Thursday, April 12, 2012

Angry atheists are standing up, and demanding hot cups of tea, and not your lukewarm teabag muck ...

(Above: let the attacks on organised religion and Microsoft continue, and, yes Death to Microsoft Word).

As sure as it rains or a bunch of angry atheists get together for a chin wag, there'll be a bunch of angry Christians jumping about like cats on the roof tops, or perhaps, as the old song used to run, cats with syphilis or cats with piles.

Now why call them angry Christians? Pourquoi pas? After all, the average atheist the pond encounters is usually quite dull, conventional, tepid and inclined to be a tea drinker. But if they happen to mention they think religion is a pile of crap and god an imaginary friend, it's suddenly adjectival 'angry' atheist time.

So here's Simon Smart crawling out of the woodwork, to offer a quite angry Faith in the infallibility of the mind is the atheist's delusion.

Now is calling someone delusional nice? Or fair?

As someone who routinely misplaces their spectacles, it seems passing strange that I should have a faith in the infallibility of the mind, but in the usual pugnacious angry way of Christians, Simon thinks he knows best. Simon says I believe in the infallibility of the mind, and so it must be ...

The funny thing in all this is that Simon thinks his column is the real repository of reason and wisdom because he spends most of it ripping off the thoughts of Daniel Kahneman, as if it was a knockdown argument because Kahneman is an influential psychologist and Nobel prize winner in economics, and after a lifetime of studying human behaviour, Kahneman has come to the remarkable conclusion that the human mind is unreliable.

Why and there the pond was thinking that after a couple of world wars, ongoing wars here and there, the odd Holocaust, never mind the odd bit of genocide, the fire-bombing and nuking of sundry cities, and various other existential absurdities, the mind was hugely reliable, to the point of infallibility. You know, like the way the Pope is infallible ...

After Kahneman (Tversky gets into action too), Simon rolls out Alvin Plantinga to seal the deal, and prove that naturalism can't rationally be believed, as if atheists have never experienced an irrational moment in their tawdry, angry lives.

Somehow this leads us to a deeply post-modernist moment, where you begin to wonder if a tree falls in a forest, does anybody hear ...

... if you accept the combination of naturalism and materialism, says Plantinga, you'll have to accept that any particular belief you might hold could as likely be false as true. The probability that your beliefs are reliable will be low.

Sure. Let post-modernist uncertainty and subjectivity rule. But let's get angry for a moment:

... if you accept the combination of Catholicism, Anglicanism, Hinduism, the Jewish and Islamic religions, each consigning the others to hell for heresy, the pond notes that you'll have to accept that any particular belief you might hold could as likely be false as true. The probability that your beliefs are reliable will be low. Unless of course you decide that any god will do in a storm, and the one you grew up with and got indoctrinated about is as good as the next god.

Well that's what an angry atheist might conclude, but somehow Simon doesn't see it that way, and doesn't worry about the conflicting thoughts of the hordes of true believers. Instead Simon says this remarkable piece of gobbledegook:

If, however, you believe in God and don't accept naturalism and materialism, then that particular problem doesn't apply. You will assume there is a being who is separate from creation but speaks truth into the fibre of the universe.

Uh huh. But is that a Jewish truth, a Catholic, an Islamic or a Protestant or a Hindu being who's speaking truth into the fibre of the universe, and consigning the unbelievers to an eternity of hellfire and damnation? (Okay Buddhists, you can take a 'community chest' or 'chance' card on this one).

Sure, you'll have other challenges to your faith, but you'll have a reason to trust your faculties in a way that the naturalist does not. Believing in human rationality is quite rational within a theistic world view, but not so in an atheistic framework.

Yes, believing in human rationality is quite rational when you believe in an imaginary friend.

Well as you can imagine by the end of this, the pond was rolling jaffas down the aisle, and wondering why Simon bothered. You see, in the end faith is one of those things you either have or you don't. It's a bit like love. When the pond abandoned the shackles of faith, it was a liberating moment. No more confessions, no more catechism books, no more Papal dirty looks ...

