Lazy attack on atheism

The God Delusion

There is a new book out by Richard Dawkins called “The God Delusion.” His mission is to bring the discussion of atheism out in the open and to make a case for it and against the belief in God. Salon.com has a great write-up of Dawkins’ work and his new book. Readers of the medical blogosphere may notice that atheism has been popping up lately. Dr. Herbert wrote a piece about an atheist patient of his. The Neonatal Doc wonders what is said at an atheist funeral. As an atheist, I’m sensitive to pieces like these because I wonder exactly what I’m going to do when caring, not for the atheist, but for the religious. What am I going to say when a family asks me “Do you pray, doctor?” or “Will you say a prayer for my loved one?” Dawkins’ book is already incredibly popular and receiving a great deal of press. He’s keeping a blog as he tours the world promoting it. I don’t normally care about things like this, but I really hope that Dawkins is successful in making the discussion public. I often feel like a pariah in my own community for my atheism, and have even kept it a secret from my more extended family. I’m writing this now because of an article I read in the San Fransisco Chronicle. It’s by Dinesh D’Souza who authored “The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11.” On first glance, I think it’s a disgusting and irresponsible title. But I’ve been wrong before about the covers of books, which is why I read his take on “The God Delusion.” I was so disappointed in his review, not for its conclusion, but for its absolute laziness. I can’t help but draw the conclusion that this is his writing style, and that there is likely little useful in his book. If you like, you can read his article and then see my response to him below.

I won’t paint those that believe in a God with the same brush that I would paint Dinesh D’Souza, but I will say that this isn’t the first time I’ve run into this type of reasoning. I was incredibly frustrated as a child whenever my parents or teachers become angry and impatient with me as I continued to question them about God or about the contents of the Bible. I will never forget when I was small, asking my mother, “who created God?”

“Nobody. God always was.”
“How is that possible?”
“God is like a wreath or a circle, without beginning or end.”
“But didn’t something make the wreath and the circle?”
“That is part of the mystery of God.”

I think that if people take their beliefs seriously, then they should explore them with some measure of academic rigor. If you don’t understand why you believe something, then what use is it to you? Why would anyone be willing to just accept ‘mysteries’ if there is no need?

I remember an old priest on the Oncology floor who had decided to discontinue his treatment. He knew he was going to die and felt that his further use of valuable resources was against his ethic. He was a teacher of theology. He saw right into me and began the conversation with, “How do you feel about working around so much death?” What happened next was fantastic. We argued about theism and atheism, organized versus personal religion, death and dying, and the foundation of morality. It was not acrimonious or condescending on either side, but was instead a meeting of exciting ideas and strong arguments. It was a quality of argument about religion that I have not enjoyed since.

If Dawkins’ book does anything, I hope it makes those that believe in religion form more powerful arguments for their belief and to CARE that those arguments are strong. I also hope that if people discover that their arguments are weak, that they CARE that those arguments are weak. If something is right, then know why. If something is wrong, then know why. But for God’s sake, care. For those that want to make their arguments for or against God stronger, test your mettle against this book.

***

I’d like this email to somehow reach Dinesh D’Souza. I am an atheist but was raised a Roman Catholic with all of the private schooling by nuns and monks that you would imagine. I’m assuming, here, that Dinesh’s article is something like a question, or a wondering, and I’d like to address a few parts of it.

That a “group of leading atheists is puzzled by the continued existence and vitality of religion” is not the same as saying that atheists are puzzled, and is no more useful than attacking Christianity after noting that a “group of Christians believe that handling snakes is the pathway to Heaven.” No single group is representative of the whole, nor is their likely a unified “whole” around anything except the most basic of tennents: the absence of god on one side and His Majesty on the other.

Wilson says there must be some evolutionary explanation for the universality and pervasiveness of religious belief. Actually, there is.”

Actually, there are more. I understand that for the coherence of an article, you had to pick one vein and flow with it, but I think you’ve ignored some much less flattering options.

