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Friday, 30 November 2007

I'm not angry -- or am I?

Greta Christina, that sex-positive darling who writes such illuminating atheist reflections, had a startling smash hit a while back when she stepped oh-so-slightly out of character to write a post on atheists and anger (and yes, you can safely read that post without being in danger of encountering explicit sexual content, just so you know):

This has been a hard piece to write, and it may be a hard one to read. I'm not going to be as polite and good-tempered as I usually am in this blog; this piece is about anger, and for once I'm going to fucking well let myself be angry.

When I first read the post, it had eight comments. It was very much Greta Christina, anger and all: clearly written, honest, comprehensive in its examination of the surrounding issues. I got a bit bored by the end, though. It's a very long list of things to be angry about. Don't get me wrong. I thought then and I still think now that Greta Christina has a perfect right to be angry about all those things and the many more that she says she has only scratched the surface of. After all, she has been personally damaged by several of them, what with being bisexual and living in a horribly theistic place like America, where the safeguards of democracy are under threat in part due to faith-based voting. I, too, have been damaged by religion, but not to the same extent. I am angry for my own sake about one thing, and one thing only, and that thing is deep and painful. To hold on to the anger would be to hold on to the pain, and so I do not use that anger, do not weave it into my reasons for acting; I let it sit out there on the edge and exist for as long as it needs to.

So, you see, I'm not angry. I got to the end of Greta's post and wondered if I could explain my position, but I needed to think about things, so I decided to let it sit for a bit and maybe join the discussion later.

Well, everyone in the atheist blogosphere knows what happened not much later. By the time I saw the post again, it had three hundred comments. Today, it has 862 comments and counting. It was linked to by Pharyngula, by Friendly Atheist, and many others. And a huge proportion of those comments amounted to "Right on"! Greta Christina had struck a nerve. Many atheists were angry, and were heartened and energised by Greta Christina's eloquent, even defence.

This was clearly not my party, but now that things have died down a little, perhaps it is not so improper for me to speak.

I'm not angry at religion as a whole, but there are some things that do make me angry. Sometimes when I'm walking into town, I take the wrong route by accident. It's fine to go down Exeter Street if I'm heading to the mall or over to my parents' place, but if I'm turning left, I have to pass the Christian Science Reading Room. It's got this big sign on the window saying "Prayer Works". Works how, exactly? You know, just by context, that this isn't going to be one of those serene theological answers like "God answers every prayer, it's just that sometimes the answer is 'no'/'maybe'/'ask again later'". No, what it means is that they're peddling dodgy science. But of course they are. "Christian Science" is a contradiction in terms, for it refers to science that will only accept conclusions that seem to support religious dogma, and that is not science at all. It makes me furious. How dare they mock the sincere attempts of scientists to be even-handed by claiming that their own biased propaganda is of equal worth? Don't they understand the love, the sacrifice, the effort that scientists put into the search for truth? And yet they pollute the term 'science'! They dare to use it for efforts that are neither courageous nor intellectually sincere, feeble obfuscations by which they hide from reality. It makes me sick.

Other things make me angry, too. Christians in my own country don't play the "atheists are nihilists who can't be moral" game very much, at least not where I and other atheists can see them, but every so often, especially on the internet, I read something that reminds me that the view is alive and barely-challenged in some quarters (no, LL, I'm not looking at you -- your questions are fair and I will answer them in another post). Just yesterday I found this page linked to by a Wikipedia post.

The atheist who poses the problem [of evil] is left in the end with the conclusion that evil was really not worth worrying about in the first place. That is bad faith, and what seemed to be the moral force of his position is exposed as a mere self-serving indignation.

Now, look. It's one thing to claim that atheists are deluded, or irrational, when we apply moral notions to the world around us, or to a hypothetical God, claiming that the notion of morality is still important whether there are gods or not. It's quite another thing to accuse us of deliberate deception. I can assure you that we do not argue in bad faith, and yes, I am angered by the implication that we all do.