Now there's no point in having a rational debate about this sort of emotion-laden stuff. There's really nothing to say. Simon can think he's off to heaven, and the unbelievers are off to hell, and there's an end to the matter. Why does he bother with all the other guff? As anyone knows, once you fall out of love, it's hard to get the feeling back.

It happens the other way of course. The pond knows fervent atheists who've gone all clap happy, and then spend their life on irritating proselytising missions, never content to let well enough alone, as if they're somehow personally affronted that others don't share the rapture. But here's the thing. Either way proselytising is tedious, and it's even more tedious that Christians, Islamics and others have proselytising built into their mission statement. So one thing leads to another ...

While some might get off on Lady Gaga, it's perfectly possible never to fall in love with Lady Gaga, or give a toss what she might say or do ...

That's the thing about irrational thoughts and desires, and mystical yearnings and the need for spiritual and metaphysical crutches, and it does no good at all to dress them up with Nobel prize and philosophical humbuggery. Either you're on the train to Jordan, or you might want to catch the 5.30 pm home to Camperdown ...

But somehow Simon is determined to get angry and get offended.

... Plantinga's thesis might prompt those in the ''all religion is delusional'' camp to approach vital questions of human existence with measured consideration of the alternatives - something beyond naked contempt. That, surely, is a reasonable request.

Now look here old bean, no offence intended, but really, who gives a toss about what you consider a reasonable request. It's perfectly okay to hold anyone who believes in Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy, Humpty Dumpty, and any other imaginary friend in naked contempt. After all, the expectation is that children will grown out of Santa Claus, and it's quite reasonable to expect adults will grow out of an all-powerful good god who's set things up so that genocide seems a perfectly natural response to wickedness ...

Anyway, what's wrong with naked? Surely it's better than clothed, mealy mouthed pious contempt? You know, the sort where Christians explain how being gay is unnatural, and how they can't be bothered to attend an ordination ceremony for a woman.

Just don't get angry about it, just go about your business at the Centre for Public Christianity, go on bothering god, and leave perfectly amiable tea-drinking atheists alone. Now if you were to acknowledge the matriarchy and god as female or perhaps bisexual, we might begin to have a chat ...

Wouldn't you know it, but just a few seconds after angry Simon has left the scene, along comes Gary Bouma, and A battle beyond belief.

Now Bouma presents as a humble emeritus professor of sociology at Monash University and he purports to be academic and objective. There's a nice opening flurry of statistics and inoffensive use of adjectives, so it's not so much angry as new or recent or perhaps - oh let's be bold - "strident" atheist voices strutting on to the scene.

But then Bouma began to rabbit on about how religion was on the rise, along with the veiled contempt that Simon says gets his goat:

...why are the New Atheists so evangelical, so fanatical about putting their case?

Yes get together for a conference, and suddenly you're evangelical and fanatical, and utterly unlike the Christians nodding off to sleep in the pews on a chilly Sunday morning. But do go on, and please throw in some condescension:

The answer comes from an understanding of the difference between competition and conflict. Competitors respect each other and vie for the rewards - in this case, state recognition, popular support, and influence on policy decisions. However, in conflict, one group seeks the elimination of the other; or a coalition of groups seeks to eliminate one group.
The New Atheists seem to me to be acting out of a fear of being overwhelmed and eliminated. They are not experiencing competition.

Uh huh. Fearful strident atheists.

It's at this point that the pond twigged that Bouma wasn't much of an academic, and might have a little skin in the game. Sure enough, a quick google turned up this interesting aspect to the CV:

...Professor Bouma, a sociologist at Monash University and the UNESCO chairman of Interreligious and Intercultural Relations, as well as an Anglican priest at Saint John's church, East Malvern ... (Priest slams religion curriculum as 'appalling')

Uh huh. Well that explains why Bouma thinks that atheists are angry. You see, religion's winning hands down, at getting conferences funded, at arguing how schools should be run, at driving secularism into the wilderness. No wonder atheists are grumpy sore losers, and quite irrational and violent and zealous and denigratory to boot:

The response to a threat to survival is well known - a high level of defensiveness and where necessary violent self-defence. From my studies of intergroup relations, particularly interreligious relations, I argue that the stridency, the evangelical zeal and occasional denigration of their competitors in the market of ideas comes from the experience of being subjected to conflict, the threat of the right to exist. No group takes that sitting down.

