That people believe what they want to believe, was among the discoveries of my adolescence. Reading obituaries of Robert Conquest (1917–2015; died Monday), the shock of this discovery comes back. I was then both an Atheist and a Cold Warrior. This insight into human nature and denature appeared to buttress both of these convictions: for it seemed to me that the Communist Party and the Christian Religion were products of blind faith, perpetuated by people who “wanted to believe,” and therefore believed what they wanted.
Much was once said about the Alice-in-Wonderland parody of the Roman Church that the Communist Party offered. Immortal Christ founded the one, infallible Marx the other. Officially-recognized “apostles” followed from each (Peter, Paul, John, in one case; Lenin, Stalin, Mao, in the other). The Party like the Church is a bureaucracy, under a hierarchy to be obeyed without thought or hesitation. Each has a form of “confession,” and all the other “sacraments” can be paired. Advancement requires strict fidelity to doctrine. Both institutions hunt “heresies” and canonize “saints.” They thrive on persecution. The utopia of perfect Scientific Socialism is a destination like Heaven. And so on: I haven’t the energy to redraw the whole chart.
That the Communist faith is “materialist,” and that of the Church “spiritual,” makes the parody more amusing. One might also say that Satan is a parody of Our Lord. In logic, however, a parody does not constitute a refutation.
David Warren, “Transfiguration”, Essays in Idleness, 2015-08-06.
March 20, 2017
October 7, 2016
Poe’s Law is the belief that some religious fundamentalists are so stupid that it’s impossible to distinguish them from a parody.
This is all nice and well in the abstract, but when applied to a particular case, where a particular atheist has fallen for a parody site, it tends to be an unfortunate stand-in for “Some atheists are so ignorant that it’s impossible for them to distinguish religious people from a parody of religious people.” Listen:
A: “The Pope just said that everyone who isn’t creationist should be put in jail! What an outrage!”
B: “Uh, you do know that’s on The Onion, right?”
A: “Oh, well, haha, Poe’s Law, just goes to show how dumb those religious people are.”
Problem is, Poe’s Law isn’t limited to religion any more. Now it’s politics, culture, science, and anywhere else where one side thinks their opponents are so stupid it’s literally impossible to parody them (ie everywhere on both sides). You spread the dumbest and most obviously fake rumors to smear your opponents. And then when you’re caught, instead of admitting you were fooled, you claim Poe’s Law and smear your opponents even more.
On the other hand, once you’re willing to admit this dynamic exists, it can make for some pretty interesting guessing games and unintentional Intellectual Turing Tests – see the Poe’s Law In Action subreddit for some examples.
Scott Alexander, “These Are A Few (More) Of My (Least) Favourite Things”, Slate Star Codex, 2015-01-21.
August 28, 2016
The most curious social convention of the great age in which we live is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected. Its evil effects must be plain enough to everyone. All it accomplishes is (a) to throw a veil of sanctity about ideas that violate every intellectual decency, and (b) to make every theologian a sort of chartered libertine. No doubt it is mainly to blame for the appalling slowness with which really sound notions make their way in the world. The minute a new one is launched, in whatever field, some imbecile of a theologian is certain to fall upon it, seeking to put it down. The most effective way to defend it, of course, would be to fall upon the theologian, for the only really workable defense, in polemics as in war, is a vigorous offensive. But the convention that I have mentioned frowns upon that device as indecent, and so theologians continue their assault upon sense without much resistance, and the enlightenment is unpleasantly delayed.
