Thursday, April 13, 2006

Whackjobs: Reprise

My editor over at Raw Story, the very talented Avery Walker, asked for a few changes to my piece on secular extremism. I've chosen to post the new, revised, and hopefully superior version here. I hope it makes more sense to any who may have been confused by the earlier version. If it requires any more changes before publication, you'll have to read the final version on Raw. Sorry, commitment has its limits.
Shalom Alechem,
Melinda Barton

UPDATED AUTHOR'S NOTE: (4/29/06) Unfortunately, the existence of multiple, publicly available versions of this piece has caused quite a bit of uproar. As I noted in the above note, (posted at the time of the writing of this post) this is not the final Raw Story version. I had been experimenting with posting the different versions of pieces as a way to show the writing process and to ensure openness. (And also as a bit of habit as this is how some of the sites I write for would pull my work into their sites in the past.) However, to prevent any misunderstanding in the future, the Raw Story final version (with link) and that version only will be published and that only after at least one week had passed. I apologize for any confusion this has caused anyone who mistook this version for the Raw Story final version. To be honest, so few people read this blog before this controversy that I'd never considered the possibility that my experiment would cause any harm. Regardless of intent, all fault is mine and I apologize.

Melinda Barton

The religious nutballs on the extreme right have kept us rational lefties so busy that we've neglected an important although onerous duty -- cleaning the secular whackjobs out of our own attic, the extreme left. (Of course, extremisms of the religious or atheistic nature are only a small part of the sum total of extremism. Each form of thought has its own whackjobs of varying stripes.) Why face off with the secular whackjobs? Because extremism is extremism is extremism. No rational movement dedicated to intellectual courage and honesty should maintain a relationship with those for whom intellectual laziness, dishonesty, and cowardice are a way of life. Doing what must be done to insure the integrity of the left will require identifying our extremists, countering their mythologies, and acknowledging the dangers they pose to a truly liberal society.

First, what is a secular whackjob? The term secular for the purposes of this article will refer to those who disbelieve all religious and spiritual claims, not to those who merely support a separation of church and state. Although all secular extremists are atheists, not all atheists are secular extremists.

The whackjob is a special sort of atheist, one so absolutely certain of the inerrancy of atheism and so virulently opposed to religion that he will latch on to any and all outrageous claims in defense of the former and against the latter. He will meet any criticism of atheism or postive representation of religion as a horrible attack on his way of life or as support for religious extremism and oppression. Just as the religious extremist holds that his belief in a supreme being alone makes him morally and spiritually superior, the secular extremist holds that his belief that no such being exists and virulent opposition to the reverse make him intellectually and ethically superior. Finally, he will ignore any and all reason or evidence that refutes his claims.

So, what are the secular extremist's claims? They are legion, but I will stick to some of the major claims I've encountered in "respected" secularist media and in debate with atheist friends and readers.

Outrageous claim number 1: Atheism is based on evidence and reason and is philosophically provable or proven. Atheism is a matter of thought not belief. In other words, atheism is true; religion is false.

In his article "Atheism and Social Progress" found on the website of The Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc, Keith Cornish expresses it the claim this way, "A few years ago a member of the Committee of the Atheist Foundation of Australia proposed a new definition of 'atheism' that removes any hint of negativity and puts the onus of justification right back where it should be - that is, on Christians. His definition is 'Atheism' is the acceptance that there is no credible, scientific or factually reliable evidence for the existence of a God, god/s or the supernatural'. This was accepted as our official definition, though personally I would prefer the removal of the word 'credible' because of its association with 'faith' and 'belief'. It could well be replaced by 'logical'." (Emphasis mine.)

Both atheism and theism contain elements of rational thought and reason. When an adherent of either position examines what the existence or nonexistence of a supreme being means for humanity and how we structure our lives and moral/ethical systems, thought is involved. Ultimately, however, the supernatural's existence or nonexistence cannot be supported by evidence or proven by reason. Both are a matter of faith and therefore belief. In the absense of verifiability, neither can claim to be absolute truth. Placing a burden of proof on either "side" in the matter would be futile as neither could rise to the challenge. Tolerance for differences of belief would be far preferable.

