Saturday, February 23, 2013

How I choose my targets and more: Responding to a reader comment

Yesterday I wrote a piece about how social pressure is the key to changing the societal landscape that we live in, one in which religion plays too big a role. I received a very long comment by Keith Rozumalski on that post that deserves an answer, and so since the response is likely to be long, I've decided to answer in a fresh post instead of in a long, winding comment thread, not least because these questions deserve answers (sort of... you'll see) and also significantly because Blogger limits the lengths of comments (indeed, I think the one left to me is near maximal length).

On his blogger profile, Rozumalski describes himself as
I’m an ex-atheist who became a progressive intellectual Christian. I’m a graduate from the University of Washington. I have a passion for literature, philosophy, apologetics, science and the arts.
I will respond to his comment in pieces, instead of posting the entire thing in a single block. Because I will, at times, quote my own and other works, I will highlight Rozumalski's comment in deep green, while quotes from other sources will be in the usual black.

He opens rather predictably, given that my previous post mentions that the events on 9/11 have a lot to do with why I decided religion is a problem. Had he read my book, God Doesn't; We Do, Rozumalski would already be aware that I believed in God for almost another eight or nine years following 9/11/2001, being part of the now-trendy "Christianity isn't a religion" and "religion is the problem, not the God or core teachings of it" crowd before any of that was cool. Rozumalski  writes,
If the main reason why you became a strident atheist is 9/11 and the concern that religion can cause people to commit acts of violence then why aren’t you focusing on trying to destroy the of faith people with violent tendencies such as Islamic jihadists? Not that they would listen to you because you’re just an infidel living in the corrupt West, but my point stands.
Exactly, Keith--not that they would listen to me. This is hardly my whole critique of this question. My primary cause is to understand and subvert the entire enterprise that is religious thinking. While I see the clear differences between the violent Islamists and other religions, I have been quite clear on a number of occasions that the differences between the religions, especially the Abrahamic ones, or as I call them the "One True Faiths," are inconsequential compared with their similarities. They're all variants on the same poisoned theme. This is a lovely attempt to get me to try to turn my attention away from your stuff and to put it on others (we call it "special pleading," and it's a fallacy too).

It is very useful for me to point out there that I live in the Southeastern United States (Rozumalski's profile indicates that he lives in Seattle, in the so-called Godless Northwest). Why is this relevant? Christianity is by far what I am most familiar with, irritated by, damaged by, and presented with on a literally daily basis. I'm therefore many, many times more competent talking about Christianity than I am about Islam, even though I have studied the latter religion to a reasonable degree. Since I try not to be in the habit of talking out of my ass, I focus on my strengths. It's not immaterial that Christianity is vastly more imminent in my life and in the lives of almost everyone I know personally than is Islam as well. That's why I choose Christianity. Same poisoned apple, different bite--and a bite that keeps getting shoved on me and mine every time I turn my head or open my mouth. From my experience, to use a Southernism, it's natural to clean up the shit in one's backyard before working on someone else's.

I don't see these endeavors as separate. If I work to undermine the entire fabric of religious belief, particularly somewhere I can have an impact, then I can enable the social pressure that I argued (in the post Rozumalski is responding to) is the only real way to change this problem. In other words, the way I see this is that it will be vastly  more effective to create a stronger and stronger global social pressure that fundamentalist religion in particular is unacceptable. Since I don't have the power or the finesse to topple theocratic governments half a world away, it seems pretty reasonable to work within my scope.

It's incredibly poignant to point out here that the events on 9/11 were a trigger that changed my thinking about the entire enterprise of religion. One might liken it to being similar to the way that Francis Collins allegedly viewed a three-part waterfall and was moved to believe in the truth of the Christian dogmas as a result, except that in this case, my thought process actually makes sense.

Rozumalski continues,
If you’re really concerned about violence then why are focusing on destroying Christianity, a faith that clearly teaches that violence and even name calling is a sin (see Matthew 21-22)?
We can find Islamic passages that teach that violence is a sin too. Indeed, they call themselves a religion of peace! Sura 4:171 specifically forbids extremism, in fact: "Do not go to excess in your religion." On the other hand, Matthew 10:34 is rather famous on quoting Jesus: "I come not to bring peace but a sword." Does Rozumalski have any weight in this argument, then, by cherry picking around to call Christianity a less violent faith than Islam?

