Respectful Insolence

Holocaust denial, religion, and ideology

We often hear atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and P. Z. Myers castigating the excesses and irrationality of religion. (Heck, I’m often game for joining in when it comes to fundamentalist religion.) While discussing the recent Holocaust denial conference in Iran, Massimo Pigliucci makes a good point when he argues that focusing on just religion is missing the broader context:

The answer, I think, is similar to that of the other unnerving question raised by this week’s events: how can some people deny one of the best documented (and recent) historical events of all times? I mean, these guys have no trouble believing in unseen gods, or swallowing tall tales of miracles allegedly performed by long-dead prophets, but cannot bring themselves to accept the reality of an event for which there are still eyewitnesses around, that has been documented on film, and of which there are detailed historical records kept not by the victims, but by the perpetrators! Evolution deniers are pure dilettantes in comparison with Holocaust deniers.

The commonality between these cases is provided by the frightening effects of ideological blinders on human thinking. While Dawkins, Dennett and Harris (justly) rail against the damage caused by religions, they are missing the broader and most important point: unquestioning ideological commitment is the real enemy, be that in favor of a religion or political position, in reverence of a prophet or a political leader. Ironically, I think our tragic tendency to fall for facile ideological brainwashing may be the result of the fact that, despite our literature, science, and technology, we are still little more than a species of social chimpanzees – and we instinctively align ourselves with the alpha male, regardless of how much stupidity and suffering may result from it.

Indeed. It is not just fundamentalist religion, or even religion in general, that is the problem. They are just symptoms of a broader problem in human nature: unquestioning commitment to an ideology that allows us to deny evidence if it conflicts with that ideology. It’s a tendency that all humans are prone to, whether they are willing to admit it or not. The trick is to recognize when it’s happening in oneself and counter it, a very difficult trick indeed.

Comments

  1. #1 Stephen
    December 16, 2006

    Yes, this is a very important point. I try to make it myself from time to time in forum/Usenet discussions, but it needs a better writer than me to bring it over.

    An obvious problem with focussing exclusively on religion is that it leaves one open to the “but atheism is just as bad – look at communism” riposte.

    The enemy is blind dogmatism. And whether it is religious dogmatism, or racist, communist or nationalist dogmatism makes no difference whatever.

  2. #2 S.Rivlin
    December 16, 2006

    Let’s not forget scientific dogmatism. Many scientists are priests in their own fields of science who describe those who do not support their dogma as enemies. Frequently, the audience of these priests is their own students all waiting and willing to be ordained.

  3. #3 Eric Wallace
    December 16, 2006

    It is a good point, but it’s also one I’ve heard both Dawkins and Harris make themselves. So I don’t think they’re missing anything here.

    I believe it was Harris that I heard say that he focused on religion not because he thought it was worse than other forms of dogmatism, but because he felt like it is afforded undue respect in intellectual circles when compared with dogmatic ideologies like communism or fascism. No one bats an eye these days if you criticize communist thought, but a lot of people take offense at criticism of religious beliefs.

  4. #4 Tyler DiPietro
    December 16, 2006

    I think that a certain difference, one that is somewhat in favor of the views of Harris, Dawkins, et al., should be highlighted. That is that in America, Holocaust Denialism still persists, but due to the fact that we exercise what Sam Harris would call a “conversational intolerance” to that particular form of irrationality, it is quite marginal.

    It is the opposite, however, when it comes to religion. Although the situation has somewhat improved recently, it is criticism of religion that has been treated with such an intolerance. Being an atheist, for the longest time, has made you Unfit for American Political Discourse. That is why many atheists have been queasy about the rather intransigent rhetoric of Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, etc. They are perceived as being too strident where atheists, to get anywhere, should be conciliatory.

    Irrationality will always exist and always be a nuisance, but irrationality which people are forced to tolerate and refrain from criticizing is dangerous. I think that is the point Harris, et al. are trying to make.

