Category Archives: response

Poor arguments against atheism, no. 928

Recent increases in the numbers of those who reject traditional theism have spawned a vast army of god-defenders, the quality of whose work, in my estimation, has varied widely.  It seems many of these new apologetic theists, being unused to the role, are not well-versed in the practice of crafting sound, coherent arguments.  Consequently, you often come across some humorous, even silly attempts to “debunk” atheism.  These are actually worthwhile to engage because untangling the intellectual morass can be an interesting challenge.  Besides that, you just might get lucky and get a comment so funny or bizarre, it’s worthy of submission to the Fundies Say the Darndest Things website.

But once in a while, you’ll get someone who is simply not interested in defending their arguments.  You’re response just goes down a black hole, or is rejected for inconsequential reasons.  The latter was the fate of a response to a post titled The Problem of Morality by one Carson Weitnauer, part of his “The Problems with Atheism Series” on his blog Simple Apologetics.  Carson didn’t like the “tone” of my response, though, as you’ll see, I believe it was appropriate for his arguments.  Besides, it was directly only at them, and not at Carson personally.  Because the problem of the disappearing rebuttal is hardly new, I keep a copy for posting on this blog (to his credit, Carson emailed me a copy of my reply as well).  Additionally, while I argue (and I think show) that Carson’s case is ludicrous at best, his bogus claims are not uncommon, and serve only to spread popular myths that deserve debunking wherever they appear.

I recommend you read Carson’s original article first to get the full context of my rebuttal.  Portions of his article that I specifically respond to are in italics.

Upon reading this post, it’s clear to me it contains a number of errors and misunderstandings which fatally undermine your case.  I’d like to spell out why in further detail and look forward to a response.

First, your theistic bias is clearly evident, particularly in the unstated premise that good and evil, as well as moral truths, can only exist if the theistic god exists.  Your arguments make sense only in light of this premise.

Second, the alleged problem you describe is not particularly an atheistic problem, but more properly identified as a problem for non-theists, because your arguments, at least in part, apply to deists and pantheists as well.  They too do not believe in a theistic god.

Third, the following assertions are false:

“atheism…denies that there exist any moral rules”

“atheism affirms that all that exists is matter, energy, and space-time”

“these elements are not enough to support the existence of morality”

Atheism – the lack of belief in god(s) – neither affirms nor denies anything about moral rules.  This is an irrelevant question to atheism.  Does it make sense to say a-unicornists deny the existence of any moral rules?  Absolutely not, unless you believe moral rules come only from unicorns.

In any case, individual atheists do believe in the existence of moral rules; clearly they do because they practice them each day.  What they deny, along with deists and pantheists, is the existence of divine commands.  They obtain these rules from reason, experience, and evolutionary programming.

You confuse atheism with the theory of materialism.  There are atheists, such as animists, who certainly do not think reality can be reduced to the material.

I got a good laugh at your caricature of how non-theists view morality.  Do you really believe we think of it as some kind of physical substance composed of matter, energy or space-time, as you suggested in your thought experiment?  What a ludicrous straw man!  Are you going to charge us with denying, say, philosophy because we also cannot arrange the molecules or “put the pieces together” to re-create it in a lab?

What you have to notice is that all of this “moral discourse” would just be in their heads! There is nothing really wrong with murder or really right about promise-keeping. Instead, it just happens to be the case that those behaviors are viewed as bad or good, respectively, by their humanoid society.

You just described the utilitarian, welfare-promoting aspects of keeping promises and not murdering, and then dismiss them as merely a view?  As if the consequences of those things were wholly absent or irrelevant?

Let’s imagine that, one day, bored in the laboratory, you set up the humanoid society so that murderers find themselves with an extra 10,000 laboratory dollars in their bank accounts. (Imagine a sick version of The Truman Show). This turns out to be enough money to pay for bodyguards, eliminate other genes from the population, and get their own genes passed down in a higher proportion to the next generation far in excess of other humanoids. On it goes for a few generations, and before long, you have a humanoid society that heartily approves of murder, and violently opposes anyone who tries to keep murderers from their deserved wealth and social status.

No, before long, you wouldn’t have a humanoid society that heartily approves of murder; you’d have no society at all.  Leaving aside the comical question why 10,000 “lab dollars” induces people to kill others, you’ve assumed that the murderers would not murder fellow murderers, or even their own bodyguards.  However, this assumption makes no sense in light of the condition that I emphasized above.  Your theoretical exercise is so illogical and incoherent, you should blush that you even suggested it could ever apply to the real world.

If you want to be a consistent atheist, then every time you go from “here are the facts” to “here is the proper moral rule for evaluating these facts” you should stop yourself. Then remind yourself: these rules are just a social illusion.

You’ve failed to demonstrate how moral rules are “just a social illusion”.  Your case, so far, is built on risible straw men that in no way approximate reality or the way morality is understood.

What this means is that there is no way to call evil “evil.”

Certainly there is, if you subscribe to certain moral tenets which dictate that it’s evil, say, to inflict involuntary suffering on others, with only limited exceptions.  Because someone else may hold to a contrary moral tenet in no way impinges on this ability.  It is irrelevant.

To summarize: under atheism, there are no such things or categories as good or evil. And second, any perception to the contrary is completely illusory and is merely a byproduct of non-moral, socio-biological forces.

