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Today’s article is a guest post by Brandon Christen of the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Central Missouri.
With a little over an hour to kill before going to work, I decided to watch some debates on YouTube to pass the time. A good friend of mine mentioned he was watching a speech by Dinesh D’Souza, and since I had never listened to him or read any of his works before, I looked him up. Upon finding a debate between him and Christopher Hitchens, I listened for a while. I’m sad to say, I could only make it about three minutes in before taking time out to write a blog post about three horrible stupid things he said within those three minutes.
Moving at breakneck speeds to drop an average of one bad argument per minute, D’Souza began with the claim that “The universe is rational!” (paraphrasing). “How odd,” he says, “that the universe operates rationally? How could this have happened!” To answer his question, D’Souza claims that the only way a universe could embody rationality is to have been created by an omniscient (which he claims to mean “hyper-rational”) being, such as God.
He then pointedly asks why it is that the universe obeys laws. He claims that for an electron to “know” where it is supposed to be is unfathomable in a universe without an all-knowing, all powerful creator behind its creation. He also says that there can be no laws without a “lawgiver” and, thus, the universal laws of nature demand that there be a lawgiver reigning over them.
Finally, rounding out his list of bad arguments (again, after only three minutes) is D’Souza’s claim that Atheism leads to crimes against humanity. He starts by saying that the Inquisition only killed 2000 people over a 300 year period and that the Salem witch trials only killed 18 people. He compares these 2018 deaths to the millions killed in Mao’s China, Hitler’s Germany, and Stalin’s Russia (all of which, he claims, were results of national Atheism) and says that Atheism kills more than Theism, so is therefore worse than Theism.
I see no better way to take this than point by point, in order. So, here we go…
A.) As taken from the Miriam-Webster Dictionary, the word rational means 1.)” having reason or understanding” or 2.) “related to, based on, or agreeable to understanding.” Neither of these things have anything to do with unconscious matter, only with how conscious minds deal with the world. Saying that the universe behaves rationally is an improper usage of the word “rationally”. It’s like me saying that a glass of milk that gets spilled was “misbehaving.” It’s intuitively ridiculous if you think about it for more than a moment.
What can be said about the universe is that its constituent parts seem to act in certain ways under certain circumstances. How does rationality fit in to this? Well, rationality (by my view of it) is how well the human mind corroborates with external reality. A person who thinks that the glass of milk spilled because it was feeling feisty and just wanted to is thinking irrationally (given that the glass of milk is inanimate), whereas a person who sees the glass of milk spill and then figures out what physical events (such as, say, a dog bumping into the table) caused the milk to spill. I feel I should point out that it is also perfectly rational (and honest) to, absent enough data, simply say “I don’t know why the milk spilled,” instead of making a reason up.
B.) D’Souza then goes on the claim that the universe “obeys laws,” and that the presence of laws demands the existence of an external law giver. Again, D’Souza is conflating terms. In the realm of physics and biology, “natural laws” are not the same as laws in a human legal system. Human laws do indeed demand law givers; human laws are decided upon, enacted, and enforced in various ways. You might have a committee agree on a certain law, then pass it. Or you could have a judge give a ruling that is then taken and used as a legal precedent.
However, natural “laws” are merely terms used by science to describe the orderly operation of matter and energy. They are by no means asserting that these laws were clearly made by any intelligence, and you could easily call them “natural habits,” “natural ways,” “natural operations”, or “natural predictable circumstances and events” and they would be just as accurate.
The problem is that the word “law” is an emotionally laden term, as for most people it does indeed carry the idea of a lawgiver. Speakers like D’Souza use that emotionality to their advantage; they speak to an overly simplified way of thinking that does direct word-to-reality translation of events, so when he says “It’s a law” the crowd he appeals to automatically thinks “That implies a lawgiver!”
C. The last thing D’Souza throws at the audience is the ancient, tired, sagging straw man of “Atheists societies lead to mass murders!” He uses all the traditional boggy men for this argument; Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Stalin’s Russia, and Hitler’s Germany. He says that each of these societies was atheistic and that is the reason they were able to throw morality out the window and launch into mass killings and genocides. I say: bullshit.
First of all, any armchair History-channel-watching historian (like me) can easily say that Hitler was not an Atheist. The honest answer to Hitler’s specific spiritual beliefs is “I don’t know,” because there is (as far as I’m aware) no resounding historical consensus on what he believed. He at various times advocated Christianity, then a weird, ultra distorted racist version of Christianity, then some paganism (perhaps thrown in for good measure). [Editor's note: Hitler was a member of the Catholic church, and was never excommunicated]. Many other Nazi higher-ups were big into paganism and bizarre spiritualism, and I feel it tragically necessary to point out for any confused readers that neither of those things are Atheism.
