Monday, January 07, 2013

Why is Greta Christina so angry? (And ignorant?)

I have to admit, Greta Christina's book, Why are you Atheists so Angry?  99 Things that Piss off the Godless, is in many ways better than expected.  Greta's a good writer.  Her anger is expressed with as much reason as rant, with pith as well as pique.  She begins the book with a list of 99 things that tick her off, and I was surprised to find I agreed with most of them:

32. "I'm angry about what happened to Damon Fowler.  I'm angry that when he asked his public, taxpayer-paid high school to stop a school-sponsored prayer at his graduation, he was hounded, pilloried, and ostracized by his community, publicly demeaned by one of his own teachers, targeted with threats of violence and death, and kicked out of his own house by his parents." (22)

If all that's true, that sure is a wretched way to treat a kid, especially by purported Christians.  I doubt the Founding Fathers would have minded the prayer -- Ben Franklin had the Continental Congress open with one, himself -- and there may be more to the story than Greta is telling, but come on, parents.  Suck it up, and love your children to the finish line.  And teachers -- I'm also thinking of those many teachers who brainwash their kids with secular humanist and pro-Islamic propaganda -- you job is to make kids think, not to make them all think the same as you. 

I'm pretty ticked off about propaganda in the public schools right now, myself.

38. "I'm angry about 'lying for the Lord.'  I'm angry that the Mormon Church officially advocates a policy of deception, concealment, exageration, selective disclosure, censorship, and outright dishonesty about the history and tenets of their religion . .  in order to protect their image." 

Hear, hear.  And yes, how the Catholic Church shuffled abusive priests around (10 and 11), abused children in Ireland (69 and 70), or if you want to add a few points, how Ma Bell stifled competition, United Auto Workers swiped billions from the American taxpayer, how the White House stonewalls their frequent abuses of power, and all such abuses and lies that corporate or mob flesh seems particularly heir to. 

Greta is also angry about 9/11 (12), caste, the Holocaust (48; whatever that has to do with "religion"), the torture of children for "witchcraft" in Africa (50), the dynamiting of Buddhas in Afghanistan (15), bloggers threatened with death in Iran (54), persecution complexes among American Christians (64-6), male and female circumcision (18), and lots of other stuff I can say "Amen!" to.  I suspect most of these items tick God off, too, though I hesitate to tell Greta that, knowing how mad it will make her to hear it. (94)  She even goes after Buddhism a little (82), bugged that her fellow atheists often give it a pass (83), but doesn't seem to know enough to say much on the subject.  Still, nice try. 

Greta is also smart enough to know that just listing annoying habits and atrocities (she rightly adds that her list could be far longer) is not enough to make even a moral case against religion.  And she knows that a moral case by itself would not prove religion wrong.  She recognizes that people can be jerks with or without help from Olympus.  She further recognizes that anger can be destructive, both psychologically and on the street.  But she points out that anger has also often been harnessed productively to further important reform movements -- which come to think of it, is true, it has. 

In fact, Why are you Atheists so Angry can be seen as a nice little rebuttal of pluralism, the attempt to "always look on the bright side of (religious) life."  (ta-da . . . ta-da-da-da-da-da)

Like most radical critics of pluralism, however, Greta tacks to the opposite extreme.  This book can also be read as a "Rah, rah" screed for secular humanism, and Greta and her gang (she's in thick with PZ Myers) as simple-minded "Enlightenment exclusivists," as Gavin D'Costa puts it. 

I think some of her points are just wrong: on Christianity and slavery, on Christianity and the status of women, on why Galileo and Bruno were persecuted.  I think she's also wrong about the supposed lack of comfort that religious faith brings the dying -- I have seen the Gospel be more than comforting to the dying, I have seen it be positively enobling.   But I think I'll save most of those areas of disagreement for a later post.

The more serious problems with this book go much deeper.  They have to do with Greta's notions of religion, and her utter failure to make a serious argument for her position.  Finally, even more important than that, in place of a real argument, not really knowing much of anything about religion, like so many New Atheists, she invests everything in a false notion of what we Christians mean by "faith."  And she takes that notion itself on faith, in the sense of blind trust in clueless windbags.