There is, in fact, nothing about religious opinions that entitles them to any more respect than other opinions get. On the contrary, they tend to be noticeably silly. If you doubt it, then ask any pious fellow of your acquaintance to put what he believes into the form of an affidavit, and see how it reads … “I, John Doe, being duly sworn, do say that I believe that, at death, I shall turn into a vertebrate without substance, having neither weight, extent nor mass, but with all the intellectual powers and bodily sensations of an ordinary mammal; … and that, for the high crime and misdemeanor of having kissed my sister-in-law behind the door, with evil intent, I shall be boiled in molten sulphur for one billion calendar years.” Or, “I, Mary Roe, having the fear of Hell before me, do solemnly affirm and declare that I believe it was right, just, lawful and decent for the Lord God Jehovah, seeing certain little children of Beth-el laugh at Elisha’s bald head, to send a she-bear from the wood, and to instruct, incite, induce and command it to tear forty-two of them to pieces.” Or, “I, the Right Rev._____ _________, Bishop of _________,D.D., LL.D., do honestly, faithfully and on my honor as a man and a priest, declare that I believe that Jonah swallowed the whale,” or vice versa, as the case may be. No, there is nothing notably dignified about religious ideas. They run, rather, to a peculiarly puerile and tedious kind of nonsense. At their best, they are borrowed from metaphysicians, which is to say, from men who devote their lives to proving that twice two is not always or necessarily four. At their worst, they smell of spiritualism and fortune telling. Nor is there any visible virtue in the men who merchant them professionally. Few theologians know anything that is worth knowing, even about theology, and not many of them are honest. One may forgive a Communist or a Single Taxer on the ground that there is something the matter with his ductless glands, and that a Winter in the south of France would relieve him. But the average theologian is a hearty, red-faced, well-fed fellow with no discernible excuse in pathology. He disseminates his blather, not innocently, like a philosopher, but maliciously, like a politician. In a well-organized world he would be on the stone-pile. But in the world as it exists we are asked to listen to him, not only politely, but even reverently, and with our mouths open.
H.L. Mencken, The American Mercury, 1930-03; first printed, in part, in the Baltimore Evening Sun, 1929-12-09.
July 19, 2016
Once more, alas, I find myself unable to follow the best Liberal thought. What the World’s contention amounts to, at bottom, is simply the doctrine that a man engaged in combat with superstition should be very polite to superstition. This, I fear, is nonsense. The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous. Is it, perchance, cherished by persons who should know better? Then their folly should be brought out into the light of day, and exhibited there in all its hideousness until they flee from it, hiding their heads in shame.
True enough, even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. … They are free to shoot back. But they can’t disarm their enemy.
The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion. A dunderhead gets himself a long-tailed coat, rises behind the sacred desk, and emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot. Is it to pass unchallenged? If so, then what we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism. Any fool, once he is admitted to holy orders, becomes infallible. Any half-wit, by the simple device of ascribing his delusions to revelation, takes on an authority that is denied to all the rest of us. … What should be a civilized man’s attitude toward such superstitions? It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt. If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none. If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level. When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings.
H.L. Mencken, “Aftermath”, Baltimore Evening Sun, 1925-09-14.
May 12, 2016
The left are secularists, but they are extremely poor secularists. As you may know, I’m a secularist myself. I’m a nonbeliever, and to the extent I’m willing to entertain any belief at all, it’s only because I’m a skeptic. That is to say, I’m skeptical of my nonbelief.
It occurs to me — as a skeptic and secularist — that if you seek to put away Magical Thinking, you put it all away. If you disbelieve in God, then you really ought to disbelieve in Transcendence as well, and Rightwing Sorcerers, and Magic Words, and Sustaining Myth-Lies, and all the rest of it.
One amusement to me, as a lonely disbeliever on the right, is noticing this about the Left: The Left imagines that their disbelief in God frees them from superstition.
In fact it does no such thing. The Left’s disbelief in God does not free them from superstition — rather, it frees the superstition to infect all other modes of their thought.
Rather than thinking in terms of the divine and magic in the area of theology and metaphysics — which is really where thoughts about the divine and magic should be contained — the left, being Bad at Secularism, instead permits superstition, myth, and magic to flood into all other compartments of their ship of the mind.
Rather than keeping religious thought confined to religions matters, as the openly religious do, the left, which is intensely religious but believes it is not, instead employs religious thought in all modes of thinking, particularly in politics (where The Government easily steps into the place of God as the Large, Abstract Power That Lords Above Us), but also in what they call “science.”
You know, the science which personifies the Earth as a deity who seeks vengeance upon polluters and people who drive cars.
These Bad Secularists do not call this religion. They will not acknowledge it as fundamentally magical thinking, “pre-logical” and falling into the same primitive thought patterns still kicking around in the human mind which require that every extraordinary event be conjured by Mighty Sorcerers, or sent by the gods as punishment for a Grievous Sin.
And yet those who preen as being the most Free From Superstition are in fact the most shackled by it, because their very vanity will not permit them to see the ridiculous magical mythology they surround themselves in. Thus, within one single day, the Bad Secularists at the New York Times will posit that magical rightwing sorcerers directed the communist crocodile Lee Harvey Oswald to snatch the Princeling Kennedy from the river’s bank, and the Bad Secularists at the Washington Post likewise weave mythic strands around Lee Harvey Oswald, Marxist, Soviet Defector, and world’s first known Tea Partier.
