Atheist Tribes

by Luke Muehlhauser on January 20, 2011 in Criticism of Atheists,Ethics,Guest Post

The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)

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With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

- Steven Weinberg

So says Weinberg. But there is no atrocity found in scripture that an atheist cannot perform and think himself justified in doing so.

Furthermore, while he would not do so in the name of God and still be an atheist, he may do so for the sake of atheism itself.

The moral crimes that we find in scripture are put there because of the type of people we are. Humans make God in their own image.

For example, if we were not capable of finding value in vilifying and then slaughtering other groups of humans, then we would not have had reason to invent a God to tell us to slaughter other groups of humans. We would not have even thought to invent such a God.

However, humans have this disposition to vilify other groups of humans and then slaughter them. When humans invent God, those who are easily seduced by these psychological qualities invent a God who tells them to do that which they already want to do. Those people wrote their tribal, hateful tendencies into the God they created.

However, inventing a God and then claiming that God gave one permission to commit these atrocities is only one way that an individual might try to justify their actions. Other rationalizations are available.

If you can convince yourself that a God wants you to attack other people, you can just as well convince yourself that it serves the public good, or that it is your destiny or your group’s destiny, or that the “others” who are your target are involved in some sort of conspiracy against you.

That last defense – that the other group is itself involved in plans to attack your group – is particularly easy to make. After all, that other group is made up of human beings, and human beings are disposed to form groups that see “others” as threats, and to rationalize harming them. To the members of that group, you are “them”. You are “not one of us”.

All of this begins with forming a human tribe – a group of people who identify with some shared characteristic. This characteristic could be citizenship in a city or state, skin color, whether one belongs to “Hatfield” family or the “McCoys”, the God one worships, or the church one belongs to.

A tribe could be the supporters of this or that soccer team, or simply membership in a club such as the Crypts or the Bloods.

Tribes can also be built around the characteristic that its members share a belief that there is no God or, as some people like to put it, their lack of belief that there is a God.

Once a tribe is formed, the world is now divided into “us” and “them”. The tribe adopts its symbols – its flags and banners that members use to identify themselves as co-members. It rewards members who support the tribe. It condemns those who criticize the tribe, even if the critics are people who share the quality that the tribe uses to define itself.

There are calls for unity among those who share the quality that identifies the tribe, but tribes will split into factions. Different leaders with different visions attract different crowds of followers.

The “New Atheist” tribe lines up to do battle with the “Accommodationist” tribe.

Each sub-tribe tells the members of the other sub-tribe, “Listen, you are welcome to join us. We must unite to be strong. As long as you pursue your path you are doing harm to ‘The Cause’. You must join with us and follow our leaders and our path, or, for all practical purposes, you are weakening us and giving an advantage to ‘them’. This fact – the fact that you harm us and aid them – means that we must regard you as being as bad as ‘them’. You do not want that, do you?”

“You are either for us, or you are against us.”

I think it is inevitable that as atheism becomes an identifying characteristic among tribes, we are going to have a self-identified group of atheists not interested in peace or compromise.

It will be a group – probably made up of young males with a lust for danger and an interest in violence – who will say, “We ought to just be rid of ‘them’ and that will be the end. We should get rid of them by any means necessary.”

One question to concern ourselves with: Will we recognize this for what it is? Or will we be seduced by our tribal instincts into thinking, “Oh, no. This time, it’s different. This time, they really do deserve it.”

Some of us will recognize it for what it is. Some of us will not. A lot of us will fall somewhere in between.

That is just an end-point on a continuum. There are a lot of injustices short of murdering people for belonging to another tribe, and they are still injustices.

These injustices could include laws that put ‘them’ at a political disadvantage – laws that determine property rights, who can and cannot marry or adopt children, and what must and must not be said in the public schools.

I never said that atheists are the only group prone to this tribal mentality. Many theist tribes provide empirical support for how this way of thinking works. There are those who want to blame “religion” for this problem. However, my point is that “religion” is not the problem. We would not find these qualities in religion if they were not human dispositions. As human dispositions, they are dispositions to which atheist humans are not immune.