Yes atheists are on the march. Their very survival is being threatened, and so they're not sitting down, they're standing up, utterly unlike the quiet triumphalism of your average Islamic zealot or your raging gay and female bashing evangelical fundamentalist who thinks intelligent design is the path to understanding climate science.

And then came that creepy crawly moment you sometimes get when Christians want to sound liberal and inclusive. It seems Christians must rise up to the challenge of what to do with these noisy, vexatious buffoons:

Victoria, for good reason, prides itself on being an inclusive society. Including the New Atheists is part of the challenge.

Oh yes, these angry alienated individuals are a real problem, a real challenge, and so we must be inclusive and considerate and touchy feely. Perhaps we could all share a scone and a cup of tea, and by the way have you ever wondered what it would be like to have Jesus in your life?

From a sociological point of view they are one group among others competing for the allegiance and affiliation of the population. Trying to eliminate the competition is no better than denigrating those who are not convinced by your arguments. The state's challenge is to include and moderate so that no one feels threatened and then can get on with working out the implications of their (non-)faiths for our lives together.

How about this for a start? Just because a few atheists decide to attend a conference in Melbourne - personally the pond would rather have a mixed grill at the Kootingal pub - is that a good enough reason for Christians to suddenly start screeching and squawking about the challenge of atheism, and making unreasonable requests for atheists to accept that philosophically they're fucked in the head and delusional?

No, Simon, mourning the loss of Christopher Hitchens, now writhing in hell, doesn't get you off the hook ...

Just saying, just asking of course ... wouldn't want to upset the apple cart and wonder why people who've been told they're damned and off to hell for a few thousand years might want to balance the books these last few hundred years ...

Take it away xkcd:


  1. Just for the record - Hinduism does not proselytize, not does it condemn non believers to everlasting hell - indeed, such a belief would be totally alien to Hindu philosophies. Not does Hinduism hold that it is the only correct path - Hinduism embraces a broad range of beliefs, including scepticism. If people are going to attack religious beliefs it is perhaps advisable that they get their facts right. However, these militant atheists remind me of the most dogmatic evangelicals of any other persuasion, with their insistence that they alone are right, and that everyone who does not think exactly as they do is deluded. Any person who closes their minds to any possibility has already cut themselves off from the processes of deeper rational thought and experience. The mindset of those who know what is best for the rest of us - followers of what George Orwell described as "smelly little orthodoxies" - whether they be vulgar Marxists, extreme feminists, evangelicals, militant atheists - is fundamentally the same; the need to believe and to seek to enforce belief on others. Mr David Nicholl seems to be a good example of this - a fervent Catholic as a boy and now a fervent atheist with some sort of inbuilt psychology which inculcate a need to proselyutize.Has his mindset changed at all? It doesn't seem so.I don't know how many times I have been told by militant atheists that anyone - yes, anyone - who holds any religious belief is a mindless fool; similarly, I have been repeatedly told by evangelicals that anyone -yes anyone - who does not believe exactly as they do is on the road to hell and perdition. I fail to see the difference in approach - both are intolerant and dogmatic to the point of absurdity. It is possible to be a believer or a non-believer and to live and let live, and to acknowledge and respect other points of view. Incidentally, as a former gravedigger I am fully aware of how many self proclaimed atheists fall at the final hurdle and seek a deathbed conversion as a form of celestial insurance policy.

