People I Hate Are Hateful

Effluvia

Well-known scientist and blogger PZ Myers, a frequent commenter on the cultural clash between science and religion, is an atheist.

Therefore I think that he, and other atheists, should be held responsible for the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, Stalin's purges of the Russian Orthodox Church, and this guy in Philadelphia who raped a 77-year-old woman and told her there was no God. (It's not clear if he believed that before he lived in Philadelphia.) Myers' advocacy of atheism normalizes the midset that leads to such behavior.

Oh, OK. Not really. Believing that would be nutty. It would be surrendering my capacity for reason to my rage and hate against people who think differently than I do. It would be treating people and complex situations like cartoons, rejecting nuance, and presuming cause and effect and post hoc ergo propter hoc.

It would be, in short, acting like PZ Myers.

Myers is having a full-blown episode over recent news stories in which parents have fought to withhold medical care from their kids on religious grounds, rejecting medical science in favor of prayer with predictably tragic results. PZ Myers sees this as an opportunity to tell everyone who believes in God that we suck and that by continuing to believe we empower, and are responsible for, such tragedies:

I have to say something that is heartfelt, and is also meant to offend. I do not absolve you mealy-mouthed moderates, I do not regard your beliefs as harmless. If Colleen Hauser or Leilani Neumann were in your church, you'd tell them to get medical care, but you'd also validate their belief in prayers. You would provide the soothing background muzak that says prayer is good, prayer is virtuous, prayer will connect you to the great lord who can do anything, prayer will give you solace in your time of worry. You would not raise your voice to say that prayer is useless, prayer is self-defeating, that while prayer might make you feel better while your child is suffering, that is no virtue. You pray yourselves. You think it is a noble and generous act for your representatives to prowl the corridors of hospitals, preying on the desperation of the sick. You abase yourselves before false hopes, and sacrifice human dignity on an altar built from the bones of the dead. You would spread the poison, piously excusing yourselves because you only want to administer sub-lethal doses.

You are Abraham's enablers. I hope you all feel a small tremor of guilt when you sit your own children down at bedtime to beg a nonexistent being for aid, when you plant the seed of futile supplication and surrender to delusions in their trusting minds. Damn you all.

Honestly, I'm not insulted. It's too sadly dysfunctional to be insulting. Myers' claim that he means no offense is dubious at best. If it's true, it's true only superficially, because causing offense is secondary to his main goal of getting attention. [Edited to add: I'm leaving that sentence in even though it is based on a sloppy misreading by me of the sentence, which actually says he does intend to offend. I'll leave in my error and acknowledge it rather than memory-hole it.] He's a practiced and increasingly successful attention whore, skilled in the classic please-notice-me three-step of saying something that is (in a very belabored fashion) outrageous, collecting predictable outraged responses, and then nailing himself to the cross over how harsh and foul and bigoted his critics are and how oppressed he is for Speaking Truth To Power. Everyone needs a hobby, I suppose. It could be worse; he could read poetry in cafes or do performance art or masturbate in the park or something.

But his effort to lay the wages of religious extremism at the feet of anyone who has faith is silly, and not worth our outrage. It's remarkably similar to the rhetoric of American theocrats who argue that atheism is responsible for the killing fields, and Stalin's purges, and school shootings, and for nihilistic crimes by broken people everywhere. But people are not automatons wound up by a single motivation, and history is not a four-color panel in the comic books. Saying that Stalin or Pol Pot massacred religious people because of atheism is to credulously conflate ostensible motives with far more complex political motives. Laying youth crime at the feet of atheism is to make pathology a caricature. I suspect Myers would acknowledge all of that — about atheism. But the same can be said for facile efforts to lay the evils of history at the feet of religion. Religion has often been an excuse for inhumanity, but excuses are not the same as reasons. Myers' proposition — that inhuman, or irrational, or self-absorbed people would not have found some other excuse, some other locus of bad behavior, if they did not have religion — is a dubious one. The proposition that Neumann and Hauser would be good parents making good decisions but for their faith is just as dubious. Moreover, adherents of an idea are not responsible for how that idea is twisted by others. Myers, like me, believes fervently in freedom of expression. Should we be damned when malign or broken people use it to hurt others?

It is amusing that Myers ends with "damn you." To damn, of course, is to solicit God or gods to consign someone to punishment. Myers recognizes no higher power other than himself. To whom is he appealing? And what punishment does he imagine?

