Thursday, May 8, 2014

Arguments That Need Amending

Being in the atheist community means being exposed to the way disbelievers handle the believers.  There is a wide array of behavioral patterns ranging from the sorts of immature crowing that lends some credence to the accusations that we atheists are so "angry" and "miserable" all the time to the broadly academic and thorough.  People who throw out the clever insights and people who make idiotic misappropriations that are no better than religious nutbars accusing us of wanting to sin all the time.  It's all over the place.  And yes, this is largely a sign of the fact that atheism as a community flag has nothing unifying it beyond a common lack of belief.  At the very least, a religion has a large set of overarching dogma and therefore multiple things you have to share with your fellow believer to be part of the same club.

Well, even Answers in Genesis goes as far as to include a wide array of common YEC arguments that YECs should stop using.  So that at least says that they are willing to recognize that some arguments just don't work, or at the very least need some sort of modification to bring them up to a meaningful status.  It's a little ironic to think that even the side which is run by a man who unwittingly brags about the inherently illogical and irrational status of his position would be willing to apply at least some criticism to his own brothers-in-bollocks.

In theory, atheists are supposed to be the side that shows more reason, rationality and skepticism on the whole, though that is at best a loose generalization.  Nonetheless, we, as a community, tend to get things wrong quite often.  Atheism by itself is not really tied to intellectual rigor in particular, but the reverse is typically the case.  Those of us who are more open and out there about our atheism (and as such, will be active in the atheist community) will be those who are more likely to make silly mistakes as well.  It's no surprise really, because these are the people who are most vocally frustrated with the venom in religion's bite.  That kind of frustration only leads to errors in thought processes clouded by the righteous ire that is so abundantly roused by the idiocy with which we are adversarial.  That coupled with the nature of internet community dynamics means that one can very easily fall prey to memes and patterns that other people used just because they were there.  The very same people we usually might see as critical thinkers (e.g. Thunderf00t, Jaclyn Glenn, PZ Myers, Matt Dillahunty, et al) all make the occasional slip-up because they're just too angry and too fuming to temper their thoughts.  It's only natural.  We're human, too.  What becomes problematic is when those little missteps spread more than the better, more well-thought out arguments.  So here are a few arguments that I feel are really being misused, misstated, or are just plain wrong and just too popular.  Note that I'm largely avoiding the more rare or obscure ones, so this is about those that appear to be a little more widespread than, say, 2nd decalogue arguments.
1 ) Stop martyring Giordano Bruno.  I can understand why he's a popular pick, since he makes for a good example of the sort of cruelty the church will exercise in the interests of protecting its dogma.  Bruno got to experience being burned at the stake while having his tongue nailed to his lower jaw and an iron gag clamping his mouth shut.  Even the modern Catholic position on him is one that doesn't even try to apologize for Bruno the way they at least admitted that Galileo was ultimately correct... in 1993. That's all valid if the subject matter is to talk about the dark history of Catholicism.  However, what I have a problem with is the idea that this makes for any sort of point against religion, as well as the notion that Bruno is some sort of martyr for science.  If anything, he was more a theosophist than a scientist.

Christians in particular often like to throw out the boldfaced lie that Hitler was an atheist as if that proves something.  Now even aside from the fact that this is patently false, I'm pretty sure that if you've ever heard this, you've all probably pointed out that even if it was true, it would be entirely irrelevant because Hitler is still an individual madman who does not speak for everyone anymore than Mussolini spoke for all Italians.  The truth or falsehood of a belief has nothing to do with who believes it.  An idea has to stand or fall on its own.  Likewise, it should work the other way around -- the Catholic church torturing Bruno has no impact on whether or not Catholic doctrine holds water.  If Bruno's thoughts about the universe had been accepted openly, would that have made transubstantiation any more plausible?

On the "science" point, there was nothing scientific about Giordano Bruno's process, and this is something that the first episode of the new Cosmos made sure to point out.  Sure, he hit upon an idea that, in broad strokes, is scientifically correct and stood by it.  But his process of getting there was really an extrapolation that combined the existence of earlier ideas with his own understanding of his faith.  Yeah, Bruno is actually probably the only major example of someone who arrived at an ostensibly correct answer by faith.  While this sounds like I'm giving faith-based beliefs some degree of credit here, I'm really not.  The thing is that if faith actually offered a pathway to truth, then arriving at some semblance or portion of ideas which are actually true should not be a rarity.  It's one thing to be the first to arrive at a new idea, but when you have an actual pathway to knowledge, it doesn't take much for everybody to arrive at the same idea by the same means that you did.  That never happened for Bruno's faith.  We eventually did arrive at that truth by investigation of the evidence.  At best, what Bruno did can be amounted as a lucky chance occurrence.  And that is the really important lesson.  Even when someone who walks by faith does happen to be right on something, it's either an utterly trivial truth, or they are basically right by accident.  So which seems reliable?  Searching and finding new information, adapting, and amending prior positions on the basis of that new information, or simply proclaiming something and being right exclusively by accident?

