The Scoreboard Fallacy
Lately, I’ve been posting more articles on various moral issues that concern me and a few random thoughts that I’ve been meaning to express for some time. In a comment on one of those articles, the Spanish Inquisitor praised me for having the “ability and desire to tackle the big issues”. It was a generous compliment and gratefully received. But the truth is, lately I’ve just not been able to face critiquing any religious propaganda. Every day I wade through news articles on the net, getting more and more frustrated at the sheer volume of nonsense that is produced.
Sadly, this is not just religious fundamentalists, it is also professional journalists. One conclusion that I have reached, is that there are far too many people discussing The God Delusion who haven’t read it. You can spot them a mile away, because they raise criticisms of the atheist position that Dawkins openly deals with in the book. They don’t respond to Dawkins’ discussions of the issues, they just make the objections as if they were new. Why would they do that if they had read the book? They haven’t. They just listen to other people talking about it (who haven’t read it either) and assume that they’re getting reliable information, and base their writing on that instead. Through this process, disinformation about atheism, The God Delusion and Richard Dawkins are quickly disseminating.
This article by Stan Nelson in The Pueblo Chieftain was the final straw. He begins his article with a half hearted suggestion that,
Christians – and not just their opinion leaders – need to check out what he [Dawkins] has to say, objectively, and not merely to line up opposing arguments. They need to pay attention to what they fail to explain, and prepare themselves to discuss it intelligently.
Physician, heal thyself! The remainder of Nelson’s piece is a collection of weak, clichéd arguments against atheism. Instead of just defending religion, Nelson chooses the time honoured tactic of pointing the finger back at the infidels. Slowly and carefully, he rationalises religion’s faults and twists what he perceives to be the faults of non-believers.
… it [religion] is not the only reason why people kill other people – and may play no greater part in social or cultural decisions to declare war, or attack without warning, than other reasons.
“If it was not for God, we would have nothing to war over” and “Religion is genocide,” a vandal scrawled on a church door Downtown, three years ago. We pointed out then how that was only half true, if that.
You know that you are dealing with a straw man argument when the best source the writer can come up with for the argument he is refuting is an alleged piece of graffiti. Is this anonymous vandal now to speak for atheists everywhere? Where are the quotes from Dawkins and Hitchens making this argument?
No atheist I know has ever claimed that religion is the only reason people kill other people, but we do generally believe that it is by far the biggest cause of bloodshed in the world today, and has been throughout history. We have good evidence to support this view. One of those authors Nelson advised Christians to listen to, Sam Harris, put it rather nicely. It’s well worth quoting in full.
…far greater numbers of people fall into conflict with one another because they define their moral community on the basis of their religious affiliation: Muslims side with other Muslims, Protestants with Protestants, Catholics with Catholics. These conflicts are not always explicitly religious. But the bigotry and hatred that divide one community from another are often the products of their religious identities. Conflicts that seem driven entirely by terrestrial concerns, therefore, are often deeply rooted in religion. The fighting that has plagued Palestine (Jews vs. Muslims), the Balkans (Orthodox Serbians vs. Catholic Croatians; Orthodox Serbians vs. Bosnian and Albanian Muslims), Northern Ireland (Protestants vs. Catholics), Kashmir (Muslims vs. Hindus), Sudan (Muslims vs. Christians and animists), Nigeria (Muslims vs. Christians), Ethiopia and Eritrea (Muslims vs. Christians), Ivory Coast (Muslims vs. Christians), Sri Lanka (Sinhalese Buddhists vs. Tamil Hindus), Philippines (Muslims vs. Christians), and the Caucasus (Orthodox Russians vs. Chechen Muslims; Muslim Azerbaijanis vs. Catholic and Orthodox Armenians) are merely a few, recent cases in point. (Letter to a Christian Nation, p81-82)
Religion is not the only cause of war, but it is the greatest. Of course there are other motives apart from religion that lead to war, but doesn’t it just make sense to tackle the biggest problem first, the one that would yield the greatest improvement if we were to solve it? Nelson goes on to further misrepresent the atheist position.
