The pot is beginning to bubble. I don't much mind when people attack me. But when they go after the kids, my skin starts turning green.
A few days ago, a young new contributor to the Skeptic Ink Network community introduced himself. His name is Peter Ferguson, and he is a doctoral candidate at the National University Galway, where he established the Atheist Humanist Society. (Side note: In naming your anti-God organization, please don't place two words side by side that both end in -ist, then add an "s" after the final "st" -- making unpleasant hissing for tongue and ears.)
Anyway, Peter posted his autobiography, and I noticed a familiar pattern.
"What are they teaching them in these schools?" Professor Digory said, before muttering under his breath, "It's all in Plato."
A lot of what we know and love about Socrates, whom Peter claims as one of his patron saints, IS in Plato. Peter explains what Socrate's example should mean for a skeptical blogger well:
On my banner at the top, the fellow on the left is Socrates. I feel he accurately represents a necessary aspect of scepticism. Socrates recognised the limitations of his knowledge and his fallibility. Being a sceptic does not simply mean being sceptical of others, our scepticism must be turned inwards lest we become cynics and fundamentalist regarding our ideals. Listening and receiving the criticism of others is the best way to grow and learn. As far as I am concerned, the ability to self-analyse and admit when you have erred is one of the most important aspects of scepticism.
Well said! I hope Peter won't mind if I hold him to that, with the unabashedly skeptical comments that follow. I hope that by day's end, he will also be willing to cop to his obvious ignorance, and maybe become open to learning something he did not know about how the world works.
Here's Peter's self-intro:
Hello Skeptic Ink Network
My name is Peter Ferguson and I currently reside in Galway, Ireland. I have a BA in History and Classics, and an MA in Classics. I am now in my first year of my Ph.D. researching the interactions between pagans and Christians, specifically in North Africa during the Vandal occupation. I am a member of Atheist Ireland and the Humanist Association of Ireland (HAI), and an active member of Humanists West, an affiliate of the HAI. I am also the founder and current Auditor of the Atheist Humanist Society in the National University Ireland, Galway . . .
Peter then tells his story, which consists largely of squirming in church pews and getting out of the building as quickly as his feet could carry him, until he arrived at college:
Even though I wasn’t religious in any manner, I would still call myself a Catholic, simply because I never thought about the topic and mindlessly accepted the status quo, (an attitude I fear many among my generation have). This persisted until I started attending college and I began to realise religion’s disastrous influence on humanity, both past and present. I then started to identify with the atheist label and became more vocal in my criticism of religion.
Frankly, I seriously doubt that a young college student can know enough about history to reasonably make the following generalization:
Religion (whatever that is) has had and continues to have a disastrous influence on humanity.
Has Confucianism hurt China? I've been studying Chinese religious history for a fair time, and I doubt I could say that. Probably it's done more good than bad, overall. Taoism and Buddhism, I'm frankly not sure about. China would miss a lot of beauty and wonder, and probably a lot of inventions, without those two religions. But they've probably dragged women down quite a bit, and served as the excuse for all kinds of hocus-pocus, that often cost lives or sanity.
How about Christianity? That's the religion Peter sort of grew up in.
So I posted on the new blog, and asked:
Let me ask you a question. Without googling, do you know who the following people are? And do you know what their role in history has been?
(1) Benjamin Lay
(2) Xu Guangqi
(3) William Carey
(4) Hong Rengan
(5) George Muller
(6) King Alfred (OK, easy one)
(7) Timothy Richard
(8) Mary Slessor
(9) Benigno Aquino
(10) Rudy Bridges
Thanks! -- David
(Note to readers: These are all reformers who were inspired by the New Testament, all except Ruby Bridges have had a pretty big impact on the world. I deliberately left others even more famous -- Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, John Locke, John Wesley, William Wilberforce, Ram Mohan Roy, Sun Yat-sen, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Alexander Solzhenitsyn -- off the list, because I didn't want to tip my hand too much. And others came to mind later.)
I'll get to Peter's answers below, and the rest of the conversation. But let me first explain why I asked this question in the first place -- why I chose to call his bluff.