Your claims are based on nothing more than caricatures which rely on theistic assumptions.  One could just as easily build a similar case why under theism there are no such things or categories as good or evil because it denies the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

When Christians fail at debate

I’m finding it increasingly common to have my posts at Christian blogs removed.  It seems proprietors are simply unable to respond.  This is not to say my arguments are particularly good (though they may be); rather, I think many Christians lack critical thinking skills, preferring diatribe over debate.  They’ve been told what to think, and now they’re going to tell you what to think.  Like their faithfully held beliefs, they entertain no possibility they could be wrong, and must work assiduously to maintain that appearance.

The latest example comes from the Possessing the Treasure blog.  It’s proprietor, Mike Ratliff, recently fulminated against the growing acceptance of homosexuality in Christianity and society, a practice, he reminds us, is a “sin,” “abomination,” and “sexual perversion”.

Now, it gives me a lot of satisfaction to see Christians working themselves up over issues like this, primarily because they’re quite literally shooting themselves in the foot and contributing to their faith’s demise among the next generation.  Many wonder, as I do, what is the Christian’s prurient fascination with homosexuality, when Biblical morality covers so much more.  This is the question I put to Mike.  In his response, Mike dodged the question, but not before alluding to my lack of god-logic for failing to understand.  So here’s what I wrote back, which Mike refused to publish:

Mike: I do not expect you to understand what I am going to tell you since you are an atheist. You are not regenerate. You do not have the Holy Spirit.

Me: Yes, I lack the required special gnosis which supersedes normal reason and logic, apparently.

Mike: To answer your “thought” about why we are focusing on homosexuality like this is that it is clearly an issue of morality. It is sin and not the same thing as race or whatever. It is a sexual perversion whose advocates insist it is not. It demands protection and acceptance in our society. It is immoral as I said and, therefore, should not be given that sort of recognition.

Unfortunately, your “reply” doesn’t answer my objection. How is homosexuality any worse than, say, adultery?  Or blasphemy?  Or working on the sabbath?  Aren’t these “issues of morality” just as serious?  Christians aren’t clamoring to place restrictions on them, or reverse their acceptance.  Why?

It matters little to me, as a non-Christian (and heterosexual, by the way), what Christians accept or don’t accept within their own religion.  What bothers me is your attempt to force Biblical morality on the rest of society.  As you may not be aware, the Bible is not a part of the U.S. legal code.  When it is, then by all means outlaw homosexuality (and adultery, and worshipping other gods, and working on the Sabbath), but for now, you would do well to keep your morality to yourselves.

Mike: As far as your poor logic concerning God’s Law, the moral parts of the Law are still very much in affect and are contained in our faith. On the other hand, those dietary and ceremonial parts of the Law were fulfilled and done away with at Christ’s crucifixion.

Me: Good news to slave-owning Christians who wish to increase their holdings from pagan nations! (Lev. 25:44)

Further down in the comments, a person named Jackie wrote, “[G]ays are actually helping to fulfill this same worldwide “sign” (and making the Bible even more believable!) and thus hurrying up the return of the Judge! They are accomplishing what many preachers haven’t accomplished!… Thanks, gays, for figuring out how to bring back our resurrected Saviour even quicker!”

Jackie’s reasoning is sound (and something I’ve previously blogged about), but of course it wholly undermines Mike the Christian’s rationale to keep “sexual perversion” at an absolute minimum.  Unsurprisingly, a reply pointing this out did not make an appearance either.

Amateur Christian theologians like Mike aren’t the only ones running away.  Over at the Debunking Christianity blog, John W. Loftus (whose book, Why I Became an Atheist, I’m currently enjoying) has issued a debate challenge to his former mentor, William Lane Craig.  The latter has so far demurred, saying he refuses to debate former students.  That’s odd.  In his book, Reasonable Faith (p. 21), Craig wrote, “Again and again I find that while most of [anti-Christian college professors] are pretty good at beating up intellectually on an eighteen-year-old in one of their classes, they can’t even hold their own when it comes to going toe-to-toe with one of their peers.”  Is it Craig who’s afraid he can’t hold his own against one of his peers?

Dr. David Aikman defends his views, and my reply

It seems I have a knack for provoking a response from major Christian apologists who’ve promulgated the idea that atheism and the atrocities committed by the 20th centuries’ totalitarian regimes are indelibly linked.  Dinesh D’Souza has previously responded, though in a perfunctory and inadequate manner, and now Dr. David Aikman does too, but not much better.  In his email to me, which can be read in full as the first reply to this post, Dr. Aikman claims he doesn’t have time to craft a full rebuttal to my comments right now, though that doesn’t stop him from searching my blog (I had included a link to the blog version in my email to him) to try to find out who I am, chide me for some comments I made about myself, bizarrely imply that I’m a sexual predator, and cry foul over the tone of my missive.

A couple words on that last charge, which is the only one worth dignifying with an answer.  This blog has several regular Christian readers, at least one of whom has commented on its relatively acrid-free atmosphere.  Nonetheless, there are times when I take a more belittling approach, as I did with Dr. Aikman.  The reason for it in his case is that I feel he is being purposely deceitful, at least in the work of his I read, which I strongly object to and believe is unprofessional.  It is one thing to have a difference of opinion on matters, but quite another to deliberately skew, make materially false claims, and ignore evidence in order to make one’s case.  I cannot be polite to individuals who do this. 

With that said, here are my comments on the substantive points he raises in reply.