2 ) Stop misquoting or taking quotes out of context.  This is something we often chide the religious for doing, but the problem is that I see too much of it in the atheist community as well.  The founding fathers get the bulk of this, whereas more contemporary quotes tend to be fairly accurate, albeit sometimes quite meaningless on their own. To be fair, though, I think it's a lot better to be quoting some of the more contemporary atheist voices as well as some of the philosophers out there such as Hume or Spinoza.  The reason being that merely quoting someone of considerable repute is not really quite meaningful, but a lot of these people will at least be able to offer quotes that have some meaningful content to them.  i.e. I don't care that Richard Dawkins said 'X'...  I care what it is he said, and if that substance makes for a rather good point.  Even here, though, out of context makes for a small problem, because a lot of modifiers and adjectives that are implied by context may get omitted from a sentence in isolation (this is especially problematic with any Bertrand Russell quote).

Outside of that, though, people occasionally just seem to want to throw out quotes by random famous people throughout history, many of which don't make for very substantive points.  For instance, take the Ben Franklin quote "Lighthouses are more useful than churches"...  at best, this only forms a statement of opinion and/or personal feelings on the matter.  Unfortunately, there's no real evidence that he ever said this.  It's more of a summary of something Franklin supposedly wrote, which according to a collection of memoirs, actually says something more along the lines of the fact that a Catholic would probably build a church at a particular site, whereas he as a non-religious person would probably prefer to build a lighthouse.  Although this at most indicates sentiments along the lines of the misquote, it's really not so cut and dry as that.

Another popular one is John Adams saying "This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it"...  this, he technically said, but it is taken a little out of context.  The full context is that he stated that he has found himself wanting to say exactly that, but then stopping himself realizing that it would indicate him to be just as fanatical as the fanatics he condemns.  He mentions his boyhood parish priest, Lemuel Bryant, and his former Latin teacher, Joseph Cleverly by name in this particular quote.  In the full correspondence with Jefferson, Adams went on to allude to the significance of religion in society and history, and then draw a sort of corollary between conscience and some semblance of a pseudo-religion.  This letter on the whole doesn't really speak much to Adams' overall view of religion, but most of his other works largely indicate that it is predominantly negative with a few bright points, as it was for many of the founding fathers.  I don't think atheists in general even today really argue that religion was not significant or meaningful in human history or culture, but merely that it is false, and if anti-theist, that it is harmful in the here and now and holds no worthwhile value going forward.

Quoting the Bible or other "holy books" out of context does happen within the atheist community more often than you might think.  Here in the Western World, where Christianity is the dominant religion, it actually seems to happen most often when we are quoting the New Testament.  This is one of those cases where quoting it out of context is particularly a strange move, because more often than not, putting it into context implies an even worse meaning than when taken out of context.  Take for instance, the line from Luke 19:27, where Jesus effectively says to kill the unbelievers.  Now, out of context, it could be taken to be an isolated incidence, but in context, he's actually telling a parable;  not really issuing a specific order.  The thing is that having it be a parable is actually worse because that implies that it's intended as a universal generalization. i.e., he's not telling people to kill the dissenters who are there at some particular moment;  he's saying that as a rule, nonbelievers deserve to pay the ultimate price for their lack of belief.

3 ) Try to avoid the "Jesus never existed" argument.  Note that I didn't say to stop using it, but merely to avoid it if you can.  The simple reason I say this is because it opens up a pretty gigantic can of worms, and one needs to be prepared to fight that fight.  Unfortunately, if your material to support this comes from films like Zeitgeist or The God Who Wasn't There (which appears to be the case for a lot of people who aren't religious scholars themselves), you've more or less lost this battle.  These are both terribly flawed sources and make some connections that are really tenuous themselves.  The strongest argument I think anyone can make is that there is no contemporaneous corroboration for Jesus' existence.  This is unarguably true, but the problem is that there will never be a theist who takes that to mean only that much.  They will always take it to mean that you are stating flat out that there was no such person.  Lack of corroboration only implies that the stories and the tales are at the very best, extreme exaggerations and composites and adoptions of older tales into one character.  Christopher Hitchens actually once pointed out that the level of inconsistency of the Jesus narrative is itself some small degree of indication that there may well have been such a person that the character was based on -- i.e. if it was entirely fiction, it would have been easier to just write the narrative in a self-consistent way, while someone who is based on some level in fact is subject to having those facts mixed with fiction, and have some clunky dickering about to make things seem to fit together.