II. Is Peter Ferguson a serious disciple of Socrates?
I suspected that despite his historical education, Peter even today simply does not know what he is talking about when it comes to the history of religion, and as a college student.
Why did I think that? Well for one thing, there were those two heroes -- Socrates, whom we have already named, and Thales, whom we will get to, soon.
Did religion hurt or help Socrates?
Socrates himself attributed his inspiration to a guiding spirit. Reading Plato, it is clear that both men were deeply religious. Plato, one could almost call a kind of monotheist, or monolatrist, if you focus on some passages in Timaeus. Would they have been the same men, without their deep religious faith?
True, the trumped-up charges on which Socrates, like Jesus, was executed, also involved religion. Which shows how ambiguous the word "religion" can be, and why the phenomena, if it is a single phenomena, is hazzardous to make light generalizations about. One cannot say religion clearly did Socrates more good than harm, or more harm than good. There is no "besides time" that we can walk along and see what Socrates or his religious civilization would be without his gods or whatever intimations of theism seemed to dawn on them -- whether we would see Socrates as a caveman chipping flint and dragging his wife back to the cave by her hair, as I suspect, or designing spaceships already to fly to Mars, and Carl Sagan seemed to suppose. History doesn't tell us "what would have happened," as Aslan wisely explained.
But history does tell as, as even Richard Carrier admits, that many of the ancients who invented science, did so for theistic reasons.
So what was Peter reading, that poisoned him against "religion," and (as he admits later in the conversation, below) monotheism in particular?
The second tutorial saint of his new site is Thales:
On the right is Thales of Miletus, one of the first philosophers to attempt to explain the world and our universe in terms of human reason rather than myth, which is unfortunately something we are still trying to do over 2500 years later. There are no gods and only through human reason can we progress as a species. Atheists recognise that humans are the only force capable of accepting the responsibility of providing for the welfare of humanity.
So Thales was a proto-atheist? But according to Cicero:
Thales, then, of Miletus, who was the first to inquire into such subjects, said that water was the first principle of things, and that God was the mind that created everything from water.
This actually puts Thales pretty close to the perspective of creation scientist Hugh Ross, if you recall that two thirds of the atoms in water are hydrogen, and 98% of the atoms produced in the Big Bang were also hydrogen. Ross would probably say that Thales hit pretty close to the mark, even if oxygen needed to baked in large stars and in supernovas, before we could drink much water.
So it seems Thales was pretty religious. Indeed, Diogenes records that he ascribed a soul to physical objects. Diogenes preserves a letter to one Pherecydes that Thales wrote referring in a friendly way to a book on theology that Pherecydes had written. Diogenes also preserves the following purported sayings:
Peter explains his plans for the new blog, putting "ancient Greek philosophers" first among topics to discuss:
As a Classicist I would like to write about historical events and important pieces of literature which pertain to atheism and scepticism. I will discuss ancient Greek philosophers, pagan authors, ancient ideas of deism and atheism, naturalists, early Christian apologetics, and hopefully as my studies progress I will delve into some biblical criticism . . .
I am happy that an atheist would take two theistic (or at least religious) skeptics like Socrates and Thales as his heros. More power to him! But one does wonder if there might be some defect in his education, that he would fail to note the religious character of either, and represent one falsely as an anti-religious thinker. Nor does Peter even consider the possibility that theism might have had some positive impact on their thinking.
So by the time I posted on Peter's blog, I had found four prima facia reasons to wonder whether he really could have known that the historical effect of religion was so pernicious, even as a college kid:
(1) He was too young. Probably no one that young (not even Richard Carrier!), knows enough about history to make such a grand generalization.
(2) Nor does anyone usually know what "would have happened."
(3) Given also the fuzziness of the word "religion," it remains unclear whether it can be defined as something that can be profitably dispensed with, even in the abstract. What if it turns out that Peter has a "religion," too? Or that some religions are often helpful, others are usually harmful?
(4) What Peter said, or did not say, about the two main historical figures whom he appealed to as patrons -- Socrates and Thales -- suggested that either he had not read enough in his own field, or that he had suppressed part of what he did read, in interpretting their work.
III. The Conversation that followed
Anyway, Peter responded civilly, and our conversation went as follows:
May I ask why you are requesting such information? Is this some form of test of my knowledge?