  5. #5 Robin Peters
    December 16, 2006

    I agree that the true enemy is blind dogmatism of all sorts. It isn’t just a religious “thing,” although there are plenty of blindly-dogmatic religious people out there. I think the reason why blind dogmatism – be it religious, political or some other form of blind dogmatism – is so appealing to us is that we can just use a given set of doctrines or beliefs promulgated by someone else as our own set of beliefs. In other words, the acceptance of the beliefs of others implied by blind dogmatism means that we don’t have to do the difficult task of thinking for ourselves.

  6. #6 John Marley
    December 16, 2006

    Hey look! Someone brought up scientism in the second post.

    Where’s the evidence, man? Where’s the evidence?

  7. #7 ThomasHobbes
    December 16, 2006

    Where’s the evidence, man?

    Scientism suffers from the same problems that blind adherence to religion does, John. We can argue against a problem even if it represents a small threat in the big picture (I’m sure that you would agree that there are many more blind adherents to religion than to science as a kind of religion). We don’t have to prove that scientism threatens us as much as religious dogmatism, is what I’m saying, or even that it’s widespread. Synthesizing S. Rivlin and Orac, they suggest that religious zealotry and scientism both spring from the same twisted ideological concept, and both ought to be opposed for that reason. Now, if you want to argue that no such thing as scientism exists, or that our resources are so limited as to make attacking any zealotry but religious zealotry wasteful, those are different arguments entirely.

  8. #8 Orac
    December 16, 2006

    Synthesizing S. Rivlin and Orac, they suggest that religious zealotry and scientism both spring from the same twisted ideological concept, and both ought to be opposed for that reason.

    I did not mention “scientism.” Do not put words in my mouth. In many ways, the scientific method is the antidote to blind adherence to ideology, be it religious or political.

  9. #9 ThomasHobbes
    December 16, 2006

    My apologies; that argument was poorly formed, and I do not intend to put words in your mouth. I should have said something akin to this: Taking Orac’s point that it is not fundamentalist religion, or religion in general that is the problem, but rather unquestioning commitment to an ideology, and S. Rivlin’s point that devotion to science can even become dogmatic and unyielding (though you are quite right, Orac, that the scientific method is the antidote in these cases; the scientific method has a built-in defense against dogmatism), and I conclude that John Marley’s appeal for evidence of scientism does not eliminate the danger of such an unquestioning, ideological commitment in the sciences.

    Identifying such an ideological commitment looks like is a little problematic–it’s less clear cut than with the case of religion, where dogmatism is easier to identify (someone who believes strongly in the scientific method, as compared to someone who believes strongly in special creation, is most certainly not a zealot). I tend to think of someone who holds fast to a (scientific) explanation of a natural phenomenon, even when the evidence belies it. Now that kind of thinking makes for bad science–an unwillingness to consider the evidence against one’s position is bad, period.

    Is that clearer? Again, I do not want to wind up attributing things to you that you did not say.

  10. #10 Caledonian
    December 16, 2006

    We often discard evidence (or interpretations of evidence) that conflict with our existing beliefs. That’s not only normal and healthy, but necessary – it’s why we can go to a David Copperfield show and not come out believing that handkerchiefs can be turned into pidgeons and human beings teleported across a stage.

    The problems arise when we cease making alternative models and comparing their fitness to the ones we already accept. (What if David Copperfield actually did have mystic powers – how could we check and what kind of evidence would be necessary?)

    Ultimately we have to care about getting the right answer more than we care about being content with our existing models. When we don’t care about getting the right answer, we call that ‘religion’.

  11. #11 Joshua
    December 16, 2006

    Accusations of scientism remind me a bit of encounters like this: http://www.idrewthis.org/d/20061205.html

  12. #12 Torbjörn Larsson
    December 17, 2006

    I can’t contribute much more substantial than Eric and Tyler already commented, except that there are no signs that Dawkins et al are focusing “just” on religion and missing the context. Dawkins foundation is promoting reason and attacking unreason, Myers advocate education, and so on.

    There seems to be a tendency to mischaracterize their efforts. I can just hope it isn’t due to unquestioning ideological commitments or fear of criticism but that it can be changed to a more reasoned view.

