Thursday, August 19, 2010

Liberal Christians

We atheists really do get it that liberal Christians (and liberal Muslims, etc.) aren't "fundamentalists". We are not all that impressed with your particular flavor of theological bullshit, but we do recognize that that your bullshit is very different from fundamentalist bullshit. We really do understand that when you're talking about "God", you really aren't talking about an invisible man in the sky. We really do understand that you have a lot of the humanistic values we atheists admire; you're a thousand times better than the fundamentalists. Good for you, rah. We really do get it.

First, we are not primarily interested in your sort of "God". Indeed, we might not even be interested at all in your sort of God. If you've defined God to the metaphorical level that Einstein used, for example, then fine, knock yourself out: we have nothing to say to you. The vast majority of atheists are not so stupid as to mean that we are absolutely certain every possible use of the letters G + o + d in the English language to be utterly and completely deluded, or that every use of these letters in combination consists of believing that there's an invisible man in the sky.

There really are billions of people, though, who really are "fundamentalists", who really do believe that there's an invisible man in the sky, with a list of ten things he doesn't want you to do, and it really is the purpose of those who have the correct understanding of what this invisible man wants to ensure that the rest of us follow his wishes. Our primary political purpose, especially for those of us who self-identify as Gnu Atheists*, is to marginalize and undermine the social and legal privilege of people who claim to know what this invisible man wants.

*I love you, Dr. Myers, and I want to have your babies.

We self-identify as atheists because so many of these invisible man believers argue about which invisible man really exists and what he really wants; we want to escape this particular conversation. It's not a matter of which or what, but of whether any invisible man exists, and we say none does.

If you're not that sort of person, if you don't think there's an invisible man in the sky and its important to find out what he wants and make sure every acts accordingly, we're simply not talking directly to you: if the shoe does not fit, you're not obliged to wear it. The Gnu Atheists deny specific assertions about reality because they are not true, and they are not true for very specific reasons. We focus on (fundamentalist) religion because the religious who affirm these specific assertions have caused a great deal of unnecessary human suffering and death. When liberal Christians become upset at the Gnu Atheist critique of (fundamentalist) religion, therefore, we conclude that we really are talking about you, that we really are denying some belief or principle you actually affirm.

The argument is:
  1. Billions of people affirm statements about reality that are false
  2. They either perpetrate or fail to resist the imposition of human suffering on the basis of these statements about reality
  3. We can remove or encourage people to resist many impositions of suffering if we undermine the social privilege of people who make false statements about reality
Given this argument, it is simply not a rebuttal that you affirm statements about reality that atheists would consider false, but you do not perpetrate or fail to resist the imposition of suffering. In the same sense, it is simply not a rebuttal to the syllogism
  • All human beings are mortal
  • Socrates is a human being
  • Therefore Socrates is mortal
to reply that you are a human being but you are not Socrates. False beliefs about reality, especially religious false beliefs, are necessary but not sufficient to perpetrate human suffering.

If you say that you don't have false beliefs about reality, and you really don't have false beliefs about reality according to what Gnu Atheists consider false, then why would you think for a moment that we're talking about you? "God," you might say, "is something like a literary metaphor for what we consider good and just and loving." Woo hoo! If you want to use "God" that way, knock yourself out. I'm all for literary metaphors, and you're in the same camp as the good Doctor Einstein. We're not talking about literary metaphors, we're not talking about you at all, we're talking about people who really do believe that an invisible man really does exist and so forth.

We see the liberal Christian response to the Gnu Atheist critique of religion very differently though. We see this response as the position that it's acceptable to have false beliefs about reality so long as we have the right sort of false beliefs. Sometimes the liberal Christian response goes so far as to assert that it's not only acceptable but necessary to have the right sort of false beliefs about reality; having only true beliefs about reality will lead to even more suffering and death than even the wrong sort of false beliefs.

The alert reader will notice that I'm being outrageously tendentious, referring without qualification to beliefs as true or false when I really mean beliefs that atheists conclude to be false for specific reasons, notably scientific empiricism. When we deny fundamentalist religious beliefs because they are not scientifically valid, we are actually criticizing liberal religious beliefs (those that are not entirely literary) on the same grounds. In just the same sense, to condemn the anti-vaccination position because it is scientifically invalid is in the same breath to condemn other activities relatively harmless compared to opposition to vaccination but equally scientifically invalid.

And indeed the liberal Christian response really is to often ask: what's so great about scientific empiricism? Why should the conclusion that some statement about religion is scientifically false even relevant to the discussion?

I'm not going to answer this question right now, but I want to make it clear that this question is the crux of the biscuit. The Gnu Atheists are not saying that all religions are exactly the same. We are not saying that all religions are equally morally reprehensible, or have perpetrated an equal or comparable amount of human suffering. We do say, however, that everyone fundamentalist and liberal who goes substantively beyond scientific empiricism to assert truths about the world has something in common, i.e. that they go substantively beyond scientific empiricism, and we disagree in the strongest possible terms with this position.

1 comment:

  1. No! We do NOT want to be called "Gnu Atheists"! Do you really want to associate your atheism with Richard freaking Stallman and Linux, and their nitwit supporters like that moron Db0? Because that's what's going to happen if that gets established.


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