Last round of responses part 2

I didn’t finish my last round of responses yesterday because I caught dinner and a show with a friend. Anyways, some things have happened since then and I will address them and get to the end of Coyne’s criticism.

First off, the funny: someone commented on my blog to say that I am a “Another young christian conservative from the Hudson inst. puffing up his chest.” I am young, but I very much doubt the other groups would take me in. I’ve been told on good authority that a large portion of my religious beliefs constitute heresy. As for Conservative, I write for Salon! I’m a research assistant at Demos. Whatever.

Second off, the good: Paul Sunstone is now on my blogroll (see our back-and-forth) as well as Matt Bruenig.

Third, very, very few athiests seem to understand what religious belief really is like in practice, which is a damn shame.

Fourth, they also appear not to understand the process of online writing. I don’t create the headline or deck for my articles. So a lot of people read the headline and the deck and then tweet at me in anger. I have had fun with them.



What did I write? This:

“New Atheists” believe that religion threatens progress and breeds conflict and that were religion eliminated, we would begin to solve the world’s problems.

Are you seriously going to tell me that doesn’t represent New Atheist thought?

Fifth, the insane.


Well, with me in the insane asylum is Bernard Lewis, one of the leading, if not the leading expert on the Middle East. Here’s what he writes in What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response:

Even the major division within Islam, between Sunnis and Sh‘a, arose over an historical conflict about the political leadership of the community, not over any question of doctrine.


Okay, so back to my response to Coyne.

He argues that people who criticize religion don’t really need to understand to criticize:

And why do you have to be a believer to criticize religion? Do you have to be a Nazi to criticize Nazism, or a segregationist to understand and efface the evils of segregation? It seems to me that being an outsider gives one a certain advantage, at least in seeing and publicizing the harms of religion. Those in the asylum are often blinded to their delusion. And, at any rate, we have a distinguished roll of former religionists who are plenty well equipped “to understand what they castigate.”

My argument here is that you can definitely criticize religious people who try to use their crazy reading of scripture to justify evil actions or policies. But remember that most of these aren’t coming from the religious text, they are being read into the religious text. So you’re wasting your time shitting on Jesus. A large portion of people who are religious don’t understand what real religious practice looks like. Most don’t the scantest understanding of theology. Side note: New Atheists really like dropping the “Nazi” bomb. Of course you can criticize Nazism as the crazy political doctrine that it is. But religion isn’t a series of dogmas. It’s a method for investigating what it means to be human.

Next point:

If McElwee lived in Nazi Germany, he’d probably tell us: “Look, Rommel and von Stauffenberg are working to bring down Hitler. Call off the U.S. and British troops, call off the French Resistance, because any critique of Nazism made from the outside can be made more persuasively by members of the Nazi Party.”

The fact is that the “reform” of religion will occur much faster with pressure from nonbelievers, for many forms of faith have no internal motivation for changing.  And you don’t have to be a believer to see the harm.  If I were offered a plate of dog feces to eat, I wouldn’t be persuaded by the argument, “You can’t know whether it’s bad until you’ve eaten a lot of dog crap.”

Again, I responded to this above. I just quoted it because it’s funny and it illustrates the New Atheist primary tactic: make your reader imagine your opponent as a Nazi as early and often as possible. Classic “poisoning of the well.” If I were a meanie, I would suggest they lack the historical knowledge (or more insidiously, believe their audience lacks the knowledge) to draw from any other historical currents.

Here’s a more apt parallel. Right now the scientific community is struggling with some structural problems at the publishing level: few people are reporting negative findings, the peer review process appears to be breaking down and there is less replication than there used to be. Now, I’m sure the Pope, if he heard about this, might have some thoughts on the issue, but it would be kinda silly for him to publicly announce them. Similarly, while scientists are free to speak on political issues, scientific claims made by religion, etc. they really can’t talk on issues of theology (say, the doctrine of the trinity) unless they have knowledge of the topic. Which most don’t. It’s worth noting that Pope Francis is currently in the midst of the very reform movement atheists believe impossible.

He concludes:

McElwee goes on to espouse a form of NOMA, arguing that we need religion to tell us about the meaning of being human and how to live the good life, and, conversely, religion shouldn’t intrude on science. He’s right about the second part but not the first. Religion doesn’t have any more credibility about the meaning of life and the best way to live  than do the exertions of secular, humanistic philosophy in telling us how to live. In fact, religion is a substantially worse guide for life, because it relies on faith and fiction rather than reason and facts.

I agree, religion doesn’t have any more credibility about the meaning of life and the best way to live than do the exertions of secular, humanistic philosophy. That’s why my religious friends read secular novels and secular philosophy. These all inform their religious believes. My personal exploration for truth involves Jesus and Tolstoy, Marx and Nietzsche, Hitchens and Gould, Muhammad and Confucius, Orwell and Huxley, Tagore and Augustine. But can reason and facts really, really actually explain the human condition?

My argument is this: by ascribing violence and hatred to religion, NA allows the West to ignore the underlying causes of the hatred and violence. Essentially, this is a debate between those who try to understand why they hate us, and those who want to portray all religious people as an ugly caricature and move on.

2 thoughts on “Last round of responses part 2

  1. Michael Taggart

    Your response to my tweet (above in your post) is desperately bone-headed Sean. Do you really suppose the sectarian thugs pulling down mosques and torturing each other to death are not religiously motivated? Really? Come on. I’ll grant you that both branches had political motivations concerning leadership of all muslims at the time of the original schism, just as now. But those political motivations were based on beliefs about God’s will and still are. The sectarian violence was always about fulfilling God’s will and still is.

  2. Pingback: Is my characterization of New Atheism a straw man? | Sean McElwee

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