Examples

Here are some examples of anti-religious tribalism that have crossed legitimate moral boundaries – some of which are the work of explicitly atheist tribes.

(1) The American Atheist billboard, “You know they are all scams.” It is difficult to find a better example of something so explicitly tribal. You put up a billboard with the identification symbols of those other tribes, and announce, “They are all evil. They are not to be trusted.”

(2) A billboard with the text “Imagine no religion” that shows the World Trade Center towers. The message is not that “a religion did this” which is arguably defensible. The message is the derogatory overgeneralization, “Religion did this.”

(3) The claim that teaching religion a child amounts to “child abuse” – equating any religious parent with parents who rape, beat, or neglect their children. A lot of people make mistakes when trying to raise their children. They are not all abusers.

(4) European laws banning the wearing of a Burqa or jewelry that bears a religious symbol in public schools. This is just a slap at other tribes by attacking what they value. The rationalization behind the law is that these tribal identities lead to violence. Yet, not all tribal identities lead to violence, and of those that do not all of them are religious. And the best way to avoid violence is by teaching people to live in peace with other tribes, regardless of how they identify themselves.

(5) The ban in Switzerland on the building of Minarets (prayer towers) on mosques.

These issues are minor, but unless challenged they tend to lead to greater injustices down the road.

Almost always, when people use a slippery slope argument, that argument can be challenged. Often the slope is not slippery, with many steps along the way where we can stop the slide.

However, in this case, the slope is greased by our disposition to engage in tribal conflicts – to divide the world into “us” and “them” and to come to feel that “they” deserve what is coming to them. Furthermore, history provides us with empirical evidence of how far and how easily societies can slide down this slope, and what the costs can be.

As I said, there is no atrocity found in scripture that an atheist cannot perform and think himself justified in doing so. Because the feelings that people use when finding value in these actions do not come from God, nor do they come from scripture.

They come from being human. And they come with a cost. These are things we have good reason to watch for and condemn wherever they might pop up.

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Brian January 20, 2011 at 4:25 am

“The “New Atheist” tribe lines up to do battle with the “Accommodationist” tribe.

Each sub-tribe tells the members of the other sub-tribe, “Listen, you are welcome to join us. We must unite to be strong. As long as you pursue your path you are doing harm to ‘The Cause’. You must join with us and follow our leaders and our path, or, for all practical purposes, you are weakening us and giving an advantage to ‘them’.”

Untrue.

The accommodationists say: “Shut up. As long as you pursue your path you are doing *harm* to ‘The Cause’. We are being identified as of your ilk, and we don’t like it.”

The New Atheists say: “Having a multiplicity of approaches is ideal. What’s more, as long as you pursue your path you are *not best* supporting ‘The Cause’. The ideal mix of voices has fewer accommodationists and more New Atheists, with accommodationists being somewhat more direct.

“However, you lot not only believe that the optimal approach is somewhat more conciliatory than the aggregate present one, you actually believe that our more assertive approach is doing harm to ‘The Cause’. What’s more, you believe that stopping us is often the best service you can do for the cause, and it is seriously cutting into the effort all of us spend addressing actual issues. Therefore, we have concluded that it’s really not worth the effort of trying to get you to change your view so that it is almost inverted (I say almost because while we do not think the world would be better off without your advocacy than with it, you think that of us).”

“What we do want is for you to stop nagging us about this topic. Hopefully each individual accommodationist advocates rationality in his or her unique voice, however strident or conciliatory, with one eye to what his or her natural talents are and the other to what is most needed in the world and effects change. That is what we New Atheists are doing.”

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Stig January 20, 2011 at 4:31 am

Brilliant.

This is all well-known social psychology that somehow Dawkins and many other “New Atheists” manage to ignore. Once people sort into in-groups and out-groups competition, distrust and ultimately violence can ensue. This is so basic human psychology that it happens even if the groups are selected randomly by an experimenter.

Weinberg really should have said: “…for good people to do evil things, that takes religion OR competition for scarce resources, or perceived injustice, or nationalism, or uniting against a common enemy, or a lack of checks on our tendency towards racism, or divisive political rhetoric, or [...] or any combination of the above.”.

