A Militant Rejection of Militant Atheism

Some of you may have heard arguments from a growing militant atheist movement among intellectuals. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others have launched frontal attacks on religious institutions, belief and faith. Though their critique focuses on “Abrahamanic” religions like Islam, Judaism and Christianity, they rarely spend the rhetorical effort to differentiate Abrahamanic religion from religion per se. They argue that religious and spiritual philosophies are inherently destructive, spreading intolerance, and that scientific and rational thinking must be atheist.

Dawkins in a speech featured here in front of TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) reiterates these arguments: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/113 . They don’t hold water.

For one, he tries to correlate IQ and religious thinking. But any serious scientist has to know that the IQ test is in no way, shape or form a serious metric of “intelligence”. It tests a particular type of intelligence poorly and is heavily class and culturally biased. The same data is used across populations to declare people of different races to be stupid. Dawkins compounds this error by implying that religious thinking is also negatively correlated with socioeconomic status and education. But neither of those vectors are true indications of intelligence otherwise, because we do not live in an intelligence-based meritocracy. We live in a class, race and gender-riveted society where perfectly capable people are artificially denied equal wealth and educational opportunity.

This social understanding is one of the Dawkins/Hitchens school’s most severe misunderstandings and utter failings. There was hardly a more antagonistic atheist on the globe than Bakunin, who as an anarchist declared that were there to be a Lord of the world he would try to overthrow that Lord as he would all others. But Bakunin also knew that scientific oligarchy or rule would be just as onerous and disgustinig as rule by a priesthood. I think quite a bit of people’s knee-jerk reaction to Dawkins and his ilk is their extreme contempt for people’s views and their quite clear implicit belief that those people do not have equal capacity to discharge their rights as human beings.

Why have we seen an upsurge in fanatical religious thinking the globe over? Well, globalization and American foreign policy have intentionally deprived governments of the capacity to control their own societies. There is a “democratic deficit” that is quite alarming. When people’s faith in secular political institutions decline, their faith in religious institutions as an alternative civil society grows. This can occur even without religion: The fascist uprisings in Europe were roughly the same phenomenon. One can harshly oppose fanaticism and inflexibility of all kinds while bearing in mind their structural causes.

One might argue, as a good friend of mine has, “So what? Everyone has their battles. Why not let them focus on the religious fanaticism?” The problem with this is manifold. For one, Hitchens in particular are in support of the very institutions that propel fanatical thinking. Putting aside Hitchens’ support for globalization and conventional “capitalism”, he also has been in support of the American imperial project in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet a greater hotbed of Abrahamanic fanaticism could hardly be found. “Christians” (read: radical statists subverting authentic Christian belief) use crusading rhetoric and real bombs to devastate Muslims (both ordinary, innocent, decent people and a tiny nasty minority), while “Jewish” Israel slips further and further away from democracy and towards a military-run state.

Second, people like Harris go further and even let their monomaniacal focus on religion obscure obvious truths. Harris has declared that there is a “problem with Islam” that inherently drives terrorist acts. The fact that this argument could fit in George W. Bush’s living room does not seem to bother him. This kind of rhetoric that views the beliefs of Arabs and Muslims as somehow inhuman and less than worthy is an integral part of the problem. Of course, the true phenomenon is that butchers on all sides point to justifications as they always do while fighting for their own interests.

Third, religion per se is not the problem. One can look superficially at the Crusades and see that, yes, people of varying religions battled. But then why the siege of Constantinople? Why the horrible atrocities on all sides? Why the enslavement of the Children’s Crusade? The answer: Religion was the pretext. The Muslim empires and the rising European empires were destined to battle. The way to mobilize ordinary people was religion.

One could look at the above and say, “All right, religion was still a problem though, it was still the pretext used for recruitment.” But religion is by no means the only way of getting the message out. Nationalism, racism, fear, greed, any number of justifications and appeals can be used to spread war and violence. The solution is to eliminate the war and violence, not the religion.

One can go down the line with this logic. Religious fanatics? Get rid of fanaticism, not religion. Religious intolerance? Get rid of intolerance, not religion. Religion leading to closed minds? Get rid of closed minds, not religion. There has been no argument anywhere, precisely because it’s absurd, that religion can’t be separated from those bad outcomes, that there is no way to have faith and spirituality without accepting negative consequences.