(1) What is religion?  As I started reading Why are you Atheists so Angry, I wrote two questions on a back page in private notation, which I now expand to,

"What does Greta think religion is?"

"What systematic evidence will she offer for or against the proposition that religion, mine in particular, is more harmful than helpful?"

The former question is much disputed by scholars.  Peter Berger divides definitions of religion into two categories: "substantive" and "functional."  An example of a functional definition is Paul Tillich's definition of religion as an "ultimate concern," or Emile Durkheim's description of religion in terms of the role it plays in bonding a community. 

Like most Gnus, when Greta finally gets around to defining what she's talking about, she takes a substantive definition of "religion" for granted.  Religion has to do with the substance of belief, that is, believing in the supernatural.  "The thing that uniquely defines religion is . . . the belief in unverifiable supernatural entities." (59)  Of course she fogs the question with the added adjective "unverifiable," but we will get to that later.  The point at present is that for Greta, as for most New Atheists, religion involves beliefs in supernatural "entities."

To some extent, this definition probably reflects Greta's ignorance.  There are things that Greta would call religions, but that don't care much about supernatural entities, some forms of Buddhism and, I believe, Hinduism, for instance. 

But the point is that by her definition, wildly popular among Gnus, "atheism" and "religion" are mutually incompatible.  This means that Greta cannot possibly have a religion of her own, because she doesn't believe in gods.  So she and her allies are apparently free of some intellectual fault to which the "religious" are liable.  I admit that this is a plausible way to define the word.  But I think it is also used as a trick by which New Atheists retreat behind the castle of their own chosen dogmas and psychological fixations, and try to claim at the same moment to be sallying forth like knights under the disinterested sun of open-minded reasoning.

Who?  Religious, us?  Nobody here but us objective, rational, truth-seeking Enlightenment chickens.  Peck, peck, peck!  Religion, that's for the rabble outside the gate. 

Which is, of course, the usual exclusivist defensive posture, and one reason I don't like exclusivism.  It tends to separate "saved" from "sinners" a little too firmly for my taste.  The truth is, atheists tend to act as irrationally, credulously, and socially as other human beings, more in some cases, less in others. 

(II) What systematic evidence will Greta produce to show that Christianity is harmful? 

In the end, she doesn't cough up any at all.  Not really. This is one of the funny things about New Atheists: they get so worked up over the "scientific method" and "reason" and "evidence," then almost never find it in their hearts to offer any.  That's partly because some conflate science and reason, and don't bother to learn much history, where the action is, if you want to prove that religion is harmful (or helpful).  Test tubes and particle accelerators are absolutely useless when it comes to showing what effect Christianity has had on the world: here, you need to find some good historians. 

Greta does offer that long, gossipy list of "religious" sins, which yes, could be made a lot longer.  (Heck, I could make a longer list of my own screwups, and I'm just one Christian!)  But that's a tedious game that anyone can play, without any control on confirmation bias, the human tendency to pick and choose bits of data over vast fields of human activity to confirm whatever theory you want to believe. 

To really prove that religion in general, or one religion in particular, is harmful, I think you'd have to do something like what I did to prove that Christianity has helped women, or Robert Woodberry did to show that Protestant missions have aided the development of free and democratic societies.  It's not enough to find some reason why you think religion hurts people, as Greta does -- more on her "methodology" in the next section, and the little short cut she takes to avoid the need for an empirical argument.  Nor is it enough to tell stories about your experience, and add in a few historical anecdotes that you sprinkle like pixie dust over your prejudices. 

You would need to do roughly as follows, I think:

(a) Define religion coherently and plausibly, preferably including your own "ultimate concern" in the definition, so comparisons can be made. 

(b) Do a survey that includes both "religious" and "non-religious" societies, both embracing a wide variety of cultures, languages, continents, and economic and historical circumstances.  Using reliable and relevant international data bases, show that "non-religious" societies are systematically and consistently more friendly to human flourishing than are "religious" societies.

