Context and Double-Standards

A few weeks ago, a handful of Muslim extremists killed 130 people in Paris. Many people were quick to condemn the attacks, while simultaneously defending mainstream, moderate (and liberal) Muslims. Of course, Islam had nothing to do with those attacks – they were the work of extremists who misinterpret the faith to justify violence.

Not long after, a Planned Parenthood clinic in the United States was attacked in an act of terrorism that left 3 people dead (the body count being the only tangible difference between this and Paris, frankly). In this case, liberal progressives were quick to point out the shooter’s Christian and right-wing political beliefs, asking if “moderate” conservatives and pro-lifers would condemn the attack and sort out their extremists.

Double standard?

A shallow analysis says “yes”.

Facebook has no shortage of memes and comments from Right Wing News and other pundits and politicians pointing this out exactly. “A week ago, religion had nothing to do with the attacks… this week, it has everything to do with it” points out one (though paraphrased, as I don’t care to type ‘libtard’ that many times).

And, in fact, I’d agree – with the caveats expressed in the bulk of this below – that we need to be very careful about cherry picking when we place blame on abstract entities like religion. I don’t think ‘Islam’, the abstract religious entity, has anything to do with the Paris attacks – and I don’t think ‘Christianity’, the abstract religious entity, has anything to do with the Planned Parenthood attack, either. Mere ‘religion’ simply isn’t that good a prediction of violent dickishness.

With billions upon billions of people adhering to a religion of some kind, if religion, the abstract entity, was to blame – and by blame I specifically mean it is the best predictor of said behaviour – for violence, we’d all be fucked way more than we are. If anyone wishes to disagree, I invite you to do the calculations that show P(violent|religious) is higher than any other factor we can look at. If it’s meaningfully higher than P(violent|breathes-oxygen) I’d be very impressed.

Anyway, with that said, why don’t I think the above alleged-contradiction is a double standard? Mostly because in order to be a double-standard, you have to contrast like with like. It is a double standard after all; it implies you’re measuring two suitably similar things differently for no real reason than Just Because.

So, in no particular order:

  • Following the Planned Parenthood shooting, we have not seen an increase in anti-Christian attacks on people.
  • We have not seen politicians say we should make Christians wear special badges to identify themselves.
  • Some people are so desperate to shake off the Planned Parenthood shooter’s association with the rhetoric of the Religious Right that they tried to say he was a liberal trans woman. I mean, what the actual fuck?
  • We don’t see states and countries close their borders to Christian refugees on the off-chance one of them is a terrorist despite a Christian having conducted an act of terror on behalf of the Religious Right.
  • If you’re a Christian and called ‘James’ in the United States, you’ll probably get a better job or have to work less-hard for it than if you’re Muslim and called ‘Muhammad’.
  • We don’t see the media make a big deal of the Planned Parenthood shooter’s religion as its first port of call. (in fact, I’m aware that I’ve used ‘Muslim extremist’ as a term twice in this very article, but not ‘Christian extremist’ even once – this meta-aside excluded, obviously)
  • So far there have been no serious calls for the ‘Christian Community’ to condemn and dissociate themselves from the attacks. By which, I mean a call apropos of the attack alone, rather than as a facetious response to the “white=not-a-terrorist, brown=terrorist” narrative.
  • Similarly, there are no serious calls for Christians to sort out their extremists. The calls that do are merely a response to the actual double-standard going on.
  • Christians who publicly endorse or celebrate the Planned Parenthood shooter aren’t vilified in the press – while Muslims are the baddies even if they don’t support Daesh or extremists. In fact, some of those assholes are celebrated in the right-wing press, whose increasing popularity is encroaching so much as to be the new mainstream. So, yes, mainstream pundits have celebrated a terrorist.
  • There’s no long history of treating Christians as terrorists in popular culture and fiction as the default of what ‘being a Christian’ means. Evil Muzzie-towelheads, though, are the fuel that award-winning television is made of.

Do I really need to go on with this? The list is practically endless. The surrounding background context makes these attacks very different, even though the only direct difference in the events is the number of people killed.

