Wednesday, November 07, 2007
Paul Thornton of the Los Angeles Times has some very good observations about the recent flap over Anthony Flew's "conversion" to deism.
... [B]oth committed atheists and ardent believers courted Flew in the three years between his announced conversion and the recent publication of his book, "There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind." Flew was once a star to atheists; now he's a token for the religious who crave to be associated with an intellectual heavyweight who's built a career on using reason to dismantle belief ...Thornton notes that "Flew's questionable transformation from atheist into evangelical poster boy exposes a clumsy yet common tack in the modern god wars: argument by association," such as Bill O'Reilly's recent invocation of "the worst mass murderers in modern times -- Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot -- all confirmed atheists, all people who wanted to wipe out religion" during his recent rant at (O'Reilly doesn't do interviews) Richard Dawkins. It isn't a one-way street, however:
To be fair, atheists are often guilty of similar foolish arguments, including the tired claim that today's Christians share the same faith as the 15th century Spanish inquisitors -- the extremists who imprisoned, tortured and killed individuals deemed insufficiently Catholic. More commonly, Western Muslims and Jews are often linked to their more extreme counterparts waging a holy war in the Middle East, in a similar way atheists sometimes conflate loony abortion-clinic bombers with Sunday churchgoers.John Wilkins has explained this well as the attempt is to substitute some surrogate marker for the topic at hand in lieu of rational debate. It seeks to link a belief the hearer already accepts (i.e., that murderous dictators and/or suicide bombers are bad) and associate the bad with the opposing camp and virtue with your own, thus forcing the hearer to join your camp or abandon an already strongly held belief. It is a staking out of rival totems that may or may not succeed in polarizing the debate but something like the truth is not well served:
As it is most commonly used, the goal of argument by association is guilt by association: You're supposed to shame me into adopting religion as a way to save my soul from the moral bankruptcy that ensnared Stalin and Hitler. I'm supposed to shame you into thinking that the delusion demanded by your moderate religious belief shelters the fanatics who wage holy war.
[T]he goal of such a practice is to bolster your claim not by arguing its merits, but by pointing to others who happen to claim what you (or your opponents) claim. Such is the folly of religious argument by association: a tug of war that says nothing about what people believe, but who believes what.Thornton, an atheist himself, sums it up nicely:
I know that Josef Stalin was an atheist, and I couldn't care less..