The Confusion of RJ Eskow

When religion falls on its face, having tripped over its myriad hypocrisies–after having slipped on its myriad contradictions, we never have to wait long for the "progressive" apologists to crank into high gear.  Somehow, religious insanity, no matter how obvious or brazen, is never quite enough to drive the point home.  Did anyone ever think they would live to see a Catholic Pope starting a new war of words with Islam?  Are we now shocked, SHOCKED, to see Muslims all over the world violently denying that they are a religion of violence?

This latest ruckus could pass for a parody skit on the Daily Show or Saturday Night Live, or even Bill Maher.  The truth is stranger than fiction, as always:  Now comes RJ Eskow at the Huffington Post, riding in like a knight in shining armor to defend religion in all of its glory, and to discredit the likes of Richard Dawkins, whose work The Selfish Gene he compares to the boosterist Walt Disney book Our Friend the Atom, or Sam Harris, whom he pointedly calls the "Rick Warren of atheism." This is absurd on both counts.

Eskow begins his confused essay:

Roll over Carl Sagan, and tell Voltaire the news: Some of today’s atheist spokesmen have hijacked its noble intellectual tradition in favor of flawed logic, appeals to bigotry, and a deliberate refusal to study the facts before forming an opinion.

Really.  I’m wondering how Eskow could have even read Sam Harris extensively footnoted book The End of Faith, and found bigotry and flawed logic. I found nothing of the sort.  In fact, Harris best-selling and award-winning book contains one of the most cogent analyses of religion I’ve seen written in modern times.  Maybe it’s because Eskow never read the book, a fact hinted at by his use of another post by Marty Kaplan.  Eskow claims that Kaplan "does a fine job deconstructing Sam Harris’ latest screed." But what Eskow fails to admit is that Kaplan actually praised Harris’ work on its most important point:

But there is one argument Harris makes that isn’t easily dismissed. It begins with the idea that "what devout Muslims actually believe about the West, about paradise and about the ultimate ascendance of their faith" should terrify us, all of us, but that liberals are in denial of it. Don’t dismiss Muslim extremism as a fringe, says Harris. The Islamic doctrines of martyrdom and jihad are of the essence of their religion, they’re believed by tens of millions of people, they’re sociopathic doctrines, and talk about religious diversity and tolerance is a criminally negligent response to the enemy we face.

If this is a deconstruction, what would an affirmation be?  This is just the beginning of Eskow’s folly. He further conflates any realistic assessment of global jihad with a neocon agenda.  Eskow also seems determined to tar all atheists with the neoconservative brush.  As if somehow pointing out the truth about Islamic fanaticism were to justify every action taken by the Bush administration (whose craven exploitation of Americans fear of terrorism is second only to jihad itself as an exemplar of human corruption and abuse of power).  Eskow rambles:

Besides being willing to do Karl Rove’s dirty work, the Harris crowd revels in using anti-Muslim bigotry to promote their conception of atheism. Bertrand Russell would no doubt be appalled at their faulty reasoning, their disinterest in acquiring new knowledge, and their unwillingness to engage in reasonable debate. Nothing would disappoint Russell more, however, than their calculated appeals to bigotry. Russell, the foremost atheist of his time, was a tireless campaigner for peace and for the dignity of all peoples and faiths. Comparing Russell and Harris is like comparing Martin Luther King and Jerry Falwell.

Again, if Eskow had taken the time to read Harris book, he would understand that Harris comes out strongly in his last chapter in support of the contemplative tradition, Buddhism, and the oneness of all humans. Harris is not against races or nations, he is against ideologies that destroy the human spirit.  Harris acknowledges the human need for communion and a sense of wonder and a connection to something greater than ourselves.  This is the solution he promotes to faith-based violence.  In fact, Harris nearly alienated a lot of atheists by saying in his book that meditation is the only hope for world peace. Now that doesn’t sound like Jerry Falwell to me–it sounds a lot more like Martin Luther King.

Eskow goes on to paint HIS concept of a valid deity as the one that matters, falling prey to the very fallacy that dooms religion to its never-ending violence. HIS higher power is the one that can solve the problem, the one that is reasonable, while the concepts of brilliant rationalists like Dawkins and Harris are reduced to mere "bigotry."

My "Higher Power’s" relationship to this universe is not that of a dictator and his subject. It’s more like the relationship between a beautiful piece of music and the notes of the song. [Sorry to interrupt, RJ, but I have to gag now–Ed.] But even those who believe in a more literal God vary in their forms of belief, as this study explains.  How can atheists work with people of faith to create a better society if they won’t even read and learn about their fellow human beings? Yet some still refuse, because knowledge might interfere with their own cherished beliefs – not to mention their sales pitch. If previous posts on this topic are any indication, I’m about to be flooded with a wave of bitter, harsh, and personal comments – about my beliefs, the absurdity of Christianity, and the vile nature of Muslims. This, from the "pro-rationality" crowd.