  13. #13 Justin Moretti
    December 17, 2006

    If unquestioning obesiance to ideology is the problem, doesn’t that mean that the most strident of the atheists ought to stop mocking and feeling pity for us poor God-believers who like the spiritual side and reject the authoritarian absolutism?

    Just because I want to believe that God wrote the equations and set the whole shebang going doesn’t mean I have to believe that He blueprinted the whole universe and regulates everything to this day. It doesn’t make me an Intelligent Design nut, nor a Creationist.

    I can picture God as the overseer with the Angels as draftsmen: “No, Gabriel, it won’t work if you set gravity’s strength inversely as distance cubed! I thought we’d agreed on that this morning! Change it back to squared like I told you.” :-p

  14. #14 Chris
    December 17, 2006

    Personally, I thought Rivlin was referring to Lysenko. There’s no reason to construe it as applying to the majority of science when it clearly *doesn’t* apply to the majority of science.

    If unquestioning obesiance to ideology is the problem, doesn’t that mean that the most strident of the atheists ought to stop mocking and feeling pity for us poor God-believers who like the spiritual side and reject the authoritarian absolutism?

    No. God belief *is* the most common form of authoritarian absolutism. Wake up and smell the incense. There are of course other forms, some of them atheist – but not the kind of rational atheism that Dawkins and Myers champion.

    All the atheists are saying is that you shouldn’t believe in something until *after* you have evidence for it. Strident as I am, I’m not going to kill you for violating that rule, but I *will* criticize you. Criticism is not intolerance.

    You’re perfectly free to *picture* a divine architect, but you’re not entitled to believe that picture is actually *real* unless you have some evidence for it.

  15. #15 S. Rivlin
    December 17, 2006

    Lysenko is but one of many, though less publicized, examples of scientism. Most of the dogmatism in science is driven by scientists whose life work is based on a specific dogma that is under attack due to new findings that refute this dogma, or by scientists and their immediate followers who are (were) involved directly or indirectly in hypothesizing a specific hypothesis that now, after many years of being the leading hypothesis in the field, is in the process of being refuted. Such scientists, because of the respect and the high position they have earned over the years, see any attempt to refute their hypothesis as a personal attack on their scientific prowess and authority, especially since they continue to believe, despite the accumulating evidence, that their hypothesis is the only scientific hypothesis that will survive the test of time and the scientific method.
    To John Marley, there are multiple examples of scientism throughout the history of science, however, let me bring you a current example that you may or may not choose to delve into, such that you could see the light (or the dark).
    For many generations we have been taught, as early as in grammer school, that lactic acid (lactate) is a byproduct of anaerobic (without oxygen) energy metabolism. If in the past, this topic was mainly the interest of athletes and their coaches, and to a lesser degree of certain disease experts, the past two decades have seen much scientific evidence emerging, which not only points at the fact that lactate is produced everywhere in the body, including the brain, all the time and under fully oxygenated conditions, but that this ‘useless’ byproduct is actually a substance (substrate) that tissues can make energy from. Yet, despite this growing body of evidence, there are several scientists and their followers who stick religuously to the old dogma, since accepting the new findings will defunct their life work. And since many of these scientists occupy important positions in the scientific hirarchy, including as members of NIH study sections that decide how research funds are to be distributed, you can imagine the impact that their dogmatism may have on the advancement of science.

  16. #16 kehrsam
    December 17, 2006

    All extremists MUST be shot. Those claiming to alone know the truth are to be shot twice.

  17. #17 S. Rivlin
    December 17, 2006

    Kehrsam, isn’t your approach a bit extreme? ;)

  18. #18 Torbjörn Larsson
    December 17, 2006

    It doesn’t make me an Intelligent Design nut, nor a Creationist.

    But making claims with a special creation makes you a creationist, though. It seems even mosts deists needs to make naturalistic claims to scaffold their faith. Funny that.

  19. #19 S. Rivlin
    December 17, 2006

    There are many parallels between religion and science. The most obvious one is the poeple in both disciplines. Thus, there are those who consider to be the leaders and those who follow them. Although in religion, at least in most of them, one is not suppose to ask questions, in science there are many who, despite their scientific duty, do not ask questions. At the end of the day, religion and science are human inventions aimed to help us dealing with the enigma of life. Certain poeple within these disciplines are also using them to improve their own fortunes.