Aikman: I can only say that if you hadn’t heard of any reputable scholar supporting the notion that Communist tyranny was directly related to atheist thought, you certainly didn’t spend much time in the library or worse, your professors were uniformly unwilling to reveal that quite a lot of scholars — yes, including Jesuits — have made the connection.  Ever read any Dostoyevsky, Robert?… I don’t know what your definition of “objective” is in your phrase “objective scholars,” but if you looked up my Ph.D. dissertation you’d find quite a lot of objective scholars who have connected the threads between atheist thought and terror.  Ever heard of Nechayev?  Or don’t they like to mention him in your version of Russian history 101?

Despite all these scholars Aikman claims supports him, he gives only one name: Dostoevsky – a 19th century novelist and Russian Orthodox sectarian, who was not just anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic, holding a special hatred of Jesuits in particular, but a radical slavophile. Does Aikman endorse these views too?  Dostoevsky was assuredly a brilliant writer, but when he claims without intentional hyperbole that “The demons are ideas,” (that came to Russian from the West), “that legion of isms: idealism, rationalism, empiricism, materialism, utilitarianism, positivism, socialism, anarchism, nihilism, and, underlying them all, atheism”, one can safely doubt his objectivity.  Though Dostoevsky is clearly one of Aikman’s key intellectual influences, cannot he reach outside the echo chamber of militant theists to support his views?  (Nechayev, one of many of the 19th century’s radical communist revolutionaries, was a sort of proto-Stalin, i.e., an individual who believed that the ends justified the means when birthing the new communist existence).

When I say objective scholars, I mean those individuals who have no horse in the race, whose professional careers depend on their ability and renown to make the most sense out of history in the most non-prejudicial manner as possible.  Scholars like Hannah Arendt, Richard Pipes, Moshe Lewin, Stephen Cohen, Robert Conquest — historians who’ve examined the evidence with a bird’s eye view and come to different conclusions than his.  In a sentiment echoed by atheist Sam Harris, Conquest writes in his classic Harvest of Sorrow (pg. 6-7):

For the events we recount here were the result not simply of an urge to power, an insistence on suppressing all autonomous forces in the country, but also of a set of doctrines about the social and economic results achievable by terror and falsehood…it is at least clear that, at more than one level, the sort of rationality sometimes allowed even by critics opposed to the programme was not really much in evidence, or only at a shallow level inappropriate to the complexities of reality.

When I scoff at the Christian apologists’ attempts to lay communist and Nazi atrocity at atheism’s door, I’m merely echoing the implied or stated views of these historians and experts.  One such expert, Dr. Rudolph Rummel, who has extensively examined the sources of mass political murder, which he calls “democide,” has specifically repudiated the link:

Q: Is atheism the principal factor in democide, such as that committed by the “Big Three,” Stalin, Mao, and Hitler?

A: No. I find that religion or its lack – atheism – have hardly anything to do in general with wide-scale democide. The most important factor is totalitarian power. Whether a church, atheists, or agnostics have that power is incidental – it is having the power that is a condition of democide. Incidentally, some ideologies, such as communism, function psychologically and sociologically as though a religion. The only distinction is whether the subject is a god or a man, such as Marx, Lenin, Hirohito, Hitler, Mohammed, Kim Ill sung, Mao, etc.

Not only must Dr. Aikman explain the absence of support among his contemporaries for his claims, he must rebut their own arguments.  An authentic scholarly treatment of a question typically does this, but his failure to reflects the fact that he’s writing propaganda for the Christian masses, where objectivity and a balanced consideration of the evidence are studiously avoided.

Aikman: It is absurd to complain that I don’t go into the private property issue. If I’d been writing a comprehensive account of Communist tyranny, I would obviously have discussed it. I wasn’t; I was dealing with the dangerous consequences of the coerced suppression of religion.

When your need is to establish that the Marxist-Leninist program consisted primarily of the forced eradication of religion, of course it’s “absurd” to go into the issue of private property.  But what those of us without theological blinders know abundantly well, the religious question was but a sideshow to this program.  As Lenin wrote in Socialism and Religion,

It would be bourgeois narrow-mindedness to forget that the yoke of religion that weighs upon mankind is merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society. No number of pamphlets and no amount of preaching can enlighten the proletariat, if it is not enlightened by its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism.

Daniel Peris explains why religion wasn’t really a huge concern until late in the game:

Revolutionaries inspired by Marxism were not supposed to have to contend with religion after a proletarian revolution. Bolshevik policy makers were operating within an ideological framework theorized for an industrialized nation with an already secularized working class.  The Revolution, however, took place in the still largely rural, agrarian, and Holy Russia.  While political aspects of Marxism had been modified (if not fully reversed) by Lenin to justify a takeover in Russia, the revisionary process had not extended to cultural transformation, and certainly not to the dissemination of atheism.  Direct antireligious propaganda, however framed, amounted to ideological voluntarism, and Bolshevik leaders repeatedly stated that the ultimate “liquidation of religion” would require the completed construction of socialism (Storming the Heavens: The Soviet League of the Militant Godless, pg. 24).

So Dr. Aikman is simply being disingenuous.  He’s alleged in his work that the basis of 20th century tyranny is atheism.  But as I pointed out to him, the disregard for private property as a key basis for tyranny is a notion that’s been recognized for centuries, even by his fellow Christians.  In other words, there’s long existed a rival hypothesis to his, which he simply ignores in order to bolster his own.  I suggest there’s another reason for this: communist antipathy toward private property has a direct lineage to the Bible.  For Dr. Aikman to acknowledge this would open up a Pandora’s Box of difficult questions that would fatally undermine his claims.

