How Influential Is the Religious Right?

My latest column on Alternet, about the failed predictions of the religious right, has gotten a reply from a writer calling himself suburbXn who identifies himself as a liberal Christian, and who thinks I’m vastly exaggerating the influence of the people whose prophecies I cited:

You can find extremists and crazies behind ANY belief who will take things to the edge. But please don’t write off millions of Christians because of a few extremists, not even if you still disagree with those millions.

SuburbXn objects to many of the people I chose to cite in my article as examples of failed prophets, characterizing them as unrepresentative “wackos and nobodies”. Let’s review some of the names he took issue with to see how that claim holds up:

Hal Lindsay

Though his star has dimmed now (having since been replaced by newer authors, like Tim LaHaye, making essentially the same predictions), Lindsay was a major best-seller in the 1970s and 1980s. His books The Late Great Planet Earth and The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon were on the New York Times bestseller lists for months.

Edgar Whisenant

As mentioned in my article, Whisenant’s book 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988 was so popular that the Trinity Broadcasting Network suspended regular programming on Rosh Hashanah of that year, his predicted date for the Rapture, to run a prerecorded tape with instructions for those who’d been left behind.

Harold Camping

Until his prophetic misfire and retirement, Harold Camping was the president and co-founder of Family Radio, a Christian broadcasting network which has existed since the 1960s and consists of dozens of FM, AM and satellite radio stations across the United States, plus two television channels and several international radio stations, and an annual budget somewhere north of $100 million. Wacko? Yes. Nobody? No.

Pam Olsen

As I noted in my article, Pam Olsen was a co-chair of Rick Perry’s presidential campaign. She’s also the head of the Tallahassee branch of the International House of Prayer, an evangelical megachurch with total membership in excess of 2,000 that runs a Bible college in Grandview, Missouri. Does this sound like the description of an inconsequential person of no stature?

SuburbXn grudgingly acknowledges Pat Robertson’s existence, but dismisses him as a has-been (“I honestly don’t know anyone who gives him any credence whatsoever”) – which is absurd on its face, considering that Robertson is the chancellor of the right-wing Regent University and head of the multinational Christian Broadcasting Network, with a personal net worth estimated in the hundreds of millions.

What I find more interesting is that he didn’t mention several religious right figures of significantly greater prominence whom I cited, including Rick Santorum (former senator, presidential candidate), James Dobson (called “the nation’s most influential evangelical leader” by Time), and Dobson’s former group, Focus on the Family. I wonder what the reason for this omission could be.

Now, I freely admit that to compile my list of failed prophecies, I chose people of varying degrees of influence and prominence. Partly, this was just a matter of picking the ones who made statements that best supported my thesis. But it also serves the larger purpose of demonstrating that these views are pervasive among the American religious right, and are not just the rantings of a few isolated nutjobs. (I could, for example, have written an entire article just critiquing the abundant examples of Pat Robertson’s blown calls. I didn’t do that because I wanted to make a broader point.)

If I may be candid, I think suburbXn is judging the prominence of these people by whether he personally has heard of them or follows them. Obviously, that’s a highly subjective test. But it’s also a common tendency among liberal and moderate Christians, who don’t want to face up to the extent to which virulent, hard-right-wing fundamentalism has captured Christianity as a whole. suburbXn sums this tendency up very well:

In your article, you state that “The religious right as a movement thrives on fear, because it depends on the unthinking obedience of its followers, and fearful people are far easier to shepherd and control.” Sorry, I don’t mean to be contrary, but this is just wrong. I know, because I’ve been there. I know and love these people. I grew up with these people. And it’s just not true. There is not some DaVinci Code-type counsel that gathers up the lead pastors and decides how they’re going to mind-control their flocks.

Setting aside the ridiculous strawman about a “DaVinci Code-type” council, my article was based on an observation, namely that religious teachings which inspire fear – fire-and-brimstone sermons, predictions of the imminent doomsday, shrill warnings about how jackbooted gay hordes are on the march and President Obama is about to force Christians into concentration camps – are far more popular and successful than those that don’t. For instance, in my 2008 post on Carlton Pearson, the Pentecostal-turned-universalist preacher, I cited one of Pearson’s associate pastors who admitted that “teachings about eternal torment and the Rapture did far more to fill the pews than teaching about love and forgiveness ever will.”

If you want to rail against the immoral, authoritarian teachings of the religious right, fine. If you want to point out the many Bible verses they’re ignoring, I’m OK with that as well. But don’t claim that these views are isolated, uninfluential, or the beliefs of a few fringe wingnuts. These are the mainstream views of American Christianity and have been for some time. It will do no good, either for liberal Christians or for the progressive causes they value, to refuse to face up to that.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://songe.me asonge

    I wonder if it might be a good idea to also cast this differently into the effects of the death of mainstream protestantism. In the mainstream protestant denominations, it’s the evangelical churches that are growing, not the liberal ones, and the denominations growing the most are charismatic and evangelical denominations. These guys are usually who held the religious right in check, but now they seem to have a monopoly on religious conversation because the liberal Christians in their alliances with moderate Christians have to participate in religious political debates on the conservatives’ terms. Aside from these large, growing charismatic/evangelical churches there is only Catholicism left to counter-balance it, which now explains to you the religious hegemony of opposition to abortion and birth control. Catholic thought has even been making it into the protestant circles of presbyterians and methodists, both of whom had hierarchical organizations (often bishops or their functional equivalent) supporting the opposition to religious organizations having to comply with the contraception rules. The Christian right is no longer balanced by a Christian left or moderate core, who focus only on social issues and seem to talk with double-language to avoid alienating the conservatives in their own congregations.

