Everyone, it seems, wants to absolve Islam of the charge that it has fostered radical terrorist groups like ISIS.
George W. Bush declared that Islam was a religion of peace. Many politicians have dutifully repeated the exculpation. Now President Obama, accompanied by multiple politicians, has stated forthrightly that ISIS is an aberration, that Islam neither encourages nor condones beheadings of infidels and that we have no problem with good peace-loving Muslims.
University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne makes easy work of these claims. After all, ISIS and other Islamist terrorist organizations are simply following the letter of the Quran. Who are we to dispute their faith? It may be irrational, but then again, Coyne says, all faith is irrational.
Apparently, Coyne himself is a “secular Jew” and a proponent of atheism. I confess that I have no idea what that means. But he tends, as do many other proponents of atheism, to conflate all religions into one grand category: Religion. And he is happy to select out details from religious texts and events within the history of religions, to discredit the entire enterprise.
For the record, cherry-picking data that supports your claim is not science. As Richard Feynman argued, a true scientist reports all data, the data that tends to prove his hypothesis and the data that tends to disprove it.
If you merely offer the data that supports your claims you are an ideologue, not a scientist.
Coyne explains his understanding of a true religion:
First, the truest religion could be that which sticks the closest to scripture. In that case the “truest” Christianity and Judasm would be literalist and fundamentalist. They would adhere to the creationism set out in Genesis, as well as the immoral behaviors sanctioned by God in the Old Testament. These include killing those children who curse their parents, as well as adulterers and those who work on the Sabbath. Although these are clear moral dictates of God, no modern Christians or Jews obey them, for they are reprehensible. Nevertheless, there is a case to be made that a fundamentalist Southern Baptist is a “truer Christian” than a liberal Unitarian, and a misogynist Orthodox Jew a truer believer than a modern reform Jew.
Surely, it is notable that no modern Christian or Jew obeys every dictate in the Bible at the letter. In one place the Bible prescribes stoning as the punishment for adultery, but in another text Jesus says: “Let he who is free from sin cast the first stone.”
Many Biblical rules were subject to reinterpretation.
And, dare I say, they are subject to verification.
Coyne declares that religious faith does not depend on empirical verification , that is, “convincing evidence.”
In his words:
ISIS, like all religious movements, is based on faith; and faith, which is belief in the absence of convincing evidence, isn’t true or false, but simply irrational.
And yet, is this really true of all religions?
Besides, many moderate atheists say that they believe in human freedom.
How would you offer empirical verification or convincing evidence for the existence of human freedom, for free will. Can you measure freedom? Can you observe it? Surely, free will is the cornerstone of Judeo-Christianity? Is it a mere prejudice, an irrational belief?
If atheism has no room for freedom, we would expect to discover that societies based on atheist principles do not respect human freedom, If that is the case, does that provide convincing evidence that atheism cannot provide a rationale for human freedom?
To take up a point I introduced in my book The Last Psychoanalyst, consider this. If different religions compete against each other there is more to it than which one provides better access to the afterlife. About that one would be at pains to offer convincing evidence for the claims of any religion.
And yet, religions also prescribe the ways people should conduct their lives in the profane world.
We don’t know which religion provides access to Heaven but we can know which religions provide a better life for their adherents in this world.
Many Muslims in the Middle East despise Israel. Everyone knows that they feel the way they feel because the Jews created a prosperous, democratic state in their neighborhood. The Jews succeeded where Muslims in surrounding states had mostly created poverty and misery.
Religions differ because they prescribe different practices and different ways of conducting secular life. And, the consequences that follow from these practices can be measured. Isn’t this a central thesis in Max Weber’s: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism?
For its part, atheism does not promise access to the Heavenly City. It does not promise that God’s blessings will flow to its adherents. One must conclude that atheism should be judged, not merely by the clever arguments and scorched-earth rhetoric of its adherents, but by the practical results achieved by societies and communities that function according to its principles.
But then we will quickly find ourselves asking the inverse of Coyne’s question. Instead of asking what is true religion, we will be asking which is true atheism. Are there fundamentalist atheists ? Should the moderate atheists like Coyne have to answer for them?
Almost by definition, atheists do not have sacred texts. And yet, the writings of certain authors seem to serve a similar purpose. If so, atheism is simply another form of idolatry, a form that worships the writings of people considered to be geniuses.
For some atheists the writings of Darwin or Marx serve their purposes. For others the texts of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens will do.
Of course, no one ever tried to construct a community on the atheist principles found in Darwin or Dawkins or Hitchens. But, many people have tried to do so by following the unholy writ of Karl Marx.
You might not consider Marx to be a “true” atheist and you might believe that the governments that followed his principles misread his texts, but still, Marxist governments have not been a rousing human success. Unless of course you measure success and failure by body count. Few forms of government have destroyed more lives in a shorter period of time than Communism?
True Marxists believe that Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China and Castro’s Cuba and Chavez’s Venezuela were not true to the letter of the Marxist text. But to make this argument they must show other Marxist governments that functioned differently and that produced different human outcomes.
To the best of my knowledge there are none.
I am not sure what it means to say that there are true and false forms of atheism, but atheism in practice does have a track record and that track record is abysmal.
Those who regale us with stories about the horrors committed by the religious should balance their judgments with the good produced by societies that were founded on Judeo-Christian principles. And then they should explain why there is no such a thing as an atheist society that has a comparably positive record.
While Judeo-Christian cultures have produce the good with the bad, atheist cultures have, as of now, only produced horrors.