(Incidentally, I think Christianity is less violent, but then the Inquisition isn't exactly roaring anymore, so my opinions are heavily skewed by a deeply secularized vision of Christianity, as I would argue Rozumalski's are as well--we ought not ever forget how the Christians behaved when they had absolute power when apologizing for their current "excellencies" of behavior and nonviolence.)

Rozumalski goes on,
To say that because some Islamic terrorists behaved abominably on 9/11 then all religions and religious people are dangerous and evil is to commit the fallacy of composition. Just because a small group of Islamic people are violent doesn’t mean that religious people are violent in general. 
Rather like to say that either religion is a religion of peace that teaches that violence is a sin is to commit the fallacy of cherry picking.

Let's talk more about this fallacy of composition nonsense, since Rozumalski apparently wants to beat a straw man here. I'm not saying, nor have I ever said, that all religious people are dangerous and evil. That's nought but straw, and moldy straw at that. I also don't think that most religious people are violent in general. If Rozumalski had bothered to read God Doesn't; We Do, or much else on this blog, he would be keenly aware of this fact. The entire eleventh chapter of God Doesn't; We Do addresses my thoughts on the issues with moderate and liberal faith, which are real but subtle--not crass accusations that they are all violent and dangerous.

For example, on p. 303 I write,
Essentially, the main idea I want to make clear is that the vast majority of believers in the One True Faiths, like the vast majority of infidels, are simply good people that are trying to do their best to live and understand life. Most are pro-humanity. Most are moral and behave ethically. Most are gracious, nice, and kind. Most are sincere. Most are honest and trustworthy. Most are exemplary humans insofar as anyone can be. Many of these positive traits can easily be extended freely to organizations of religious believers as well, and, in most cases, to the leadership of those organizations. (It is perhaps one of the least happy of circumstances that there are sufficient grounds, modern and historical, to raise many eyebrows about the goodness of religious organizations, although it is generally true enough.) 
On p. 304 I go on to state, "I think there are ways in which belief in God can be held and expressed in a manner that is unlikely to deserve much negative attention." I think this more than qualifies much of Rozumalski's rebuttal as being the moldy straw I say it is.

Indeed, although the arguments against moderate (or is it moderated?) faith are nuanced and varied, Sam Harris has a stunning quote from The End of Faith hitting one of the key ones, one tied to Rozumalski's complaint here. Harris writes,
"Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed"
Not content with the weight of what might have been a valid question, Rozumalski continues by icing this cake of shit with
Do you attack all religious faith because you don’t want to appear as being a racist for attacking a Muslim religion?
Really? I talk about Christian nonsense primarily because I'm steeped in it up to and beyond my eyeballs. I've already covered the main points here, but let me reiterate: the similarities vastly outweigh the differences. Last time I checked, Christianity hasn't proved itself to be valid any more than Islam has. I can't precisely remember, on the other hand, ever saying that Christianity is bad and yet that Islam is somehow good. Hell, I hardly draw the line at "all religion." Superstition and ideology in general, taken to consequential ends, are all my target, something else I've been consistent about that Rozumalski would be aware of had he bothered to read more than a page of my writing before commenting with his "beautiful" assumptions about me and my motivations.

That ends Rozumalski's first paragraph. His next one is better still:
Let’s say that your nightmare scenario happens and Islamic jihadists obtain nuclear weapons and let’s say that the incredibly improbable happens, that their use of these weapons causes worldwide nuclear warfare that destroys all life on the planet. If your view, that naturalism is true and that nothing can stop entropy from slowly destroying the earth, universe and all life, is true then how is this scenario really any different than if the earth as we know and all life on it perished naturally in x number of years from now? Both scenarios end the same; the earth and life on it are destroyed. It’s not like any of those people can take the happy memories they would have had when they die. If life is as Arthur Schopenhauer says, “a uselessly disturbing episode in the blissful repose of nothingness,” then there really is no difference between life never existing or if it last 100 years or 10 billion years. If naturalism is true then extinction is inevitable and there is nothing we can do to stop it. Destroying religion is not going to save us from our doom.
This cannot be described as anything other than intentional obtuseness, trolling, or willful stupidity. How is the destruction of all life on the planet soon and by intentional, unnecessary violence different from the destruction of all life on the planet later (probably much, much later) and by natural and thus blameless causes that are presumably unavoidable?

