Saturday, December 24, 2011

Cracked’s Gladstone wants atheists to stop picking on believers

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Scarlet letter of atheism

Well, this sucks. Here I was, having a perfectly mundane Christmas eve, when I came across this article about four snarky clichés employed by both sides of the atheo-religious divide. Now, I ordinarily have nothing but zealous adoration for Cracked (something made readily evident by even a cursory search of this blog), but I’m afraid I’m gonna have to take it to task now for royally screwing the pooch with its depiction of atheists and their beef(s) with religion(ists). Bah, humbug.

Practically right off the bat, the post starts with a strawman:

After all, God -- like the Loch Ness Monster or that Canadian girl I lost my virginity to junior year -- can neither be proven nor disproven. And given that, it always seems to take an act of both extreme faith and arrogance to mock the very notion of a God or to tell others you know precisely what He is thinking.

Except that atheists don’t “mock the very notion of a God”, in the sense of ridiculing the merest possibility that a supernatural force may exist. Even the most hardlined of nonbelievers will readily concede that it’s always possible that something might be out there. What atheists do act so indignantly dismissive towards is the God(s) as is/are paraded around by theists and their holy books, supposed entities proven to have been conjured up by humans long ago and whose alleged feats (global floods, Creation myths, etc.) can be empirically disproven by modern science and historical documentation. If you’re going to write a post haranguing atheists (either in part or as a whole) for their supposed wrongful treatment of theists and their beliefs, it would be best not to start off with a mischaracterization of your own.

Onwards to the first point: Believers need to stop declaring that “God hates <X>”, because A) they can’t actually know their God’s mind, B) their holy books were written by people, not supernatural beings, and C) and it makes them arrogant assholes to preach their beliefs by singling out everything their chosen deity detests. Fair enough.

But immediately afterwards comes thing #2 and the tone-trolling:

God Is Not Great was the 2007 anti-religion book by popular atheist and author Christopher Hitchens. Last week, Hitchens -- known for his intellect, eloquence and insufferable arrogance -- achieved his life-long goal of becoming God by ceasing to exist.

I get the impression that’s meant as a barb, but I can’t really address it as I have no idea what the hell it even means.

I take issue with how deliberately and needlessly provocative the phrase is. Also, how illogical. "Hey man, this God you believe in that I totally don't believe in? Yeah, well, he sucks!" Kind of tries too hard, y'know? I mean, after all, if chicks think you're a badass for saying your old man or your High School principal sucks, then, wow, imagine what a rebel you are for saying God sucks.

Kind of misses the point, actually. The idea is not to warrantlessly snipe at believers by belittling what they believe in, but to generally make it clear that however intensely they may believe in the all-encompassing supremacy of their deity, it does not give it any significance for us, nor do their beliefs grant them any immunity from criticism. Religion is still one of the most heavily shielded discussion topics in this modern age, where the merest slight inevitably leads to insanely overblown retaliations against whoever dared question what fables others believe in. Until the religious understand and accept that even their tightly-held beliefs are fair game for anyone to attack, as well as any other subject in the universe, then this relentless godless onslaught – of tamely reminding them that their God doesn’t matter to us – shall (and must) continue. It’s called free speech.

But my main complaint is that most purveyors of this sentiment don't really have a beef with God. Even Hitchens' book mostly tears apart the abuses of organized religion, particularly Judaism, Islam and Christianity. I'm surprised how often atheists conflate the two things. Of course organized religion sucks. It's run by people. Religion, like government or anything structured and administered by humanity, will always be flawed and ruined by all of our weaknesses and failings.

Hang on – religion sucks because it’s run by humans, therefore, atheists shouldn’t criticize it?

And given how much we suck, why shut the door completely on the possibility of something in this universe being better, stronger and wiser? Something we could strive to be more like? It's always seemed to me that the most virulent atheists -- not mere nonbelievers, but those who claim to be positive about God's nonexistence and openly hostile to anyone who could think otherwise -- are incapable of believing there could ever be something greater than they. Not a lack of faith so much as humility. Certainly, that's not true for all atheists, but it doesn't help the atheist cause that the three most hostile atheists I can think of are also on the short-list for most overbearingly arrogant.