  • blackbeltatheist

    Living in North Alabama, most of the people with whom I live and work hold beliefs that reflect those of the religious right. They’re not fringe beliefs here; they’re mainstream. My mother-in-law quoted Ken Ham a few days ago for crying out loud.

  • Loren Petrich

    Liberal Christians have been letting the Religious Right be the public face of their religion for the last couple of decades. Like Barack Obama saying about Alan Keyes quoting the Bible against him, “What could I say? That a literal reading of the Bible was folly?”

    That’s what he ought to have stated, and he ought to have done so without seeming like he feels guilty about doing so.

  • machintelligence

    I would be less worried about the Religious Right if they hadn’t taken over the Republican party.

  • Rieux

    suburbXn:

    [Robertson] has had a platform for FAR too long, but I honestly don’t know anyone who gives him any credence whatsoever.

    …Which recalls the apocryphal line* from Pauline Kael, after the 1972 U.S. Presidential election:

    I don’t know how Nixon won. No one I know voted for him.

    * What Kael actually said, by contrast to the above version she’s been credited (debited?) with ever since, wasn’t stupid at all—but, as suburbXn demonstrates, folks say equally ridiculous things as the pseudo-Kael did all the time.

    For fairness’ sake, here’s Kael’s real statement, from a New York Times article in December 1972:

    “I live in a rather special world,” Miss Kael said, continuing: “I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.”

  • http://puddinsilovemylife.blogspot.com/ Tonya Richard

    I live in South Louisiana, and I have a hard time finding anyone who DOESN’T believe like the radical religious right, including most of my family! If most people knew how I truly believed, I would be completely ostracized. And the few people who do know, are fervently praying for my soul : /

  • Bdole

    Just how many tens of millions of people does it take to qualify as not-fringe, anyway?

    I have Hal Lindsey’s “Late Great Planet Earth” somewhere.
    I also have/had a book called “88 Reasons why the Second Coming will be in 1988″ or some such thing.
    I am thoroughly familiar with all the ideas about the end of days.
    I am not from a small town nor did I seek out special teachings or Christian cults to absorb this bullshit from. These are simply things I encountered/collected as a result of living around Christians – most of them nominal to the point of passive but certain and assured in their beliefs, nonetheless.

    I know people who DVR the 700 Club and the Jack van Impe show and who think Obama is currently removing all the crosses from their local churches, outlawing prayer and jailing people for mentioning the name of Jesus because he is a secret, Muslim atheist. Meanwhile his fascist, communist, apparatchik wife works tirelessly to strip away America’s god-given right to adult-onset diabetes and coronaries.
    These are every day Americans with careers and if you don’t wish them a merry-fucking christmas and nod your head about how this country’s going down the bath-house drain because kids are being taught we’re all monkeys then you’re just fodder for the Beast.

  • Joffan

    Sorry, I got distracted in the middle by enjoying the description “former Senator” applied to Santorum. “Former senator”… “defeated senator”… ousted, rejected, discarded.

    Back to your scheduled broadcast.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    Isn’t his objection to the idea that these people you discuss are “nobodies” simply an example of the “One True Christian” fallacy?
    “They may exist, but they shouldn’t be taken seriously because they are not representative of the Christianity I believe in.”

  • Adam Lee

    * What Kael actually said, by contrast to the above version she’s been credited (debited?) with ever since, wasn’t stupid at all—but, as suburbXn demonstrates, folks say equally ridiculous things as the pseudo-Kael did all the time.

    Ha. Excellent quote, Rieux! I think yours is better, but while I was writing this post, I was thinking of the famous Yoga Berra-ism: “No one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”

  • http://www.sunstonescafe.com/ Paul Sunstone

    Although many older and famous Evangelicals are dying off or retiring, one should not mistake that development for the demise of Evangelicalism. It is but the changing of the guard. Evangelicalism is institutionalized, which means it can and will endure the death or retirement of any particular individuals.

  • ctcss

    I guess it all depends on what a person considers to be influential. The smallest cult is influential to it’s members. But however influential that cult is to its members, it doesn’t really matter if the general voting population isn’t swayed by them. Non-believers worry about numbers because they see themselves as being in the minority, politically speaking. But politics teaches that when facing a larger opponent, the smart thing to do is to make prudent compromises and make efforts to build a coalition out of possible allies. The religious right has failed to build coalitions because they want to convert people rather than make common cause with them. That isn’t smart politics, as the last election showed. So for the moment, I really am not all that worried about the religious right since they are working against themselves. IMO the most important thing to do is to speak up when one’s rights are threatened and an opportunity to voice opposition presents itself.

    However, I want reasonable heads to prevail, so for me to make cause with someone else, I would need to feel that they also have my interests at heart, even if they don’t share my specific beliefs. How they approach such things and how they regard others very much matters to me. And as a believer, I am not likely to feel warm towards any group that wants my political support at the polls, but at the same time feels the need to mock me and the beliefs I hold dear. Working together for the common good means putting differences aside while engaged in the fight. There will be plenty of time for philosophical disagreements after the political objective has been accomplished.

  • David Hart

    Just so we’re clear, Ctcss, ‘mocking you’ is a very different thing from ‘mocking the beliefs you hold dear’. Persons are entitled to respect, ideas are not.

    Now we may indeed profitably make common cause, but if you believe something that is absurd, then no one else should feel constrained not to point out its absurdness if you insist on asserting it.