The thing is that even if you DO take ancient texts as historical documentation, it still wouldn't matter.  The nature of a "historian" in those days, in just about any culture in the world, was not someone who sought to put forth raw hard facts, but to express generalizations in order to get an idea across.  When modern historians look at the records of Plutarch or Arrian and see that at the Battle of Gaugamela, Darius had 1 million troops to Alexander's 100,000, they don't read that as hard fact.  Instead, they see it as something to impress upon you that Alexander was seriously outnumbered.  Realistic figures are probably closer to 80,000 vs 45,000 with Darius having a greater variety of tools of war (e.g. elephants, chariots, etc) -- and hence many more units on the field -- that Alexander didn't have.  Historians of the era use hyperbole like this just to make a point, not to espouse hard fact.  This is closely related to why legends and tall tales of various cultures have so much overlap.  Rama's feat with stringing the Shiva Dhanush is a tale that is echoed as a feat of Odysseus after his return home from the Odyssey (except for the fact that Odysseus actually succeeded, while Rama broke the bow).  Jesus' miracle with the loaves and fishes has a parallel in Krishna's miracle with a grain of rice.  Variants of these same stories ultimately get the same basic point across, and that's all that really matters.  If you can take an old story and or legend that had already been around and you want to make the same point about somebody else, you're going to adapt an old tale to the new narrative.  The takeaway here is that even if it was entirely historical, the nature of how history gets recorded in that era is pretty much always in the form of pseudo-parables and simile.  In short, even if you take the Bible as "historical", that still makes it 100% metaphor from cover to cover.

There are stronger arguments you can make to support the mythicism position, but the reality is that they get pretty esoteric, and you also need to be privy to a lot of ancillary knowledge to drive it home.  In practice, if you're dealing with the average theist (and not a scholar of theology), it's hard to say that it's worth the effort to explain this.  To be honest, I fall in the mythicist category as well, but I don't think it's worth arguing it to even serious Christian theologians, because they're just too invested in their belief system to exercise any element of intellectual honesty in addressing the subject.

4 ) Stop using the "everyone is born atheist" point.  Sure, it's true on the basis of a semantic technicality, but that sort of game-playing is a pretty shallow point.  Newborn children don't have the background knowledge or experience to be able to form beliefs in the first place.  When you get down to it, we should be arguing towards that prime thesis that atheism is the only logically tenable position to take -- that it is the null hypothesis and so on.  You don't get anywhere by including people who have yet to form cogent beliefs of any kind into the fold.  One could get into the distinction between implicit and explicit atheism here (and this is sort of related to the "we're all atheists to the gods of other religions"/"one god further" argument as well), but when you get right down to it, no one is interested or concerned with implicit atheism.

The real point we should be driving at is the fact that childhood indoctrination and brainwashing is the one and only vehicle by which religion can exercise its control.  That's very different from atheism which most people have actually arrived at on their own.  In the first of my Dialogues with Hopeless Delusional Idiots series, I brought up the hypothetical of an impressionable young child vs. a highly educated adult, both of whom are completely ignorant of religion and/or religious dogma.  Between those two, would a religious person have an equally easy time convincing both of these people of their view?  Why or why not?  Furthermore, would an atheist have an equally easy time with both of them, and why or why not?  If there was some evident truth to religion, there would be no need for one's beliefs to be a personal thing.  If there was some evident truth to any faith-based belief system, why is childhood indoctrination necessary at all?  Anything that is evidently true will be known even if you leave people to their own devices.  If the theist is on the right track, then doubting and challenging them to put forth a solid argument can't possibly pose a threat.  No amount of doubt will negate that which is true, but doubt will most certainly tear down lies and delusions, and that is why theists always feign victimhood when they're called on their bullshit.

5 ) The "Priests Rape Children" meme is often horribly misplaced.  It's an argument against specific church organizations, and probably more than any other, the Vatican, which takes great measures to keep it hidden and protect the offenders.  This really applies all the same to the idea Mother Teresa was a sick and twisted individual who relished the suffering of others.  Yes, it's all true, but it's pretty immaterial to the issue of religion.  It's no better than the religious nutbars who try to convince us that Hitler was an atheist, therefore atheism is evil.  Hitler was also a vegetarian, so that makes vegetarianism evil?  This sort of argument is invalid when they do it, and it's every bit as invalid when we do it.

I did say, of course, that it's horribly misplaced, not that it was something we should stop using entirely.  The thing is that if the discussion is about the Catholic Church itself and that they themselves aren't to be trusted or respected, this is a point worth making.  But in the larger context of religion itself, the strongest argument you can make from pointing out that, say, Joel Osteen is a fraudster is that his followers should switch over to a different church.  It doesn't make for an argument against the religion itself nor does it make an argument for rejection of the supernatural.  There are plenty of good arguments you can make to that effect, and as long as we're talking about religion and its core issues, that's where we should be confining the argument.  Religion in general is a massive systematization of wishful thinking and intellectual laziness, and it's quite easy to show that without having to look at religious institutions alone.

