Recently on here I’ve been critical of some people with whom I generally agree. I picked on Michael Ruse for not getting the point of Dawkins’ argument and, while apparently attempting to defend them, patronizing a large set of believers. I picked on Daniel Loxton for unnecessarily bringing religion into science, and, while apparently attempting to appease them, also patronizing a large set of believers. Well, now it’s time for me to pick on someone with whom I likely agree on very little. Stephen Ames is an Anglican priest with PhDs in physics and philosophy of science. He has written a review of the 2010 Global Atheist Convention that recently took place in Australia. Though he is clearly attempting to appease everyone, he manages to patronize all those involved in the dialogue he says wants to have.
PZ Myers notes that Ames makes a wholly illegitimate move when he attempts to suggest that the ideals that the atheists at the convention want to hold up as virtuous are really Christian ideals. At the end of his post, Ames writes,
At the end of her vivid, witty segment Catherine Deveney gave us this word: “Seek the truth and the truth will make you free. Don’t be afraid of death. Be afraid of never having really lived. Peace be with you.” These are also deeply Christian themes, at least one being a direct quote. CD says ‘God is bullshit’ – that is her gig at the comedy festival. Taking a line from Dan Barker, a speaker at the Convention, this is culturally resonant with speaking about God as a shepherd in Jesus’ own day. But could the truth, life and peace she commends to us enter into a conversation with the truth, life and peace that Christians value? Catherine Deveney, would you be interested in another gig?
In response to this, Myers says,
There was a phrase I heard all the time when I was living in Utah. If I did something friendly or helpful, the good Mormon would tell me that was mighty “white” of me. It’s the same thing when someone appropriates truth and justice and reason as Christian virtues, and sits around trying to be nice to atheists by telling them how close they come to a Christian ideal.
And they call us the arrogant ones.
I think he nails it, here. It is absolutely absurd to suggest that truth, justice, and reason, ideas with which all cultures are and have been been concerned long before the rise of Christianity or even Judaism, are somehow uniquely Christian, yet this is what Ames seems to imply. Even worse, there is no consideration here by Ames of what Deveney had in mind when she spoke of “truth.” It is highly unlikely that she had in mind anything that is faith-based, and that distinction matters. By refusing to acknowledge that distinction, and, worse, attempting to hide it by making it equivalent to an explicitly Christian notion of truth, which, of course, is faith-based, Ames is both patronizing and intellectually dishonest. And this is all for the sake of attempting to find some “common ground,” some way for everyone to just get along. The problem with this kind of “getting along,” as I’ve said repeatedly, is that you’re not really doing any such thing. Mischaracterizing and mangling the ideas of those with whom you disagree just so you can obfuscate the disagreement is not getting along at all.
What’s really funny about Ames is that the atheists aren’t the only people on the end of his patronizing stick. He also acts as if there is nothing legitimate to the idea that Christians believe that non-Christians, like atheists, are going to Hell. He writes,
There were many speakers who clearly felt that Christians could not affirm the truly good character of an atheist. This is partly because of questions put to atheists about ‘why be good if there is no God’ or the idea that it is impossible to be good without God. One of the emotional currents running in the Convention showed up in the cheering and applause whenever a speaker affirmed the possibility of living a good life without religion and especially without the denigration of this possibility by religion. I have some sympathy for the atheist objection. It resonates with the scene in Matthew’s gospel, concerning the last judgement. The sheep and the goats are on the right and left hand of Christ. The sheep are saved, the goats are not. This will already be too much for many people. But I ask you to wait. It is the criterion that is of interest. Those who end up at the right hand of God are those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and those in prison. The key point is that the text shows these people as never having heard the gospel, as acting without reference to God or Christ or even their own salvation. The person in need was sufficient motivation. Atheist friends say to me that this is not the message they have received from the church. Well there is more to say of course. But an ensuing conversation would not deprive us of this point from Matthew.
Without getting into a debate on the interpretation of Matthew 25, though it is only fair to point out that many people read this differently, it is simply a fact that it is a central tenet of mainstream Christianity that those who have not accepted Christ as their personal Lord and Savior are damned to Hell. There is no way around that. For Ames to here suggest that all that is needed is more conversation to get past this is quite odd. It is unclear just how such dialogue could make any difference at all about that. There does not seem to be any clear way to dismiss the talk of damnation and hellfire in the Bible, and it is a simple fact that lots of religions, not just Christianity, are explicit that there is no way to be good without God, this being the case because being good explicitly involves obeying God’s will. If you don’t believe in God, it doesn’t look like you can work to put your will in line with His. As such, there is no way for your to every really be good. To suggest otherwise is not only patronizing to atheists but also to Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc. This isn’t a problem that can be talked out. It’s a genuine disagreement. Pretending otherwise is, again, just dishonest.
What is most annoying about this kind of response is that Ames thinks that he’s the one being rational. Somehow, somewhere, he got the idea that rationality involved this kind attempt to artificially smooth away tensions. But that’s not rational at all. In fact, it’s very irrational. There is absolutely nothing rational about misrepresenting ideas to make contradictions less apparent. That’s deception. Such actions only ensure that no genuine dialogue is even possible, thus defeating the stated purpose of such behavior in the first place.
I want to say something about why I think these people keep falling into this trap, why they keep coming off as patronizing and condescending. As I’ve said before, it’s because they just aren’t taking these ideas seriously. It just turns out that some ideas are opposed to each other, and attempting to accommodate all sides only results in being unfair to all sides. That in no way means we should necessarily be angry or hostile to those with whom we disagree. But, if all one does is try to cover up the disagreement by changing and distorting the actual content of the ideas in question, then no genuine dialogue or even accommodation has actually occurred. All you’ve succeeded in doing is showing that you don’t really understand the issues at hand and, worse, that you don’t really respect the players involved at all. Genuine respect means dealing with ideas as they are actually presented. That might mean tearing them apart, but there’s nothing necessarily disrespectful about that. On the contrary, it might be the only way to show genuine respect for both the ideas and the people espousing them.
As an aside, I’ll quickly mention something not so much related to the above but that really annoys me from Ames’ post. At one point he writes,
And by the way, if someone says God is the source of all that exists, it is not logically possible to ask, ‘what created God?’ There is nothing prior to God to do that creating. Other objections to this saying about God may be offered but not this one.
But that misrepresents the kind of reasoning that goes on here. The question “what created God?” comes about whenever someone attempts to justify claim that God is the source of everything. The claim normally comes about at the end of a line of reasoning from something like the Cosmological argument. That is, everything needs a cause, and God is the First Cause. Once that is said, then someone asks “what caused God?” The reason it is legitimate to ask such a question is because of the premise that led to God being First Cause is that “everything needs a cause.” If that’s true, then everything needs a cause! If it’s not true, then there is no need to resort to God as the First Cause. The point is that the very thing that leads one to say something like “God is the source of all things that exists,” the thing that justifies such an assertion, then requires God, as something that exists, to have a source. Ames should know this. That makes the quote above either ridiculously ignorant or ridiculously dishonest. I can’t tell of which Ames is guilty.