“If this doesn’t give religion a bad name, nothing will”: An Example of a New Atheist’s Gross Misuse of Logic

“If this doesn’t give religion a bad name, nothing will.”

This reference to the Islamic Republic of Iran, as well as 9/11, was made at atheist biologist Jerry Coyne’s blog last week. The sentence is an example of the kinds of imprecise and unnuanced “logic” that gets tossed around by confidence atheists (or New Atheists) and that gives them such a bad name with the larger public, and a reputation for broad-swiping bigotry towards religion in general. Think of applying the logic of this sentence’s construction to other things:

  • “If the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima doesn’t give planes a bad name, nothing will.”
  • “If the destruction of the rainforest by humans doesn’t give mammals a bad name, nothing will.”
  • “If Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, doesn’t give novelists a bad name, nothing will.”

Notice the ease with which gross overgeneralizations can be expressed in such a sentence construction. And now the “confidence atheist” versions again:

  • “If 9/11 doesn’t give religion a bad name, nothing will.”
  • “If the Islamic Revolution doesn’t give religion a bad name, nothing will.”

Further, if you apply the logic to atheism, then you’ve just legitimized the linking of atheism to the Soviet showtrials and gulags. As in Iran, where you can’t rise in the ranks of government without being a Muslim, so in the Soviet Union you could not rise in the ranks of the party or the government without being an atheist. The Soviet government, run by atheists, held show trials and ran a huge gulag system for its opponents, therefore:

  • “If the Soviet Union doesn’t give atheism a bad name, nothing will.”

The logical parallel implied with Iran is exactly the same. Either you decouple broad generalization like “religion” and “atheism” from specific contingent and historical events, and acknowledge sociological complexity, and insist on precision of language, qualification, and nuance in discussion of such matters, or you confess that the logic applies equally to the Soviet Union and Iran. Both atheism and theism are bankrupted by their applications in history, or neither are. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have your “confidence atheism” rhetorical cake and eat it too.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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15 Responses to “If this doesn’t give religion a bad name, nothing will”: An Example of a New Atheist’s Gross Misuse of Logic

  1. Some Atheist says:

    I don’t think that this argument is used in all cases simply to “prove” religion deserves a bad name.

    Its more of a counter to the claim that religion makes people somehow better (more moral, kinder, what have you).

    I don’t see it as putting someone below yourself. Its about pointing out the reality of an even playing field. You can compare body counts all day long and all it will prove is that people can be cruel on both sides. It’s not claiming to be superior… it’s just pointing out that X isn’t superior either.

    I do agree that most times, it is used as a petty tit for tat tactic, but I think its valid when countering claims like “Islam is the religion of peace” or that “atheists are less moral”

    • jonolan says:

      But Atheists ARE less moral because they lack an absolute framework for morality. Of course that doesn’t mean any individual atheist isn’t ethical.

      Of course I prefer the phrases,

      “If Atheists don’t give Atheism a bad name, nothing will. and…

      “If Muslims don’t give Islam a bad name, nothing will. and…

      “If Christians don’t give Christianity a bad name, nothing will.

      I suppose they could all be summed up into,

      “If any ideology’s or religion’s adherents don’t give it a bad name, nothing will.”

      • Anonymous says:

        But Atheists ARE less moral because they lack an absolute framework for morality. Of course that doesn’t mean any individual atheist isn’t ethical.

        Jonolan, that’s false in two ways:

        1. There are indeed absolute moral frameworks for atheism: Desire Utilitarianism, Preference Utilitarianism, Act/Rule Utilitarianism, Moral Realism, Ethical Objectivism, and there are a plethora of thinkers who have worked on these schools of thought: Singer, Boyle, etc. etc. You can only claim atheism entails lack of absolute morality if you haven’t tried to look for i

        2. Even if atheism entailed relativism, the fact that some alternative isn’t relative does not necessarily make that alternative correct or even preferable.

      • josef says:

        whoops, didn’t fill in my name. The reply to Jonolan is me.

      • jonolan says:

        joseph,

        I do actually follow your thought on this, but I disagree with you. Most of what you describe has no bearing on morality, only on the pragmatism of self-interest or benefit to one’s bloodline. That’s not morality because it has little or nothing to do with right and wrong.

        Under all of those philosophies honor killings, acid splashing of women, and any other excesses of the Taliban are “moral” because behaving that way increases the chances of one’s self and one’s progeny living and living better.

        The exception of course is Ethical Objectivism, but that is nothing but applying religious morality – shall we say Natural Law? – to a non-theist construct.

      • josef johann says:

        Jonolan, your summary of the utilitarian schools is so completely inaccurate that I am nearly speechless. By my count you made 3 demonstrably false statements and one dubious statement.

        I do actually follow your thought on this, but I disagree with you. Most of what you describe has no bearing on morality, only on the pragmatism of self-interest or benefit to one’s bloodline (false statement #1). That’s not morality because it has little or nothing to do with right and wrong (false statement #2 since #1 is also false).

        Under all of those philosophies honor killings, acid splashing of women, and any other excesses of the Taliban are “moral” (false statement #3) because behaving that way increases the chances of one’s self and one’s progeny living and living better.

        The exception of course is Ethical Objectivism, but that is nothing but applying religious morality (dubious) – shall we say Natural Law? – to a non-theist construct.

