Not an extremist, really

One now and then hears this or that famous atheist is going too far, is an extremist, is far-out, and so on.

That’s not really true. People like Dawkins and PZ Myers are not extreme at all. (And because yours truly pretty much agrees with those two you can read what follows as maybe more as an explanation of my own position.)

The problem is one of existing opinions. If you take an European socialist and plop her into American politics, you’ll see a dull sort-of-centrist turned into a fearsome extremist. Similarly any normal modern person with reasonable opinions about women and race would cause shock, horror and swooning in the world of two centuries ago. What is extremal depends on the opinion itself, but also on the other opinions and their prevalency, and just being close to the edge is by itself no judgment of value or truth.

The problem is one of ignorance, too. About once a month (because I try to avoid the most blithering idiots) I come across someone saying Dawkins is a ha-ha figure because he is absolutely certain there is not a God, which is unfitting for a scientist etc. etc.; and I can just conclude that the commentator either (a) has not read the God Delusion or any larger interview of Dawkins, and thus should be careful to mention that, (b) has some lamentable form of dementia, and should be pitied, or (c) is purposefully lying or ignorant, and thus should be beaten with hammers.

(Preferably big hammers that strike solidly but make some kind of an amusing oinking hammer sound when you swing them. But this is aesthetics, not atheism.)

There are genuinely extremal atheists; but these so-called New Atheists aren’t those, even if we are more extremal than the accomodationist types. The real extremal atheists are rare, and often are atheistic to the exclusion of other important considerations.

Some are wishful thinkers that opine they can show Jesus was a carbon copy of Mythical Figure X and thus a hoax; and in their zeal they forgo due skepticism and end up spouting claims bigger than their evidence can support.

Some atheists succumb to the lure of rhetoric, and spout lines (simulated) like “every Catholic priest is a pedophile” or “all Christians are idiots”. Conflating a subset with the whole may be good for debate, but it’s against honesty and accuracy. Any worthwhile kind of atheism is more than an Eristic argument where only winning the shouting-match matters.

Some atheists are easily overcome by moral indignation — “What? Ratzinger was in the Hitlerjugend! Horrible horrible!” — and end up demanding too much out of normal fallible people.

Some atheists, rare ones I’m thankful to say, let their morality be subdued by their zeal instead; and vandalism follows. If one was dedicated to the hindering of everything religious, one could just as well go around setting fires in churches and aiming poisoned blowdarts at Popes; but as atheism is only one component of a well-ordered psyche, people don’t usually do that. A really rabid and all-consumingly atheistic idiot might strive to outlaw religion and obliterate all traces of it, and forcibly deconvert people; but no-one serious advocates that. (Despite cross accusations to the contrary. And I think the various Communist idiocies were more grounded in their particular fictions and their opposition to other cults than in atheism.)

Then there are the PR idiots — I count them as extremals as well, and group them together with everyone else who think the name and image of the “movement” or the “cause” trumps honest, open clarity. (And after grouping them thusly nicely together, hammertime!)

The problem with the sensible, rational atheist position is that it is detailed, and the sum of the details is not that religion is unalloyed evil, but rather that (a) there is no god, and (b) boy does that show in what the religious do, in everything from absurdities leading to atrocities, to unreasonable expectations leading into torturous convolutions and disappointments.

Thus, the Jesus of Christianity is not a carbon copy of Horus or purely a hoax of sinisterly chuckling and consciously lying power-hungry patriarchs, but (and investigations continue!) a real Jewish prophet of apocalypse, after his death buried under an avalanche of pious speculation spun from confused rumors and naive readings of the Old Testament. A Jesus that was not only totally made-up but also stolen would warm the heart of an atheist; but what is most heart-warming should be the best approximation of what really happened. (Even more so because there are plenty of sectarian heartwarmers but only one way things really happened.)