Oh, but that is nothing. After all, the author of that piece might be honestly deluded himself. Perhaps he really does believe that all atheists are nihilists who are out to get other people to join us by reason of our total lack of moral feeling. Others do not have this defence. A few months back, a friendly Christian who I met over the internet suggested that I listen to Ravi Zacharias' speech "Why I Am Not An Atheist". Regrettably I have been unable to find a transcript, but the MP3 is here. I myself didn't get past Part 1. After trotting out the "I am absolutely sure there is no God" definition of atheism, making the uncertainty of agnosticism sound weak and open to conversion, and completely ignoring the strong but sensible position taken by most self-described atheists on the existence of God, Zacharias really gets underway in the second half of that first MP3. First he explains -- no, he doesn't explain, he claims -- that atheism cannot support any idea of morality that is not "utilitarian, pragmatic, subjective or emotive". Don't you love the way he exploits the ambiguity in that term 'utilitarian'? It could refer to utilitarianism (which, whatever justification you give for it, is pretty darn absolute, actually, and popular among atheists, thereby raising difficulties with his point which he does not bother to address), or it could refer to the selfish pushing of morality in others for personal gain onesself. Then he decides to quote Nietzsche. At length. At loving, loving length, just to make atheism sound scary:

God is dead, and we have killed him. . . . Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not more night coming on us all the time? . . . That which was the holiest and mightiest of all the world has ever possessed has bled to death under our knives. . . . Is not this the greatest of deeds to great for us to handle? Must not we ourselves become God simply to seem worthy of it?

Got that, people? Don't kill God, it's too scary, and you'll turn us all into -- what was Dawkins' description? -- "jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."

Let me break here to point out that I myself actually didn't kill God. Others have done that for me. Nietzsche's incredibly evocative description of what it might be like to lose God has nothing to do with what it is like never to have had God in the first place; his evocation of the empty nihilism that comes when a worldview collapses has nothing to do with the calm knowledge that atheistic worldviews can still find meaning and beauty in the world. However, Zacharias does not expand on the idea of frightening emptiness, so obvious in the passage he quotes (which was, I must add, much longer than the little excerpt I have given you above). I'm sure he likes having it there, but ostensibly he is only introducing Nietzsche so that he can segue into "Any time I hear a man lambasting or criticising a religion for having caused bloodshed..."

The same people often forget of the bloodshed that has been shed in the name of atheism. Stalin was an avowed atheist. . . . He read Nietzsche. Adolf Hitler personally presented a copy of Nietzsche's writings to Benito Mussolini. . . .

See that? See that?

Zacharias isn't mistaken. He knows there's no evidence that Hitler was an atheist. He probably knows that Hitler said, many times, that he believed in God. He probably knows that the Nazis promoted "Nazi Christianity". How do I know Zacharias knows this? Because he never once actually claims that Hitler was an atheist. But he is content to give his listeners that impression. Furthermore, he is content to smear atheists by allowing us to be represented by a thinker like Nietzsche, rather than, say, John Stuart Mill, whose work On Liberty expounds ideas considered by many to be the foundation of a free and open society -- the very sort of society that fascism and communism threaten. Minority though we have been for most of history, atheists have nevertheless been disproportionately responsible for new ideas, and it is irresponsible for Zacharias to point out the more damaging ones while failing to acknowledge the work of atheists in finding the good ideas.

Oh, one last thing about Nietzsche's influence on Hitler. Martin Luther's influence on Hitler, particularly as regards the hatred of Jews, has also been extensively documented. Need I say more?

Zacharias is far too smart and well read for me to let him off the hook. He's smearing us deliberately. And yes, in case you haven't noticed, that makes me angry. Really angry. Not necessarily angry at religion as a whole, just angry at apologists who blatantly smear a whole group of perfectly good people, obviously knowing they're doing it, but doing it anyway.

I was going to finish up by saying that I'm not angry at religion, and that most of the time the things that really annoy me are lies -- lies and deliberate obfuscations. I was going to say that when I hear about the bad consequences of religion: war, torture, death by exorcism, ostracism of those outside, credulity and vulnerability to charlatans, slavery and the oppression of women and homosexuals . . . well, most of the time, while I pity the religious who are caught in their false worldviews, and wholeheartedly support efforts to abolish the suffering caused by religious fundamentalism, really I find it very difficult to be angry at anything other than the lies people tell. I'll blame them. I know there are other factors that lead to the evils of religion, and the injustice of this disproportionate assignation of blame might bother me if I had any sympathy for lies, but I don't.

