If you are so critical, why don’t you think?

Working out who the good guys are in a room full of atheists and believers is something of a preoccupation of mine.  So it’s no surprise that the comment and fall-out from the Atheist Bus campaign has set me off on this line of thought again.  Before I launch into this, I must acknowledge that the posts in the campaign thread are light-hearted and full of good humour and playfulness.  By contrast a lot of the response has been peevish, mean-spirited and picky.  Unfortunately, it is hard not to react to that peevishness dismissively, and some people have done so.  This is what’s prompted me to consider what aspects of religious faith are in fact baby which we risk throwing out with the bath-water.

I’ve decided to list the sloppiness of thinking that turns up in some atheists’ thoughts.  Come on guys – you are pinning your colours to the mast of critical thinking – think critically please.  That way we can all lurch slowly towards the truth.

Sloppy thought:  All believers are the same

Cricial thought:  No they’re not – they are all different

It does not help the cause when atheists lump all believers together, characterising them as simple-minded at best and psychotic at worst.  If you have any level of diversity among your friends and acquaintances then you will almost certainly know sensitive, intelligent and thoughtful people some of whom are believers and some of whom are not.  Any sentence that starts “Christians say…” or “Christians believe…” or “Christians think…” is quite demonstrably a lie.  Truly critical thinkers must acknowledge that each of those sentences must be qualified:  “Some Christians say…”, “Bible-belt Christians believe…”, “Liberal Christians think…”.  This, I suspect, is more relevant in the US where religion is a force in politics and on the Internet, where there’s a tendency to flame in haste and troll at leisure.

Sloppy thought: Religion ruins the lives of individuals

Critial thought: Only some individuals – it transforms the lives of others

Again, the only way for this statement to be true is to qualify it.  Some kinds of religion ruins the lives of some individuals.  Actually that’s another piece of sloppy thinking.  The truth is that it’s bigotry that messes people over, and bigotry may or may not spring from a monotheistic faith.   If your particular life has been damaged in the name of religion, then it’s hard to separate religion from the bigot who told you that the bad things they did to you were in fact good things.

Religious faith can be transformative.  It is important to acknowledge this.  Until atheism can produce a a treatment for addition as effective as the 12 Step programme it behooves us to tread carefully when dissing belief.  Some years ago I met a woman who had been abandoned by her mother, raised by abusive foster parents, had a child as a teenager whom she abandoned in turn, and sunk into alcoholism, addiction and imprisonment.  When I met her, she was the most annoying kind of Christian, the kind who cannot hold a conversation without praising god every third sentence.  But – and this is the infuriating thing – her life had been completely and profoundly transformed.  Sure, it’s the placebo effect.  But it turned her life around.

We need to acknowledge that it’s not religion that ruinse the lives of individuals it’s bigotry – the parental bigotry that rejects the gay son, for example.  Sure, many believers are bigots, but not all of them by any means.  And religion doesn’t have the monopoly on bigotry.

Sloppy thought: Religious people are full of hate

Critial thought: … but transformative forgiveness springs from religious faith

Maybe the truth is that some people full of hate cling on to religion in the way a drunk clings on to a lamp-post, for support rather than illumination.  I am not convinced by the correlation of religion and hate.

It is almost always religious faith that helps people whose family members have been murdered to not get swept up into a cycle of anger and bitterness.  They grieve, but they do not muddy their grief with anger and recriminations.   Two individual’s whose reaction to the murder of their children astonished the nation are Gee Walker, who is the mother of Anthony whose racist murder took place in Liverpool in 2005, and Gordon Wilson, whose daughter Marie died holding his hand in the rubble of the Enniskillen bomb in 1987. An article in the Independent suggests that Wilson’s act of forgiveness was a small but significant part of the peace process in Northern Ireland.  The Independent quotes Wilson: “I have lost my daughter and we shall miss her, but I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead.”   I cannot think of an example of this kind of astonishing and transformative grace which did not spring from religious faith, though I’d be happy to be shown wrong.