[pictured: Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher, Penn Jillette]

Again with the strawmanning. No, atheists (even the radical ones) are not “incapable of believing there could ever be something greater than they”, and nor do they snap their jaws whenever someone so much as hints to the possibility of the contrary. Really, it would rather help if you actually had an idea what atheists were really about before bashing them. (And also, counting Penn “believers should absolutely proselytize if they believe in Hell!” Jillette as an example of “overbearing arrogance” rather undoes your whole point.)

We then arrive at #3: The devout should stop claiming that “God helps those who help themselves” because all the people who do their utmost best and still end up failing and suffering clearly disproves this insufferable canard. Again, agreed.

But once more, he then defeats his purpose with the next point: Atheists think God-belief is a fairy tale for morons!

In support of this intellectual elitism, some atheists will say that skepticism is the sign of an active and curious mind -- traits consistent with learning. Fair point. They will point to creationists and stem cell research protestors as people placing obstacles in the path of progress, and I'll agree with that too. But there is a difference between questioning the stupidity of dogmatic, close-minded zealots perpetrating institutional abuses and simply mocking sincerely held religious beliefs by equating faith with stupidity.


If you want to convince yourself that ignorance loves atheists as much as the devout just spend some time watching the flame wars between these factions online. Usually not a trace of intelligence. Just the worst aspects of blind faith from believers and atheists alike: some with unquestioning beliefs in a God just like the one in that Book, and other holding onto an undying conviction that nothing could be more divine than a mind with the ability to deny the existence of anything more divine.

Now, I’m not going to deny that some YouTube-dwelling atheists aren’t as idiotic and childish in their attacks as any other denizens of the less civilized realms of the Interwebs, but Gladstone seems to imply that a majority of atheists are guilty of calling religion a spiritual crutch for stupid believers. And he pretty much leaves it there.

Once again, he fails to understand a key element to the whole debacle: Faith is a crutch for those lacking in the ability to think rationally. That’s it’s very definition: to believe in something for which there is no evidence, no logic – ie. no credible reason to believe in it at all. Not that “God is just a fairy tale for stupid people!” isn’t a childish way to put it, but there is an undeniable and significant underlying truth to it. And this is possibly the reason why believers are so ruffled in their feathers when on the receiving end of such barbs. Not because they don’t sincerely believe in their dogma – only the ignorant and irrational would deny it – but because it forces them to confront the fact that, no matter how deep their convictions run, how tightly they hold onto their religious teachings, all the evidence in the world they have to support their entire system of beliefs is limited to the writings from ancient books (and derivations thereof) that don’t make a lick of common sense.

They’re told that a man was nailed to a cross, left to die and then thrown in a cave, only to come back from the dead – yet they don’t hang around morgues waiting for their recently departed loved ones to spring back to life. They’re taught that praying deeply and desperately enough will grant them anything they wish – yet they have jobs like anyone else to put food on the table. They’re made to believe in stories of parting oceans, global floods and talking snakes – yet they’d be the first to go apoplectic, as they should, if such things were ever announced on the news or taught in school science classes. For all the bunk they’re spoon-fed since their earliest years, they somehow don’t appear to live in the expectancy of any of these things actually being true, or even minimally plausible, in the real world around them.

Maybe it’s because even the most deluded theists still have some minimal ability to think critically and to recognize buliatch when they see it. You can argue about sincerity of belief and passion of conviction all you want, but in the end of the day, even the most fervent of believers in God’s mercy aren’t testing their faith by walking off fifth-storey ledges.

I believe this is primarily why atheists are so adept at getting under believers’ skin without even any apparent effort. It’s not just because they dare question what theists believe; it’s not even because they’re increasingly standing up to God-believers’ long-standing monopoly on spiritual matters and upsetting the status quo. It’s because, regardless of how mean and foul-mouthed they may be, what they’re saying is really poking believers right in the rational thinking center of their brains.

And as long as atheists keep stirring up trouble – again, merely by standing up for their own beliefs and rejecting the parasitic religious doctrines that have held society in an iron grip for so long – believers will continue to cry persecution and martyrdom. All because those danged nonbelievers just wouldn’t stay quiet like good little urchins and not cause anyone any discomfort.