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Religious Panic

September 14, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Recently almost every day I have seen signs of panic in the ranks of the religious community. There are the defensive strategies of the Catholic Church which seems to consistently be the target of greater levels of contempt as more and more cases of abuse are uncovered; there are the surveys and news items showing decreasing support for religion; and there are the complaints from believers about the increasing numbers of public intellectuals criticising religion in general.

It’s the counter-attacks against the attacks of the “new atheists” which interest me most. The public attack of this group against religion is controversial because many people believe a more moderate approach is appropriate. I can see the point of that idea but I also think that giving religion more respect than it deserves – as has been the case in the past – hasn’t worked and now it’s time to say what we really think.

The latest case I noticed of of a religious group getting defensive was from the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Awake! magazine in an article titled “Atheists on a Crusade”. It’s interesting that they used the word “crusade” here. I would have thought that Christians would want to avoid that topic since it illustrates one of the less savoury periods in their history! But, of course, the crusaders were a different type of Christian (there are over 20,000 different types) and I guess I should admire the attempt to tar atheists with the same brush of intolerance that is usually associated with believers.

So let’s look at some of the claims in the article. Here’s a quote: “Called the new atheists, they are not content to keep their views to themselves. Rather, they are on a crusade, actively, angrily, passionately trying to persuade the religious to their point of view…” The strong implication here is that this is a bad thing, but passionately trying to convert other people to their point of view is exactly what the Witnesses have been doing for years! Do they not see the irony here? Probably not, because self examination is not one of the strong points of most Christians.

And anyone who passionately believes in something should be taking it to the opposition. I admire the Witnesses for their attempts at spreading their beliefs. I think the actual beliefs are ridiculous and their methodology is pathetic but I do admire that fact that at least they make the effort! And believers should admire the new atheists as well. After all, if their religion is a great as they think surely it can easily withstand the attacks of a few infidels!

Most believers are very skilled at the use of the straw man argument. Here’s another quote which illustrates this well: “To them [the new atheists], there simply is no God. End of story.” In my experience this is not true at all. What I would say is: “to them the evidence for the existence of god is weak or non existant so the interim conclusion is that god doesn’t exist, however they are prepared to look at any new evidence which might arise because issues of this sort are never fully settled.” But that doesn’t sound quite as accusatory, does it?

The article does make a good point on another issue though: “Religion has aided the cause of the new atheists, as people have become fed up with the religious extremism, terrorism, and conflict plaguing the world.” They are totally right there except many new atheists would spread the blame beyond the extremists and suggest that the moderates are also to blame. For example, far more people have died of AIDS because the Pope says not to use condoms than died in the 9/11 attacks. So who is the bigger religious extremist: Osama bin Laden or the Pope? I know it’s not that simple but the comparison does make the point that moderates are not blameless.

They quote Sam Harris like this: “In the fullness of time […] one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose.” They then ask: Which side do you think time will vindicate? I presume most believers will say the believers will be vindicated but, of course, they really shouldn’t be that confident because in the history of the world there has been a steady replacement of religion with science.

In the long term things have never gone backwards, and our understanding of the world has steadily moved from one based on religion, superstition, or conjecture to one based on science and objective, empirical knowledge. So anyone who believes that eventually religion will prove science wrong is ignoring all the trends from the past. Of course, it’s that possible science might discover something totally new which demonstrates there is a god of some sort, but even if that happens (which is very unlikely) it’s practically inconceivable that the god will resemble the pathetically childish concepts of god currently held by the world’s major religions.

The article then quotes some intellectuals’ opinions on god. They mention Anthony Flew who changed his mind about atheism and said he believed a god must have been responsible for the origin of life. But they conveniently neglect to mention that he retracted that opinion when he was shown the latest evidence.

Then it quotes physicist Paul Davies who, quite correctly, points out that, although we have a good idea of how the physical laws work, we have no idea why they work that way or why there should be laws at all. But demonstrating that there are many things science doesn’t know hardly supports their religion. Simply saying “god did it” for anything we don’t understand is resorting to the sort of ignorance that science is supposed to correct. And it’s a classic “god of the gaps” argument. As more phenomena are understood by science does that make god less relevant until he’s not needed at all? The answer is “yes” so it’s hardly a good argument for believers to use.

Finally the article tries to drag atheism down to the same level as belief. It claims that atheism requires just as much faith to not believe as religion does to believe. But that’s just a deliberate attempt to confuse the issue. By its own admission most religion relies on faith but atheism is generally the result of a genuine search for good, objective evidence supporting the supernatural and the failure to find any. So really there is no faith except perhaps to the extent that most atheists have faith in the principles of logic.

So generally the poor old Witnesses fail again. But I don’t think this publication is really aimed at anyone except those who already believe their doctrine anyway so I guess it does give those poor naive individuals something to hang on to as the vicious atheist onslaught continues!

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