Thus, some priests are pedophiles, thieves, callous monsters, friends of tyrants and the like; but the comment against them is not that all priests are such, but that if these crimes and their cover-ups are what happens among those most dedicated to the service of the supposedly all-good and all-powerful God, well, that God is bollocks, and the priests, including the criminals and those that protect them, either don’t believe in this supposed just God of theirs or then hold really distasteful views of how He wants things to be done. (I can half imagine a Vatican spokesman pronouncing priests can be convicted of no crimes because they answer only to the Supreme Authority; but that’s probably because it has been a plot point in some fiction I’ve read somewhen.)

Similarly, some Christians and many Creationists are idiots of either the blithering or the dumb variety, but most Christians are just normal people, and some are geniuses. Being a genius doesn’t mean you opinions are gold on all subjects; and being wrong about one thing doesn’t make a person into an idiot. Zealously defending that position doesn’t make one into an idiot either, though it can make one into a hypocrite, or a dishonest brat if debate victories matter more than the truth of things.

Thus, the fact that the present Pope was a member of the Hitlerjugend does not make him a bad person or reflect badly on him; he was young, the membership was not voluntary, and resistance would have had painful consequences. We might commend him if he had resisted, standing up, running to the hills, even slitting his wrists; but I think we can’t really blame him for going along. Well, not unless he starts saying resistance was impossible. (If one wants to comment on the intersection of WWII and the Papacy, there’s always Pius XII.)

Thus, finally, though I don’t think churches are special or specially valuable, except as occasionally pretty and/or historic buildings, I don’t see any reason except a certain therapeutic release in their destruction. And frankly if one wants therapeutic release a Bible and a match are just as good (or so I hear), and less troublesome legally and morally. It’s much better to turn the churches, as their flocks dwindle, into museums, homeless shelters, bars, libraries, and other places of reasonable release and comfort.

“So fine”, you think, “so you have demonstrated there are more extremal atheists than yourself. Isn’t that an altogether trivial observation?” And indeed, as a mere observation that is trivial, but it is needful to be aware that the position of Dawkins and us others is not untempered, undiluted, uncompromised atheism; rather it is pushing on you (and your children!) an honest inquiry into what is true; and a reasonably solid part of our best current approximation of reality is the fact that, oh so sorry, there is no God and the reputation of the religious has been greatly overexaggerated. Bald atheism alone isn’t enough to live on; skeptical scientific atheism with humanist ethics and a cup of coffee now and then can pretty much be both enough, beautiful, and the best there is.

* * *

I could probably even go on to claim that the main conflict is not atheists vs. theists but skeptics vs. theists, but this is tediously troublesome because every partisan, even the Creationists, claim that a proper evaluation of the evidence and application of reason (i.e. skepticism) leads to their particular conclusion. Also some skeptics are infected by the particularly tedious PR disease of saying that there are lots of theists and some of them even are recognized as skeptics (about other subjects) so skeptics should not be so strident about theism — which is unadulterated rearproduct as there no doubt are Nazis, Creationists, psychics and homeopaths that are very properly skeptical of many skeptical things except their own particular lunacy, so feh on those that claim a cranial cohabitation of two ideas somehow indicates those two are not opposed.

* * *

Annex: Dawkins’s position on the existence of God, as I remember it, and I tend to agree with it: philosophical agnosticism, practical atheism.

To be longer about it: We can’t ever be absolutely certain of anything; it is madness or delusion if we think so. Nature doesn’t give us an answer sheet no matter how we question it; and the existence of Bielefeld, Germany, may be just a conspiracy organized by the Illuminati. (Don’t tell them I told you. Also buy tinfoil in small amounts over long periods of time.)

Thus, philosophically speaking, there always remains a residue of doubt about every statement; and philosophically speaking every sane atheist is an agnostic. However, that philosophical agnosticism is similar to fairy agnosticism and doubts over heliocentrism, and is because of necessity translated to practical atheism, just as the very slim possibility of the nonexistence of Bielefeld is translated to a practical opinion that why yes, Bielefeld exists, no (reasonable) doubt about it, or as they say in Germany, Bielefeld gibt es nicht.

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