PolySciFi Blog

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


Apostasy Roundup

There's an interesting discussion at the Volokh Conspiracy about hostility to atheists in America. Apparently we're more unpopular than even homosexuals when it comes to running for political office. Of course, part of the problem is that the atheists who do end up in the public eye tend to be nutjobs; the discussion began because of an email exchange between Eugene Volokh and a candidate for Alabama Attorney General who is not only an atheist but a holocaust denier and a David Duke supporter. Thanks, amigo! You're making things easier for me. Anyway, my favorite thing in the comments: someone brought up this old chestnut:
The comparison of largely Judeo-Christian America with the Marxist/atheist-police-state-of-your-choice seems to offer some pretty good emperical [sic] evidence.
and got this reply:
This does yield a pretty good result, but is a bit like comparing liberals to dog-raping, necrophiliac conservatives.
On a similar note, I recently read, and very much enjoyed Imagine There's No Heaven, an essay about atheism by Sam Harris. Harris is too much of a firebreather to make anyone who doesn't already agree with him pause for thought. But he's very good on the fuzzy thinking behind religious moderation.
While fundamentalists justify their religious beliefs with extraordinarily poor evidence and arguments, they at least they make an attempt at rational justification. Moderates, on the other hand, generally do nothing more than cite the good consequences of religious belief. Rather than say that they believe in God because certain biblical prophecies have come true, moderates will say that they believe in God because this belief “gives their lives meaning.” When a tsunami killed a few hundred thousand people on the day after Christmas, fundamentalists readily interpreted this cataclysm as evidence of God’s wrath. As it turns out, God was sending humanity another oblique message about the evils of abortion, idolatry and homosexuality. While morally obscene, this interpretation of events is actually reasonable, given certain (ludicrous) assumptions. Moderates, on the other hand, refuse to draw any conclusions whatsoever about God from his works. God remains a perfect mystery, a mere source of consolation that is compatible with the most desolating evil.


It is perfectly absurd for religious moderates to suggest that a rational human being can believe in God simply because this belief makes him happy, relieves his fear of death or gives his life meaning. The absurdity becomes obvious the moment we swap the notion of God for some other consoling proposition: Imagine, for instance, that a man wants to believe that there is a diamond buried somewhere in his yard that is the size of a refrigerator. No doubt it would feel uncommonly good to believe this. Just imagine what would happen if he then followed the example of religious moderates and maintained this belief along pragmatic lines: When asked why he thinks that there is a diamond in his yard that is thousands of times larger than any yet discovered, he says things like, “This belief gives my life meaning,” or “My family and I enjoy digging for it on Sundays,” or “I wouldn’t want to live in a universe where there wasn’t a diamond buried in my backyard that is the size of a refrigerator.”
The full article is worth reading (but be prepared for a pretty scathing tone) and can be found here. My own feeling is that a lot more people are atheist or agnostic than are willing to admit it, because atheism still bears a heavy professional and social stigma in most of this country.


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