We’re not comparing like with like here. In order to be a hypocritical double-standard, making a big deal of religion (or not) would depend on whether those religions are viewed equally. And in the case of Christianity vs Islam, they’re definitely not. You’re sadly deluded if you feel that “the killer’s a Christian!” has the same social impact as “the killer’s a Muslim!”

So we live in a world where Muslim extremists can commit acts of terror and the entire faith of billions is vilified and thrown under the bus no matter the low levels of support those extremists have. Meanwhile fairly mainstream (in the United States) Christian politics are ‘pro-life’, and often use violent rhetoric to make their point – yet we’re met with hand-washing and denial from those people when someone takes their words literally. Now, to me, that sounds like a double standard on behalf of western culture and society.

Make no mistake, mere religion explains neither event – extreme political brainwashing does. But it seems like the majority are only happy to accept that in one case, not the other. That’s where the real double-standard lies. It’s seen as the default, The One And Only Way, and the norm. Any attempt to address that, by pointing in the direction of the Planned Parenthood shooter and saying “hey, look, Christian terrorist!” will be seen as an unbalanced view simply by its very nature of not conforming to the status quo.

And these Christian politicians, pundits and talk-show hosts, amongst countless commentators on message boards over the internet, may need it thrown in their face once or twice to see if they get the point.

What’s Stopping You? Nothing, and That’s the Point.

For years upon years upon years, religious apologists have been asking the same question of the non-religious and non-believers – what’s stopping you from committing crimes? What holds you back from raping, murdering, stealing and generally causing chaos? What stops you?

ham_miley

After all, we don’t – and to a degree can’t – live by any moral guidance determined for us and dictated from up on high.

Now, this opens up a huge can of worms when you take it to its conclusion; namely, that such questions imply that if the existence of an all-powerful creator-deity was suddenly disproved, or that said-theist stopped believing in it overnight, that they’d immediately embark upon a murderous rampage leaving nothing but dust in their wake. It assumes that under humanity’s playful exterior beats the heart of a ruthless, sadistic maniac. A fair assessment of humanity given our track record, sure, but not one that exclusively correlates with atheism. It also raises issues of trust – would you trust someone who explicitly said that the only thing stopping them from knifing you in the face right this second was their fear of a god?

Tu quoque aside, a far more interesting response to the accusation of being an atheistic amoral psychopath is brutal honesty – nothing is stopping me. Literally nothing stops us, as non-believers, from stealing, murdering, raping and pillaging, vandalising, burgling, buggering, and blasting our way across the planet for the whole duration of our short, sad and miserable time on it. But the simple fact is… we just don’t do that. By-and-large, we’re peaceful people. By-and-large, people are good. A person will stop to help another if they’re able, they’ll obey the law – something that only really exists to prevent the minority from exploiting the kindly majority.

So the accusation levelled by apologists really doesn’t make any sense so long as the atheist they’re talking to isn’t, in fact, committing any crime or sin. Nothing is stopping me from doing all that stuff. Nothing at all. I have simply murdered and raped everyone I have wanted to, and I have vandalised and stolen and destroyed everything I have wanted to. I won’t claim cherubic innocence on every count, but those cases really do round-off to zero. I have done everything I have wanted to, and it just so happens I haven’t wanted to do any of those criminal or immoral acts.

Anyway, that’s all introduction material. It’s all been said before, by multiple people, and probably in longer and shorter forms. You know this, surely.

My question is this – has anyone ever heard of a response to it? The likes of Ken Ham seem to base their entire anti-atheist worldview on it (see the accompanying image above). Their claimed monopoly on the laws of morality and goodness – or, at least, acts that we consider positive, constructive, non-harmful, and wellness- and happiness-maximising – relies on this absurd notion that we are a bunch of wild and rabid lunatics underneath. They need us to be sinful in the absence of God. But we’re not. They need us to be wild savages without the guidance of the Bible. But we’re not. The position is fundamentally flawed and falls at this very first, very mild hurdle.

So what next?

What therefore proves you must need God to be good even in the face of this?

What shows that we cannot possibly make moral decisions for ourselves even in the face of evidence that we make moral decisions for ourselves?

The ball has been on the theistic side of the net for a while now. I can’t even recall the first time I heard someone say “I’ve murdered exactly the number of people I wanted to: none”. Has anyone out there in Internet Land heard of a response to that?

