Pharyngula

I think The Raw Story is supposed to be a progressive political web site…which, unfortunately, means I now have to be greatly embarrassed by my fellow travelers along the great liberal path. Melinda Barton has written a bizarre and poorly supported screed against atheism, or as she’d prefer to call it, secular whackjobbery, as opposed to her preferred position, which I will call theistic wank-offery.

She starts by making up a novel definition, always a bad sign. To Barton, the term “secular” refers to “those who disbelieve all religious and spiritual claims, not to those who merely support a separation of church and state.” That’s an interesting position for a progressive to take, since there are a great many liberal religious people who believe that a secular government is the best government, yet because they hold private beliefs about God, she gets to sweep them completely off the table in any consideration of the promotion of secularism. Sweet. It also means she gets to accuse those few remaining godless promoters of a non-religous government “whackjobs” and extremists. Not all the atheists, she is quick to note—just the evil ones who hold the outrageous claims she then lists. Strangely enough, when she lists these claims, she isn’t able to provide any evidence that anyone actually holds any of these positions.

You know, I’m a fairly extremist atheist myself, and I just find her assertions daffy.

Outrageous claim number 1: Atheism is based on evidence and reason and is philosophically provable or proven. Atheism is a matter of thought not belief. In other words, atheism is true; religion is false.

Well, yes, I believe religion is false; that’s no more a damning trait than the fact that Melinda Barton believes religion is true. But this claim that atheism is proven is bizarre; who says such things? She tries to quote a writer for the Atheist Foundation of Australia who defines atheism as “the acceptance that there is no credible, scientific or factually reliable evidence for the existence of a God, god/s or the supernatural”…tell me, where is the claim of provability there? She goes on to argue that both the presence and absence of a deity are matters of belief, setting up a false equivalence in which she tries to argue that both are therefore matters of faith. What nonsense; the absence of faith is not faith, any more than the absence of a sandwich is also a kind of tasty snack between two slices of bread.

Outrageous claim number 2: Since the natural is all that we have or can scientifically observe and/or measure, it is all that exists.

Now we get into some real craziness. This basic claim of metaphysical naturalism, which is a reasonable interpretation of the absence of evidence, is called a blatant logical fallacy and scientifically inaccurate by Ms Barton.

She claims it is a logical fallacy because absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. That’s an extravagant misuse of the aphorism, I’m afraid. Absence of evidence is a legitimate argument for the absence of a phenomenon. If I claim there is a unicorn living in my backyard, but repeated attempts to observe and record it, or to find indirect evidence such as footprints or unicorn scat all fail, it is perfectly reasonable to provisionally suggest that the claim is false, and to insist that any further consideration of the idea will require positive evidence from the claimant.

As for her claim that metaphysical naturalism is scientifically inaccurate…her defense consists of abusing quantum physics. I’m thinking there ought to be an exam and some kind of licensing requirement before people are allowed to use The Argument From Quantum Physics in public.

Outrageous claim number 3: All religion is oppressive.

I’m more sympathetic to this one. I think it’s true that most religion is oppressive, and I agree with The International Manifesto for Atheistic Humanism that she quotes:

Religion is oppressive. The act of subjugating human will to “divine will” is oppressive. The practice of obeying clergy, of letting them make our decisions for us, is oppressive and irresponsible.

The onus is on Ms Barton to show that this is false and only believable by whackjobs. She fails. She cites examples of commendable behavior by religious individuals, which I don’t disagree with at all—people are quite capable of transcending the limitations of their dogma. As we’ve come to expect, she has to ignore the actual words of her atheist targets to make her case. She doesn’t even try to address the issue of surrendering autonomy to an authority based on “faith” as oppressive.

Outrageous claim number 4: The eradication of religion in favor of secularism will bring about utopia.

Again, a straw man, and she has got to know it. She reaches for the usual extremist examples with which atheists are typically beaten, the anarchists and communists, and says that they believe “the total eradication of religion is an essential but not sufficient step in the creation of an atheist utopia.” The statement of her religious claim and her recitation of an example follow one after another; are we to believe that she doesn’t understand what the phrase “but not sufficient” means? Possibly. She’s not exactly dazzling us with her clarity of thought here.

Outrageous claim number 5: All religious people want to force you or convince you or coerce you to believe as they do.

Just a rhetorical tip to Ms Barton: it’s a bad idea to end a list of arguments for your position with the weakest, lamest, most pathetic claim you can think of, and also to immediately admit that it’s unsupportable. You know, like this:

I tried to find an “official” source for this hasty generalization with no luck, but chose to include it here based on personal experience.

Jebus. Never mind. Do we even need to try to rebut this kind of nonsense?

Fresh off that flabby reasoning, her conclusions stoops even lower. Why should we oppose these “secular whackjobs” on the left? Pogroms, baby, we’re all about persecuting you for what you do in your home and church. Step into my classroom or onto the sidewalk wearing a crucifix, and I might just rip it off and stomp on it. (Do I have to add, “not really”? Probably. The fevered imaginations of the Melinda Bartons of the world no doubt see sarcasm as a personal slight.)

While most who believe in the separation of church and state hold that only government support of religion in the public sphere should be forbidden, the secular extremist may take it one step further to forbid the private display of religious symbols in public places.

I hereby promise that if you want to wear a yamulke in public, or want to dab ashes on your forehead on some incomprehensible holy day, I won’t sic the cops on you. OK? There’s a difference between accusing all people with certain religious beliefs of conspiring to lock you up in prison, and insisting that government should be entirely secular, granting no preference to one religious belief or another. When you target the latter under the pretext of protecting us from the former, you’re promoting theocracy.

Just for the slow and witless who have difficulty figuring out the obvious, Ms Barton, theocracy is not a progressive value.

(Crossposted to The American Street)