(c) Offer a theory or theories as to what causes the difference.  Be critical, don't pounce on the first thought that enters your brain. 

(d) Then describe the history of liberation and enrichment in those geographical regions, and show historically that it was indeed the turn away from religion that worked the magic. 

(e) Explain away the link between anti-religious ideology and misery in the one third of the world that "went communist."  Don't just try to brush it away with blank assertions, such as that the Soviet experiment was "political," or that it was all Stalin's fault, even in countries he never visited.  Deal with actual historical research on the question, such as David Aikman's careful Atheism in the Marxist Tradition, and accounts of the anti-religious statements and actions of communist governments.

(f) Also you'll need to come to grips with the equally clear link between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and liberation (as I and others have shown) around the world, in a variety of ways and conditions. 

Greta does not achieve one bit of this.  That's because she hasn't done her homework, and doesn't know what she's talking about.  I wouldn't be surprised if she hasn't read ANY of the 126 texts I cited a month or so ago, showing "How Christ Liberates Humanity."  (Except maybe for the gospels.)  (And yes, I have read a pretty large chunk of the atheist authors she cites in her bibliography.)

Instead of offering genuine, systematic evidence, or even refuting arguments showing how the Gospel has helped us even in this world, Greta plays a trick on her readers.  She waves a magic wand, which I call the "Blind Faith Meme," and a priori logic saves her all the hard work of making an actual historical argument. 

But that magic wand, as I will now explain yet again, is just a brittle stick of dry-rot eaten old cottonwood. 

(III)  Magic Faith.  Greta wants to justify her anger against religion with more than a string of anecdotes.  She's smart enough to know that anyone can play that game, and probably suspects, after all the recent uncivil wars in the ranks of the Brights, that given power, her own crowd would do no better.  (Can you imagine these clowns in charge of a country?  Yet these are the people Greta cites, and praises again and again in her book.  Tell me there's no hatred, there.) 

So like many New Atheists, Greta latches on to the Gnu Myth of Original Sin: what I call the "Blind Faith Meme:" 

60. "I get angry when believers glorify religious faith -- i.e., believing in a supernatural world with no good evidence supporting that believe -- as a positive virtue, a character trait that makes people good and noble . . . " (29)

"A major part of many religious doctrines is that trusting the tenets of your faith without evidence is not only acceptable, but a positive virtue.  ('Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe." -- John 20:29.)

"And moderate and progressive religion still encourages the basic idea of faith: the idea that it's acceptable, and even virtuous, to believe things you have no good reason to think are true."  (71)

This is Greta's excuse for not doing a bit of real historical or sociological research to back up her buck-naked assertion (feathered with anecdotal fig leaves) that "religion" does more harm than good. 

And what research has she done to prove the Blind Faith Meme? 

Again, all we get are anecdotes.  Greta claims that religious people, driven to the wall by her peerless logic, after all their arguments have been dismantled, have squeeked, "But I take it on faith!" 

As you can see, I'm getting a little hot under the collar, myself.  How often do we have to refute this nonsense? 

How often do we have to explain that Greta's interpretation of John 20 (also Dawkins') is bogus?  As I pointed out in True Reason:

"First, notice that Jesus gave Thomas the evidence that he asked for.  Three senses (sight, sound, and touch) provided independent witness to an event that he naturally found hard to believe, but that would change his life.  (And, some say, send him to die as a martyr in India.)

"Second, by not trusting his close friends, Thomas became less reasonable, not more so.  He was retreating from the third level of faith to faith in mere senses and mind, taking a short step along the Unabomber's path to a rabbit hutch in Montana.  Jesus recognized that we are social creatures, and reasonably depend on one another for most of the facts by which we live.

"Third, John gives this and many other testimonies 'that you may know.'  What else could he do?  He didn't have a Sony video recorder . . . He couldn't Carbon-14 test the shroud.  Human testimony was the only way to establish the truth of historical claims.  And whenever anyone tells you how weak it is, listen to her talk for ten more minutes, and she will contradict herself by appealing to human testimony in everything else she says that day: things she has learned in class, in books, on the Web, on the radio . . .

