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Religious Freedom Trumps Our Feelings, ctd

August 22, 2010 3 comments

Over at Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Daily Dish, Patrick Appel posts a reader response to his initial post on “Atheists Vs The Mosque.” Here is the reader’s letter in full:

I think it needs to be said that many of us atheists part way with the louder atheists out there when it comes to Islam or other blanket condemnations of religious people.
Though I agree with 90% of what the “new athiests” say in regards to belief and doubt, the movement will never amount to anything, because they ostracize way too many like-minded individuals. Fair enough I suppose, because most atheists are happy not belonging to a group. But I have to ask myself what do Harris and Coyne wish to accomplish with their arguments? Even if they are 100% correct, what is the best case scenario from blaming moderate Muslims and for completely demonizing a people who, from my experiences in Turkey, are by and large peaceful people (or else we’d see jihadists everywhere).
There is no question that fundamentalist Islam is a problem, and addressing it pragmatically is the only solution.  Moderate Muslims are the only ones that will be effective in promoting a change, and trying to shame them seems completely impractical.
You can not fight unreason face-to-face with pure reason and expect to get the results you want. As an atheist in the South, I deal with this on a daily basis with Christianists, who, in my opinion, pose a much greater threat to our country than Islam. Inciting them has never been a practical solution to dealing with them.
The new atheists initial arguments were exciting to me, because I saw it encouraging closeted atheists to come out; however, it has devolved into a religion bashing group if the comments sections for the big websites are anything to go by.  Christianity got at least one thing right, “Though shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”.

I sent back a letter of my own with a few edits:

I think it needs to be said that many of us [homosexuals] part way with [the louder gays] out there when it comes to most Americans or other blanket condemnations of [full civil rights opponents].

Though I agree with 90% of what the [“new queers”] say in regards to [marriage and civil rights], the movement will never amount to anything, because they ostracize way too many like-minded individuals. Fair enough I suppose because most [queers] are happy not belonging to a group. But I have to ask myself what do [Sullivan] and [Lt. Choi] wish to accomplish with their arguments? Even if they are 100% correct, what is the best case scenario from blaming [the Human Rights Campaign] and for completely demonizing a people who, from my experiences in [Massachusetts], are by and large peaceful people (or else we’d see [bigots] everywhere).

There is no question that fundamentalist [bigotry] is a problem, and addressing it pragmatically is the only solution. Moderate [civil union proponents] are the only ones that will be effective in promoting a change, and trying to shame them seems completely impractical.

You can not fight unreason face-to-face with pure reason and expect to get the results you want. […] The new [queers] initial arguments were exciting to me, because I saw it encouraging closeted [gays] to come out; however, it has devolved into a [HRC/Democratic Party/religion/President Obama/moderate] bashing group if the comments sections for the big websites are anything to go by. [Andrew Sullivan] got at least one thing right, [“This is your liberal media ladies and gentlemen: totally partisan, interested in the truth only if it advances their agenda, and devoid of any balls whatsoever”.]

I actually shared my own issues with Harris’s piece here, but the reader and Patrick Appel just fail to grapple with the critique Harris is actually making. I hope my little bit of creative editing will make some of the reader’s fallacies and double standards more obvious. Here I’ll plunge a little deeper into what I find objectionable in the reader’s response.
He writes,

Though I agree with 90% of what the “new athiests” say in regards to belief and doubt, the movement will never amount to anything, because they ostracize way too many like-minded individuals.

This is one of the more common criticisms I hear of the “new atheists.” The problem with this argument is that no one has actually provided any evidence that it is true. There are a couple of dubious premises I see. First, if “the movement will never amount to anything” how does he square that with the idea that it is being counter-productive. Doesn’t he also notice that the movement has already generated quite a bit of talk and has attracted support from a large number of prominent scientists and thinkers? Also, even if someone doesn’t self-identify as a “new atheist” (or even an atheist (Sam Harris himself doesn’t like to)) the idea is to promote certain goals like reason and science and to break the taboo that religion can’t be criticized – I already see that taboo as beginning to crumble.


These “like-minded individuals” also aren’t so “like-minded” if they think moderate faith is entirely benign – if the “loud atheists'” message is uncomfortable to them, well, that’s the idea.  Finally, the implication that “new atheists'” message will somehow crowd-out other pro-science, pro-reason, anti-fundementalist messages is completely lacking in evidence and actually seems a bit ridiculous, especially considering that this reader thinks “the movement will never amount to anything.”