Aikman: If you knew anything about Lenin’s furious tirades against Bolsheviks who were interested in religious ideas, you’d have known that his antipathy for both Christian belief and the Orthodox Church far predated the Russian civil war.  You seem to think that Lenin smacked the back of his wrist on his forehead and said, “Gosh, those Orthodox priests, that’s why they’re so horrible.  They’re supporting the Whites!”  Oh, and speaking of canards, it’s quite silly to say that Lenin was an atheist because Orthodox priests were so corrupt and — as you do rightly say — had supported the worst of tsarist autocracy.  People can make quite a variety of different choices when they encounter corrupt priests.  They can become Protestants, for example.  Luther did.

 “Furious tirades” like this one?

Religion must be declared a private affair. In these words socialists usually express their attitude towards religion. But the meaning of these words should be accurately defined to prevent any misunderstanding. We demand that religion be held a private affair so far as the state is concerned. But by no means can we consider religion a private affair so far as our Party is concerned. Religion must be of no concern to the state, and religious societies must have no connection with governmental authority. Everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases, or no religion whatever, i.e., to be an atheist, which every socialist is, as a rule. Discrimination among citizens on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable. Even the bare mention of a citizen’s religion in official documents should unquestionably be eliminated. No subsidies should be granted to the established church nor state allowances made to ecclesiastical and religious societies. These should become absolutely free associations of like-minded citizens, associations independent of the state. Only the complete fulfillment of these demands can put an end to the shameful and accursed past when the church lived in feudal dependence on the state, and Russian citizens lived in feudal dependence on the established church, when medieval, inquisitorial laws (to this day remaining in our criminal codes and on our statute-books) were in existence and were applied, persecuting men for their belief or disbelief, violating men’s consciences, and linking cozy government (Socialism and Religion, 1905)

I never claimed that Lenin was an atheist because of corrupt Orthodox priests.  Rather, I objected strongly to Dr. Aikman’s failure to note the Russian Orthodox Church’s corrupting influence and reactionary role in Russian history, instead giving the impression it was some innocent persecuted bystander.  Lenin’s attitude toward religion and Christianity was informed not just by Marx, and not just by Orthodoxy, but also by the mundane observation they were destructive for much of their existence.  But as we know, Lenin, like many communists, believed religion would ultimately fade away on its own accord, so he could afford to be ambivalent, as the above quote demonstrates.  When it proved far more reactionary, dangerous, and persistent than his ideology allowed, Lenin turned antagonistic (for a time).  It’s simply false that “religious opposition in no way posed any kind of threat to [Lenin’s] regime,” and Aikman knows it.

It’s curious that Aikman cites Luther as an example of an alternative path that could be followed.  Is he suggesting that it’s appropriate to become a raving anti-Semite as well?

Aikman: Yes, Robespierre was a deist, but he hated Christianity and the Terror was a continuation of the de-Christianization period of the French Revolution.  Hitler wasn’t an atheist, but he hated Christianity was well.  Jefferson liked to call himself a Christian, though he clearly wasn’t a believer and he despised every Christian he knew except John Adams.

I’m heartened to see that Dr. Aikman is not completely blind to the patently obvious.  Despite his chapter header, “The Problem of Wicked Atheists: Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot,” he now acknowledges that “Hitler wasn’t an atheist.”  He also acknowledges the primary role deists played in the Reign of Terror.  The hole in his argument should thus be blazingly obvious.  If atheism is not a necessary component of totalitarian terror in general or of religious persecution in particular, then, logically, it’s quite possibly not a component at all.  Is the real problem “de-Christianization,” as he seems to suggest?  If so, then the hole in his argument is now large enough to fly a 747 through, because it’s a policy that even his fellow theists have pursued.  The truth of the matter is that anyone can be irreligious, or simply anti-Christian, for reasons wholly unrelated to atheism.  Since that is so, his argument collapses.  The problem is not atheism, but of state-directed illiberalism and the centralization of power.  I invite Dr. Aikman to read the works of Lord Acton, whose observations, while meant for a different set of tyrannical dictators (namely, the Popes in Rome), remain relevant.

I found it odd that Aikman spared not a single comment or a defense of his claim that, “The Soviet experience thoroughly demonstrates that if God is eliminated from public life, a much worse deity inevitably is erected in his [sic] place”, since it’s so central to his case.  And yet, how could he? When sociologists have found that such irreligious societies as Sweden and Denmark to be “moral, stable, humane, and deeply good,” it is simply an untenable position.

Aikman: You seem to have a profound rage against Christianity  Are you recovering from unpleasant childhood experiences of religion?  It always amazes me that secular humanists, who claim either that there is no god or that it doesn’t really matter whether there is one or not, get so angry when people suggest — terribile dictu — that God might exist and might have something to say about our world.

Goodness, not this canard again.  I suspect Christians love to believe it because it helps relieve the massive cognitive dissonance they must deal with on a daily basis.  Fortunately, I’ve already addressed it.

Christian apologist and historian David Aikman, debunked

In a recent discussion, Arizona Atheist pointed me to one Dr. David Aikman, a Christian author and Russian history expert.  Dr. Aikman has written probably the most extensive case why atheism is to be blamed for all the nasty deeds of the 20th century’s murderous dictators.  Since I’ve never come across any such expert during my Russia studies – or the years after – I was eager to read what Dr. Aikman had to say.

I was not impressed.  In fact, I think Dr. Aikman is purposely misleading.  Incensed at his (ab)use of history for apologetic ends, I’ve decided to write and let him know exactly why his case is so bad, if not fraudulent.  And because my posts on the topic of atheism, communism and the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century remain the most popular by far here, I’m posting my letter below for all to read.