  • ctcss

    Since I am not evangelical, I rarely assert anything to others. I just quietly practice my faith. And you may, if you wish, reject my beliefs for yourself, just as I reject the beliefs of Jews or Hindus or Muslims or Catholics or Christians of other stripes or Buddhists, or indeed, atheists for myself. But just because I do not embrace the beliefs (or non-beliefs) of all of those groups does not mean that I spend my time railing against them or making fun of them or of their beliefs or non-belief. I think that everyone has the right to choose their belief/non-belief stance without other people trying to second guess them or to mock what they believe. As long as we all respect one another’s right to conduct our lives (assuming that we are not harming others or infringing on their right to believe or not to believe as they see fit), it really doesn’t make much sense to me to seek to challenge their belief/non-belief stance. Rather, it would seem to make much more sense to treat them as friends and neighbors, not as adversaries, nor as possible converts to one’s way of believing or not believing.

    Anything else just strikes me as arrogance.

  • GCT

    But just because I do not embrace the beliefs (or non-beliefs) of all of those groups does not mean that I spend my time railing against them or making fun of them or of their beliefs or non-belief.

    Once again, mocking your beliefs is not the same as mocking you personally. This idea that you seem loathe to part with is an example of religious privilege in action.

    As long as we all respect one another’s right to conduct our lives (assuming that we are not harming others or infringing on their right to believe or not to believe as they see fit), it really doesn’t make much sense to me to seek to challenge their belief/non-belief stance.

    Arguing vociferously against your beliefs, or even mocking your beliefs, has nothing at all to do with infringing on your rights. Secondly, if people did conduct their lives in a way that their beliefs did not affect others, there would be no issue. But, that’s not how the real world works. Irrational beliefs do affect others and do cause real harm.

    Anything else just strikes me as arrogance.

    In the free marketplace of ideas, good ideas survive, bad ones perish. You don’t get to claim that your ideas are beyond question. That is actually what is arrogant.

  • David Hart

    Ctcss:

    I rarely assert anything to others

    Well, you’re asserting it here, that you are a ‘believer’ (by which you presumably mean that you are a believer in some sort of supernatural forces). People are entitled to enquire as to exactly what you believe, what evidence you have for those beliefs, and if the beliefs are deeply silly, to point that out. Just as you would be entitled to point out the silliness of my beliefs if I told you I thought that lizard-people were sending out mind-control rays that you could block by wearing a tin-foil helmet, or the Elvis Presley was still alive and working as a server in a Tennessee diner.

    I think that everyone has the right to choose their belief/non-belief stance without other people trying to second guess them or to mock what they believe.

    Nearly right. Everyone does have the right (at least in non-theocratic, non-dictatorship countries) to choose their beliefs, but, crucially, everyone else has the right to evaluate those beliefs for consistency with reality and to try to persuade people out of the ones that they don’t have good reasons for believing. How else can we possibly converge on the truth if we do not criticize each other’s ideas? How can we possibly expect to rid ourselves of ridiculous beliefs if we do not subject to ridicule those beliefs that deserve it? If the beliefs turn out to be non-ridiculous (that is, if the person who believes them turns out to actually have good reasons to do so), that person will be able to produce those good reasons, and thus silence their critics.

    (Mockery of bad ideas you hold dear may feel uncomfortable, but if you can get people to laugh at a bad idea, you get them to understand why it’s a bad idea in a far more accessible way than a long, boring de-bunking, and thus loosen its grip on society as a whole – though of course, this only works for bad ideas whose ridiculousness is easy to demonstrate)

    …it really doesn’t make much sense to me to seek to challenge their belief/non-belief stance.

    Don’t you care whether what you believe is actually true? I do. You can pretty much never predict in advance when a new discovery or development is going to clash against a previously harmless false belief in a way that causes real suffering, so our first duty has to be to reality (see JT Eberhard’s Reason as a moral obligation to see why). Because beliefs can always potentially impact our behaviour, so what someone believes really is of concern to everyone else.

  • ctcss

    @David Hart

    All I am asserting is that I am a believer. That is a manifestly true statement. And although I do believe that God exists, I have no desire to try to force anyone else to come to such a conclusion. Why? Because I know that people have different experiences in life, have seen different things, and based on what they have experienced in their lives, have come to their own conclusions regarding whether or not God exists. My experiences have convinced me that God does exist. How are you, in your armchair, with no evidence at all about me, and me with no way to actually provide irrefutable evidence to you, and both us with no shared experience together, going to come to the same conclusion about God? The short answer is that we cannot.

    Furthermore, I may be mistaken about my experiences. You, also, may be mistaken about yours. I cannot refute your life experiences because I have not been privy to them. Likewise, you cannot refute mine for the same reason. Neither of us have been followed around with a documentary film crew recording our every move and our every thought and experience. Both of our experiences have been subjective. And pretty much, that’s all that they can be. That’s why I am not going to spend my time trying to argue a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Catholic (or other Christian), a Buddhist, a Wiccan, or an atheist, etc., out of their personal belief or disbelief. One of us may be correct, or we may all be incorrect. And since absolute truth is unavailable to any of us in this human state, we may never find out what reality actually is while we are here.

    And before you trot out the idea that the scientific method can somehow reveal the truth of reality to us, consider this. If you were a simulated being in a simulated environment, everything single thing you now experience would appear exactly the same to you as it now does, yet it would be manifestly unreal. It is impossible for the scientific method to prove anything from the inside. The most one can hope for under ideal circumstances (assuming a simulation with consistent rules) is the possibility of determining the rules of the simulation. However, you would never be able to discern anything about the true reality outside the simulation because you would have no access to it.

