Sunday, August 17, 2014

Atheists' Real "Mistake:" Disagreeing with the Majority

Perhaps it’s criminally irresponsible of me to make my first blog post in over a week about a random article I found online, when the US has begun airstrikes against Iraq and is sending in more military advisers, but that’s what I’m going to do anyway (I will address the Iraq situation, in time). I guess this blog post is a response to a response, technically, because the article I’m discussing here (by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie) is written as a response to an interview with Philip Kitcher. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Kitcher, and I haven’t read the interview, but the Rabbi uses it mostly as an excuse to attack atheists as a group, which is the only reason I’m writing a response.

The title of the article itself—“The Three Mistakes Atheists Make”—isn’t exactly indicative that we’re in for anything too brilliant. Contrary to what a lot of theists seem to think, atheists actually aren’t a uniform group, so it’s a bit dubious to imply that all of them, from Ayn Rand to Bertrand Russell to George Carlin, would make the same intellectual mistakes, but I guess that’s a nitpick. More noteworthy is that none of the things Yoffie lists are actually mistakes, just behaviors that he personally doesn’t like. But enough about the title—let’s launch into the actual content of the article.

 The first “mistake” that atheists make, according to the Rabbi, is that “[t]hey dismiss, often with contempt, the religious experience of other people.” This isn’t really a fair accusation—sure, some atheists dismiss others’ religious experiences, but the fact that a person ultimately doesn’t believe an incident proves anything doesn’t mean they dismiss it, let alone with contempt. Yoffie’s problem seems to be that atheists aren’t convinced God exists when other people think they’ve experienced Him. “[T]here is something both sad and arrogant about non-believers asserting with certainty that no one else is capable of a God encounter,” he posits. But many atheists—including prominent ones, like Richard Dawkins—don’t claim to know that God doesn’t exist with certainty, just to disbelieve He does due to lack of convincing evidence. And, ultimately, it’s far more rational to believe religious experiences are “psychiatric matter[s] or…general feeling[s] of uplift that [are] then related by the person involved to a religiously entrenched myth” (the “sad and arrogant” idea the Rabbi refers to) than that they have been chosen randomly to be briefly contacted by the invisible, omnipresent ruler of the universe.

“Mistake” number two is that atheists “assert that since there are no valid religions but that religions do good things, the task of smart people is to create a religion without God -- or, in other words, a religion without religion.” Apparently, the hundreds of millions of Buddhists in the world are, in Rabbi Yoffie’s opinion, following some sort of phony pseudo-religion, since Buddhism is nontheistic. The Rabbi goes on to make some equally absurd assertions, claiming that “Philosophy can do many things, but it cannot create deep loyalty, profound engagement, or a willingness to sacrifice for one's beliefs.” Has Yoffie not heard of Che Guevara—an avowed atheist—who spent numerous months leading a brigade through the Bolivian jungle to fight the oppressive government there until he was captured and killed? Or the revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin, another avowed nonbeliever, who suffered years of imprisonment and exile while fighting for his beliefs? What, aside from personal philosophy, could have motivated atheists like these to devote themselves so thoroughly to their chosen causes? Or do they just not exhibit “deep loyalty, profound engagement, or a willingness to sacrifice for [their] beliefs?” As someone with less than a glowing view of humanity, it strikes me as unbelievably pessimistic to think that no one could devote themselves to a cause unless they believe it’s what some supreme being wants them to do—and it’s a view that just doesn’t line up with reality.

The Rabbi then states that atheists’ third mistake is to “see the world of belief in black and white, either/or terms.” What follows is not just wrong, but utterly confused. Kitcher (and presumably most other atheists, in Yoffie’s mind) argue that there are so many religious views and traditions that the most reasonable view is that none of them are true. Okay. Then the Rabbi says that in Kitcher’s view, you’re either a believer or not one, essentially contradicting what he just said. He had just stated that Kitcher saw an “incredible diversity of religious doctrines.” How, then, can Kitcher see religious belief as a black and white matter? Because he doesn’t explicitly acknowledge that you can “kinda sorta” believe in a religious doctrine?

Furthermore, it seems to be Rabbi Yoffie who sees the issue of belief in black and white. He earlier cites the fact that eighty-five percent of people associate with a religious tradition, ignoring that many may hold to religious views nothing like his own—and it’s obvious from even the title that he sees nonbelievers as a uniform group who all make the same mistakes and think the same way. Yet atheists are the ones seeing the world in black and white?

Yoffie closes by stating that “most people instinctively reach out to God, and God in turn reaches out to them.” Obviously, a claim he doesn’t bother to back up with any evidence whatsoever, but rather a nice-sounding line that can make religious bigots feel good about themselves by reminding them that they’re normal, and all those atheists are just bitter, arrogant jerks who want to rain on their parade.

This article is character assassination masquerading as logical critique. Yoffie isn’t criticizing ideas or arguments that are inherent to atheism; he’s attacking atheists as a group, reinforcing the stereotype that they’re all a bunch of smug, conceited, selfish malcontents rather than just people who have examined the facts, applying the same logical standards to the question of God’s existence as they would to anything else, and concluded that they’re unconvinced. Sure, there are atheists who are smug, arrogant, selfish, etc., but that’s no reason to attack the whole group. Rabbi Yoffie has revealed himself to be kind of a self-righteous moron, but it would be unfair to blame all Jews for that fact.

Ultimately, the article is just another example of how it remains acceptable to slander and other-ize atheists in America. It’s an attitude as despicable as any other form of stereotyping and discrimination, and we’re at a point where no one—religious or not—should tolerate it. Anyone discussing Christians or Jews as if they were one homogeneous group that all thinks alike would be seen as bigoted and ignorant, rightly so (I leave out Muslims from that list because they’re another group it’s acceptable to other-ize and stereotype, even, sadly, on the part of atheists like Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens). Why should it be any less wrong to do so against atheists?

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