Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Amityville Jackass

A big hat tip to Ebon of Daylight Atheism, who provided a link in this post to this anti-atheist screed by Pastor David Anglin of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Amityville, which is about 10 miles from where I live. I decided to post a paragraph or two of the pastor's message at a time and then provide my responses. Apologies in advance for the anticipated length of the post, but I have been rather lax lately and need a new magnum opus to get back into the swing of things. So, here goes, with the pastor's remarks in italics and my responses in bold.

An early scene in the classic film “Going My Way” depicts Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley character playing baseball in the street with some neighborhood children. An errant ball smashes a window. The resident of the apartment with the broken window storms onto the porch with the ball in his hand and demands payment for the damage. Father O’Malley offers him a rosary as security for the damages. But the man rebuffs the offer by saying: “I’m an atheist.” Then, instead of handing the ball to Father O’Malley, he awkwardly tosses it into the street. O’Malley comments: “You even throw like an atheist.”

Gee, imagine that, a pastor using a scene from a pro-religious film depicting an atheist in a negative light. Isn't that like a racist referring to Gus from "Birth Of A Nation" to argue that black men love to rape white women?

In recent days, however, atheists have learned to throw with greater velocity. A couple of hard-hitting books attacking religion and promoting atheism have ended up on the best-seller lists: Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, and the celebrated biologist Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Atheism, it seems, is somewhat in style.

It's got nothing to do with being in style, pastor. But I will get to that in a moment.

This should not be unexpected. There was a brief religious revival after the attacks of Sept. 11. It’s not surprising that, five years later, the pendulum should swing in the other direction, and some disillusionment set in–especially since the attacks on our nation all seem to stem from religious sources. When one is confronted every night on the news with people doing horrible things in the name of God, it’s easy to get a little cynical about religious faith. Dawkins declares that “religion can be a force for evil in the world”, and one can hardly disagree with him.

However, in attacking religion, Dawkins tends to draw his negative examples from the lunatic element of Christianity. For instance, Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas City (the church that organizes protests at the funerals of soldiers), a major peddler of hateful rhetoric against homosexuals and practically anyone else, basically consists of a single extended family–but Dawkins sees this tiny group as somehow characteristic of large numbers of Christians. He sees Christians who bomb abortion clinics and murder abortion providers as people who are truly and sincerely acting out their faith–thus, authentic representatives of Christianity. Genuine Christians repudiate hatred and murder. But, using these examples, Dawkins contends that religion leads people to delusional behavior.

Westboro Baptist Church? Sorry, but I call strawman! Yes, we atheists find the Phelps family repugnant. But we also recognize that they are a small, marginal group. The most harmful thing about the Westboro Baptist Church is not that they picket funerals, but that the brainwashing and indoctrination they inflict on their children is a form of child abuse that mentally warps them during their formative years.

No pastor, the problem is not the Westboro Baptist Church. After all, it was not the Phelps family that bankrolled Proposition 8 in California, along with efforts in other states and at the federal level to deny gay and lesbian couples the right to marry and adopt children. It is not the Phelps family that is leading the drive to promote the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in our public schools. It is not the Phelps family that is responsible for trying to roll back the rights of women to have access to abortion and contraception.

Let me say flat out that I do not argue that being religious makes one delusional. And I condemn lumping all self-professed Christians together and speaking of them negatively. After all, there are so many different varieties of Christianity and differing levels of commitment among members of each group that to speak of "Christians this" or "Christians that" is meaningless.

But sadly, there are a large number of Christians in this country who interpret the Bible literally in ways that the term "delusional" really does apply to them. To believe that the entire universe was created over the course of six 24 hour days approximately 6,000 years ago and that the Earth was made before the sun around which it revolves is delusional. To believe that Sarah Palin is qualified to be president of the United States is delusional. To believe that Barack Obama is the modern day equivalent of Adolf Hitler is delusional. To believe that natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes are not natural phenomena but rather God expressing His displeasure over gay marriage or legal abortion is delusional. To view current events in the world through the prism of the Book of Revelations in the New Testament is delusional. If you want to know why we atheists are being more vocal now, it has nothing to do with being in style, but rather a reaction to people who promote their delusions based upon their religious beliefs.

Two, however, can play the “your worldview leads to horrible things” game. One could argue that atheism leads to immorality. With no God-given commandments, the atheist pretty much has to make up moral standards as he or she goes along. Ivan Karamazov, the atheist character in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, declares: “If there is no god, then anything is permissible.” The philosopher John Locke–one of the intellectual forebears of American democracy–once said that atheists can’t ultimately be trusted in their promises and commitments, since they have no ultimate divine authority to whom they must answer.

