Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Chamberlain of Atheism

In an open letter to Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens Michael Shermer speaks out against "militancy" in the endorsement of atheism (and presumably rationality, sensibility and metaphysical naturalism). Shermer is pretty smart, and I usually like him, but here he's pretty much completely full of shit. Brian Sapient of the Rational Response Squad does a good job of deconstructing Shermer's bullshit, but I think I have a few points to add.

Shermer has fallen hook, line and sinker for the technique of caging and framing, which philosopher Steve Gimbel eloquently describes. Theists want to allow only the manner of the presentation to be discussed; the actual substantive points are caged and left undiscussed. Then that one point is framed in terms of atheists' supposed hostility; the lie of militancy (of course no atheist actually supports opposing theism by military force) has been shouted so often by the theists that even a supposed skeptic such as Shermer swallows it, along with its negative connotations.

That Shermer has swallowed the theists' big lie of "militant" atheism is made obvious by his inclusion of Dawkins and, inexplicably, Dennett on the list. If there were ever two people who exemplified the complete opposite of hostility and even the most broad metaphorical interpretation of "militancy", they are Richard Dawkins and especially Daniel Dennett.

Shermer asks us to "raise our consciousness". He gives us "reasons" to do so, but he doesn't tell us anything at all about what he actually means by this term; Shermer seems to be channeling Deepak Chopra or Sylvia Brown. Shermer then regurgitates the Christian Right's talking points about atheism.

"Anti-something movements by themselves will fail." Well duh. But "atheism" is not, and never has been just anti-religious. The movement is pro-science, pro-reason, pro-logic, pro-common sense, pro-humanist. It is theism, especially Christianity and Islam, which are the "anti-something movements"; the only thing they're for is continuation of their own parasitic authoritarianism.

He continues with this theme: "Positive assertions are necessary." Again, duh. Has Shermer even read the authors to whom he's addressing his letter? All of these books talk positively about the value of reason, rationality, science and humanistic sensibilities. Shermer quotes Charles Darwin, "It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science." That's worked out really well: For his reticence Darwin is one of the most respected figures even among the most extremist Christianity... well, perhaps not.

"Rational is as rational does. ...It is irrational to take a hostile or condescending attitude toward religion because by doing so we virtually guarantee that religious people will respond in kind." Good grief. The blatant, manifest stupidity of this statement boggles my mind. Does Shermer actually think that the hostile and condescending tone of religion towards science and rationality is some sort of reaction to the atheists starting a pissing contest? I simply cannot imagine that an educated person in the 21st century would say such inane blather. From Tertullian's, "I believe because it is absurd," to the arrest of Galileo to Martin Luther's, "Reason is a whore," the bitter enmity of religion to rationality and sensibility long precedes even the Enlightenment, much less modern atheism.

Shermer seems to think that the entire 1960s black civil rights movement sprang Athena-like from Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech. Now this is a terrific speech, and Dr. King was a terrific guy, but there were a lot of other people involved in the civil rights movement, from the Black Panthers to Malcolm X.
The golden rule is symmetrical. In the words of the greatest consciousness raiser of the 20th century, Martin Luther King, Jr., in his epic "I Have a Dream" speech: "In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline." If atheists do not want theists to prejudge them in a negative light, then they must not do unto theists the same.
King here is exhorting his listeners to not engage in vengeance, retaliation, terrorism, the kind of terrorism and murder that had been used against them. It is not only misguided but utterly despicable to implicitly accuse the atheist community of even contemplating such measures. Perhaps Hitchens, with his support of the Iraq war (and this support is not widely shared in the atheist community), deserves such a warning, but only in the most oblique sense.

Prejudgment is foolish, but theism has had tens of thousands of years to declare itself; it is judgment itself that Shermer seems to denounce. Again, one wonders if Shermer has even read or listened to King's speech:
This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'"
That sure sounds like a judgment—and quite a harsh one—to me.

"Promote freedom of belief and disbelief." Shermer seems to feel that atheists, especially those he names, oppose the First Amendment and freedom of thought. There's absolutely no evidence whatsoever that any of the mentioned writers even slightly support such a position; perhaps Shermer has had a divine revelation. It is Shermer himself who betrays this principle: he is asking us to remain silent, not because of the falsity of our criticism but because criticism is disrespectful and intolerant. The massive hypocrisy and contradiction of that stance is obvious: Shermer is clearly himself disrespectful and intolerant of criticism of theism.

Shermer would support the value of freedom only by denouncing our own, to condemn our own "militancy" while quoting King's praise of the "marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community," to chasten us for our presumed negativity in an entirely negative article, and to speak in favor of skepticism by uncritically regurgitating theistic propaganda.

Shermer is more than just mistaken. He is an appeaser, the Chamberlain of the atheist movement. He would have us be Albigensians, and we all know how well that turned out.


  1. Preach on. I'm tired of seeing people apologizing for being atheists. I think it is time the theists start apologizing for being theists and showing a little shame for their idiocy.

    Here's where I like the colonization of another planet idea - all the atheists/scientists/rational people leave the planet and go make a colony somewhere else - no more religion there, then, and the religious people can stay behind and bleed themselves dry fighting over their various holy lands. And they can suicide bomb themselves back into the stone age, to match their mentality. (Though they may have trouble desinging new bombs after a while without any more scientists left...)

  2. I'm 100% in favor of colonizing space. And I think that a space-based society will end up being more rational than our Earth-bound society: The correlation between stupidity and death is much more direct and immediate in space than it is here on Earth.

    But that's not going to solve any of our problems here on Earth: We simply cannot move people off the planet quickly or cheaply enough to make any appreciable difference.

    Plus, with a plan such as yours, I'm always afraid I've overestimated my own abilities, and I'll end up on the spaceship with the telephone sanitizers.

  3. I don't think certain of our problems will ever be solved on Earth. I think we could go forward in time 10,000 years and there would still be people bleeding themselves dry over the various "holy lands" and "holy causes."

    200 years ago, who would have thought that in the 21st century we'd have medieval muslim clerics having people strap on suicide bomb vests and blow up whole crowds of people over their medieval religion?

    Or that in the United States we'd see a massive resurgence of Christianists seeking to turn the nation into a theocracy, banning such things as teaching evolution?

    Rationalists keep predicting the demise of such things, but they are always wrong and will always be wrong. (Perhaps that is cynical, but the data makes it hard not to be).


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