Who in the World is Phil Zuckerman Addressing?

Wow...It's been a while.
I'm back.

In a new Huffington Post article, Phil Zuckerman "has a few criticisms for his God-denying brothers..." but I'm not sure who he is addressing because these criticisms don't appear to apply to atheists at large. I feel that he's targeting 1% of atheists who go out there without rational argument just blindly going after religion and religious people with no justification. Atheists like myself who write blogs, appear in the media, etc elaborate on their stances, are charitable to their opponents when it is deserved, and are sure to qualify their statements and refrain from using absolutes.

Here's Zuckerman's list and why he goes very wrong:

1. Insisting that science can, or will, answer everything. When Bill O'Reilly or your Baptist in-laws ask you pointed questions like: "How did the universe get here?" or "What caused the Big Bang?" or "Why is there something instead of nothing?" don't insist that science has the answer. It may not -- ever. It is far better to simply say that we don't know everything, and may in fact never know everything. There will always be some mysteries out there. Just say: "Yeah -- it is quite a profound puzzle. No one knows the answer. But just because we don't know the answers to everything, doesn't mean we then automatically accept some made-up possibility."

A common strawman that I get from theists is that I think that science can or will answer everything. I don't make this claim, but I do think highly of the scientific method and believe it is the best tool to gain knowledge about our natural world. Science may be unable to answer so many questions (especially at this moment) such as "Is there intelligent life on other planets" or "Was the Big Bang really the start of time as we know it?"

We might have reasonable guesses (or strong ideas based on current evidence and theories) to questions like this now, but we can't be so sure and we don't just sit back and assume that the answers will be attained at some point. Science is the best representation of our knowledge based on hard evidence. I agree with Zuckerman's evaluation, but who exactly is making these errors? The atheists I know and who are "active" understand Zuckerman's evaluation very well and don't make this mistake.

2. Condemning all religion, rather then just the bad aspects thereof. Religion is man-made. It is socially constructed. It grows out of human culture. As such, religion inevitably contains, reflects, and reveals all that is within the realm of humanity: the good and the bad. It is like any other facet of human civilization: some of it is noble and inspirational, much of it is nonsensical and even dangerous. But to condemn it all as poisonous is to be in serious denial.

Atheists like myself acknowledge that good things can be had from religion, but we contest that all good that can be had from religion can be had without it and more honestly without the added baggage. Of course some religious communities do lots to, say, help the homeless -if they don't hold sandwiches hostage in the name of Jesus-, but we can help the homeless without being religious. Religion often warps moral priorities and causes more harm than good.

3. Condemning the Bible as a wretched, silly book, rather than seeing it as a work full of good and insightful things as well. The Bible was written by humans. It has no other source. The evidence is clear on that front. And similar to point two above, given that it is a human creation means that it isn't all good or all bad -- but contains both. Its contents can be downright absurd, flagrantly unscientific, embarrassingly racist and sexist -- not to mention painfully boring. But it also contains brilliant insights into the human condition, fun stories to entertain kids, and heady poetry. It even has solemn stretches of unbridled skepticism and existential angst. Check out Ecclesiastes.

The Bible, as a whole, is a wretched and silly book that condones slavery, has massive contradictions, silly laws to follow, ascribes throughtcrime, and uses the idea of Hell to fear people into worshipping Jesus. Of course there are poetic parts and, as Richward Dawkins said, it did a great deal for the English language and should be studied by everyone. Great...who exactly is totally discounting the Bible and saying that there is *nothing to gain* from this book? Certainly all of its good moral lessons can be had from other sources...and all of the bad moral lessons can be tossed aside. Look at the book as mythology.

4. Failing to understand and appreciate "cultural religion." There are tens of millions of people out there who are part of a religious tradition, but don't actually believe in the theological teachings thereof. They go to church, they get bar-mitzvahed, they identify with a religious tradition, and yet they are basically atheists, agnostics, or skeptics at heart. Why do they stay religious? They like it. They enjoy the traditions, the songs, the rituals, the community. These people should be seen as allies, not enemies. And every time we condemn their religion as idiocy or wickedness, we simply turn them off. Religion is not a black or white thing. Neither is secularity. There is a lot of gray out there. Deal with it. Appreciate it.