Yes, pastor, you can argue that "atheism leads to immorality." But becoming an atheist does not mean we suddenly have to make up our morals as we go along. Rather, what we challenge is that moral proclamations do not become inviolate because they have been wrapped up in the guise of divine command. The burden of proof is on you that there really is a god who gets angry if Adam kisses Steve instead of Eve.

But if you want to argue that atheism makes one immoral, then quoting a fictional atheist from a 19th century Russian novel does not count as evidence. All it demonstrates is Dostoevsky's personal opinion of atheism. As for your reference to John Locke, is there any evidence that Locke was speaking from personal experience, or, like Dostoevsky, did he merely assume that atheists cannot be trusted because he personally could not imagine being trustworthy or good because one did not believe in the existence of god?

Karl Marx, an atheist, laid the intellectual foundations for Communism–and thus for the mass murders of Stalin (who was an atheist even when he was attending a Russian Orthodox seminary!) and Mao Zedong. Friedrich Nietzsche, an atheist (who famously declared, “God is dead!”), laid the intellectual foundations for Nazism. The two boys who carried out the school massacre at Columbine were atheists. In the twentieth century, it was atheists who did most of the damage–perhaps because of a tendency to view individual human life as dispensable.

Pastor, do you even read history at all? Did you happen to notice that Russia and China had despotic governments for centuries before Stalin or Mao ever popped out of their mothers' wombs? One could make a good case that Stalin would not have been possible if Russia had not first had Ivan the Terrible, an Orthodox Christian with his own murderous secret police force, the Oprichnina.

Have you ever heard of Hong Xiuquan? After failing in his attempts to pass exams to obtain a scholarly degree in China in the 1830's, he came into contact with American Protestant missionaries and learned about Christianity. He eventually came to the conclusion that he was a second son of God and the brother of Jesus Christ. Preaching his vision to others, he amassed an army of followers called Taiping and embarked on a mission to overthrow the Manchu Qing Dynasty. In 1853, the Taiping captured the city of Nanjing. Here I quote from Jonathan Spence's The Search For Modern China, "All Manchus who did not die in the battle - men, women, and children - were rounded up and systematically killed by burning, stabbing, or drowning." In the course of the Taiping Rebellion, which was eventually put down by the Qing Dynasty at great cost, it is estimated that millions of people were killed.

As for Germany, if you want to credit Nietzsche for laying the intellectual foundations for Nazism, then you also have to credit Martin Luther and his "On The Jews And Their Lies" for laying the foundation for German anti-semitism and the Holocaust. And it goes without saying that the Lutheran Church to which you belong derives its name from Martin Luther.

And the Columbine Killers? Are you serious? Psychiatrists who have reviewed the case have determined that Eric Harris, believed to be the leader of the two, was a psychopath. Are you equating atheists with psychopaths, pastor?

Christianity believes that every human being is created in the image of God, is special to God. Christianity believes that Jesus Christ shed His precious blood for every human being. (By the way, Dawkins calls the idea of Christ dying for the sins of the world “barking mad” and “sado-masochism”). Thus, every person is unique and valuable. Atheists, building their view of life solely on Darwinian evolutionary theory, cannot ascribe the same value to the human person. Humans are, in the end, simply animals who got lucky in the evolutionary office pool.

You know, pastor, I have come to the conclusion that you do not personally know a single atheist. You honestly think we build our view of life "solely on Darwinian evolutionary theory"? Funny then that I became an atheist while barely knowing anything about evolutionary theory at all. You can believe that every human being is created in the image of God if you want to, but I believe that every human being is also a unique individual with the potential to be decent, kind and valuable. I don't need your invisible sky daddy to believe this.

In fact, it has been my experience from interacting with certain Christians on the Internet that it is they who view their fellow humans as horrible people and that they believe, in the absence of belief in God, that they personally see no reason not to engage in murder, rape and theft. I don't know about you, but I find that to be rather frightening.

I have always been fascinated by an exchange that took place between General Eisenhower (an American Christian) and Field Marshal Zhukov (a Soviet atheist) at the end of World War II. Zhukov asked Eisenhower what the American army did when they encountered a German minefield. Eisenhower explained that the army’s advance would stop; an engineer battalion would be brought forward and would work to clear the mines. Zhukov said that the Soviet army would simply advance through the minefield, figuring that the resulting casualties would be no greater than if the Germans had defended the area with troops.