Let me add that I enjoy much of what PZ Myers writes, read him frequently, and often agree with him about the excesses of religious extremists and the distorting impact that theocratic thinking has on science and government. I can learn from him without agreeing completely with him. His decision to believe differently than I do does not threaten me, and his decision to hate me for it generates amusement and pity rather than outrage. No doubt Myers would find a way to tell you that is precisely what makes me a grave danger to decent society.

Last 5 posts by Ken White

19 Comments

17 Comments

  1. Professor Coldheart  •  May 21, 2009 @10:52 am

    Religion has often been an excuse for inhumanity, but excuses are not the same as reasons. Myers’ proposition — that inhuman, or irrational, or self-absorbed people would not have found some other excuse, some other locus of bad behavior, if they did not have religion — is a dubious one.

    Devil's advocate here: in the absence of religious belief, what possible motivation could Colleen Hauser have had to deny medical treatment to her dying son?

    I agree with you that the Stalinist and Khmer purges cannot be laid at the feet of atheism. But that's because we have a pretty good guess at what Stalin and Pol Pot's motivations were for those crimes – increasingly neurotic attempts to consolidate an eroding power base by creating a culture of fear. We have an alternative theory that better explains these tyrants' behavior.

    But what alternative theory better explains Hauser's behavior, if not her religious belief?

  2. Ken  •  May 21, 2009 @10:56 am

    Well, does the name Jenny McCarthy ring a bell?

    Absent religious faith, these women might have been withholding treatment from their children based on the belief that modern medical science is the product of a shadowy conspiracy to make money by pushing poison on kids while suppressing the efficacy of stuff you can find on the internet.

    In fact, if you read about Hauser, that's already a substantial part of her belief structure — the belief in prayer is merely one component.

  3. Professor Coldheart  •  May 21, 2009 @11:00 am

    Huh – good point. I'd completely forgot about those wackjobs.

  4. Ken  •  May 21, 2009 @11:04 am

    No doubt it's terribly judgmental of me, but I've often thought the common pathology is attention-seeking, existing on a continuum with Munchausen's by Proxy and kiddie-pageant moms.

  5. Mark Kernes  •  May 21, 2009 @11:27 am

    You wrote: "Myers’ claim that he means no offense is dubious at best." On the other hand, what Myers wrote was, "I have to say something that is heartfelt, and is also meant to offend." (Emphasis added.)

    Beyond that, Myers' point is that every "believer" is an enabler for the complete nutjob believers like Hauser because they affirm what cannot be proven: The existence of a god. Such belief has been the cause of innumerable tragedies over the course of history, though it's only the truly exemplary nutjobs who make the news. Unfortunately, it would seem neither you nor any other believer is qualified to say just when such beliefs "cross the line." I'm sure many believers think Hauser is completely justified in her course — just as many atheists, while able to note the difference between beliefs that directly, physically hurt others and those beliefs that simply poison rational discourse, understand the fine line between those two belief states.

  6. Patrick  •  May 21, 2009 @11:33 am

    Mark, you seem to be extending yourself a bit much. A competent judo fighter could turn your momentum against you, flipping you into that territory where you or Myers could be painted as apologists for Lenin's mass drownings of priests and nuns, and China's extermination of Buddhist monks.

    The difference between you and Myers, of course, is that I'm sure you don't approve of nun-drowning. As for Myers?

  7. Ken  •  May 21, 2009 @11:38 am

    You're dead right that I read that sentence to fast and took the exact opposite meaning from it. I've acknowledged that in the post.

    I question that it is belief that caused the innumerable tragedies. Would ill-behaved believes, absent belief, been well-behaved? Absent the belief, would all of the third and fourth sons stayed home and beat their swords into plowshares rather than going on crusades? Would the leaders of the Inquisition have given up the quest for temporal power not been cruel, if they had not had the church as an excuse and a vehicle?

    What's the basis to believe that religion, or politics, or nationalism, or ideology, is a cause of inhumanity rather than an excuse and vehicle for it?

    I’m sure many believers think Hauser is completely justified in her course — just as many atheists, while able to note the difference between beliefs that directly, physically hurt others and those beliefs that simply poison rational discourse, understand the fine line between those two belief states.

    Long live you to think so.

    I have not noted that atheists are any more superhuman or immune to human fallibility than the faithful, or any less prone to use some locus (atheism in their case, religion in the case of their opponents) as an excuse for dipshittery.

