Strawmen are Tasty, Yet Lack Nutritional Content.

In 2012, Pew Research published a project that shook the world to its very core.  Against all odds, the poll results seemed to indicate that the “New” Atheist’s attacks on religion were changing the world, lifting the veil from so many of the eyes belonging to the world’s population, causing them to abandon their religious beliefs in overwhelming numbers.  Religious leaders and apologists were apoplectic at what they were witnessing.  Would religious belief survive the current generation?  Would the remaining Gods and gods, desperately clinging to life in this increasingly modern world, enter the seemingly endless lichyard reserved for the dead and forgotten gods and Gods of prior societies?  Was their any place for religion in a world where much of their explanatory power has been usurped by actual knowledge. Where morality and ethics are understood to be an essential part of any successful society, and are debated, secularly, in our institutes of higher learning, advancing ours beyond xenophobic nationalistic ideas of ethics that are increasingly obsolete as the world grows smaller everyday.  Religion was not going to survive, it was clear.  Believers were being persecuted the world over.  Christians, especially those of the evangelical variety, became the most discriminated against group in the United States, being denied job for their faith, and facing prison time for their religious beliefs.

Actually, the project released in 2012 by Pew Research showed that approximately 84% of the world’s population were religiously affiliated, including a whopping 31.5% slice of the pie going to Christians, with the Muslim (23.2) and Hindu (15) religions snatching up the next largest slices.  The 227 million-ish North American Christians are just a drop in the bucket, with Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Europe each claim well over 500 million followers of Christ.  In the United States, some 78.3% of its population claims membership in the zombie-savior-army.  With the exception of a few congressional districts, either especially enlightened or strangely populated , a relationship with Jesus is a de facto requirement to win an election for public office, US Constitution be damned.  The United States continues to grant religions freedom from taxes, no matter how outlandish the mansion of the pastor, no matter how many violations of the one concession we ask of them for this status, to not endorse specific political candidates or parties from the pulpit, continue to pile up, continue to be rubbed in the faces of the IRS each Pulpit Freedom Sunday.

But the persecution thing plays better, so fuck it, ya know?  It leads to such awesome results as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which leads to things like the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision, and incredibly insane things like the 50% of white evangelicals who believe themselves to be the most persecuted group in America.  We get hit movies starring that guy who played Hercules in the 90’s that portray every non-Evangelical Christian character as a stereotype in the most offensive way possible, and feature an atheistic philosophy professor who, in addition to only lashing out because he is mad at God, runs his class in a way that not only would get him fired immediately from any university, but could only come from the imagination of a mind that never set foot in a college philosophy class, who’s death is celebrated in the climatic scene, since he managed to accept the Savior prior to drawing his last breath.  High Five!  And while a healthy portion of American Christians lump Muslims in with atheists in the “dangerous” category, liberals like Ben Affleck plays into their hands when he equates religion with race while proclaiming Bill Maher and Sam Harris to be “disgusting” “bigots” for their critiques of Islam, continuing the trend of enshrining religious beliefs not as ideas that can be rationally questioned, but as integral ethnic characteristics beyond questioning.  They benefit equally from the condescending “arguments” Reza Aslan lazily spews in defense of Islam whenever he spies a television camera, which can be recycled endlessly for whichever audience that needs its intelligence insulted with only minor changes to deity and location.

It leads to amazing sentences such as this, found today at Salon in a click-bait titled posting, in answer to the textbook strawman question, “Is there anyone who actually believes that religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history? ”

Apparently yes, as Armstrong reports having heard versions of this statement from “American commentators and psychiatrists, London tax drivers and Oxford academics.”

The strawman, as in the normal course of events, is then knocked down seconds after being built up.

Yet the claim is so easily refuted by a quick look at the two World Wars — not to mention, say, the Russian Revolution, the American Civil War and the Mongol Invasions of the 13th and 14th century — that you have to wonder if the people making it actually care about its historical accuracy.

This may come as a shock to some of you, but atheists can say some pretty amazingly stupid things.  To be honest, I think it is a problem that infects every atheist on the planet; I know that I have said some stupid things over my life, and I can not currently think of an atheistic writer or speaker that hasn’t said at least one thing that I thought was a bit suspect.  But you know, we are humans after all, and its not just atheists who have this issue, it is all of humanity.What’s the classic saying?  “Nobody’s Perfect.”  Of course, there are without a doubt degrees of stupidity.  While an atheist who claims that The Twilight Saga was a good series of books/films will draw a raised eyebrow from my direction and cause me to question recommendations they make regarding film and literature in the future, it is not going to go further than that.  We all have a right to our own tastes, even if those tastes happen to be bad.  I used to listen to K-pop, which automatically disqualifies me from holding someone’s tastes against them.  (Assuming that taste isn’t something like child pornography, legal pornography that delights in the misogynistic objectification of women,<as opposed to legitimate fetish pornography that highlights the consent and desire of all participants – pornography is such a fucking complicated subject> snuff films, or similar “tastes” that deserve to be ostracized.)  However, the same atheist making the claim that Bella is a strong female role-model  for young girls to emulate would draw much more than raised eyebrows from me.  A character who allows herself to be completely defined by her man does not a role-model make, and would cause me to wonder whether their judgement was being clouded by the love they had for the books/movies, or if their views on the “proper” role for women in society actually differed that greatly from mine.  Which would still be a degree of stupid less than claiming that sexual harassment, objectification, and well, sometimes blatant flat out misogyny, do not exist in the skeptic/atheist community.  Which is yet a degree less stupid than thinking there is nothing wrong with having sex with a women whom you have a large power advantage over in some way, when she is drunk enough to require a wheelchair.  Some stupid is unforgivable.

