Rat Rants 2006
All Rights Reserved © 2006 Thomas W. Day
Every cult desperately attempts to eliminate folks the cult classifies as "heretics," "infidels," "secular humanists," or simply "different." Have you ever wondered why? Having grown up in a fundamentalist family, one that morphed from being fairly traditionally religious to one that today falls solidly in the radical Religious Right, I wondered about this phenomena a lot as a child, a young man, and it still mystifies me a little even today.
A program that sometimes entertains me, NPR's "Speaking of Faith" was a little less entertaining this week. The program interviewed "scientist and theologian John Polkinghorne," a poofy Brit who tries to link quarks to faith and creation, imagines that sub-atomic physics is some kind of link to the minds of the gods. Failing to make a noticeable mark in his chosen field of physics, he has slipped into the much milder waters of theology where evidence and mathematical proofs are not necessary, or even tolerated.
Polkinghorne has a website that is even less entertaining. In his blinded attempt to justify his illusions, he pushes off every major human excess on atheism. According to Polkinghorn, the 20th Century horror show was all the result of atheism. He wrote, ". . . if you don't believe in God it is very hard to believe in a morality that will constrain you when you have an enormous amount of power. Christian leaders, however powerful, know that they are ‘under God’ and that they do not have ultimate power, but are themselves under judgment. Atheists, manifestly, do not. An absence of constraints on the abuse of power leads, understandably, to an abuse of power."
Hopefully, you are historically conscious enough to know that is incredibly, historically, untrue. At best, it is a diversion to call Hitler's Germany "atheist." While the Nazis certainly misread Darwin and tried to turn science into a justification for yet another Manifest Destiny bloodbath, I think it would be hard to find proof that the majority of that crowd didn’t think they had “God on our side.” The long, vicious history of the Catholic Church establishes the lack of restraint imposed by being “under God.” The current President of the United States is demonstrating exactly that same freedom of action; based a good bit on his “ability” to talk to God and turn those conversations into anti-democratic and violent action. If you can find some evidence of restraint in the long, vicious, genocidal history of America’s interpretation of God’s will and an earlier exercise of Manifest Destiny against Native Americans, I’ll be amazed. Some of the most outspoken God-fearing groups provided the most violence.
As far as having “ultimate power,” the power of life and death is about as ultimate as power gets and I think Polkinghorne ought to be able to admit that Christian leaders are as likely to abuse that power as are members of any other sect or atheists, for that matter.
Later in his Q&A page, Polkinghorne states that atheists "actively reject" gods, rather than simply disbelieve, logically, such human fabrications. As evidence, he claims that rejecting gods requires the atheist to reject “the existence of the universe, anthropic fine-tuning, the existence of objective morality, and the life and witness of Christ and his resurrection.”
That's quite a collection of red herrings. My least favorites of these fishy arguments is the bit that makes Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, first, atheists and, second, worse than history's runners-up by quantity.
Hitler may have been a "Christian-hater," but that hardly makes him an atheist. Satanists are also Christian-haters but they sure as hell aren't atheists. Hitler was a freak serial murderer in a serial murdering nation in a serial murdering time of human history. I think it may be true that many of these freaks and their henchmen were inspired by knee-jerk reactions to the moral failures of Christianity in the previous centuries, but I'm unconvinced that Hitler, Stalin, or Mao put in the investigative work necessary to be atheists. They were equal inopportunity murderers, wiping out political opponents and political allies, almost equally. God didn't slow up their murderous intentions any more than gods had an effect on the Manifest Destiny New World freaks who thought a god was telling them to wipe the Native American from the face of the earth or to pillage the civilizations of Africa for warm bodies to man and woman their slave culture. Particularly, Stalin and Mao were considerably less spiritually or philosophically motivated than they were driven by power and greed. You can make a better argument for Lenin's philosophical motivation, but he purged his new nation of its best minds early, so I think giving him credit for a higher calling is fallacious.
I absolutely hate the argument that states that, because Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were born in a world that presented them with the opportunity to murder in previously impossible quantities, these were the world's worst murderers. I suspect the early Americans came closer to committing the most perfect "civilized" genocide in human history, but there weren't millions of victims available to them, so they failed to achieve to the high standards of 20th Century murder. Personally, I think once you've murdered for any vile reason, you've committed an unforgivable sin against man, life, and, if there are any, gods. Two murders is only worse than one because of the additional pain caused to the additional loved ones of the second victim. Two million vs. two is only worse because of that nearly infinite pain added to the karma of our species. Dropping a single bomb on a single innocent is unforgivable, regardless of the color of your cowboy hat or the justification provided by gods, politics, or history.
Linking an obvious fact, the existence of the universe, to a collection of unproven concepts is an old, tired conservative debate tactic. For example, if objective morality truly existed, our concept of morality should be at least somewhat consistent from culture to culture. It isn’t. In fact, morality appears to be evolving as constantly as technology, society, and far faster than biology. It appears to me that morality is currently evolving in about fifty different directions, in this country alone. Polkinghorne's using the FDA’s fallacious standard for safe medicine in his last “proof.” It should not be society’s job to prove a medicine is not harmful before a company experiments on society’s members for profit. It is not up to atheists to prove the non-existence of Jesus or the non-occurrence of his resurrection. Before atheists need to consider the possibility, it is the “responsibility” of believers to prove he existed and violated nature by returning from the dead. Evolution and infinite probability in an infinite universe do a fine job of resolving the anthropic fine-tuning issue.
For that matter, the anthropic argument has a hole or ten thousand. This strange circular and species-centric argument poses the weirdness that if we humans see something, it must exist for us. Meaning, it was put here for our entertainment or something equally simplistic and egotistical. This is a spin on the old Socratic imaginary universe, did-a-tree-fall-if-a-human-didn't-see-it, bullshit.
Personally, I doubt the sincerity of all religions and religious leaders. Christians do their damnedest to avoid being restrained by anything humble or honest that Christ required of them. Muslims pick and choose what they want from the Koran and ignore the more difficult, peaceful, generous requirements at their convenience. Gods are created in man’s image and, because of that, the gods and their creators are as flawed as the worst of men.
The apparent terror that many humans have of death creates an irrational desire for a magical eternity, life after death, and that cowardice seems to inspire all sorts of evil behaviors. The intolerance religions have for infidels and heretics seems to me to be based on a lack of belief in the inventions of faith. The best way to purge that doubt is the kill anyone who inspires uncertainty. That trait appears to be the link between the Roman persecution of Christians, Christian persecution of Native Americans and Africans, the French and Russian Revolution, the Holocaust, Stalin and Mao’s purges (which had more socio-political than religious components), and most of western abuses of Muslim countries.
Polkinghorne's willingness to use fallacious arguments to "prove" his position, in light of his rigorous scientific background, seems to me to be more evidence that "believers don't often believe." The fear he is showing toward the challenge to his illusions is the same fear that has led to persecution, execution, marauding crusades, and human history of violence and misery. The True Unbelievers can not tolerate challenge to their fantastic creations because it causes them to consider the possibility that they are making it all up. I think it is obvious that is exactly what they are doing, making up gods to relieve their fear of death. It seems to me that simply facing reality and getting on with life is a more healthy response.