Thursday, November 11, 2010

Looking at an Apologist's Intellectual Dishonesty

I came across an article in Huffington Post’s Religion Section by Matt J. Rossano entitled Who Is My Neighbor? The Best and Worst of Morality. In it he refers to atheists as “angry atheists” twice and for seemingly no reason.  It’s just a cheap shot.  Predictably, this made me angry.  There is no reason for him to take this shot given the thesis of his apologetic article.  Actually, it could be construed as antithetical.  Anyway, I digress. At first I wanted to shoot back regarding that specific article, but it’s so boring I quickly lost interest.  In it he discusses how religious people are morally superior to the non-religious except when they are not (sidenote: for the umpteenth time “non-religious” does not necessarily mean “atheist”). He then parses out supernatural vs. religion and how that determines how one may look at the “other.”  I don’t find his conclusions particularly compelling or accurate.  I would look at economic factors as the starter in people’s ability to see outsiders as more than “the other.” Why?  It’s real and has real world implications for not only trade/monetary, but cultural exchange.  Ask an American from 1946 if they would ever have thought Japan would be one of our strongest allies.  They wouldn’t be able to comprehend that.  How did that international relationship between mortal enemies form?  Economics.  Everyone likes profit (not prophet…derp).  Religion is a hindrance to that and I don’t say that as an atheist; I say it as an anthropologist.  Also, based on my defense of capitalism clearly all atheists aren’t Marxist.  Take that Glenn Beck. 

Regardless, I went and looked at some of Rossano’s other articles on HuffPo and his article Why Religion is Not Delusion caught my eye.  Rossano defines delusion according to the DSM-IV. 

“A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person's culture or subculture (e.g., it is not an article of religious faith).”
With that in mind he continues:
“As with any psychological disorder, functional impairment is key. Perfectly normal people hold all kinds of beliefs based on partial or equivocal evidence -- the vagaries of human life make this unavoidable. So the standard for determining whether or not religious beliefs are delusional is the same as that required for any belief: is the belief contradicted by so much obvious and convincing evidence that in order to maintain it the believer becomes functionally compromised, producing suffering for themselves and those around them?”
Rossano makes the statement that everyone holds various beliefs “on partial or equivocal evidence.”  Yes, but not everything “perfectly normal people” accept is fantastical.  In addition, religious belief may not be delusion as defined in the DSM (I find it humorous that religion had to be specifically mentioned as not delusional); however Rossano adds that a delusional person is “producing suffering for themselves and those around them.” That is an major point of his article however I think it is important to note that he simply inserts it without evidence or citation.  It is not in the DSM-IV definition he cites nor is it in other sources I tried to find it in.

Delusion does not necessarily have to produce suffering for the delusional and those around them. An individual or even a group can hold delusional beliefs for their entire lifetimes and it may have no adverse effect on them or those around them. However, it is still delusion.  If the consensus, however true or untrue; is that religion is good for individuals and groups, then it cannot create suffering for individuals and groups and is therefore not delusion.  I think Rossano adds this into his article to make an effort to defend religion even though it is unnecessary (due to the existing definition excluding religion).  This is intentionally misleading and incorrect.  I point that out to highlight his intellectual dishonesty. 
“First, religions largely traffic in beliefs that stand outside of easy evidentiary evaluation -- in other words, religious notions tend to be neither verifiable nor falsifiable.”
Wrong.  Most religious “notions” are easily falsifiable.  Studies on prayer have shown that it has no effect.  Most claims about the natural world in the bible and by religious leaders are easily proven incorrect.  For the most part, the only “notion” that is neither verifiable or falsifiable is “does god exist” and that is due to the difficulty of proving a negative from an atheist's perspective.  Obviously, I think most scientists and philosophers have proven that the Christian version of god does not exist.  There cannot be an omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient god.  Try throwing in omnibenevolent and you really can disprove it based on logic.  