I'm not against the people who will honestly and openly say that they are a secular Christian, secular Jew, etc. I am, though, against the people who really are "skeptics at heart" who aren't serious about their religion, but rather do mental gymnastics to move the goal posts on hold onto their faith when they can just say "I like some things, but don't actually literally believe in the supernatural claims, etc." I understand that some people have to be closet atheists, great, but I'm not against those people either [although I think they could still "do their part" by contributing anonymously. My intention is not to let the "moderates" legitimize their versions of religion as Greta Christina says, they look for our approval and won't get it.

5. Critiquing God as nasty, wicked, and immoral. There is no point in critiquing a deity that doesn't exist. There is no need to catalogue the horrors, hypocrisies, or genocidal tendencies of a god that is imaginary. The reason we don't believe in God is simple: lack of evidence. That's it. Stay focused people.

What? Pointing out moral flaws of this "perfectly moral being" whether he is imaginary or not, is a great tactic and undermines the idea that God is all-loving and all-good. If God acts in an immoral fashion and this is identified, it greatly undermines the faith and rebuts the theist's conception. God commanded genocide, slavery, human sacrifice, etc in the Bible...and he's supposed to be all good? Of course the reason we don't believe is lack of evidence, but contradictions (i.e. God is good and God told Abraham to kill his son and sent Jesus on a human sacrifice mission) are good things to point out. There are other considerations besides lack of evidence to think about such as the problem of evil, Euthyphyro's Dilemma, competing religious claims, the idiocy of miracle claims, authors of the Bible not agreeing on important issues, etc.

6. Focusing on arguments against the existence of God, rather than working to make the world a better, more just place. People who believe in irrational things will rarely change their minds by listening to rational arguments. And yet atheists expel so much sweat constructing philosophical, scientific, or logical arguments against the existence of God. Think this will change people's minds? Perhaps. But only rarely. What really lowers levels of religiosity, the world-over, is living in a society where life is decent and secure. When people have enough to eat, shelter, healthcare, elder-care, child-care, employment, peacefulness, democracy -- that's when religion really starts to lose its grip.

My belief is that Christianity and other religions are making this world a worse place to live in. I agree that religion loses its grip when society is more stable, but before that happens, demagogues are using religious ideas to undermine society! Of course people will rarely change their minds...but look at all of us atheists who were formerly religious! The logical arguments of popular atheists such as Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, etc empowered a great movement and opened minds. We're not in the game to change people overnight (at least I'm not because this is not a reasonable expectation), but we will present rational arguments. Shall we battle unreason with unreason? I think not. Also, Michael Shermer mentions, "Smart people come to non-smart beliefs for non-smart reasons." Of course many intelligent theists exist. They might not be intelligent on matters of religion and many have hardly thought carefully about the issues, but they're smart in other areas of life. Saying that someone is dumb across the board for being a theist is a mistake. People can open up to rational argumentation and rational argumentation will be my method of choice. We should think hard about the arguments for and against god and philosophers should continue their work in undermining apologists.

7. Arguing about morality in the abstract. Don't get sucked into arguments about "Can we be good without God?" Don't try to convince theists that secular morality is actually more rational and, well, more moral. Rather, just insist that morality is ultimately revealed and shown through human action and deed. And we can plainly see that the least religious countries and states are generally the most moral, peaceful, and humane, while the most religious countries and states are the most crime-ridden, corrupt, and socially troubled. End of discussion.

Why not get sucked into arguments about "Can we be good without God?" The obvious answer is yes...and Zuckerman gives an answer why in #7. Many theists think that morality can't be had without God/God is needed to have objective morality and this concern needs to be undermined so that this popular nonsense can go away once and for all and people can stop thinking of atheists as immoral people who just want to sin. I'm so sick of the "Hitler was an atheist..." nonsense. Going after the idea that we need God for morality or that unbelief leads to immorality is quite important. If theists can be shown that secular, reason-based morality is superior to religious morality, much is gained.

Is Zuckerman addressing atheists who are "new to the game" here? I hardly see other atheists making these "mistakes." I also disagree with many of his conclusions here. Bring the rational arguments to the table, make these important points to theists, and keep up the good work.