"Fourth, miracles continued . . . "

It is a pure act of laziness that Greta Christina would pass this "proof text" on to her readers, getting it no doubt from Richard Dawkins, like one of those gifts in the Shire that hobbits like to pass on to one another on their birthdays.

Read the New Testament as a whole, I argue in that chapter, and it is clearly the norm for Christians to appeal to evidence to back up supernatural claims.  Survey Christian thinkers in general down through the centuries, or even ask modern Christians why they believe, and the appeal to reason and evidence is the overwhelming norm.  (See "Have Christians Lost Their Minds?" in my Truth Behind the New Atheism for a summary, also True Reason, and my on-line article "Faith and Reason.")

Alister McGrath, a leading authority on the history of Christian theology, wrote a book in large part to correct Richard Dawkins on this mutual point of ignorance between him and Greta.  It was to no avail.  Gnus hold onto this meme with amazing tenacity, "in the teeth of the evidence," as Dawkins put it. 

And Greta, like Craig James in The Religion Virus, is upfront enough to admit why: this lie is their magic wand, their shortcut to moral victory, their excuse for refusing to offer any serious argument to back up their bias against "religion" in general, or Christianity in particular. 



Unknown said...

32. "I'm angry about what happened to Damon Fowler. I'm angry that when he asked his public, taxpayer-paid high school to stop a school-sponsored prayer at his graduation, he was hounded, pilloried, and ostracized by his community, publicly demeaned by one of his own teachers, targeted with threats of violence and death, and kicked out of his own house by his parents." (22)

Really, how pathetic can you get?
This is such a minor, completley irrelevant, not to mention that it doesn't sound like the whole story, that makes Greta lose all credibility. She makes it sound as if atheists are some persecuted minority in the States when that's not the case at all. In fact, nones and atheists are among the biggest religious groups in the US and they are growing. There are literally millions like her who also live privileged lives, unlike alot of religious people in other countries that live in poverty or under persecution. Really, their feeling of persecution is just as bad as that of conservative christians who think democrats and liberals are after them.

Unknown said...

But a high school kid is not "millions;" he's just one. And bullying in school takes many forms, it is not inplausible that it could take this form. So on this one, yes I agree it would be too much to be generally paranoid, but I can't disagree with the specific feeling.

I do think a lot of liberals are "after" conservative Christianity (I've seen it, including in the schools), but I agree again it would be too much to work that up into a general persecution complex. A little opposition is not always a bad thing.

Cornell Anthony said...

Great post!

Greta does use the 'appeal to pity' quite often.

Sylvain Poirier said...

In reply to: Explain away the link between anti-religious ideology and misery in the one third of the world that "went communist."
I see the problem with Marxism as that it is just a religion very similar to Christianity. I know my answer maybe doesn't fit Greta's definition of "religion", however it does fit her main point which is that the evils of religions come from their unfalsifiability, since Marxism went unfalsifiable as well.
As for your other requirements of what kind of argumentation would be relevant, you seem to have missed that she already presented such a case (maybe not in enough details for your taste but) in that post, paragraph "Many European nations..."

David B Marshall said...

Sylvain: First of all, the problem with Marxism is NOT that is wasn't falsifiable. Joseph Smith's claim that there were Puritans on the moon wasn't falsifiable in the 19th Century, but it didn't cause a problem. The problems with Marxism is that it (a) made claims about economics that were both falsifiable and false; (b) assumed falsehoods about human nature; (c) encouraged the lust for power; (d) "abolished all eternal truths, all religion and all morality" as Marx and Engels put it; (e) was consequently ruthless and scoffed at traditional morality.

If your definition of "religion" is "a series of unfalsifiable claims," you can take your bizarre definition up with the writers of dictionaries and the scholars of religion. But really some Christian claims ARE falsifiable, and some scientific claims are not. So that definition won't help you, even if you CAN convince the world to adopt it and abandon the definitions they have been using.