Special Pleading

A friend on Facebook posted a link to a HuffPost blog piece on religion. My friend introduced the link by saying, “I have been arguing for years that it is not religion, but the misuse of religion, that causes evil….” After a preliminary salvo in reply to his introduction, I had a look at the article. (You’ll find it at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sean-mcelwee/stop-blaming-religion-for_b_4416137.html). It was written by someone named Sean McElwee, whose only stated qualification as an authority on this subject is that he’s a writer. Well, so am I, so I guess Sean and I are on equal footing. Let’s see how we fare.

My preliminary comment to my friend began, “…but what is the proper use of religion? Does it have one? I’d appreciate an honest and sensible answer to this question.” To my way of thinking, the utility of religion is that it provides social solidarity for a group of people. But then, so does a bowling league. Is religion different in any essential way from a bowling league?

I went on to say, “Beyond this, I would strongly suggest that any attempt to get religion off the hook on all the evil that is done by religious people is doomed to failure, and for a specific reason: Religious doctrine of any kind produces cognitive blindness. Religious doctrine by its very nature renders the believer unable to separate truth from falsehood. This is the essence of religion! Without blind belief, religion would cease (since, of course, there is nothing there to actually believe in). Thus it is inevitable that religious people will, sooner or later, do evil things.” Why? Because when called upon by the leaders of their sect to do evil things, they won’t be able to acknowledge to themselves that they’re doing evil.

“You’re welcome to try to dispute this,” I told my friend, “but I doubt you’ll be able to do anything other than flounder backward into, ‘Oh, but that’s not religion’s fault.’ What I’m saying is, it IS religion’s fault, because religion requires that the individual conscience be subordinated to the supposed will of a supposed deity. It cannot possibly do that and also require individual moral responsibility of believers. The church colonizes and subsumes believers’ morality at a basic level, and that is why religion is inherently evil.”

I then went on to have a look at the supposedly coherent and respectable article to which my friend had linked. Rather than continue to quote my responses to my friend verbatim, I’m going to indulge in a little rewriting.

The first paragraph in McElwee’s essay can only leave the educated reader in some doubt as to what exactly he has done to merit the appellation “writer.” Let’s look at this paragraph. Here it is, in its splendiferous entirety: “Religion has once again become the ‘opiate of the people.’ But this time, instead of seducing the proletariat into accepting its position in a capitalist society, it lulls atheists into believing that abolishing religion would bring about utopia.”

The second problem with this paragraph is that it presents a straw man argument. I don’t know of any responsible atheist who claims that abolishing religion would bring about utopia. That’s a preposterous claim! But in addition to parading his ineptitude as a debater, McElwee has perpetrated a grammatical error that leaves his argument lying on the floor twitching. What, pray, is the antecedent of “it” in the second sentence? We have three possible candidates — “a capitalist society” (the logical antecedent), “the proletariat” (which was the antecedent of the earlier “its”), and “religion.”

Take your pick. None of them makes a lick of sense. Does religion lull atheists into believing that abolishing religion, et cetera? No, that doesn’t work very well, though it’s pretty clearly what the sentence is meant to say. Does the proletariat lull atheists? Does a capitalist society lull atheists?

I’m baffled. Or, really, I’m not baffled. What McElwee probably meant to say was that atheists have lulled themselves. That would at least make sense, though I’m not aware of any evidence that anything of the sort has occurred.

Before going on, let’s backtrack to the first sentence. Religion, we’re told, has once again become “the opiate of the people.” The best reading of this sentence would seem to be that religion has once again been characterized — by atheists, this time, rather than by Karl Marx — as the opiate of the people. There’s not much doubt that religion can indeed have this effect, among others, on believers. But is this observation a central tenet of atheism in the 21st century? Is it central to atheists’ objections to religion? It seems to me there are far more important reasons than this to object to religion. So again, McElwee seems to be setting up a straw man argument — though it’s not one he follows up on. He seems to have probed no more deeply than to come up with a lead sentence that would refer to an attack on religion that people could be expected to recognize.

In the second paragraph, McElwee asserts (with a little rhetorical sidestep that relieves him of the responsibility for providing any documentation) that Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett believe that religion is “the root of all evil.” Could we have a quote from each of these authors, please, in which they say that? Well, no — read strictly, McElwee is not saying that any of them said that, though he lists them by name. He’s saying that this is what is asserted by “the New Atheism,” a movement spearheaded by these writers. Again, McElwee gives us a straw man argument. Plainly, he is attempting to suggest that his opponents have said something they never said.

Anybody with an ounce of sense knows that greed and fear would still produce massive amounts of evil and suffering, even if there were no such thing as religion.

