Monday, April 30, 2012

Why "New Atheism" Is Perfectly Compatible With Humanism

By Hos
This flyer, that was dropped at my door over the weekend, did not please me very much. It tells the story of a person, supposedly with cancer, who was "cured" using the "holy oil".
For anyone with a minimum familiarity with statistics, the quack claim is obvious. A sample size of 1? And no control group? Give me a break.
So there is a case of fraud going on in my backyard. Can I call the state authorities and tell them there is someone practicing medicine without a license? Or alert the media? The answer, as well all know it, is no.
The reason is that there is a class of fraud that does not get treated the same way as all other kinds of fraud. That is, fraud that is based on religion. If a snake oil salesman dropped a similar flyer at my door, I wouldn't hesitate to call someone. In this case, as it turns out, I can't.
Why? We will get to that in a minute.
Of course, fraudulent claims associated with religion are a dime a dozen. Even if you disregard the grotesque claims of Al Qaeda and Answers in Genesis, "mainline" Christianity and Islam are all about demonstrably false claims: "eternal salvation/damnation", "power of prayer", etc.
Claims of eternal anything, which are based on life after death, require a part of you that survives your death, what is referred to as soul. In order for such claims to be true, you need your mind to function independently of your brain: the so called concept of mind-body dualism. This claim is overwhelmingly rejected by neurscientists. Claims about life after death have been utterly debunked by skeptics. Faith healing hasn't fared much better. (Although I doubt this would in the least interest the distributors of the "holy oil".) It turns out that God, under controlled conditions, performs miserably.
When the fraud victims number in dozens, and the subject of fraud is something that could potentially be delivered, we put the culprits behind bars and warn potential future victims (see Madoff, Bernie). When the victims number in the millions, and what they were promised could, in principle, never have possibly been delivered and there is not a single known case that it ever was, (an in "eternal salvation"), we never dare say a word. (Even though I was never told where exactly this arbitrary line is drawn. Is it OK to criticize Salafism? FLDS? Scientology?) If we do, we will get called all sorts of names, including "shrill", "militant", etc. Worse, if (heaven forbid) we dare using the metaphor of war, even if we clarify that the only weapons to be used are logic and arguments, we will earn the wrath of our own fellow skeptics. With justifications like these: not all religions are extremist (but name me one that doesn't promise an afterlife/answers to prayers, or doesn't promote "faith" as a good thing), we should not alienate potential allies (as if making alliances means your have to agree on everything), people are less likely to accept reason if you attack their faith because that is part of their identity (as if there are no fence sitters who will see the folly of the faith once it is subjected to criticism), or we should not make the faithful dislike skeptics (as if there isn't a ton of evidence that they do just fine all by themselves, regardless of whether there are any "militant atheists" in the picture).
But that leaves one question. As Humanists, isn't it our responsibility to warn potential victims of the snake oil salesman hiding behind a cross? As long as "faith" is granted respect as a matter of course, those distributing flyers for "holy oil" will always get away with it and there is nothing anyone can do about that.


Carl said...

I agree those who are the snake oil salesman are the religions themselves and us atheists and humanists should be rewarded for the warnings we give to the ones who are about to drink the snake oil.

s. said...

i do think we should warn those that may not stop to think about how this "snake oil" claim might actually work. but, as you stated, people can get very defensive about these topics so when discussing logic to super religious people i tend to explain things more as "common sense" rather than an ideological stance. though this may seem obvious to you and those reading this, it took me a while to figure it out in my own conversations. i didn't understand why people didn't want to accept logic over "faith".