Suspicion

Scott Simon is one of the most affable interviewers employed by NPR, but there is a tone he takes with atheists that fathers normally reserve for the first dinner with a daughter’s ostentatiously tattooed jobless older boyfriend. He clearly believes atheism is a threat to society regardless of whether or not God exists.

Saturday’s interview with Richard Dawkins is a shining example. Simon has a history of disrespecting atheist interviewees, but this was the most rude I’ve ever heard him be. He was driven to ask a particular question, one he has asked many times before, and one he apparently believes is a checkmate in the rhetorical battle against atheists. It was delivered in an unusually awkward, almost Trump-like syntax:

I want to – look, I respect atheists and atheism. But I want to pick up a nice argument we used to have every couple of years with Christopher Hitchens, your friend. And that’s – you can respect atheism. I’ve covered a lot of wars, famines and tragedies. And it seems to me, truly, every theater of suffering I’ve ever been to, there is a dauntless nun, priest, clergy or religious person who was working very selflessly and bravely there for the good of human beings. And I don’t run into organized groups of atheists who do this.

Simon was so intent on this question that he mostly disregarded Dawkins’ replies in order to ask it again, and yet a third time. He even clearly implies that atheists are unpleasant know-it-alls:

But I do wonder, am I just not seeing the world correctly to see large numbers of well-motivated atheist(sic) lending their lives to trying to better the world? Or they’re – if I might put it this way, are they more concerned about just being right intellectually?

I think Dawkins acquitted himself well, but I’d like to give my own responses to this strident question, some of which will amplify his.

Simon’s question incorrectly assumes atheism is comparable to religion.

Plato recounts a man who asks Socrates how to find the best teacher of warrior skills for his son. Socrates replies “Is there not a prior question?” In Socrates’ case the prior question was complex and meant to enlighten the listener about the nature of knowledge and what knowledge is worth pursuing.

In Simon’s case there us a simpler prior question: “Why would atheism organize into large-scale atheist-themed charity organizations?”

Like many NPR staffers Simon misapprehends what atheism is, and, more to the point, what it isn’t. It is not anything like religion. It is simply the lack of religion. As Penn Gillette once said, “atheism is a religion like not stamp-collecting is a hobby.” To be slightly more accurate, atheism is a religion like not having any hobby is a hobby. Atheism is a lack of churches, of theology, of clergy. Atheism represents a simplification of one’s worldview to omit irrational beliefs in gods, angels, demons and miracles.

Asking why atheists don’t create massive, atheist-themed global charity organizations to deploy dauntless atheists to every theater of suffering is totally absurd. Churches are organizations of people joined together by a common set of beliefs. It’s hard to imagine a lot of organizations joined together by a common lack of belief. Yes, there are atheist organizations, but mostly because atheists are a reviled minority, including by Mr. Simon. The day atheism becomes common and accepted is the day those organizations mostly disappear.

Secular organizations provide the counter-examples Simon is seeking.

Simon admits that secular organizations and individual atheists do good in the world, but refuses to allow those to substitute for the atheist organizations he apparently thinks should exist.

When people lack religious belief and therefore the desire to act as a member of a church they organize around other more specific goals and causes that they care about, such as providing clean water or medical care to villages in the developing world, including in disaster-ravaged and war-torn areas. The secular organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) is a perfect example of this. MSF is made up of doctors, many of them from Europe. Statistically it is a certainty that many/most of them are atheists. They perform some of the hardest and most needed acts of bravery in theaters of suffering around the world. UNICEF is another large-scale example. One can argue that secular organizations do a better job than religious ones because they don’t waste precious energy and resources on the evangelical goals that both motivate and distract missionaries.

These organizations demonstrate that, in the unlikely event atheism takes hold across the world, Simon need not worry the theaters of suffering will be emptied of well-meaning helpers.

Religions are problematic in ways atheism is not.