Imagine that the human brain was selected through evolution to handle challenges of greater and greater complexity. What do you do with a brain so powerful when you’re not thinking to save your life? You think. You think and think because you can’t turn it off and you stumble into imagination. And is it so hard to imagine someone stumbling on the idea of cause and effect and to very quickly run up against the problem of first cause? That idea would torture you if you couldn’t file it away. The solution is a belief in God. The solution for all things in similar situations is God. Why does it rain? Why does it not rain? What moves the Heavens? And so on. It’s not hard to imagine the idea of God as being the product of a mind capable of imagination and reason butting up against a lack of information about the workings of the world. And, anecdotally, have we not seen the sphere of those things explained by God shrinking and shrinking as the sphere of those things with perfect explanations through science expands and expands?

Now imagine two groups of people — let’s call them the Secular Tribe and the Religious Tribe — who subscribe to one of these two views….The religious tribe is composed of individuals who view their every thought and action as consequential. The secular tribe is made up of matter that cannot explain why it is able to think at all.

Both tribes are made of matter and it is the Religous Tribe that cannot explain why it is able to think at all. To offer an answer is not the same as explaining. “Why is the sky blue?” can be explained either with secular physics or answered with “because God decided so.” Explanations are backed by evidence and reason while anyone can have an answer. The Religous Tribe’s belief in being a special creation is empty of such reason and nothing about which to brag.

Should evolutionists like Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Wilson be surprised, then, to see that religious tribes are flourishing around the world?

I’ve already covered this, but to recap: it is no failing of the logic of atheism that the conditions still exist in the world for people to rely on religion as a placeholder for the deeper understanding that comes with education.

By contrast, atheist conventions only draw a handful of embittered souls, and the atheist lifestyle seems to produce listless tribes that cannot even reproduce themselves.

Shame on you for using such a weak argument. First, an Atheist convention is as likely to be representative of the Atheist community as a Christian Convention is to be of the Christian community. I’d love to see the numbers behind your claim though we both know you’re pushing anecdote as fact. Second, what do you mean by the “atheist lifestyle?” What wide brush are you using here to gloss over your lack of any fact?

You continue in this article with straw-man after straw-man, and they don’t deserve a sound rebuttle since not much effort went in to erecting them. Similarly, every time you rely on “it seems” to finish your sentence, know that you are being lazy about your writing and your craft. If you take this issue seriously, then you owe it to the people that you inform to be as harsh a critic of your own views as you are of others.

But finally, I must address the most insulting part of this piece.

It seems perplexing why nature would breed a group of people who see no purpose to life or the universe, indeed whose only moral drive seems to be sneering at their fellow human beings who do have a sense of purpose.

Do you really believe that atheists have no moral drive? Really? You wouldn’t bat an eyelash if atheists just started murdering, raping, and pillaging as Christians are so eager to predict the godless should? No, I suspect that you know that atheists have a moral drive, that you are too lazy to think much about it, and that it is COMICALLY you that is fulfilling your purpose by sneering at your fellow man.

Do monkeys have morals? They have rules within their groups. They punish those members that break those rules. They mourn their dead. Do they have God, or is there some other way to arrive at moral drive? The great irony hear is that those people that think that all morality comes from religion and is predicated on the fear of punishment (by God, by Hell) are the very people that have never deeply thought about why they act the way that they do. They receive instructions, are notified of consequence, and proceed ignorant.

It’s nothing of which to be proud.

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13 Responses to Lazy attack on atheism

  1. Alex Kipp says:

    It’s encouraging, in these days of fundamentalism, to see someone else who holds the same tenet as I do about religion: No matter what you believe, think about why you believe it, and explore it to make sure you really believe it. I’m saddened to see so many people spoon-fed religion and accept it for the rest of their lives. I attend a Jesuit medical school, and I have deep respect for my peers who have strong convictions and an understanding of why they believe what they do.

    And thank you for publicly showing that atheism does not transmit into amorality, as so many fundamentalists think.