Religion is still one of the most potent ways to replace rationality, compassion and justice with emotional and biased rhetoric, but far from the only one.

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Cartman86 January 20, 2011 at 4:49 am

Ehh don’t know if I would say that the American Atheists Billboard amounts to . It’s more akin to astrology or some other silly thing. They see religion in the same light as astrology and treat it that way. Still the use of scams is unfortunate. “They are all evil. They are not to be trusted.” I’m also a little fuzzy on the second example. Something I will need to think on.

Simply teaching a child about God and Jesus etc isn’t child abuse, but of course indoctrination is troublesome.

The rest I completely agree with.

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Zemblan January 20, 2011 at 5:16 am

It seems to me that a number rationalist and atheist people (amongst which I count myself) put a great deal of stock in our rationality exclusively.

Which is to say we fail to recognize that while we are furiously denouncing the failings of others in this domain we need to keep in mind that we are human and subject to the same cognitive errors and biases as everyone else, including tribalism.

Sam Harris is right in this at least: in order to be decent human beings we all need to be educated as to the ways in which the meat between our ears can fail us. Denying that one is susceptible to those weaknesses is surely just a sign of irrationality, whichever side of the debate it comes from.

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Ralph January 20, 2011 at 7:33 am

Alonzo,

Thinking the worst of the New Atheists is also a form of tribalism. For the first three items on the list, you have decided to use the most aggressive interpretation when a more charitable interpretation is available. In other words, pot meet kettle.

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BenSix January 20, 2011 at 8:45 am

“New atheists” and “accommodationists” are tribes inasmuch as anarcho-communists and anarcho-syndicalists are: ideological subsets of little or no concern to the larger, less emotionally/intellectually invested populace. Not that it’s of no theoretical interest but the finest cures to bitter tribalism are senses of humour and perspective.

Weinberg was echoed by Dawkins in The Root of all Evil – RD then proceeded to smile knowingly and walk off camera. It strikes me that a fair few people in this ‘ere debate would be well-served by spending as much time reviewing their own opinions/attitudes as they do other people’s. (And, yeah, that includes myself.)

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Steven R. January 20, 2011 at 9:00 am

Well Alonzo, I applaud you for bringing this rather nasty topic up. For the most part, I agree with you. I cringe anytime I see Pat Condell go on a rant about why all Muslims are evil and I see a bunch of young kids (12-16) and college students rallying to his side going on and on about the how evil it is–it’s like if you stumbled into the hatred of a place like Jesus Camp (if the documentary was an accurate portrayal of the place). Needless to say, this is not healthy.

Anticipating the response of “hey, aren’t you forming a tribal mentality by opposing the New Atheists (here, I think, defined as those wholly intolerant of any religious concept or people) and violent groups?” the answer would be “no, he is only pointing out the immediate and explicit dangers of such groups but not advocating any sort of activity that violates their rights. That’s the difference.”

That said, I do have two things to say about this:

1. Although I thoroughly agree that “god” is just a projection of what a person has inside of them, I disagree that because of this, the concept of religion is completely harmless. For example, somebody who would have never thought of justifying genocide or violence may feel forced to when their religious beliefs are challenged and, due to how ingrained they are to their identity, they’d do anything to justify it. Granted, Atheists can also be prone to it, but religion easily facilitates this irrationality.

2. Similar to point one, religion also helps to propagate irrational morals (ex: “homosexuality is wrong!”) and leave them unchallenged, thus posing a risk to the morals in a society by not even putting them up for discussion. Of course, most people tend to avoid this, but when religion becomes so tied to morality because of the culture (Say in the U.S. or a theocracy), it very easy to rally people against a group in the name of God who would, under normal conditions be less united against it. Even in Nazi Germany, the genocide of the Jews was probably facilitated by religious differences between Christians and Jews (however small and trivial they may be).

3. Religion also facilitates a mob mentality that is hard to challenge. This helps explain why theocracies came to power in the Middle East and one can’t help but note that the fanaticism of the movements were fueled by religion.

4. Religion also validates otherwise dead moral tendencies. This is why women can be stoned in theocracies, even when most Muslims feel it is an antiquated view (though it does tell us a lot about ancient religions that, when it is followed as it should, we get extremists).