That dialogue between two great generals captures, for me, the difference between a Christian and an atheistic view of life. For Eisenhower, every life was important; for Zhukov, soldiers could be liberally sacrificed for the good of Soviet society.

Uh, pastor, you do realize that the Soviet Union was invaded by Nazi Germany in June of 1941, six months before Pearl Harbor, and did the lion's share of the fighting against the Germans, don't you? While we can rightly celebrate the feats of American and Allied servicemen and women in helping to liberate Europe from Nazism, the Soviets suffered the most casualties while also inflicting the most on the Germans. Had the Soviets not fought as hard as they did and advanced as fast as they did, Hitler would have had much more time to complete his Final Solution to the "Jewish problem". This is in no way meant to be an endorsement of Stalin's tyrannical rule. But no matter how you cut and slice it, it was the Red Army that broke the back of Hitler's Wehrmacht. Oh, and I almost forgot, during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980's, the Iranians used to use children to clear minefields. They would be given keys to heaven before they walked across the field to blow themselves up so that Iranian soldiers could advance against Iraqi positions. What was that about the "atheistic" view of life again?

This is not to say that all atheists are bad, horrible, immoral people. One of the great patriots of our time was Pat Tillman, who gave up his football career to join the army, and perished in Afghanistan. He was an atheist. I honor and cherish his devotion to our country–he died for my freedom to believe and his freedom to disbelieve, for which I am deeply grateful.

Not all atheists are bad, horrible, immoral people? How patronizing can you get? How about "most atheists are not bad, horrible, immoral people"? That's because most people are generally good people, but all people are basically flawed in one way or another. And that is really the key, pastor, to recognize our flaws and to strive to overcome them so that we can be better people.

While valuing people like Tillman, I strongly believe that it is Christianity, rather than atheism, that is better equipped to produce loving, devoted people who care for others.

Sorry, but I disagree. Yes, there are plenty of loving people who are Christians. But are they loving and good because they are Christians, or would they still be that way regardless of their religion? After all, there was a Chinese philosopher named Mo Tzi who spoke of "universal love" centuries before Jesus is said to have preached in the Galilee. Truth is truth regardless of the label you affix to it.

And better equipped to give meaning and purpose to life. Dawkins quotes a very famousNobel-prize winning scientist who acknowledges that human life ultimately has no purpose. “But,” the scientist said, “I intend to have a good lunch.” But frankly, if the meaning of life comes down to random pleasures like a good lunch, it’s pretty depressing. Real joy comes from knowing that God has created us in His own image, with a wonderful purpose–to glorify Him and to live in His light forever.

Sorry pastor, but I don't see the joy in kissing the ass of a celestial dictator. To be honest, though I consider myself to be an atheist, I know that I cannot rule out 100% the possibility of a higher intelligence that created our universe. But when I consider that our planet is a minute speck in a vast galaxy filled with billions of stars and planets, and that this galaxy is one of billions that are each filled with their own billions of stars and planets, I find it hard to believe that any being intelligent and powerful enough to create all that needs to get his rocks off by insisting that we keep telling him how awesome we think he is.

I intend to have a good lunch, too. And I also intend to thank the God who gives me that lunch! He loves you and so do I! (And I hope He gives you a good lunch, too!)

Bon appetit, pastor. And don't forget to thank the farm laborers and meat packing plant employees, many of them Latino immigrants, who bust their asses picking the fruits and vegetables or cutting up the meat that's on your plate.


Sparrowhawk said...

Hah! Well done...he doesn't even know where Phelps lives. He's not in Kansas City, he's in Topeka, the capitol of Kansas, about an hour west of Kansas City. I don't recall Dawkins ever saying anything about the WBC either, but then I haven't read his books. In any event, yeah, I live in a small town about 20 miles east of where Phelps lives and no one really gives a rat's ass about him or his people in this area. The most you'll hear about them around here is efforts people are undertaking to make them have to protest at funerals a certain distance away, etc.

Anonymous said...

Very entertaining and informative. Thanks for posting this. I especially like the end bit where you tut-tut the need to validate a creator's self-esteem. Good one.

This pastor's opinion reflects a serious endemic on Christianity's side, though, doesn't it? I'm aware not every Christian would ever think like this guy does, but I'm also aware that guys like this seem to get more opportunities to be vocal about their ignorance.

It's a poor reflection on their faith as a whole to have people like this as spokespeople. And if they aren't bothering to protest or correct him in anyway, then it can't help but seem like they're all in agreement with him.