  2. MedStudent says:

    I’m very intrigued by your idea that all people should explore their beliefs with “academic rigor” and that beliefs are of no value unless one understands why one believes in them. In my experience (and I’m not a religious person myself), religious beliefs can be of huge value to the people who hold them, as they provide purpose to life and answers to “the big questions” that we all struggle with. Some people hold these beliefs as a result of academically rigorous exploration, but many choose not to explore their beliefs to your standards because they don’t feel the need to (i.e. they have faith, which to them is more important than reason). Personally, I don’t believe it’s fair to pass judgement on people who arrive at their beliefs by the method that is most valid to them (i.e. faith) rather than the method that is most valid to you (i.e. reason).

  3. M1 in Wisconsin says:

    I really enjoyed reading this entry. I am a first year athiest med student, and already in what little patient contact I have had, I have been asked by patients about my spirituality. I just reply with a vague answer, like, “I was raised Catholic.” Which is true, but once I could think for myself, I realized that there is more to life on earth than sitting in church, being told what to think.

    It’s great to see other future physicians with similar beliefs. Recently, a physician from another university came to speak about end of life issues. I found that I did not agree with many of his opinions. It wasnt until the end of the lecture that I realized he was a member of the Christian Medical Association, and it was clear that he was allowing his religious beliefs to influence his practice of medicine and ethics. To me, that is highly disturbing. Just as church and state are held separately, so should medicine and religion.

  4. Emer says:

    I’m a Christian but I agree with you — that was indeed a lazy attack on atheism. Sweeping statements and vague generalizations without factual basis do not make a healthy argument. Just because one group does not understand the other does not mean they should condemn each other to kingdom come. There can be a meeting of the minds here, much like what you and the old priest had on the Oncology floor.

    I believe there is an explanation for everything. Organized religion and its followers (including me) may still, at this point in time, be in the process of searching for answers, as are atheists like you. I fully agree that we should be honest when we do not know the answers, and continue to search for it. The time for conclusions has not dawned yet for both groups, and to resort to sweeping judgments is not the right way to resolve this conflict.

    ‘Excellent post. You made my breakfast coffee more enjoyable. :)

  5. M1 in Minnesotaa says:

    First, let me agree that the article discussed is fundamentally weak. But, I also find parts of your response eqaully weak. When you wrote:

    “Do you really believe that atheists have no moral drive? Really? You wouldn’t bat an eyelash if atheists just started murdering, raping, and pillaging as Christians are so eager to predict the godless should? No, I suspect that you know that atheists have a moral drive, that you are too lazy to think much about it, and that it is COMICALLY you that is fulfilling your purpose by sneering at your fellow man”

    You branded all Christians together in one group in our beliefs towards “the godless”. This is distressing because just as you proclaim a diversity amongst athiests there is also a broad diversity amongst Christians. Many Christians, myself included believe that God has written His law on the hearts of every man. Therefore, everyone has knowledge of right and wrong, there is a basic strucural morality in most of us Christian or not. Can athiests be moral? Absolutely. As to commically fulfilling my purpose by sneering at my fellow man, I can only apologize for those of us who do this (and I am sure all of us have at one point), as this is not representative of the heart of God.

    Where we as Christians often fail is in admitting our very weakness. There is nothing in us that is inherently better that should permit us to sneer at our fellow man. It is difficult to look at the state of the world (at any point in history, and in any society) and not recognize that we are all screwed up. We make mistakes, we hurt other people. We fall short. Christians believe that it is our sinful nature, and even after we come to know Christ it is something that we battle our entire lives. We give credit to God for any goodness as we strive to live more like Jesus through the Holy Spirit living in us.

    This isn’t meant to convince you to think the way I do, or believe the things I do because I don’t believe that is my place. Rather, it is meant to explain the heart of what we belive and admit that we often miss the mark. I’m sorry for this because I believe we do a disservice to the world, and to God when this happens. But please, look beyond the headlines and from the people screaming the loudest about Christianity, and look into the hearts of those who not only profess to be Christians, but live it. We won’t always agree with the choices that others make, but we do not judge you. How can we? We are you.