This is a genuine question for those out there – have the Hams, Comforts or even the C. S. Lewises of the world ever taken the next step? And if not, why not? And how would you even begin, hypothetically speaking, to throw the ball back?

How to stop sucking at non-belief (Part 4)

Religion causes more wars than any other factor. Right?

It’s pretty hardy received wisdom amongst non-believers that religion is a violent, oppressive, terrifying force that causes nothing but harm to society.

Is this actually true? And I don’t mean in a “I can dig up at least one example” type of true (that’s trivial, just look up the number of infants who have died while their parents prayed over them rather than taking them to a hospital) I mean actually statistically true. Is it such a cause that can be reliably and repeatedly demonstrated? Is it a cause that tangibly alters the course of human events?

And I mean really caused by religion. As in, one leader got a message from God to declare war and everyone within that religion rose up to join them. Or the war was started by one religious group specifically to eradicate another religious group. Most importantly, though, if you want to say religion is The Cause (capital letters and all), then that war would have to  be impossible without religion. After all, religion could be a confounding variable. There’s the story that George Bush was “inspired” to invade Iraq by God, but that alone would never have passed under the US political system. The political machinations for a war in Iraq were brewing for decades, it wasn’t declared on a whim because of religion – in fact, even taking the “God told me so” message at face value it’s not religion, as in the abstract social phenomenon, that caused the war, but lone single beliefs of an individual. In that respect it’s no different to any other perfectly secular totalitarian declaration of war!

Back in the dark days of only a few years ago, some bright sparks had this great idea to make information available on this thing that they called “The Inter Net”. So looking up this sort of thing has become remarkably easy – if you can broadcast your opinion on the internet, there is no legitimate excuse for you being unable to use it to gain some facts. And so, with that back-hander out of my system, let’s take a look at the list of ongoing military conflicts.

Now, this is just the ongoing ones, but it’s good enough for our purposes (see below). The first thing you would notice looking at the Wikipedia list would be the two categories of >1,000 and <1,000 deaths per year (2013) – conflicts escalate and trail off, ebbing and flowing as they progress whether they’re resolved or not. So the best thing to do with the list is to order them by cumulative casualties. This gives you a better overall view of what’s happened in the last 50 years or so.

You then see, quite readily, the top ongoing conflicts in terms of total deaths caused by them. This is pretty much the established metric for how bloody a war is, or how “bad” it was. These are:

Once you get below that, you’re into the long tail, but these are the ones that dominate the entire list dramatically and take up the lions share of death and destruction. Anyone see religion in there? Anyone? Nope, me neither. They’re almost all exclusively politically-motivated civil wars. State-to-state invasions are practically unheard of in the grand scheme of things! And notably, one of the top ones for deaths this year alone is the drug war in Mexico.

You have to dig through that list of ongoing wars quite thoroughly to find a religious basis for the listed conflict. There’s the Nigerian Sharia conflict, which fits the bill pretty well. There’s the Lord’s Resistance Army, which despite being political I’ll just about accept as religiously motivated because Kony thinks he’s some spiritual medium in contact with God and wishes to install a theocracy (he has many things in common with Ann Coulter and Sarah Palin, it seems). There’s the Islamic insurgency in the Philippines, which is being fought by Jihadists… and that’s about it, really. The Israel-Palestine thing is really more about territory and occupation, rather than religion. Northern Ireland is about separatism and independence, and it’s only a combination of religion tradition dating back to the reformation that means that it’s vaguely Protestant on one side and Catholics on the other. To say that those are about religion would be like saying the second world war motivated by tensions between blonde haired and brown haired people because Hitler liked the Aryan image.

That’s ongoing current wars and civil conflicts. What about the other biggies from the 20th century? The first world war, the second world war, Vietnam… well, if you think those have anything to do with religion you need to and read a fucking history book. Right. Fucking. Now.

“Ah!” says favourite Straw Man sparing partner, “but what about the Crusades, and the Inquisition?”