    And therein lies the rub. All that we can do is to try to do the best we can, and to behave the best way we know how. And unless you can prove to me that my approach to life is going to harm you or yours (and I certainly have no interest in legislating the rules of your existence), why do you wish to insist on legislating the rules of my existence? Would you really want others to run your life for you?

    As Hillel is reported to have said to an arrogant young Talmudic student who wanted Hillel to teach him everything in the Talmud while he stood on one leg, “What is hateful to you, do not do to another. The rest is commentary. Now go and study!”

    If both you and I understand the golden rule, and are capable of making at least a reasonable stab at trying to live up to it for ourselves and others in society, what else do you really want?

  • ctcss

    @GCT

    Once again, you appear to be taking the position that it is a good idea to be rude to others just because they do not share one’s outlook. That, to me, is an arrogant approach. If someone personally engages another in a theological debate, I can see going all out in one’s efforts to make their points, but why pick a fight with someone who isn’t interested in engaging in a debate? Doing something like that is simply rude behavior.

    And you appear to think that it is OK to just assign beliefs to people, regardless of whether they actually hold them. In another thread you told me flat out that I wasn’t reading the Bible properly because I hadn’t come away with the conclusion that a literal hell exists and that people were going to be consigned to it. You were apparently thinking that there is only one way to read and understand such things. That’s also rather arrogant, as well as sad. Who made you the Bible cop? And if you are simply citing someone else’s Bible views, what is that to me unless I also have adopted that same view and regard it as authoritative and thus was proving myself to have failed to live up to the authoritative view on the Bible’s meaning? How is this a valid argument against my right to approach the Bible as I was taught? You’re simply opting for rudeness rather than actually making a useful point.

    And please note, just because some people cause problems because of their ideas, not everyone does. Once again, you seem to be determined to pick a fight with someone rather than figure out how to make friends with them. In the US legal system, someone is considered innocent until proven guilty. You seem to be taking the opposite tack here. I just can’t figure out why someone would approach others in such a way. Why make enemies when you can make friends instead?

    And I have never claimed my religious ideas (or anyone else’s) are beyond question. I just think it is rude behavior to verbally attack people who are not causing harm to you. For example, as a Christian, I think that the theology I was taught is the best way to grow God-ward. I thus am rejecting a Jewish (or Muslim or Hindu or Wiccan, etc.) believer’s theological take on such things. But it would be very rude of me to denounce their ideas and to try to argue for my beliefs if they hadn’t even said they wanted to debate those ideas. Why would I want to be rude to someone who was just minding their own business? Why should I not act in a neighborly fashion towards them? Why should friendship not be the default approach towards others (who are not causing harm) rather than antagonism?

  • GCT

    @ctcss,

    Once again, you appear to be taking the position that it is a good idea to be rude to others just because they do not share one’s outlook. That, to me, is an arrogant approach.

    You throw your religious privilege in our faces and I’m the rude one? That’s simply more religious privilege on your part.

    If someone personally engages another in a theological debate, I can see going all out in one’s efforts to make their points, but why pick a fight with someone who isn’t interested in engaging in a debate?

    Pick a fight? You throw out all kinds of assertions, then hide behind the religiously privileged notion that we aren’t allowed to question your assertions because they are your religious assertions and it’s rude to do so. It’s not. What’s rude is your insistence that your views are beyond question, and that you have the right to trump the free marketplace of ideas. Your irrational beliefs and the irrational beliefs of others cause real harm in this world, and I am well within my rights as a human being to criticize those harmful views wherever and whenever I find them, no matter how much you whine that it’s rude.

    And you appear to think that it is OK to just assign beliefs to people, regardless of whether they actually hold them.

    I have done no such thing.

    In another thread you told me flat out that I wasn’t reading the Bible properly because I hadn’t come away with the conclusion that a literal hell exists and that people were going to be consigned to it. You were apparently thinking that there is only one way to read and understand such things.

    The Bible talks about hell quite a bit, as does Jesus. I’m not responsible for you cherry picking the Bible to suit your own ends. It’s nice that you don’t like the idea of people going to hell, but it is part of the Bible, no matter how much you wish to cherry pick only the parts that you want. And, this is also a good indicator that your Xianity is made up by you.

    And please note, just because some people cause problems because of their ideas, not everyone does.

    Do you think that your beliefs do not influence your actions and cause real harm? Your religious privilege that you cling to so tightly is actually harmful. Your idea that your religious ideas are untouchable actually causes harm and it has caused harm for thousands of years, including real harm to atheists or anyone else outside of the mainstream. Let’s not pretend that you are blameless here.

    Once again, you seem to be determined to pick a fight with someone rather than figure out how to make friends with them.

    And, once again you demean and debase atheists (at least this atheist) for daring to speak up and point out that your assertions are false. Yet, I’m the one picking fights and being rude? Project much?

    In the US legal system, someone is considered innocent until proven guilty. You seem to be taking the opposite tack here.

    A) I’m not the US legal system.
    B) You’ve made some ridiculous claims that are unsupported and are now whining and lashing out at me because I’ve pointed that out.
    C) You are stuffed full with religious privilege as evidenced by your actual statements.

    Why make enemies when you can make friends instead?

    Why should I debase my self to you and your passive aggressive, sneering, and demeaning religious privilege just so that you will deem me worthy enough of being your “friend?” Yes, Mr. Religiously Privileged Guy, will you please, please, please be my friend and give me a cookie while we’re at it? I just have to promise never to challenge your ridiculous religious garbage again? Oh goody.