  2. Um, just for the record:

    A striking feature of contemporary Hindutva discourse as it has come to be shaped is the great stress that is given to what is seen as the pressing need for increasing Hindu numbers. This is to be done principally by two means. Firstly, by seeking to prevent the conversion of Hindus to other religions, principally Christianity and Islam. Secondly, by trying to bring to the Hindu fold non-Hindu individuals and groups through what is known as ‘shuddhi’ or ‘purification,’ itself a demeaning term which clearly shows what is meant by the oft-repeated term in Hindutva discourse of ‘respect for all religions.’

    Of course that's a Muslim view, but hey, you probably think there's been nothing going on in the way of Hindu v Muslim these past few hundred years, and certainly not in the 1947 partition days.

    As for hell, "At the most basic and fundamental level, where a common man is concerned, Hindu scriptures describe heaven as "svargam" and hell as "narakam" ... The hell is a dark world, filled with evil doers and their relentless cries of pain and agony, undergoing different kinds of torture and punishment as a consequence of their bad deeds in their previous lives. Unlike in other religions, the hell of Hindu religion is not ruled by an evil persona, but by Hama, a god of highest virtue, endowed with self-discipline and unmatched judging power. Aided by his court minister Chitragupta, who keeps an account of all the deeds done all the people upon earth, he administers justices and accords punishments to the beings who arrive at the doors of hell after completing their lives upon earth.

    Don't take it up with the pond, take it up with Jayaram V

    As for learning about deathbed confessions by being a former gravedigger, I'm intrigued. Did they pop out of the box just before you fired up the back hoe, and said "not to worry, I got a deathbed conversion as a form of celestial insurance policy"?

    Perhaps if people are going to defend religious beliefs, it is perhaps advisable that they get their facts right. Or at least cite a source or two, instead of offering up just their own unsubstantiated opinion.

    And perhaps you should think about cutting back on the use of "militant atheists', because somehow it sounds militantly silly. The day that western atheists get as silly as militant India versus militant Pakistan might make 'militant' a little more meaningful ...

  3. As I said people should check their facts. Naraka is a state of mind, not an everlasting hell. Much of Hinduism is metaphorical, and must be interpreted broadly. What your respondent has done has selectively quote one strand of Hindu belief and extrapolate into a generic statement of fact which she imagines obtains across Hinduism as a whole. It doesn't. And Hindutva is about as representative of general Hinduism as Pentecostalism is of Christianity (see Indian historian and agnostic Ashis Nandy), or Dawkins is of atheism. The militants of every belief are those who seek to impose their views upon others and who are aggressive towards those who do not share their beliefs. If the respondent bothers to check she will find that this term is widely used in philosophical, poolitical and historical discourse. As for the rather silly comment about my gravedigging experience, this observation was acquired after long conversations with funeral celebrants, relatives of those I dug graves for and religious authorities. I worked as a gravedigger for over 2 years. (The phenomenon was especially common among lapsed Catholics.)It was also my own observation made after some 20 years of counselling experience. "Silly India versus silly Pakistan?" Maybe. As silly as our wars against Muslim nations? Or the persistent anti-Muslim propaganda run by our own populist institutions? Or the deep racism that emerges whenever any non-Christian group tries to establish a house of worship? My own entry was a plea for basic tolerance, but also an observation on the mindset of those who are militant and universalistic in pushing their own viewpoints upon others.

  4. You really shouldn't dissemble for here is what you said:

    Just for the record - Hinduism does not proselytize, not does it condemn non believers to everlasting hell - indeed, such a belief would be totally alien to Hindu philosophies.

    Now that in itself is an extremist viewpoint because you said "totally alien". When challenged "totally alien" becomes:

    Much of Hinduism is metaphorical, and must be interpreted broadly. What your respondent has done has selectively quote one strand of Hindu belief and extrapolate into a generic statement of fact which she imagines obtains across Hinduism as a whole. It doesn't.

    So it isn't "totally alien", because hell can be found within Hindu thinking, yet your talking of "militant atheists" is totally alienating.

    Try a little basic tolerance yourself, couch your arguments in less extreme terms, and maybe you'll get somewhere, in due course ...


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