I will watch Real Time with Bill Maher if its on when I’m watching television.  If there is something I hear about on the show that I want to see, then I’ll use HBO Go and check it out.  It’s not “must-see” television for me, because I honestly don’t watch much television.  Not because I’m being pretentious or anything, just because there isn’t much on that interests me enough to watch it over reading, playing a PC game, writing, watching a movie, or playing with my dog as entertainment during my free time.  If History, Discovery, National Geographic, Animal Planet, and the Science Channel would cut out the credulous pseudo-reality (all possible meanings intended) programming, then I’d probably watch more television, but it still wouldn’t be that much of a chunk of my free time.  Honestly, most of my actual television viewing is of sporting events; Pirates baseball with my mother, Penguins Hockey, and before Ben alledgedrapistberger the Pittsburgh Steelers, before they proved they don’t honestly give a shit about their players beating on women unless the public cares about it and the negative publicity threatens the league, NFL football.  The only true “must-see” show I have is Game of Thrones.  I watched Constantine this week, and will again next.  I think there is other stuff worth watching; I know Hannibal is a good show, I love the clips I watch from The Daily Show so I could watch it more, I rarely watch Mythbusters anymore, I hear The Flash and Arrow are good shows, shall I go on?  I loved the first season of The Good Wife, but haven’t seen a full episode after episode five.  Removed from whether I watch his show or not, I see no reason to defend Bill Maher when he is attacked.  Some of his serious views, such as his opinions on vaccinations, especially those expounded on during the H1N1 flu epidemic were actually indefensible.  Many other attacks on him ignore the fact that the man is a comedian who is controversial on purpose.  Much of what he says isn’t honest debate or legitimate suggestions, it is jokes.  Some are funny, some are not, some are just wrong.  None need any defense from me.  Richard Dawkins, the specific atheist Laura Miller calls out in the headline for her post about Karen Armstrong’s book “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence,” , is less likely to draw much defense from me.

How do us atheists escape from the vexing “people say stupid shit because they are people” issue?  Because we aren’t claiming divine inspiration for our stupid comments.  The Pope may be able to speak for the Catholic Church as a whole, even claiming papal infallibility, but no one has the authority to speak for atheists.  Those with the authority to speak for specific groups of atheists hold that power solely from the people being spoken for; chosen because their opinions mirror those of the larger group, replaced or simply ignored when that fact ceases to be true.  That’s why creationist attacks on Darwin’s character as a tactic to disprove evolution are so laughable.  Charlie could have been a Satanist who sacrificed babies not because it was pleasing to the Dark Lord, but only because Chuck liked the taste of fresh baby and it wouldn’t affect the truth of the theory of evolution one iota.  It is the idea that is important.  The evidence that confirms it, not our trust in the person making the claim.

Now that being said,  our friend Dick Dawkins never exactly said that religion was the cause of all of history’s major wars.  In fact,

The closest Armstrong comes to naming an advocate of the “all wars are about religion” line is when she quotes biologist, author and stridently public atheist Richard Dawkins in her chapter on terrorism. “Only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people,” Dawkins wrote in “The God Delusion.”

This, my friends, is the definition of a strawman.  It will now be my go to example of the technique.  It is such a perfect use of the tactic that I almost want to applaud the author.

“The atheists think that all wars were caused by religion.  Well they are wrong, and not only are they wrong, but the very notion is idiotic.  Silly atheists, they will say anything to hurt poor beleaguered religion.”

“Wait, What?  Who said that?  I never said that.  What atheists are saying that?”

“Lots of them.  ‘American commentators and psychiatrists, London tax drivers and Oxford academics.’”

“No, I mean specifically.  What commentators and psychiatrists?  What cab driver?  What Oxford academic?  I want names.”

“Well, Richard Dawkins said that ‘Only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people.’”

“That is not the same thing.  That is not the same thing at all.  Who said that all major wars were caused by religion?  I want to know so I can call them an idiot and tell them that they do not speak for me.”

