Is this mainstream enough for you II?

Last week I blogged about how it’s the common conception that (with the exception of the US) bigotry against atheists is something that exists at the margins of religion in the developed west, and asked if a few examples of mainstream bigotry were mainstream enough.

Some of you may already be familiar with the story, but now ex-British PM and political father of the Faith School, Tony Blair, in much the same style as the Pope did with environmental issues, is blaming godlessness for what our PM, Kevin Rudd, calls “free market fundamentalism”, and for the subsequent World Financial Crisis.

Talking about materialistic individualism under the title ‘Without God’s Truth at its centre, no community can fulfil its potential‘, Blair tells us that…

“The danger is clear: that pursuit of pleasure becomes an end in itself. It is here that faith can step in, can show us a proper sense of duty to others, responsibility for the world around us, and can lead us to, as the Holy Father calls it, caritas in veritate.”

(Tony Blair, 2009)

For a start, he’s got his logic wrong. Blair starts out arguing for the logical necessity of his favoured cause, so asserting instances of how it can be the case isn’t enough. One needs to establish that alternatives are impossible (i.e. in “no community” is it possible without “God’s Truth“).

And it would help if exceptions to the alleged faculty of his favoured cause weren’t undermined by well established history. If only Tony Blair had used his relationship with George Bush Jr, so as to get him to more involve his religion in politics, Wall Street would be a-okay right now! Oh, wait!


I is in your industries, winding back your economy.

Blair’s ill-thought-out polemic is nothing more than dog whistling to anti-atheist prejudice, with a halo.

And it’s directed largely towards mainstream religion, not the fringes. Nor is it delivered in such a denominationally specific manner as the Pope’s blaming atheists for environmental woes – it’s interfaith. By the terms of Blair’s argumentation, any God will do.

If you are of the interfaith persuasion and you buy Blair’s line, please spare me the pretense of tolerance. This rubbish has far too great a similarity to tales of greedy Jewish bankers ruining European economies.

But it’s not just economic woes as a result of atheistic, secular materialism (which for reasons of obvious convenience, always seem to get surreptitiously treated as synonymous with practical and/or philosophical naturalism). Blair brings out the old chestnut of Fascism/Sovietism/Maoism.

“After the experience of fascism, Soviet Communism or viewing life in North Korea or the cultural revolution in China, it is easier for us to grasp the dangers of a too-powerful state.”

(Tony Blair, 2009)

What has this to do with secular societies? Specifically, how is the totalitarian state a logically necessary outcome of secularism?

Hello! Denmark! While a secular nation like Denmark is capable of not being totalitarian, totalitarianism can not be a logically necessary outcome of secularism. Unless Blair is going to equivocate with a new definition of what a community/nation’s “full potential” is (which could have other, possibly more disturbing consequences than just poor logic) Denmark breaks Blair’s entire case! (While there is a national church, the populace – the community – is very godless as is the governance).

And just how is the theocracy in Iran treating its own religious communities? And how’s the supposedly reformed, and deeply religious Afghanistan going? Men can still legally beat their wives and misogyny is rife. Apostates can still be executed and the constitution prohibits the passing of any law contrary to the word of The Prophet. Which word of The Prophet of course depends entirely on which sect is in power at any given time.

Of course, only to a man like Blair with the blood of thousands on his hands, a public funded faith school legacy that discriminates on the basis of a student’s religion, and an uncanny ability for mental gymnastics, can examples of religious persecution like this not contradict his claims of categorical religious moral monopoly. Naturally he won’t see exceptions to his thesis – he won’t let himself.

Blair finishes of by praising the latest Papal encyclical, one that condemned atheism – painting atheists as necessarily environmentally irresponsible, and claiming that relativism and self-serving individualism were the only alternatives to God. Of course as has been typical with these childish Papal outbursts, Godless ethical systems such as preference utilitarianism, which are neither self-serving, nor relativistic, aren’t mentioned. Why mention the existence of something if it prohibits your claim of logical necessity, right?