Now I will say that bringing up points about religious and/or religion-guided atrocities is relevant to the matter of anti-theism...  mainly because the thesis of anti-theism centers around the fact that religion is on the whole a harmful element in society; your primary point now becomes not that religious beliefs aren't true, but that it's a bad thing to have them.  Atrocities and crimes and the darker side of religion is definitely meaningful for that.  Even here, though, I would prefer to avoid the Catholic Pedophilia Club example merely because it is still only one organization.  I tend to prefer pointing fingers at things like the honor killings, the crazy parents who prefer faith healing over medical care, the anti-women legislation, the hate crimes and violence in the name of religion, the caste bigotry, etc.  These sorts of things are much more widespread and far-reaching...  and they're more common, making them all the more atrocious despite being a plurality of events which are individually quite small on their own.  You also don't have to look at any one particular institution, religious belief system, or organization to find it.  These are the sorts of things that happen not because of some shady dealings behind closed doors, but out there in the public with random people in random places because of how religion has poisoned their minds.

6 ) Take it easy with the whole 'Tax The Churches' business.  It's very easy to make a sound bite out of taxing the churches, and when you're focusing on those megachurches that have fleeced so much money out of people that preachers actually buy their own private 747s...  well, it sure seems like there's a huge amount of taxable income there that could cover a large tax revenue shortage.  That said, though, I think the people who believe this is all too significant really have a hard time grasping the magnitudes of the numbers we're dealing with here.  Even if we taxed every church like any other business, you're still not looking at a huge dent when you're dealing with budget deficits on magnitudes shouldering a trillion dollars.

Religious organizations are tax-exempt under the same section of the law as other non-profits (501(c)).  The real point we should be making here is about the effort non-profits have to make to attain and maintain their tax-exempt status.  For religious organizations, this is a zero-effort process.  A typical charity organization has to provide volumes of financial records to the IRS every year to show that they are indeed still operating as a non-profit.  Churches are not required to do this.  They get to not pay taxes merely by declaring a religious affiliation.  Furthermore, if any other 501(c) organization endorses or donates to any political campaign or PAC, they lose their tax-exempt status.  No such penalty for religious 501(c)'s.  This kind of inconsistency constitutes a free ride and special treatment for religious groups, and that is the thing that is unacceptable in every way, and that's the point you should be making.

The thing about putting it this way is a ) Subjecting all organizations under a certain legal definition to the same rules and restrictions is by definition, fair.  Giving any one subset special privileges is, by definition, unfair.  Moreover, it makes the legal code more complicated.  This much, at least can never be open to debate.  Those who would have a problem with this are necessarily demanding special privileges, not fairness.  b ) If indeed religious 501(c)'s are genuinely validated in their tax-exempt status, then forcing them to prove it should not change anything.  At worst, it means they have more paperwork to deal with come tax time, but no actual taxes would need to be paid.  In essence, if it is indeed fair to place them under this sort of exemption, then the only "pain" they might experience is clerical effort -- and again, this is something all other 501(c)'s have to face, so it's only fair that they do as well.  The only reason one might have for thinking that this means churches will get taxed is if you feel (or know) that there are churches that do not rightfully deserve their tax-exempt status.

To be honest, I do think this is actually what a lot of atheists do mean when they talk of taxing the churches, but the problem is that "subject all tax-exempt organizations regardless of religious affiliation to the same rules, regulations, and penalties for violations thereof" doesn't quite make for as tight a meme as "tax the churches", but that only implies we shouldn't be relying on quicky memes.  That level of intellectual rigor is a more difficult path than letting your natural cognitive failures rule over you from time to time, but that's exactly the sort of image we should be aiming for, not as atheists, but as human beings.

Well, this much is a start for the major problem arguments I see throughout the community as a whole.  I know that we do have trolls all over the social network channels who just post meaningless amusements from time to time, and that's only natural with social media in general.  It can be a little childish, but there's nothing you can do about that;  It's just the nature of engaging on the internet.  Likewise, it's not reasonable to judge the larger atheist community offline based on that anymore than it is reasonable to judge all religious apologists on the basis of the moronic trolls who earn positions on FSTDT.  It's the more serious people I'm concerned about, and there are times when they make some mistakes that I really think need work or are just plain wrong.  I know that there are plenty more out there, but these are the few that stick out as more significant and common to me.  I'd be glad to consider some more if anyone has any that are worth mentioning.