Dawkins also makes a quite abusive analogy, taking advantage of Douglas Adams (a man who I have nothing but admiration for), by pointing out that religious thought has been made socially inured to challenge. I agree that this is unnecessary and problematic. So do almost all religions. The Trickster mythos in almost every religion I’m aware of, from Nasrudin in Islam to Coyote to Ananasi to Buber’s irreverant interpretations of Judaism, is a myth that defiles the sacred in order to remind people of what really matters. Being able to discuss openly any aspect of life, religion included, is essential, and anyone who opposes that because they favor their dogma is wrong. But that includes atheist dogma. What many Christians and religious people derive their hostility to people like Dawkins and Hitchens from is not the notion of having the discussion but the notion that the discussion will inherently be from militantly hostile people who have it in their minds that the only right answer to the questions they’re asking is their own. No one willingly gets into that conversation. The answer to dogmatic religion is not dogmatic atheism.

Dawkins goes on to extend Adams’ analogy far beyond what it was ever intended to say. For Dawkins, anything that we can’t subject to rigorous scientific analysis is bunk. Well, say goodbye to ethics then, because there is no litmus test in the world that will tell you why murder is wrong. One must have an ethical edifice that says so or not. Indeed, most human inquiry is largely immune to scientific analysis. Some of it is simply the limits of science: Things like human emotions, say. But others are in PRINCIPLE beyond any empirical or objective argumentation: Aesthetics, morals, etc. Dawkins doesn’t dispense with these because he sees that there is more to life than science. But he inconsistently dispenses with religion on that ground. Unfortunately, the reasoning is just as bad in this context.

When faith and science clash, that is when there is an empirical fact that science has observed that faith disagrees with, who should win? By and large, science. But that’s neither here nor there.

Dawkins focuses almost entirely on Hitchens’ Abrahamanic religions, the monotheisms of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, any number of other religious thoughts simply do not fall under his criticisms. For example, it is not actually the case that we are all atheists except for one God. Most polytheistic religions are perfectly fine with throwing in another God from another culture. But Dawkins nonetheless repeatedly says the term “religion”.

This is a problem much deeper than semantics, though. Dawkins has irresponsibly coupled dozens of aspects of religious and spiritual inquiry, including myths, faith, spirituality, organizations and institutions of religion, dogma, laws, etc. Religion is not a monolith: There are dozens of facets, some not so good and some quite good.

Dawkins reminds me of the anti-science postmodern crowd. For these people, science’s failures, its creation of the nuclear bomb, make it completely destructive whereas its successes, say the theory of relativity, are irrelevant. The entire project begins with the notion that we should deliberately throw the baby out with the bathwater and hope a new baby springs to life when we run the tap again. The answer to Dawkins is the same answer given by scientists to postmodernists: Get rid of the bad and keep the good, because the bad is not intrinsic to the structure.

Has religion done destructive things? Yes, depending on how you define your terms; so has science. Have religious people been dogmatic, been jerks and warmongers? Yes; same for atheists, science, people with political or economic dogmas, people named Jeff and Bob and Nancy, and indeed pretty much every person alive at some point in their life. But what these thinkers are never able to do is make the argument that would say that there is no context, no proper deployment, for spiritual thought, precisely because the argument would be both offensive and stupid. If spiritual feeling is kept within its sphere of inquiry, it can be the source of brilliant and wonderful passion, philosophy, ethics, and beliefs.

One can look into the stars and see the wonder of the universe, or into the woods and see the wonder of life, and be profoundly moved whether one sees God or not. One can embrace basic human decency, respect, tolerance, compassion and ethics whether one is religious or not. Religion can help with acquiring such moral guidance, but so can other means. The point is that the questions of faith and spirituality are ones that we should answer ourselves, and that there are an array of rational choices, not just one.

I reject militant atheism. I support people embracing their beliefs, whatever they are, and being ready to proudly discuss them. I look forward to a revival across the globe of what China succeeded at: Realizing that many spiritual ways are all in fact on one path, trying to resolve core questions about who we are, what makes us happy and what is out there. Across the millenia, if we commit to a society of discussion, might we find that all of the spiritual thought we had was deeply inadequate? Absolutely, as with science, philosophy and any other worthwhile sphere. Will atheists have a part to play in our journey? Yes. Atheism is the null hypothesis. It answers the spiritual question by saying “Nothing on the table is valid”. If we can’t explore the null hypothesis, we cannot fully explore the question. Atheists act as skeptics, as people who will help to buoy our wildest notions and anchor our philosophies. In the end, I hope we will collaboratively as a human species find a spiritual truth that resonates as brilliantly and logically as any other essential philosophy we have discovered.