Dear Dr. Aikman,

Because I have a background in Russian studies (Master of Arts, Georgetown University, 1996) and have written on the alleged link between atheism and the atrocities committed by the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, your work has been pointed out to me as establishing such a link.  During my studies at Georgetown, the notion that atheism was the basis of it all was never brought up, even within the scholarly literature, like  Hannah Arendt’s classic, Totalitarianism, and I only encountered it from Christians such as yourself some years later.  But unlike your theological counterparts, you have the distinction as someone who has a scholarly background in the field of Russian studies, so I was very interested in your arguments.  Though I know you’re a committed Christian, which would certainly color your writings, I expected a respectable treatment of the question.

The only place I can find where you lay out your arguments in some depth is in your book The Delusion of Disbelief, particularly the chapter entitled, “The Problem of Wicked Atheists: Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot”.  After reading it, I was so disappointed that I can only ponder your credentials as a scholar.  It seems to me, Dr. Aikman, that your work is simply a continuation of that hoary age-old Christian known as pious fraud.

While your arguments may contain a facade of credibility to the layman, to one with any degree of knowledge of Russian history and communist ideology, it’s abundantly clear it is nothing more than a Potemkin Village.  Specifically, you cherry-pick bit and pieces of history to build your case, ignoring vast other swathes of evidence which fatally weaken it.  It can be readily debunked by pointing out a few arguments and facts which you conveniently leave out.  While such is to be expected from someone who possesses only the barest knowledge of Russian history, like Dinesh D’Souza, it simply boggles the mind that you, as a purported expert in this subject, would pass this effort off as a serious treatment.

Your key error is to conflate irreligious sentiment and atheism.  Indeed, this is a linkage that undergirds your entire chapter.  “[T]he greatest totalitarian evils, communism and Nazism, both grew out of a sustained philosophical rebellion against religious faith-in essence, atheism.” (pg. 101)  This is ridiculous. As you acknowledge, even deists were irreligious.  And while you-falsely–attempt to portray the Reign of Terror as aimed chiefly at believers, you fail to inform the reader that its chief instigator was a committed deist, Maximillian Robespierre.  Whenever a communist or Nazi says something bad about religion, you reflexively categorize it as an atheist sentiment (e.g., p. 109).  By that logic, Thomas Jefferson was an atheist for observing that, “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”

In support of this canard, you do what many other Christians do: focus on the persecution of believers.  For shame!  You know full well that believers were but a subset of the entire category of the murdered and oppressed.  The civil war?  The Ukrainian famine? The purges? Collectivization?  Is your memory beginning to recollect now, Dr. Aikman?  Or were these merely irrelevant sideshows?  Atheists killing other atheists;  rather difficult to explain under your narrative of atheism=irreligion.

Emblematic of your myopia is your kid-gloves treatment of the Russian Orthodox Church, which you portray as some innocent whipping boy of the Bolsheviks. Again, the full truth is inconvenient to your tale.  You’re undoubtedly aware that the Church was a practical subsidiary of the tsars, supporting the regime in its every reaction against modernity. And then there is the little matter of the Church’s support for the Whites during the Russian civil war (1917-1921).  A little relevant to the Bolshevik’s animosity toward the Church, don’t you think?  Apparently not, for you baldly state “Lenin would not let up on religion, even when it was quite obvious that religious opposition in no way posed any kind of threat to his regime.” (emphasis mine)  Perhaps it’s time to re-take Russian History 101.

Your treatment of the origins of Marxian communism suffers from the same amnesia.  It stuns me that you, an expert on Marxism, spare nary a word on the central organizing idea behind communism: the elimination of private property.  As Engels wrote, “In fact, the abolition of private property is, doubtless, the shortest and most significant way to characterize the revolution in the whole social order which has been made necessary by the development of industry – and for this reason it is rightly advanced by communists as their main demand.”  Actually, once we begin to uncover the basis of this “main demand,” the mystery of your amnesia is revealed.  Remember Pierre-Joseph Proudhon?  He’s the guy who wrote What is Property?, a tremendously influential work not just on Marx and Engels but on the whole communist movement.  You don’t discuss him in your chapter, and for good reason, for his belief that “property is theft” comes from a familiar source.  As he wrote, “My real masters, those who have caused fertile ideas to spring up in my mind, are three in number: first, the Bible; next, Adam Smith; and last, Hegel.” (emphasis mine)

Many of the world’s most renowned political theorists, economists, and philosophers-even our own Founding Fathers–have remarked on the indelible link between private property and freedom.  To completely ignore the topic in any discussion on totalitarian tyranny strongly suggests you disagree with their sentiments, like the one expressed by John Adams, who said,

The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If ‘Thou shalt not covet” and ‘Thou shalt not steal’ were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free.

Who is right?  Proudhon or Adams?  Never mind; we need not know the answer.  Agreeing with either fatally destroys your case.

If there remains a doubt in anyone’s mind how foolish your case actually is, allow me to erase it with one final quote (pg. 114):  “The Soviet experience thoroughly demonstrates that if God is eliminated from public life, a much worse deity inevitably is erected in his [sic] place.”  What is this “worse deity” you speak of in Sweden?  Japan?  Denmark?  Perhaps this is true on whatever planet you inhabit, but on planet Earth, reality is far different.

Dr. Aikman, your case is built on a tendentious recollection of history, one made worse by the fact it was purposely done, in full awareness of facts which contradict your argument.  That objective scholars have never supported your view is a glaring silence you must address.  “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” Dr. Aikman.  It seems there are some things you need remind yourself beyond just history.

