Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Good that Atheists Would Not Do

My wife always tells me, “Don’t post angry. You’ll say things you regret.”

But, some days, something touches a little bit of ire.

Once again (in a clip on Crooks and Liars in a post "Hitchens vs. Hannity on Religion and God,") I have heard some theist offer the argument, “Look at the good that religion has done!” Hitchens was given little time for a reply, but the reply he gave was far from what Hannity deserved.

Hannity: Religion also has provided food and water and medicine and supplies and housing and there has been in the name of religion much good that has been done both in this country and around the world.

Hitchens: But if you reduce religion to social work then so does USAID do all that at, actually a secular organization, actually rather more convincingly. Most of the great philanthropists in the United States have been atheists. That does not prove that atheism is correct.

Technically, this answer is correct. However, it completely ignores the stench at the core of Hannity’s remark.

I have offered a response to this claim in a couple of posts, but I want to bring it front-and-center and shine a spotlight on it.

[Note: No interviewer would sit still and allow you to recite everything I have written below. So, think of the first paragraph as the actual response. The paragraphs that follow are talking points that can be added to any follow-up comments.]

Do you realize how amazingly bigoted that remark is? When you say, ‘Look at the good that religion does,’ as an argument for religion, you are saying, ‘look at the good that atheists would not do,’ which is the same as saying that atheists are inherently selfish and lack compassion.

Think about this: Would you dare sit there and tell a Jewish guest that Christian charity is proof that Jesus is the son of God – because of all the good done in the name of Jesus? If you even tried that, you would be out of a job by the end of the week. You know this. You are so instantly aware of the bigotry inherent in such a claim that the words would not leave your lips. Claiming that Christian charity is proof that Jews are mistaken about Christ would imply that Jews are not charitable. The roar that would result from such blatant bigotry would be deafening and end only in your resignation or termination.

But you say such things against atheists – even though you do not have a shred of evidence to back it up – without the slightest hint that you appreciate the appalling bigotry in your assumptions.

You probably won’t be fired for this – and will probably be rewarded – for the same reason that Don Imus would have perhaps been rewarded if he had delivered the same remark against blacks in the 1920s. Anti-atheist bigotry is so pervasive in this society that you can’t even notice it. It’s a stench that you have gotten used to because you spend your life in it. It is just as easy to today to divide the country between a 'we' who 'trust in God' and a 'they' who do not as it once was to divide restaurants and restroms among ‘white’ and ‘colored’.

You see nothing wrong in the sickening stereotype of atheists as cowards unwilling to risk their lives for others with the cliché “There are no atheists in foxholes” when there are atheist soldiers, police officers, firemen, and other heroes buried from one end of this country to another and in several foreign countries as well.

You do not see the bigotry inherent in having the government tell its school age children every day, ‘Good Americans are 'under God'. If you are not under God, then you are no different than those who are against a nation that is with liberty and justice for all.’

I say that it is not religion that causes people to do good deeds, but innate human kindness. Some of that human kindness finds its expression through church. However, it will find expression through whatever institutions are available.

I know many atheists who show their charity through a church because helping those in need is far more important than petty disputes about the existence of God. The only qualms that atheists have about making contributions through a church is they want to be sure that the money goes to food, clothing, and medicine, on building hospitals and promoting sanitation, on things that have real-world value, and not wasted on churches and Bibles.

Do you want to know why there are no atheist hospitals or charities? It’s because atheists do not drool over other people’s suffering as an opportunity to coerce them into joining one’s club. We are not going to force starving people to attend Darwin lectures in exchange for a bowl of soup. Nor are we going to require that they profess unbelief before we inoculate them against disease. Nor are we going to use their natural gratitude to coerce them into joining our meetings and buying membership into our clubs because they owe us.

We don’t paint religious symbols on our good deeds when we hand them out. We simply hand them out. Because our good deeds bear no mark, because they are unconditional, bigots like you think that you can ignore them – pretend they do not exist – and smugly tell your viewers/listeners, ‘Look at the good deeds that atheists would not do.’ You will not recognize the good that we do because you do not know what charity without strings looks like.

The fact is, the vast majority of atheists are too busy bringing good to the world to worry about who believes in God and who does not. You are alive today, almost certainly, because of the good that atheists do. Atheist scientists provide most of the medical breakthroughs that keep you alive – much of it using this theory of evolution that you love to denigrate. Atheist earth scientists have discovered ways to warn you of tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. They have also taught you how to build structures that can withstand earthquakes, predict your weather. Atheist science, using this curse you love to spit at called ‘evolution’, make sure that you have enough food – clean, healthy food - to eat, clean water to drink, and clean air to breathe.

If all of the religious people were to disappear out of the scientific community, science would barely notice the loss. But if the atheist scientists were to suddenly disappear – as you seem to want them to do – most people in this world would quickly end up dead, and the prospects for future generations would look no better.

‘Look at the good that religion does; look at the good that atheists would not do,’ you say.

Find some good that atheists would not do, and I will be pleased to examine it with you. However, I assert that the good that atheists would not do – this denigrating bigotry you express towards atheists – exists only in your very narrow mind.

The point of this being – I express again – to make clear the fact that, “Look at the good that religion does,” stated in this kind of context means nothing other than, “Look at the good that atheists would not do.” It is a denigrating, mean-spirited, bigoted statement that would never cross the lips of any fair and just human being.


olvlzl said...