    And I have never claimed my religious ideas (or anyone else’s) are beyond question. I just think it is rude behavior to verbally attack people who are not causing harm to you.

    Contradict yourself much? You have claimed that your religious ideas are beyond question. As soon as they are questioned, you go into attack mode, calling anyone who dares to question you rude as well as other things. You also go into personal offense mode where you are personally insulted, as well as the canard that we are trying to force you to believe as we do. It’s all passive aggressive bullshit that is designed to shame and attack the person who dares to question the ridiculous assertions you are making about what you believe.

    For example, as a Christian, I think that the theology I was taught is the best way to grow God-ward.

    Nice circular reasoning. Don’t you think that if you were born to Muslim parents that you most likely would be a Muslim right now? And, what the hell does it even mean to say that one is “grow[ing] god-ward?” That’s a meaningless platitude.

    Why would I want to be rude to someone who was just minding their own business?

    So, coming here and putting out your faith for everyone to read about is minding your own business now? No, it’s not. It’s putting your ideas out into the marketplace of ideas, and once out they are fair game, especially on a blog site with an open commenting policy.

    Why should I not act in a neighborly fashion towards them?

    Allowing people to wallow in ridiculous beliefs is the neighborly thing to do? That’s odd.

    Why should friendship not be the default approach towards others (who are not causing harm) rather than antagonism?

    You are the one who made this personal when you got your hackles up from your religious privilege. Once again, since you seem immune to this point, attacking ideas is not the same as attacking people. Let that sink in. Attacking ideas is not the same as attacking people. Do you need to hear it again? Attacking ideas is not the same as attacking people. I don’t know how else to get this through your religiously privileged mind-set. Attacking your ridiculous beliefs is not an attack on your person. Get used to it. If you really wish to be non-confrontational, I suggest you stop shoving your religious privilege in my face (and everyone else’s).

  • David Hart

    Ctcss:

    All I am asserting is that I am a believer.

    You cannot simply be a believer, in a content-neutral way, you have to believe insomething. When you assert that you are “a believer”, that is shorthand for “a believer in the idea that a god exists, or the divinity of Jesus, or the resurrection, or the idea that we possess souls that survive our physical death or whatever specific beliefs your particular brand of Christianity might hold – all of those beliefs are absurd; there’s not a scrap of good evidence in favour of any of them, and to presume them to be true on the evidence of the world as it is, is simply daft. The absolute best you can possibly say is ‘we can’t conclusively rule any of them out’, but thinking that they are well-supported enough to justify organising your life around them makes no sense at all.

    why pick a fight with someone who isn’t interested in engaging in a debate?

    “picking a fight” is a very unfortunate choice of phrase – it suggests that you still think that disagreeing with someone is the same as attacking them personally, which as I and GTC have repeatedly pointed out, simply isn’t the case. Anyway, the answer is
    a) because I care about reality, and if someone disagrees with me about reality, I am entitled to put my case forward, which is not in and of itself a rude thing to do (unless, of course, I make it personal, by, say, calling them a moron and telling them how ugly their haircut is, rather than addressing their factual beliefs – and note that no one has done that here)
    and b) if they genuinely aren’t interested in a debate, it will be impossible for me to have a debate with them anyway. I can only debate with someone if they make a defence of their position. If instead they just say “I don’t want to talk about this” and change the subject, – i.e. if they don’t even attempt to defend their view, then once I have articulated my original criticism, I can’t really go any further anyway – so I can only really have a debate with people who arewilling to join me in a debate – just like you are doing here right now. You’re not just walking away and changing the subject, you making a lively defence of the idea that challenging someone’s supernatural belief is a rude and aggressive thing that we should be at pains to avoid.

    Because I know that people have different experiences in life, have seen different things, and based on what they have experienced in their lives, have come to their own conclusions regarding whether or not God exists. My experiences have convinced me that God does exist. How are you, in your armchair, with no evidence at all about me, and me with no way to actually provide irrefutable evidence to you, and both us with no shared experience together, going to come to the same conclusion about God? The short answer is that we cannot.

    I can say that of all the people that claim to have good evidence that a god exist, none have ever turned out to actually have good evidence – usually all they have are some sort of psychological experience that they have no basis at all for concluding is generated outside of their own skull, or some sort of logical sophistry, or just plain wishful thinking. If someone were actually able to produce good evidence of the existence of a god, it would be all of the newspapers; people would be able to see for themselves, start to abandon all the other gods and flock to the religion of the one for which evidence had been produced. Perhaps you are the first human in history to discover good evidence for the existence of a god, but probability is strongly against you here, and the onus is on you to put that evidence to the test, and if it fails to convince other reasonable people, then if you are being intellectually honest, you ought to conclude that it shouldn’t convince you either.

    If you and I have come to different conclusions about whether a god exists, at least one of us has to be wrong and if you care about reality, you ought to care about persuading people that you are right. The question of whether a god exists is a very important question, which would totally revolutionise our lives if it turned out that we had previously been mistaken about.

    Again I ask you (and if you answer nothing else from this post, I hope you’ll answer this): do you actually care whether what you believe is true or not? And if so, how can it possibly be gauche and uncivilised for people who both care about the truth, who have a disagreement about what the truth is, to hold each other’s ideas to the fire, in the hope of burning away the falsehoods they might hold? We may never get to absolute truth, but we can get closer to absolute truth if we make a conscienscious effort to do so, and quietly agreeing to not challenge each other’s ideas guarantees that bad ideas which we could have got rid of will instead remain in play. That is not a thing to wish for.

