Friday, October 02, 2009

Jason Vines rebutts ahistorical wonkiness

Carl Wieland's editorial, "The blood-stained 'century of evolution'", is a howler. His opinions seem not to have been formed according to the highest standards of factual accuracy, let us say. As Beltway Atheists member Jason Vines -- operator of the Hypersyllogistic Forums -- writes, "this article has numerous problems." I saw Jason's response making the rounds on a mailing list, and thought it would be worth the read for readers of the BA Blog. Here is his ordered list of concise and matter-of-fact debunkings. - ZB

First, it engages in the logical fallacy we call the appeal to consequences. Any consequences of a proposition, be they good or ill, has no impact on whether the proposition is true or false.

Second, throughout most of human history, religion has sought totalitarian control over everyone's beliefs, thoughts, and actions. Within a religion's dominion, whoever did not submit to the religious authorities faced torture and death. Whomever lived outside religious authorities' control, these authorities often tried to convert through conquest. Few places on Earth have been free of the misery, oppression, and warfare that has resulted. The histories of Europe and Asia are particularly riven with suffering and bloodshed stemming from heretical dissent, sectarian rivalry, and interfaith hatred. If religion hasn't quite achieved the body count of Nazism and Communism, the only reason is that religious police and faithful combatants didn't have remote surveillance, gas chambers, machine guns, warplanes, battleships, tanks, missiles, and nukes.

Third, as a corollary to the above point, no ideological construct in human history has done more than religion to divide people into opposing groups, most of which believed they were the favored of God and hated the other groups. For example, Christians and Muslims hated Jews for centuries, the Christians because they nonsensically held Jews responsible for Christ's death, the Muslims because a group of Jews supposedly thought Mohammed was a charlatan when he told them God was communicating with him. The Nazis didn't invent the anti-Semitic hatred that drove the Holocaust; it was an ancient though still vibrant relic of religion.

Fourth, whereas some individual clergymen bravely resisted the Nazis, the Catholic Church as a political institution supported fascism around the world and collaborated with the Nazis, even to the extent of revealing files to them to help them determine who was sufficiently "pure" to avoid the gas chambers (and who was not). Many Protestant churches also cooperated with the Nazis. And, in Russia, the Orthodox Church served as a puppet of the state instead of resisting. And, of course, in both Germany and Russia, most people were Christians of one kind or another. Even Adolf Hitler was a member of the Catholic Church in good standing, although he made embellishments to the Christian mythos. And Joseph Stalin, even though he became an atheist, had trained as a monk; I guess extensive religious teaching didn't dampen his homicidal tendencies.

Fifth, to the extent that the Nazis and the Communists did aim to supplant religion, the replacement was another kind of unreasoning faith: worship of an all-encompassing state. The totalitarianism that flowed from that had nothing to do with unshackling man's reason or Darwinian evolution by natural selection, but with squashing them.

Sixth, the article mischaracterizes Darwin's work. Darwin was a scientist who merely studied life and recorded what he found. "Might makes right" and other such drivel has nothing to do with Darwin or with evolution, which just concerns inheritance of traits through successive generations and fitness for particular environments. I must note, though, "might makes right" adeptly describes much of religious ideology and history. Think of the admonitions in many religious texts that if the will of a particular deity isn't followed, divine and earthly punishment will ensue.

Seventh, I disagree with the article about the implications of abandoning God and embracing evolution. As I've written before, God is not an alternative to man's will but serves as a vessel into which man pours his will and hopes to escape responsibility for it. The erosion of the God concept doesn't mean an ill-equipped humanity starts making moral decisions; humanity has done that all along. But society might become more self-reflective and willing to deal with its flaws without a divine scapegoat for them.

Also, I think realizing that man is only another animal that evolved over billions of years from microscopic life, and that genetics shreds arbitrary notions of "race" while confirming everyone's unqualified and equal membership in the human species, would encourage treatment of the planet and each other with more humility and respect than religion has engendered. In that respect, Darwinian evolution isn't divisive but unifying.