Well, my darling dearest voice-in-my-head, what of them? What about them? No, really. What of it? Are you seriously considering judging modern religion by the standards of how it operated centuries ago? Are you seriously saying we should take someone going along to a church to sing a hymn or two on a Sunday, and judge them based only on the whims of Pope Urban II 1,000 years ago? Seriously, it’s a 1,000 years ago. If we were living in a fantasy novel this would have been called “The Second Age” or the “Epoch of Elves” or something like that. That’s why I opened this with the list of ongoing conflicts (well, here’s the list of bloodiest wars ever, again, note the dearth of religious motivation).

But let’s take that a bit further. Though I hasten to add that I’m not qualified to talk about this time period, I’ll take some informed stabs at it. What about the political situation of 1,000 years ago? When most of Europe was effectively a theocracy, the distinction between a religious and political cause was practically non-existent. There was no real separation of Church and State. Just like with George W. Bush, a leader didn’t have to be told by God, they just needed the political reason to and then use God as a post-facto justification of it.

So, in conclusion of this rant-in-miniature, stop it. Just stop it. Please just fucking stop it already. Right? Please? Stop simplifying global socio-political turmoil into a case of who has the best God, because that’s not even wrong.

How to stop sucking at non-belief (Part 2)

The Problem with “Religion”

There’s a big problem with “religion”. No, this isn’t going to be a tirade against how “it” supposedly brainwashes people, or how “it” starts wars, or how “it” is a massive affront to reason. No, this is about the actual word, the label itself, and how it’s used – especially amongst the anti-theist and anti-religionist crowd of atheists, because holy fuck those people can be stupid when they want to be.

The problem with “religion”? “Religion” doesn’t exist.

See, people treat “religion”, like it’s a thing.

Religion_as_a_thingBut it’s not a thing. You can’t find it anywhere. Sure, we might imagine something like a hypothetical “generalised” religion, much like the “generalised mollusc” anatomy, but that doesn’t mean such a thing exists in reality. We’d have a hard time finding this “religion” anywhere. No one follows “religion”. No one is part of “religion”. And if I type “religion” once more I’m going to have a bad time.

No, “religion” is not a thing. It’s more like a bucket.

Religion_as_a_bucket

We put stuff into this bucket based on a few superficial similarities. Things like “believes in a creator deity”, or “provides a moral code”, or something more abstract. But those similarities are superficial and generic, they overlap and criss-cross and can be quite complicated. They’re not universal, they’re not essential, there isn’t even a single common thread uniting everything in the bucket. Not all religions believe in an almighty God. Not all religions propose supernatural processes. Not all religions fleece followers of money, and not all religions profess a love for peace.

Often, the differences are far more striking than the similarities.

spot_the_difference

When you step back and think about it, it does seem strange what does go into the bucket and what doesn’t. Pick any attribute ascribed to “religion”, and you’ll be able to find a good few exceptions; “religions” that don’t posses that attribute or “not-religions” that do.

what_goes_inAnd this is sort of where the problem is. Because nothing truly unites everything in the bucket, it’s difficult to use in a general sense. It’s almost pointless to try.

Few people ever reach into the bucket to examine its contents; they’re stuck with looking at the bucket and simply declaring universal truths about it as if it was a thing. By no means are these declarations universally negative in the way anti-religionists use them (“religion is against reason”, “religion is harmful”, “religion is child abuse”),  many of the positive assertions also do this in exactly the same way (“religion is necessary”, “religion answers the big questions”, “religion should be respected”).

contents_may_differThe bucket is just that, a bucket. It does nothing but hold stuff.

Sometimes this is quite convenient. It would be a pain in the ass to refer to tall wooded objects with leaves if it wasn’t for the concept of a “tree”. But this comes at the price of, on occasion, mistaking the bucket for a real thing and then making mass generalisations about what it holds. People assume animist religions are “bullshit” for the same reasons creationism is total and utter crock. They assume Hinduism is interchangeable with Islam – or that neither have the same kind of internal sub-divisions as Christianity does, completely blind to their own geographic biases. Is atheism a religion? Well, the answer to that is actually far more complicated than “is bald a hair colour?”

Getting rid of the buckets probably isn’t an option. The world is just too big and complicated to go without them. Even fuzzy buckets would just break peoples’ brains eventually. All the inclusions, exclusions, exceptions, partial truths and partial matches would be too much information for us to handle.