In the middle, as always, are the agnostics who hold that claims about the supernatural cannot be assessed as "true" or "false" because they invoke the unknown, the unknowable, and the incoherent. This is perhaps the most logically defensible stance, however, there are those who hold strong beliefs in the existence or nonexistence of a deity or deities who acknowledge this logic as well, accepting the fallibility and limitation of human knowledge and the fact that their belief or disbelief cannot be supported by incontrovertible logical or evidentiary proof.

Outrageous claim number 2: Since the natural is all that we have or can scientifically observe and/or measure, it is all that exists.

This claim, one of the fundamental forms of ontological or metaphysical naturalism, is a blatant logical fallacy not to mention scientifically inaccurate. The logical fallacy is easy to refute: Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The scientific part takes us into stickier territory.

Warning: Technobabble ahead! The known laws of physics and the discoveries of quantum physics show that our ability to observe the universe is limited by its and our innate properties. For instance, the impossibility of overcoming the speed of light means we see distant objects as they appeared far in the past, so some event may have happened so far in the past that we can't observe it. Although we are only able to observe three dimensions, many physicists now believe that there may be many that we can't observe and question why we're limited to three. The possibilities opened up by our examination of the universe and the acknowledgement of our own limitations has allowed scientists to consider the existence of a variety of things we neither have nor can observe, including multiple dimensions and multiple universes.

In this context, the supernatural's existence cannot be refuted solely by our inability to observe it. Maybe a supreme being's properties or our own are simply preventing direct observation. It's a logical possibility. It is simply not one for science to consider. In the end, however, it is almost certain that there are things that exist that are beyond any of our philosophies.

Outrageous claim number 3: All religion is oppressive.

According to The International Manifesto for Atheistic Humanism, for instance, "Religion is oppressive. The act of subjugating human will to "divine will" is oppressive. The practice of obeying clergy, of letting them make our decisions for us, is oppressive and irresponsible."

This one flies in the face of the evidence. Yes, it's very easy to show many instances of oppression stemming from religion. However, it is also easy to show many instances in which political and social progress were spearheaded by religious individuals based on the teachings of their particular faiths. Study the abolitionist movement or the civil rights movement and you will be hard pressed not to encounter the role of religion in these struggles for liberation. To go beyond Christianity, there is now a movement in Africa that teaches Muslim women how to read the Koran so that they can refute the false claim that that religion demands or even permits female genital mutilation.

Religion, like any system of belief, is subject to the often contradictory nature of humanity and the tides of history. It is one thing at this moment and in this place and something completely different in another time and place. Oppression or liberation (with a few exceptions) are in the application, not necessarily inherent in the system of belief itself. For instance, communism may look fine on paper, but in the hands of the Russians post-revolution, it was used to support one of the most oppressive regimes in modern history.

Outrageous claim number 4: The eradication of religion in favor of secularism will bring about utopia.

Marxists and anarchists, specifically, hold that the total eradication of religion is an essential but not sufficient step in the creation of an atheist utopia. In some interpretations of these systems of thought, false though they may be, the eradication of religion is thought to be sufficient to create utopia.

Forgive me for discussing Torah, but I think the story of Adam and Eve (interpreted as a parable) is relevant here. Adam and Eve couldn't remain in the garden because they were fully human, with the free will that that implies. The message: humanity and paradise cannot exist together. In any society, no matter how ideal, there will be discontent, antisocial behavior, criminality, anger, uncontrolled passions, greed, avarice, disobedience, and dissent. There will be, at last, the human animal. Some new system of control and punishment will arise to cope with those aspects of the humanity and free will that endanger society. No utopia can withstand that.

Outrageous claim number 5: All religious people want to force you or convince you or coerce you to believe as they do.

