefits of healthy debate, but the unspoken caveat is that he’s always going to be right, and that his opponent will sooner or later concede this. When his arguments are poor, his premise weak, or his opponent tenacious, he becomes indignant and rude, increasingly fallacious, and eventually ends the debate with a flounce (“Whatever,” “I don’t even care at this point,” “Let’s agree to disagree,” “Just let it go already”).

It’s OK to run out of time or patience for a discussion. It’s OK to be annoyed or hurt by criticism you think is unfair. It’s not OK go on the offense at the first hint of criticism without even considering whether there’s something to it.

2. There are areas of inquiry they consider off-limits.

This is another way of calling out the hypocrisy of Regressive Skeptics who will mercilessly go after homeopathy, chiropractic, GMO-denial, the paleo diet, and other forms of woo, but refuse to touch religion, the Grande Dame of all woo. It is the single-most pervasive and common mechanism by which people learn to accept that for which there is no evidence and to rationalize contradictory evidence. Some skeptics even hold religious beliefs, which is a curiosity that is difficult for me to understand, but which in and of itself is less problematic than those who simply dodge the issue altogether – or worse, pander to their religious followers with assertions that science and religion are entirely compatible, or admonish their openly atheist counterparts to keep quiet so as not to alienate potential allies.

If you are more interested in promoting science literacy than anti-theism, that’s great. Science literacy is tremendously important and a laudable pursuit. But don’t be disingenuous for the sake of popularity, and don’t make efforts to undermine those of us who place anti-theism at the top of our own list.

3. They ignore questions asking for clarification or treat them like fallacious arguments.

Especially on the internet it is easy to inject emotion, intentionally or not, into a discussion. Without the benefit of seeing someone’s facial expressions and body language and hearing their vocal inflections, translating what they’re trying to express is made that much harder, and if your opponent doesn’t write well to begin with, you have a real challenge on your hands. It’s important to know what your opponent is actually saying if you hope to provide any kind of meaningful response, and sometimes the only way to do that is to repeat back what you think you heard (“I read your comment as saying X” or “So are you claiming that Y?”). Whereas someone with a degree of maturity and fair-mindedness should be able to distinguish between a clarifying question that got it wrong and a deliberate mis-characterization, the Regressive Skeptic will immediately respond as though the question was a straw man. This of course erodes understanding even further, because the opponent still doesn’t know what she is responding to and now she has to defend herself against the straw man accusation too. It’s a strategy that relies on misunderstanding to win, rather than on having a defensible premise and a sound argument.

4. They reject any argument coming from “the other side” regardless of whether it has merit.

The most obvious example of this is the Regressive Left’s refusal to acknowledge that the “Islamic” in “Islamic State” has anything whatsoever to do with, you know, Islam. They are so fearful of being mistakenly associated with the likes of Donald Trump, so afraid of being labeled a racist, that they cover their eyes and ears and make excuses for mass murderers and theocratic fascists. It’s an unconscionable form of denialism because it trivializes the suffering caused by ISIS and similar organizations, and sacrifices those who are most vulnerable in those societies on the altar of white guilt and a warped vision of multiculturalism.

It’s bad enough for an anti-vax, organic-kale-eating, Spirit Science-reading loon to go down that rabbit hole. When people who claim to be skeptical thinkers place ideology over reality in this way, it’s unforgivable. They are ceding the discussion to the Far Right and the jihadists by refusing to acknowledge the nuances – not because the nuances aren’t true, but because they cannot abide that the Far Right might have a point. And the only thing I can think to say to those Regressive Skeptics is, shame on you.

5. They give advice that they don’t take.

“You should read authors who disagree with you. To help you with that, here is a list of authors who agree with me.”

“You only selected that source because it confirms what you already believe! To prove you are wrong, I am posting this thing that confirms what I already believe!”