        None of moral realism, desire utilitarianism, act or rule utilitarianism have anything to do with bloodlines, or would condone honor killings of the kind the taliban does.

        Borrowing from wikipedia summaries..

        Preference utilitarianism: “preference utilitarians define a morally right action as that which produces the most favorable consequences for the people involved.” Honor killings couldn’t possibly satisfy this requirement.

        Desire utilitarianism is similar to preference utilitarianism but with desires replacing preferences which is supposed to avoid the problem of intrinsic values.

        Act utilitarianism: “Act utilitarianism is a utilitarian theory of ethics which states that the right action is the one which produces the greatest amount of happiness or pleasure for the greatest number of beings.” That’s inconsistent with honor killings or throwing acid at people.

        Rule utilitarianism: “Rule utilitarianism is a form of utilitarianism which states that moral actions are those which conform to the rules which lead to the greatest good, or that “the rightness or wrongness of a particular action is a function of the correctness of the rule of which it is an instance.” Nothing the Taliban does could possible be construed as following a morally correct rule or something which leads to the greatest good. That the taliban could mistakenly believe so only shows that they are an improper example of rule utilitarianism.

        And moral realism/ethical objectivism simply hold that moral statements pertain to states of affairs, and can be true or false. Neither of the two say anything about “natural law.”

        These are explicitly moral programs that many atheists believe in. You might want to start by reading Richard Boyd’s “How to be a Moral Realist” if you don’t want to run the risk to making false statements on questions of morality anymore.

  2. agoodspirit says:

    Santi,

    I disagree with your interpretation of the blog post. If Mayer (the post’s author) had said something like, “look at the islamic revolution of 79, this shows that religion corrupts people”, then I would agree with you. But that’s not what Mayer is saying. Saying that X gives Y a bad name is not a criticism of Y, it’s a criticism of X! As a liberal I can say that Keith Olbermann gives liberals in the media a bad name, but clearly this isn’t an attack on liberals! Mayer seems to be musing about things that give religion a bad name: Focus on the Family, 1979, 9/11. Then he theorizes that maybe 9/11 is the reason that percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans increased from 1990 to 2008.

    So where in his post does he use 9/11 or 1979 as a logical argument against religion??

  3. Grad Student says:

    Oops, the above comment by agoodspirit was actually written by me, Grad Student, accidentally under my wife’s user name.
    -Grad Student

  4. santitafarella says:

    Grad Student:

    You mean my rant was for naught?! I’ll double check and see if I misread the author. What you say makes sense to me too, when you put it the way that you did. However, before I look again, I would say that I’ve never seen a blog post at Coyne’s site that would ever bemoan as “sad” something that makes religion look bad. It’s not akin to a liberal bemoaning the reputation another liberal might be creating for liberals generally. This is an atheist site asking, in exasperation, what, if anything, can ever lower the esteem of religion in people’s eyes. The Islamic Revolution in Iran? 9/11? But I’ll double check. Thanks for catching me out if I’ve been unfair to the author of that post at Coyne’s blog.

    —Santi

  5. santitafarella says:

    Grad Student:

    I looked. Here’s what he said: “At one of these lunches, during a discussion of events in Iran, a young assistant professor commented, ‘If this doesn’t give religion a bad name, nothing will.’ And for a long time, I thought nothing would.” And “9/11, while not giving religion a bad enough name for most people to give it up, may have led people to question on what grounds religious claims are to be evaluated, and what entitles them to respect.”

    I may be totally confused here, but I think that the structure of the argument is that the Iranian Revolution and 9/11 ought to give people pause about religion in general. I don’t think that the emphasis on the argument is on the damage done to religion, but on what people should be startled into doing about religion after the Islamic Revolution and 9/11 (that is, abandon religion generally). I think it’s a flawed argument, and my post is not unfair to the author.

    I do agree with you, however, that if the emphasis is placed where you suggest, then my argument falls apart. And I do agree with you that the post includes sociological observation, and not just the didactic atheist wish that people would look at Iran and 9/11 and have an epiphany about religion in general (that it’s a bad thing).

    —Santi

  6. John Donohue says:

    The atrocities of Soviet and Chinese communism during the 50-year high point of their ascendancy were not enacted in the name of atheism.

    The atrocities of religion, which claim many thousands of years of history, proudly glory in God and region.

    I certainly wish the relatively trivial atrocities in Iran and on 9/11, proactively driven by religion, would indeed finally “give religion a bad name.” Small price for a prize of great relief.

  7. Grad Student says:

    Santi,

    I think our analyses of the post are complementrary rather than contradictory. You are placing the post within the wider context of Coyne’s blog, which itself is embedded within the context of the new atheist movement. You are right that, within this context, it is not entirely unreasonable to assume that there is an implied “ought” within the post. So perhaps Mayer is implying that religion “ought” to have a bad name.

    I, on the other hand, am trying to only look at the post itself. Doing this, I see the post as being descriptive rather than prescriptive (as you see it).

    -Grad Student

  8. Grad Student says:

    On second thought, strike that last sentence of my comment. What I really mean is that you can only see the implied “ought” in the post if you assume the post is part of the new atheist rhetoric.

  9. santitafarella says:

    Grad Student:

    Fair enough. I’m glad I don’t have to entirely take back my above rant. I enjoyed writing it.

    —Santi

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