  20. #20 Chris
    December 17, 2006

    At the end of the day, religion and science are human inventions aimed to help us dealing with the enigma of life. Certain poeple within these disciplines are also using them to improve their own fortunes.

    That may be true, but without some specific evidence this looks a lot like false parity, something I am getting really tired of lately. “Religions are full of inflexible dogma, but some individual scientists are inflexible and dogmatic too, so there’s really no difference!” This is about one step from “Science/Atheism is just another religion! Because I say so, that’s why!”

    Science, as an institution and a way of knowing, stands *against* such dogmatism. Most religions are explicitly in favor of it. This is, IMO, a significant difference despite the fact that some people on either side may not adhere to the standards of their belief system. The systems *themselves* are different and thus the people who *do* adhere to one system behave differently from the people who adhere to the other.

    Talking about “many” and “certain people” without specifying who, or attempting to quantify how many, is fuzzy thinking at best. At worst it is deliberately deceptive weaseling.

    And since many of these scientists occupy important positions in the scientific hirarchy, including as members of NIH study sections that decide how research funds are to be distributed, you can imagine the impact that their dogmatism may have on the advancement of science.

    I could imagine it. But the inconvenient thing about imagination is that it is often wrong. Therefore I would prefer if you provided evidence of it, rather than leaving it up to the imagination. Frankly, I’m beginning to find your vagueness evasive.

  21. #21 S. Rivlin
    December 17, 2006

    Chris, a comment on a blog has too small a space and time to provide you with all that you want. Nevertheless, since science is a human venture, despite all the safeguards that the scientific method provides, as this venture is becoming more profitable, not only for select group of scientists, but especially for their institutions, the number of cases of scientific misconduct has multiplied many times over the number of such cases just 20 years ago. With the greater sophistication of scientific methodologies and the greater specialization of the different scientifc disciplines, less and less poeple are privvy to all the details of one given scientific endeavor or another. The Office of Research Integrity at the NIH will not be able to provide you with any reliable statistics on the level of fraud in science today, however they will be able to confirm that the number of such cases reported to them has grown significantly over the past 20 years. Without having this kind of statistics, one can just guess at how big or small the problem is. Nonetheless, fraud in science exists, it is growing and it takes years to uncover, if at all. Institutions are actively involved in covering up scientific misconduct for the fear of losing federal funding (I know that fact first hand) and thus many scientists are relying in their research on data that is fraudulant. Even if the scientific method is designed to expose such fraud and correct the wrong, it does not achieve that quickly enough or, at time, does not discover it at all. Only a few celebrated cases receive the attention of the media, such as the South Korean stem cell researcher. Most scietists who make a conscientious decision to commit an act of scientific misconduct are getting away with it. Their science is tainted and its tainting any research that relies on their tainted science. It is like a viral infection. The main reason science today is in real trouble has to do with the fact that the scientific discovery is secondary to greed, the mighty Dollar, the driving force behind and the reason for a significant number of scientists who manage to survive in science. Actually, only the rich scientist (continuously federally funded scientist) can survive in science today. The poor scientist, regardless of his/her genious, has no chance of surviving in science today, especially in the life sciences. However, a mediocre scientist with a fat NIH grant is a king/queen both in his/her own institution and in his/her field.

  22. #22 T.McCay
    December 18, 2006

    Dawkins and Harris have dealt with the question of non-theocratic dogmatism on more than one occasion; it is a frequently offered point.

    The problem is the same, the unquestioning obedience to authority the dogmatists always demand.

    However, with the exception of the communist revolutions in Russia and China, religion and godly approval play central roles in such dogmatic political movements.

    Certainly we haven’t forgotten Hitler’s Pan German Church and the religious allusions made in much of the Nazi propaganda, both before the Nazis took power and during the war.

    Unquestioning belief and obedience is at the very core of religion. Invisible gods are always ‘commanders’ in one sense or another and surrendering your own will and mind to the deity’s interpreters is central to the entire deal.

