A Load of Bright
An atheist's views on religion and the supernatural

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?

Ask the families of the 9/11 victims what they think about “faith saving lives”. If they don’t convince you, ask those who lost their loved ones in the London Bombings.

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.

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11 Responses to “The Scoreboard Fallacy”

  1. I wrote to him to try to explain where he went wrong. I was hopeful because he managed to get so many things right and come so close to being accurate. Unfortunately, my interaction with him suggests that he just doesn’t care about learning anything new or discovering that perhaps he has been mistaken about things:

    http://atheism.about.com/b/a/259164.htm

  2. You’re right about the religionists who critique The God Delusion without having read it. But how many atheists have championed that very book also without having read it?

    I, for one, was not able to finish the book. For me, many of Dawkins’s observations seemed obvious, and I thought his writing style was not anywhere up to its usual level of articulateness. So I stopped halfway; he wasn’t going to convert me anyway; I’ve been an atheist since long before I ever heard of Richard Dawkins. Occasionally, I flip through the index to find a specific topic on which I’d like to read his take, but I never find myself turning pages eagerly, as I’ve done when I’ve read other books by him.

    I’m glad he wrote it, and I do recommend that believers read it, if only to expose themselves to a well-known atheist’s ideas. But, alas, the book just wasn’t very interesting to me. I think there are many bloggers who deliver the very same kind of messages in far more succinct and compelling ways.

  3. [snip] not collecting stamps is not a hobby.

    LOL! That’s a great little analogy.
    Another one might be “not exercising is not a sport.” Especially relevant to overweight Americans (myself included).

    I think you give Nelson too much credit. He’s pandering to his audience. You can almost see the battle between his intellect and his desire to please. He says something logical and unbiased, re-reads and realizes,
    “Oh !@#, people aren’t going to like this.”
    “I’d better take the edge off with a little ‘BALANCE'”

  4. @ Austin Cline

    I agree that he almost hit upon something when he started talking about atheism not being the opposite of religion. I think it was just a random fluctuation though, the balance was soon redressed. I thought his comments to you in his email were incredibly condescending.

    Your point that if atheism is a belief system than so is theism, was excellent.

    @ The Exterminator

    You’re right about the religionists who critique The God Delusion without having read it. But how many atheists have championed that very book also without having read it?

    Excellent point. I think there are more people doing it the way round I mentioned, but I’m biased.

    I was apprehensive about reading The God Delusion. I didn’t feel any need to, becasue I was already an atheist and didn’t feel any need to read something I was bound to agree with. When I did start it, I couldn’t put it down. I thought it was superbly written, and I was fascinated to get a scholar’s views on the situation. Although there are some excellent blogs making a lot of the same points, I think Dawkins has a wonderful way of putting his arguments together.

  5. Polly

    I was always partial to “Off is not a TV channel”. Most people can relate to that too (though I have no problem with the hair and exercise metaphors) 😀

    Exterm

    You ought to finish the book. Or at least read the last half of chapter 10, called “The Mother of All Burkas”. It’s almost poetically lyrical in the way he wraps up his previous 362 pages. Worth the price of the book.

    Tobe

    “Yes, it’s that old chestnut again”…which I would love to roast on an open fire, until it’s reduced to ash, even though it’s not Christmas.

    Great metaphor. I love metaphors. As an invention of the English language (and other languages?) it is a wonderful means of relaying difficult information in a way that people can understand. Why theists insist everyone play their game, one they invented, and one they keep changing the rules on, (when they have rules) is beyond me. Live and let live. BeLIEve what you want. Just don’t try to ram it down my throat.

  6. I like that metaphor of the “atrocity scoreboard” quite a bit. As if we could decide what belief was true by determining which one had the lowest body count!

    In my experience, sophistry like this is deployed as an excuse for the writer not to engage with the atheist’s arguments (and I agree with you that this one almost certainly hasn’t actually read Dawkins’ book). In essence, it’s the writer telling himself, “Well, maybe the atheists have some good arguments, but they’d be just as bad if they got into power, so really it doesn’t matter what they have to say and so I don’t have to listen to them.”

  7. @ Ebonmuse

    I like that metaphor of the “atrocity scoreboard” quite a bit. As if we could decide what belief was true by determining which one had the lowest body count!

    At times it seems as if they’re competing in the other direction! 😉

  8. Hey,

    I’m a Christian who is working on a series on Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion” at my blog at:

    http://michaelkrahn.com/blog/richard-dawkins/

    There’s already a good discussion underway.

  9. The one point I might make about reading, or at least familiarising oneself with atheist literature, even if one is already an atheist, is to be aware of what is or isn’t dealt with within such titles, and therefore be more prepared to counter theistic arguments or point them in the right direction when they make ludicrous or otherwise unsubstantiated claims, as Nelson has done, against these pieces.
    Saying that, I found TGD quite a good read in itself, although the tone was somewhat different to that usually found in his more biology-centric writings.

  10. Wow! The automagical updating comment system! 😉

  11. @ Nullifidian,

    Hey, that’s VIP treatment – I wouldn’t do it for just anyone! 😉


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