Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Good grief - you're doing it again!

One of the responses to “HOW TO WRITE ABOUT THE GNU ATHEISTS, a Guide” has been from a Be Scofield, “How to Write about the Religulous, A Guide.” (There was some borderline spamming in my comments, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that there were real or perceived technical problems.) The thing is long and confused, and I’m not devoting any significant time or energy to replying. (As a sociologist studying the history of social movements – writing a post about religious movements right now, in fact – I'll admit to my amusement at suggestions concerning our ignorance or neglect of sociological definitions of religion and the history of religious movements.*)

But good grief! “Remember: this is about the religulous”!? You’re doing it again! A primary point of my post – both implicit and explicit – was that people often make extraneous matters the focus in any discussions of belief.** We are arguing for the formation of beliefs based on reason/evidence. That is science, and atheism is the only scientific position. There is simply no basis or defense for the belief in any gods. It’s that simple, that is what we’re saying, and that needs to be established. That is a central part of the substance of my argument as a gnu atheist, whatever that of my arguments as an anarchist or sociologist or feminist.

Instead of engaging that substance, and indeed as a means of avoiding substantive debate on the question of gods, many people divert attention to completely separate issues. I don’t know how many more times this can be pointed out: it matters not a whit to this question what the benefits or drawbacks (evolutionary, historical, contemporary) of belief or religious community, however defined, are. The socio-historical role of religious beliefs is absolutely in need of attention, but people arguing honestly and intelligently should be able to distinguish these issues – a scientific epistemology of belief and the truth of religious fact claims on the one hand and sociological and historical questions concerning religion on the other - and deal with them separately. Further, it isn’t until the former has been addressed that any honest discussion concerning the ethics, tactics, or strategy of the atheist or related movements can happen. It is entirely dishonest to pretend to a debate on these questions without first addressing epistemology and truth claims concerning the existence of gods.

I am blissfully happy to continue conversations about the history and sociology of religion, which are part of my work, and I’ll note that I’m not the sort of scholar who’s dissuaded by the mere mention of Liberation Theology or Civil Rights or the struggles of indigenous peoples***, so be careful what you wish for. But the point, and it’s a key point that I’m angered to see consistently evaded, is that these are separate questions from that of scientific epistemology and the existence of any gods. (Of course they are also questions that need to be considered scientifically; it's territory where religious and accomodationists seem to believe themselves to be more secure, but they're wrong.)

I would love to think that the response to this might include an explicit acknowledgement of this evasive conflation, but I’m not optimistic on that score.

* I’ll note one statement that irritated rather than amused me, and that was: “[The religious person] may challenge the idea that the casual drinker isn’t responsible for alcoholism, liver disease and ruined marriages. Or that the pot smoker sanctions the heroin addict.” It’s not that this (along with the other silly analogies drawn) fails to understand the fundamental argument concerning the defense of religious epistemology and demands for respect for a set of fact claims. Such failures are typical of the entire piece. I do not believe that drug use, much less drug addiction, requires sanction.

** The impetus included, it should be noted, representations and stereotypes that feed prejudice and discrimination toward a marginalized group in my country - atheists. I'm rather amazed and distressed that this status and the pattern of portrayals of gnus in this context was minimized.

*** The most telling portion of the post was this: "And lastly, never make exceptions for the religions of Native Americans or other Indigenous people, however superficially attractive their ideas might be....They deserve to be subjected to the same scrutiny and attack as any other religion." The beliefs certainly do deserve the same scrutiny, and the reference to superficial attractiveness is a dead giveaway. Understanding what makes a fact claim attractive to a gnu atheist is a start, and a hint is that the attraction is anything but superficial.

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