The standard line is that it’s either God or self-interested nihilism. This is absurd. The mere existence of ethical philosophies such as that of John Stuart Mill (again, neither self-serving nor relativistic) show this standard line to be a false dichotomy. The fact that these secular ethical systems have been popular in philosophical thought since the 19th century, shows how mind-bendingly ignorant the standard line is. If you consider a godless categorical imperative (also not self-serving, nor relativistic), you can extend this willful ignorance back to the 18th century.

And what I’ve mentioned doesn’t exhaust the list of non-self-serving, non-relativistic Godless ethical systems anyway. (You only need one example of an exception to break alleged logical necessity, so I won’t expand the list further.)

Nobody is necessarily bound to ethical relativistic nihilism in the absence of God. This is basic philosophical history and the fact that Tony Blair and The Pope flunk it in order to prosecute a grudge against atheism is rather telling.

How telling is it then, when religious moderates take this tripe seriously? And how many moderates do you think are likely to take it seriously.

~ Bruce

Is this mainstream enough for you?

We’re often told that’s it’s only those whacky-at-the-fringes types that have the chip on their shoulder, and that any comparison between them and the mainstream is a straw man. It’s misrepresentation instrumental to intolerance.

Or at least, when the numbers of aggressive, bigoted, fundamentalist types are pointed out to be quite large, we are often told “but we aren’t like them!” It’s usually true. The bigots amongst the fundies tend not to have had the same education or (unless they are televangelist) economic opportunities as the more moderate theist.

This raises a question. Are the intolerant persuasions less persistent in the ranks of the moderately religious, or are they just more gentrified? Does this gentrification help us to underestimate the size of the underlying problem and is it only when the facade crumbles away that we get a look at what’s really going on?

A few mainstream examples of tolerance in action come to mind. Some more respected than others.

“Without God, everything is permitted.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

I know I can’t start my day properly without burning a baby over an open fire. Mmmm. Crunchy, fatty baby crackling. There are people who would seriously give pause at me making this joke. They would seriously ask, failing to appreciate my humanity (and telling us something disturbing about their’s), “what if not God stops you from doing such things?”

Maybe Dostoyevsky is a bit old to be drawn against the modern mainstream.

“Though atheism, historically considered, has meant no more in the past than a critical or sceptical denial of the theology of those who have employed the term as one of reproach, and has consequently no one strict philosophical meaning; and though there is no one consistent system in the exposition of which it has a definite place; yet, if we consider it in its broad meaning as merely the opposite of theism, we will be able to frame such divisions as will make possible a grouping of definite systems under this head.”

(Francis Aveling, The Catholic Encycolpedia, Appleton, New York, 1907.)

Or in other words, “atheism isn’t what I’d like to represent it as, but if I characterise it as what I want to, I’m able to associate it with a heap of definite systems that otherwise I couldn’t.” What profound intellectual dishonesty!

Francis continues!

“One system of positive moral atheism, in which human actions would neither be right nor wrong, good nor evil, with reference to God, would naturally follow from the profession of positive theoretic atheism; and it is significant of those to whom such a form of theoretic atheism is sometimes attributed, that for the sanctions of moral actions they introduce such abstract ideas as those of duty, the social instinct, or humanity. There seems to be no particular reason why they should have recourse to such sanctions, since the morality of an action can hardly be derived from its performance as a duty, which in turn can be called and known as a “duty” only because it refers to an action that is morally good. Indeed an analysis of the idea of duty leads to a refutation of the principle in whose support it is invoked, and points to the necessity of a theistic interpretation of nature for its own justification.”

(Francis Aveling, The Catholic Encycolpedia, Appleton, New York, 1907.)

Or in other words, “Without God, everything is permitted.” Never mind that there’s no demonstration of how it is logically impossible to arive at ethical decision making without invoking theology – you would think that with so damning a judgement, the prosecutor would take his evidence a bit more seriously. But no. It’s just assumed. Pre-judged.

This is mainstream stuff. Or at least it was in its time.

Moving on…

Skipping past the practical and pseudo-atheist (an exercise in manipulating terms to yield palatable conclusions), Jacques Maritain wrote.

“Finally there are absolute atheists, who really do deny the existence of the very God in Whom the believers believe — God the Creator, Savior and Father, Whose name is infinitely over and above any name we can utter. Those absolute atheists stand committed to change their entire system of values and to destroy in themselves everything that could possibly suggest the name they have rejected; they have chosen to stake their all against divine Transcendence and any vestige of Transcendence whatsoever.”

