Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Stupid! It Burns! (rottweiler edition, part 2)

the stupid! it burns! Before I continue my criticism of Imagine, I want to lay out my own position.

I'm going to repeat a theme over and over because I want to really hammer it home: If you're going to make a value judgment, and you want to have even a chance at being persuasive, you have to at least tell your readers what it is you're judging; unless it's blindingly obvious, you have to also say why you're judging it that way. If you do not do so, you are at best simply whining, behaving exactly like the petulant child not just making vicious personal attacks, but making unsubstantiated vicious attacks.

In the most abstract sense, nocenslupus is free to write whatever she pleases. No matter how much I disagree with her position, on whatever level I disagree, I do not and would not demand that she not write. At a more concrete level, she's free to express her opinion as an opinion, without much commentary from me. Had she simply said, "I think Richard Dawkins acts like a petulant child," my response would be to shrug and say to myself, "Whatever; I think he's cool, but you're entitled to your opinion." She's free to argue that Dawkins or the New Atheist "confrontationalists" are mistaken, either as to matters of truth or matters of political tactics; I would address her argument without condemning her personally. Even if I were to disagree completely with her argument, it's no sin to be mistaken, however deeply mistaken one might happen to be.

There are two sides to the accommodationist position, and I have different opinions about them.

First, I do think the accommodationists are fundamentally mistaken: I believe it is impossible, or at least deeply impractical, to actually accommodate in any meaningful way religion with a scientific society. I do not believe it is possible to "build bridges" between the scientific and religious. However much one might want to accommodate the religious, however much one might want to gently persuade them to voluntarily relinquish their more egregiously harmful beliefs, I do not believe such a task is possible. But I could be mistaken. Maybe the accommodationists are correct. If they want to argue their position reasonably, I'm willing to consider the argument as an argument, and not condemn them for simply having a different opinion than my own. And hey, if they want to do their thing, I won't tell them they shouldn't do it just because I disagree with them: go for it, give it a whirl. I'd love to be surprised.

The second side of the accommodationist position, though, is a purely ethical position: One should not condemn religion for being false even when one knows it is false. One should not condemn the religious for ethical and moral failures even when one knows they have acted harmfully. It's one thing to argue that evolution doesn't actually affect religious belief; it's quite another to say that yes, we know evolution really does compromise religious belief, but we shouldn't actually say so for fear of scaring off the religious. It's one thing to argue that the Pope is not actually complicit in the cover-up of massive child abuse; it's quite another to say that even if we know he is complicit, we shouldn't actually say so for fear of scaring off the Catholics or hardening their opposition.

The problem is, of course, that we do know a lot of religious people believe that the truth of evolution — as well as other scientific theories and the empirical, rational foundations metaphysical naturalism; witness the religious outrage over Stephen Hawking's latest book — really does deeply undermine their religion. And their arguments — at least at the first level — seem sound: if you believe that human beings' relationship with God really is the ultimate purpose of the universe, I can't see how you could accept the accidental, ephemeral and cosmically trivial position of humanity that science unequivocally paints.

The problem is, of course, that we do know a lot of important religious people have done great evil. We have not yet had a trial, but were the Pope a subject of any Western nation with a rule of law, we know he would have long since been indicted for a criminal conspiracy. The only "arguments" one can make to exempt him from legal action are that he is the head of state of a sovereign nation or that he is a religious leader. The first argument, however, argues implicitly that he should be subject to the same sort of international condemnation we apply to the heads of state and government of any "rogue nation", and possibly that there is a case to declare war on the Vatican.

The position that the Pope should be exempt from legal action because he is religious is the very heart of the New Atheist "confrontationalist" position: it's one thing to have an imaginary friend, but that you do have an imaginary friend does not in any way, shape or form exempt you from legal, ethical, or truthful criticism.

It uncontroversial that if you abuse or molest a child you should go to jail; if you have definite knowledge of such abuse and you merely fail to notify the legal authorities — not to mention actively assisting the perpetrator to avoid justice — you should go to jail. It is uncontroversial that if you speak a falsehood, you should be corrected; if you knowingly speak a falsehood, you should be condemned as a liar; if you knowingly speak a harmful falsehood, you are liable for civil penalties for slander and libel.

When it becomes equally uncontroversial that the shape of your hat and your sincere convictions about your imaginary friend are no more relevant to such judgments than your height, your race or your nationality, we can talk about whether the anti-religious confrontationalist position is ethically justified. I cannot tell you how anti-religious confrontationalists will behave when that day comes. But until that day, I will condemn anyone who directly or indirectly excuses any immoral behavior, behavior that harms another person or harms the truth, because of anyone's religious beliefs, and I will condemn religion because people — even atheists — do in fact use religion to exempt people from criticism.

I may sound like a "petulant child", but I can live with that. I will at least offer justification for my "vicious personal attacks".

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