Pharyngula

Minnesota has more than a few local conservative wingnuts; there are a few very popular blogs emanating from these parts to testify that, and in addition, the major metropolitan newspaper, the Star Tribune, has a shrill blitherer they regularly put front and center who has most of us scratching our heads in wonder that they keep such an incompetent hack on the staff. All the Minnesotan readers here know already who I’m talking about, and I don’t even need to mention her name…but for all of you lucky out-of-staters, I’ll fill you in: it’s Katherine Kersten. “Who?”, you all say, and that’s definitely the right attitude. But we locals have to deal with the spike in our blood pressure when we read the paper and stumble across her byline.

What brings up this keening harpy of the right today is that she published another of her inane columns this weekend, and her target is atheism. She doesn’t like it, nosir.

More and more, we see outright hostility to religion — particularly to Christianity. Consider the wild popularity of a recent spate of best-sellers by “New Atheist” superstars, including Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and Christopher Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.”

Far from being dispassionate critics of faith, the New Atheists are zealous crusaders for their own creed: materialism. They are passionately committed to the idea that the universe is a random accident, that transcendent truth is a myth, and that man’s life has no inherent purpose or meaning.

Well, yes! I think that’s great. There are no higher purposes discernible, but we happen to be here, so I think that looking for knowledge and value and even personal purpose in what is and what we are is far more sensible than asking a cold and mostly empty universe to whisper marching orders to us. Let’s strip away imaginary cosmic dictators (who are always nothing but an Oz-like showpiece to empower little, petty, earthly dictators anyway) and search for meaning in how we live our lives and how we can better the world for our children.

I accept the simplistic summary of my premises, but you know that Kersten has to go a step further, and tell me why I think that way…and of course she gets it wrong. I don’t think she actually has read the books she’s complaining about.

Why the growing audience for notions like these?

Religion poses a serious challenge to our cherished idea of personal autonomy. Unlike our forebears, we define freedom as the right to live as we choose — to “be ourselves” — unconstrained by social norms or a morally grounded sense of guilt or shame.

Atheists may not believe in gods, but we do believe in social norms. We also believe in limits to our rights to live as we choose — much as I might like to, I appreciate that bulldozing my neighborhood so that I can turn it into a slug and snail breeding ground would impose on my neighbors’ rights, so I don’t do it. I even appreciate that maintaining happy and cooperative neighbors is a greater good than having my own personal escargot farm.

I should think Kersten might have noticed that Christopher Hitchens always seems to appear in public fully dressed…and even in clothes that are quite conventional. I wonder why, if he’s unconstrained by social norms, he doesn’t appear naked, or dressed up as a clown?

She might have also noticed that Richard Dawkins doesn’t seem to have any pending arrest warrants (well, Oklahoma did try to criminalize him, but that’s different). He also seems to have succeeded in working within the social norms of academia, which, contrary to wingnut delusions, is actually not an anarcho-socialist ultra-Darwinian environment.

It all seems rather obvious to me, but Kersten persists in denying the evidence to the contrary. This seems to be a universal property of the religious — after all, if you can believe with no evidence that dead gods have walked the earth and turned water into alcoholic beverages, it must be trivial to accept that fellow law-abiding citizens with similar cultural preferences must actually be slavering sociopaths and unconscionable hedonists.

But this is all Kersten has got, the raising of spectral straw-men atheists who lack all restraint.

Judeo-Christianity throws a wrench in this, teaching that universal standards of right and wrong trump our personal desires.

In addition, it raises troubling questions about the vision of scientific “progress,” so central to our modern age. The mere fact that we are capable of, say, genetically altering or cloning human beings doesn’t give us moral license to do so, it cautions.

I always like how these doctrinaire promoters of “Judeo-Christianity” primly declare that they have such moral authority, when their faith has such a poor track record of promoting morality. Christians have advocated slavery, have murdered people for the awful crime of miscegenation, have decreed that people who don’t have the kind of sex they prefer are second-class citizens. Christians are thieves, murderers, rapists, and jay-walkers; it seems that having a belief in a transcendent authority actually doesn’t equate to being necessarily law-abiding and ethical or even, shocking as that may be, immune from the temptations of their natures.

