I am intrigued by this question, which Jacques Berlinerblau asked in an article on Newsweek Online called, "Secularism: Boring (Part I)"
Query: Can an atheist or agnostic commentator discuss any aspect of religion for more than thirty seconds without referring to religious people as imbeciles, extremists, mental deficients, fascists, enemies of the common good, crypto-Nazis, conjure men, irrationalists, pedophiles, bearers of false consciousness, authoritarian despots, and so forth? Is that possible?
Berlinerblau's question brought to mind a closely related question: Is there anything inherently contradictory in a group of rational people debating the truth of the proposition, "All X's are imbeciles" and concluding, as a result of reasoned debate, that the proposition is true?
Now, I have repeatedly raised objections against the claim that "All theists are X". A theist is simply a person who holds that the proposition, "At least one god exists" is probably or certainly true. Nothing of consequence follows from this. In order to get to any substantive conclusion, one has to make further claims about the nature of this God. Since no two people share the same beliefs about God, it is difficult, if not impossible, to defend any statement that says, 'All theists are X' for any X other than X = 'people who believe that one or more gods probably or certainly exist'.
However, what of the proposition, "Some theists are imbecels?" or, more directly, "Any theist who believes X on the basis of Y is an imbecel?"
Is it not possible to hold a rational and reasoned debate and come to the conclusion that, at least in some cases, this is true?
One of the terms that Berlinerblau used was "pedophile." I believe that it is beyond dispute that the claim, "some theists are pedophiles" is almost certainly true, and that it is sometimes true that "those theists over there are pedophiles." A person who makes and defends a claim of this type does not automatically demonstrate that he has given up his devotion to truth and reason.
Or, let us consider a criminal court case. In this case, the proposition being debated is, "Is the defendant a murderer?" In the court, the defense and prosecuting attorneys engaged in a reasoned debate, each bringing their evidence before the jury, where the prosecuting attorney is charged with proving that the proposition, "The defendant is a murderer," is true, and the defense attorney trying to prove that the proposition is false.
It would be insane to suggest that there is something flawed in a court case that can be illustrated using the rhetorical question, "Can a prosecuting attorney discuss any aspect of an active case without referring to defendants as murderers, arsonists, drunk drivers, child abusers, embezzlers, thieves, robbers, con-men, liars, and so forth?"
Given the nature of the subject, the answer is no. However, given the nature of the subject, this is not necessarily a problem for prosecuting attorneys.
Indeed, it is the role of these "atheist and agnostic commentators" to play the role of social prosecutors. At least, I will assert that I take this as my role. I look at the actions performed by different agents and present reasons for holding that the agent can be properly, reasonably, and rationally labeled a bigot, sophist, liar, or perpetrator of some other moral wrong. It would be difficult to have an ethics blogs that did not make ethical judgments about people who perform certain actions.
It would be absurd to suggest that a person attempting to reason whether a person has committed a moral crime is necessarily closed-minded by that fact alone. It is not close-mindedness to listen to the evidence yet to draw the conclusion that the original assertion of moral wrongdoing was correct.
The same applies to every term that Berlinerblau has used in his question. Is it the case that "Some theists are extremists?" Well, given a sufficiently precise definition of "extremism" (one that is consistent with the proposition that people generally have many and strong reasons to inhibit extermism), this proposition is sometimes true, and a proof that it is true need not show that the speaker has abandoned principles of truth and reason.
So, let us take the word 'imbecile'. This term refers to people whose mental capabilities are similar to those of a young child.
Now, the reasoning capabilities of a young child, however poorly developed, are able to see through the problems behind the Santa Claus myth. The impossibility of delivering all of those toys to all of those people in such a short time, in particular, gives the child reason to believe that the Santa Claus story is not true.
Many religious myths are as unreasonable as the Santa Claus myth. This means that they would only be found reasonable by those people whose capability of reasoning about such things are on a par with those children who still 'believe in' Santa Claus. That is to say, beliefs in these specific myths are imbicilic or child-like beliefs.
The difference between the Santa Claus myth and the Abrahamic myths, for example, is that, at the age when the child obtains the ability to question these myths, they are praised and encouraged for their ability to see through the Santa Claus myth, but condemned if they should question the Abrahamic myth. The message that the eight-year-old receives for questioning Santa Claus is one of positive reinforcement; but questioning the Abrahamic myth results in condemnation and, in many cases, punishment.
Face it, the advocates of the Abrahamic myths cannot use reason to convince the child that these myths are true; even a child can see the holes. The only tool they have left is the tool that, "Those who question these truths are bad people. The deserve to be punished, as we will punish you, if you question these myths." This message is built into every Abrahamic religion.
I am not saying that this is some back-room conspirasy against children by adults who know better. Children raised in an environment, "God doubters are bad people," will simply pass these attitudes on to their own children in a chain of abuse that is self-perpetuating. That is, at least, until enough people stand up and question the "God doubters are bad people" myth.
The decision to put "In God We Trust" on the money and "under God" in the pledge owe themselves to these same social forces - a despirate need to force society to think in terms of God-beleivers as "we" or "fellow Americans" - giving them a sense of belonging, while associating God-doubting with alienation and rejection.
The decision to allow God-doubters to sit out the Pledge of Allegiance actually reinforces this message. While the God-doubters remain seated everybody gets the message that those who believe in God are included, and those who doubt God (deserve to be) excluded. The movement to put "In God We Trust" on public buildings is also a blatant attempt to communicate the message - particularly to children - that God doubters are bad people. At least, if you want acceptance, if you want to be a part of "we" rather than "them", you must trust in God.
This also suggests that it is particularly important to block any attempt to communicate to young people - particularly in public schools - the message that "God doubters are bad people." Since this message is written into the Pledge of Allegiance, this is why it is particularly important that schools not be permitted to engage in a ritual whose primary purpose is to help parents communicate the message, "Those who believe in God are good people, and those who doubt
Those children carry this message into adulthood, which is why, even as adults, they continue to hold the attitude that God doubters are bad people.
These social forces explain why it is that so many adults adopt such imbicilic beliefs. However, they do not show that the beliefs themselves are not imbicilic. It does not disprove the claim that those who believe such things, insofar as they believe them, believe things that a rational young child would be able to see are false, if socially permitted to do so.
Saying so does not automatically mean that the person who says it has abandoned reason and evidence. Indeed, asserting that such a person has abandoned reason and evidence is to beg the question – it is to assume that one’s own position on what is under debate is the correct position. Without this assumption, it is perfectly reasonable for reasonable and rational agents to argue in defense of the thesis, “Religious beliefs R are beliefs that children would normally be able to see as flawed at about the same age as they doubt the existence of Santa Claus, if they were socially permitted to do so.” Or, in other words, “Religious beliefs R are imbicilic.”
The same applies to every other term that Berlinblau used. And I sincerely like to see those who question religion to begin putting these arguments in this type of structure.