This is perhaps the claim I've heard most often in conversations with friends and readers of the atheist persuasion, some of whom condemn it as false. I tried to find an "official" source for this hasty generalization with no luck, but chose to include it here based on personal experience. In addition to the fact that it's a logical fallacy based on a habit of many but not all atheists to judge all religions by their negative experiences with or feelings about Christianity, this claim also flies in the face of reality.

If I may, permit me to speak for those of the religious persuasion. Yes, many religious people do want to convert you, however, some of us could really care less what you believe. Personally, I wouldn't care if you believed that a big head of lettuce were going to come down and give us all strong bones and healthy teeth. Hey, as long as you're not interfering with someone else's rights, all hail the holy radicchio and bully for you. That's your business. Of course, I'm a practitioner of Judaism, which absolutely forbids proselytizing and any attempt at coercing or forcing someone to change his beliefs. In fact, many have even been denied conversion to Judaism and those who are finally accepted face a long and arduous process. Oh, wait. Judaism is a religon!

After that brief foray into snark, we come to the dangers. In modern America, secular extremists as a group don't have the wealth, influence, numbers or power to affect the way most of us live our lives. However, we should learn from what has happened elsewhere and be prepared to meet them if or when they do. While most who believe in the separation of church and state hold that only government support of religion in the public sphere should be forbidden, the secular extremist may take it one step further to forbid the private display of religious symbols in public places. Remember the laws forbidding the wearing of yarmulkes, crosses, hijabs, and the like in France. Such laws are just as much a violation of the liberal ideals of freedom of religion and conscience as laws that require religious practices.

But that's far in the future for America if it ever comes to our shores at all; the greatest danger the secular extremist poses now is to the integrity and success of progressive movements. If we are to truly uphold the liberal ideals of freedom and liberty, we must stand against extremists of all stripes who would threaten those ideals. Secondly, in a nation comprised predominantly of those who believe in some sort of supreme being, our success as a movement depends on disavowing the secular extremist as a legitimate voice of the left. Finally, our commitment to truth demands we counter the fallacies being perpetuated in our name.


Blogger Simon said...

That's easy for you to say.

10:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just read your column at Raw Story, "The left's own religious whackjobs." I found it to be of such caliber and insight--truly an important contribution and sincere expression from someone without peer in merit or magnanimity. I could do nothing but broadcast the existence of this superior example of your boundless pseudo-intellectualism far and wide. I envy you, your proud and deluded mind. Your bigotry is truly sublime.

11:08 PM  
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2:54 PM  
Blogger Comandante Agí said...

Do you really believe that "secular whackjobs" pose a threat to this nation? Why don't you consider the real extremists who are threatening our democracy.

Twenty percent of this country believes that Armageddon as described in the Book of Revelation will occur during their lifetime. These people would be happy to see President Bush lob a few nukes into Iran. They would support any "holy war" foreign policy in order to jump start the rapture.

When was the last time you saw an atheist suicide bomber? Or an atheist who advocates war and genocide?. It's the religious extremists who are pushing the oppression on this world, not the atheists.

Try putting things into perspective.

7:56 PM  
Blogger AdNihilo said...

As what you would surely label 'an atheist extremist whackjob' Melinda, here's my rebuttal to your 'whack' attack:

8:45 PM  
Anonymous Ellery Schempp said...

I am personally very dismayed by your piece. I happen to know a bit about separation of church and state, and I have been involved for more than 50 years owing to my involvement in the SC case "Abington vs. Schempp". I knew Madalyn Murray.

I am curious: do you approve of this decision about stopping devotional Bible-reading in public schools under the authority of the government? Or is it bad because it insists that the schools are to be secular--that is, neutral, neither fostering organized religion nor hindering personal religious beliefs.

It seems to me that you are in the camp of making "secular" a dirty word. Like "liberal". You are not alone--the Vatican, Islamicists, evangelical conservative Christians try to define "secular" as meaning "hostility toward rerligion." And thus attempt to define "neutrality" out of existence.

