Monday, August 20, 2007

Holy Eye Roller

The following is a copy of an email that I sent to Alexei Barrionuevo of the NY Times.

Dear Mr. Barrionuevo:

Your story in today's Times, "In a Place of Solace, Finding Faith Among the Sorrow," reminds me why I am so glad that people like Harris and Dawkins and Hitchens and Dennet have been speaking up.

Okay, so it's sad that people got killed in an earthquake. And it's understandable -- one might even say "only human" -- that people who have spent their entire lives clinging to a belief system would try to force current events to conform to that belief system. I'm mystified by this behavior, but I recognize that it happens.

The thing that really irks me is the article's tone. There is no sense of the skepticism that one would expect when a reporter is covering a story where irrational claims are being made. There is no response to quotes like this:

"The only thing we can do now is pray and give thanks to God."

For dropping a church on the heads of those inside, and killing sixty of your friends?

In any other story, you would have gone all over town, looking for a statement from someone with a different point of view. Failing that, the trusty Rolodex would have been consulted. As a thought experiment, suppose I had mobilized my whole town to claim, "This church collapse shows there is no God." Do you think there's any chance at all, if you were covering my group, that you wouldn't flesh out the the story with differing viewpoints? Do you think your editor would let you get away with this, if you didn't?

Instead, we get treacly nonsense like this:

But the town's residents have drawn faith from what they see as small miracles.

So, a stone statue that was outside the church is plucked more or less intact from the rubble (unlike the scores of people inside, mind), and this is a miracle?

In any other realm of human thought, this would be labeled as insanity, or more politely, at least "temporarily disoriented thinking."

A common criticism leveled at the so-called New Atheists is that we try to paint all people who hold religious beliefs as completely mindless. This is untrue. I don't think that, and a careful reading of the above authors will show that, too. What we are asking is this: Isn't it about time to subject religiously motivated behavior to the same scrutiny as we do every other aspect of human affairs?

Brendan Keefe
Rochester, NY, USA


Anonymous said...

Right On and Well Said, Brother Brendan. Terrific letter. I'm tempted to say God Bless You, but I'd have to come up with something clever as a lead in and it doesn't come to me. You've got a friend in Cheeses.

Alastair said...

Well put Brendan.

Be careful what you wish for though. For the opposing viewpoint we may end up with an extreme religious nutcase echoing Falwell's post-Katrina comments, proclaiming that the Peruvians *deserved* the earthquake due to rampant homosexuality or violence on TV or rock'n'roll music or, well, anything really.

bjkeefe said...

Thanks, TC and Alastair.

Alastair: You make an excellent point, and it's one I wish I had considered when composing the letter to Mr. Barrionuevo. As I see it, the townspeople's attitudes -- and Mr. Barrionuevo's tone in covering them -- are no less irrational than Falwell's rantings, and I would have liked to have drawn the comparison.

It must also be said that, in the final analysis, I don't even find them much less repugnant. They are of course much less hateful, but on the other hand, they are also much less likely to be rejected out of hand by mainstream society. The degree of irrationality is the long-term problem. (My overuse of the phrase "much less" is evidently another.)

This belief is not original with me, of course. I first heard it expressed well by Sam Harris, and more recently made plain by Christopher Hitchens. These guys point out that so-called religious moderates must bear a lot of the blame for the size of the platform commanded by wingnuts like Falwell.