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The “all Christians are…” fallacy

November 27, 2009

This post may cause trouble. There’s an issue that’s been bothering me since before I began to self-identify as an atheist (among other labels that we pigeonholers of a people like to place upon ourselves and others) that bothered me then, but does so even more now.

I have a problem with atheists who denigrate people of faith just because they hold a faith. There, I’ve said it.

My mother’s uncle turns 80 in January and he’s a Methodist lay-minister, hobbyist philosopher, critical thinker with many interests, and is a lovely man with whom I get on famously. Or did, until Easter when he saw the Atheist Bus Campaign sticker on the back of my car. His immediate, unthinking reaction was to turn to me and utter, “Oh, so you’re one of those?” By “those” I assumed he meant an atheist, so I said yes. No big deal, asked and answered simply and matter-of-factly, like “Do you like grapes?” and “Yes.” It’s now almost December and we’ve only just recently managed to establish dialogue that doesn’t include preloaded assumptions. It’s not that he wouldn’t talk to me anymore, but rather that everything he said, did and thought regarding me was now coloured with negative expectation: a shit-coloured filter.

As it was, this evening’s conversation started with his enquiry about me attending Christmas lunch with them, as I’ve done most years since moving to England. For some reason his expectation was that now I am the A-word I’d not participate in “Christian festivals” and even be antagonistic towards them. After pointing out that on one hand nearly all Christian festivals were pagan festivals long before the Catholic church came along and usurped them, and on the other hand I recognise that it’s human nature to participate in ceremonies and rituals of the passage of time, seasons and events, and such things possibly pre-date religion. He’s mollified, and Christmas is back on. Yay, status quo.

This brings me to the point of this post. The reality-based community with which I identify are more likely to use — and use successfully — logic, reason and critical thinking in arguments against everything ranging from philosophy to religion. And it’s wonderful. I mean it.

But there a section of this community that not only antagonises people of faith (I can intellectually understand this, if not agree entirely with) and often does so by using logical fallacies and cognitive biases, some of which include straw man, ad hominem, false dichotomy, sampling bias, and bias blind spot. (You’ll probably find unintended examples of these throughout this blog). I doubt you’ll find many atheists who won’t challenge religious fundamentalism and zealotry with gusto, facts, science and logic. And rightly so. But to extend that a little, a number of atheists cannot understand how any otherwise rational and intelligent people could possibly also have religious faith — particularly if they work in a science profession — so they must clearly be deluded or poor thinkers.

And then this argument often rears its head: the religious moderate is as bad, if not worse, than the fundamentalist. The rationale for this often being that moderation allows the presentation of an acceptable face of a brutal, primitive set of dogmas, or facilitates that faith’s entry through an otherwise closed door. As if, somehow, they’re all as bad as each other. To anyone who’s thought about this seriously for a moment, this is clearly not true. Yes, there are monsters in positions of power in any religion, just as there is throughout the general laity, but to caricature every member of a faith in that way is disgusting. It makes a mockery of the critical thinking and logical arguments that person holds to be valuable and worthwhile, because that person has exercised none of it.

My great-uncle has reacted and behaved the way he has with me because of the public face of modern atheism, with its often total disregard for the feelings and sensibilities of the average person — despite the fact he’s never seen any of those negative, judgemental or intolerant qualities in me. In its zeal to slap down the worst of faith and try to stem the tide of stupid overtaking the world, that form of atheistic expression is harming normal people. Those may be people who simply have not yet reached a point in their lives where they’re able to objectively reflect upon the inconsistencies and logic problems of their own faith when compared to the world around them.

There is something of which I am unequivocally certain: this perceived New Atheist “all guns blazing” approach isn’t going to work.

It’s the argumentative, brow-beating equivalent of the outlawing of religion in China and the former USSR. How can it possibly work against faiths that get excited about martyrdom? And I’m not just talking about Islam here: most major religions revel in the chance to play the oppressed, downtrodden and beaten servant of their god. They simply say, “I will practise my faith regardless, and any punishment I may receive will be my sacrifice to <insert deity here>, which will reap me rewards in <insert afterlife here>!”

Yes, it’s awful that in the 21st century billions of the world’s population are still slaves to Bronze Age superstitions. But no, screeching like a banshee at your neighbour isn’t going to make them suddenly say, “You know what… you’ve been insulting everything I’ve ever valued for years now, but I see it now: you’re right!” Just because something may be provably wrong, it doesn’t mean that an otherwise intelligent person will see it that way — you’re staring in the face of cognitive dissonance.

So am I advocating appeasement? Certainly not. But a large number of worldwide scientific community do not consider themselves atheists. Are they to be excluded from scientific endeavour? Again, certainly not. The same is true of the average member of the public. Religions and superstitions may be laughable and ridiculous, but they kill thousands of people every day and are not to be underestimated in terms of their importance to the people that hold them. And some of those people may love you and be hurt deeply whenever, by inference, you call them imbeciles.

Unfortunately, I don’t know what the solution is — or even if there is one, at least that doesn’t involve totalitarianism — but I am certain that the lumping of people like my great-uncle in the same basket as a religious terrorist is wrong. And yet I see it every day in the atheist blogs I read, and in the other atheistic and even new media I consume: the deliberate misrepresentation of members of a faith as if they’re all as bad as the worst public figure in that faith. It’s wrong and it has to stop.

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