But I have to ask myself what do Harris and Coyne wish to accomplish with their arguments? Even if they are 100% correct, what is the best case scenario from blaming moderate Muslims and for completely demonizing a people[…] (my emphasis)

This just screams, “not interested in truth” to me. He says he agrees with “90%” of the new atheists ideas, but presumably the 10% for him includes valuing truth even if offends the sentiments of many. It appears the reader missed one of the core messages in that 10% he rejects. Not sure what the 90% is. If it’s just that he doesn’t believe in God, he’s almost entirely missed the point of Harris’s writings – his 90-10 split should be reversed. Also, Harris and Coyne don’t “demonize” an entire people or blame moderate Muslims for 9/11 or terrorism. I’ve never read or heard that from either of them anywhere. They may blame moderates for failing to adequately confront the reality of terrorism inspired by Islam. Is it really demonization to challenge moderate Muslims to look at their own scriptures and question them on the messages found in them? Is it demonization to notice that the Islamic doctrine of jihad (not invented by extremists, but found in the messages of the Koran and hadith) has dangerous effects on our world.

There is no question that fundamentalist Islam is a problem, and addressing it pragmatically is the only solution.  Moderate Muslims are the only ones that will be effective in promoting a change, and trying to shame them seems completely impractical.

Harris has actually acknowledged on multiple occasions that he’s not the best ambassador to Muslims communities, and has called for tactical alliances when dealing with larger problems such as terrorism. How Harris or Coyne or anyone else is preventing moderates from being effective isn’t said. I’m not positive shame is the best approach to get them to confront the objectionable realities of many in their religion, but it’s at least possibly one approach. If someone, reasonably, feels that moderates aren’t being loud enough now with all the coddling going on, maybe it’s time for a little shame. Here’s the type of shame Harris is advocating – something he calls “conversational intolerance.”

Good and civil people are made to feel shame for unthinkingly using words like “fag” and for treating homosexuals as undeserving of full civil rights and respect – is it obvious to anyone that shame didn’t help nudge people to behave better? Just two days earlier this video was on The Daily Dish.

I’m not prepared to say it’s a bad thing to shame moderates into being more outspoken condemning women’s rights abuses in the Muslim world or acknowledging that, for example, close to 1 and 3 British Muslims would prefer to live under sharia law, or just admitting the horrors found in their holy texts. What exactly will it take to get moderates of most religions to notice that religion can actually have negative effects? Just for the record Harris was mostly trying to get “well-intentional liberals” to discuss the realities of much in Islam despite the demagoguing of the political right.

You can not fight unreason face-to-face with pure reason and expect to get the results you want.

Well, if you wanted a good example of condescending to those you wish to persuade, look no further. No one is  advocating being impolite in every circumstance, just honest.

The new atheists initial arguments were exciting to me, because I saw it encouraging closeted atheists to come out; however, it has devolved into a religion bashing group if the comments sections for the big websites are anything to go by.

Let me quote Jerry Coyne responding to Phil Plait’s talk that similarly criticized the “dickish” attitude of many new atheists.

He surely has instances of “bad behavior” in mind—indeed, he says so.  And yes, you can find them in the comments section of several atheist websites.  But I find the claim of pervasive bad behavior unconvincing. If you look at the major voices of the skeptical movement, at least those that I read regularly, I think you’ll see very, very few cases of opponents being called “brain damaged” or “baby rapers”.  In general, the discourse is not about name-calling, but about facts and rational argument.

I don’t really think the comment sections of atheist websites are really going to sway Muslims one way or the other. All this gripping about tone is mostly just a way for critics of Harris, Hitchens, and others to ignore their actual arguments.


These types of criticisms always seem to be so concerned with the ability of the new atheists to persuade. Maybe I’m going out on a limb, but it seems more likely these critics don’t want the new atheists to persuade. Continue to be cognizant of the fact that these critics never provide evidence to their claims that these loud atheists are hurting the cause. I’d don’t have much evidence that they’re helping much, but it seems unlikely they are hurting the cause considering that more people, not less, are identifying as nonreligious since the Harris and others first started speaking out. This graph was at The Daily Dish just today.
Religion_switching
And many people are already familiar with the declining rates of religion in America.


Harris and others are pointing out that certain Islamic beliefs conflict with many of our Western values. He’s also trying to counter many well-meaning political figure’s and intellectual’s notion that Islam had nothing to do with 9/11.