Most of what religious organizations do is in places other than theaters of suffering. And much of what religions teach (and require) is not about helping others. Almost half of the Ten Commandments are not about behavior but instead are about worshipping Jehovah. Religion is characterized by everything it requires of its believers, and everything that its organizations enable. This includes the good and the bad. Many wish to define religion as only the positive things done for religious reasons. For example with this statement from the Dawkins interview Simon even implies there’s an argument to be made that religion plays no role in terrorism:

You’ve been outspoken and unbowed in your beliefs that religion plays a role in terrorism.

This idea is absurd, but better minds than mine have thoroughly debunked it elsewhere.

Whether or not you believe Religion is a major cause of terrorism, it certainly inspires many horrible outcomes ranging from tragically widespread alienation of gay kids from their fundamentalist religious families, to more spectacular sect-on-sect deadly violence that occurs weekly in places like Pakistan, Iraq, and Egypt.

To make this crystal clear I’ve created a chart showing some of the good and bad things that are demanded by or systematically enabled by religion and atheism:

religion chart 1

Atheism wins handily because it requires nothing – good or bad – of atheists. You might argue that some atheists also molest children, but they are not empowered by the fact that they are atheists. The shocking child abuse widespread within the Catholic Church was enabled, hidden, and ultimately protected by the respect required of congregants for their clergy and the political power of the church in communities.

By contrast, atheism has no doctrine, not even rationality. If you are an atheist for irrational reasons you are still an atheist. Atheists simply do not accept the truth claims about gods made by the religious. If an atheist organization is created and starts a youth group or meets every Sunday for discussions it’s not because atheist doctrine requires or encourages it. There’s even a group called “Atheism Plus” which admits by its very name that all of its principals and activities are additions to the simple base of atheism.

It’s also interesting that the World Happiness Report rates many of the most secular countries at the top. Here’s the summary for 2017:

Norway has jumped from 4th place in 2016 to 1st place this year, followed by Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland in a tightly packed bunch. All of the top four countries rank highly on all the main factors found to support happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance.

And all without a single dauntless nun or priest! A world without religion is not as scary as Simon so often implies. It might even be quite a bit better.

Atheism is an undeserving target.

Globally atheists are an oppressed minority. In America majorities in many states say they would never vote for an atheist running for public office. Atheists are killed and tortured in many countries on a regular basis, something that is woefully under-reported by NPR.

Sometimes journalists like Simon get confused into thinking criticizing atheism is “punching up,” as in afflicting the comfortable on behalf of those who piously comfort the afflicted. I believe they feel this way for a few reasons:

  1. Because atheism is the closest humans can get to a true representation of the world it seems more “powerful” than the frangible and conflicting myths taught by religion. Religious truth claims have been in retreat for centuries as science progressed. (Meanwhile, due to population growth, lack of education, and familial & community indoctrination, there are more religious people than ever.)
  2. Many atheists are well educated privileged caucasians, while religious people tend to be less educated and more underprivileged.
  3. Some atheists have a gratingly supercilious manner. (Many religious people who believe they are on a first-name basis with the almighty share these traits, but for some reason they get a pass.)
  4. Religion has a major emotional component and atheism is purely rational. As a result atheists can seem like haughty Mr. Spocks to religious people.
  5. In many places atheism is trending up even if atheists are still dramatically outnumbered.

Given the real power of religion I’d much rather hear Simon & NPR punch up at, for example, nefarious and hypocritical self-proclaimed religious groups like “prosperity gospel” churches that are actively fleecing people while wearing the sheep’s clothing of righteousness.

Miracle of Miracles

Jackie Lyden had a story on Weekend Edition this past Sunday about the repair and re-costuming of a beloved icon of the Virgin Mary at a Catholic church in Harlem. This tacky statue is credited with countless miracles by parishioners and the Catholic church itself. And, so anyway, it has a new fancy dress up dress and stuff.