Already Eskow is preparing to deflect what he knows will be the response to his shoddy reasoning.  So he accuses, in advance, his opponents of having only ad hominem attacks to use against his supposedly unassailable position.  It’s essentially, "my faith is better than your logic," in tandem with an attempt to paint rationalists as actually being as "religious" as the fundamentalists they oppose.

The enemy isn’t Islam or Christianity or Judaism or atheism — it’s fundamentalism, those rigid believers who over-identify with a "religion" and authoritarianism, not with the Transcendent or a belief system. That identification makes them want to impose their beliefs on others by force or bullying. I put the Evangelical Atheists into that category.

This is a typical mirror-image tactic I’m seeing used more and more in the weak arguments of theists.  On the one hand, they sing the praises of religion, but on the other, they attempt to discredit those with whom they disagree by claiming THEY are religious. I think it’s kind of funny that they don’t see the glaring contradiction.

Next, Eskow trots out the tired old argument about the destructiveness of atheism, by claiming that communism, Hitler’s fascism, and even the Baader Meinhof gang were products of the atheist worldview.  Clearly, Eskow is not sophisticated enough to understand that religions need not believe in the supernatural to be destructive.  If the personality cults of Stalin, Mao or Hitler weren’t religions in every sense of the word, I don’t know what would be.

The only unreason we need to worry about is that which refuses to accept or modify its position based on evidence.  The only illogic we need to worry about is that which argues from its own results.  Eskow may like how religion makes him feel, but that does not by any stretch mean that his feelings reflect reality.  And his philosophy is a menace to himself and others because it seeks to make us all grant special status to arguments and practices which lay claim to divine origins. In so doing, we forget immediately the HUMAN nature of the claimants. When we grant safe passage to such views without due skepticism, we render ourselves unable to distinguish and respond to a growing and explosive danger–one dressed up in the turbans, robes, habits, and burqas of the world’s religions.

Comments (3 comments)

Matt Crandall / September 20th, 2006, 10:12 pm / #1

Good post Sean, a very good read. You gotta love the mirroring argument. “They are just like me, only my version is slightly better, so they are completely wrong”. It doesn’t even stand up to what my best friend calls ‘common sense logic’, let alone an actual formal logic evaluation.

And as for being a bigot for attacking Islam, so be it. Of course, it might be good if they would read the definition of the word bigot, but hey, I don’t expect fundy’s or liberals alike to do any actual research.

Well, if we are going to be called bigot’s, at least it’s for having the guts to tell the truth!


Mitt Rindell / September 21st, 2006, 1:49 am / #2

Agree wholeheartedly that Islam is a threat to the future of the world. Stone aged primitivism like Islam has no place in the modern future. Keep up the good work.

BlackSun / September 21st, 2006, 6:41 pm / #3

Olly, and Mitt, thanks for the comments.

The funny thing is, we don’t even need bigotry to fight against fundamentalism. We simply need to say: “hold your beliefs, so long as they don’t affect my freedom.” And that includes freedom from intrusion into government and public spaces.

Many forms of expression are already banned in public places without the charge of bigotry: Crying “fire” or “rape” when there is none, public lewdness, nudity, really loud straight-pipes on your motorcycle, etc.

For an atheist (or more precisely, ignostic with an “i”) like me, I find the sight of crosses, fish, burquas and “Jesus Loves You” stickers as offensive as some people might find pornography. But I personally would have no problem with pornography being seen on billboards (there is nothing inherently shameful about the body or sex).

I do understand that there are some people who would be offended by this. Therefore, we have reached a social agreement whereby people view pornography in their own homes or in private theaters. This should be the same with religion. Keep it at home or in church. It’s a private matter. Allowing people to worship as they choose does not mean their expressions have to be tolerated anytime, anywhere in public. In fact, public expression of religious sentiments could itself be said to be bigotry. Most of this expression involves the pointed implication that other people’s religions, lifestyles, (or lack of religion) are not valid. In the case of the burqua, it’s the statement that female bodies are offensive. How did the Muslims manage to sell this concept to half their population? If this isn’t bigotry, what is?

The key to avoiding bigotry, which is defined as the “stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one’s own”, is to avoid beliefs altogether.

That is what atheists are mostly trying to do. I would happily make certain concessions with regard to self-expression if Christians, Muslims, and others would do the same.

Beliefs are only deserving of respect to the extent that they reflect some measure of tethering to reality on the part of their adherents. Personally, I lay whatever remaining beliefs I may still hold on the table. I don’t demand they be blindly respected, (or respected at all, if I can’t defend them).

Above all, I am open to change if I can be shown the error of my ways in a reasonable, logical manner.

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