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May 28, 2007



A couple weeks ago I was watching some clips on YouTube of Richard Dawkins, and I came across some Christopher Hitchens clips. These two guys have brilliant minds and are very strong atheists and libertarians. I would say that they have as negative a view of religion as Nato does (and that's saying something), though Nato is far more diplomatic about it. I would say that my views mirror Christopher Hitchens views, though mine are clearly less informed. If you want a good laugh, you should watch this clip of Hitchens on Bill Maher's liberal-leaning HBO show: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XLvu9ZWcPKg .

Nathan Smith

Yes, I've remarked on Hitchens' views of religion in a previous post. http://lancelotfinn.blogspot.com/2006/09/flat-earth-history-of-religion.html.

It's remarkable how smart atheists make fools of themselves when they start attacking religion. Bertrand Russell is generally a fairly level-headed guy, fun to read, reasonably accurate. But take a look at his book, "Why I am not a Christian," and you see a very different personality. Gone is the philosophic carefulness, the habitual skepticism.

Some of the contradictions are funny in a black way. For example, Russell claims that Spaniards in the New World at one time would baptize babies and then immediately throw them on the points of swords. His "source" for this is no doubt Bartolome de Las Casas, but I'm pretty sure he's garbled it: Las Casas does talk about the murder of babies, but I'm pretty sure there was nothing in it about baptizing them immediately beforehand. If it were another book I would trust that Russell had done his research but... well, the tone of "Why I am not a Christian" is enough to warn you... In any case, whether it happened or not is not the key issue: Russell goes on to argue that this was perfectly correct in Christian terms, since the babies will then (according to Christians) go on to Heaven, spared from the chance of sinning. Russell's claim is ludicrous: obviously, the wanton murder of babies is utterly prohibited by Christianity and always has been. When Russell is in his normal, philosopher mode, he is good at treating the views of others with reasonable fairness, so what possessed Russell to write such a manifest absurdity? (Even his own bizarre juxtaposition of the crudest utilitarianism on Christian theology fails in its own terms: for if the babies' souls might be saved, the Spaniards' will be lost, so what is the gain?)

Then later Russell goes on to damn the Church for its opposition to birth control, which results in babies being born into a miserable poverty worse than death. Now wait a minute: if these babies' lives are so miserable, why not, say... toss them onto sword-points, and spare them all that misery?! Doesn't Russell end up on the same side as his fictional Spaniard straw-man?

Yet the absurdity of the book is far more comprehensive than that anecdote suggests. Russell is angry with the Church for condemning Darwin; fair enough, from the contemporary point of view. Russell is angry with the Church for condemning socialism, and Freud. Eighty years later, the joke's on Russell: Freud has proven to be more or less comprehensively wrong, socialism a murderous catastrophe, and the Church's skepticism a hundred times wiser than Russell's credulity. Russell, in short, thinks that utopia is just around the corner and religion is the only thing in the way. After the 1917 revolution in Russia, the 1949 revolution in China, and many others, we all know where that view leads.

Hitchens recently wrote a philippic against God. From the reviews it sounds similar to Russell's book: a great man humiliating himself in a deranged battle which he manifestly loses.

And yet there is something strange about this phenomenon. It really shouldn't be hard, after all, to critique religion in a moderate and sensible fashion: "It has its merits, but..." What is it that causes so many intellectuals to make fools of themselves in desperate, untenable frontal attacks?


This is where I agree with you, Nathanael: I believe conflating religion with atrocities committed in its name is using faulty logic. The German people committed atrocities during WWII, must we then condemn German-ity as the cause? No, it's clear that being German had nothing to do with the Holocaust. If we condemn the Holocaust, we must not condemn the perpetrators for being German, we must condemn the confluence of rationale used to justify the Holocaust. Likewise, when we condemn the Inquisition, we should not also condemn Christianity because Christians perpetrated the Inquisition. We must try to be cognizant of the true roots of morality and immorality, and they are not in the superficial labels we apply to people. Good comes from good reason, and Evil comes from bad reason. When reasoning is good, the outcome is good. When reasoning is bad, the outcome is bad. What about the failure to apply reason? When people take things on blind faith, are they devoid of reason? No, they are still using reason, but using it to justify their faith, and those reasons can be good and bad as well. I think that the reason people like Hitchens point to religion as the main culprit of bad things is because religion tries to keep people ignorant in many ways, making them less reasonable. Most religions try to stop reasoned skepticism and inquiry rather than encourage it. And that's why intelligent atheists despise religion so much (in my opinion).