  6. Your comment is fantastic! Thanks for taking the time to compose it. I’d like to point out that the first part of my post represented my thoughts on the ways in which people need to take real ownership of their beliefs and be able to engage intelligently about them and my general frustration with those that do not. The second part was my specific response to Dinesh D’Souza who I think is a lazy boob.

    As for the “God has written His law on the hearts of every man” comment, I disagree and don’t want anyone’s pen on me. It also doesn’t really address the social structure and moral system present in non-man animals that I raised. But those are the exciting differences between what you and I believe about the world and, judging by your response, I think you’d be a fun person to debate.

    Cheers and thanks for the comment, topher.

  7. M1 in Minnesotaa says:

    Realizing I should have used spell check on the last comment. Sorry. One more thing though, in response to MS1 in Wisconsin’s comments:

    “Recently, a physician from another university came to speak about end of life issues. I found that I did not agree with many of his opinions. It wasnt until the end of the lecture that I realized he was a member of the Christian Medical Association, and it was clear that he was allowing his religious beliefs to influence his practice of medicine and ethics. To me, that is highly disturbing. Just as church and state are held separately, so should medicine and religion.”

    This comment disappointed me. I believe everything that makes us individuals will be a part of our practice. Why should it be any different? In order to connect with our patients on a human level how can we deny that which makes us human? Our beliefs, motivation, our very personalities are all things that have lead us to practice medicine, why should they be denied at this point? I find it difficult to accept a separation of medicine and religion because what we are dealing with is people’s lives, and religion, or even non-belief is essential to many people’s lives. Just because we don’t believe the same things does not mean we should ignore what we believe or deny ourselves. Now, back to studying :)

  8. cristie says:

    Bravo. I believe you’re arguments were on point. I’m sure you know that prejudice toward atheists such as myself happens on a regular basis and I hope that atheism can be seen more throughout the work. Thank you. You have inspired me, and helped me defend my position of being an Atheist of only 14 years old. I live in a city where Christians rule and I’m trying to stay strong in my belief. I too was raised to be Christian, and from an early age, I remember questioning the reality of god. Wonderful, though I hope you don’t get too much negativity from the Christian community on account of your direct attack… I would pray for you, but what’s the point? =)

  9. […] I started writing about Flash Raves, MicroCredit, and I struck a chord with my reaction, “A Lazy Attack on Atheism.” What I wrote was becoming less and less about medicine and more and more about me. It was […]

  10. Jesus said, “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe.”

    Life is impossible to live without exercising faith in something. We cannot even take a breath of air without first having the faith that it is safe to breath (that it doesn’t contain cyanide, hydrogen sulfide, or carbon monoxide). We all “live by faith”, we just have faith in different things. Most people have faith in themselves and their own reasoning power.

    I would recommend Ravi Zacharias, to you, as a defender of the existance of the one true God. He has written a number of books and is even on You Tube.

    I hope to contribute more later. This is a never-ending discussion, but I’m not worried. I am going to live forever anyway.

    • Re: Phil Walker, MD’s response

      I find that my visceral reaction is very difficult to control when I read a response that begins with a quote from Jesus.
      I am not an atheist per say, but find myself falling in the realm of agnosticism. As much as I can not prove that Jesus did not spew those quoted words, I can not prove that science is any more or less correct.
      Science is built on research that relies on something we all know as the p value. This value merely says that the results from the research that was performed has a greater than 95% chance of being true. In essence, there is no absolute way of determining that the results of scientific method are 100% true, much like religion. However, if I was at the top of a 500 ft bridge with a bungee cord attached to my feet, I’m not going to put my faith in a cord that Ravi said that Peter said that Paul wrote that he thought he heard a guy named Jesus say that the cord will not break. Instead, I’m going to put my faith in research that finds that cord to not break in repeated studies in controlled environments that are similar to the one I face on top of that bridge.
      Ravi Zacharias is a brilliant man, but he is intellectualizing his blind faith.

  11. Phil Walker, MD, MPH says:

    Yes, Ravi is a brilliant man but you have just called him a fool. Ray Comfort is another fool you might want to check out.

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