Instead, we simply need better, more useful, more appropriate buckets for the task.

good_shit_bad_shit

It’s a much better approach just to simply categorise things better. But it does require some effort, especially when language and society is already rigged for the inefficient and crap version, which splits the world in to “religion” and “not-religion” and says one is good and the other is bad. You need to look into things and pick out what’s bad and what’s good. Then separate it out, and deal with things specifically. The phrase “all religion is bad” is absolutely meaningless; but if the average non-believer admitted that, and tried to say “behaviour that ostracises and demonises the out-group is harmful”, they they’d run the risk of turning a critical eye on their own behaviour. That’s not a comfortable thought, and it’s no wonder people avoid it.

This is why anger at “religion” is misplaced – and why thinking that anger directed at specific components found in the religious bucket is anger at “religion” is a foul misinterpretation. There is a “bad shit” bucket out there, and it’s something worth getting angry about – in fact, it’s a better question to ask why people don’t feel that these things are worth getting angry about. At the same time, though, there’s a “good shit” bucket (or even a “meh bucket”) and lumping that all in with “stuff worth getting angry about”  is, at best, just wasted effort.

But always remember, the bucket itself can’t harm people; its contents do.

Atheists clearly aren’t indocrinating their kids properly.

So, I was perusing a fairly normal looking derp-fest found on Facebook when I came across this image:

Hmmmm… interesting.

It’s interesting data. Only 30% of atheists have stayed as atheists? Indeed, it was so shocking that said derp-fest of a Facebook group had to caption it with “ha! Where are all you atheists going!” or some such bollocks. Anyway, it wasn’t so much this image that made me take note, as the reaction of some atheists to it. Because, of course, you know, like, it makes Glorious Atheism look bad. Real bad. It’s a big “whoopsie” for Glorious Atheism. So it must be wrong somehow.

So, first port of call in this knee-jerk reaction was to raise issues about the source. The Pew Forum is a religious group! Religious groups lie! Well… there’s really nothing about the Pew Research Center that suggests that it is religiously affiliated, financed or controlled. At least not in a significant way. And even if it was, that alone wouldn’t say anything bad about it. Sure, it can suggest bias, but even those with affiliations can take steps to eradicate or limit the effect bias has on their research – in fact, I’m far more weary of findings coming from explicitly atheist/non-religion groups like the British Humanist Association, who tend to release questionably-acquired survey results all the time. Anyone in any research field will have a bias of one kind or another; a scientist will always be biased towards wanting their experiment to work (we’ll hit things pretty hard before giving up), or a social scientist will have political views (because it’s impossible to be truly neutral on everything), or more generally people will always have a pet theory they want to be correct. There’s nothing wrong with this. The trick is dropping your pet idea if the data says otherwise and making sure you account for real, tangible biases such as selection and confirmation bias. It helps to be neutral, but by no means is it essential. Skepticism and critical thinking is designed to overcome this.

Reacting in a way that assumes an affiliation (that may or may not exist) means the conclusion is necessarily wrong is just a knee-jerk, irrational response. You can make great arguments for it if you’ve done some casual reading on biases and can repeat skeptical mantras but the proof is always in the data and the methodology. Even in the case of medical research trials carried out by a drugs company, the proof is in how the data is collected. To assume otherwise isn’t skepticism, it’s cynicism; and as much of a cynic as I can be, I’d rather not just throw out an idea based on the fact I don’t like its source.

But that’s just a meta-discussion on data acquisition, there’s a much more convoluted problem specific to the question: namely how you go about finding a “retention” rate for atheism.

Being a position of non-belief, a default position, and a null hypothesis with respect to religion, “defining” atheism like this is very difficult. This is why research groups like the Pew Forum split their demographics up into a wide array of different labels. Asking “are you an atheist” and “are you non-religious” is likely to produce different answers even if they are, in fact, the same thing. So, you split it up into “unaffiliated”, and then “religious unaffiliated” and “secular unaffiliated”, then further categories, to try and get a good view of what people actually think. When you do it like this, it turns out that just short of 20% of the US population are effectively non-religious, even though self-defined “atheists” are marginally less numerous than Jews. This is just trying to figure out if people “are” atheists, though. Figuring out how they were raised brings up a whole host of other issues.