“The ‘New Atheist’ argument,” McElwee informs us, “gives religion far, far too much credit for its ability to mold institutions and shape politics….” Do we get a quote from any “New Atheist” that over-reaches by making such an argument? No, we do not. McElwee’s intent here is simply to suggest that religion is a poor little lamb that may have temporarily lost its way, but is really just all white and cute and cuddly. Bah.

McElwee’s complaints about Christopher Hitchens’s irrational hatred of Islamic culture are certainly justified. Hitchens lost his mind. But so what? That says nothing whatever about the nature of religion, or about the nature of atheist thought. Hitchens’s embarrassing missteps are another straw man.

And I love this: “[A]ny critique of religion that can be made from the outside (by atheists) can be made more persuasively from within religion.” That’s a cute, and probably disingenuous, way of dismissing all arguments by atheists on the subject of religion without bothering to examine the arguments. Only the religious are entitled to criticize religion, see? McElwee never quite comes out and says that, but read between the lines. That’s what he’s intending us to understand.

From there, he flops over into Stephen Jay Gould’s threadbare idea of “non-overlapping magisteria.” This idea fails because it attempts to put religion into a sealed holy bubble where rational people are not allowed to examine or comment on it.

I decline to participate in that sanctification. I will continue to comment on religion. Non-overlapping magisteria, my ass. Gould was a great science writer. He was not a careful philosophical thinker. If my arguments on the nature of religion are wrong, then please — do me a favor and refute them. Explain to me how I’m wrong, so that I can improve my thinking. Don’t just sit there and tell me I’m not entitled to an opinion.

McElwee just can’t keep himself from crapping all over his shoes. He quotes another writer, Terry Eagleton, to this effect: “Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding.”

In view of the fact that Dawkins has written an entire book (The God Delusion) that sets forth an understanding of the religious instinct, Eagleton could not be more wrong. By the way, Pascal Boyer’s book Religion Explained is another closely reasoned examination by an atheist. Any sociologist, atheist or not, will be happy to tell you why it’s important to understand religion! To be fair to Eagleton, however, I think we need to make a clear distinction between understanding the evolutionary, psychological, and sociological nature of religion, which Dawkins, Boyer, and others have devoted great attention to, and understanding religious doctrine. To an atheist, there is indeed nothing in religious doctrine that needs to be understood. Religious doctrine is vacuous; it is devoid of meaningful content. In that respect, Eagleton is right.

The difficulty is this: To a religious believer, the point of the exercise of religion is found precisely and entirely in the doctrine, or in whatever metaphysical “reality” is supposed to provide a foundation for the doctrine. The role of evolution in producing the human religious instinct is, to a believer, entirely beside the point, because the believer is enmeshed in the charming but ludicrous idea that there is something to believe in — something in the doctrine, and most likely something in the Great Beyond. This is why believers can’t understand atheists: The believers are only interested in discussing something that cannot meaningfully be discussed, because the discussion has no rational starting point.

All efforts to give religion a rational basis have failed, and usually in very silly ways. We might as well be discussing the pixies dancing on the lawn. You can say whatever you like about the pixies — and religious people like nothing better.

In his parting flourish, McElwee says, “‘New Atheists’ believe that religion threatens progress and breeds conflict….” Both of these assertions are, of course, demonstrably true, but he never pauses to examine that fact. He ends by accusing prominent atheists of engaging in demagoguery. Really? Time to whip out Webster’s Third Unabridged. A demagogue, we learn, is “a political leader who seeks to gain personal or partisan advantage by specious or extravagant claims, promises, or charges.”

That’s the second definition. The first is, “a leader or orator in ancient times who championed the cause of the common people.” I think we can take it that McElwee is using the word in its second meaning, or trying to. Setting aside the fact that none of the “New Atheists” has any visible political aspirations or is angling for personal gain (other than the selling of books, an endeavor in which they have plenty of competition from religious adherents of all varieties), we’re left with the idea that McElwee thinks the arguments of the “New Atheists” are extravagant and specious, and/or are aimed at stirring up the common people for some ulterior motive.

But if McElwee wants to refute their arguments, he needs to state what those arguments are, and he needs to refute them logically, in an honest and coherent manner. Slinging the word “demagoguery” at his opponents and then swaggering off into the sunset is both ineffective and cowardly. And if Dawkins and his league of extraordinary gentlemen have succeeded in stirring up a groundswell of atheism among the common people, it’s not easy to detect. Not unless you’ve been wallowing in Fox News and think there’s a “war on Christmas.”

The fact that anyone would take McElwee seriously, or that HuffPost would have thought his diatribe worthy of notice, is rather sad.

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One Response to Special Pleading

  1. Ron Greenman says:

    Steven Weinberg, Theoretical Physicist, 1933-

    With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

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