Monday, July 9, 2007

Blasphemy is a Victimless Crime

In reading some of the recent back and forth in the atheist blogosphere, criticizing and defending Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, several themes jump on the critical side. One of these is the premise that authors like Dawkins (and Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris) are “hurting the cause of the atheist movement.”

On Evolutionblog [], Ed Brayton of Dispatches from the Culture Wars [] comments in the Jason’s post, “Brayton Says I’m Wrong. What Nerve!”:

When the other side demonizes us and uses outrageous rhetoric, calling us "Stalinists" or "jackbooted thugs", we reprint those words on every blog because we know it makes them look unhinged and loony. When those on our side talk about breaking out the brass knuckles and wanting to obliterate religion and accuse them of abusing their children by teaching them the tenets of their faith, they do exactly the same thing to make us look bad and to help insulate their followers from the influence of "them."

At his own blog, Brayton had this to say in his post, “Atheism and Civil Rights”:

I do believe that such rhetoric, calling all religious believers either stupid or deluded, is false and that it undermines our ability to work with reasonable Christians on a range of issues. [...] The real nuts will hate atheists without such rhetoric. They hate and fear all non-Christians as a matter of presumption and there is likely nothing that could persuade them otherwise. But for a more moderate, reasonable Christian who just doesn't understand why anyone would be an atheist, likely because they've never known any, seeing militant pronouncements like that is certainly going to reinforce their fears of atheists rather than help reduce them.

I agree with Brayton that calling religious believers “stupid” is not only counterproductive but also immature. However, I think that this represents a distinct minority of atheists engaged in the battle between religious superstition and reason. Certainly I’ve seen this type of atheist, usually in internet chat forums and blogs, but the atheists in question here are those so-called “public” atheists: Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and Harris. I’ve yet to read Hitchens’ new book, but I’ve quickly scanned through my copies of the other authors’ works and I failed to arrive at the page where either of them referred to religious believers as “stupid.” I’m assuming that Brayton is, therefore, creating hyperbole and that his real discontent is with the term “deluded.”

Someone is deluded when they accept an erroneous belief or set of beliefs held in spite of evidence to the contrary. What authors like Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, and Stenger have argued successfully is that evidence does exist to the contrary of religious superstition. But I don’t think Brayton, Nisbet, et al are denying that delusion, the operative word in Dawkins’ book title, is absent with regard to fundamentalist or even moderate religious believers, specifically Christians. What they object to is that Dawkins and co., as first pointed out by PZ Myers, aren’t afraid to mention that the Emperor is without attire. The Emperor in this case is religion. Dawkins mentions PZ’s version of the Courtier’s Reply in the preface of the paperback edition of TGD and also addresses many of the fallacious criticisms that have been leveled at him from both theists and atheists alike. Dawkins refers to the latter as those that precede their criticisms with “I’m an atheist, but...”

For those critics on the side of reason who describe Dawkins as an “in your face” or “militant” atheist and claim that Dawkins et al are “hurting the cause,” where is the quantifiable evidence? The Amazon and New York Times Best Seller’s lists are quantifiable evidence against their claims. And while they are only anecdotes, the Converts’ Corner of offers quantifiable evidence as well. Daniel Dennett put it well in Breaking the Spell (the inspiration for this blog’s title) when he pointed out that a taboo exists with regard to inquiring, examining and questioning religious belief by non-believers in society: “[t]he first spell –the taboo- and the second spell – religion itself – are bound together in a curious embrace. Part of the strength of the second may be – may be – the protection it receives from the first.” Dennett, too, goes on in that paragraph to invoke the Courtier’s Reply.

Which brings us, finally, to the question of blasphemy. Are we atheists willing to pussy-foot about, afraid to offend the superstitious –the people we privately agree suffer a delusion that they are willing to spread evangelistically through society like a virus, infecting children and those looking for hope, answers, or something to give them purpose? Do we give in to the taboo and “frame” our positions by hiding our logic and reason? Is there any way to adequately “frame” atheism that logically addresses religious superstition and delusion?

The biggest beef that pussy-footing atheists seem to have with Dawkins’ book is the title. Most believers critical of the book have probably never read it and they, too, are hung up on the title. The word “delusion” is blasphemy and taken to be an insult. That’s a fact I was conscious of when I purchased a copy at a major bookstore and as I carried it around in public. But there exists a delusion all the same and it needs to be discussed. In public. By intellectuals. And that discussion is happening: in the blogosphere; on television; on the radio; in podcasts; in the editorial columns of newspapers; in major magazines; and on college campuses. These aren’t “militant pronouncements” as Brayton puts it, but reasoned discussions and reasoned responses.

I’m not shouting to believers, “ha, ha! Look at the Emperor’s bare ass!” But nor am I commenting on his smart fashion sense. And where the discussion emerges, be it at work, school, or home, I’m willing to risk the perceived blasphemy and point out that I see religion as a delusion and why.

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