Naturally, with enough hatred, any atheist can be prone to this and find other means to do it, but it IS harder to do. The analogy I give here is that it’s like locking your car. It isn’t a surefire way to avoid car theft, but it certainly does deter some criminals.

At the risk of making my comment overly lengthy, I now add: how do you propose to help stop this phenomenon? Unfortunately, I’ve tried to talk to the Condellians and only got abused and I only seem to make headway with people already predisposed to agree with me that Muslims should NOT be called evil because of the beliefs they supposedly hold. Throughout human history, I have not seen how such fanaticism can be averted.

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Patrick January 20, 2011 at 9:04 am

The juxtaposition of your first, second, and third examples of atheist tribalism do a lot more to explain how you think about these matters than anything you wrote in the entire previous conversations.

I’ll happily give you 4 and 5. The minaret one is particularly offensive. At least the burqa ban revolves around an empirical question. The minaret thing is just discrimination masquerading as aesthetics.

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Steven R. January 20, 2011 at 9:09 am

The juxtaposition of your first, second, and third examples of atheist tribalism do a lot more to explain how you think about these matters than anything you wrote in the entire previous conversations.I’ll happily give you 4 and 5. The minaret one is particularly offensive.At least the burqa ban revolves around an empirical question.The minaret thing is just discrimination masquerading as aesthetics.  

I think Alonzo is fully justified with #1. I agree with him that it’s the result of the “us vs. them” mentality, even if I still think it’s not “immoral” in the sense of a false accusation of the people who put up the billboard are deluded into thinking that all religions are a scam, in which case, by the very same way that teaching something false (a religion as a truth, for example) is not a “scam” or “immoral” if the people really do believe it–or, if it is immoral, then religion is as guilty as those with the billboard.

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S. Hendrix January 20, 2011 at 10:37 am

Have you read the book “The Faith Instinct” by Nicholas Wade?

If so, what did you think of it?

http://www.amazon.com/Faith-Instinct-Religion-Evolved-Endures/dp/1594202281

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Andrew EC January 20, 2011 at 10:37 am

1, 3, 4, and 5 are all legit criticisms.

I think you’re reading too much into #2. If there were no religion, then 9/11 obviously would not have happened. It’s not to say — as you do in this post, and with which I agree — that an atheist world wouldn’t have its own tragedies and atrocities. It’s not even to say that those atrocities might be worse than 9/11. But the one thing an atheist world definitely would not have is Muslim suicide-bombers.

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Zemblan January 20, 2011 at 12:59 pm

But the one thing an atheist world definitely would not have is Muslim suicide-bombers.  

It’s obviously true that there would be no muslim suicide bombers, but there are examples of suicide bombers that are not religiously motivated. For example teh secular nationalist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. It’s conceivable that even in the absence of a religious motivation a 9/11 type atrocity could occur given the grievances some economically and politically marginalised people have, and the willingness of people to exploit those to manipulate people.

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Dan Brown January 20, 2011 at 1:21 pm

Anyone who propagates supposition as fact is a liar regardless of their justification for doing so. Degrees of guilt can be adjusted for intent, certainly, but a liar is a liar and lying to children is particularly reprehensible. Postulating that your particular cultural myth is supreme is arrogant, ignorant and willfully divisive. All religions do this and all religions should embrace the shame that goes with being liars.

Atheism postulates no such institutionalized myths. Atheists may be liars but unlike religion, atheism does not automatically make its constituents part of a deliberate and shameful misrepresentation.

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Brian January 20, 2011 at 1:41 pm

“1, 3, 4, and 5 are all legit criticisms.”

Andrew, did you read Dawkins’ article? It does not “…claim that teaching religion a child amounts to “child abuse”…equating any religious parent with parents who rape, beat, or neglect their children”.

Dawkins says that dissimilar clerical harms are treated by society too similarly, “…reports of child abuse cover a multitude of sins, from mild fondling to violent buggery, and I am sure many of those cases now embarrassing the church fall at the mild end of the spectrum…just because some pedophile assaults are violent and painful, it doesn’t mean that all are…Phrases like ‘predatory monster’ are not discriminating enough, and are framed in the light of adult hang-ups.”