The problem with this kind of argument begins where most discussion of human behavior does, it creates false categories and goes on through imprecise terminology. Worse, it lumps people together to try to come up with a tally of who is more of a nice guy and who is more of a jerk. In that the results are guaranteed to be useless for any good purpose but tailor made for furthering bigotry.

"Atheists" or "Christians" or any other group of people don't "do good" they aren't "great philanthropists". Individual people do those things and individual people are amazingly varied, too varied to be honestly categorized. Nothing real can be found out about the artificial categories of "Christians" or "Atheists". Begin with the fact that those “groups” are are not homogenous things about which some larger truth can be discerned, they're convenient fictions. You can’t collect data on these fictions and try to come up with the typical behavior for members of either “set” either because it would be impossible to do so. There is no way to come up with a standard model of either kind to judge which were the “greatest philanthropists”. If you attempted the statistical analysis wouldn’t you have to throw out the “greatest philanthropists” as outliers?

Just as an example of one of the difficulties. The term “greatest philanthropist” is ambiguous at best. Is a billionaire who gives .02 percent of their annual income to charity a “greater philanthropist” than someone who makes two hundred dollars a year and gives a beggar three meals? Which one actually put their comfort at risk? Which one of them might have put their own or their children’s survival at risk? You’re more likely to hear enough about a big donor who might have to forgo nothing they care about than an impoverished no body but does glamor really count in this kind of thing?

This exercise is useless if you want to find out something useful, it’s only real use is to prop up bigotry. Considering that it’s Hannity and Hitchens, both of them with records of proven PERSONAL records of amorality and bigotry, what can you expect? I’ll warn atheists, if they take on Hitchens as a cause because he identifies himself as an atheist they should look at his history of backstabbing and hypocrisy. Look at his activities at The Nation. He lives long enough, I predict you’ll regret it.

People should be judged by their individual actions in their full variation and full ambiguity, if they’re going to be judged as people, at all. They shouldn’t be judged by what they say they think. Certainly other people who claim to think the same thing shouldn’t be judged for good or bad by other people, not even by other peoples’ actions.

Thesauros said...

You should have listened to your wife. You're a much better thinker than what this post indicates.

Anonymous said...

mark - what was wrong with it? I thought it was dang good.

Anonymous said...

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, who is deeply religious, to the point where she simply cannot understand why it is that I do not believe in God. She has an uncle who has an alcohol problem. I turned to her and I said "to atheists, the religious look like drunk people talking to themselves." For some reason, this made sense to her on some deeply visceral level. Her mouth opened to a large "O" and she stared at me in shock. I think she only just that moment even grasped what she might look like to me.

I only mention it because it might work for someone else.
(Of course, it might offend a whole lot others)

olvlzl said...

I turned to her and I said "to atheists, the religious look like drunk people talking to themselves."

You were being rather presumptuous speaking on behalf of "atheists" weren't you? Rather arrogantly? I know atheists who aren't so presumptuous and rude about it, they just say they don't believe it and leave it at that. Which approach do you think is more likely to lead to good feelings on the part of the large majority of people who are religious? Maybe it would have been better for other atheists if you'd just spoken for yourself and not for them.

Anonymous said...

Well, talk about the capacity to misunderstand! I certainly wasn't calling the religious drunks, nor was I even representing other atheists. It is pure conversational shorthand (you might want to keep in mind that I was talking to a friend). The point that I was making, as I was at some pains to explain, is that the matter of non-faith is quite simply as mind-boggling to those who believe than any particular article of faith is. To my friend, it is simply unthinkable. So I wanted to give her a sense of the distance between her reality and mine, and given that distance, the cognitive dissonance it involves.
Happily, my intensely religious friend is perfectly able to understand what I meant especially as she herself does not drink, and so could hardly be under the impression that I was accusing the religious of alcoholism, in addition to everything else. To the extent that my friend has the experience of seeing the effects of drink on people, and how strange that looks to everyone else, she was then able to see how strange she herself must seem to me when she is in religion mode. This certainly helped us to understand our relative positions and worldviews. Combined with the fact that she hears her opinions confirmed everywhere all the time, is secure in her belief that it is good to believe (she hears this every Sunday), there simply are not many reasons or opportunities for her to consider what the alternatives are. That was a quick way for me to make her understand.

So here's a new analogy for you, and you can jump all over this one too, if you like:

The whole atheist/believer argument seems to me to stem around an opposition quite like the gun rights issue on something like the premise: "guns don't shoot people, people shoot people" If guns are inherently dangerous, then we shouldn't have them around. If there are those who can use them responsibly, then we should make that distinction and focus on those who abuse them. If we feel that just having a gun around leads to the potential for harm in ways that are socially significant, then that suggests another outlook. However, it is clear that either everyone has a right to have a gun, or that no one should have a right to a gun, since those of us who do not own guns do not have any way of individually evaluating the character of those who do (and even then, so what and who are we to be evaluating anyone at all?) Hence licence requirements and background checks, and all the other quite sensible solutions that people have been able to come up with, after some back and forth.

Thus, being atheist for me is a purely defensive stance. I don't go about being atheist, I just live my life. I become an atheist only when I am forced to because someone else is insisting on telling me what "proper" thing my mind should be doing instead. I do not accept the thought police. Period.

On this basis, I think people are free to think what they want. This obviously includes belief in whatever they want to believe in. I just don't want to share that.

Anonymous said...

That was brilliant Alonzo. It helps if you read it to yourself in a Christopher Hitchins voice.