Atheism Alert – Letters from and to Atheists

For some time now, I have subscribed to a google news alert about “atheist OR atheism”. The links I get (a couple per day) are mixed – some for, some against atheism, some good, some bad. I plan to start a series of posts about the most interesting I get, and try to rip the stupid, bad ones apart.

Today, I found Letter to a Stupid Atheist by Mary Grabar. It is a rebuttal to Sam Harris’ ‘A letter to a Christian Nation’. I haven’t read that book (yet), but I still think I can answer to it, at least in part (hey, it is impossible to read all of the new books on atheism, there are so many).

Grabar’s polemic is pathetic, and tries to reinforce stereotypes of the bitter, angry atheist (italics mine):

My letter is addressed also to those who fall into the category you [Sam Harris] do. I have seen them—biologists with visibly rising blood pressure at college debates, writers of angry rhetoric in “humanist” magazines, bitter middle-aged men still chasing skirts, and one college sophomore who stands out in my memory among the hundreds of students I have taught over the years.

Oh, come on. This is so cheap, and not an argument at all. It is easy to come up with similar stereotypes for the pious, or moderate believers. And why are there “scare quotes” necessary around the word humanist?

She talks about a boy, Sammy, who was in one of her classes. Seems he was a smart guy who was making fun of religion when “He found it did not square with what he was learning in Biology 101.”. And her answer?:

I marked his papers for diction. (“Poppycock” is too colloquial, I wrote.) I asked him to reconsider his assessment of all Christians as stupid and bad.

Wow. That must have told him. To not use the word “poppycock”.

And so it goes through the whole article. For lack of better arguments, she reverts to ad hominem attacks and strawmen.

Mr. Harris, you charge us Christians with holding back scientific research on stem cells that you insist could alleviate suffering. You charge us with crimes against humanity by our concern over “blastocysts,” clumps of cells, unable to feel pain, much less consciousness–according to science. Indeed, you present all the progress of science up to this point in the twenty-first century as the model that should replace religion, which you call superstition, as the basis for ethics. Use science to help humanity is your cry.

You seem to put an incredible amount of faith in science, Mr. Harris. But many before you did too. Were you aware that at one time a group of scientists fancied themselves on the cutting edge for their belief in the science of phrenology, or the assessment of character by skull size, shape, and topology? These men presented scientific papers on their clinical work, which involved fondling and measuring skulls.

See? That is why science must be bad, and we better believe in an invisible friend in the sky.

No, Ms. Grabar. Those scientists were deluded, just as the creation “scientists” (quotes appropriate here), who “prove” that the earth is 6000 years old. And who do you think showed that those phrenologists were wrong? Scientists. All this shows is that even scientists are people, and can be politically or otherwise influenced, just as everyone. Which brings us to the next point:

I am quite surprised, Mr. Harris, that you would put so much faith in an endeavor whose base of knowledge changes on a daily basis. Think back to all the scientific theories of even a decade ago that have been surpassed. Think about how we scoff at the foolish scientific ideas of our father’s and grandfather’s times.

Ms. Grabar is completely ignorant of the scientific method. Sure, scientists can be wrong. But it is science that brings them back on track.

Soon after that, she must have taken a pill:

You have a degree in philosophy, I see, but were you aware that science as a mode of thought came about through monotheism? You see, the idea of a single creator made it possible for human beings to view creation as separate from spirit. And thus humanity advanced from one that believed that spirits lived in trees and rocks to one that believed that one Creator created this intricately marvelous world we live in. The scientific endeavor then became one where individuals observed and studied various aspects of this creation. That is called science.

Huh? There is so much wrong, that I do not know where to start. Science came about through monotheism? How? Is there anything in the bible that shows the scientific method I might have missed? How is it possible that the Jews did not come up with it earlier? They were the first (or at least among the first) to believe in monotheism. The first astronomic observations were made by polytheistic societies, thousands of years ago.

She goes on with a reason to not send your son to the boy scouts:

That is what was presented to my son’s Cub Scout troop by a chemistry professor and a Christian (and not of the moderate or liberal persuasion of your approved list). After amazing the boys and fulfilling their natural little-boy pyromania proclivities with shows of bubbles, bangs, and mini-explosions over Bunsen burners, the professor presented them this carry-away thought: though they might be impressed by the magic that he performed they should remember the greater magic that made all that possible to begin with.

And this is an argument how? The only thing it shows is that professor has gone too far – he should not impose his beliefs on the children.

I thought you might enjoy that little story, Mr. Harris.

Yes, right on. I am sure he is impressed…. Not!

She goes on by attacking Sam Harris with his sympathy for Peter Singer (I am not sure if Harris mentioned Singer in his book or if she just sees an analogy. Either way).

You feel that an ethical system can be based on the feelings of empathy that have evolved in us. You share your colleague Peter Singer’s view. Singer, Ira DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, gushes with sympathy for little piglets—to the point where he thinks the healthy ones should be allowed to live, while the handicapped month-old baby should be put out of its misery. He begins his argument, as he necessarily must, by doing away with Biblical principles and law: the idea that we are formed in God’s image, and therefore are above animals. He, like you, thinks that Christian proscriptions—like those against killing babies or having sex with animals–are just so much “poppycock.”

The difference is that Christians just look into the bible which tells us what is wrong and what is not. Singer though tries to find out how ethics can be derived by reason. The result may or may not coincide with some of the bible’s teachings. Unfortunately, I do not know much about Singer, so I cannot go into it too much. Reading about Singer though, it seems that Grabar draws a very simple view of Singer.

After that, she takes the pill again:

You pride yourself on your belief in equality, in democracy, and point to the “barbarism” of the Old Testament in its treatment of women and slaves (though you didn’t bother to research the translation of the term “slave” from a more general one meaning “servant” and the Biblical reference to slavery as an historical fact that Christians had to deal with, and not something they promoted). But did you know that historically Christianity was the first real democracy? Yes, even secularists and “progressives” admit that. It is a widely accepted historical fact.

I would like to know who those secularists and progressives are. Democracy is older than than Christianity. I thought they teach that at school?

She finishes with yet another stereotype reinforcement about “customers who fondled your book and read the jacket with self-satisfied expressions”, and “whipped out the credit cards from Louis Vitton bags”. “They also paid to see Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and thought it was a documentary.”. Really? And she knows that how? How is it to be trapped in your own dream world?

Sigh… I do not know why I wasted my time with this. Summary: atheism is bad because atheists are just plain weird.

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