The incoherency of the anti-atheists

I have a good time debating theists on the subject of communism, the Soviet Union, and atheism.  As regular visitors know, it’s a subject I have a formal background in, and have written about on this blog.  Anti-atheists try to pin the atrocities committed by communist regimes on atheism, but I’ve demonstrated why that view is not in evidence, and they search in vain for an expert to support it.  Their argument deflated, these anti-atheists try to resuscitate it with more bad argument and wholly ignorant and risible assertions.  Case in point: Michael Eden of the “Start Thinking Right” blog.

Michael’s outlook is garden-variety fundamentalist Christian. With a background in divinity and philosophical theology, he’s better educated than the average Christian, but he exhibits the same immunity from evidence and reasoned thinking all too many of his fellow theists share.  His hostility toward evolutionary theory exemplifies this tendency. 

In a recent discussion on communism and atheism, Michael repeated the same canards we’ve come to expect from his type.  When challenged to provide to cite scholars who support his view, Michael noted some Soviet dissidents like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Romanian evangelical Christian, and Rudolph Rummel.  I was particularly grateful for the latter reference, with whom I’m already acquainted.  Rummel is an actual scholar of totalitarianism, with a Ph.D. in Political Science (Northwestern University, 1963), and who writes on the deadly nexus of government and excessive power.  Michael, who erroneously conflates communism with atheism, is unfortunately not as familiar with Rummel as I, for here is what he had to say specifically on the subject on atheism’s role in the last century’s murderous regimes:

Q: Is atheism the principal factor in democide, such as that committed by the “Big Three,” Stalin, Mao, and Hitler?

A: No. I find that religion or its lack – atheism – have hardly anything to do in general with wide-scale democide. The most important factor is totalitarian power. Whether a church, atheists, or agnostics have that power is incidental – it is having the power that is a condition of democide. Incidentally, some ideologies, such as communism, function psychologically and sociologically as though a religion. The only distinction is whether the subject is a god or a man, such as Marx, Lenin, Hirohito, Hitler, Mohammed, Kim Ill sung, Mao, etc.

For further reinforcement, I pointed out that Hannah Arendt, one of the most widely recognized experts on totalitarianism, mentions not a word about atheism in her seminole work, The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Decisively refuted in this way, reasonable individuals usually react by modifying their views, or at least become a tad skeptical.  But most theists, in my experience, are not reasonable individuals.  Michael’s response to the scholarly citations is instructive of their mindset.  He wrote,

The fact that someone like Robert is able to find atheists and communists (or post-Marxist, or whatever these fools are calling themselves these days) – whether “scholars” or not – to say that atheism and communism are actually good things not responsible for anything awful really amounts to a gigantic mountain of crap.

I see.  When those you cite are shown to disagree with you, suddenly they become “fools” and “atheists/communists” themselves (Arendt was a secular Jew and Michael continues to cite Rummel later!).  Laughable!  And notice the strawman thrown in for good measure.  The opportunity to demonstrate the mental quackery of theists like Michael makes my time well spent.

Michael is reduced to extensively citing Solzhenitsyn, who – surprise! – was another anti-atheist Christian.  Solzhenitsyn was also anti-west, anti-freedom, anti-democracy, and anti-semitic.  He opposed letting non-Orthodox Christians like Michael into Russia.  Nonetheless, Michael believes, “Solzhenitsyn is [sic] a greater scholar than you and all the moral idiots you cite as ‘experts’ times 1000.” (emphasis in the original)

Solzhenitsyn’s thesis, with which Michael wholeheartedly agrees, is

God is the only legitimate source of our human rights and freedoms, and the removal of God will ultimately remove the rights and freedoms, resulting in the Gulags.

Funny.  Countries like Japan, whose population currently consists of just 1% of Christians, appears to lack any gulags, last I checked.  Michael says that’s because our superior Judeo-Christian values were imposed on Japan after WWII.  Constitutional democracy is a Judeo-Christian value now?  Is sliced bread too?

The fact of the matter is, history simply doesn’t bear Solzhenitsyn out.  Europe’s ever increasing political and social secularization has not resulted in a repeat of the communist experience, while its deeply Christian past resulted in the very tragedies a belief in God is supposed to make impossible.  Michael further writes,

 Atheism has a 100% track record. In every single society in which a government was officially atheist – EVERY SINGLE ONE – unimaginable atrocity, totalitarian nightmare, and the crushing of human dignity followed.

Governments can believe in God or not?  Nonsense.  Perhaps Michael refers instead to governments that proclaim the promotion of atheism as a state policy.  What he neglects to mention is that these governments proclaim other policies as well.  Policies like…nationalization, class warfare, suppression of “enemies of the state,” forced collectivization.  Could they, possibly, have anything to do with social violence and atrocity?  It’s doubtful Michael is even aware of such things. The historical myopia of the anti-atheists is breathtaking to behold at times. 

What the anti-atheists fail to show is how atheism is the intellectual and philosophical seed of the ideologies and policies that end in atrocity.  In contrast, I have shown how the Bible was a direct influence on the criticism of private property that formed the basis of most forms of communism, Marx’s and Engels’ included.  It is thus little surprise that the earliest communists were religious believers.  The famous Communist League, for example, was initially the League of the Just, a Christian communist organization.  The anti-atheist’s argument rests purely on the debunked notion that without a belief in God (by which they mean their god), moral depravity is the inevitable result.  What’s more, the argument isn’t even Biblical, since the Apostle Paul claims the moral law is written on every man’s heart (Romans 2:14-15), regardless of belief.