Wait, what? Back up. Who cares about the freaking dress, Jackie? A KITSCHY STATUE HAS BEEN GRANTING WISHES AND PERFORMING MIRACLES ON THE REG FOR DECADES NOW. There’s your headline, obvs. I mean if even one miracle were real it would change everything science knows about the universe. That’s not an exaggeration.

It is well worth asking why supposed miracles are treated so casually by the media. Here are a few theories:

  • The media has “learned helplessness” about trying to prove miracles happened, so they just report that lots of people believe they happened and move on.
  • The media is wary of alienating religious folks, so they get as close as possible to calling the miracles real (by quoting people who believe in them, aka “witnesses”) without actually confirming them.
  • The media is cynical and really doesn’t believe in miracles at all, but they overcompensate for their bias by condescending to the believers with their coverage. “I’m sure it helps you be a better person to believe in such things, though of course I don’t need to” might be the subtext here.

Miracles are spoken of with no suspicion with surprising frequency in conjunction with the canonization of new saints (3 “proven” miracles required), the death of religious leaders who are often credited with having performed miracles during their lifetimes, and, as with Lyden’s latest, some travelogue about holy places or icons.

If such stories are worth air time, how much more are the reported miracles worth the attention of the press? If a statue is routinely healing people and otherwise changing lives in dramatic ways then this really is the biggest story on Earth because miracles really don’t actually happen.

And since the press refuses to investigate claims of miracles, who do they expect to do it? Does James Randi have to do all of them himself?

And, finally, the question must be asked, if we accept the premise that miracles are happening all over the place, why don’t the gods heal amputees?

Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Scott Simon is a genuine NPR personality.  He lets you know who he is, where he’s coming from.  It’s not just some reporter covering a story, it’s the avuncular, sentimental, self-described “luckiest SOB in the world” giving us his take on things.  Sometimes, from his tone alone, we can tell when he likes something (baseball) or when he’s not happy with something (genocide).  This affect-laden delivery can be helpful and enjoyable.

I contend that one reason people love Stewart and Colbert is that their reactions to the nightly outrages in our world are expressed with the dismay and passion, through humor, that such events provoke in normal people.  Simon practices this not through humor, but simply via his honest, folksy demeanor.  Scott, and I’m guessing he never allows anyone to call him “Mr. Simon” (that’s his dad!), is clearly a genuinely great guy almost any NPR listener would love to have a beer with – including me so long as the drinking doesn’t take place in a sports bar and we can stay off the subject of sports.

Plus can anyone resist those puppy-dog eyes?!?  Does he not perfectly resemble someone who’d think Obama’s use of the phrase “ass to kick” still qualifies as “locker room talk” from which children need to be protected in the year 2010?

But there are risks when a journalist/host wears his heart on his sleeve. The abandonment of the comforting myth of journalistic objectivity puts him in a foggy area along with Fox News.  Are we hearing truth or spin?  Another problem is that he risks alienating listeners who disagree with him.  (Helen Thomas ring a bell?)  He can avoid these pitfalls as long as he offers only studiously apolitical personal opinions.  Scott has proved himself remarkably nimble in this regard, even with his dangerously prolific tweeting.

One of the many non-controversial opinions he has made pretty clear of late is his support for organized religion.  This is not going to get him in much trouble in the USA, the most religious (by far) of all developed nations.

But it does have a tendency to annoy your humble, though easily annoyed, servant.

Take last Saturday’s Weekend Edition.  Scott interviewed Christopher Hitchens, noted dipsophile, atheist and author of “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

One of the ways Scott injects his personality into the show is by including his personal opinions in introductions of interview subjects, which could otherwise be very dry Curriculum Vitae excerpts.

His introduction of Mr. Hitchens (who I’m guessing allows the honorific) proceeded thusly:

He’s been a socialist who found Margaret Thatcher sexy; defender of the war in Iraq among leftists, a supporter of gay rights among rightists, an eloquent atheist who devoutly believes in ideals, not just skepticism.