June 7, 2014 Edit: I stand by everything I’ve said here, and I have come to be even more opposed to militant atheism.

This will be a subject of an upcoming blog post, but: Atheism is not a belief system. Humanism is. I highly recommend Greg Graffin’s Anarchy Evolution as well as the work of Simone de Beauvoir and other existentialists.

I will reiterate this analogy in the upcoming post on the issue, but I think it deserves to be said a few times: Saying atheism is your philosophy is like saying “Not chocolate” is your favorite ice cream. It just says what you don’t believe.

And when people put as their core ideology, a null hypothesis, it is an empty thing they are holding onto.

People like Dawkins and the now late Christopher Hitchens who made that their philosophy were about tearing down others. Dawkins has other great work, of course, but his work on atheism is overwhelmingly negative, dismissive and arrogant.

Believing in the potential of science, rationality, technology and untapped human capability is a fine belief system that one can adopt. Atheism isn’t.


Meditations on the Issue of Rape and Its Statistical Analysis

Meditations On The Issue of Rape And Its Statistical Analysis

In a class I was taking, a discussion on rape turned to an area that made me uncomfortable: The oft-cited claim that 1 in 4 women will be raped in their lifetime. The statistic is commonly thrown around, but it’s a very contentious point and statisticians and sociologists are still discussing it.

For example: According to a BBC News article, “one in 20” women ages 16-59 were raped (1). Now, the fact that the data didn’t include earlier pre-teens may throw it off, but there’s no compelling argument that says that the the gap between 5% and 25% would be filled by such a statistical change. It is true that this data is specifically for England and Wales, but it would be very strange for America to be so drastically different from comparable European countries. In fact, the only crime where America is simply off the charts from all other industrial nations is in gun crime. Seeing this number, I become very skeptical when I see statistics that claim that the incidence in America is an order of magnitude higher.

Further, the data that suggests that rape is that prevalent is often woefully antiquated. As Fahrenthold suggests in the Washington Post, “The number of rapes per capita in the United States has plunged by more than 85 percent since the 1970s, and reported rape fell last year even while other violent offenses increased, according to federal crime data.” (2). Critics of this data argue that non-reporting plagues the numbers. That’s true, but there’s two problems with the assertion. First: Non-reporting cuts the data both ways. If a large portion of women don’t report the crime to police or other authorities, it becomes very difficult to get a real handle on the amount of rape and sexual abuse in the population. Second: There is NO reason to expect that there has been an INCREASE in women non-reporting, and certainly not by enough to compensate for the 85% plunge in per capita rapes. If since the 1970s the population of women who were raped but didn’t report it didn’t increase, that’d mean that the total amount as WELL as the reported amount went down by 85%. And we have every reason to believe that, in fact, reporting of rape has INCREASED, as Special Victims Units become better trained, feminism makes impacts on the broader society, and shows like Special Victims Unit show the social issues behind rape.

And the victimization of men data is bizarre. For example, in the total population, “3% of American men experience rape”. Yet 1 in every 10 victims were men in 2003! (3) This indicates changes in the data that are very large: 3% to 10% of men being victims. This makes some sense if total rape has declined and if feminism has made a real impact in the prevalance of rape. More importantly, the sharp change indicates just how difficult it is to talk about sexual abuse for the entirety of the US population with any degree of statistical certainty.

According to RAINN, “1 out of every 6 American women have been the victims of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime (14.8% completed rape; 2.8% attempted rape)” [my emphasis]. Now, this is a horrible statistic. But one solution (far from the only or primary solution) would be for men, women and police to acquire techniques to turn more completed rapes into attempted rapes and more attempted rapes into no rapes. More importantly, that’s the difference between 16.6% of the population and 25% of the population. (3)

Yet another source suggests, “Colorado’s rape survey invited banner headlines-and got them. ‘1 in 7 women raped,’ said the Denver Rocky Mountain News, and that was a restrained interpretation compared with the official press release, which claimed the survey ‘revealed that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 17 men have been raped.’ But the results are much more ambiguous than that, and the headlines are dangerously misleading.” (4).

Note that, even before looking at the results, we see that one source referring to the same survey got 1 in 7 women while another source got 1 in 4!

