Misunderstanding Nonbelief: Cracked.com’s David Wong Gets it Wrong, Part #1

Unable to relinquish my love of Cracked.com, I find myself constantly perusing it to the detriment of many other projects (like my thesis, assignments, girlfriend and life in general). This is not completely without merit, considering its basis in knowledge-generation and our shared dislike of all things Gaga, Palin and Scientology. When Cracked writers touch on religion, however, they make noises that harmonise all too well with bad apologetics and a simple-minded “Cant-We-All-Get-Along” attitude, which, I think, is dripping with a juvenile, optimistic and, unfortunately, ignorant assessment of the matters at hand.

David Wong, one of their best writers, wrote an article with the dewy-eyed title of “10 Things Christians and Atheists Can (And Must) Agree On”. In it he outlines 10 simplistic foundations which are aimed at making both sides drop their eyes, rub their necks and mumble apologies. He targets primarily Christians and atheists. He claims that both have got it oh so wrong in their “approach”.

Let’s get some preliminaries out the way: there are, undoubtedly, good and terrible ways to engage with people of the opposite metaphysical and moral persuasion. By this I mean groups of people who either believe morals come from divine sources or natural ones (even a mixture of the two, as in theistic evolution, falls into the former since the source remains divine). Sure: there are fence-sitters and swingers, who dance between because their feet are on fire from heated aggression or heated argument or burning reasonable truth from either side. But, arguments for agnosticism are very boring and, really, can also be bifurcated. You can be a staunch agnostic because of atheistic arguments but not be a complete atheist yourself.

I agree with Wong on this point: there are bad arguments for my side. But from there his train of thoughts goes off the rails of rationality. Let us look at his arguments.

His first subtitle is: “Celebrating the death of somebody you disagreed with pretty much makes you a dick.” As he explains: “I doubt anybody reading this has ever waved a snarky sign at a funeral, so I think we’re pretty much all in the same boat still. See? Common ground.” Using this as a template, he says it’s possible to find more and perhaps controversial places to find firm ground for both sides.

But why does this make you a dick? Firstly, consider the death of Jerry Falwell.

Hitchens, in this famous clip, talks about what a horrible, little man Falwell was. Calling him a toad and a fraud, Hitchens makes an important point: Hitchens said these things about Falwell while Falwell was alive. Hitchens is celebrating his death, I think, because Falwell cannot continue his fraud and cause suffering to any more people. This, to me, is reason to celebrate. Is anyone saddened when dictators die? Sure, a dictator’s death is not the immediate recreation of a country into a proper functioning liberal democracy, but it is a good first step if there are those willing to do so. What is wrong with celebrating a people finally being freed from a tyrant? This is a good emotion. Should we have a moment of silence for the death of mass murderers in jail? This is silly.

Secondly, as Hitchens highlights, just because someone dies, does not mean we change our tune. If you do change your tune, suddenly talking about what a wonderful person s/he was, then you are being inconsistent and, it seems, a “dick”. But, if you are playing the same tune at their funeral that you played at their birthday, I don’t see a problem. Wong is wrong, here.

Wong then launches into a series of arguments for common ground, having failed to establish what his first one could possibly mean.

“1. You Can Do Terrible Things in the Name of Either One”

According to Wong, “All I need from you is agreement that it’s entirely possible for either an atheist or theist world to devolve into a screaming murder festival. The religious leader sends his people into battle because he thinks God commanded it, the Stalins and Maos of the world do the same because they see their people as nothing more than meaty fuel to be ground up to feed the machinery of The State. In both cases, the people are equally dead.”

Yes, he opens with the Stalin-card. This should strike anyone even vaguely read in the various literature as a bad start.

Wong doesn’t tell us what he means by “atheism”. As I have said elsewhere, atheism is a useless term. It means, merely, a lack of belief in deities (or a belief there are no deities, though this latter definition is somewhat controversial. I certainly have no problem with it, however. I am as certain there are no supernatural gods as I am there are no pink unicorns). Wong falls into the same mistake as so many others, by making atheism into something relating to one particular deity – that is, the deity of the theism, particular Christianity. Perhaps this is what some people mean by atheism (which is why I think the term ‘atheism’ problematic) – but how insulting to all the other religions and deities that have existed! There is nothing special about the Christian god to us nonbelievers. We don’t believe in him any more/less than Zeus or Loki.

Believers have yet to tell us what makes disbelieving in their particular god, of their particular denomination, of their particular religion, so much more threatening to our souls (which they must also still prove) than not believing in all the others. (For an excellent list that illustrates this point, see here)

There is nothing to be done with atheism: it tells you almost nothing about a person’s morality, politics, personality and so on. Yes, there’s a lot to be said if we think someone believes she is here because of divine or natural reasons, but branching out from that is difficult if not impossible. Believers and nonbelievers support abortion policies, no slavery, women’s emancipation. What is more interesting, and I think fair, in the Great God Debate (stifle the yawn, please) is what both sides do “believe” in.

