Friday, August 27, 2010

Being Friendly

There's been a big debate going on lately about what it means to be friendly and courteous when dealing with people's faiths. I'm sure most atheists have experienced this. You tell someone you don't believe in their silly superstitions, then they ask why. Sometimes you answer with a reasonable statement, "Because there is zero evidence for your superstition," or "I just believe in one less god than you do. Why don't you believe in Vishnu?" Usually that prompts the religious twit to object with something along the lines of, "It's faith." - whatever that bullocks means. But sometimes it's just better to be rude. My personal preference tends to ridicule and blunt derision. The way I see it, if someone says to me that they believe in Jesus Christ, who will save us all and is the one true god (TM), that's a fairly blunt, inconsiderate statement. So I like to respond in kind. "Your belief in god is unsupported, insipid, dangerous and ultimately stupid," usually does it for me.

But the polite, considerate people out there don't really like this tact. So I'd like to take a moment and examine the discourse that surrounds atheism and religion, to try and ferret out the worst offenders (who, unremarkably, tend to be the stupidest offenders).

Let's look at a man who I consider a tremendous idiot - Dinesh D'Souza. Here he tries to blame atheism for the atrocities of the Soviets, Pol Pot (Saloth Sar), and the Nazis. D'Souza attempts to place communism as an anti-religious philosophy. "Opiate of the masses" and all that. Here is the full quote:

"Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions." - Karl Marx

Marx's view on religion was nuanced. As for historical reality (something D'Souza is blithely unaware of), the Soviet regime did suppress religion and endorse secularism and atheism. In fact, these policies drove the Soviet sense of fairness. Many of you probably don't know, but aside from the genocides and Iron Curtain, the Soviet system helped modernize places like Central Asia, and guaranteed everyone employment and and education. It worked quite well from the 1940s until the early 1970s. Unfortunately for them, the US and European policies of containment effectively shut the Soviet economy into a small geographic region, and prevented them from exploiting the world at large. This was compounded by problems with the Chinese and other neighboring communist regimes (who were mostly controlled by cults of personality, quasi religious structures that probably resembled whatever cult the historical Jesus - if there was a historical Jesus - surrounded himself with.) because these regimes didn't cooperate as broadly as they should have.

On the other hand, the Soviets were very anti-Orthodox because the Orthodox church contributed to the preservation of an ancient system of serfdom that lasted until the last Czar was overthrown. This system was incredibly cruel. It disallowed upward mobility (for the most part), tied peasants to the land, and brutally suppressed progressive policies that could have prevented the Soviet revolution from ever happening! The land owners, strongly invested in the Orthodox church (because of its opiate-like affect on people) promoted the maintenance of the religious regime so that they would have one more tool of oppression (beyond soldiers and the legal system) with which to oppress the peasantry. In short, the elite estates of Russian Imperial society never went far enough with land or industrial reform to prevent their own demise, and religion certainly contributed to the collapse of the Imperial dynasty, and the rise of the Soviet system. This is to say nothing of Stalin's own quasi-religious cult of personality. D'Souza completely misses the point of what modern atheism is, but he does manage to throw in a nice personal attack against Richard Dawkins. Bravo.

What about Nazis? Hitler was Catholic, and the widely accepted roots of Germanic anti-Semitism are (drum roll please) medieval pogroms caused by short-sited Catholic policies (D'Souza's own precious church) around 1000 AD as the Church tried to standardize teachings across Europe. Don't get me wrong, the Catholics did considerable good with these efforts, particularly the massive construction projects which put churches in almost every town. But, in their zeal to eradicate dissent from catholic teachings and to consolidate the power of Rome, they galvanized anti-Jewish sentiment across Europe, particularly in Germany! These led to massive pogroms, and culminated in the Peasant's Crusades to rid the 'Holy Land' of Jews. (The entire history is quite interesting, and if you want to hear more, let me know and I'll describe it in greater detail or upload a timeline or something).

What was the other major factor? Martin Luther was about as anti-Semitic as you can possibly get, and his Lutherans inherited those traits. Really an admirable figure. Between these two things, Hitler had only to choose the Jews as skapegoats (intentionally or unintentionally) and then begin the religiously motivated and primed murders that we call the holocaust. Atheism didn't kill the jews, Christianity did.

Conclusions? D'Souza is pretty ignorant of history, and the apologists are attacking atheism with brutally rude, inconsiderate and sensational charges. At least, D'Souza is.

So, can we think of anyone else who is likewise engaged? The talking heads at Fox News come to mind. The Falwells occur to me, as does the Westboro Baptists (though, to be fair, they hate everyone). I can't even begin to count the number of Imams and religious leaders in the Middle East who accuse us of bringing the wrath of god down on everyone (I'm not even sure what wrath they're referring to. Earthquakes - woops, I mean boobquakes - maybe?).

But, to cap it all off - the religious are actively propagating falsehoods and lies. Which ones? How about the one where they say that some god or gods exist. Yeah, hate to break it to them, but we're the belched remains of stardust, coalesced over billions of years, and through happy chance become animate through natural processes. No god needed. And, when asked for it, we can provide evidence that points to these facts. The religious man, in all his boisterous bluster, can only offer anecdotes and myth, but never anything we could call evidence.

So, you'll have to excuse me if I observe that religion is full of shit, and religious superstitions are completely devoid of any redeeming quality, being - in fact - lies, and that you're probably not thinking straight if you believe in that sort of stupidity.

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