I know--and you know--that atheists are the most despised minority in America. Heaping scorn on atheists is pretty cheap.

I wonder, too, how you regard 'faith beliefs' in psychics, astrology, UFOs, dowsing, faith healing, appearances of the Virgin Mary--even on cheese sandwiches!--stone statues that burst into tears, in exorcism, ghosts, prayer, Loch Ness and other lake monsters, life after death, crop circles, body meridians, laying on of hands, foot-ology, raptures, tarot cards, Nostradamus, alien abductions, homeopathy, feng shui, magnetic bracelets, secret codes in the Bible, astral projections, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic powers, full trance mediums to connect with the dearly departed--all stuff related to supernaturalisms. The list of irrational nonsense is endless. Atheism and skepticism go hand in hand.

Maybe you think--that is "involving the thought process"--that belief in magical powers and the "right" display of piety in public will result in a "spiritual" intervention to rescue us. I think we humans have to work out solutions to issues, and I think being progressive means reliance on human understandings.

I consider your essay to be shameful. I rarely consider "sin", but for writing what you knew to be wrong from the beginning, that is surely sinful.

12:37 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

As a pretty fervent atheist, my reaction to your post/Raw Story article wasn't quite the same as that of many other atheists in the blogosphere. Sure, the philosophy of naturalism/physicalism is infinitely more complex than you make it out to be, but you're not a philosopher (and neither are most atheists), so I don't really expect you to provide a strong argument against it. But I agree with most of the rest of the article, with one fairly important exception: while there are some "secular wackjobs" out there, they haven't, for the most part, been behind any political change anywhere. In France, the banning of religious symbols in school wasn't brought about by atheists, it was brought about by an extreme desire for "political correctness" designed not to offend anyone of a particular religion. In other words, the law was passed to protect religious people. A true secular wackjob, under your definition, wouldn't want to go about protecting Muslims from being offended by crosses and yarmulkes.

The only real effect "secular whackjobs" (again, as you define them -- one might argue that there are religious secular whackjobs, or those who are not hostile to religion itself, and may even be religious themselves, but who approach secularization in a counterproductive way) have had is on public opinion. They've allowed the "persecuted Christian" myth to be perpetuated, and even to spread, and they've defined the atheist stereotype. They haven't hurt the country through political action, but by simply opening their mounts and thereby allowing religious whackjobs to use them to attack legitimate secularization, science, and to marginalized atheists. The last one probably explains why the reaction to your article has been so hostile. It's a knee-jerk reaction to any sign of an all-too-common form of bigotry, even if you aren't, in fact, such a bigot. And you'll get it from whackjobs and non-whackjobs alike, because anti-atheist bigotry doesn't discriminate between the two.

5:55 AM  
Anonymous Christopher said...

Well, in spite of the pounding you’ve taken at Raw Story, I still felt the need to get my licks in. I’d like to make a couple of points I rarely see others make.

First of all, you didn’t actually bother to rebut Whackjob claim No. 3. The claim made by the people you’ve quoted is not, “Religion has never done anything good for anybody, ever” so it doesn’t really matter how many examples of religious niceness you bring up.

The actual claim is that religion is oppressive because it subjugates man’s will to an authoritarian system. Thus, even if religion results in good deeds, it fails because it doesn’t give people the skills or desire to resist when a religious authority asks you to do bad deeds. If you only help the poor because the Pope says so, then what’s to stop you when the Pope asks you to torture suspicious women?

Now, in the comments at Raw Story you mentioned that your strain of Judaism doesn’t force people to follow dogma, but simply puts it in front of them for consideration. Now THAT is a rebuttal; it demonstrates that some religions lack an authoritarian structure. What you actually put into the article is a staggering example of a Strawman.

Now, the second big problem I have has to do with claims 1 and 2.

I’m not a philosopher, so I don’t know the history of methodological naturalism, but here’s how I approach the issue.

First of all, I assume that things exist. Fairly safe I’d say.

