P.Z. Myers posted his remarks made at the recent Secular Humanist Conference the other day, and I really think, if you haven’t read it, that you should. I’ll wait.
For those who don’t have the time to read the whole thing (and it’s not that long) here are a few choice quotes:
The sea our country is drowning in is a raging religiosity, wave after wave of ignorant arguments and ideological absurdities pushed by tired dogma and fervent and frustrated fanatics. We keep hearing that the answer is to find the still waters of a more moderate faith, but I’m sorry, I don’t feel like drowning there either.
This sets up nicely his core point, given on a panel with Victor Stenger, Eugenie Scott and Chris Mooney discussing the current dispute in the free-thought movement about whether we should play nice with the theists and try to slowly convince them of the error of their ways, or whether we should confront them on all of the delusional thinking and nip it in the bud at the moment we see it – the so-called confrontational vs. accommodational approach to active atheism.
P.Z. gets to the heart of the dispute here, in my not so humble opinion:
There is another motive for our confrontational ways, and it has to do with values. We talk a lot about values in this country, so I kind of hate to use the word — it’s been tainted by the religious right, which howls about “Christian values” every time the subject of civil rights for gays or equal rights for women or universal health care or improving the plight of the poor come up — True Christian values are agin’ those things, after all. But the Gnu Atheists have values, too, and premiere among them is truth. And that makes us uncivil and rude, because we challenge the truth of religion.
Religion provides solace to millions, we are told, it makes them happy, and it’s mostly harmless.
“But is it true?”, we ask, as if it matters.
The religious are the majority, we hear over and over again, and we need to be pragmatic and diplomatic in dealing with them.
“But is what they believe true?”, we ask, and “What do we gain by compromising on reality?”
Religion isn’t the problem, they claim, it’s only the extremists and zealots and weirdos. The majority of believers are moderates and even share some values with us.
“But is a moderate superstition true?”, we repeat, and “How can a myth be made more true if its proponents are simply calmer in stating it?”
I’m having a little discussion with a theist over on an old post I wrote three years ago, titled Burden of Proof and Hearsay, and I think what Myers says in his preliminary remarks to the panel discussion are relevant to my discussion with J, who initially questioned my premise that the Bible would never be admitted into a trial in an American court of law, when the matter at issue was the existence of god. The discussion has degenerated into the usual atheist/theist peripheral arguments about the existence of god, rather than sticking to the post issue of the reliability of the bible, but that’s OK. Any port in a storm.
Without getting into details, (you can read it yourself) Philly questioned why I was wasting my time with J. The answer is in what Myers said to his panel. I’m interested in truth, because truth matters, but to focus on side issues, like whether the Bible was written by Matthew, Mark Luke and John, (they didn’t, because they most likely don’t exist themselves) or whether there is some independent historical corroboration for everything in the Bible (there isn’t), is to get distracted with irrelevancies. So on that point, Philly is right.
When I’m talking about truth, I’m talking about reality. Do we live in a world, a solar system, a universe created by some unreachable, esoteric supernatural being that created us as a sort of play thing, an experiment in creation, if you will. Was the entire universe created as his little ant farm, specifically so we could play in it and he could be amused by our worship of him? Or is What We See, What We Get? Is the truth that the earth is what science says it is, a very small, almost infinitesimal speck in an immense universe, with us simply by-products of natural forces that originally created that universe? Or is the earth a product of magic, conjured up by a conscious entity who refuses to make himself known except through revelation to select individuals, most notably living in the Middle East thousands of years ago. Are we living in a realistic, naturalistic world, or someone’s fantasy?
That’s the truth I am referring to.
The entire point of all these discussions, at their core, (whether on the surface it appears that way or not) involves the central question between atheist and theist – does god exist? Theists believe he does, coming into the discussion, because of what they call faith, which is simply believing in something without the necessity of evidence. Atheists don’t, coming into the discussion, and ask for evidence the theist finds pointless. For some reason in these peripheral discussions, faith doesn’t seem to be enough, so theists like J look outside their faith to justify their beliefs. If there is some truth in the Bible, (like perhaps some archeological confirmation that the stories in the New Testament are not pure fiction, a la the Chronicles of Narnia) then that helps their faith along, notwithstanding the fact that if they have faith, they do not need such evidence. Faith should be enough.
Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Hebrews 11:1
We can argue about these kinds of detail all day, but none of them are evidence for the existence of a supernatural being, much less the personal god that Christians believe in, or the vengeful god that Muslims believe in. So when I see a theist arguing these irrelevant details, irrelevant to the ultimate question, I have to confront them, because, deep down, the theist is not arguing the details, he’s bolstering his belief in the existence of god with “facts” that don’t, in fact, bolster those beliefs.
The fact is that there really is no evidence, no proof that a theist can point to for the existence of god(s) because the supernatural does not exist, and even if it did, facts or evidence produced in the natural world would then be, ipso facto, natural also.
The best result of the argument I am having with J is to dissuade him from his beliefs, by convincing him that his reliance on the Bible to confirm his belief in his god is misplaced, but I have no illusion that I will do so, because his refuge is to say “I don’t need the Bible to believe in God, all I need is my faith.” Mark my words, if the discussion goes far enough (it won’t) he’ll do that. In the end, they all do (except maybe Cl, who will characteristically sidestep the issue).
Back to accommodation. I am on the side of the confrontationists. Any silly belief, no matter how innocuous or comforting to the believer should be dealt with harshly, because silly, superstitious thinking gives shelter to, and accommodates more delusional, superstitious thinking. If you can convince a theist that just one thing they believe is nonsense, you’ve chipped out a very large chunk in the wall they erected in their psyche to protect their superstitious belief. To fail to confront it gives them the illusion that even you, an atheist, agrees that there is some plausibility to their beliefs.
Truth does matter. Theists will tell you that they too are seeking truth, but in fact they are not. They have already found truth, or so they believe, and are simply looking for confirmation. Their truth involves, if you strip it down to its essential elements, magic, fear and dogma.
- Magic is how their god does what he does.
- Fear is why they believe in him. Fear of death, fear of people unlike them, fear of the future.
- Dogma is how they talk themselves into not thinking, not questioning, and not learning. Dogma proclaims that someone else has already figured everything out, so you need not worry your pretty little head about anything, it’s all taken care of.
All three of them are antithetical to truth.