when you really need a controversy…

October 19, 2009

Here’s a general rule for writers who want to avoid being on the receiving end of a blogger’s acid pen as one more example of inept reporting in the media. When you’re working on a nuanced story, don’t sink to shoddy reporting and insults that give away your biases in the first sentence of your column. Yes, Barbara Hagerty, I’m talking about you and your apparently Chris Mooney inspired reporting on the great schism among atheists which follows in the treasured hack tradition of making up a controversy when you need one. Yes, atheists are going to disagree with each other, they have their own opinions and ideas, so presenting this as some grand discovery that will change everything we know about atheism is intellectual dishonesty of the highest order.

nietzsche design

Usually, I try to ignore these kinds of stories because those who write them tend to be hecklers without a lot to say. They just want attention, someone to talk to them, and having the spotlight turned on them for an instant or two so they taunt atheists into snapping back at them. But in this case, the over-the-top nonsense just has to be corrected. Basically, Hagerty’s thesis is that because some atheists want to remain low key and others want to speak out about the darker side of religion and religious abuses happening around the world loudly and clearly, there’s going to be a grand ideological showdown in the movement. The underlying message? Of course all those angry, bitter, disorganized, overly opinionated atheists would be fighting with each other and coming up with different ideas to promote their worldview. Totally unlike all those religious denominations that split over the millennia from their parent religions and spent centuries at odds with each other, often violently.

Did the Hagertys of the world who rush to report every time Hitchens looks funny at a religious symbol stop to think for just a few nanoseconds that very few bother to point out when some pastor spews hateful drivel that condemns those who don’t believe his stories to Hell? When was the last time there was a great controversy about some priest’s verbal spit at atheists? Isn’t that a little hypocritical? Hold on, scratch that. Isn’t that blatant hypocrisy on parade? Why can you get away with piling abuse on a certain group of people if you’re clutching a Bible or a Qu’ran, but not if you’re holding up a college textbook on genetics or quantum mechanics? Because that’s what society allowed for thousands of years and that makes it ok? And then you’re going to throw verbal hissy fits after those of us who actually have real world evidence for our claims tell you we had enough? Time to get off the high horse, really. Having a religious belief doesn’t make you any better or more moral. It simply makes you a social primate who wants to belong to a group.

Tell you what, if you really think that not believing a deity detailed in holy books because I’ve seen no evidence for such a supernatural entity and basing my life around the real world makes me a terrible, immoral person, go right ahead. It’s not like I can stop you. If you think that helping people not because I want to earn a brownie point with a cosmos spanning, omniscient being that looks after the universe (yet somehow has time to peek in your shower and list every sin you commit in it), but simply because it helps people, is a sign of stupidity or evil, then by all means, mark me as a nefarious degenerate. But if all that keeps you from letting go of all self- control is the threat of being punished in the afterlife, I daresay that you’re probably not as good as you might think and you have no right to claim the moral high ground. And if you think your pontifications on what or how people should believe somehow make you seem enlightened or helpful, allow me to tell you that in reality, the effect is just the opposite and you come off as a condescending blowhard instead.

[ illustration by Jeremy Kalgreen for Amorphia Apparel ]

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  • Paul

    “But if all that keeps you from letting go of all self- control is the threat of being punished in the afterlife, I daresay that you’re probably not as good as you might think and you have no right to claim the moral high ground.”

    Not just “threat of being punished”. Law abiding believers also are trying to get approval/love from their all-knowing all-loving imaginary friend. I’ve heard some evangelicals use your version to mock “lesser” believers; ie, it’s not enough to fear god’s punishment.

    It doesn’t change your argument, indeed it reinforces it (seriously, how needy, “love me jesus, I haven’t raped anyone today”), but since I’ve used the same argument myself I like to remind people that if you say it to a believer, they have a counter-argument. (My preferred phrasing is, “If your religion is the only thing keeping you from being a bad person, how can you call yourself a good person”. Or words to that effect.)