“Look over there, squirrel!”

Look.  The only atheist I speak for is me.  For me the question is not whether religion has been a net positive or negative throughout the history of humanity, it is the role that religion plays on modern day affairs, and its effects on us all today.  I’m not interested in who first pioneered the usage of suicide bombings.  I don’t care about the role that the church once played for the poorest members of society.  I don’t care if female genital mutilation was originally a cultural thing that Mohammed thought was groovy.  I know that Islam once kept the flame of inquiry alive, I know that magnificent cultural works were created in the name of Gods or gods,  I know that religion played a role in the trust that was required to successfully form actual societies, I know that peoples religious beliefs have inspired them to do great things for the betterment of humanity.

The problem is that I also know about the bad side of religion.  The Crusades, the Inquisitions, the witch trials and the like.  The horrible things a person is capable of when they honestly believe that God is on their side.  The resistance to knowledge that having a sacred belief challenged by science brings.  The smug superiority that comes from knowing that you know the mind of God, unlike all the heathens.  The absolute certainty that you know how others should live their lives.  The ease it allows some of those among us to dehumanize those who believe differently as beings of pure evil.

Perhaps religion is a virus.  Perhaps it is a vital adaption method that kept us alive as a species at one point.  Perhaps we will never know the true answer to the question.

I do know that the only opposition to marriage equality now comes from religious beliefs.  I know that there are women, not in the middle east, but in middle America, who because of an accident of birth will exist only as a brood mare and helpmeet for her husband, chosen for her by her father, with no hope of escaping the situation.  I know that somewhere in the nation, a 12 year old girl is being married to a man with multiple wives under the cover of religion, no matter what real desires are being fulfilled.  I know that while women are shamed for their sexuality for multiple reasons, religion plays a large role in the shaming, as it also does with homosexual sexuality.  I know that no matter what other factors helped to create them, ISIS is using Islam as justification for both beheading their enemies and the taking of sex slaves, in their quest to create an Islamic state.  I know that no matter the identity or purpose of the first suicide bombers, modern suicide bombers from the lone vest wearer in Jerusalem to the hijackers on 9/11 claim to be seeking martyrdom in the name of Allah.  I know that any newspaper who publishes cartoons depicting the prophet risk a very real violent response.  I know that any author who questions the faith could face jihad.  I know that women can not drive in Saudi Arabia, but I am sure it is 100% due to cultural reasons, not religion.  I know the same must be true for the burka and veil.  I know that secular opponents to abortion do not blow up clinics, nor do they shoot doctors who perform abortions.

If you are a die hard cultural relativist, I see no need to argue with you.  We won’t get anywhere.  Some things, including treating any fellow human as property, is wrong.  I do not care if FGM is a sacred cultural tradition going back thousands of years, or if some of the victims of the act are willing victims of the act.  Mutilating humans is wrong.  I do not care if Christian Scientists honestly believe their child will rot in Hell if a doctor treats them, letting the kid die of a treatable disease in order to protect their soul is wrong.  Rape is wrong.  Murder is wrong. Denying a person an education because of what is between their legs is wrong.  Somethings are wrong.  Not because a god told us, not because God told us, not because a book told us, but because we rationally know it to be true.

Islam is not a problem because every Muslim is a suicide bomber in training waiting with baited breath to declare a proper Jihad on your ass at the drop of a hat, intent on spreading Islam with fire and blood over the entire planet.  Christianity is not a problem because every Christian is a science denying loony stockpiling guns as they wait for the Rapture, plotting on which abortion clinic to shoot up while trying to decide which man he is going to sell give his daughter to as a wife.  They are both problems because they contain some shockingly bad ideas, ideas which are increasingly becoming immune from debate thanks to their status as coming from a religion.  Meanwhile, there are millions of moderate believers willing to stand up and deny those beliefs, even when that denial explicitly contradicts their own holy scripture, while insulating the larger concept of belief in a perfectly good sky daddy from actual consideration.  Perhaps the vast majority of Muslims do not believe the more radical parts of the scripture.  The problem is in the evidence we have of what laws are established in states that tie themselves to Islam.  Do we really believe Christianity would be benign if granted official standing and actual power in United States government?

I personally love studying religions.  I love the Bible, I love studying the history of the book, I love researching and learning the beliefs of other cultures.  It fascinates me.  I want to know why it started, how it changed, the ways it stayed with us as a species.  I know it had a stunning effect on the history of our species and our planet.  Perhaps that effect was even mostly positive, or at least enough to tip the scales throughout history.  But now, as we live through either, depending on who you ask and their own biases, the death knell of fundamentalism or the resurgence of fundamentalism,  it is time for us to realize and confront the fact that no matter the past results, religion is currently doing more harm than good to our society, and with religiously defended climate change denialism, to the planet itself.  The scale has tipped.

Religion is the problem.


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