Clearly, the last thing Dawkins would countenance is equating people simply because some of their behavior all falls under one broad evil category.

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Zemblan January 20, 2011 at 1:43 pm

Anyone who propagates supposition as fact is a liar regardless of their justification for doing so

But surely one can assume that religious believers actually do believe what they are saying. It may be supposition, but lacking the ability to distinguish between fact and fantasy they cannot really be said to lie when they propagate those untruths. There is no intent to mislead in the case of genuine believers. Calling religious believers arrogant may well true, calling them ignorant is certainly true, calling them all dishonest does not seem to me to be reasonable though.

Referring to all believers as arrogant, ignorant, wilfully divisive liars seems to me to be neither factually correct, nor to display any intention to avoid divisiveness or tribalism. People can be wrong and honest. Those people would benefit from education, not denunciation as moral failures. Which is not to say that they shouldn’t be fought every step of the way if they try to pervert the education of others or impose their agendas on public policy; they certainly should be opposed vigorously. But in the spirit of democratic pluralism is it not better to acknowledge that the great mass of these people, however wrong they may be, are not depraved, but mistaken.

Of course there are many legitimate targets, people who are exactly as you describe, but I take the message of the article to be that no one is immune from the sort of biases that lead to tribalism. It behoves us, as rational people, to acknowledge that, rather than engage in knee-jerk in-group defensiveness.

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George January 20, 2011 at 2:01 pm

Religion is a means of enforcing group cohesion. Without it, people would still commit vicious acts in pursuit of their perceived self-interest or a confused mental state, but religion is methodically set up to create the illusion that outsiders are inherently evil and/or subhuman. Followers are then more easily trained to sacrifice their own interests for the destruction of the outsiders, supposedly in the interest of the group and their kin. It serves the interest of the leaders, who may themselves have no part in the death and destruction they cause. So yeah, Dawkins is right.

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Dave January 20, 2011 at 2:01 pm

There is a clear difference between waging a war on religion and waging a war on religious people, just as there is a clear difference between waging a “war on drugs” and waging a war on drug addicts. The analogy works quite nicely, actually, because both can be addictive and both can be destructive to society. But no one would ever claim that “Mothers Against Drunk Drivers” is tribalistic and overly aggressive. Or take anti-smoking ads: some of them may be a little inaccurate, but no one condemns them as immoral because we all know that at the end of the day, smoking is bad for you. Though the “scam” ad may be a little inaccurate, I don’t think it is nearly as immoral as you do because at the end of the day, religion is bad for people. Notice, Alonzo, how none of the ads you mention say anything aggressive about religious people; they only attack religion itself. It’s not “us vs. them” it’s “us vs. it.” Even Christopher Hitchens, the most vocal and aggressive of the new atheists is good friends with the evangelical christian Francis Collins as well as many other christians. He can clearly distinguish between us/them and us/it, why can’t you?

That said, I appreciate you pointing out the potential danger of it becoming an “us vs. them” battle, as it is certainly something we need to watch out for. But I don’t think we’re nearly as far down that slope as you think we are, and I don’t think it is nearly as slippery. We have far bigger and more dangerous tribalisms to worry about than our own.

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Jason Kelley January 20, 2011 at 3:03 pm

It’s interesting but what it seems to boil down to is that “Humans are group creatures”. This makes sense when there is something to discuss and like/dislike. I don’t think any atheist is going to deny that. However, I don’t think it does a…nything to explain exactly why a group does something, especially a group like “atheists” as he points out in his post. People band together in the atheist example because they see certain things (biblical teachings, belief in things without evidence, etc) as harmful. So we denounce it and group together to oppose it. That is fine. That is intrinsic to human nature. Recognizing that does nothing to explain what exactly atheists want but rather its a description of human behavior in group terms.

All in all, its all cool, and makes sense from a sociological and ethnographically sense, but explains nothing for what exactly it means to be theist OR atheist.