I always find this line of theistic/apologetic logic incredibly frustrating. Just because something is not easily falsifiable does not make it potentially true.  This is where Russell’s Teapot, the Pink Unicorn, etc. come in.  If religion(s) and claims of god(s) were somehow not a part of human cultural evolution (meaning no one ever came up with these ideas and claims) than no one would be making these claims NOW; at least not without ridicule.  These claims and ideas are cultural artifacts from thousands upon thousands of years of social evolution.  That does not make them true anymore than Russell’s Teapot flying around the orbit of Earth. 
“Second, an important finding that has emerged over the past 20 years or so from the cognitive science of religion is that religious thinking builds quite seamlessly on our natural modes of cognition. By evolutionary design, we tend to see the world in terms of intentional, meaningful patterns. Religious thinking simply takes this mode of thought to its very logical conclusion: we're inclined to think the world is an intentionally created, meaningful place because it is. Since religious thinking comes naturally to us, it is actually the skeptical mindset that requires greater effort to consistently maintain. Which leads to an interesting hypothesis: given the relatively greater mental effort required to maintain skeptical beliefs, it should be atheistic thinking, more so than religious thinking, that is prone to slide into pathology. (emphasis added)”
What complete bullshit.  Rossano states that “... religious thinking builds quite seamlessly on our natural modes of cognition. By evolutionary design, we tend to see the world in terms of intentional, meaningful patterns.”  This is true.  It’s the rest of that paragraph that he goes off the rails and completely makes up claims that are not supported by science or any study.  I can’t cite anything here because it DOESN'T EXIST.    This is his conclusion: “we're inclined to think the world is an intentionally created, meaningful place because it is.” This is complete tripe. Because we are inclined to think the world was created by a deity makes it true?  Really?  This is your logic? 

Once you “break” from religious thinking there is no maintenance of non-belief.  That is ludicrous.  A non-believer is not confronted throughout the day with fantastical supernatural evidence that counters their worldview of a strictly natural universe.  For a believer at some point something will come up that discounts either the sacred teachings of their religion, the existence of the supernatural or the necessity of their deity.  The believer then has to make a choice to ignore and reject this evidence/conflict, incorporate this information into their world view and via cognitive dissonance rationalize it, or reject the original supernatural belief.  Maintenance of belief is entirely on the believer, not the skeptic. 

The “greater mental effort” a skeptic has to endure is to constantly be reminded that you are a minority in a culture that elevates irrational belief systems, i.e. faith.  It is completely wrong, unethical and irresponsible for Rossano to equate atheism with any pathology.  What pathology is he alluding to?  What studies can he cite?  He just made that statement up to insert into his text of apologetics to instill fear about atheists being crazy. 

Furthermore, religious thinking comes as naturally to us as lust, greed, hate, etc.  That does not mean these traits should be encouraged.    
“Finally, since religion is a community-based enterprise, it largely discourages disengaged individualism…The religions we have with us today did not just drop from the sky, they evolved, with a primary selection criterion being how well they created trusting, cooperative groups motivated for collective action.”
Ok.  So religions did not drop from the sky and they encourage community.  That explains its social evolution.  How does this support the idea of religion or theism being…you know…true?
“Religion therefore contains a host of properties that actually militate against pathological delusion: (1) its general notions and practices are not obviously contradicted by evidence, (2) it requires very little mental effort to sustain most religious notions, and (3) it encourages community integration which promotes healthy psychological functioning.”
  1. The “general notions” are not supported by evidence either.  You can’t disprove the claim that an invisible pink unicorn is standing next to you now.   
  2. Agreed.  It does require very little mental effort to sustain most religious beliefs.  That’s the problem. 
  3. So does participation in any social group activity. 

The problem with Rossano’s article is that he, like many “moderate” apologists, is missing the point of his apologetics.  They can use science and reason to outline why religion exists and how it has evolved within human culture, but they miss the point: is it true?  Not once does Rossano make any claim that religion is true.  It is his sneaky way of trying to sound scientific while attempting to validate religious belief.  So we evolved a cultural construct/system to pattern our world.  That doesn’t mean there is a deity.  Additionally, Rossano subversively takes subjective cheap shots at non-believers by adding in sentences at the end of something “sciencey” sounding as we saw in his claim of “atheist pathology.”  Also, at one point he compares the merits of “worshiping Chewbacca the wookiee in his basement and someone going to church.”  I would contend they are equal in their irrationality.  He’s trying to make the point that church is superior since it builds community relationships, but again, this does nothing to prove religion correct.  It is an empty exercise to convince people that read his posts without a critical eye towards his logic.  He uses his position to forward empty, dishonest arguments to validate religious institutions, but no real ammunition to defend beliefs.  Like their deity; that doesn’t exist.