Daring to state the obvious: the dark side of sacred scripture

The following is a draft excerpt from chapter 3 of my forthcoming book, Angry Atheists?: Why the Backlash Against Dawkins, Harris, And the Rest Is Silly.

One of the clearest examples of religious privilege is this: no one would think it rude to describe an overt racist or tract as “hate-filled.” That’s just being accurate. It’s only wrong to call a book hate-filled if it is not, in fact, hate filled. But far too many people are quick to dismiss accuracy as rudeness when the book being talked about is somebody’s holy book.

For example, Biblical scholar Jacques Berlinerblau, complaining about the “culture of incivility” of the “New Atheists,” cites an interview done by Bill Maher, where “The host went off on a smackdown of Islam that could just as well come from the Tea Party Training Manual replete with slights on the Quran as ‘a hate-filled Holy Book.’” (http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/new-atheismthe-tea-party-reflections-on-professors-ruse-and-barash/33501 Accessed 10 Dec 2011).

Now if there is anything wrong with calling the Quran “hate-filled,” it must be that the book is not, in fact, hate-filled. But it is easy to demonstrate that the Quran is full of nasty statements about unbelievers: in The End of Faith, Sam Harris fills up over five pages with quotations like, “God’s curse be upon the infidels!” and “They have incurred God’s most inexorable wrath. An ignomious punishment awaits [them]” (pp. 117-123).

A defender of Islam can protest that there is more to a religion than the contents of its holy book, and that religions often find ways to ignore the nastier bits of their scriptures. Saying that, however, does not make Maher’s statement about the Quran any less true. Berlinerblau, then, is condemning Maher for saying something that everybody with a basic knowledge of the subject knows to be true, and the specific complaint, “incivility,” is one that no one would make if the book in question were not a religious text. Even then, though, the mistake could have been avoided if Berlinerblau had focused on the question, “is this true?”

In a similar vein, here is a quotation from Alvin Plantinga’s review of The God Delusion:

As [the BBQ—see p. X of this book, Hallquist] suggests, one shouldn’t look to this book for evenhanded and thoughtful commentary. In fact the proportion of insult, ridicule, mockery, spleen, and vitriol is astounding. (Could it be that his mother, while carrying him, was frightened by an Anglican clergyman on the rampage?) If Dawkins ever gets tired of his day job, a promising future awaits him as a writer of political attack ads.

Now despite the fact that this book is mainly philosophy, Dawkins is not a philosopher (he’s a biologist). Even taking this into account, however, much of the philosophy he purveys is at best jejune. You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores; the fact is (grade inflation aside), many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class. http://richarddawkins.net/articles/676-the-dawkins-confusion-naturalism-ad-absurdum Accessed 11 Dec 2011

This is really astounding. The BBQ, remember, was specifically referring to the god of the Old Testament, and among Christians “Old Testament” is a byword for harsh and unforgiving. I wouldn’t expect most Christians to know much more than that; I wouldn’t expect them to be able to draw up a list of the exact ways that god is harsh and unforgiving.

But Plantinga is a respected scholar of religion who has spent much of his career defending Christianity from its critics. Surely, when he read the BBQ, he realized that Dawkins could quote verses to back up every item in his list. Jealous and proud of it? See Exodus 20:4-5. An ethnic cleanser? See Deuteronomy 20:16-17. Homophobic? See Leviticus 20:13. Misogynistic? See the various laws that treat women more as property than human beings, including a law that would, in many cases, require a rapist to pay money to his victims father and then marry the victim (thus applying the “you break it you buy it” principle to rape) (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).

This is not to say that Plantinga should know all these verses by heart. When writing the above paragraph, Leviticus 20:13 is the only one I could cite from memory, but I found the others in under 20 minutes using Google and a bad internet connection. Plantinga could have done the same.

I suppose as an Evangelical, he might want to argue that the law from Deuteronomy is not really misogynistic, that imposing the death penalty for gay sex is not really homophobic, and so on. But at least he should be able to understand how a thoughtful person could disagree. Plantinga can treat the BBQ as evidence of non-thoughtfulness only because he writes from a perspective of religious privilege.

There is another reason for including the above quote from Plantinga’s review—the hypocrisy of it. Plantinga complains about “insult, ridicule, mockery” (etc.) Plantinga’s comment  about sophomores is nothing but insulting and mocking, and it is not the only instance of insult and mockery in the review. I’m not inclined to make much of it—I think mockery is sometimes justified, and that the problem with Plantinga’s review is not that it contains mockery but that Plantinga fails to back the mockery up with good arguments. But the hypocrisy is striking.

  • paul collier

    Is Plantinga the same pious egg-head who thought he dealt a death-blow to evolutionism with the “flawed evolved brain that thought up evolution” argument?
    If he thinks that one must be a philosopher to refute religion, than why is it OK for so many functional illiterates to embrace it?

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      Yup, that’s Plantinga.

    • Azuma Hazuki


      Oh he’s worse than that :) He takes axiom S5 of modal logic for granted and STILL can’t come up with a working ontological argument, his Evolutionary Argument from Naturalism (cited) is a festering pile, and overall he made me wonder exactly what use a philosophy degree is.

      And Plantinga is by far the least scummy of the high-profile Christian apologists. He actually has done a considerable amount of…well, flailing counts as work, I suppose…let’s say he put a lot of effort into warrant and the basis of belief. Of course he had to go bugger it all up with his “reformed epistemology,” which is just another case of Martin Luther having the shits (or not), but what can you do…?

      • wanderfound

        Despite the festering state of much of modern philosophy, there are still some decent philosophers around. I’d recommend Helen Longino (epistemology & the demarcation problem in the philosophy of science), Patricia Churchland (her main schtick is to take the existing philosophical theories of cognition and free will and see how they hold up under the light of modern neuroscience) and Peter Singer (author of the infamous “Animal Liberation”; despite the fact that I’m an animal-based neuroscience researcher, I still have a lot of time for Singer: it’s somewhat parallel to those “I don’t mind god, I just can’t stand her groupies” bumperstickers) as still being worth a look.

        Each to their own, of course.

  • http://oldtimeatheism.blogspot.ca/ andyman409

    If your still looking for criticism, I’d consider changing the books name to:

    “Angry Atheists?: Why the Backlash Against the New Atheists Is Silly.”

    Personally, I like the title the way it is- but this ones shorter.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      Except that I loathe the lable “New Atheism.”

  • aziraphale

    I’m enjoying this series, and not finding much to criticize. For the record, however, “ignominious” is mis-spelled in paragraph 3.

  • mnb0

    My ex-wife, muslima, began to read in the Quran. She stopped because it was full of hate. Her father, also muslim, had teached her “to keep the good things in the Quran, but reject the bad ones.”
    Sensible man, educated as he was on only primary school.

    I am happy to repeat that this excerpt is excellent: focused on religious privilege to be free from harsh criticim, sharp and to the point. Maybe you have changed a few things, because it’s even better than I remember from reading only a week ago.

    It’s the problem of religious people to deal with such quotes, not ours. If they manage to do that with neglecting them, suffering from cognitive dissonance or cherry-picking I don’t care. If Plantinga tries to attack Dawkins for such a representation he attacks the wrong guy – Dawkins rejects this stuff anyway. Plantinga should attack his radical co-believers. Typically liberal christians hardly ever do; on Internet I have met less than a handful.

  • ‘Tis Himself

    I suspect Berlinerblau is afraid that after Maher is done with the Quran he’ll turn his attention to the Bible. This is also a concern for Plantinga.

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