And thus all the world’s Devils are grouped together, ranked in Might and put into their diabolical hierarchy, Satan on top, Baal and Moloch next, and so on, down to Sarah Palin and the Koch Brothers.
We live in an age of religious hysteria. And the religious hysteria is not coming from the usual quarters, the self-acknowledged religious. Instead it comes from the irreligious, whose liberation from god only loosens the leash of their illogic and preference for mythic structures over reality.
You don’t need God to be religious hysteric.
All you need is a Dogma and a Devil.
August 2, 2015
From the second part of the Camille Paglia interview in Salon:
I regard [Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and the religion critics] as adolescents. I say in the introduction to my last book, Glittering Images, that “Sneering at religion is juvenile, symptomatic of a stunted imagination.” It exposes a state of perpetual adolescence that has something to do with their parents – they’re still sneering at dad in some way. Richard Dawkins was the only high-profile atheist out there when I began publicly saying “I am an atheist,” on my book tours in the early 1990s. I started the fad for it in the U.S, because all of a sudden people, including leftist journalists, started coming out of the closet to publicly claim their atheist identities, which they weren’t bold enough to do before. But the point is that I felt it was perfectly legitimate for me to do that because of my great respect for religion in general – from the iconography to the sacred architecture and so forth. I was arguing that religion should be put at the center of any kind of multicultural curriculum.
I’m speaking here as an atheist. I don’t believe there is a God, but I respect every religion deeply. All the great world religions contain a complex system of beliefs regarding the nature of the universe and human life that is far more profound than anything that liberalism has produced. We have a whole generation of young people who are clinging to politics and to politicized visions of sexuality for their belief system. They see nothing but politics, but politics is tiny. Politics applies only to society. There is a huge metaphysical realm out there that involves the eternal principles of life and death. The great tragic texts, including the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, no longer have the central status they once had in education, because we have steadily moved away from the heritage of western civilization.
The real problem is a lack of knowledge of religion as well as a lack of respect for religion. I find it completely hypocritical for people in academe or the media to demand understanding of Muslim beliefs and yet be so derisive and dismissive of the devout Christian beliefs of Southern conservatives.
But yes, the sneering is ridiculous! Exactly what are these people offering in place of religion? In my system, I offer art – and the whole history of spiritual commentary on the universe. There’s a tremendous body of nondenominational insight into human life that used to be called cosmic consciousness. It has to be remembered that my generation in college during the 1960s was suffused with Buddhism, which came from the 1950s beatniks. Hinduism was in the air from every direction – you had the Beatles and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Ravi Shankar at Monterey, and there were sitars everywhere in rock music. So I really thought we were entering this great period of religious syncretism, where the religions of the world were going to merge. But all of a sudden, it disappeared! The Asian religions vanished – and I really feel sorry for young people growing up in this very shallow environment where they’re peppered with images from mass media at a particularly debased stage.
June 25, 2015
I was raised as a Methodist and I was a believer until the age of eleven. Then I lost faith and became an annoying atheist for decades. In recent years I’ve come to see religion as a valid user interface to reality. The so-called “truth” of the universe is irrelevant because our tiny brains aren’t equipped to understand it anyway.
Our human understanding of reality is like describing an elephant to a space alien by saying an elephant is grey. That is not nearly enough detail. And you have no way to know if the alien perceives color the same way you do. After enduring your inadequate explanation of the elephant, the alien would understand as much about elephants as humans understand about reality.
In the software world, user interfaces keep human perceptions comfortably away from the underlying reality of zeroes and ones that would be incomprehensible to most of us. And the zeroes and ones keep us away from the underlying reality of the chip architecture. And that begs a further question: What the heck is an electron and why does it do what it does? And so on. We use software, but we don’t truly understand it at any deep level. We only know what the software is doing for us at the moment.
Religion is similar to software, and it doesn’t matter which religion you pick. What matters is that the user interface of religious practice “works” in some sense. The same is true if you are a non-believer and your filter on life is science alone. What matters to you is that your worldview works in some consistent fashion.
Scott Adams, “The User Interface to Reality”, The Scott Adams Blog, 2014-07-15.
May 23, 2015
H/T to Open Culture.
A quick note: Kristoffer Seland Hellesmark was looking for a documentary on Christopher Hitchens to watch, but could never find one. So, after waiting a while, he said to himself, “Why don’t I just make one?” The result is the 80-minute documentary about Hitchens, lovingly entitled The Hitch, which features clips from his speeches and interviews.