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Ralph January 20, 2011 at 3:16 pm

There is a clear difference between waging a war on religion and waging a war on religious people, just as there is a clear difference between waging a “war on drugs” and waging a war on drug addicts. The analogy works quite nicely, actually, because both can be addictive and both can be destructive to society. But no one would ever claim that “Mothers Against Drunk Drivers” is tribalistic and overly aggressive. Or take anti-smoking ads: some of them may be a little inaccurate, but no one condemns them as immoral because we all know that at the end of the day, smoking is bad for you. Though the “scam” ad may be a little inaccurate, I don’t think it is nearly as immoral as you do because at the end of the day, religion is bad for people. Notice, Alonzo, how none of the ads you mention say anything aggressive about religious people; they only attack religion itself. It’s not “us vs. them” it’s “us vs. it.” Even Christopher Hitchens, the most vocal and aggressive of the new atheists is good friends with the evangelical christian Francis Collins as well as many other christians. He can clearly distinguish between us/them and us/it, why can’t you? (Quote)

It’s because Alonzo views these things with an “accommodationist” and “us vs them” lens. And yes, I’m displaying an “us vs them” attitude. :D

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Bob Carlson January 20, 2011 at 4:46 pm

Theologian John Shelby Spong discussed tribalism in a lecture he gave just a few days shy of two years ago. At about 9:30 into the lecture, he makes the point that “Every religious system in the world is infected with what I would call a tribal mentality.” He then goes on to discuss instances in which this tribalism rears its ugly head, such as when politicians close their speeches with “God bless America.” He hopes for Christianity to transform itself into something that transcends the boundaries of religion. It is an interesting lecture, but I think that Spong misses the point that it is impossible for religions not to be infected with a tribal mentality, if a tribal mentality is merely part of being human.

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BenSix January 20, 2011 at 5:06 pm

A tribe could be the supporters of this or that soccer team, or simply membership in a club such as the Crypts or the Bloods.

By the way, as no one else is going to be “that guy” I’ll have to be the one who points out that it’s Crips. As in…

10 lil’ Crip Crip runnin’ outside
All from the turf and they bangin’ out rides
” – Snoop Dogg, 10 Lil’ Crips

No one had the courage to tell Mr Dogg his song was crip.

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Andrew EC January 20, 2011 at 5:56 pm

Brian,

I like Dawkins. I consider myself a non-accomodationist (although, like Hemant Mehta, a relatively ‘friendly’ one). I’m happy to call out Tim McGrew as a shit-shoveling asshole. So that’s my Gnu Atheist cred.

That being said, the linked Dawkins article makes a little uncomfortable. For example, I don’t particularly care to defend this bit of hyperbole:

“The priest who urged a 14-year-old altar boy to give him oral sex, “blessing it as a way to receive Holy Communion ” wasn’t only abusing the trust normally enjoyed by any teacher, youth leader or scoutmaster. He was cashing in on the years of religious brainwashing that the child had endured as a cradle Catholic. Holy Communion: nice one! But again, only an extreme example of what churches — and also mosques and synagogues — do to child minds in their care, in the normal course of events.”

Okay, so “Holy Communion: nice one!” is a pretty good laugh line. But I can’t defend saying that forced oral sex is “only an extreme example” of what churches “do to child minds in their care, in the moral course of events.”

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Andrew EC January 20, 2011 at 6:11 pm

My comments aren’t going through?

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Dan Brown January 20, 2011 at 7:15 pm

@Zemblan

You make a valid point which I attempted to acknowledge in saying that degrees of guilt may be adjusted for intent. But, each of us is responsible for the accuracy of the information we propagate. We are each guilty of lying even if we don’t know it just as we are guilty of any other crime whether we knew it was illegal or not. Intent is certainly a mitigating circumstance but it cannot be a free pass.

In using perforative terms like arrogant, ignorant and willfully divisive I am not calling people names. I am assigning definitions to their behavior. I know these judgements are harsh but these behaviors must be characterized accurately to be understood for what they are.

No one knows, in the verifiable sense if there is a god or if any cultural myth has substance. They can only suppose out of their prejudice. Acting as though you DO know and expressing certainty which you cannot substantiate is willful disregard for the truth. It’s perfectly acceptable to say you BELIEVE an unverifiable premise but to propagate it as absolute truth when you cannot KNOW is disingenuous. As disingenuous as naming the books of the bible after the apostles to deliberately create the mistaken impression they are eye witness accounts of the events they describe.

