28 January 2009
I'm going to try to make this post without being too angry about it.
I came across the following excerpt on the message board of the Facebook group for the University of Alberta Atheists and Agnostics, written by Andrew Elter. He makes some good points, and some bad ones. As a non-member, I can't respond on the board itself, so I'll make reply here. Also, this excerpt represents much of the misunderstanding that exists between atheists and believers, and many who aren't likely to come across Elter's post on their own may find this of interest.
I've copied and pasted what I felt was the relevant section of Elter's post. If anyone feels I have edited out relevant material, please let me know, and I'll be happy to fix it.
(Copied and pasted):
'Bertrand Russell postulated that assuming god's existence is comparable to assuming the existence of a teapot floating in orbit in space that we could not possibly hope to discover. One would have to assume that it just DOES exist, with no evidence at all.
I would go as far as to say that no one in the entire rational, thinking world would possibly consider the teapot theory to be true. There is no teapot.
Do I, an ateapotist, represent you, a fellow ateapotist? No, because our shared disbelief does not unify us. It may be a common trait but we also don't believe in the tooth fairy and we also both have eyeballs. If you don't have eyeballs you can't be reading this and my argument holds. Our shared disbelief in god, and I'm presuming you have this, does not infer that we have a shared belief in anything else. Even using atheism on a wide-spread scale to justify atrocities does not discredit atheism in any way. There is no text that instructs us to act this way or that, only self-determined reason.
This has all been building to my main point, spurred by the debate tonight. The argument that any atheist could represent any other atheist, or atheism as a whole, is a distinct fallacy. We are not wholly representable by anyone or any group. Why is the argument that Hitler or Stalin being atheists (which I would argue, and have evidence to argue, that they weren't) given any consideration? The Bible, old and new testament, instructs us to do, I would argue, morally terrible things as well as enforce subservience, support an inclination toward favoring ignorance and reward condemnation of those that don't share these beliefs.
I will now grant that anyone misusing the Bible or misinterpreting it is not a representative of Christianity or Judaism but should someone imply that it is a fanatical act to stone homosexuals or keep slaves I will reply: Read your Bible. They arenít fanatics; youíre just disobeying your perfect word of God and ignoring the directives within.
It is, by its own claim, the literal word of God. We, atheists, separate from one another, have no such things commanding us and with that I assert that we have the opportunity to better exercise free will.
Again, please respond."
So now then.
Much of what Mr. Elter begins with is absolutely valid, and worth consideration. Atheists often do get "lumped together" as a religion-hating, angry, conceited and snobbish lot whose lives are completely devoid of meaning. This association is entirely unfair to atheists. I think I've met a few from all points on the spectrum, and it is a wide spectrum. Some of them were jerks who were, frankly, just as ignorant and intolerant as the (particular) religious people they opposed. Others were kind, altruistic and considerate people. As they say, it takes all kinds.
That said, nearly the same thing can be said about Christians (I use Christians specifically for two reasons: first, I am one myself, and second, they are the group he seems to be targeting most specifically in what he says here). I have met some truly ignorant Christians. I've also met quite a few who really knew what they were about and had arrived at their faith through very intelligent, rational thought. I will concede, though, that the spectrum seems a little narrower. Christians actually are unified by a certain set of beliefs. However, the particular set of tenets on which virtually all Christians would agree is suprisingly small. And yet, Mr. Elter has treated Christians with exactly the "one paintbrush" sort of treatment that he hopes to avoid himself.
This line I find especially interesting: "Even using atheism on a wide-spread scale to justify atrocities does not discredit atheism in any way." In this case, virtually exactly the same thing can be said about Christianity, and yet its opponents just love to cite the example of the Crusades. Truth be told, the Crusades had everything to do with the church and nothing to do with Christianity. For those who have trouble separating the two, I offer the following illustration: Judging Christianity by studying the history of the church is akin to trying to learn how to build a microprocessor by studying the financial statements of Microsoft. There is a very real fracture in the relationship between a faith and the actions of its all-too-human followers. As for atheists having no text to tell them to commit atrocities, well, again, neither do Christians.
As is so often the case, Mr. Elter has missed the relationship of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. He would tell a Christian who opposes drastic measures to "Read [his] Bible". I have no doubt that Elter has read some of it, and yet (again, typically) it seems he has read it very selectively, and never put in enough academic study of the text to really understand what it was he was looking at. Yes, it is true that in the Old Testament (mostly Leviticus), truly harsh penalties were prescribed for certain violations of Mosaic Law. And yes, this included stoning homosexuals. It is also true that books like Joshua give accounts of what would now be called "holy wars" that God's people were instructed to carry out against entire cultures of people.
The New Testament is a completely different box of frogs. And again, many of the opponents of the Bible have pointed out all of the "contradictions" between the Old and New Testaments. They are not contradictions; the two testaments represent two completely different covenants between God and humankind and were never intended to be followed simultaneously. To those who doubt this distinction, I would say, like Elter did, "Read your Bible". The New Covenant came into effect with the coming of Christ, and effectively did away with Levitical Law. Thus, a Christian calling the stoning of homosexuals "fanatical" is actually doing exactly what he or she ought to do. The New Testament has nearly nothing to say about punishments that a person is to carry out against another. It was Christ himself who stopped the stoning of a prostitute. Rather, the New Testament speaks extensively about love, forgiveness, social responsibility, compassion, and instructs its followers not to judge (note here that "not judging" does not mean "having no opinion" of a person or their actions; it does, however, mean "not delivering a sentence", not mistreating or maligning a person for their actions, even when you disagree with them). And it most certainly does not tell them to commit any kind of atrocities, or encourage the keeping of slaves, or "enforce subservience". I know on that last one, someone is going to cry out about the "wives, submit to your husbands" line that really is there, in the New Testament. That topic is controversial even within Christianity (remember where this post began?) and merits its own discussion, but for the moment I'll say this: That passage also requires a man to sacrifice his own life for his wife, should the need arise (that's the very next line, and interestingly, is seldom quoted). It's also interesting that the passage directs wives to submit to their husbands, but says nothing about any other man they may encounter. I do see how many would take issue even with that arrangement, but it's a far cry from the general "oppression of women" that so many of Christianity's opponents clam is a funadmental tenet of the faith.
I absolutely agree with Mr. Elter that any one atheist or group of atheists is not representative of any other. I just feel that he has overstated the contrast, in that respect, between atheists and theists. I also felt it necessary to point out some of the important details about Christianity that it seems he has misunderstood, not for the purpose of questioning his intelligence, but for the purpose of putting more accurate information out there.
That's all for now.
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