Yes, sort of. I'm intrigued by some of the things you say in your autobiography, since they resonate with some issues I've been thinking about for the past few weeks. The fact that you're historically educated makes this especially intriguing to me.
Historically educated yes but to the extent of classical antiquity. None of the people on your list fall within that subject matter. I think this pretty much answers your question. Although I know of some of those on your list, my knowledge is limited and certainly not strong enough to ever write about them. Any pieces of literature or person which I will be writing about will have been written/lived prior to the 6th century AD
OK, thanks for your honest response.
What caught my eye was your remark about "religion's disastrous influence on humanity, past and present."
That seemed to imply that even as a young college student, you knew enough about the historical influence of religion in general, or Christianity in particular, to make such a judgement. From your response, as well as from the nature of the case (young college kids can't really know much history), to be honest, I doubt that was so.
As a teacher myself, I'm perhaps inclined to hold your teachers responsible, since I've seen a lot of that going around.
See that is completely different. Not having sufficient knowledge regarding certain individuals in a given list is completely different than having knowledge in historical events. It is best not to confuse the two.
And yes I know quite a bit about religion's influence throughout history and present day. I can say with much confidence that humanity would be much better of without it, especially monotheism.
Sorry, if you don't know at least half of the people on this list, what they accomplished, and what inspired them to accomplish it, you are not now, nor were you then, anywhere near knowledgable enough to make any such generalization.
Don't take that as too harsh a criticism. Frankly, I'm not sure anyone is. If I were asked, for instance, "Has religious Taoism had an overall positive or negative effect on Chinese history?", I would be flailing to answer -- still less religion in general. And I suspect I've been studying this stuff longer than you have.
I do not need to know the acts of individuals to analyse the overall impact of religion. I have no doubt many Christians (and religious people for that matter) have contributed significantly to humanity. However, for religion to be deemed a positive influence then the positives must outweigh the negatives. And the negatives include but are not limited to,
Countless religious wars,
Subjugation of women for almost 2000 years, and still ongoing,
Subjugation of homosexuals for 2000 years and still ongoing,
Massive child sex abuse cover-up,
Bigotry and racism on a grand scale,
I will stop there, I could go on for quite a few pages but I think my point is proven. For anybody to claim religion is a good thing, you must list positives which outweigh the negatives that I have listed (which is an extremely abridged list). However, you simply can't point to a Christian who has done a good thing as evidence. There must be a clear pathway between their religious belief and their deeds. I have identified such pathways for list above. I have not, nor will I ever evidence actions done by a person as proof of the adverse effects of religion if that religion was not the motivator for such actions. The same should be applied when proving the positives of religion, their must be a clear pathway between the believers faith and their actions.
If you don't know the positives (and you don't, or you would have known who these people were), how could you have possibly weighed the positives against the negatives?
By your own criteria, you could not possibly have done what you claim to be necessary, and have not done that, yet.
And no, mouthing old humanist talking points does not "prove your point" in the slightest. In fact, I strongly suspect a little inspection would prove a certain ignorance on your part about some of the episodes you name.
For instance, you mention "countless religious wars." (Whatever "religion" means, we haven't touched on that important question, yet.)
By your own criteria: has Christianity (say) started more wars, or stopped them? Have you even so much as considered the second question?
What historical evidence can you offer that, say, there would have been fewer wars without Christianity, than there have been with it?
Do you know that primitive tribes sometimes see 30 per cent death rates from tribal warfare among men, even before they've so much as seen a church steeple?
I assume you've read Herodotus. Do you blame the constant warfare he records, on monotheism as well?
I never said I didn't know who any of these people were. True I don't know who some are, but I merely said it wasn't my expertise so I would not be able to write in great detail. Now if you deem their actions and the results of these actions to be relevant to the topic then how about you evidence them. No need to go through them all, but just those deemed most significant in your eyes.
Religious war simply means a war which is caused or justified by religion. These are obviously not always black and white. Of course war exists without religion, it would be daft to assert otherwise. There are many causes to war, religion is one of them. This also answers your question regarding Herodotus, no the warfare described is not caused by monotheism, nor polytheism either. Actually, can you point to one religious war prior to monotheism? I can't.