Sloppy thought: It is folly to think dead people are alive in another place

Critical thought: Yes, but faith comforts the dying and the bereaved

If you are a believer, then that belief in the face of your own death or the death of someone you love gives the experience meaning and that is an enormous comfort.  It makes the experience easier, and it may even make it enriching.   Only an arrogant fool would mess with that, no matter how distasteful they found it.

Personally, I find it fascinating that the term for what happens at the end of our lives is “dying”, not “stopping”, because stopping is so clearly what happens.  Anything else is a euphemism.  I’d rather deal with death in a spiritual context.  Unfortunately for me, I can’t.

The Christians of my aquaintance will be frustrated that I attribute these good things to faith rather than god.  However, I find it easy to accept that the placebo effect can do all these things.  For me, religious faith is the placebo effect writ large – there’s no great big medicine in the sky.  But it is belief in that medicine that gives the placebo effect its power. It’s a bit of a bugger, really.

One last thing:

Critical thought: The danger of monotheism lies in the way it polarises ideas – atheists shouldn’t fall into the same trap

God vs the Devil.  Good vs Evil.  Right vs Wrong.  The belief in a single virtuous deity makes it much easier to create demons.

However, atheists and the non-religious must make sure they don’t play the same game and demonise people of faith.  It is a rich, complex, multifaceted world we live in.  Embrace that complexity.

Anyway – I’m just being crabby.  If you want to read something full of warm good humour step aboard the Atheist Bus.

Footnote:  This is not a new preoccupation.  I was discussing similar ideas here in March and here a year before that .  Five years ago and elsewhere I contributed to a debate which concluded that there was an evolutionary advantage to belief.

12 responses to “If you are so critical, why don’t you think?

  1. You’ve made a good start on cataloguing different types of argument, but if you want to say someone has sloppy thoughts, you have to show who has said it, and show what they said in context. The thoughts don’t happen in isolation, they happen in the context of someone living out their life or responding to some event.

  2. *breathes in slowly*

    *breathes out slowly*

    *breathes in again*

    I don’t have to do anything on your say-so Martin, not even if I “want to say someone has sloppy thoughts”. I’ll assume you meant to say “if you are going to put a convincing argument then it helps to provide context” and I’ll reply on that basis.

    In the private domain I have two friends who tend to make sweeping statements about Christians, and they have heard most of these arguments before. I also have several acquaintances who do it, but I don’t challenge them as often. I have no intention of linking to where they have said these things online becuase I blog pseudonomynously and I respect their privacy as they respect mine.

    In the public domain: you can find some – but not many – of the sorts of statements I am talking about on the Atheists Bus Campaign thread. Certainly enough of them to spark this post of mine.

    Speakers on the Point of Inquiry podcast will sometimes make sweeping statements about believers in the cut and thrust of their conversation, though in fairness they try hard not to. Also in fairness the Religious Right in the US is (a) barking and (b) dangerous. I’m with Matt Damon, I don’t want to give the Nuclear codes to someone who likes the idea of living and presumably dying during the End of Days.

    I stopped listening to the Skepticality podcast altogether because in its early days it tended towards bland and sweeping statements while showing very little actual skepticality at all.

    Dawkins himself in his more sound-bitey moments is a tad over-evangelical on behalf of atheism for my taste and ocassionaly veers towards the sorts of assertions I describe.

    I avoid online flame-wars because I find them sterile and uninteresting, but anti-religous discussion threads all over the internet are prone to the sorts of generalisations I am talking about.

    I’m not going to provide links because I see no need to. You are either sensitive enough to notice this behaviour when writers and speakers indulge in it, or you’re not. I’ve told you where I’ve noticed it.

    The main reason that I’ve dignified your arrogance with such a long reply is that I felt it was unconstructive of me to post my original shorter, sarcastic response.

    I’m up for debate, but I dislike bad manners. Despite that, thank you for reading my post, and thank you for commenting on it.


  3. PS – I was just chatting this through with the one who’s in the room with me and he confirmed that links would be useful.