I would very much like to see the Judeo-Christian documents that caution us about genetic alterations and cloning. These aren’t very biblical concepts, you know — there’s nothing in Leviticus about them. These are new phenomena, and the scientists who have worked on them haven’t necessarily been Christian or Jewish…yet somehow we’ve worked out that there are moral challenges in the technology without any dictates from burning bushes or salamanders handing out golden tablets.

Funny, that. You’d almost think that people were autonomous agents who recognized perils and responsibilities, and worked out among themselves what kinds of behaviors were right and would lead to less troublesome futures.

The entirety of Kersten’s piece is full of these nonsensical examples.

What, for example, is the source of the bedrock American belief in human equality? It has no basis in science or materialism. Some people are brilliant, powerful and assertive, while others can’t even tie their shoelaces. If “reason” alone is the standard, the notion of equality appears to be nonsense.

How can I even sort out that godawful muddle?

A belief in human equality also has no basis in the Judeo-Christian literature, which endorses inequity everywhere: there are “chosen” people, there are slaves, there are the righteous and the wicked, the crippled are excluded from the temples, the women are inferior chattel, the foreigners may be slain or enslaved.

Kersten herself asserts that equality is a “bedrock American belief”, and then goes on to show that she doesn’t really believe it — some people are brilliant, and others are stupid, and reason demonstrates that (to which I would add, so do Katherine Kersten’s columns…at least, they expose the latter half of her comparison).

Equality does not mean that everyone is a clone of each other with identical abilities, which would be in contradiction to reason and evidence. It is equality of opportunity that we are assigning — everyone should have the same rights and be granted the same chance to exercise their abilities as best they can. And that is something entirely compatible with reason.

And why should we act with charity toward the poorest and weakest among us? “Reason” — untempered by compassion — suggests that autistic children and Alzheimer’s sufferers are drags on society. In ancient Rome, disabled babies were left on hilltops to die. Why lavish care and resources on them?

We Americans take the moral principles of equality and compassion for granted. Yet these ideas are deeply counterintuitive. We’ve largely forgotten that their source is the once-revolutionary Judeo-Christian belief in a loving God, who created human beings in his image and decreed charity to be the first of virtues.

Why do these wackjobs always assume that reason and compassion are antagonistic? Reason tells me that it is a smart idea to be compassionate to the less privileged: maybe they have some ability that my society would find useful, to be pragmatic about it; there is no reason to assume that if someone is destitute, I must therefore do what I can to make their life more miserable; someone may be poorer or weaker than I am, but in turn, I’m poorer and weaker than someone else — does this warrant that I suffer? I also possess empathy, and when I see others harmed, I feel an echo of that pain myself. And, of course, perhaps someday I will have Alzheimer’s, and I’d rather not encourage the growth of a culture that would someday discard me.

I also think there are a set of ideas that are entirely the product of reason: that we should build a whole culture that enables and sustains equal rights and equal opportunities for everyone, because that will maximize the happiness and productivity of our society. I really don’t need a deity to tell me that, and it rarely seems to be a message promoted by religious hierarchies.

There are even more curiosities in that passage. Why does the right always talk as if Americans are exceptional? Do the French lack compassion, maybe, or are Canadians opposing equal rights for women and gays and Hispanics? It’s as if Kersten thinks moral principles are unique to this country.

And guess what: compassion and equality are not counterintuitive. Well, at least not among people who are not brought up with right-wing religious values. Children brought up in healthy, loving families seem to naturally share their toys, love puppies and kittens, and socialize well with other kids…all without reading books about it, or receiving psychic messages from angels. The source of these ideas isn’t Judeo-Christian at all: I’ve seen no evidence that Chinese children, for instance, are amoral beasts (well, no more so than any other kids), or that Inuit adults are unfeeling and don’t believe in justice.

We do have intrinsic natures that have been necessary to our success as a species: empathy, and the tendency to respond in kind to the actions of others. These can be accentuated by culture. We don’t need any gods to be good to others, just the opportunity and the examples of our upbringing.

Ah, well. That’s enough, you can see what level of ignorance went into Kersten’s complaints — she continues on to invoke Hitler, of course (he was trying to replace Christianity with reason, would you believe) and eugenics, which she claims is what happens when science is unconstrained by religion.

This is what readers of the Star Tribune have to groan over week after week. I really pity them, although it’s also the kind of thing that contributes to the decline of newspapers — pandering to ideology instead of intellect puts them on a par with propaganda organs.