According to “Women, Men and Gender” by Mary Roth Walsh, many of the statistics of “rape” include discrimination against lesbians! Note that that citation is from people who do not believe that rape statistics are overblown. (5) I concur with Walsh that to dismiss the incidence of rape as mere feminist exaggeration is foolishness of the highest order, but I feel that it is vital to bear in mind the real variation in the data. These are not easy questions to answer, so numerous studies arrive at different figures. Choosing the highest figure of a broad range smacks of arbitrary propaganda.

Then we have to start looking at definitions of rape. These are hard questions. It seems obvious that a man who sleeps with a woman who is flatly unconscious thanks to alcohol is probably committing rape. But what if the woman insisted beforehand that he do so? If we don’t accept prior consent as nullifying apparent lack of consent, then BDSM and rape fantasy games are flatly out the window. Plenty of lesbians who share these fetishes will just love that assertion. At what threshold does intoxication from alcohol or other drugs make any sex rape? .1 BAC? .2 BAC? Being a little tipsy? Being stone drunk? Many people, men and women alike, even married couples, use alcohol to get past socially-programmed, sexist, Puritanical impositions and inhibitions. To say that all of that must be rape begs some difficult questions.
If someone gets convinced to sleep with someone else thanks to a “hard sell” or pressure but was under no implied or real threat of force, how do we evaluate that? Clearly rape is not simply every sexual act that one regrets. I’d say a large portion of the population has regretted some dalliance they’ve had, some boyfriend they’ve dated, some clingy girlfriend, but none of those sex acts constitute rape. Yet, quite clearly, someone who takes someone who is alone and scared, as the man in the article “Confessions of a Date Rapist” did, and makes them afraid to say no by the strength of their sell and the force of their words is doing something questionable, even if not out-and-out rape. If the victim fears that there was a clear threat of force and the men had every opportunity to be aware of that and rectify it, I believe there is a strong case to be made that that IS rape and that the man is culpable! Not everyone agrees with my position, however; some think that you have to offer real indication otherwise. Wendy McElroy has gone so far as to define rape as exclusively being sex due to force or the direct threat of force! I think her definition is a poor one. How highly do we rank the verbal “coercion” or strong convincing? Some people argue that rapists who use violent means or the threat of violence are preferable to those who ply their victims with GHB. Yet many argue the opposite, that the chemical and memory-altering effects of GHB make the process of recovery and confronting the traumatic event harder. Whom should we believe? What should we value more: The recovery afterwards, or avoiding physical harm during the actual event?

Suffice it to say that these are not trivial questions, and exactly how we ask them alters the data. Many studies that arrive at the higher figures in the range (1 in 4 women to 1 in 6 women as opposed to 1 in 8 women, 1 in 16 women or 1 in 32 women) aggregate domestic abuse, questionably broad categories of sex under the influence of drugs (no matter how minor the threshold), etc. This isn’t necessarily bad science. Unlike men’s rights reprobates, I’m not going to argue that this makes the data empty feminist propaganda. But it means we have to be careful exactly what we cite for and not merely make empty assertions.

Then we have to take into account race. Minority women are far less likely than the average member of the population to report a rape, due to a variety of factors (fear of a racist criminal justice system, in-group loyalty, the idea that one does not air one’s “dirty laundry”, etc.)

Only Neanderthals and extremists in the men’s right movement think that rape is not a serious social phenomenon, but like most social phenomena it is difficult to actually say if it is 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/6, or 1/32 of women who experience rape. Different studies, geographical areas, definitions, etc. report different things. And, unfortunately, the fact that women and men do not report many of their attacks makes it very difficult to get a handle on the data. What is clear is that the aura of fear needs to be dispelled, that we need to see only a minority of victims not reporting their attackers, and that the legal system needs a massive overhaul in order to accommodate this goal, from entry-point police officers being trained in sensitivity to end-point judicial practices. But using statistics that are questionable without noting the variation only makes us less credible in doing so. The fact that many of my fellow feminists routinely cite the highest number in a range of data for an issue that even they admit by their very nature is almost impossible to study with certainty does nothing to shore up good will.

Further, to say that high incidences of rape demonstrate an assault upon women by men is to ignore one simple, vital fact: Repeat offending. A large amount of victims, male and female, share attackers or victimizers. If we buy the “Confessions of a Date Rapist” piece, then it becomes clear that a particular category of men is the type overwhelmingly committing date rape. Now, it is true that gang rape would be a factor in the opposite direction (since one man would victimize many women), but gang rape is a very small section of the data. Further, most gang rapists are also repeat offenders, returning the balance sheet back. At the end of the day, while a large portion of the female population will be raped or abused (the majority by acquaintances within their extended social network), this does not mean an equally large portion of men are rapists. Taking that into account, it becomes far less tenable to say that a war is being waged by men against women. If a small group of bastards are assaulting a large group of women, while a large portion of men are decent and would never dream of raping someone, then the situation is more complex.