I was going to say all that, and most of the time it would probably be true, but I seem to have worked myself into a right fury here. I guess maybe I am an angry atheist after all.


Alon said...

There's a real risk when you let any movement be run over by the perpetually angry. To be angry at a specific story on the news or in your life is human; to be angry every day at some other aspect of religion is fanatical.

There are a lot of theists who talk in length about atheist influence on Hitler. So what? Everyone of whatever persuasion is sure Hitler was on the other side. Liberalism Resurgent, a site I've seen linked on Democratic Underground one too many times, basically portrays Hitler as a natural extension of Christianity. It's all the shoddier because there's a complete account of the historical influences on Hitler in The Rise and the Fall of the Third Reich; people who're interested in the whole story don't have to resort to picking the bits and pieces that conform to their ideology.

That segment of the gay rights movement that concludes religion is the root cause of homophobia and thus must be stamped out is the most troubling. If there's anything we've learned in over a hundred years of social movements, it's that they're at the most successful when they can portray themselves as not out to change society entirely, but only to change one small aspect of it. This often invites backlashes from committed members of the movement later on: in the 1970s and 80s feminists lobbied for more funding for breast cancer research, so that now that it's gotten into the popular consciousness and assumed mainstream characteristics, they rant about how it objectifies women.

Anger at every stupid argument is a characteristic of those who are marginalized or who believe they are. People in the mainstream don't give a damn if some self-styled revolutionary is calling them names; it doesn't threaten them. That's why everybody left of David Horowitz ignores Noam Chomsky: Horowitz is the only person radical enough to need to portray Chomsky as a dangerous revolutionary rather than a forgettable ranter.

Lynet said...

Everyone of whatever persuasion is sure Hitler was on the other side.

I'd say, actually, that it requires a certain extremism to be sure Hitler was "on the other side". It's the flip side of a tendency I remember you noting in a post on your blog about people always being sure that the Bible, or the US constitution, is on their side.

That segment of the gay rights movement that concludes religion is the root cause of homophobia and thus must be stamped out is the most troubling.

Interesting point. I know from my own experience that there's a very real segment of the population which doesn't like homosexuality mostly because they're not used to the idea. In miniature, this can be seen with my all-atheist second sister, who says "I think homosexuals should be able to have civil unions with the same benefits as marriage, but not full marriage itself. Marriage is just, kind of -- you know."

Yep, fair enough, it takes a while for views to change. Still, it's no coincidence that views have taken far longer to change in America, especially those parts of America where fundamentalist religion holds sway. I guess what I'm saying is that the problems that people have in America with homosexuality do showcase religion at its inflexible, unreasonable worst.

Mind you, I'm wary of letting 'religion' be represented by the fundamentalists. Most of the religious people I know in New Zealand are more sensible than American fundamentalists by an order of magnitude. Partly I sometimes wonder if I'd be more squicked if they didn't keep their weird beliefs out of the public eye most of the time, but most of the time I'd say they really don't do much harm, open acceptance of the idea of blind faith notwithstanding.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post. You've made so many points worth discussing that I'll need to print the post and mark up a copy before commenting. I'll either respond here, or, if I get too loquacious for a comment, I'll post something on my blog within a couple of days.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the alleged Nietzsche/Hitler connection: It's important to note that Nietzsche, whatever his other views, was strongly opposed to anti-Semitism. He wasn't all that fond of Germans, either, actually. See:

It's an excellent point, Lynet, that Zacharias takes some pains to imply that Hitler was an atheist without ever actually saying it. I agree that this can only indicate a conscious effort at deception. He thinks his followers are fools, and he wants them to believe and promote this pernicious stereotype while still retaining plausible deniability for those educated people who know it's not true. This is something we should definitely point out to fans of Zacharias whenever we have the opportunity.

Anonymous said...

