Hitler the atheist and other tired misunderstandings

The usually excellent Madame Arcati today repeats one of the most tired cliches about atheism:

We have only to think of at least two recent prophets of godlessness - Stalin and Hitler - to see what can flow from atheism.

Nonsense. Firstly, if Hitler was an atheist nobody seems to have told him. As David Llewellyn documents at some length, Adolf spent an awful lot of time claiming to believe in god.

As for Stalin, let's ignore the fact that he spent five years of his early life in a seminary (though perhaps that's where he learned the power of indoctrination and mindless, unthinking belief). He certainly declared himself to be an atheist in later life.

However, the idea that atheism was to blame for Stalin's crimes is absurd. Atheism is not a religion, it is the absence of religion. Atheism does not specify the circumstances in which the universe was created, it does not have rules or customs and its adherents do not share an idea of how to live their lives. All that atheists have in common is their lack of religious belief.

Indeed, Sam Harris argues that the reason communism and fascism are so dangerous is that they are too much like religions. Stalin targeted the church because it was the only significant threat to his power, not because of his atheism. What Stalin's victims had in common was not religious belief but that they were seen as threats to his ability to control Russia.

It's just as well Arcati is a blogger and not a philosopher.

What Barack and Hilary have going for them

America has never had a black president or a female one. But race and gender aren't the biggest obstacles to the White House. Data360 has survey data on the percentage of Americans who said they would vote for the following: A Catholic candidate: 95% A black candidate: 94% A Jewish candidate: 92% A female candidate: 88% A gay candidate: 55% An atheist candidate: 45%

Yep, black, female or Jewish doesn't matter so much as long as you've got god. Somebody remind me what century we're in. [via Freakonomics]

Book twenty-five: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

I finished this more than a week ago on the way to Paris but the past week has been so busy that I haven't had time to write about it yet. The God Delusion is the second atheist text I've read this year and it's head and shoulders above The End of Faith. Though Dawkins quotes Harris a lot, he eschews Harris's rhetoric in favour of a more reasoned approach. Indeed, it often seems that Dawkins is quoting Harris purely to inject a little rhetoric.

The case Dawkins makes is thorough and compelling. First he defines what god is and examines different approaches to "the god hypothesis". From there he takes the various arguments for god's existence and demolishes them thoroughly. Then he presents of series of arguments showing that there is "almost certainly" no god.

This 'almost' seems to frustrate Dawkins. For all his thoroughness it's impossible to conclusively refute the possibility of god's existence, which is why religion has survived for so long. However, as he explains, the burden of proof should not fall on the atheist to disprove religion but on the faithful to prove it. Especially if the faithful would like us to run our societies in accordance with their beliefs.

It should be enough to demonstrate that god's existence is so staggeringly unlikely as to be virtually impossible. Evolution teaches us that complexity develops slowly but religion posits a staggeringly complex being right at the dawn of time. It doesn't fit with anything else that we know about the world. To aid in his demonstration, Dawkins considers some possible explanations for the roots of religion. One possibility is that it's an evolutionary by-product - something that was once useful but has lingered on beyond its original purpose.

After that he looks at morality, explaining why we don't need to assume a god in order to explain moral behaviour and showing just how immoral and offensive so much of the bible is.

The motivation for the book is the rise of fundamentalism and its attack on science. Dawkins gives a good account of how idiotic and uninformed creationism is, showing conclusively that the suggestion that it's a valid scientific theory in its own right is simply laughable.

He sees the teaching of creationism, and the indoctrination of children with religion in general, as a form of child abuse - a claim that will outrage religious apologists if they've made it this far into the book.

It's hard for me to imagine how a religious person could read this book and still be religious once they've finished but the faithful excel when it comes to self-delusion and denial of reason so perhaps I'm being overly optimistic. If the religious are unlikely to be changed by this book, then what's the point?

For an atheist like me, it's a joy to read such a well-argued and thorough debunking of the bizarre superstitions that shape our supposedly advanced world but Dawkins is preaching to the choir (pardon the choice of image) with me.

It's to be hoped, then, that those in between the two groups will read this and be changed by it. We need a critical mass of atheists on our side in the battle with those - Christian, Muslim, Jewish, whatever - who would force us back into the dark ages.

Book fourteen: The End of Faith by Sam Harris

Sam Harris has a background in philosophy and neuroscience. He has also, according to the book's blurb, studied "both Eastern and Western religious traditions ... for twenty years". In The End of Faith he argues that religion has more than outlived its usefulness to humanity; it is now a threat to our survival. I'm an atheist and, like Harris, I'm increasingly tired of the number of problems caused by people arguing over which imaginary supernatural being has the best powers. I was looking forward to reading this but the more I read, the less I found myself agreeing with him.

For a start there's his prose style. He isn't an especially good writer, particularly when he goes on flights of fancy: "The only angels we need to envoke are those of our better nature." Ugh. But worse is his general tone of arrogance and sarcasm towards the faithful. I agree with his general argument and he still irritated me immensely, so how anyone even moderately religious would make it through the book is beyond me.

Now it would be one thing if Harris argued his case well but he doesn't. For his thesis that religion is dragging us to our doom to work, he has to show that it isn't just fundamentalists that are the problem but moderates too. Moderates, he says, generate a climate in which the rest of us are unable to challenge religion. The existence of his own book surely refutes that claim. Not only that but, as others have pointed out, many religious moderates regularly criticise extremists from their own religion.

And he also needs to show that religion has been the cause of political conflicts - even when religion itself is nowhere to be seen. Which means a little bit of contortionism to squeeze in Hitler - not the most religious of people - and Stalin. Communism is, Harris says, "little more than a political religion". [That sound you hear in the background is Harris's argument stretching to breaking point.]

If any strongly held dogmatic views are basically religions, then Harris is as guilty as the next man. His dogmatic insistence that pure reason should guide all our behaviour takes him to some pretty ugly places.

His justification for torture runs thus: if we accept that some innocent people will be killed as a result of military action, why shouldn't we accept that some innocent people will be tortured in the pursuit of terrorism?

Now let's note the fact that he's built his argument on shaky ground; many people disagree fundamentally with his premise that killing innocent people during military action is acceptable. And these people aren't necessarily pacifists - a group Harris despises for their "moral cowardice".

So, after spending a chapter on the Spanish inquisition and explaining why torture in religion's name is barbaric, he then argues himself into a position where torture in democracy's name is justifiable.

At the end, the book takes a truly astonishing turn as Harris spends a chapter extolling the virtues of spirituality and meditation, with a particular nod towards the wonders of Buddhism, which is conveniently not a religion. But Communism is, remember. Rightly, he has drawn criticism for this aspect of the book.

So we've gone from a hectoring, neo-Con, bar-room bore to some kind of twittering hippy:

You are now seated, reading this book. Your past is a memory. Your future is a matter of mere expectation.

Well, duh. Somebody bring back the other guy. Don't leave me with this idiot.

Anyway, that was book fourteen. It was rubbish.