My apologies for those (very) few who have read my previous piece on this, but I must reiterate. I cannot speak for all atheists – only one may do so and even he does it in three voices – but my focus is based on what some call “Enlightenment values”. Valuing reason over faith, evidence over authority, ethical deliberation and reflection over Papal rules and regulation, beauty for its own sake, the reduction of suffering, and so on. The works of Paine and Jefferson, Kant and Bentham, Leonardo and Galileo, Darwin and Einstein, Russell and Neiman, Schopenhauer and Hume – and so on. Show me how a society, founded not only on these types of works, but also on these types of values – of reflection, evidence and reality – fall prey to the very things they all oppose – despotism, dictatorship, genocide, unjustified authority – and we will be on firmer ground.

It is simply idiotic to say we can talk about what Stalin didn’t believe in but what the Catholic Church did believe in – and somehow say both can lead to suffering. As I say, we should base our judgements in these debates on what both sides do believe in to make headway. There are millions of things we do not believe in, but play no part in the discussion. For example, it is an almost certainty that Stalin did not believe in the dancing fairies at the edge of my fingers. Similarly, Christians do not believe in it – does that mean that Christians will end up causing suffering because they share a disbelief with Stalin? This is a terrible argument and one that needs to be done away with. This is what the faithful claim when making the “Stalin move”: that we nonbelievers share a nonbelief with Stalin, and therefore, will end up endorsing regimes of death. Yet, we can easily pull the same card by saying: Stalin disbelieved in, say, Muhammad narrating the Final Word of God. Most Christians disbelieve this, too – therefore, Christians again are likely to be Stalinists. This is a bad argument.

So, no, Mr Wong. You are again, wrong.

Whereas we can point to the Magic Books of the three monotheists which include licences to murder and massacre, we cannot do the same for nonbelievers. After all, we nonbelievers do not think any of our favourite thinkers are anything other than fallible human beings (Jefferson endorsed slavery, Aristotle thought woman an incomplete man, Paine was too talented as a writer, etc.). We do not claim our books are magic or are written or inspired by deities. Fallibility is not a word recognisable to faith. And indeed nonbelievers can also treat thinkers as automatic authorities (as seen with some philosophers claiming Hume’s “is/ought” gap is impassable and, therefore, it is taboo to say science can say anything about morality); but when nonbelievers do this, they would be defeating what I see as a fundamental value: giving in to authority without critical reflection and a willingness to admit fallibility.

But, as I highlighted, atheists might very well do this because there is no unification principle of any interest with atheists save our shared disbelief in deities. They might very well give into various views I find idiotic or abhorrent, like The Secret, The Law of Attraction, etc. It only highlights that you cannot speak of any unification of atheistic views on matters of morality or politics. I might be a utilitarian and an atheist but someone else might be a Aristotelian-Communitarian and an atheist. Not realising this important point makes any argument against the Straw Man Atheist boring and impotent, as seen here.

“2. Both Sides Really Do Believe What They’re Saying”

This is a description which is perfectly unhelpful. So what? Wong justifies his point by highlighting people willing to die for their beliefs. This, Wong, proves people really believe it (for God, country, and freedom. People will kill themselves over anything and are willing to do the same to others) Here Wong makes one of the worst arguments – and there are plenty throughout this bad piece – I’ve encountered. Here is evidence Wong really is quite myopic and ignorant in his thoughts. Addressing us nonbelievers, he says:

If there’s no God, then there is something in the human brain that can and does present an amazingly realistic impression of one. A gland, an artifact of environmental pattern recognition, whatever you want to pin it on, the result is, at certain times and in certain moods, as tangible and real and distinct as the person sitting across from you on the subway.

You can say they’re wrong. You can say it all day, you can etch “YOU’RE WRONG” into the surface of the moon with a giant laser. But you’ll have a lot less angst if you remember that the thing they’re wrong about is something they honestly believe, down to their roots. I guess you could just call them crazy, but it’s a little silly to use that word when believers are the norm in human population. (Italics added.)

Reread that second paragraph. Our immediate thought should take us right back to Robert M. Pirsig, in his best-selling Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where he famously says: “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion.”

