Saturday, November 23, 2013

My Beef With Boghossian

Does religion make people behave maliciously? Does religion make people evil? Do we need to rid the world of religion because it makes people malicious and evil? The answer to these questions is a resounding “yes,” or at least that is the answer rather strongly implied by the work of Portland State University’s Dr. Peter Boghossian. Boghossian’s new book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, is a rallying cry to what Boghossian calls “street epistemology;” basically atheist evangelicalism that seeks to divorce theists from their supernatural beliefs by attacking a theist’s theory of knowledge. In being a rational person, Boghossian says that there should not only be evidence to support beliefs but a proper chain of reasoning to come to certain conclusions. I certainly agree with Boghossian that faith is a failure of epistemology and I agree that the more outrageous a belief claim the more extraordinary evidence is required to make certain inferences. The problem is that if there should be evidence to support beliefs, whatever they may be, then Boghossian and his merry band of followers do not appear to be playing by their own rules. 

[Before going any further, I must disclose that I have never met, taken a class with, or otherwise talked to Dr. Boghossian. So, I cannot say how much of his beliefs or the beliefs of the presumably rational atheist community that I will now discredit they have personally examined or what rationalizing – different from rationale – they have used to come to certain conclusions.]

First, we have to understand what motivates the Boghossian and the current nu-atheist movement. (Hint: It’s the same as the old motivation.) What motivates a pseudo-militant atheist* like Boghossian is their belief that the world suffers, and has suffered throughout history, from the theistic beliefs that are rampant in almost every culture on Earth. Boghossian and his followers believe that if only people could be cured of their “faith virus” and turned towards atheism (which by-golly must be, by default, rational) the world would be a much better place. I know this is the premise these presumably rational atheists are working from because I used to think exactly the same thing a few years ago. And then I grew up.

[*A pseudo-militant atheist seeks to engage you in conversation with a measure of compassion but has an ulterior motive. But, hey, theists do the same thing, so why not?]

As a true, bona-fide philosopher who is not a Scotsman – philosophical humor; move along – I had a belief that was open to revision. (All beliefs must be so, according to Boghossian, or you’re not rational; agreed.) I found that the more people I met throughout life, I would come to categorize an individual as a good person by about a 4-to-1 margin regardless of whether they were theistic or atheistic. [Meaning, for every 4 good theists or atheists I met, there was 1 bad theist or atheist. Certainly, we could argue over my criteria for what makes for a good or bad person, but let’s focus on the subject at hand right now.] I found that in dealing with people, religion or lack thereof seemingly had no bearing on whether or not someone was nice to me. Of course, my personal experiences with people are anecdotal evidence that religion plays no part in what makes a human moral, and anecdotal evidence is generally frowned upon in philosophy. (Nevermind that it is often admissible in a court of law, but, whatever.) So, in order to tear down the premise from which presumably rational atheists are working from, perhaps we should examine history.

The presumably rational atheist works from the premise that historically speaking, religion has been the spark for untold amounts of suffering. Problem is, is that if we examine, say, the deaths caused by religion throughout recorded history, what presumably rational atheists say about religion simply isn’t true. For example, noted historian and chronicler of atrocities, Matthew White, concludes in his latest book The Great Big Book of Horrible Things that of the worst 100 atrocities in recorded history, only 13 of them are the direct result of (or assumed to be the direct result of) one religious ideology pitted against another. If we do the math, that leaves 87 atrocities in which religion played a secondary or little to no role in armed conflict. Obviously then, the presumably rational atheist is wrong about religion in terms of the amount of violence theists inflict upon others due to their theistic beliefs, so what do they mean when they say religion is the cause of untold amounts of suffering? (More on that in a moment.) Quickly, a question arises: Why aren’t presumably rational atheists examining the evidence for their own beliefs? A lack of evidence is the point Boghossian is hammering theists on, but why isn’t he applying his methodology to the beliefs of the members of his own community? Isn’t the premise presumably rational atheists are working from “something they are pretending to know,” as Boghossian would put it?

It may be the case that the presumably rational atheist senses there is an amount of harm done by religion that is psychological. Although they rarely cite this as the meaning behind their basic assumption about religion, they still have no evidence that the psychological manipulations perpetrated by theists upon other people (shaming, for example) is caused by the theist’s religious beliefs as opposed to, say, Nietzsche’s Will to Power. Is there perhaps a biological imperative that drives people to try and control others through any means available? Where is the evidence pointing one way or the other? Despite the lack of evidence – which is required to rationally believe something – the presumably rational atheist typically clings to the premise they began with, that religion is bad and that a world full of rational atheists would be better. Even if this were true, look what happens when we take the second part of their premise to its logical conclusion.

Let’s imagine for a moment that the presumably rational atheist is right (because there is supporting evidence) and the world would be better if it were full of rational people, given that rational people are less violent and not quite the psychological terrorist theists are. If it is concluded that rational people are morally superior, might there be sub-categories of rational people who are less violent and less psychologically manipulative than the group as a whole? Woman are often regarded as less violent than men and rightly so because that’s what all available evidence indicates. Moreover, evidence indicates that homosexuals as a group are less violent than women. If we take the presumably rational atheist’s original premise to its logical conclusion, the world would be a whole lot better off not under the direction of rational people, but under the direction of rational, atheistic lesbians. But you’ll never hear the presumably rational atheist come to such a conclusion because they haven’t looked at the evidence. They haven’t played by their own rules. 

Nor do they apparently want to. I cannot relate to you how many times I walked the halls of Portland State University as a student and saw flyers for the latest meeting extoling the virtues of Communism. This, despite the fact that all historical evidence indicates that Communism is a complete failure in practice.

This is not so much an attack on Boghossian as it is an attack on the beliefs of the latest, growing crop of atheists in general. After all, although I noticed the failure of theistic epistemology over two decades ago, Boghossian has pointed out this flaw in theism with more wit and flair than I ever could. And I would fully support his endeavor to de-convert people from their faith if only the evidence indicated that religion corrupts individuals and has been a detriment throughout history. But the evidence isn’t there. And therein lies my beef; don’t require of others evidence for their beliefs if you’re not going to apply the same standards to your own.

I'd like to believe that no one likes a hypocrite. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests otherwise.

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