(Jacques Maritain, 1953)

Charming stuff. And this from a chap who helped draft the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I guess seeing an outgroup as set out to destroy in themselves, things that you value, or perhaps misinterpret, needn’t be reconciled with the purpose of the UDHR. That humans can hold irreconcilable ideas to be true at the same time is uncontroversial.

If Maritain sparks your interest, go check out his version of “critical” versus the likes of Kant or Hume (the phrase “prejudice” comes to mind). He’s well published and liked by Catholic philosophers so you should be able to find something around the libraries. At the very least you can see his prejudice if you follow the link in the above citation, where he alleges a “dual inconsistency” in atheism that is entirely a product of the rigged terms he’s himself decided to use.

Perhaps something a little more contemporary?

What about Francis Collins’ assertion that a capacity for ethical reasoning (not an evolved “do or don’t list” for those contemplating using the popular straw man that “evolution determines what is moral”) is not possible as a product of the combination of evolved altruism and evolved reasoning. That God had to do it.

Aside from the very real problem this scientific prejudice (and it is a prejudice – there is no evidence to support Collins’ position) presents, can you not see how it feeds into the “atheists are denying their God given morality” dogma? Atheists need God to be good. Atheists don’t have God, or are going to lose his blessing. Collins may not believe that atheists are incapable of being moral (or he may – really, I don’t know), but he’s clearly an enabler.

One has to wonder how much people have invested in this trope. Ken Miller, famous opponent and critic of Intelligent Design, and star witness, saw fit to flatly lie about the content of Sam Harris’ criticism of Collins’ prejudice when the latter was appointed as director of the NIH (under which research said prejudice is particularly relevant to, i.e. mental health.) That’s a big about face in terms of positions on religious interference in science – one is left wondering if there was any other motivation other than Collins’ views being less repugnant to Miller than the theology of Intelligent Design.

What’s Miller’s interest in the ideology of God being necessary for ethics, and why’s he willing to look the other way for Collins but not others? And why so dishonestly? Could the slings and arrows hint at some kind of projection going on?

Let’s move on shall we?

Is it not true that inconsiderate use of creation begins where God is marginalized or also where his existence is denied? If the human creature’s relationship with the Creator weakens, matter is reduced to egoistic possession, man becomes the “final authority,” and the objective of existence is reduced to a feverish race to possess the most possible.”

(Pope Benedict, 2009)

Yep. Without God, a feverish race to possess the most possible is permitted. Which if Ratzinger’s shoes and accommodation is anything to go by, is also permitted by God. I’m not seeing much in the way of a moral monopoly going on here. “Go forth and multiply”, anyone?

Perhaps Ratzinger thinks his urges for the splurges would be worse without God, but he doesn’t need to project his flaws onto the rest of us. I’m an atheist and I’m happy living in my low-cost, ex-public housing home in a working class suburb, thank you very much. Oh, and my shoes are cheap as well.

One could make the case that the current Pope is hopelessly out of touch with his flock and completely upstaged by his predecessor. Fair enough. One could infer that he’s not necessarily the best indicator of the mainstream, or at least the mainstream for Catholics in the developed west. That would be a bit more of a stretch.

Still, there’s plenty more atheist hate floating around the mainstream. Take Steve Harvey. Successful comedian. Star of his own Warner Bros. sitcom. He has a nationally syndicated radio show that’s kicking out radio staples from their time slots. He’s the 2007 syndicated personality of the year, beating out has-beens like John Tesh.

He’s in touch with the people. He’s also a bit of a dickhead.

Here he is chanelling Dostoyevsky, albeit without the gentrification.

Spot the self-contradiction. (1:12)

He starts out saying that he doesn’t believe that atheists can’t be moral, like he knows it’s wrong, then once he gets going… It’s like his cognitive biases are playing ping-pong with the peanut in his skull.

But maybe I’ve strayed to far. Maybe unlike all the other alleged moderates (I guess there’s always going to be disagreement as to what constitutes one), Steve Harvey is probably a bit too born-again.

Still, you have to wonder. What would the moderates look like with the gentrification stripped away?

~ Bruce