    There are good reasons to use religion as the starting point for questioning and resisting dogmatic thinking.

  23. #23 bernarda
    December 19, 2006

    orac keeps coming back to his hallowcaust racist zionist religion and his blind support for terrorist apartheid Israel. As Israel Foreign Minister Abba Eban is reported to have said, “There is no business like Shoah Business.” Now this,

    “unquestioning ideological commitment is the real enemy, be that in favor of a religion or political position, in reverence of a prophet or a political leader”

    That describes orac perfectly. He excuses any and all of theocratic Israel’s crimes against humanity.

    Here is an example of life in orac’s beloved “secular” Israel.

    http://haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=801449&contrassID=19

  24. #24 S Rivlin
    December 20, 2006

    Dear bernarda,

    Without justifying any of what had happened on that bus, are you really trying to generalize from that event about Israel’s secularity or religiosity? Is America secular or religious when idiots bomb abortion clinics? When a bum president tells his nation that he is doing God’s job in Iraq? Beside, Israel is a Jewish state, meaning its following Judaic laws. Sabbath is the day off, all the Jewish holidays are celebrated, etc, etc. Nevertheless, human rights, national laws, freedom of speeach (illustrated perfectly by the article you have linked us to) are more advance than those in many Western societies. If Israel’s crimes against humanity are those that aim at preventing suicide bombers to get to their victims, or those that assure that the Nazis’ crimes will not occur again (see item: Ahmadinejad and the wiping of Israel from the map of the world), then, I can live with such crimes. The real criminals are those who aid the future Nazis amassing the weapons and the capability to repeat the deeds of their predecessors. And those who fall for the propaganda of the new Nazis are as guilty as the German poeple who fell for Hitler’s propaganda.

  25. #25 bernarda
    December 20, 2006

    Rivin, “The real criminals are those who aid the future Nazis amassing the weapons and the capability to repeat the deeds of their predecessors. And those who fall for the propaganda of the new Nazis are as guilty as the German poeple who fell for Hitler’s propaganda.”

    Who are actually the future, or present for that matter, Nazis and those who fall into line?

    Those who fall for zionist propaganda, perhaps?

    Here is another look at the holocaust industry.

    http://www.dissidentvoice.org/Dec06/Ash14.htm

  26. #26 Coin
    December 20, 2006

    I can’t stop laughing at the guy barging into a conversation in which nobody mentioned Israel, then ranting madly about how everyone else is obsessed with Israel and won’t stop talking about it.

    Just… wow.

  27. #27 Tyler DiPietro
    December 20, 2006

    I can’t stop laughing at the guy barging into a conversation in which nobody mentioned Israel, then ranting madly about how everyone else is obsessed with Israel and won’t stop talking about it.

    A casual look at bernarda’s posting record here shows that this behavior is rather typical. He barges into a thread, drops a few inflammatory one-liners and semi-relevant links, and then flames anyone who attempts to respond in any sort of coherent fashion.

    Not to bernarda:

    orac keeps coming back to his hallowcaust racist zionist religion and his blind support for terrorist apartheid Israel. As Israel Foreign Minister Abba Eban is reported to have said, “There is no business like Shoah Business.”

    Assuming that you’re being somewhat serious and not simply trolling, using such blatantly hyperbolic and inflammatory phraseology puts you in the same category as the “Israel can do no wrong” and “You’re an anti-Semite if you don’t carry a photo of Bibi in your wallet” crowd(s). You may find it entertaining, but no one takes you seriously.

  28. #28 S. Rivlin
    December 20, 2006

    Bernarda,

    If you went to Teheran last week, I am sure you had a great time with all those Holocaust deniers. If they did not invite you this time, I am sure that by continuing your magnificent job of spreading the word of your hero, the President of Iran, you will be invited for the next conference.

  29. #29 Orac
    December 20, 2006

    At least Bernada has dropped any pretense of being anything other than a run-of-the-mill anti-Semite and probable Holocaust denier.

  30. #30 bernarda
    December 22, 2006

    It is too late now, because this thread has gone down the drain, but orac reveals himself as a typical judeo-nazi.

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