Of course, to those who think that rape says NOTHING about the broader gender oppression, one merely need to look at the overwhelming amount of male prison rape. Remove women from the picture and men use sexualized violence against each other. So there clearly are a broad variety of gender factors, and people who declare that rape is purely criminological in nature with no influence from patriarchy or sexism are missing a big part of the picture. For example: Frat houses routinely make rape possible by cultivating deeply patriarchal, masculine attitudes and encouraging a “Within the club” mentality. In my opinion, a standard “test” for fraternity membership should be to see what someone would do if they saw a rape occuring. If they would not call the police, tell a frat brother, rush into the room to stop it, or do some other proactive measure, they should be kicked out of the frat. THIS would prove that men are ready to deal with rape.

An exercise we did in the multi-cultural studies class I took with the wonderful Natalia Deeb-Sossa was to list things men and women do to avoid rape. The supposed point was that men do almost nothing and women do quite a lot. I was unable to point out that one thing men concerned about rape do is avoid going to gay bars and avoid going to prison; obviously nowhere near the amount of stress that the common rape-prevention rituals among women have, but these are things. But I also pointed out that the long list of things women do to protect themselves from rape (have their apartment on the second story, take self-defense classes, strengthen their locks and deadbolts, be prepared to use their keys as improvised weapons, watch their drinks at parties, have chaperones or travel in groups) is virtually the same list men are instructed to do to protect themselves from other crime. This underlines one key fact: Crime rates in general and rape rates in particular in our country have been declining, yet the media racializes and amplifies the data. Throughout the 1990s, crime went down yet media presentations of it went up more than six fold according to some media scholars! (See Bowling for Columbine). Many feminists properly point out that high rape rates are a real concern, but they also usually point out the vital fact: Most rape occurs from acquaintances. Virtually all of the things that we listed that women do to protect themselves are things that will not stop acquaintance rape.

Rape is a serious issue, but it has also been artificially inflated and racialized by a media determined to use fear to foment apathy and mistrust in order to insure ruling class dominance. The fact that for many white women the image of a rapist is a black mugger or burglar rather than their next door neighbor or the friendly neighborhood priest is the factor I am talking about. And the problem with simply saying, unadorned, that “1 out of 4 women are raped”, is that while it MAY raise consciousness about gender issues, it sabotages our brothers and sisters of color by making many people conjure up racial spectres of black men raping women left and right. These unconscious racial fears were expressed in the mythology about rape in the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina.

I work with victims of rape constantly. I view rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse as monstrous actions that may be worse than murder, in that both a living person and their families and social networks have been destroyed and harmed. And the closest I have come in my life to assaulting another human being has been when I have been aware of sexual abuse. I am intimately, tragically aware of the veil of silence that protects victimizers and destroys victims. This tragic background doesn’t need the inflated use of otherwise good statistics to amass social interest and outrage.


June 7, 2014 Edit: Reposting this to my new blog, I still think this is an important post to discuss.

However, I did want to make a few edits based off of my experience in the last five years.

First: While statistically quantifying rape may be hard, there are victims of rape, spousal abuse, intimate partner violence, and emotionally abusive relationships everywhere. And all of us, men and women alike, are very likely to underestimate how widespread the issue is. Even many victims of rape and molestation do not realize the degree to which they are very much not alone in that pain.

Second: While when it comes to crime we have to be very careful about what we do and do not call rape, when it comes to aiding others it’s less important. If someone has been through something they find horrible, that is what matters from the perspective of us making social change and enacting individual change.



1. BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/2146077.stm

2. “Statistics Show Drop In U.S. Rape Cases”. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/18/AR2006061800610.html

3. “Who Are the Victims?”

http://www.rainn.org/get-information/statistics/sexual-assault-victims .

4. http://socialissues.wiseto.com/Articles/EJ3010081205/

5. http://books.google.com/books?id=dCDbL3WyjFMC&pg=PA243&lpg=PA243&dq=rape+statistics+one+in+four+is+an+exaggeration&source=bl&ots=i9qbd7ccDI&sig=cipUsRlLmc9GSCmXbS8-sRG8VJk&hl=en&ei=nq6tSb2jOonKtQO_iYzSBA&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=2&ct=result#PPA244,M1