Imagine you found a population in the US where the majority of the people believed that 2+2=5, and that attempts to correct them with the actual, correct result of adding two numbers were regarded as insults to their revered traditions. I think we’d all agree that they a) they were wrong; b) they were misled, misinformed, and miseducated; c) that they were ignorant of arithmetic; or d) might very well have been maliciously deceived by someone in their midst. Somehow, though, if the ridiculous error involves God, some people take a big step backwards and are appalled that anyone might criticize them. Those “revered traditions” become more than mere excuses, they are inviolate.
You guessed it, once again someone was aggravated that I have dared to call adherence to religious belief a case of being “ignorant, deluded, wicked, foolish, or oppressed.” This time our indignant contestant is Mark A. R. Kleiman, who considers it atheistic bigotry to enumerate the reasons why people might come to absurd and erroneous conclusions. That 80-90% of this population, which is not hypothetical at all but is the entire US, believes that chanting their wishes into the sky might get them granted by a magic being, or that over half use the excuse of their religious dogma to reject the basic facts of modern biology, is something we must not question and especially must not criticize. Because it is religion, it must be respected.
Except, well, Kleiman has an out. There is a “childish” religion that can be criticized, but then there’s this mature, adult religion that is “always metaphorical.” He’s not really defending those ignorant, deluded, wicked, foolish, or oppressed religious kooks that believe the earth is 6000 years old or that we go to war in the Middle East to smite the wicked brown-skinned Muslims, oh no — those are the negligible, unrepresentative fringe elements. True Religious People™ know that everything in their religion is a metaphor. They don’t really believe in an anthropomorphic god … why, that is only a symbol for “an infinite, omniscient, beneficent, immortal being”.
This is ridiculous on two counts. One, talk to some real people sometime, willya? The majority of religious people in this country do believe in a completely non-metaphorical god, who acts non-metaphorically, who has non-metaphorical desires and plans, and who non-metaphorically wants their high school football team to win the championship, if they pray hard enough. This god of the rarefied nebulous metaphor is the product of theologians who’ve studied the subject long and hard enough to know that the god of the people is untenable nonsense, and must be cloaked in metaphor.
Two, there’s no reason to believe in a metaphorical “infinite, omniscient, beneficent, immortal being,” either. There is no evidence, no explanation, no mysteries which we need to fill with this superman — excuse me, superentity — of the supernatural, so why should saying that this silly concept is actually just a metaphor for that other silly concept salvage either one? It’s a shell game: the abstract deity exists only as a distraction, a pawn to use to draw away attacks on the invisible man-god, and if we criticize the metaphor, the man-god can be mocked to let our theologian pretend to be sly and clever and just as skeptical as his interlocutor.
I have to wonder, too…if this god is a metaphor, why are people always building real monuments and cathedrals to him, and donating real money and effort to his worship? Why not just stay home on Sundays, watch football, and say you’re metaphorically being religious? There’s a real disconnect here: the institution of religion is not committed to a metaphor.
Kleiman also complains that my reason for stating my opinion is that I’m just trying to get the truth across — apparently, trying to hammer home that 2+2=4 means I have claimed possession of absolute knowledge of all. The only truth to which I hold here is that there is no god and no evidence for one. If someone wants to rebut that firm rock to which atheism is anchored, that’s the idea they have to address. None do. And saying the absence of god can be replaced by a metaphor for god is dodging the issue.
After trying to undercut my argument with puffs of metaphorical smoke, Kleiman does ask an interesting and revealing question.
I’ve always wanted to ask someone like Meyers — or Dawkins, or Pinker — how much smarter he thinks he is than, let’s say, Heraclitus or Socrates or Maimonides or Newton, who thought hard about religion and didn’t dismiss it as nonsense.
Why would anyone think I regard myself as smarter than Newton? I think there are religious people who are much smarter than I am even now. I do not make the logical fallacy of believing that because people are wrong in one thing, religion, they are therefore wrong in all things; I don’t believe that Christians are irreparably stupid or that their gullibility about god translates into some gross systemic defect in their entire ability to reason. I also do not equate “smartness” with “infallibility,” and know that even certifiable geniuses like Newton can also believe fervently in erroneous matters … like alchemy or Christianity. It would be like noting that Mark Kleiman cannot spell “Myers” properly, therefore he is incompetent in all things and must be less intelligent than me, who can spell it correctly.
In fact, I might assume that he misspells it to goad me, and is therefore wicked; or that perhaps he is merely ignorant of the correct spelling, because he hadn’t seen the word written out before; or that someone misled him and told him the wrong spelling; or perhaps he has grown up in a tradition of inserting a redundant “e” in the name and made the error unthinkingly. If I point that small error out, though, am I going to be accused of both bigotry and elitism in thinking that I must believe myself superior in all ways to Mr Kleiman? At least, that’s the impression I get from his complaints.
Perhaps he should learn that poor ideas about a god should be as subject to rejection as poor spelling — even more so, since the latter is trivial and isn’t going to drag us back into an age of superstition. This knee-jerk deference granted to religious absurdity, this belief in the sanctity of belief, is something that contaminates even good minds, and that’s too bad.