February 24, 2015
Islam draws attention in our era not because its adherents tend to be brown-skinned or because it is easier to fear those who live abroad than those who live down the street, but because it is used so frequently as the justification for attacks around the world that its critics have begun to notice a pattern. In most cases, it is reasonable to acknowledge simultaneously that representatives of every philosophy will occasionally do something evil — maybe in the name of their philosophy; maybe not — and to contend that it is silly to blame that philosophy for the individual’s behavior. As far as we know, there is no more evidence that today’s killer is representative of atheism per se than that the man who opened fire at the Family Research Council was representative of the Southern Poverty Law Center or that Scott Roeder was representative of the pro-life cause. Further, there are no evident superstructures within atheism or the SPLC or the right-to-life movement that routinely condone mass murder, and nor are there many friends of those groups who would be willing to justify or to indulge the maniacs they have attracted. It seems reasonably clear that any lunatic can appropriate a cause or provide a name as his inspiration, and that, when he does, we should neither regard that lunatic’s behavior as indicative of the whole nor worry too much about repeat attacks. As I have written before — in defense of Right and Left — words do not pull triggers.
This instinct, however, has its limitations, for it is one thing to acknowledge that one swallow does not make a summer, and quite another to insist that it is not summer when the whole flock is overhead. Individual acts should be taken as such, of course. But when the same names pop up over and over and over again it is fair for us to connect the dots. To wonder why conservatives worry about Islam specifically — and not, say, about atheism or progressivism or the Tea Party or the Westboro Baptist Church — is to ignore that Islam is so often deployed to rationalize violence around the world that it makes sense for them to ask more questions. An inquiry into the violent tendencies of contemporary atheists is likely to reach a dead end. An inquiry into modern Islam, by contrast, is not. Can anybody say with a straight face that it is irrational to wonder whether there is something inherent in present-day Islam that, at best, is attracting the crazy and the disenfranchised, and, at worst, actually requires savagery? I think not.
Charles C.W. Cooke, “Why We Worry about Islamist Violence and Not Progressive Atheist Violence”, National Review, 2015-02-11.
February 19, 2015
In last week’s Goldberg File newsletter, Jonah Goldberg looked at the odd situation of people who “believe in” science:
When I hear people talk about science as if it’s something to “believe in,” particularly people who reject all sorts of science-y things (vaccines, nuclear power, etc. as discussed above), I immediately think of one of my favorite lines from Eric Voegelin: “When God is invisible behind the world, the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.” This will be true, he added, even when “the new apocalyptics insist that the symbols they create are scientific.”
In other words, the “Don’t you believe in evolution!?!” people don’t really believe in science qua science, what they’re really after is dethroning God in favor of their own gods of the material world (though I suspect many don’t even realize why they’re so obsessed with this one facet of the disco ball called “science”). “Criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticisms,” quoth Karl Marx, who then proceeded to create his own secular religion.
This is nothing new of course. This tendency is one of the reasons why every time Moses turned his back on the Hebrews they started worshipping golden calves and whatnot.
At least Auguste Comte, the French philosopher who coined the phrase “sociology,” was open about what he was really up to when he created his “Religion of Humanity,” in which scientists, statesmen, and engineers were elevated to Saints. As I say in my column, the fight over evolution is really a fight over the moral status of man. And, if we are nothing but a few bucks worth of chemicals connected by water and electricity, than there’s really nothing holding us back from elevating “science” to divine status and in turn anointing those who claim to be its champions as our priests. It’s no coincidence that Herbert Croly was literally — not figuratively, the way Joe Biden means literally — baptized into Comte’s Religion of Humanity.
Personally, I think the effort to overthrow Darwin along with Marx and Freud is misguided. I have friends invested in that project and I agree that all sorts of terrible Malthusian and materialist crap is bound up in Darwinism. But that’s an argument for ranking out the manure, not burning down the stable.
January 8, 2015
H/T to Kathy Shaidle for the link.
July 31, 2014
Damian Thompson points out that the “offensive” things that are getting people upset at Richard Dawkins are exactly the same sort of things they applauded when he was attacking Christianity:
‘Richard Dawkins, what on earth happened to you?’ asks Eleanor Robertson in the Guardian today. Ms Robertson is a ‘feminist and writer living in Sydney’. She follows to the letter the Guardian’s revised style guide for writing about Prof Dawkins: wring your hands until your fingers are raw, while muttering ‘Oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown’.