That last bit bears repeating: “an eloquent atheist who devoutly believes in ideals, not just skepticism.”  There’s quite a lot of subtext buried in that seemingly innocuous aside, especially in the context of Simon’s previous utterances (or silences) on the subject of religion.  Simon employs the word “devout” in conjunction with atheism. This is a lazy and intentionally obnoxious category error frequently indulged in by irrationalists; kissing cousins with the meaningless expression “atheist fundamentalist”. The attempted  juxtaposition of opposites pretends that skepticism is not, in and of itself, a laudable ideal but is instead a flaw of character whose redemption requires the leavening of ideals.  Exactly which ideals are, as usual, not specified, and the stochastic menagerie of worldviews Mr. Hitchens has adopted, from sexy Cuban Communism to bellicose neocon paranoia, is too peculiar to be endorsed by anyone else. No, this is naked belief in belief, which I have mentioned before.  To be a good person it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe in six impossible things before breakfast.  It doesn’t matter which designer’s clothes you think the nude emperor is wearing, as long as you believe him to be gloriously arrayed.

But I have some news for you, Scott, delivered in my own inimitable style:  skepticism is an ideal.

It may be the best of all ideals because it guards against any of the others, including  baseball and genocide, gaining too much power over the mind of man.

Hagerty Inanity Ubiquity

This I believe.

I believe Barbara Bradley Hagerty is a shill for religion and shouldn’t be a reporter in the legitimate news media.

The public radio echo chamber is unbearably loud this week with vapid discussions of NPR religious correspondent Hagerty’s new book “The Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality.”  Incredibly, they’re giving her a five part series that amounts, of course, to a national book-tour of inestimable value.  Maybe NPR’s got a piece of the book sales proceeds, or maybe they’re so accustomed to lavishing attention on every page ejected from Cokie Robert’s laser printer their brains have changed and they don’t realize this is inappropriate.

Meanwhile she appeared today for an hour on Diane Rehm (further expanding Diane’s reputation for gullibility I’m afraid).  I’m guessing these aren’t the last.

Hagerty is a sometimes-admitted supposedly former Christian Scientist, which is sickeningly appropriate given the book’s title.  Although she has many connections with more fundamentalist people and organizations (brilliantly exposed by Better Angels and Eschaton), she soft pedals it here suspiciously in line with the latest gratuitous anti-atheist pushback from the likes of Terry Eagleton and Stanley Fish.

The theist argument can be split into two questions, “is there a god?” and “if there is a god, what things must follow from that fact?”  The second question is much harder because you have to start making a lot of extremely questionable truth claims about things like the age of the universe, virgin births, Roe vs. Wade, and, of course, whether zippers are okay.

The easy road is to start with the whole divine existence question.  You have to appear to approach it very timidly and humbly.  The tricky part is to first define god with such sweeping generality that the definition conflicts with no faith.  It’s “something larger than ourselves”, a “spiritual feeling”, or (straight from the book) “the unearthly wine of transcendence”.  Then you interview some scientists and ask them unanswerable leading questions like (again from the book) “When people pray, do they connect to God or tap into a dimension outside of their bodies?”

When you ask a question like that a lot of scientists will try to avoid seeming arrogant or hurting your feelings.  Often they are religious themselves.  So they’ll respond as the scientist in the book did :

Even if I do a brain scan of somebody who tells me that they’ve seen God, that scan only tells me what their brain was doing when they had that experience, and it doesn’t tell me whether or not they actually did see God.

Then you come to the safe conclusion, as Hagerty does in her book and on the air, that belief in this extremely nonspecific God has the same validity as non belief, that it’s all just a matter of opinion and everybody is equal and everybody wins.

Never mind the fact that this conclusion is nothing more than a hazy tautology, that making this statement after putting a bunch of people in fMRIs is no different than making the statement without the fMRIs.  Never mind the fact that this sloppy sentiment contributes not one iota to the eons old debate about god.

The real problem is that Hagerty has, quite intentionally,  just made it easier for dogmatists of all stripes to peddle their pernicious claims.