You said of Christian Scientists that they "pollute the term 'science.'" This is true, but they are not the only ones. Evangelicals and fundies are quick to cite science that they suggest supports their beliefs. That's why cosmology and the Big Bang are popular in Christian circles right now. Fundies and evangies want to take the good bits of science (those they can use) and discard the bad ones. Well, what else would one expect? That's the same sort of cherry-picking they do with their holy scriptures, why would we think they'd be any more honest in dealing with scientific matter? I agree with you, the misappropriations and distortions of science represented by this use of cosmology, and those of the ID movement, make me angry.

Arguing against the straw man of strong atheism is a typical ploy of Christian apologists. I think it's inscribed in Chapter One of the Apologist's Manual. Atheists have to recognize this ploy, as you did, and call apologists on it every time they try it. We cannot let them define us, and we cannot argue on their terms. Ever.

Does Zacharias ever explain what he thinks is wrong with utilitarian, pragmatic, subjective, or emotive bases for morality? Or does he just do the usual apologist's trick of throwing them out in a scary voice and simply implying they must be bad? As you note, utilitarianism works pretty well as a component of a moral system. Pragmatism, learning what works by trial and error (in other words, based on scientific investigation), is not a bad route either, especially when combined with a humanist philosophy. Moreover, a pragmatic + humanist basis of morals would not be subjective, it would be objective, based on sound experimental findings and logical reasoning. That's much stronger and more objective than god-said-it.

Finally, I love what you said about the famous Nietzsche passage that is so beloved by Christians (probably the only bit of his writing that many of them have ever read). That despair over the disintegration of a worldview is exactly what the initial stages of deconversion feel like. It's a thoroughly destabilizing experience and I understand fully why many Christians are afraid of going there. It's not a process for the faint of heart.

I've said enough, so I'll close now. Thanks for a great post.

Alon Levy said...

Arguing against the straw man of strong atheism is a typical ploy of Christian apologists.

Sure, and arguing against the strawman of unreconstructed fundamentalism is a typical ploy of radical atheists. It's chapter one of their book; chapter two is to portray anyone who fails to be an extremist as wishy-washy.

If you want to talk about "Arguing in their terms," let me say this: nobody cares about those debates. If you think screaming at people that there's no evidence for God will deconvert them, or make them more sympathetic to new atheism, you're as delusional as the clowns who think that they're going to get a single additional convert out of Antony Flew's conversion. If you want to be rigorous about it, you have to answer what people ask of you. You can unask the question, or point out to nonconventional answers, but that requires argument. If all you care about is having fewer theists and more atheists, then stop the hand-wringing and concentrate on doing things that matter to the average non-philosopher.

Lynet said...

Sure, and arguing against the strawman of unreconstructed fundamentalism is a typical ploy of radical atheists.

Um, hello? There's a certain amount of unreconstructed fundamentalism in American politics. The straw man isn't nearly fictitious enough for a lot of people. There really are plenty of Christians who say they believe everything the Bible says.

And thank you for informing us all that nobody cares about reasoned debates, but let me inform you that I do. Whether or not the people on the other side are being rational (and some of them are honestly trying), I care about whether or not my worldview actually does check out, and a reasoned debate with an intelligent person on the other side can be a great way to gain some insight, there.

If you think screaming at people that there's no evidence for God will deconvert them...

For a guy who is so strongly (and, I admit, sometimes usefully) against straw men, you do fire at a few of your own. I have yet to see the chaplain scream at anyone. If you think I am screaming uselessly, by all means say so, but in general that isn't my style either.

If you want to be rigorous about it, you have to answer what people ask of you. You can unask the question, or point out to nonconventional answers, but that requires argument.

Uh, yeah. I don't think the comment about not arguing on their terms was meant to imply otherwise.

Finally, I'd like to point out that religious people do set store by apologists' arguments, and apologists do misrepresent atheism in all sorts of ways, and pointing out those misconceptions is as useful to becoming better understood as it is to actually 'winning' a debate. Because, in case you haven't noticed, making more atheists isn't the only thing anyone cares about.

Anonymous said...

Alon said:
"Sure, and arguing against the strawman of unreconstructed fundamentalism is a typical ploy of radical atheists."