Nathan Smith

"Most religions try to stop reasoned skepticism and inquiry rather than encourage it. And that's why intelligent atheists despise religion so much..."

Well, two points. First, religions are not the only things that try to stop reasoned skepticism. Political ideology regularly does the same. And even science, which in theory should be perfectly open-minded, sometimes discourages reasoned skepticism: Darwinism, for example, is insisted upon quite dogmatically, imposed on the younger generation through the public schools, and any who question it are ridiculed. Second, skepticism towards what? The Church had a healthy skepticism towards Freudianism and socialism which Bertrand Russell lacked. Religions' tendency to cling to time-honored truths causes them to offer resistance to the latest intellectual fads which has time and again proven to be of the utmost value.

That said, I sort of agree with Tom's critique of religion. In the case of immigration, while I don't think Christianity provides the slightest justification for immigration restrictions, I wouldn't be surprised if among the populace-- not the pundits, as far as I can tell-- religiosity is correlated (slightly) with opposition to immigration. The reason would be simply that religious people are used to deferring to authority, the law is the law is the law, whereas atheists are used to questioning it. Christians *ought* to be more discriminating about the authorities that they to defer to than, sometimes, they are.


"First, religions are not the only things that try to stop reasoned skepticism. Political ideology regularly does the same."

The political ideologies usually pretend to do otherwise. I'm not sure if this makes them more pernicious or less, though I'm inclined toward the latter.

Nathan Smith

Hmm. Which political ideologies "pretend to do otherwise" than oppose reasoned skepticism? Fascism and Islamism are pretty open about seeing the Enlightenment tradition as the enemy.

The Marxists, I suppose, do claim to be heirs of the Enlightenment, yet they are pretty open, and pretty ruthless, about persecuting "deviations." Typically they do not acknowledge reasoned skepticism, but immediately and vociferously condemn it as their enemies being in the pay of imperialists or whatever: the ad hominem attack.

I think the habit of imputing wicked motives to those who disagree with you is more pernicious than holding beliefs without grounds. One who says, "I know by faith that the world was created in seven days; you deny this, and you have good arguments in your favor, but faith trumps them all," can at least acknowledge that your belief is in good faith and more or less disinterested and non-wicked. One who says, "Those who question the doctrines of Lenin are paid agents of imperialists and capitalists" is much more dangerous.

Liberal political ideologies-- including most contemporary versions of conservatism extant in rich democracies-- have a great deal of content that purports to be, and that really is, empirical and/or rational, and disagreements are based on differences in values or different interpretations of evidence. And yet you don't have to dig down too far to find beliefs that are most people hold rather uncritically, i.e., democratic legitimacy, the sanctity of the Constitution, the dignity of the individual, the moral imperative of freedom of speech, etc.

Nato seems to imply that, unlike political ideologies, religions usually *don't* pretend to do otherwise than oppose reasoned skepticism. I think he very much underestimates the role of reason in religion. The works of Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and most other religious writers are full of reasoning. You may find it unpersuasive but it's certainly reasoning. I don't think the distinction he's suggesting holds up.


As often happens when one responds to short comments that can be taken several ways, Nathan has projected a larger point than I had really wanted to express. By and large, most religions and political ideologies claim reason for their side, or at least claim to be pro-reason. I think it is fairly unique to certain religions (e.g. Jehovah's Witnesses and quite a few other literalist sects) as well as some spiritualist strains not amounting to coherent religions to actively reject reason. One exception to this I have encountered is a certain strain of post-modern "Feminism" that explicitly rejects logic as a tool of the patriarchy. It is unclear to me what that is even supposed to mean, but needless to say I find it just as repugnant as any other rejection of reason.

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