This comes back to what I said above: atheism is a position of non-belief, a default position, and a null hypothesis with respect to religion. This makes it quite difficult to really assess if someone was even “raised” as an atheist. Sure, there may be some sad individuals out there who raise their kids on Dawkins and send them to Camp Quest but overall they’re a minority. I’d like to see the “retention” rates for those individuals, but I don’t think we have that data just yet since that sort of “hardcore” non-belief is a relatively recent thing. There’s no litmus test to say that you were “raised” atheist; you could simply not have been raised in a religion, but that says nothing particularly useful. One could easily say I was “raised” atheist because I was never sent to church, but the reality is somewhat convoluted. On the other side of the question, it’s quite easy to say someone is “raised” in a religion – their parents took them to church, they went to church, they outright believed. Raised atheist? Not so easy. What if they were raised in a fairly non-religious manner, but in a non-preachy way? What if their parents were religious but simply didn’t enforce religion in the household? What if parents were atheists but didn’t object to their child going to church as a pre-teen because it wasn’t objectionable? If the question is “what was your parents’ religion”, then what if they never really mentioned it and you went through childhood not knowing? A conversion to a more explicit religion later in life could make it seem like these fairly mild conditions were akin to being actively raised as an atheist, but that would just be in comparison to a later conversion. The reality and what we infer from “being raised atheist” may be very different.

This isn’t to play No True Atheist with the thought of people “de-converting” from non-religion, but it does illustrate some caveats that need to be remembered when considering whether or not someone was actually raised to be non-religious.

Anyway, all this gumph is interesting I’m sure, but the punchline is this:

You can actually type the words “pew forum religious retention” into everyone’s favourite love-or-hate-it web based super-corp, Google. The fact that I didn’t see anyone who was arguing against the chart above being true made me roll my eyes.

Doing this doesn’t take long. It’s easy. And in doing so we can find the actual results from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and it’s survey involving religious retention. It can be found here. The actual report produced by Pew doesn’t include atheist retention or make much of a deal of it, probably for the reasons outlined above and the fact that the explicitly “atheist” contingent is so small (in contrast to the other demographics surveyed) that retention isn’t a significant factor. The survey results that include atheism and make a big point of it come from a different study entirely that merely used Pew’s raw data. That in itself could be a bit of a fudge, for reasons of data mining and so on, but it certainly means that the source attributed in the image is technically incorrect and misleading.

Further from that raw data and Pew’s report of it, we can see a lot of different things. Each vaguely interesting. A very significant number of people shift religion in one way or another, just short of half overall, in fact. We also see that non-Christian religions have a significantly higher retention than others – probably due to ethnic-religious identity (social scientists might want to correct me on that) and the fact that switching between one YHWH-centred religion and another doesn’t require much of a shake-up in your thoughts. We can also see that, in Pew’s words that people “…moving into the unaffiliated category outnumber those moving out of the unaffiliated group by more than a three-to-one margin”. This in itself is telling because it demonstrates an increase in the unaffilliated categories the religious-to-unaffiliated transition is more easily defined than the converse, where identifying a atheist upbringing is difficult and prone to bias.

So the punchline is that the data is fairly sound, with a “but”. And it’s not too difficult to dig into it and find out if it’s any good, which it is. Providing you understand the “but” properly.

Is any of this even something to be actively worried about as a non-believer? No, not at all. Why would it?

Dumbest man alive?

So, I decided to subscribe to Ray Comfort’s Facebook page just to see if he can keep up his act rather than just save it up for his occasional documentary. (The title of this is something I’ve ripped from PsyGremlin’s blog, which examines Comfort’s documentary on John Lennon up close, and shows that it has next to nothing to do with John Lennon)

Anyway, the one piece of Comfort’s evangelism I want to address is this one:

Most atheists despise the very thought of “faith,” not realizing that they exercise it many times each day. If you want to see some faith in action, watch what happens at the lights at any busy intersection. Drivers speed up to a red light trusting (having faith) in their brakes. It hardly enters their trusting mind that if the brakes fail, they are almost certainly dead. Watch them take off as soon as the light turns green, trusting (having faith) that the lights are working correctly, and that the alternative light isn’t stuck on green. Their trust is so great (their faith) that no one is running a red light, that they don’t even look in that direction to see if the way is clear. Many trusting drivers have taken off in faith, and have tragically gone to meet their Maker. Watch unthinking pedestrians trust (have faith) the on-coming driver’s brakes and his ability to use them, as they step out in front of his car and trust (have faith) the light when it says “Cross now.”