If Rozumalski is serious with this rejoinder, which I hope he is not, he has illustrated beautifully for me how Christian thinking completely skews one's sense of value and importance, not to mention moral force.

It also underscores another enormously important point that I keep driving at lately: logic doesn't determine reality. Reality is what it is. If Schopenhauer is accurate, which I don't think he is (because nothingness is not possibly "blissful," instead it is utterly and completely neutral and unexperienced), it doesn't matter. It doesn't make religion any more true or useful. Maintaining religion isn't going to save us from our doom either, although it might hasten it.

It literally flabbergasts me that Christians and other religionists think this way. It's as if they are so bent on their fantasies of death that they are perfectly willing to throw out any value that can be found in life. Let's mark this as another argument against Rozumalski's religion, then, shall we? Thanks, Keith!

Two paragraphs not being enough for him, he continues:
If your feelings have more to do with politics then wouldn’t your time be better spent working the political system instead of trying to destroy all faith particularly in light of the fact that you don’t have any arguments that conclusively prove that God doesn’t exist (believe me I know as I have spent numerous hours poring over atheist and theist argument and have spent several years in both camps)?
No. Since Rozumalski uses the phrase "in light of," let's recall that faith is not light. It's blowing out the light. Faith is a cognitive bias, and those may give the illusion of light, but it's hardly light. This, by philosopher Denis Diderot, says it pretty well: "Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: 'My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly.' The stranger is a theologian." Trying to minimize this is hardly to be disparaged.

Should I focus my efforts on the political system? Who says I don't? I keep many irons in my fire. My main issue, though, isn't political. My main issue is that billions of people are doing themselves wrong by using a flawed system when we are perfectly well equipped now to leave it behind. I want better for people than broken methods.

By the way, asking me to prove that God doesn't exist, indeed, to even suggest that I should have to, is shifting the burden of proof. It's also a fallacy--indeed, it is a big one, maybe the fallacy. Russell's Teapot is full of coffee until you conclusively prove it's not, right?

Rozumalski again,
Warning, I’m about to blow your mind! Are you prepared to have your mind blown? You should be seated for what I’m about to type.
It's wonderful that you think so highly of yourself, Keith, but no, you are not. Sarcasm, for effect, noted, though.
Here it goes: not all Christians are Christian conservatives. 
Oh snap. Really? I was wrong. My mind is blown. I'll hang it up now, then. All that crap about creating the context in which the fundamentalists can do their things, all that shit about how all Christians are still living their lives by unproved assumptions that are on fantastically sketchy grounds, all of the ethical problems in the Christian dogmas and doctrines boils down to nothing. Not all Christians are Christian conservatives. I'll hang it up now. I'm out of the conversation. Go on Amazon, and you'll find my book has been taken down. I can be sarcastic too, by the way. I speak it fluently with a hybridized Southern accent.
Since your mind is currently in a blown state I’m going to repeat what I just said; not all Christians are Christian conservatives. 
Yeah, I'm reeling. Mind is so blown. In reality, though, Rozumalski is still doing special pleading in three... two... one...
How do I know? I know because I’m a liberal Christian, and I know other liberal Christians. I know the stereotype about Christians exists for a reason, but really there are moderate and liberal Christians out there. Why don’t you work with us? I don’t want to force a religious state down anyone’s throat any more than you do. Just as long as you don’t push legislation that constricts my religious freedom then I’d probably be on board with your political agenda. If you spent your time working with secular people and moderate/liberal people of faith then I think you’d see much better results than trying to push arguments that can be defeated or at least explained away by any philosophically minded Christian.
Thanks for the advice. Seriously, get God Doesn't; We Do. Start on Chapter 11: What's Wrong with Moderate Faith, and the conclusion, A Call to Action. It's not that expensive on Kindle (or in paperback for that matter). Meanwhile, plan a vacation to Alabama or Mississippi and see what the Godless Northwest might be letting you ignore. You can read my book on the plane. You'll find there that I actually do give you special treatment, although I don't let you off the hook about your beliefs, which no amount of special pleading can substantiate. I'm glad you're a decent, thinking person, Keith--and that's honesty. I'm glad you're dedicated to secularism--also honesty. You don't have any good reasons to believe the doctrines or dogmas of Christianity, though, because those doctrines and dogmas are not true. There are good reasons not to be a part of these social clubs, however, and some of them are quite poignant (that Harris quote above is worth reading again, I think).