Michael thinks he’s got the killer argument when he writes,

And I note for at least the 3rd time that you STILL haven’t told me why Joseph Stalin – murderer of so many millions of people – was a ‘bad atheist’ for his acts.

Simple, Michael.  When you can tell me why you’re a bad (or good) a-unicornist, I’ll tell you why Stalin was a bad (or good) atheist.

Dinesh D’Souza responds to my article on atheism and 20th century atrocities

In my article debunking the link between atheism and the 20th century’s atrocites, I start by quoting one of Christianity’s increasingly visible media spokesmen, Dinesh D’Souza.  D’Souza acknowleges Christianity’s lurid and bloody past, but claims that atheism has produced worse horrors.  Despite the sheer oddity of the argument (presumably, Christianity is to be preferred because it’s not as bad as the alternatives), it’s nevertheless popular among Christian apologists who struggle to square their religion’s sometimes barbaric past with it’s putative message of love and forgiveness.

Since I quote D’Souza directly, and since he makes the argument frequently, I believed it only fair I point my article out to him and offer a chance to respond.  It took a few weeks, but he’s made due.  Below is his response, in full:

It seems to me that you make no real refutation of my statements that “atheistic tyrants murdered more than 100 million people.”

You simply strain to show that although Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot etc. were atheists, somehow atheism wasn’t central to their thought and didn’t motivate their murders.

But you can’t deny that it was one of the central goals of Nazism and Communism to create secular utopias free of traditional religion and traditional morality.

You can’t deny that Marx viewed religion as an opiate of the people.

You can’t deny that all these communist regimes actively persecuted religion.  So did Hitler’s regime, as documented by Richard Evans in his multi-volume history of the Third Reich.

So you’re reduced to a kind of sorry special pleading for atheism.  If Christians must bear some responsibility for the crimes perpetrated by Christian regimes, can’t atheism be held accountable to the same standard?

I believe D’Souza demonstrates once more how little he understands Nazism and Communism, and the tyrants who attempted to build regimes based on those ideologies.  I do in fact show that atheism wasn’t central to their thought (Hitler spoke out against atheism) and didn’t motivate their murders, as proved chiefly by the indiscriminate use of violence against virtually everyone, without regard to nationality, class, ideology or belief.  At the beginning of my article, I made the strong point that no expert–even fellow conservative scholars–supports his view and D’Souza still does not provide one.  For someone who makes his living amidst the world of academic institutions, this fact alone should give pause, but it’s clear D’Souza is not concerned so much with scholarly rigor as revisionist apologetics.

D’Souza is simply disingenuous in his claims–claims he says I “can’t deny”.   Isn’t it the central feature of most revolutionary movements, even religious ones, to re-build society free of “traditional religion and traditional morality” (whatever it happens to be)?  What again does that have to do with atheism?  Yes, some communist governments attempted to stamp out religion’s influence, but calling it a “central goal” belies how haphazard and inconsistent the efforts were, as I more than demonstrate in my article.

D’Souza’s comment on Marx’s view of religion as the opiate of the people more than amply reveals his ignorance on the topic.  Any amateur scholar of communism knows what Marx meant by the observation, which is reflected in what I wrote in the article,

For Marx, religion is the result of man’s conditions, not their source

In other words, religion is man’s attempt to relieve his painful existence, thus the “opiate” metaphor.  It is a negative by-product, a symptom, of the underlying unjust social institutions.  Since communism would fix that, religion would simply become unnecessary.  See here and here for more.

There’s no “special pleading” going on here, but a simple scholarly elucidation why no expert gives the alleged atheism-communism or -nazism connection the time of day.  Indeed, communism is so fungible an ideology that even Christians embrace it.  One such fusion, known as “liberation theology,” was even born in D’Souza’s own Roman Catholicism!  The reason Christianity must bear responsibility for its crimes is because they were extensively justified by Christian theology.  It is only by ignoring or re-interpreting its scripture that Christianity has cast off much of its barbarism.

Well, He did say “creature”…

Stunning exegetical breakthrough?  Or merely the latest in a string of misinterpretations that have resulted in dubious achievements such as the 2,000 year unbroken record of failed predictions of the Christ’s return? You be the judge…

In a discussion generally expressing confidence that their pets will be raptured along with them, one contributor to the Christian Rapture Ready message board (motto: Where hope springs eternal!) observed:

well I always found it weird that Jesus said in Mark 16:15 “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” (emphasis in the original)

Folks, have Christians been grossly remiss in their evangelical calling?  The implications are staggering.  Billions and billions of animalian souls possibly lost due to the singular failure to preach them the Gospel as Jesus commanded.  It’s an oversight our dear contributor has fortunately not been a party to.  She continues:

Always hit me as odd…and maybe it’s even odder that I tell my cat about Jesus =)

That is one blessed cat!  It is not given to us to know whether it repented of its sins and accepted Jesus into its heart, but we can trust that it will almost certainly not die an atheist, which cannot be said for every other creature that has ever existed, including those dear pets the Rapturians hope to share heaven with.

Ok, seriously.  What would we atheists do without sites like Rapture Ready?  For one, it’s highly doubtful we’d get our recommended daily allowance of laughter.  I mean, even the master himself couldn’t make up material this good.

And who’s not a little awestruck by the willful delusion that results in this sort of reasoning?  I figure that if I can one day understand it, solving world hunger should be a piece of cake (no pun intended).