That atheists somehow profess “faith” is one of the most common tactics found in the evangelical playbook. It’s a textbook tu quoque fallacy, and indeed is likely to be the single most common version of it you can find. It’s an odd accusation, though. Isn’t faith supposed to be virtuous? To simply believe because faith tells you to? So, clearly, atheists must be virtuous to express such faith. Or maybe not.

Faith or inference?

Comfort here is using a very broad and unusual version of the term “faith”. Now, this in itself is fine. “Faith” is just five letters arranged in a certain way; so long as you’re consistent you can define it to represent whatever you want, but as we’ll see in a moment, this can have unwanted consequences.

Faith usually means, by most people’s definition, as believing that something is true without evidence that it’s true. You take it on faith that a particular god exists, for instance. You take it on faith that this god wants you to wash your toes a certain number of times before praying, or to not pull and levers on an arbitrary day of the week, that sort of thing. There’s no actual evidence for this. There are a few books dictating it, but there are books that are testament to the existence of Gandalf and Harry Potter, this says nothing. There is no physical law of the universe  Given this understanding, Comfort’s accusation that drivers profess “faith” in their brakes is plain wrong. Brakes are designed to stop cars. Brakes are tested to make sure they work. They must pass tests of tolerances against ware and tear. Their expected life time is known and replacements occasionally made. At the very least, a driver approaching a red light will have repeatedly used their brakes on the drive so far. This is no guarantee that they’ll work next time – but this is much in the same sense that we can’t guarantee that the sun will rise tomorrow because of the finite potentials for alien invasions destroying the Earth or spontaneous quantum death of the universe.

To be slightly technical, expecting your brakes to work when approaching a red light isn’t an expression of faith on behalf of a motorist or a pedestrian, but a reasonable inference based on past data.

But in the world of Ray Comfort and his rather bizarrely gullible followers, there’s no room for such subtlety.

A poor definition

Let’s assume for this second part that Comfort’s wider definition of “faith” to encompass reasonable inferences holds true. As I said, this is fine. You can define words how you like so long as you’re both consistent and let people know that bellabubing your flapdoodle isn’t quite as dirty as it sounds.

The question then remains: “so fucking what?”

Simply put, the fact that Ray cheekily expands his use of faith to encompass reasonable inferences doesn’t change the fact that they are, in fact, reasonable inferences. Even if you described the faith Comfort has in a God that is curiously absent in the real-life smiting or healing business (or has aim so terrible as to be completely indistinguishable from random, deity-free natural disasters) as “faith” and described the inference a driver makes about their brakes also as “faith”, they’re qualitatively different things. This doesn’t prove anything. It certainly causes a massive problem for what “faith” is because if trusting that your brakes (that you’ve observed to work previously) is faith, then is there an action, or belief, or factoid, that would not be counted as faith?

Without an example of this, the entire concept fails to have any meaning. It’s like using the word “stuff” to refer to absolutely anything in the universe. It’s nice and all, but it doesn’t narrow ourselves down and you’ve lumped in a cubic lightyear of hydrogen gas in a nebula with a coffee pot – it’s a pretty absurd abuse of language. To rip an example from Scott Clifton, we use words like “small” because we can define them in contrast to things that are “big”. If things weren’t bigger nor smaller, then the concept of size wouldn’t exist.

By the same token, if Ray Comfort insists that atheists have faith, and insists that drivers have faith… then it becomes a useless concept to use. He proves nothing, and indeed weakens his own ability to use the word “faith” anything.

Caveat

For the sake of completeness, it’s worth pointing out that Comfort continues a little more after that paragraph:

With these thoughts in mind, it’s important to know that when a Christian says to have faith in God, we’re not saying to believe that He exists. That’s axiomatic. We are saying to exercise the same trust we have each day in things and in people. The difference being that God is utterly faithful because He cannot lie. You can trust Him to never let you down. Ever.