Which then leads to some atheists making the same broad stereotypical arguments about the stupidity of believers...

RedFerret said...

Typical, and sadly not unexpected summary of "atheism" by a theist. Always the same objections. ATHEISM = NO FIXED MORALS = MASS MURDER (Except not every atheist is a murderer, therefore FAIL).

Seems they never produce figures from any studies linking religiosity (or lack of) to violent crime (for example) - wonder why?!.


Jim Gavor said...

The natural tendancy for civilisation, religion or not, is morality and rule of law. Without it communities cannot grow and society cannot enjoy stability.

Even going back to the dawn of man this would have been the case. Man as a vast majority has always shunned murder, rape and violence and in general these things have been forced upon us by war, the expansion of civilisations or religion. If atheism shunned morality and morailty was necessary for people to gel and grow societies, then we wouldn't be here now. Perhaps religion was invented as a way to enshrine these laws when societies grew overly large? (subject for another day)

As an aside - sure, Stalin was an atheist, but Hitler was a devout Catholic.

Tommykey said...

Shane, I don't know if Hitler was a devout Catholic. It is my understanding that he laced his speeches with references to God because he wanted his audience to believe that he was a man of faith. As far as I am concerned, it does not matter whether Hitler was an atheist, a Catholic or some kind of neoteutonic pagan. The German people by and large would have identified themselves as Christians. But to reiterate what I wrote in my post, to blame Hitler on Christianity would be wrong. Hitler rose to power because he existed in, what was for him, the right time and the right circumstances.

Sparrowhawk said...

I agree with you Tommy. Whenever Christians try to take the "atheist killers" route with Stalin or Pol Pot, I think the best rule of thumb is just don't join in on that game. It's pointless. You could hypothetically come up with a "Christian" versus an "Atheist" death toll, but it'd amount to nothing more than a stupid pissing contest.

Personally, I think religious beliefs RARELY actually "make" people do horrible things. Generally, people have some kind of predilection to want to commit some horrible act for another reason, and if they also happen to hold strange religious views, these can serve as a justification or catalyst for the horrible deed.

A good example is 9/11. I hear a lot of people point to this as an example of why religion is bad, and they are correct, but not in the way they intend. These guys didn't fly into the buildings because they picked up the Koran one day and thought hey....this is what I need to do. That isn't to say the Koran doesn't contain verses that condone violence, but...rather that I think it's far more likely that these guys had geopolitical anger or cultural problems with the US and their deeply held religious beliefs only served to give them the sense they should act on that anger and that they would be rewarded for it.

Still, a dangerous role that religion fulfills can hardly blame the religion alone.

Tommykey said...

I think it's far more likely that these guys had geopolitical anger or cultural problems with the US and their deeply held religious beliefs only served to give them the sense they should act on that anger and that they would be rewarded for it.

That's exactly it, Sparrowhawk! From I have read of Mohammed Atta, who in one of the great ironies of history, majored in urban planning, was that he loved Islamic architecture. And people who knew him said that he would become very angry when he would encounter western style buildings in Arabic towns. In his mind, Western capitalism was like a form of cultural contamination. For Atta then, it only made sense to strike out at what he believed was one of the sources of that contamination.

AmityDave said...

Dear Tommykey:
I enjoyed your critique of my article. A few points:
--The citation from "Going My Way" was meant as a light-hearted anecdote to get into the topic-not as a serious indictment of atheistic athletic ability.
--The article was a response to specific texts--the books by Dawkins and Harris (especially Dawkins). Their basic thesis was that religion leads to hatred and murder. As I pointed out, "two can play at that game"--which I did, giving examples of murderous atheist regimes. I didn't just wake up one morning and say, "I'm going to accuse athetists of being murderes today". I was replying to authors who basically were saying to me: "Your dearest and most deeply held beliefs tend toward murder and hatred."
--Dawkins does spend quite a bit of time on Westboro Baptist--so the "strawman" accusation appllies to Dawkins, not to me! (And yes, it is in Topeka--mea maxima culpa).
--The quote from Dostevsky was meant to illustrate a point--not to prove it.
--My admiration for the Red Army is second to no one's--but the fact is, from Lenin on, the Soviet ideology saw human beings as dispensable.
--Who mentioned Sarah Palin and Barack Obama? I have no great love for the former, and I have never compared the latter to Hitler. (By the way--can you swear, cross-your-heart, that you've never compared George W. Bush to Hitler?)
--Do you think your case is really advanced by childish phrases like "sky daddy" or "kiss the a-- of a celestial dictator"? It kind of undermines the credibility of your arguments.
Hey--since you enjoyed my article on Dawkins and Harris so much, check out my review of "Religulous", archived on the same website. There you'll learn why Bill Maher's Halloween costume is the most persuasive argument against atheism.
Have a great day!
Your friend in Jesus,
The Amityville Jackass

Tommykey said...