  8. Joshua  •  May 21, 2009 @11:40 am

    Edited to add: I'm leaving that sentence in even though it is based on a sloppy misreading by me of the sentence, which actually says he does intend to defend. / I'll leave in my error and acknowledge it rather than memory-hole it.

  9. Joshua  •  May 21, 2009 @11:41 am

    Well I screwed up my html, so we're even.

  10. Ken  •  May 21, 2009 @11:42 am

    Damned caffeine withdrawal.

  11. Mike  •  May 21, 2009 @11:59 am

    The common theme is collectivism + zealotry. Get enough people together who KNOW they are right and MUST convert everyone else to their way of thinking, and you get death and destruction.

    Heck, look what happened to those guys who believed in Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libert%C3%A9,_%C3%A9galit%C3%A9,_fraternit%C3%A9

    So next time I hear you wackos talk about freedom, friendship, and treating people with equality: I'm putting on a protective metal neck band.

  12. KipEsquire  •  May 21, 2009 @2:36 pm

    This is the same PZ Myers who relentlessly libels libertarians as delusional idiots, despite the pesky fact that he is making an obviously libertarian argument here (i.e., that there is no right to harm another, not even — especially not — your own incompetent child).

    Myers is the classic sturm-und-drang political illiterate who thinks that this mother is a libertarian making a libertarian argument, when in fact she is the most obscene sort of anti-libertarian making the most obscene sort of anti-libertarian argument.

  13. Patrick  •  May 21, 2009 @3:01 pm

    Agreed with Kip. There is nothing so libertarian as a child seeking legal emancipation from abusive or incompetent parents. Even if a court-appointed guardian has to do it in the child's name.

    I recognize the seeming paradox there, but it's no paradox at all.

  14. Mark Kernes  •  May 21, 2009 @5:18 pm

    Ken: I have not noted that atheists are any more superhuman or immune to human fallibility than the faithful, or any less prone to use some locus (atheism in their case, religion in the case of their opponents) as an excuse for dipshittery.

    I think the difference is, atheists have nobody — at least nobody supernatural; just possibly the laws of physics and/or human dipshittiness — to blame but themselves when they screw up or when things go wrong, while believers have a saddening propensity to use excuses like, "It's God's will," or "God works in mysterious ways" or "The Bible says so; that's why I'm doing whatever horrible act I'm committing." With atheists, the buck stops here. With believers, it could stop anywhere.

  15. Ken  •  May 21, 2009 @5:31 pm

    I have not found atheists less prone to make excuses than religious people either. Atheists simply use different excuses. Stalin, for example, blamed history where others might blame God.

  16. Fred Z  •  May 24, 2009 @9:00 am

    P Z Myers' delusion that if religion were eliminated from the world and religiosity from mankind then perfect peace would prevail and this would be the best of all possible worlds reminds me of attempts to create 'New Soviet Man' for the same result.

    Worked well, dinnit?

    I am quite proud of being a semi-rational hairless monkey often frightened by unseen spirits in the dark. Evolution has taught me that sometimes the unseen spirits are very real predators.

    Anyway, I am who I am, and I know, it but Myers does not seem to. He might argue that he is not an irrational monkey, but nearly all of his brothers, sisters and cousins to the nth degree clearly are, and there is irrational thinking in Myers trying to declare that mankind should be what it cannot be.

    When watching monkeymentaries a la Goodall I often see one or two monkeys who sit around looking bored chewing a piece of grass or a leaf. They then look slyly about and poke their neighbor or shamble about and start some other sort of ruckus. Perhaps Myers is this kind of monkey. We called them shit-disturbers when I was young.

  17. A.W.  •  May 26, 2009 @6:47 am

    I'm with south park on this one. the point of their classic "Buck Rogers" episodes was to say that humans kill each other for stupid reasons all the time, and even if no one believed in any kind of God, we would keep doing it.

    The fact is in the right hands anything can be a force of good; and in the wrong hands, anything can be a force for evil.

    I will add this newly agressive atheism i have seen for a while (because it is not limited to one guy), seems to be a protracted reaction to 9-11. Ever since 9-11, atheists have seemed uniquely fervent in their faith that if we were all just atheists, there would be no war, no human misery, etc. To a certain breed of atheist, that is the chief message they got out of the event.

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