Second, I assume that things can be divided into two categories: Those with distinct characteristics and those without.

What I mean by an object having a distinct characteristic is that we can describe an object as having some attributes, and, therefore, lacking others. In other words, I have the characteristic of having two legs and lack the characteristic of having one leg.

Now, my third assumption is this; Characteristics can be observed. In other words, using certain processes I can determine which characteristics an object has and which it lacks.

To me, these seem like assumptions you simply must make if you want to talk about an external world.

Now, these are the basic assumptions of science. They say nothing about things being natural or supernatural. As a matter of fact, I believe that those two terms are meaningless (Why is, say, String Theory considered natural instead of supernatural?); The only distinction that matters is “observed” or “unobserved”.

Or, to put it another way, there is no alternative to methodological naturalism.

Now, that’s my response to no. 3. Let me go on to my response to no. 2, since it ties in:

Science does not reject religious theories because they inhabit some ill-defined supernatural realm; it rejects the things they describe have not been consistently observed. Think about the nature of god, for example; many observational techniques have been employed to try to discover god’s nature.

Now, science, under my system, classifies various techniques based on how reliably they observe things. If using an observational technique numerous times with numerous observers results in the same observation, we can assume that the technique is fairly accurate.

These accurate techniques generally observe nothing when they try to observe god.

There are also certain less accurate techniques used to observe god; ecstatic trances, for example. These techniques yield radically different, in many cases contradictory results. A Voodoo practitioner possessed by a Loa and Pentecostal speaking in tongues used the same technique to try to contact god, but their observations resulted in contradictory results.

Now, right now we can’t know what this means in the actual outside world; it could mean there is no god, but it could also mean that there are many different gods and that each practitioner see a different one, or that god is constantly changing, or that, like the blind men examining an elephant, each observer is seeing a small part of a larger being.

However, functionally speaking, it means that we can’t make any meaningful assertions about god’s attributes. Any attribute you see by observation, including the simple attribute of existence, is contradicted by another, equally valid observation. In other words, functionally speaking, god is no different from an imaginary being. Under our current knowledge, god is no different then, say, Spider-Man.

This shows that the onus is on the religious believer to prove their religion; in order for their religious proclamations to make sense, they must explain why contradictory proclamations should be ignored.

8:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like the author just wants to be hated by everybody in some sick desire for negative attention. Perhaps mommy and daddy should have paid more attention to her so she wouldn't have to be angry all the time.

12:14 PM  
Blogger plunge said...

I still don't get pieces like this. They attack a group by name, and then repeat "but I'm only talking about the BAD x." In other words, you get to rail against as many straw men as you want, all the while associating arguments with that group, with a readymade cop out of "oh, why are you so angry, I wasn't attacking you unless you see yourself in my criticisms... hmmm?"

As was said elsewhere: Atheists are the last minority in the country where it is acceptable - even encouraged - to denigrate, attack, oppress, and just plain make shit up about them. Here we are, people who just don't happen to have the beliefs that othre do, and because we OCCASIONALLY mention that calling us vile names isn't very nice, we get accused of being too uppity, and have to answer for every dumb thing anyone ever said about religion.

So hey, have fun with that.

6:07 PM  
Anonymous Kenn said...

Melinda Barton,

I have no belief in any religious or spiritual claim. Yet I do not make any of the five claims you describe.

I resent your implication that I am an extremist and a “whackjob.” I also resent your suggestion that my lack of belief is not compatible with liberal ideals.

6:34 PM  
Blogger BaconEating AtheistJew said...

Ms. Barton, you are a fool. I am an Atheist because there is absolutely no proof that God exists or has ever existed.
If you have some proof that God exists or has ever existed, please post it.
I am not against religion. I think people like you, need it, or you would be naked on the streets doing what you accuse Atheists of doing. It is for those who need to delude themselves into giving a purpose in life.
Religion should stay in two places though, the home and the person's place of worship.
If you sincerely want to understand Atheists READ THIS.

11:34 AM  

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