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Steven R. January 20, 2011 at 8:23 pm

@ZemblanYou make a valid point which I attempted to acknowledge in saying that degrees of guilt may be adjusted for intent.But, each of us is responsible forthe accuracy of the information we propagate.We are each guilty of lying even if we don’t know it just as we are guilty of any other crime whether we knew it was illegal or not.Intent is certainly a mitigating circumstance but it cannot be a free pass.In using perforative terms like arrogant, ignorant and willfully divisive I am not calling people names.I am assigning definitions to their behavior.I know these judgements are harsh but these behaviors must be characterized accurately to be understood for what they are.No one knows, in the verifiable sense if there is a god or if any cultural myth has substance.They can only suppose out of their prejudice.Acting as though you DO know and expressing certainty which you cannot substantiate is willful disregard for the truth.It’s perfectly acceptable to say you BELIEVE an unverifiable premise but to propagate it as absolute truth when you cannot KNOW is disingenuous.As disingenuous as naming the books of the bible after the apostles to deliberately create the mistaken impressionthey are eye witness accounts of the events they describe.  

Well no, since lying is defined as intentionally misleading someone and certainly it is much worse than someone who is merely ignorant of the facts or extremely naive and/or unquestioning. I do agree that certain harsh adjectives are fair game, but you should be careful before using them.

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Dan Brown January 20, 2011 at 8:52 pm

@ Stephen R.

You describe a false dichotomy. Call it telling untruths if you must. A lie is a lie. A deliberate lie is only worse by degree. Intent factors into the guilt equation but degree does not change the essence of untruth.

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Steven R. January 20, 2011 at 9:40 pm

@ Stephen R.You describe a false dichotomy.Call it telling untruths if you must.A lie is a lie.A deliberate lie is only worse by degree.Intent factors into the guilt equation but degreedoes not change the essence of untruth.  

Er…no. I’m presenting the most commonly understood definition of lies and really, the word is worthless if we expand its definition to simply mean “falsehoods” as it does not tell us of the intent of the person.

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Luke Muehlhauser January 20, 2011 at 10:29 pm

Andrew EC,

Akismet grabbed ‘em. I put one of them through, and deleted the duplicates.

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EvanT January 21, 2011 at 4:24 am

I must say, I’m 100% with Luke on this one. In our own atheist forum in Greece I’ve noticed some outright hostile reactions/intentions towards religion, similar to those mentioned in the article (including suggestions on penalizing child proselytism) and I will say that it’s gotten me pretty worried.

With that in mind, I’ve translated this article in Greek (it’ll appear on my blog tomorrow). Hopefully, it’ll reach the appropriate ears (or eyes, in this case). Is it me, or is the whole issue an extension of the “holier-than-thou” attitude Atheists have been adopting and propagating for the past decade? Or was it merely the first symptom of atheistic tribalism?

In any case, thanks for the wake-up call, Luke!

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Henry January 21, 2011 at 11:45 am

Wow, only 29 comments had been made by the time I read this a day after it was posted. I thought surely there would be several hundred given the seemingly deliberate attempt at beehive whacking. In theory, people who pride themselves on rationality and empiricism ought to be immune to tribalism, but in practice I think your point is largely true. We may feel threatened when religious zealots make the news, but just a few minutes flipping through radio and TV stations, or a visit to the mall, will quickly confirm for you that we are an overwhelmingly secular nation.

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EvanT January 21, 2011 at 11:58 am

It’s safe to say that rationality isn’t like a pair of trousers you put on when you wake up in the morning. It takes effort to retain it (especially with a semian genetic legacy on our backs).

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Bob Carlson January 22, 2011 at 2:36 pm

The “New Atheist” tribe lines up to do battle with the “Accommodationist” tribe.

And now with the “New Theist” tribe.

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Andrew EC January 22, 2011 at 7:35 pm

Luke — thanks. Not a huge deal, obviously. Possibly the internal link?

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