Monday, March 30, 2009

Bullshit in the service of atheism?

From The Jerusalem Post:

This past Shabbat my family and I hosted Rabbi and Mrs. Nachman Holtzberg, parents of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, the head of Chabad in Mumbai who was brutally murdered with his wife Rivkah. You'd think that a family that watched their son and daughter-in-law slaughtered on TV by Islamic terrorists would feel hatred and a desire for revenge. But what this saintly father asked of our many guests was simply their participation in rebuilding Chabad of Mumbai so that his son's selfless work would continue.

What a shame Christopher Hitchens did not join us. It might have dissuaded him from penning yet another ignorant and slanderous article about the murderous intent of Orthodox Jews. To read Hitchens these days is to be transported to an alternate universe where religious Jews are often terrorists inspired by racist Jewish ideology that is fomented by their rabbis. Of course, those who live in the real world and who never read about Orthodox Jews setting off bombs in Bali and Baghdad might be a trifle confused by Hitchens' regular rants against Judaism.

You should be. Most of the time he is simply fabricating, like this famous quote taken from his 2007 book God Is Not Great. "Dr. Baruch Goldstein... killed 27 worshipers... While serving as a physician in the Israeli army he had announced that he would not treat non-Jewish patients, such as Israeli Arabs, especially on the Sabbath. As it happens, he was obeying rabbinic law in declining to do this, as many Israeli religious courts have confirmed."

For this particular blood libel against Jewish courts Hitchens relied on a well-known hoax perpetrated by writer Israel Shahak, which was exposed as a fraud more than 40 years ago by Lord Immanuel Jakobovitz, chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth. This is the same Israel Shahak who once accused Jews of worshipping Satan. When I challenged Hitchens about his use of a well-known forgery, and when he could not cite a single other religious court to have ever ruled that a non-Jewish life could not be saved on the Sabbath, he wrote to me and agreed to amend the item in the next edition of his book.

He did not.

(read full article)

Mr. Hitchens:

I've read some of your writings and generally agree with most of the basic points you make; however we as atheists must hold ourselves to a higher standard of truth than our ideological opponents, lest our arguments be as easily dismissed. Quoting from dubious sources, much less sources that have been widely discredited, only serves to undermine your credibility specifically and damages the credibility of other atheists by inference.

When attacking the foundational beliefs on which most of the major religious systems are predicated, stick to the facts, check your facts, and agressively seek to correct errors you may have made in the past. That the whole premise of a supernatural being objectively makes no sense and is self-inconsistent is a position strongly supported by the facts. But if you wish to engage in comparisons between the complex belief systems built on these dubious foundations, and the actions historically and in the present of the practitioners and supporters thereof, you clearly need to get your facts straight.

While there have certainly been examples throughout history of terrible things being perpetrated in the name of virtually all major religions, an examination of the underlying reasons and of how the practitioners and leaders of each such religion grapple with these issues is instructive. In particular, and all too often lost in modern discourse, whether deliberately or through abject ignorance, it is of critical importance to distinguish honestly between conquest and defense; between violence for its own sake and efforts to contain action to what is necessary to achieve a specific military objective, minimizing "collateral damage" as much as possible; between deliberately placing civilians at risk to take advantage of the other side's revulsion at the prospect of harming "innocents" and being that other side, struggling to protect itself while doing as little harm as possible; between deliberately targeting random civilian noncombatants with the goal of harming as many as possible and earnest efforts to avoid civilian casualties despite the counter-tactics of the other side. It is also critical to distinguish the open and heated debate on one side from the widespread support of random terrorist violence on the other.

In any military conflict, no side has completely clean hands. This is just an unavoidable reality of war. But holding one side to unrealistic standards, tying their hands from doing what any of other country would consider its right and responsibility in its defense, while tolerating, ignoring and even denying the egregious behavior of the other only serves to deepen the divide and prolong and exacerbate the conflict.

So, Mr. Hitchens, I would hope that you could publicly acknowledge your errors and in the future, stick to the facts. Argue the fallacy of the foundational beliefs underlying all these religious systems. Argue against the blood spilled in defense of these beliefs. Argue against acetic practices and denial of our nature and our most basic needs. Argue the obsolescence of using supernatural explanations as a substitute for legitimate scientific inquiry and learning. Argue against religious dogma. Argue against nonsense like "intelligent design", and efforts to undermine our educational system by injecting such garbage into our curriculum. But when taking on the details of the more complex ethical systems bult upon these clearly faulty foundations, don't start with a premise and seek "evidence" however weak, to support your conclusions. Instead examine the facts and draw conclusions from those facts. And when something worthwhile has arisen from a religious context despite its foundational fallacies, acknowledge that too, and move on.

Above all, please don't rely on bullshit in support of your arguments. Let's leave that to the religious.