Lynet has already addressed the point that unreconstructed fundamentalism, in the USA, at any rate, is not a straw man. Tens of millions of Americans hold these views. Moreover, her post is explicitly about the argument presented by a very conservative evangelical, if not, fundamentalist, apologist. And he did, in fact, argue against a straw man construction of atheism. Therefore, my comment is not at all unreasonable, let alone radical.

I don't consider myself a "radical atheist" by any means. I'm not out to deconvert anyone to my side. I'm not saying people of faith are stupid. I simply do not believe in any god. Now, some may consider me radical simply by virtue of the fact that I am an atheist. In that case, the term "radical atheist" is redundant. The notion of "radical" would simply be an inherent characteristic of the term "atheist."

I probably could have expressed myself more clearly regarding the issue of arguing, or conversing, if you prefer, on mutually accepted terms. Take, for example, Zacharias' insistence that atheists assert positively that there is no god. Few atheists will accept that as an acceptable representation of their position. If Zacharias insists that his definition is the only one that he will accept for the purposes of discussion or otherwise, then there is no point in continuing the discussion. Two people cannot debate or discuss an issue if they cannot even agree on the basic definitions of the terms under examination. I was simply pointing out that atheists must pay attention to the definitions that Christians are using, and either accept those terms, negotiate for a different understanding that both parties can agree to use consistently throughout the discussion, or dispense with the discussion altogether rather than continuing to talk past each other, each believing the other is using the terminology in the same way when, in fact, they are not.

L.L. Barkat said...

Why, yes, there's much to be angry about. In all the world. Really. I once did a post on anger and it remains, to date, my most briskly commented post. (As long as you don't count that post where the party got out of hand... I'm still "cleaning up" nachos from under the couch. ;-)

Which is to say that anger is a fascinating subject. That theist and atheist alike can identify with.

Now, a quick note on your end thoughts. Religion has sometimes been a cloak for unjustifiably evil intentions. Putting God on one's side seems to justify these intentions, at least to an ignorant public. But you know what I like about God? This kind of reprehensible behavior makes God pretty angry too. (Um, uh oh, did I just suggest you are made in the image of God? Don't be angry, okay?)

L.L. Barkat said...

Oh, this was on my mind while I was cutting broccoli, and I thought to share it. Let God speak for Godself...

"I hate, I despise your festivals...Even though you offer me your...offerings, I will not accept them....Take away from me the noise of your songs...But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." (Amos 5:21-24)

Yup, a little anger there. And a call to get rid of rotten religion.

Lynet said...

But you know what I like about God? This kind of reprehensible behavior makes God pretty angry too. (Um, uh oh, did I just suggest you are made in the image of God? Don't be angry, okay?)

I do like your sense of humour.

L.L. Barkat said...

Oh, very good. I was hoping you'd take it in the humorous spirit in which it was written! :) (That is just me... I often see the humor in things, where others do not. Sigh of relief then.)

OneSmallStep said...

** But of course they are. "Christian Science" is a contradiction in terms, for it refers to science that will only accept conclusions that seem to support religious dogma, and that is not science at all.**

It's been a very long day for me, so I may be missing the point here, but I'm a little confused at your source of anger. Are you equating Christian Science with creationism? As in, the "science" is in the Bible, such as a literal six days of creation and so forth, and reject anything that doesn't match up to that?

I think I understand in the sense that you feel they don't love the concept of science or the sacrifice involved in the search for truth, regardless of whether the truth matches a worldview -- as in, one willing to change to match "the truth," even if it means changing one's belief structure.

Lynet said...

It's been a very long day for me, so I may be missing the point here, but I'm a little confused at your source of anger. Are you equating Christian Science with creationism?

Actually, I admit, I don't precisely know what I'm talking about. Maybe I should step in there and read some of the literature they supply. The reason I haven't is because I'm as aware as anyone that deliberately setting out to become infuriated isn't the best way to stay in touch with the big picture. If I thought their literature would actually challenge my viewpoint, it would be a different matter, but that's really not likely.