If you want to defeat my arguments, particularly regarding the burden of proof thing, demonstrate the existence of your God. We're waiting. We've been waiting for thousands of years. Why can't someone just get to it? All you have to do is get some evidence for Christianity's validity including which denomination is doing Jesus right--there are some 40,000 of them to argue over. Until then, no "philosophically minded" Christian, or anyone else, can make a case for Christianity that amounts to anything more than "explaining away" the relevant details of why the dogmas and doctrines are impossible and untrue.

Thanks for the comment!




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5 comments:

  1. You said: "They're all variants on the same poisoned theme. This is a lovely attempt to get me to try to turn my attention away from your stuff and to put it on others (we call it "special pleading," and it's a fallacy too)."

    You mention special pleading a few times in this post, and it appears to me that you don’t really understand the concept of the special pleading fallacy. Special pleading is applying a principle to someone else’s case, but not your own. An example would be a Hollywood star who while cutting to the front of a long line says, “I think that people should wait in lines, but I’m a VIP with a busy schedule so I shouldn’t have to wait.”

    In this instance you’re referring to the only way I could be committing the special pleading fallacy is if I were ignoring commands in the New Testament to commit acts of violence against non-believers. I know that Jesus commands me to love my neighbor, but I can’t think of any NT verses that tell me to slay infidels.

    You said: "On the other hand, Matthew 10:34 is rather famous on quoting Jesus: "I come not to bring peace but a sword." Does Rozumalski have any weight in this argument, then, by cherry picking around to call Christianity a less violent faith than Islam?"

    The problem here is that you quoted Matt. 10:34 out of context. Matt. 10:34-37 says, “34“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” So, with the full context we can see that the sword is the Gospel and is working metaphorically as a divider between the people of Christ and non-believers who could be your own family members. It is this proper context that leads Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible to say:
    "I came, not to send peace, but a sword. By the "sword" may be meant the Gospel, which is the means of dividing and separating the people of Christ from the men of the world, and from their principles and practices, and one relation from another; as also of divisions, discords, and persecutions arising from it: not that it was the intention and design of Christ, in coming into the world, to foment and encourage such things; but this, through the malice and wickedness of men, was eventually the effect and consequence of his coming; see Luke 12:51 where, instead of a "sword", it is "division"; because the sword divides asunder, as does the sword of the Spirit, the word of God."

    You said: Incidentally, I think Christianity is less violent, but then the Inquisition isn't exactly roaring anymore, so my opinions are heavily skewed by a deeply secularized vision of Christianity, as I would argue Rozumalski's are as well--we ought not ever forget how the Christians behaved when they had absolute power when apologizing for their current "excellencies" of behavior and nonviolence.)"

    Whenever anyone has absolute power there will always be a temptation to abuse it just as the atheists in communist countries harassed, imprisoned, tortured and killed religious people. Just because some atheists behaved horribly decades ago doesn’t mean that all atheists are going to try to kill me because of my faith. In fact most atheists are quite peaceful just as most Christians are quite peaceful even though some Christians have behaved horribly at times throughout history.

    Continued...

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  2. You said: "I'm not saying, nor have I ever said, that all religious people are dangerous and evil. That's nought but straw, and moldy straw at that. I also don't think that most religious people are violent in general."

    Good, we’re making progress in sounding out your motivations for wanting to destroy all faith. We can cross fear of religious violence off of the list. I’m glad that you realize most religious people are peaceful.

    You said: "My main issue, though, isn't political."

    Good, we’re really making progress now. We can cross politics off of the list too. So, what left?

    You said: "My main issue is that billions of people are doing themselves wrong by using a flawed system when we are perfectly well equipped now to leave it behind. I want better for people than broken methods."

    Even supposing that you’re right about naturalism how is a religious believer’s life marred by their faith especially if they get meaning, comfort and peace from their beliefs? It’s not like they are ever going to know that they’re wrong—when they die they’ll just cease to exist. At least their brief, little life was imbued with purpose and happiness even if it was just a fantasy. It’s not like their life was wasted as there really is no way to waste your life in an entropic universe that is going to wipe out all traces of our existence.

    Continued...