    The problem is that I’ve been noticing and challenging sweeping generalisations about religion (among other things) for over 30 years. There’s no way to link to a conversation I had with a fellow-pupil at school, or another I had doing a summer job while I was at University, or to endless, countless conversations in pubs. I did link to some of my previous musings on the subject.

    As I said at the start of the post, the dangers that spring from demonising religion are something I’ve thought about for some time. It wasn’t until I was discussing it just now that I realised just how long that was.


  4. Hi Aphra, “buggerit” made me smile, I think you’ve got some good things to say.


    (I’d hate to bring on your asthma again, but you offer up your opinions on a blog on which anyone can comment so I’ll take that risk)

    I’d be more impressed if you actually criticised what I said, instead of what you thought I wanted say. Arrogance is to be disrespectful or to act in a haughty manner, I was trying to engage with what you had written, and to offer some criticism. If you would prefer I just went away, I won’t comment again.

  5. No need to go away (unless you get bored or annoyed that is). I suspect that we are making different assumptions about what I was trying to achieve, and you did come across quite school-masterly. I’m surprised you didn’t pick up on the spelling mistakes.

    The purpose of the post was to discuss generic structural flaws in arguments which are – to me – overly familiar, not to counter specific examples. I’m not in the business of nit-picking, or when I am I do exactly what you did here and take my picks to the nits.

    *pauses and considers whether or not that’s true*

    *comes to the conclusion that in the case of belief-systems it probably is*

    You see, I’m not an evangelist. If someone truly believes that all goblins eat babies then I’ll never be able to argue them out of it and I’m not going to insult their individuality or waste my time by trying. The best I can do is prompt them to question it, and challenge them to improve their thinking. That’s a long slow process, and one that works best without antagonism, discourtesy or drama.

    So my purpose here was to highlight some familiar sloppy thinking, in this case sloppy arguments against christians put forward by atheists. I find it worrying that it’s familiar to me but apparently not so familiar to other people. Your reaction, and the reaction of the one who’s hopefully making me a cup of tea, suggest that I may be hyper-sensitive to this kind of sloppiness among atheists and that I notice it when my fellow atheists don’t. The problem is that believers do notice it, and quite rightly discount the arguments couched in those terms.

    We need to up our game and hold ourselves up to the same standards as we hold other people. This post was a how-to manual for doing that. (And the specifics of that sort of double standard are sufficiently interesting that I will start collecting links).

    I’m irritated by people who claim it’s the clarity of their thinking which means they don’t fall for religion but who then go on to articulate sloppy generalisations. (Yes I know you want links. No I’m not going to supply them (I still haven’t had my morning tea) though the example that springs the most to mind is the early Skepticality podcasts mentioned above. Yes I know the lack of links undermines my case. I’m not that bothered, because either this works as a logical argument about logic or it fails, examples don’t bring that much to the table. I wonder if I should close these brackets. If I don’t do it now I never will). There.

    What I’ve done is consider particular logical constructs (mainly “this woman wants a cup of tea therefore all women want a cup of tea”) cast them as familiar arguments in a particular debate and explain why they fail to work. Yeah it’s theoretical. I’m ok with that though.

    Right. Now I’m going to have to get that cup of tea,

    All the best


  6. Aphra, you are right to point out the fallacy of generalsing along the lines of “All Christians, all Muslims, all atheists, all women, all gays” etc.

    The thing is, peoples’ minds aren’t all of a piece. Someone can be highly intelligent – a genius, even – in some aspects of their thinking, and quite stupid and even potty in others. For me, belief in the ‘supernatural’ falls into the latter category, and though I’ve known some admirable Christians – and even saintly ones, like Archbishop Michael Ramsey – I can’t take their ‘sacred’ beliefs seriously.

    The only way to understand people realistically is to look at what they do – not what they say. In Jesus’ supposed words: “By their FRUITS you shall know them.”

    One of the more admirable christians I’ve known once said: “Forgiveness is continuous, and does not depend upon our state of righteousness at the moment.”

    That’s fine by me.

  7. The thing is, peoples’ minds aren’t all of a piece. Someone can be highly intelligent – a genius, even – in some aspects of their thinking, and quite stupid and even potty in others.