Yes, we are all vulnerable to confirmation bias, and yes, there is a tendency when debating a topic to seek out evidence that supports one’s own premise. But it’s also entirely possible that your opponent has actually read all of those authors and found their arguments to be unpersuasive, and it’s entirely possible that your confirmation bias is at much in play as your opponent’s. Whether it is or not, if you are dismissing a credible source just because it is in agreement with your opponent you’ve just forfeited any claim to that pedestal from which you’re preaching.

6. They refuse to acknowledge their own errors.

We all make them. It’s embarrassing – humiliating, even – and it can be a blow to self-confidence, but it is likely also instructive and can lead to personal growth and better methodology in the future. But an error is guaranteed to damage your credibility only when you refuse to admit to it. This is not to say that we must agree every time we are accused of making a mistake that we have actually made one; sometimes we are misunderstood, or were right but perhaps not clear, or were both right and clear and it is our opponent who is mistaken. On those occasions when we have in fact erred, though, we usually know it. The mature, responsible, honest thing to do at that point is fess up and fix it. Unless it’s something that simply can’t be denied, the Regressive Skeptic can be counted on to circle the wagons at the mere suggestion that she made a mistake, often resorting to personal attacks and other deflections. She will profess her fallibility in general terms, but fight like hell when confronted with it.

7. They measure others by a different yardstick than they measure themselves or their associates.

This may be another manifestation of confirmation bias, but it happens often enough to warrant its own discussion. If someone is truly a skeptic, then that person should have a relatively consistent standard for what sources or types of arguments pass the sniff test, and should endeavor to at least meet if not exceed those standards – if for no other reason than to ensure sound arguments that are difficult to refute, but hopefully also for the sake of integrity and respect for the search for what is true. The Regressive Skeptic, on the other hand, accepts or rejects sources on a sliding scale based on their utility and expediency rather than their merits, and will often happily commit logical fallacies in the process of accusing opponents of committing logical fallacies. Another manifestation of this phenomenon is the glee with which Regressive Skeptics will mock woo-followers, but when the subject turns to religion they wag their fingers and say, “You should only criticize the beliefs, not the believers.” It’s a willingness not only to resort to, but indeed to exploit a double standard.

8. They mine others’ arguments for fallacies rather than seeking to understand what they’re saying.

A friend of mine refers to this as “fallacy barking:” Simply pointing out real or perceived logical fallacies in their opponents’ arguments rather than speaking to their premise or making a solid argument of their own. Often they will not even put their fallacy accusation into context, making it difficult to respond at all if it isn’t obvious how (or even if) that fallacy was committed.

This isn’t to say that it isn’t important to understand logical fallacies; indeed, this is a necessary skill for constructing sound arguments and inoculating ourselves against bad ones, and overall is a useful addition to the critical thinking toolkit. Fallacy barking, on the other hand, is a tactic of obfuscation, not befitting anyone who values the actual pursuit of knowledge and understanding.

9. They place identity politics or ideology ahead of scientific findings or other verifiable realities.

It’s hip to claim that the science is settled on matters of sexual orientation, gender identity, and other issues of diversity. New findings that challenge the social justice narrative in these arenas are often vilified and their authors viciously attacked, something that Alice Dreger examines in fascinating detail in her book Galileo’s Middle Finger. Just as with denying the role of Islam in Islamism, rejecting credible, peer-reviewed data simply because it doesn’t conform to the current PR message of a given cause is the antithesis of skepticism: It’s science denial. Might those findings eventually be shown to be untrue? Of course. But that is a decision best left to science, not to its suppression.

10. They equate an opponent who is persistent or correct with an opponent who is just an asshole.

Your being wrong doesn’t make me an asshole. Your making fallacious arguments doesn’t make me an asshole. My calling you out on both of those doesn’t make me an asshole. My providing evidence that backs up my claim and refutes yours doesn’t make me an asshole. My not conceding the argument when you have failed to make your case doesn’t make me an asshole. And to paraphrase the late, great Christopher Hitchens, when you say I’m an asshole I’m still waiting to hear what your point is.

But when you throw up your hands, call me names, and stomp off to the corner to go eat worms?  That pretty much does makes you an asshole.

Ten Things I Really Wish Atheists Would Stop Doing


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.

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.”