If you want to argue that Christianity has prevented more wars or any wars for that matter, could you at least point to a one or more where it demonstrably has?
I have been studying the history of religion most my life. I keep discovering new ways in which the Gospel of Jesus has changed this world for the better. Long-term readers will know that one of my most popular series (which I hope to add to in the new year) has been on How Jesus Has Liberated Women. This year, I wrote a series offering twelve reasons each why Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Secular Humanists should celebrate Christmas. A year ago, I posted a Christmas series of twelve books that show how the Gospel improves the world. A month ago, I upped the ante to 123. I also recently posted a review of Robert Woodberry's remarkable pieces on how Protestant Christianity turns out to be the most important variable, determining where the institutions that support free society and democracy would take root around the world. ("How Missions, not 'Enlightenment,' Creates Democracy.'") That article also described a new book on the "Underground Railroad" in China, that helps North Koreans escape enslavement, in which Christian churches play a crucial role. I also posted on the long-standing influence of the Bible in bettering the lives and liberating slaves around the world -- among other things. (My earlier series on the lives of individual missionaries, which includes two people on my little list above, is also relevant.)
I've also had a fair chunk published on this subject.
How much of this did Peter know as a young college student? He's understandably being a little cagey, but the likely answer is -- precious little.
So where did he get the idea that Christianity has been so harmful? When challenged, he offers us the same tired list that you or I would probably produce, if we were asked to name the biggest cliches on this subject, the ones skeptics always bring up (including here, in the past) -- often without much detailed knowledge of the facts.
Maybe Peter knows more than the average Madeleine Murray, and maybe he doesn't.
But when challenged to do what he says one should do -- consider both sides of the issue -- Peter throws the ball back in my court. Can I name any wars Christianity has stopped?
Well, yes, I could name a few, and readers might think of others, as well.
But that would be the wrong way to determine what impact Christianity has had on warfare. Of course, wars that don't happen aren't recorded as often as those that do!
And also, this is Peter's claim, not mine. This is his supposed reason to dislike Christianity.
The only way to answer this question in a meaningful way, would be an empirical survey -- as I suggested. We know that in some primitive cultures, 30% of men died in warfare. Does that percentage increase when those tribes adopt Christianity? (For instance, when the Dani, Yali, and Sawi became Christians in New Guinea? Or among Yanomamo converts in Amazonia?)
Did European tribes and proto-states (say, the Vikings) fight more after they adopted Christianity, than before?
Or more than Chinese or Greek states, in comparable periods?
Having tried to answer that question, if there is a clear answer either way, one might then look at the issue historically, and try to trace specific causation.
But it does not seem to have even occurred to Peter to consider the question that way. He has heard rumors of wars caused by Christians, latched onto a popular sneer, and run with it. He appears to have no serious empirical reason for the claim that Christianity has hurt the world by increasing the warfare at all, which is why he throws the ball back into my court as soon as he is challenged on this shibboleth.
And sure, I can name lots of "religious wars," wars "justified by religion," prior to monotheism.
Good heavens! Almost every war in Homer or Herodatus is justified that way, usually by oracles who instigate them, sometimes directly by the gods. This is true in China, too -- read the oracle bone texts. The Bhagavad Gita, India's most popular Scripture, is religious justification for battle. And for that matter, most skeptics think much of the Old Testament was written before monotheism emerged, and Yahweh was a "god of battles."
Obviously, Peter either has not read much yet in the very classics in which he claims expertise, or he hseems to have somehow closed his mind to entire disconfirming sets of empirical data, as he read.
What poisoned Peter's mind (and the minds of millions of other young students) against Christianity? Why wasn't he taught any of the thousands of systematic reforms that people inspired by the teachings of Jesus have wrought in this world, to make it a better place? Why wasn't he taught to think or study critically these common shiboleths, above? (Or did he simply not want to? Isn't it his responsibility, as a professional scholar who names the name of Socrates, to do so now?)
These first three questions, about the character of public education, have been bothering me a lot, lately.
I plan to return to this issue in the New Year, Lord willing, perhaps in more than just blog posts. Though here, too.