    If you were a simulated being in a simulated environment, everything single thing you now experience would appear exactly the same to you as it now does, yet it would be manifestly unreal.

    Really? Matrix apologetics? If someone claims that we are in a simulated environment, the onus is firmly on them to explain why we should believe that. Just because something is conceivable, that is no justification at all for concluding that it is likely, or that we should organise our lives around the assumption that it is true. (Do read that link by the way, it’s very short, and shows why that argument doesn’t stand)

    unless you can prove to me that my approach to life is going to harm you or yours (and I certainly have no interest in legislating the rules of your existence), why do you wish to insist on legislating the rules of my existence? Would you really want others to run your life for you?

    When did I ever try to ‘legislate the rules of your existence’? I am having a debate with you in an online forum, not passing laws that limit your freedom. This sounds suspiciously like another case of you being unable (or perhaps pretending to be unable) to understand the difference between criticism of your ideas and personal attacks against you.

    And as it happens, ‘not wanting others to run their lives for them’ is exactly why a lot of active atheists spend so much time on these topics. Not so much where I live (Scotland), but in the US and lots of other countries, the forces of religion really are getting laws passed that enforce religiously-inspired limitations on all the citizens. Now you may not personally be the kind of religious believer who supports such things as the Christian Right are working on, but by promulgating the idea that arguing against religious beliefs is rude and should only be carried out in narrowly defined areas of life, you are still part of the problem, because you make it that much harder to argue against the beliefs that arecausing real harm.

    And again, just because your beliefs are not currently causing harm, doesn’t mean they won’t start to cause me harm when some new development or discovery causes them to clash with reality. That question was addressed quite thoroughly in the JT Eberhard link I gave you earlier – you should read it to understand why being concerned with what is really true is of the utmost ethical importance. You cannot follow the golden rule if you don’t have any way of determining what the other person would have done unto them, and if what the other person would want done unto them would actually harm them (say, for instance, they want to use homeopathy against their cancer, while you could offer them chemotherapy that might actually cure them) then a simple reading of the golden rule would be a deeply immoral course to take.

    Concern for others’ wellbeing isn’t enough … without concern for what will actually maximise their wellbeing (i.e. without concern for what is actually the truth, rather than just what you want to believe), it’s possible to cause great suffering while believing you’re doing good. Making sure in advance that you have the best data, that your beliefs map reality as accurately as possible, is the best way to make sure that when you set out to do good, you actually do good.

  • Art Vandelay

    Show me a person that doesn’t think ideas should be questioned; that they should be treated with the utmost respect simply because they happen to belong to someone…and I’ll show you a person that probably has really bad ideas.

    “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions.”
    -Thomas Jefferson

  • CelticLight

    The religious right is very influential in certain parts of the country, however it is not currently a force that is creating a national political majority – at least in the last few elections.

  • TicklishMeerkat

    It’s neat how that “liberal Christian” thinks that his subjective experience trumps not only our collective experience but also sheer numbers and simple facts. It’s a classic example of the bubble in which Christians make their mental home. The truth is that the liberal churches are losing the most members, while the hardest-right denominations are losing the fewest and even growing in some cases. Christianity is skewing more and more to the right. Its loudest members are decidedly not “liberal Christians.” Its bestselling books are not about “liberal Christianity.” Its movies aren’t liberal, its influence in government isn’t liberal, and its biggest scandals aren’t hitting the liberal churches. It doesn’t take a genius to see that “liberal Christians” are getting squeezed out.

  • ctcss

    @ David Hart

    “do you actually care whether what you believe is true or not?”

    Of course I do. And I sincerely think I am on a path that will help me discover what is true, just as you believe that you are on a path that will do the same. But one thing I have learned is that the human animal is a very inaccurate instrument for determining what is absolutely true and what is not true. That’s why I am not interested in trying to convince others to believe as I do. I could very well be wrong about my thoughts about my beliefs, as well as being wrong about the other person’s beliefs. And arguing about beliefs, while it might be somewhat entertaining under certain conditions, is no substitute for actually trying to live those beliefs (as long as they cause no harm to others). Since I am a Christian, there is a great deal I have not successfully done to try to live up to the standards that Jesus gave to his followers. So whatever my faults may be, I’m still not done trying to improve and grow as Christian just yet. And I certainly don’t need to tell people about Jesus because Christianity (in whatever form) is quite familiar to everyone these days. So basically, I just want to try to do a better job of personally following Jesus . And if my life serves as an example for others and they want to learn something about what I believe, great. Until then, I don’t see why I should try to bother them.

    And my comment about not being able to prove anything was not meant to show that we live in the matrix. Rather, it was just meant to show why, since absolute proof is impossible to ascertain, we should all tread lightly when it comes to declaring that we have proof of what is real. Humility, rather than hubris, is something that all humans would be well served by learning. I know I certainly need to improve in this area.

    Yes, I read JT’s article (I read him from time to time), but I don’t find him to be the most wonderful guide to living that there is. He makes a few good points on occasion, he is very sincere, and he obviously cares about people, but his standpoint is one of blanket anti-theism. To me, one should be anti-actions, not anti-labels. If I do something wrong, feel free to blame me. If I have not done anything wrong, please don’t jump on me for simply existing and choosing my own path in life. I’m OK with him choosing to be a non-believer and following his path. All I ask is that he allow me the same courtesy. I am certainly not anti-atheism.