    I’m a musician Anticant; and I can tell you that music isn’t logical. You can spot patterns in it, and rhythm; but there’s a point where it leaves the page and it cannot be described in logical terms. Why should someone be reduced to tears by a song, after all, if you think about it? That’s illogical in scientific terms, but not in human ones. Music is more than the sum of its parts and so are we I think, and that’s actually what makes music; the ghost in the machine.

  8. Now I do feel like a school teacher because I looked up your cup of tea problem and I think it is the type of deductive fallacy called a “Hasty Generalisation”.


    If there are spelling mistakes then they are well hidden. What you write is neither boring nor annoying. Let me take you up on at least one thing you say though:

    ”Some Christians say…”, “Bible-belt Christians believe…”, “Liberal Christians think…”.

    The first one is fine, as an example of not making spurious generalisations, as long as you can truthfully show that 2 or more Christians have said something. But the second two are generalisations of the very type you are criticising. As you say yourself: “No they’re not – they are all different”. To demonstrate this you just have to think about say a gay Christian who moves to the Bible-belt, or a Liberal Christian who wants to bring in some reform in his church.

    I have to go and put the tea on for my significant other, so I’ll end this here, but I do think there is more we could discuss.

  9. I too am an amateur musician, Julie – though nowadays more as a listener than a performer. Music has always played a hugely comforting role in my life. It provides daily spiritual and emotional uplift.

    But it doesn’t tell me anything about a supernatural ‘god’, and I never said it was verbally logical. So I don’t quite see the point you think you are making!

  10. Anticant, I’m with you there. I find it bemusing that otherwise intelligent people believe in Christian teachings. I heard a fascinating podcast on the subject http://preview.tinyurl.com/3ubqap by the author of the book “50 reasons people give for believing in a god” http://preview.tinyurl.com/65bufq. My recollection from the podcast was that it boiled down to cultural chohesion and a desire for meaning. That’s another book on my pathway to hell, in so many ways!

    Julie – the fact that our logic has not yet found an explanation for music’s power over us doesn’t mean there is no explanation. In the medieval world there was no logical reason for the earth to go round the sun, but that was because the tide of logic hadn’t reached the outcrop of ignorance. (I’m channelling Humphrey Lyttleton now).

    Any chance of a cup of tea on this side of the internet, Martin? I’m always a gulp short of a mug-full.

    As always, it’s the questions we ask that lead us down a particular path. If you ask for proof of the continuation of the personality after death you go down one path. If you ask why do some people appear to be so much more mature than others you go down a different path. I have yet to work out what possible questions lead you to conclude that the Nazarene was god, or indeed that Jahweh and Allah are. Maybe I am too polite around other peoples’ beliefs no matter what they are.

    Thanks all, for reading and commenting.


  11. A lovely piece of clear thinking I like to remember is that of Colin Parry, father of the late Tim Parry, who was killed outside Boots in Warrington the day before Mothers Day by an IRA bomb.

    Colin Parry is not obviously a religious man. He’s done a lot, with his wife, to promote peace in the wake of his son’s death, including setting up a peace centre in his home town.

    But my favourite quote attributed to him is this: “It’s not that I can’t forgive. It’s that I choose not to.” Which to me makes him admirably non-Christian.

  12. I can’t figure out why it has been so long since I popped over here, Aphra. I do so enjoy your extremely clear thinking.

    As a person who lives in the middle of the Bible Belt, I have to deal with the Bible Belt Evangelical Christians on a daily basis. I know that Martin has a point, but I’m wondering when he has lived in the middle of a large conglomeration of BBECs? I’m not sure that it is a sweeping generalization to lump them together when you discuss their attitudes. These sorts of people tend to attend their church on a twice weekly basis in order to be spoon fed their “Truths” and also so that their fearless leader can keep them indoctrinated in their faith based beliefs. Independent rational thought is anathema to them, for it would require them to question their faith.

    Frankly, I had to laugh when he mentioned a gay Christian moving to the bible belt. I live here. They tend to move OUT of the Bible Belt, or stay deep in their closet.

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