Second, the nations that committed these atrocities weren’t nations of Atheists. I’m not so sure on Cambodia, though I would assume the same, but I do know that the idea that Russia was brimming with Atheists is false; most Russians maintained their religious beliefs and the Orthodox Church was still alive and well when the official state ban on religion came tumbling down. Germany in the 30s and 40s might have had leaders who looked down their noses at Christianity, but the nation itself was by no means filled with Atheists, either. Many Germans were Catholic or Protestant (like most everywhere else you go in the West) or some form of neo-paganism that was all the rage at the time. At any rate, they weren’t all Atheists.
Furthermore, even if they had been Theists, that wouldn’t have stopped the genocides or atrocities. A casual glance through the Old Testament features plenty of God-sanctioned destruction, war, pillaging, and homicidal insanity. Offhand, I can think of God ordering Moses to order his brother, Aaron, to slay several thousand Israelites just because they worshiped the wrong god and God ordering the people of Israel to kill men, women, and children and seize their lands when they reached Canaan. If we are to believe the tenets of the Bible (setting aside whether they’re historically true or not) then clearly a belief in God won’t stop mass murders so long as that’s what you think God is telling you to do.
And on that point, what does D’Souza have to say? How does he refute the notion that Theism can just as easily lead to innocent deaths if the Theists in question get an unction that God wants them to kill? Well, as you’ll recall, he simply says that Theism kills less people; remember, he defended the Inquisition and Salem Witch Trials by saying that only a total of 2018 people.
….Really? Fucking really? We’re boiling down the value of belief systems (as compared to mass murder) by how many get mass murdered? This may not be the most intellectual thing I can say, but go fuck yo’self Danish D’Souza.
However, all that actually misses the point. It’s just fun side dressing, so to speak. The real point of order I’d call here is that Atheism didn’t lead to those people being complicit in genocides and mass murders. Idealism did. An Atheist (and Atheism as a “system”) simply doesn’t believe in any gods or supernatural entities/locations. Period. That is not an ideology, it’s simply an epistemological position. Now, human beings have a tragic habit of desperately wanting to play follow-the-leader. Any leader. Even one so disgusting as Adolf Hitler. Those who throw themselves into the mindless obedience to a certain ideology or leader also lose their ability to make their own decisions; they become the nameless, oblivious henchmen from old James Bond movies. It is those who mindlessly obey a certain leader or ideology that commit horrible crimes, regardless of whether or not they believe in God.
And by the way, Secularism (and the New Atheist movement) advocate, along with a deemphasizing of religion, an abandonment of all forms of mindless ideological adherence. Really, it is only natural that a bunch of free-thinking, humanistic types would despise such thinking; it is dangerous as well as insulting to the potential we human beings have evolved. To an Atheist like me, someone saying “I have absolute total faith that my leader is right in all things, and I would gleefully kill or die for him” is only three words off from “I have absolute faith that my God is right in all things, and I would gleefully die for him.”
So in the end, the short answer response to all three shitty arguments D’Souza advocated is:
1.) The universe isn’t rational, it’s predictable. Rationality is a term to describe human minds that line up with how reality really is.
2.) No, the universe doesn’t obey laws in the legalistic, social/moral way. It is, again, predictable. Scientists call them laws because at the present they seem immutable and they needed a good, strong word to get that point across.
3.) No, Atheism doesn’t breed monsters. Mindless obedience to one leader or ideology breeds monsters. Atheism just breeds a propensity for doubting outrageous bullshitty claims. (Which, by the by, is a great ingredient for preventing mass murders and genocides.)
Brandon Christen was born and raised in Missouri. He grew up in a religious family, and joined a far-right conservative church when he was a senior in college. For almost six years, the church dominated all facets of his life and thinking until, in early 2010, he began to openly question its steadfast rejection of science and philosophy. After a protracted struggle with his convictions, Brandon became an Atheist in September of that year. These days Brandon remains intensely interested in religion, though now he views it from a secular perspective. One of the chief problems he sees between Secular Society and Religious Society is the presumption that religion takes the high ground on moral and ethical issues. To combat this problem, Brandon frequently engages in conversations with as many religious individuals as he can in a “grass roots” effort to spread awareness about secular morality. He also acts as a strong voice in the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Central Missouri. While he still sees debunking religious falsehoods as important, Brandon’s ultimate focus is on becoming a professional philosopher and emphasizing in ethics so as to lend his voice to the attempt to heal the moral divide between believers and non-believers.
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Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an
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Blogs: Greta Christina, PZ Myers, The Friendly Atheist, WWJTD?, Debunking Christianity, SkepChick
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