Dear Pastor Anglin. Thank you for your reply. I put up another post in response here.

Kind regards,


Anonymous said...

Hello! I have read all of the following posts. I only have one thing to add.
You stated that the Pastor here may not even know an atheist; I would be quite surprised to find out that a Pastor, Priest or Rabbi in today’s world does not know at least 1. That is because either they have a parishioner who has begun to claim that they have switched. Or a person who states that they are an atheist has come to them for debate. It appears that the few atheists (who claim) always seem to think that discussion can turn the heart of a Christian. Now I have been in the business of Christian education for most of my adult life and have found that several of my former students have claimed to switch. This does not mean that I hate or even dislike them. I befriended them when they were my student and I still consider them my friends. But when I ask them why the switch? What is it about your Church that drove you away? The answers included too many rules. I want to do what I want to do. And, there are not Atheist Churches that I have to go to. I am well into my forties now and most of the students I am writing about are in their twenties and Thirties. I can say that not one of them is happy. One is on trial battery and it saddens me that he has no support. We keep in contact, but other than his parents he has no other support. Where are his atheist brethren when he needs them? And while there are many Christian in the same boat, I find that they manage to come through their difficulties much easier and less damaged because of the added support a Christian family can give when called upon.
Well this is my 2 cents worth.
God Bless us all!
Davey and Goliath

RedFerret said...

And now my two pennies worth;

"Anonymous said...
...I am well into my forties now and most of the students I am writing about are in their twenties and Thirties. I can say that not one of them is happy. One is on trial battery and it saddens me that he has no support. We keep in contact, but other than his parents he has no other support. Where are his atheist brethren when he needs them? And while there are many Christian in the same boat, I find that they manage to come through their difficulties much easier and less damaged because of the added support a Christian family can give when called upon.

1)Are you making the claim that none of the atheists you know are happy to suggest that atheists are generally unhappy, 'cause over here in the UK most of the people I know are atheistic or just don't care, and they are generally happy. If that wasn't your point, then what was it?

2) OK, so the atheist have no "Christian Brethren" for support, but as well as parents, I'm sure most atheists, like any other person have friends, who would provide support. Surely you are not suggesting that an atheist is by default friendless? I think I would rather have the support of my freinds, whatever their beliefs, than of my co-believers, wouldn't you? In this case, what support do "Christian Brethren" who aren't freinds provide??

Just my thoughts.


Sparrowhawk said...


>The answers included too many rules. I want to do what I want to do. And, there are not Atheist Churches that I have to go to.

Are you sure they were actually atheists? Or did they just hate going to church? Hell, I thought church could be boring when I was a kid, but that is not even REMOTELY why I eventually lost my faith. No offense, but it sounds like your former students were just a bunch of lazy gen-xers who decided church was lame. I don't think this is very representative of most "deconversion" stories.

>I can say that not one of them is happy.

And I can say that they all have purple string coming out of their ears, but that doesn't make it true or relevant to the discussion.

>One is on trial battery and it saddens me that he has no support. We keep in contact, but other than his parents he has no other support.

I don't doubt that he would get more support in a church. This is actually one of the positive things churches can provide for people...even I can see that. I would recommend you compell him to join a church if you really think it's what he needs. Or, you could try to track down other types of support groups in his area if you're not close enough geographically to provide support.

>Where are his atheist brethren when he needs them?

Does he have any "atheist brethren"? We're not a tightly-knit nation-wide community that meets every week and does everything from discuss atheism to providing emotional support for atheists who are in legal trouble.

> I find that they manage to come through their difficulties much easier and less damaged because of the added support a Christian family can give when called upon.

So, does this guy not have a family willing to give him support? I find that very few atheists are members of large "atheistic" extended families. I have a large extended family made up of a lot of different religious persuasions, from no religious belief, like myself, to middle of the road protestant types all the way to incredibly conservative and vocal Catholics. We support each other because we're a family, not because we have a religion in common. I'm sorry your former student is in such a bad place, but I hardly think it's fair to draw a correlation between his poor choices (battering someone) and his lack of belief in gods.