For some time now Dawkins has been saying rude things about Muslims and feminists. This makes him a bigot in the eyes of the Left — and especially the Guardian, which is extraordinarily and mysteriously protective of Islam. As Robertson puts it:
‘Sure, he wrote some pop science books back in the day, but why do we keep having him on TV and in the newspapers? If it’s a biologist you’re after, or a science communicator, why not pick from the hundreds out there who don’t tweet five or six Islamophobic sentiments before getting off the toilet in the morning?’
Note how The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker — masterpieces of lucid thinking that advanced humanity’s understanding of evolution — have become mere ‘pop science’ now that their author is upsetting the wrong people.
It’s hard to deny that Dawkins’s ‘secular fundamentalism’ — as liberal commentators now describe it — makes for an embarrassing spectacle. When enraged pensioners pick fights with total strangers, one’s natural reaction is to go and sit somewhere else on the bus.
But Dawkins was just as offensive when his target was Christianity; it’s just that the Left didn’t have a problem with his description of Pope Benedict XVI as a ‘leering old villain in the frock’ who ran ‘a profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution … amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears.’
As I said at the time, that article — in the Washington Post, no less — ‘conjures up the image of a nasty old man who’s losing his marbles. It’s not very nice about the Pope, either.’ But Dawkins has not become any crazier in the intervening four years; he’s simply widened his attack on blind faith, as he sees it, to include Muslims and feminists.
June 26, 2014
In Vice News, Jordan Larson reports on the plight of a self-declared atheist who has been confined to a mental institute in northern Nigeria because denying belief in God is a mental illness:
A young Nigerian man is being forcibly held in a mental institution for identifying as an atheist, according to charity organization International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).
Mubarak Bala, 29, who holds a degree in chemical engineering and is a resident of the primarily Muslim Kano state in northern Nigeria, has been held and medicated against his will at the Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital since June 13.
According to IHEU, Bala was committed to a mental institution after he told his Muslim family that he did not believe in God.
His family then sought the advice of two doctors; the first gave him a clean bill of health, while the second chalked up his atheism to a “personality change.”
In one of his emails, Bala wrote, “And the biggest evidence of my mental illness was large blasphemies and denial of ‘history’ of Adam, and apostacy [sic], to which the doctor said was a personality change, that everyone needs a God, that even in Japan they have a God. And my brother added that all the atheists I see have had mental illness at some point in their life,” according to a statement on IHEU’s website.
“Kano is a Sharia state and there are many similar cases occurring, where people are forcefully oppressed just because of their beliefs or for conservative religious reasons, or for the ‘honour’ of their family,” Bamidele Adeneye, secretary of IHEU member organization Lagos Humanists, told IHEU. “Often though you only hear about it afterwards, if at all. This is a rare chance to intervene while someone is in dire need and is still alive.”
February 27, 2014
According to at least one prominent Republican, the answer is very definitely not:
Yesterday, in response to one of the many brouhahas that CPAC seems always to invite, Brent Bozell issued the following statement:
The invitation extended by the ACU, Al Cardenas and CPAC to American Atheists to have a booth is more than an attack on conservative principles. It is an attack on God Himself. American Atheists is an organization devoted to the hatred of God. How on earth could CPAC, or the ACU and its board of directors, and Al Cardenas condone such an atrocity?
The particular merits of the American Atheists group to one side, this is a rather astounding thing for Bozell to have said. In just 63 words, he confuses disbelief in God for “hatred” for God — a mistake that not only begs the question but is inherently absurd (one cannot very well hate what one does not believe is there); he condemns an entire conference on the basis of one participant — not a good look for a struggling movement, I’m afraid; and, most alarmingly perhaps, he insinuates that one cannot simultaneously be a conservative and an atheist. I reject this idea — and with force.
If atheism and conservatism are incompatible, then I am not a conservative. And nor, I am given to understand, are George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Anthony Daniels, Walter Olson, Heather Mac Donald, James Taranto, Allahpundit, or S. E. Cupp. There is no getting around this — no splitting the difference: I don’t believe there is a God. It’s not that I’m “not sure” or that I haven’t ever bothered to think about it; it’s that I actively think there isn’t a God — much as I think there are no fairies or unicorns or elves. The degree to which I’m confident in this view works on a scale, certainly: I’m much surer, for example, that the claims of particular religions are untrue and that there is no power intervening in the affairs of man than I am that there was no prime mover of any sort. But, when it comes down to it, I don’t believe in any of those propositions. Am I to be excommunicated from the Right?