Ask an Atheist with Sam Mulvey

Counterpoint: It's Not Just Religion

Pope Stalin I

A really real, not at all fake, file photo of Josef Stalin

Before I was an atheist, I was adogmatic.

Mike recently wrote an excellent article about why faith doesn’t do the job people think it does.   Mike takes a different approach than I normally would.   I think people like our Facebook friend conflate faith with expectation, which is an etymological rather than cosmological problem, forcing the believer to ascribe to faith things which aren’t actually faith.   This error has its basis in how faith is actually pretty silly blah blah blah I could go on for a million years.  Even so, I think Mike gets it nearly exactly right.   Seriously– if you haven’t read the article, you should.   But I’m certainly not going to write a follow-up blog post saying “hello, I think Mike is right horf blorf”.   So on to the part I think he gets wrong.

He trips on something of a pet peeve of mine, a beast I’ve met on the show, in person, among theists and atheists, and among people in the fight and as far away from it as possible.  If I could make a single change in the way people like Mike talk about religion, this would be it.  It rears its ugly head mid-article:

Not only is religion a handy way for powerful people to implement oppressive and violent policies, but it’s the only truly effective way to get otherwise decent and kind people to [rationalize] support for such systems.
Mike, in his article

First clause: wow, yeah.   As Mike said in the “Superman vs. Jesus” episode, a key personal factor in how he opposes religion is its tendency toward bullying.  I prefer to discuss it in terms of social control, but I’m pretty sure those two concepts are inextricably related.

Second clause: wow, no.    I think it is far more accurate to say that religion is an effective way of getting decent people to rationalize violence and oppression.    I know that to many, this may seem like one of those minor quibbles that pedantic atheists have a tendency to make.   I won’t claim to not be a pedant; all of the professions I’ve held have given advantages to the pedant.  I give every year, but there’s no cure.

As I’ve said on the show, religion is the armor that dogma wears.   Religion is probably the most effective in the class of behaviors and tactics that seek to make a group of people do something oppressive, violent, or otherwise against their own best interests.   But to say it is the only one is a mistake, and one that gives ammunition to ecumenical apologists like our Facebook commenter.

But if you wish to suggest that in a world without religion would be any freer of oppression and violence, I think you are gravely mistaken.
Facebook Commenter

Both Mike and I can hear the rhetorical bullets being loaded into the proverbial magazine here, so let’s bring them out for all to see.   He’s thinking about Josef Stalin and Pol Pot.   While this apologist avoids it, many under-educated ones fall into the Godwin honeytrap.

This again comes to a core editorial retort of Ask an Atheist: the two word definition of atheism.   “No god!”, says I.   “No god!”, says Mike.    And yes, “No god!”, says Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, Chairman Mao, and nearly the entire menagerie of Communistic bogeymen.

In the case of the communists, atheism was a mere tenet and therefore subservient to a much more complex political philosophy.   As we say time and time again on the show, atheism says nothing about health care or fiscal policy.   We should also say that atheism has nothing to say about the effectiveness of a Five Year Plan, of collective agriculture, or even genetics.

When the evidence produces something against the accepted dogma, the dogmatic will turn to authority.  In modern America, when provided with evidence for  genetics and evolution, the dogmatic turn to the book of Genesis and the Discovery Institute.   Eighty years ago in the USSR, when scientific advance was just discovering these theories, the dogmatic there turned to Lamarck and Lysenko.

Many people are familiar with Trofim Lysenko.    But in short, Lysenko was a Russian peasant farmer and staunch proponent of Marxism.   He believed, as did many other Marxists, that the evolution via competition shown in the fossil record was against the communist ideal and therefore incorrect.  Looking for a more palatable scientific theory they took up the theories of early biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who believed that acquired traits can be passed on to offspring.  In short, they would expect my children to be pedants even though this is something I only learned to do professionally, and no one else in my family displays this behavior.

The Communist has faith in Communism.   They read in the Communist Manifesto that religion is the opiate of the masses, and to achieve a communist utopia, religion must be done away with.   Just as the Christian has faith in Christianity.   They read in the Bible that the atheist is a fool, and that to achieve the utopian millennial kingdom, atheism must be done away with.

Our modern atheism is subservient to no political ideology and no single source of authority.   It is not a tenet or basic principle, it is the optimistic result of the evidence, of rationalism, and of an intellectually engaged skepticism of the world around us.   We see that the best way to avoid the terror and hate that dogma brings is to focus on the provable, testable truth that can be seen despite language, despite inheritance, and despite culture; truth without authority and truth without scriptural interpretation.

I do not believe that the end of religion will give us a utopian world.   But I do believe that if we could achieve a utopian world, religion is but one of several dogmatic authorities that must fade away.

About the Author: Sam Mulvey

Sam Mulvey is a producer and the technical brain behind Ask an Atheist. He is a collector of vinegar varieties, vintage computers, antique radios, and propaganda.

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Mike Gillis

Fair enough. First a mea culpa and then a clarification. I should have written this sentence better: “Not only is religion a handy way for powerful people to implement oppressive and violent policies, but it’s the only truly effective way to get otherwise decent and kind people to [rationalize] support for such systems.” You’re correct to call me out in the second half of that sentence. As written, it isn’t true. A philosophy professor once told me that you shouldn’t write so that you can be understood. You should write so that you can’t be misunderstood. And I just completely… Read more »


Sam, Mike, you’re great examples of how these things should be done. Your little debate reminds me of the following blog post which adresses a similar quote:
I was introduced to this blog through Bob’s reference to it on one of his posts.

Becky Friedman

Happy to have you here, Quintin!

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