Allen’s Fatuous Screed

I see that Taner has already had a crack at at Charlotte Allen’s particularly inane and virulent diatribe against atheists, but I think it deserves a bit more comment. Actually, “deserves” is not the right word, because that implies that her effusions possess respectable intellectual content, worthy of reasoned riposte. They do not. Her remarks deserve contemptuous dismissal, and, after all, doesn’t such a screed serve as its own best refutation? What a colleague of mine said about the postmodernists applies also to Allen and her ilk: “There is an algorithm for refuting them: Quote them.” Alternatively, a response of the same intellectual quality of Allen’s piece would be to thumb one’s nose in her general direction while emitting a loud Bronx cheer.

Alas, things are not quite so simple. As practitioners of Big Lie propaganda from Dr. Goebbels on have realized, even transparently fallacious charges, if repeated loudly enough and often enough, will often stick. This is why even harangues like Allen’s need to be challenged, though it is distasteful and tedious to do so.

Allen has three big complaints about atheists: (1) They are angry, (2) they whine that they are victims, and (3) they don’t take the serious arguments of theists seriously, but dismiss religious people as stupid and uninformed, and harp on a few, hackneyed issues like Darwinism or Biblical inconsistencies. Let’s consider these in turn:

Allen says that “what primarily seems to motivate atheists isn’t rationalism, but anger…” Her evidence? Well, she cites the “big four” bestselling atheists–Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens–and looks at some atheist blogs and websites. The article’s biographical blurb says that Allen is the author of an academic-sounding book, The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus. If she followed the same standards of research in preparing that book that she did for this article, it must have a scholarly quality approaching Chariots of the Gods or The Bermuda Triangle.

Adopting Ms. Allen’s methodology, I could peruse some of the leading religious right crusaders and cruise some of the more scurrilous “apologetics” websites and blogs and conclude that Christian charity and meekness have rather eroded in our day. Indeed, if we look at the scriptures of the major theistic religions, we might conclude that, paraphrasing Allen, what primarily seems to motivate God is not love, but wrath. The Qur’an, for instance, contains much furious denunciation. Here are some samples:

Sura 22.9 “As for the unbelievers, for them garments of fire shall be cut and there shall be poured over their heads boiling water whereby whatever is in their bowels and skins shall be dissolved and they shall be punished with hooked iron-rods.”

47.4 “When you meet the unbelievers, strike off their heads; then when you have made wide slaughter among them, carefully tie up the remaining captives.”

9.29, 30 “Declare war upon those to whom the Scriptures were revealed but believe neither in God nor the Last Day…”

9. 5-6: “Kill those who join other gods with God wherever you may find them.”

8.12: “I will instill terror into the hearts of the infidels, strike off their heads, then, and strike off from them every fingertip.”

Likewise the Judeo-Christian scripture has so much vindictive violence and genocidal smiting that it prompted Tom Paine’s famous eruption in The Age of Reason:

“When we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon rather than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.”

The point is that it is a cheap and facile charge to say “atheists are angry.” I could with precisely equal justification say “Christians are angry” or “Muslims are angry,” or “God is wrathful.” With the magic of biased sampling and selective quotation you can prove anything you want.

Now some atheists are angry–Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, to name three (Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is quite cooler). But being angry is not per se blameworthy. Indeed, there are plenty of things we should be angry about. Allen must mean that D, H, & H are mad about things that they should not be angry about. However, to make this case, she would have to engage the arguments of D, H, & H, but logical argument, as opposed to arrogant moralizing, does not appear to be her strong suit.

Do atheists play the victim card? Well, if we ever do, we are pikers compared to the leading spokesmen of the religious right. They have a boundless capacity for self-pity and a bottomless sense of martyrdom. For instance, the removal of “Roy’s Rock,” a 2 1/2 ton granite block inscribed with the Ten Commandments from the Montgomery, Alabama judicial building, was loudly decried as proof of the “persecution” of Christians in the U.S. It was this perfectly absurd charge of persecution that Jon Stewart satirized before the last election when he wailed “Oh, if only a Christian could be elected President of the United States! Maybe 43 of them.” Do I make this point merely to toss a tu quoque in Allen’s face? No, but to make an eminently Christian point: Remove the beam from your own eye before you remove the mote from another’s eye.

Finally, do atheists ignore the serious arguments of theists while concentrating on red herrings? Well, if Ms. Allen had read such atheists as, say, Wallace Matson, J.J.C. Smart, Adolf Grunbaum, William Rowe, J.L. Schellenberg, J.C.A. Gaskin, Michael Martin, J.L. Mackie, Evan Fales, Taner Edis, Michael Tooley, Richard Carrier, Theodore Drange, Jordan Howard Sobel, Graham Oppy, Robin Le Poidevin, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Nicholas Everitt, or, ahem, yours truly, she would have found the serious episemological and metaphysical arguments of theists addressed in great detail. She upbraids atheists for allegedly not considering the serious arguments of theists. Too bad she is so woefully incapable of taking her own advice with respect to the serious arguments of atheists.