    And I am not sure how things are done in Scotland, but other than explaining options and possible consequences to someone regarding cancer treatment, why should I interfere with someone’s right to choose what form of treatment they would prefer? Perhaps I didn’t understand what you were getting at with that example, but if an adult makes a choice over here in the US, that choice is usually respected, even if everyone else disagrees with that person’s choice.

    I am not sure, perhaps you are of the mindset that believes that everything can be determined by a good vigorous debate. But I think that would only be true if all of the facts were completely known and completely understood beforehand. And as limited and ignorant humans, we simply are nowhere near that kind of standard. So arguing with one another about whether or not God exists (which people have realized for quite some time is not something that can be proven or disproven) gets us nowhere. I believe in God, so I quietly try to follow my belief. You do not, so you quietly (I hope) try to follow yours. Nothing useful about that subject is served by arguing. The only issue is whether or not we cause harm to others without their consent. Since I want to be a good citizen and a good neighbor, I intend to take other people’s rights seriously. Thus trying to quietly follow our own paths without interfering with other people’s rights or paths strikes me as being the best road to take.

  • GCT

    Apparently, ctcss, you have not listened to a single thing anyone has said and will persist in your religious privilege.

    Of course I do. And I sincerely think I am on a path that will help me discover what is true, just as you believe that you are on a path that will do the same.

    And, what evidence would you cite that leads you down that path? If you had a scrap of evidence for your position, then the world would have to take notice.

    But one thing I have learned is that the human animal is a very inaccurate instrument for determining what is absolutely true and what is not true.

    Yet, that’s exactly the instrument that you claim to be using.

    Since I am a Christian, there is a great deal I have not successfully done to try to live up to the standards that Jesus gave to his followers.

    The point to Xianity is that no one can live up to those standards.

    Rather, it was just meant to show why, since absolute proof is impossible to ascertain, we should all tread lightly when it comes to declaring that we have proof of what is real.

    So, absent absolute proof, you will believe in your god who has no evidence? This is special pleading. No, we can’t have absolute proof of anything, but we can examine the evidence and come to good conclusions using reason and rationality. When there is no evidence for an assertion, then we should reasonably and rationally conclude that there’s no good reason to believe that assertion is valid.

    Humility, rather than hubris, is something that all humans would be well served by learning.

    Hubris would, indeed, be your position.

    If I do something wrong, feel free to blame me.

    I did, and you whinged about your hurt religious privilege.

    If I have not done anything wrong, please don’t jump on me for simply existing and choosing my own path in life.

    Oh, you poor, poor persecuted Xians…except the problem is that no one did this.

    I am not sure, perhaps you are of the mindset that believes that everything can be determined by a good vigorous debate. But I think that would only be true if all of the facts were completely known and completely understood beforehand.

    You don’t see the problem with this? We can’t come to a conclusion unless we have all the facts, yet you feel perfectly fine in coming to your chosen conclusion and hiding behind this horrible argument without even seeing the hypocrisy.

    So arguing with one another about whether or not God exists (which people have realized for quite some time is not something that can be proven or disproven) gets us nowhere.

    No one is talking about proof, except you (and consequently ignoring your own statements). The onus is on you, however, to support your assertions that a god exists. Absent any compelling evidence to support such notions, the rational stance is to not accept the assertion of a god and to be an atheist.

    I believe in God, so I quietly try to follow my belief.

    When you aren’t announcing it to everyone here and then getting huffy when people comment back.

    The only issue is whether or not we cause harm to others without their consent.

    I’ve explained how you’ve done that, but you ignore it all while complaining about how we are persecuting you for being Xian. You aren’t interested in whether we cause harm to others. You’re interested in enforcing your religious privilege on us while we sit quietly and take it.

    Since I want to be a good citizen and a good neighbor, I intend to take other people’s rights seriously. Thus trying to quietly follow our own paths without interfering with other people’s rights or paths strikes me as being the best road to take.

    More religiously privileged nonsense. No one is taking away your rights, nor have any of us advocated doing so. Telling you that your assertions of god(s) are insupportable, lack evidence, and irrational has nothing what-so-ever to do with your rights…as we keep telling you (and you continually ignore so that you can whine about being persecuted). Now, let the whinging continue I suppose, but I will never apologize to you or treat you with kid gloves while you sneeringly shove your religious privilege down our throats. You’re an atheophobic bigot.

  • David Hart

    Ctcss:

    That’s why I am not interested in trying to convince others to believe as I do. I could very well be wrong about my thoughts about my beliefs, as well as being wrong about the other person’s beliefs.

    You claim to care about what is real, but insist on behaving as if you didn’t care. If there was a good case to be made that I was mistaken about something, I would want people to discuss and debate with me about it. That way, assuming both sides are playing by the rules of intellectual honesty, we stand a reasonable chance of getting closer to figuring out which one, if either, is correct. The fact that you don’t welcome people challenging your beliefs suggests that you care less about whether they are actually true than about you getting to continue to believe them without having to defend them to the world. This is not a pinnacle of intellectual honesty, and it ought to suggest to you that you are perhaps already aware on some level of just how weak your reasons for believing in a god actually are.