At first glance it may seem to address some of the issues described above. It’s just an analogy at the end of the day. But does it really? The analogy is a bad one. The situations are comparable for all the reasons espoused above. When he states that God will never let you down ever, he’s moving faith back to being an absolutist position. He gives no room for error or contingency as a reasonable inference allows for. He’s trying to evoke a sense of trust, and then yank it away to replace it with faith. It’s a good old fashioned semantic switcheroo, which is what makes him a bullshit merchant.

The one and only problem I have with the moderately religious…

Generally, I have no trouble with the moderately or liberally religious. Really. Contrary to popular opinion of me, simple belief doesn’t bother me, and I don’t care what you believe. It’s only what you then do with it and how you action it that I object to. Oh, and mostly why people believe, as that’s usually far more interesting.

So, people trying to say that the Earth is 6000 years old and claiming this ludicrous assertion is legitimate science – that pisses me off. People claiming moral absolutist authority (regardless of their inconsistencies) for their One True Religion – that hacks me off. People using religiously derived traditions as an argument against anything – I will not suffer such ideas to live. Anyone who does this is someone I consider fair game to attack their beliefs. Because, frankly, if you’re making statements that can be proven wrong, then people should try to prove them wrong – ideas that stand up to that sort of treatment are good ideas.

The liberally religious fall into this far less so. They more or less get on with it. You can have a sensible and grown up conversation with them on the subject. They’ll most likely view their religion as guidance rather than didactic statements of absolute authority. They probably won’t restrict their respect and friendship along religious lines. Perhaps they’ll even use their beliefs as a force for objective good, like helping people, rather than wasting their time on telling everyone how immoral homosexuality is and how women should shut up and stay indoors because… because… well, just because.

Hell, I know a couple of liberal/moderate Christians who would happily engage in a bit of creationist bashing for the same reasons I do – namely that they’re all scam artists trying to sell cheaply produced books and DVDs to the masses just to keep them stupid enough to keep buying those books and DVDs and throwing their money at megachurches.

Guys, continue with that. It’s great.

But… and this is a tiny little “but” in the grand scheme of things… let’s switch track from actionable beliefs to actual truth value.

Not actual factual truth value, but perceived truth value (if, of course, you care to discern a difference).

I presume that if you believe something, you believe it’s true. Well, Daniel Dennett did coin the term “belief in belief”, but the point of that is that no one ever actually thinks they merely have “belief in belief”. If you think it’s true, then, from your perspective it is true. You treat it as true. It’s an “I believe this chair is here so that when I sit down on it I won’t crash my arse onto the floor” sort of true. Well, I presume it is, because if it isn’t you need to have strong words with yourself.

So, when it comes to believing that a specific religion is true, then the only thing consistent with that is acting like it. At least actively converting others and warning them of the dangers of hell fire and so on. You need to go out there and really believe it. After all, this is your immortal soul you’re dicing with here considering what religions are about. But not only your own soul, but everyone else’s – and surely you’re morally obligated to save others. That means preaching, that means evangelism… that means being a disrespectful dick to everyone who doesn’t think like you.

The moderately/liberally religious don’t do that. They’re not dickish about that. They respect other beliefs. They think that others are entitled to their own beliefs. They’ll even have inter-faith platforms where they’ll be nicey-nice to each other in a constructive way. Some might even go so far as to hold the belief that all religions are right. Hey, I’ve heard that said on several occasions although I still have no idea how it’s internally consistent.

So, here’s my problem. Again, the one and only problem, and a tiny one in the grand scheme of things. If you think that all religions are valid, and can coexist, and you can generally live-and-let-live with differences, and you’re not being a preachy evangelical dick about it… doesn’t that mean that what you believe is somewhat arbitrary? If a vicar can stand next to an imam without shouting “You’re going to hell! Repent now sinner!”… doesn’t it say that the specifics of what you believe doesn’t really matter? If you can fall asleep a Christian and wake up as a Hindu then, from your view… has anything really changed about reality?

If so, and it doesn’t really matter what you believe, what’s the point in even having those beliefs?