Unfortunately, Mr Wong, reality is not dependant on majority opinion. In one USA poll, in 2005, the majority of respondents rejected evolution as a fact. Does that mean we should accept their view because it is the majority? Similarly, it is highly likely great parts of the world thought our planet flat centuries ago. Did our planet alter its shape over time? Of course not. As Philip K. Dick so beautifully put it: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

So, if tomorrow, everyone except David Wong has a momentary revelation that states: “Everyone named David Wong is a blue cow” would that mean they are right? Would it make them sane because the delusion is dispersed? Spreading a bad belief does not make its statements any more real, any more true, nor any less insane, any less stupid. It only makes idiocy unafraid to display itself. No matter how many people believe David Wong is a blue cow, it is not true. And Mr Wong would be perfectly right to call everyone except himself insane.

As to the first paragraph, I am uncertain what his point is. I don’t think he fully thought out that paragraph. A gland? It is certainly thought that our incredible pattern-recognition is the basis of all superstition. The derivation of false-positives resulted in our ancestors being the ones to survive the dangerous landscapes of the past (movement in the grass = lion hunting me > movement in the grass = just some wind. The former more likely to survive.).

People believe all sorts of things are real because of this adaptation: Loch Ness, UFO’s, ghosts, spirits, elves, fairies and so on. It does not make it real. Just because we know why people believe in these things does not make it real. And this is important – if we maintained Mr Wong’s view that because it part of our adaptation, we must simply accept it, we would never bother curing ailments with medicine, since people really, really believe prayer would work. Because the sick little girl hasn’t got some bacterial infection, she has a demon. So what if we can describe where all these bad ideas come from? The point is, we know they are false, we can prove they are false and, more importantly, we have better explanations. Mr Wong ignoring this makes a terrible move.

(I also ask Mr Wong, in talking about god representation to contemplate Shermer’s First and Last Law: Any significantly advanced intelligent alien being is indistinguishable from god.)

I will continue my discussion of Wong’s post over the next few days.

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4 thoughts on “Misunderstanding Nonbelief: Cracked.com’s David Wong Gets it Wrong, Part #1

  1. Happened across this post through the anti-religion tag; I hope to look at more of your posts when I have the time. For now, I’ll just make this comment:

    I don’t think Wong meant his second paragraph in the way you interpreted it. I don’t think he’s saying “hey, it’s the norm, so you should take these beliefs more seriously”, but rather “it’s the norm, so you’ll have more success interacting with the majority of people if you accept that these beliefs are genuine, and most worldviews are completely, “obviously correct” to the people who hold them regardless of whether they’re actually correct. So *calling* them crazy and stupid is just going to make them think of you as closed-minded too.”

    Again, the fact that a Christian’s worldview is as obvious to him as mine is to me does not confer validity upon it, or mean that in rejecting it I am actually being closed-minded. It’s just something that’s very useful to bear in mind when I’m discussing things with him.

  2. CELEBRATING THE DEATH OF SOMEONE MAKES YOU A DICK
    He’s not saying that you have to mourn the death of dictators/mass murderers/etc. He’s not even saying you should be saddened by them. It’s the people who invade funerals and can’t keep their celebrations to themselves that he’s targeting, and I agree with him, they are dicks! As for your point about him focusing specifically on Christians, it’s simply because whenever you see a high-profile debate between an atheist and a believer, the latter seems to most often be of the Christian or Catholic variety.

    YOU CAN DO TERRIBLE THINGS IN THE NAME OF EITHER ONE
    In spite of what you say, David’s point stands – both sides have done bad things in the name of their beliefs. He’s not saying we should be held accountable, just that when we’re ranting about the terrible things the other side has done, we shouldn’t forget about that of our own.

    BOTH SIDES REALLY DO BELIEVE WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
    Okay, the argument about the majority of people being believers is a bit questionable but don’t let it distract you from the main point – the important thing he’s trying to say is that people don’t pretend to believe in God JUST to scare everyone and atheists don’t just ignore God so that they can live a sinful drug-filled orgy of a life. No, they seriously believe that what they say is true! Christians really do think there is a God watching over them, and Atheists are genuinely unable to believe that God exists.

  3. You should read Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” To my mind, he does an excellent job of showing precisely why the Revolutionary Terror was a product of the Enlightenment rather than some fanatical aberration.

    Also, read Voegelin’s “The New Science of Politics, Order and History, and Science, Politics and Gnosticism.” Does a pretty good job of tracing the intellectual lines from Paine and Rousseau, to Hegel and Marx, to Lenin and Stalin.

    I usually can’t stand David Wong (dogmatic little shit), but I think he’s quite on the mark here.

    • You might also find this one interesting, though Comte de Maistre is an inseparably religious thinker:

      http://maistre.ath.cx:8000/generative_principle.htm

      “On God and Society: Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions and Other Human Institutions” by Joseph-Marie, comte de Maistre, 1809

      Feel free to dismiss it as superstition, but consider how open-minded you’re really being.

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