Russian dictator Josef Stalin, an atheist, starved 10 million people to death in the Ukraine, and Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, also an atheist, sowed more than 1 million bodies onto Cambodia‘s killing fields.
Yes, it’s that old chestnut again. This really has become the definitive if-I-had-a-penny-for-every-time-I’ve-heard-it argument. Once again, Dawkins dealt with this in The God Delusion, so if Nelson had done some homework he could have saved himself some embarrassment.
Wars are waged and atrocities committed in the name of religion, but the same cannot be said for atheism. Atheism is simply a lack of belief in gods, how exactly can that disposition cause someone to kill someone else? Atheists, of course, sometimes kill people, but they’re not doing it because they’re atheists. They may have blind faith in a political ideology, as was the case in Communist Russia. This, however, is simply another example of irrational thinking. As Harris pointed out, no society has ever suffered because it was too rational, or demanded too much evidence for its beliefs. (For further reading on this point, Ebon Musings’ article Red Crimes demolishes this myth of a non-argument.) Meanwhile, Nelson is just getting warmed up.
It may be argued that the influence of atheism, which eliminates practical faith in God, allows a culture to place a lower value on human life.
How, exactly, may it be argued? All Nelson gives us is a non sequitur. I have never seen a sound argument presented that atheism devalues human life. On the other hand, it is strongly argued that atheism adds value to human life, a case that I stated in my article The Credit We Deserve. Nelson begins to hit full flow.
The truth is that atheism and religion stand on the same, blood-soaked level, one as culpable as the other.
Herein lies the problem, an intellectually dishonest attempt to distort the picture to put atheism and religion on a level footing. It is this tactic that has become distressingly ubiquitous in the press. It is as though there is a universal “atrocity scoreboard” used to measure the crimes of any one religion against its rivals, and now these people are trying to mark a score against atheism. I have news for them: we’re not playing the game! We are the people standing at the sidelines saying that the game is too dangerous, that it isn’t worth such high risks for benefits that can be found elsewhere, and that we’d be better off if they all stopped and went home.
So if we’re not playing, why do we care? Why are we saying anything at all? Surely it’s none of our business and we should just let them get on with it. We speak out because the consequences of the sordid games religion plays apply to us too, we too are at risk when nations go to war over the wills of whimsical gods. And we care about everyone who is in harm’s way, regardless of what they believe. Nelson isn’t happy to settle for the Golden Mean. He can’t resist the temptation to just tip the scales with his last words.
Investigation and experience tell us, however, that faith can and does save life, sometimes in a quite practical sense, in too many examples to list here.
Does atheism do that?
Nelson gives a number of ambiguous definitions (without sources) of faith, but fails to offer the correct one: Mental acceptance of and confidence in a claim as truth without proof supporting the claim. Faith is a very dangerous phenomenon, and it does far greater harm than good. What good it does offer can be enjoyed without it just as easily.
What atheism does is give everyone the freedom to live their own lives. I am an atheist, and every day when I wake up, there is absolutely nothing I have to do in order to remain an atheist, other than to not believe in any gods. Even if I decided I did want to believe in a god, no other atheists would stop me, I just wouldn’t be an atheist anymore. Atheists would respect my right to hold my beliefs as long as I didn’t harm anyone else in the process. Atheism gives everyone the right to give their own life meaning and purpose, not have it imposed upon them by an invisible being, second hand via one of his messengers. Atheism gives everyone the right to think for themselves.
If only Nelson had done what I would expect a professional journalist to do – research. If only he had read The God Delusion, all of his objections are amply dealt with therein. It would have saved him, and me, some time. What concerns me, is the number of people who will read his article, lacking the critical thinking skills to assess it, and think he is right.