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  3. You said: "This cannot be described as anything other than intentional obtuseness, trolling, or willful stupidity. How is the destruction of all life on the planet soon and by intentional, unnecessary violence different from the destruction of all life on the planet later (probably much, much later) and by natural and thus blameless causes that are presumably unavoidable?

    It literally flabbergasts me that Christians and other religionists think this way. It's as if they are so bent on their fantasies of death that they are perfectly willing to throw out any value that can be found in life. Let's mark this as another argument against Rozumalski's religion, then, shall we? Thanks, Keith!"

    Nice try, but I’m not going to let you foist the implications of your worldview onto mine. Remember that it is your worldview that says that we are nothing more than highly evolved animals living on a rock surrounded by a vast, indifferent universe. We are just here by chance. Entropy is going to destroy the earth and all life in the universe will be exterminated. There is no meaning to life other than what you come up with, and that meaning will cease to exist once our ephemeral life is over.

    What flabbergasts me is atheists who will give lip service to being adult and bravely facing the serious implications of naturalism, and yet they scurry around like ants busily building a nest that is about to be torched. The ant has an excuse because it is completely oblivious to the fact that it and all its relatives are doomed—it doesn’t know that its work is futile. You don’t have that excuse; you should know that, if naturalism is true, then our existence is ephemeral. Imagine if you had burned your book manuscript right after you finished it—there was the moment of triumph when you finished it, but it fades out of existence as if it never existed. If naturalism is true then this is what ultimately happens to all our memories and projects—our existence gets burned away.

    When it comes to meaning in an entropic universe the burden of proof is in your court. How does all life in the universe ending tomorrow different then it ending 10,000 years from if all traces of our existence will be wiped out either way?

    Continued...

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  4. You said: "Indeed, although the arguments against moderate (or is it moderated?) faith are nuanced and varied, Sam Harris has a stunning quote from The End of Faith hitting one of the key ones, one tied to Rozumalski's complaint here. Harris writes,

    'Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed'"

    This is nothing more than New Atheist nonsense. For one we both agreed that Christians are generally peaceful. Secondly, I oppose fundamentalist positions that I believe are harmful and unbiblical. I have actually written posts criticizing Christians who were dirtying Christ’s face by spreading hate in their community. I have written posts defending science and theistically driven evolution. I have also spent hour debating Christians on a Christian blog that was advocating making abortion illegal. In that debate I saw the fundamentalist quickly dismiss the advice of an atheist just because it came from a non-believer. As a Christian I was able to stay in the debate much longer. I wasn’t able to convince the fundamentalist that their ideas were harmful, but at least I got somewhat of a hearing.

    If fundamentalists can be reached then they’ll be reached because of the efforts of moderates. Fundamentalist wall themselves off from non-believers, but they just might be willing to listen to people of their own faith.

    You said: "By the way, asking me to prove that God doesn't exist, indeed, to even suggest that I should have to, is shifting the burden of proof. It's also a fallacy--indeed, it is a big one, maybe the fallacy. If you want to defeat my arguments, particularly regarding the burden of proof thing, demonstrate the existence of your God. We're waiting. We've been waiting for thousands of years."

    Do I have to remind you that you wrote this, “when people on the fence read the arguments of antitheists and see that they make sense, they're more likely to start repeating them,”? Clearly it’s not the case that atheists only cross their arms and say, “No, that’s not enough evidence, try again.” By your own admission atheists have formulated their own arguments, and in my opinion those arguments have fallen short of showing that God doesn’t exist.

    No, I never claimed that theists don’t have the burden of proof because they do. However, I do claim that the various cosmological, teleological, axiological, and ontological arguments taken together along with historical evidence and religious experiences are capable of persuading some rational people to believe.

    Few arguments are as conclusive as this one:
    1. If square circles are logically impossible then they don’t exist.
    2. Square circles are logically impossible.
    3. Therefore square circles don’t exist. (from MP)

    This valid argument is obviously true based on the definition of a square and circle. However, most arguments are not this clear. I can’t even prove that to you the people surrounding me exist outside of my mind. My conviction that they do comes from the properly basic beliefs that the world exists independent from my mind and that I can trust my senses. If I can’t even prove that people I interact with exist how could I possibly convince all people that an immaterial God exists? I am satisfied with being able to rationally believe that God most likely exists.

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    Replies
    1. I responded with another post. You can find it here.
      http://goddoesnt.blogspot.com/2013/02/green-letters-wars-episode-v-rozumalski.html

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