    And arguing about beliefs, while it might be somewhat entertaining under certain conditions, is no substitute for actually trying to live those beliefs (as long as they cause no harm to others)

    Like I said before, you cannot tell in advance whether an untrue belief is going to turn out to cause harm to others. And because you cannot consciously hold beliefs that are untrue (in the sense that you cannot both believe something and believe it to be untrue at the same time), if follows that each of us is about the worst possible judge of which of our beliefs will cause harm to others. To pick an obvious example, the official position of the Catholic Church is that using contraception is somehow unethical and will cause us to fail to live up to the fullness of our human potential. Now obviously this belief is both a) deranged and b) causing real harm in the world, but if you believed it, then, pretty much by definitionyou’d believe that it would cause less harm overall if you spent some of your efforts preaching against condom use.
    If you want to live without your beliefs being challenged because you believe they cause no harm to others, the onus is on you to demonstrate that, if your beliefs happen to be untrue, there is still no way they could plausibly cause harm to anyone if someone acted on them thinking they were true. Since this is a more-or-less impossible task, the only sensible way to proceed is to examine your beliefs and keep only the ones which there are compelling reasons to believe are true. And the belief that the number of gods in the universe is greater than zero is very much not a belief that has compelling evidence going for it.

    other than explaining options and possible consequences to someone regarding cancer treatment

    My point was that the golden rule can badly misfire when not coupled with a scrupulous regard for reality.
    But maybe my example was a little off. How about this: you want to treat people for cancer. This is very much in line with the golden rule. Most people who have cancer want to be treated for it. But you happen to believe that homeopathy is an effective treatment, and that chemotherapy and other established procedures aren’t. If you go about trying to cure cancer with homeopathy while counselling people against chemotherapy, then your application of the golden rule is going to kill people, no matter how good your intentions, because you failed to force your beliefs to match reality. And, like I said above, someone who genuinely believes that homeopathy is more effect against cancer than chemotherapy is going to believe that their beliefs do not cause others harm even as their beliefs cost lives. This is, to be sure, an extreme example, but it should show you why welcoming being challenged on your beliefs (and challenging others where you think they are mistaken) is an absolutely central plank of ethics.

    But I think that would only be true if all of the facts were completely known and completely understood beforehand. And as limited and ignorant humans, we simply are nowhere near that kind of standard.

    You seem to be unable to accept that even though we may not be able to have absolute, conclusive proof on a matter, we can still evaluate the evidence and come to a reasonable conclusion about which explanations are the most probable. Let’s take another medical example.

    The authors of the Gospels clearly believed in the demon theory of disease – they thought that illnesses were caused by malevolent supernatural beings that can possess humans, and that can be expelled if someone is able to work the right magic spell. But in the late 19th century a new theory arose – the theory that some diseases are caused by tiny, non-sentient bacteria and viruses, that infect a human and rapidly multiply, releasing toxins that cause us harm.

    No one can prove with 100% certainty that demons don’t exist, and don’t sometimes possess people and cause disease. Nor can anyone prove with 100% certainty that bacteria and viruses do exist – it would always be open to claim that the microscopic images of bacteria we have are just artifacts generated by our microscopes. In fact, you could even claim that all of the evidence for the existence of microorganisms that we have is in fact being fed to us by demons of infinite powers of deception.

    But clearly, on present evidence, the germ theory of disease is rampantly more probable than the demon theory – so much so that we rightly dismiss anyone who does subscribe to the demon theory as delusional.

    So too with any other set of claims. It is often not as clear-cut, but just because we can’t have 100% proof, is no reason we can’t (and no excuse not to try to) come to a reasonable conclusion about what’s probable on the evidence.

    And on current evidence, gods just aren’t probable.

    So arguing with one another about whether or not God exists (which people have realized for quite some time is not something that can be proven or disproven) gets us nowhere.

    See above for why this whole “proven/disproven” thing is a false epistemology – we can always evaluate the evidence for whether a god, or any other supernatural entity or phenomenon, is the most likely hypothesis. But note that the only sort of god that is in principle immune to disproof (or, more accurately, immune to being shown to being the less likely hypothesis) is a god that has absolutely no effect whatsoever on reality, which is to say, a god which is indistinguishable from the imaginary – so there’s no good reason for not concluding, provisionally, until some evidence can be produced, that it is imaginary.

    If someone believes in a god that impacts on the universe, by, say, answering prayers, or healing the sick, or dictating a book to an Arabian merchant, or incarnating himself as a Jewish zombie wizard, then you believe in a god-hypothesis that can be subjected to rational scrutiny to see whether there’s sufficient evidence to consider that hypothesis likely. And if your hypothesis cannot stand up to rational scrutiny, then you should want to discard it, and replace it with a more reality-based view, and should not be trying to shut down the discussion by telling people it’s rude of them to point out the flaws in your hypothesis. And you should especially not make the mistake of thinking that pointing out the flaws in your hypothesis is the same thing as either a) personally attacking you or b) denying you your rights or your freedom, a point which has been repeatedly put to you, but which I’m still not convinced that you’ve understood.

    Nothing useful about that subject is served by arguing.

    This is manifestly false. In the USA, the clear majority of atheists are people who grew up religious, but came to realise that there were no good reasons to believe the supernatural claims of their religions. And if you ask any prominent atheist writer or speaker, they’ll tell you that they get a constant stream (or occasional trickle, depending on their media saturation) of people contacting them and telling them that it was their arguments that finally convinced them that there were no gods. Clearly arguing does serve the useful purpose of helping people sift fact from fiction (though it is true that in a public debate, you are usually not really trying to convince the person you are arguing against, but rather to convince the people in the audience who haven’t staked a strong claim on either side yet – but that’s still a useful purpose that’s served by arguing).

    So the argument will continue until religious people either a) come up with good evidence in support of their supernatural claims or b) admit that they cannot rationally justify those claims on present evidence, and stop making them.

  • Rieux

    What GCT and David said.

    – Rieux, extremely helpfully


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X