There is no such thing as Islamophobia. Bigotry and racism exist, of course—and they are evils that all well-intentioned people must oppose. And prejudice against Muslims or Arabs, purely because of the accident of their birth, is despicable. But like all religions, Islam is a system of ideas and practices. And it is not a form of bigotry or racism to observe that the specific tenets of the faith pose a special threat to civil society. Nor is it a sign of intolerance to notice when people are simply not being honest about what they and their co-religionists believe.

I’m fine with Park51, I think living out our liberal values by allowing the community center is more important than any message it may send to many Muslims that “liberal values of the West are synonymous with decadence and cowardice.” But the suggestion that Harris is demonizing moderates or that atheists are hurting the cause of reason are faith-based beliefs – that is, they are utterly lacking in evidence.

Defending a Daily Dish Reader

During Andrew Sullivan’s time away from his blog, Patrick Appel has posted a little series on atheists (starting here).  Blogger Freddie deBoer criticizes atheists for focusing too much on religion (read his original post to see if that’s in dispute).  A Dish reader blasted Freddie for bad reasoning.  Freddie posted a rejoinder.  Here’s my defense of the Dish reader, which I sent to Mr Appel.




Dear Patrick Appel,

I have to defend the reader who criticized Freddie.  I reread Freddie’s original post attacking atheism as being defined by objection to religion.  The reader doesn’t seem to be misinterpreting Freddie very much at all.  Freddie’s right that atheism compels you to nothing, but that doesn’t mean it is wrong or odd for an atheist to notice the problems with religious faith and want to speak out against it.

Freddie’s condemnation of Sam Harris is especially strange since Sam actually called out atheists at “an atheist convention” for using the term “atheism,” which Sam also believes to be content-free.  Dr Harris is an atheist but he’s not defined by atheism – his public life is better defined through challenging irrational and dogmatic beliefs.  Certainly religion is a particularly deep well of unreasonable ideas and also is more commonly sheltered from criticism so it is understandable that he might focus on it. 

So what is Freddie’s point that was misunderstood? Is it just that atheism doesn’t compel one to criticize religion.  Sure, he’s right.  But it sounds an awful lot like he’s criticizing atheists for criticizing religion.  The only alternative is that he’s complaining about a non-existent problem – I’ve never read an atheist that claims atheism forces them to oppose religion. Atheists, as one would expect, notice the irrationality in religion more than even secular theists. Unsurprisingly, some (probably not even most) of these atheists spend a lot of time attacking religious ideas that they see as harming society.  It is not “anger at the God [they] say [they] don’t believe in,” as he uncharitably and falsely insinuates that vocal atheists are liars. 

Not noticing the irony, Freddie blatantly misunderstands and straw-mans the Dish reader.  Freddie spends a large portion of his response arguing that Christians and religious moderates can defend “Enlightenment values” and fight religious extremism too.  I challenge you or him to find one place where the emailer claimed otherwise.

Also, tactics weren’t even touched in Freddie’s first post or the emailer’s response – why he focuses so thoroughly on them in order to defend himself is beyond me (unless it’s to deflect attention from the poverty of his original argument).  He also doesn’t muster up that much evidence that atheists are poor advocates for defending secular liberal values.  Can’t atheists and religious secularists fight against extremism?  An atheist by definition can’t do it as a religious moderate.  So is Freddie recommending that atheists lie about being atheists or that they just shut up about religion all together?    

Freddie doesn’t even consider that religious moderates might also deserve criticism – are atheists allowed to do that?  Many have thanked Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris for pointing out faults in their religion. 

I also have to point out that Freddie’s claim that “opposing those actions has nothing to do with eliminating the religious devotion that supposedly inspires them” is absolutely absurd.  First of all, there is nothing “supposedly” about their inspiration.  In the sentence immediately before he writes, “people do things out of religious conviction that must be opposed.” (my emphasis) This is the sloppy thinking by apologists for religion that too often gets a pass.  Is he really arguing that challenging the religious beliefs that motivate certain harmful actions is pointless?  I agree that many terrorists can’t be reasoned out of their faith but many other (more reasonable) believers can.  He can go on “without thinking about religion” as long as he wants, but thankfully many will continue to confront the unreasonable faith-based dogma (no matter how “moderate”) that retards secular progress and shelters fundamentalism.

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