The "prayer works" sign irritates me because I know that double-blind studies of the effect of prayer on medical patients generally produce no appreciable result. What sort of science can tell you that prayer works? Studies with bad methodology? Non-repeatable flukes?

Now, there is as much disagreement over what it would mean for prayer to work as there is over the question of what prayer is for in the first place. After all, hypothetically speaking, you aren't telling God anything he doesn't already know. Some people would say that prayer works if it calms you or strengthens your belief in God, and I am sure that it can do both, whatever your religion. But if the question is "Does God change what he does as a result of entreaty?" then so far the evidence points towards a "no" answer. Thus, I don't see what "Christian Science" could have to say on the matter without distorting the evidence. Distorting the evidence and calling it science? Definitely a pollution of the term.

I think it makes me particularly angry because I know I can be tempted to distort the evidence myself (interesting psychology, here). I go to a lot of trouble to be aware of my biases, but I know I fail sometimes and need other people to pull me up short before I jump to the wrong conclusions. When that happens, I get a little bit mad at myself. So when I see other people, as I view it, deliberately giving their biases free reign and not feeling a shred of guilt about it -- feeling proud of it, even, in the case of faith -- and pulling those proudly biased opinions into science, the very practice where the endeavour to be objective reaches its pinnacle -- well, I guess I feel all the more angry, because I think they should be sorry for what they do, but they're not.

OneSmallStep said...


**Actually, I admit, I don't precisely know what I'm talking about.**

I do find it admirable that you are not stepping in there while infuriated, as that would distort whatever you read. I've been in that position, where I simply can't listen to someone, because I won't give their viewpoint the consideration it deserves.

The reason why Christian Science is called as such is because there is a belief that God's laws can be ... well, scientifically applied to daily life, in all sorts of ways. The law that God is good, that He loves you, and so forth. There are certain laws that simply do not change, much like certain laws in science. They feel these laws can be proven, much like in the scientific world. They would find evidence for this in their daily lives, such as healings, or the resolution of an emotional problem or family conflicts and so on.

What it does not do is a hold an expectation that praying to God is like pleading with God to change His/Her mind. God's mind does not change, in CS. What changes in terms of prayer is aligning oneself to how God sees and creates you. That's where the "healing" comes in --the change in one's perception.

I know of the studies on prayer and such, but with many Christian Scientists, that is not going to match what they've seen in their lives, in terms of how prayer functions.

I do know quite a few Christian Scientists, and I was raised in the religion. I realize that may automatically make me biased in a way. ;) I'm not trying to change your mind, I just want to make sure that if you are angry with the religion or the ideas it promotes, you're angry for the right reasons.

However, I'm sure that there are some Christian Scientists out there who would distort and such. Every religion has its fundamentalists. But there are also many Christian Scientists who have a great deal of respect for the scientific field, and enjoy learning everything that's out there, in terms of physics, chemistry, cosmology, biology and so forth. There are Christian Scientists who are in those fields as well.

If it helps, I do get just as angry as you do over distorting the evidence, such as what creationists do. The truth should be the truth, regardless of what one book says or what a religion says.

Lynet said...

Thanks for the information. You've made me realise that I do have good reason to look into what they're actually saying, at least; maybe they're not doing what I assumed they were doing.

Lynet said...

Mind you, it's still not science. How many of "God's Laws" that they refer to are falsifiable by any sort of evidence?

OneSmallStep said...


**How many of "God's Laws" that they refer to are falsifiable by any sort of evidence?**

This is where it might be a bit tricky. If I'm remembering correctly, "falsifiable" is that a theory can be proven right or wrong, based on the facts. You set up a hypothesis, and then see if the tests and evidence confirm or deny the hypothesis.

So I *think* (and I stress think here because there isn't an official stance on this within the religion, but just my conjecture) that based on how it describes the laws, it would say that it is falsifiable, because they can be proven based on experience. However, the laws themselves would not be a hypothesis, because it's not treated as uncertain, but an unalterable fact. The fact is that God is good, and thus there's no test to prove the goodness of God. But one's life and experiences are confirmation of that fact.

So I'm not sure if it qualifies as science in that way. But it still does have respect for those in the scientific fields, and the truths that those fields find. Unlike creationists.