The reliability of the New Testament – a response

Amidst my surfing of Christian blogs, I came upon one that asked, “How can a rational person trust the New Testament?”  Ever the contrarian, I responded that one cannot rationally trust the New Testament (NT), and offered a few reasons why, among them:

1.) The original manuscripts do not exist;
2.) There are well-documented instances of textual corruption (errors, additions, deletions, etc.);
3.) Some of Paul’s epistles are verified forgeries;
4.) To trust the NT requires trusting the Old Testament, which makes it far more problematic given the state of modern scientific knowledge.

I also noted that these were but a “tip of the iceberg” in terms of questioning NT reliability.

Milestoneworship (I don’t have the name of the actual author) responded graciously to my post, thanked me for the questions, and promised a rebuttal, which was recently posted.  In the spirit of dialogue and debate, below I offer my response.  None of this will be new to students of the Bible, but hopefully the small crowd of onlookers who happen upon it will advance their understanding in some beneficial way.

From his response, it is clear that Milestoneworship has a more nuanced appreciation of history and NT difficulties than the average lay Christian, many of whom would respond with the typical apologetic fare of “fulfilled prophecy” or “the Bible is an accurate historical record.” I note, however, that he has not disputed any of the four points above; therefore, I presume he grants them.

To begin, Milestoneworship slightly misrepresents my position, which, to be fair, had not been wholly spelled out.  He writes,

However, Robert’s “all or nothing” tone in his claim reflects a lack of understanding of the scholarship concerning ancient historical documents.  It seems that Robert is suggesting that just because there are elements of controversy within the accounts of events in the New Testament, the New Testament as a whole is invalidated.

Well, not quite.  To an inerrantist, invalidating part of the NT would invalidate all of it, but I never assumed Milestoneworship held such a belief, so that was never my position.  On the contrary, my actual position is that the NT’s problems, from a historical point of view, are far more fundamental than a few “elements of controversy.”  I’ll demonstrate what I mean by examining a few of Milestoneworship’s NT claims.  To start with, consider this:

Yet, when we approach the accounts given in the New Testament, we have at least five seperate accounts of the basic events of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection (the four Gospels and the Pauline account in I Corinthians).

Milestoneworship has chosen his words carefully.  Technically, what he says is true, but the impression I’m sure he wishes to convey differs from the facts in several important respects.  Yes, the gospels are indeed separate (I’ll deal with the Corinthians creed in a bit), but are they independent, and more importantly, do they recount truthful history? On both counts, the question can only be no.  Surely, Milestoneworship is aware of the synoptic problem, which concerns the obvious literary overlap between Mark, Matthew, and Luke.  The problem is such that, in the words of Christian NT scholar Dr. Daniel B. Wallace, “It is quite impossible to hold that the three synoptic gospels were completely independent from each other.”  In other words, the authors copied material.  What did they copy from?  Many scholars believe from Mark, along with another document no longer in existence.  Matthew and Luke come later, contradict each other in some ways, and contain information not originally included in Mark, such as the birth narratives and the resurrection appearances (our earliest copies of Mark end at 16:8).  John, which comes later still, parallels only 8% of the synoptics, contradicts them in several important respects, and was rejected as heretical by many early Christians.

So what we see with the gospels is progressive literary embellishment, a sure sign that we are not reading so much as history but legend.  This becomes even more obvious when we read the earliest Christian writings, Paul’s epistles.

The striking thing about these epistles is how little data they contain of Jesus’s life.  From them alone, one would never know that Jesus was born a virgin, performed miracles, raised the dead, was crucified at Calvary, and subsequently buried in a tomb.  Paul never quotes any of Jesus’s sayings, never places him in any historical settings, sources his knowledge to God or the scriptures, and answers questions which Jesus had (supposedly) already settled.  What possessed to Paul to claim that the Romans never punish the righteous, but only the wicked?  I Corinthians 15:3-8, to which Milestoneworship presumably refers, is but a creed with only minimal reflection in the gospels, and the gospels in it.  In sum, Paul’s epistles are theological statements, only affirming what Christians believed, and raise serious doubts about the historicity of the NT gospels.

If the gospels are largely ahistorical, as I maintain, it would explain another anomaly for Christianity: their utter lack of attestation in the contemporary historical record.  Jesus’s miraculous deeds are well-known to us now, but they were apparently so unremarkable then that no one took written note of them.  And what of the events surrounding his death, such as the resurrection of all those dead saints who walked around Jerusalem and “appeared unto many” (Matthew 27:52-53)?  An every-day occurrence, it seems.  Some apologists have suggested that no historian of that era would scarcely be concerned about another itinerant rabbi in a backwater of the Roman empire, but in fact there were such historians.  Chief among them, Philo of Alexandria.  Philo was a Jewish philosopher and historian living in the early first century Middle East (25 BCE – 47 CE) whose theology would be familiar to any Christian.  For example,

And even if there be not as yet any one who is worthy to be called a son of God, nevertheless let him labour earnestly to be adorned according to his first-born word, the eldest of his angels, as the great archangel of many names; for he is called, the authority, and the name of God, and the Word, and man according to God’s image, and he who sees Israel.

About Jesus, nary a word can be found among Philo’s more than fifty works.

So, if the NT gospels aren’t historical, from whence the stories about Jesus?  As NT scholar Robert M. Price has shown, mostly from the Old Testament.  Through extapolating and re-interpreting scripture, the gospel authors weaved their Jesus narratives.  As Price describes, “Today’s Christian reader learns what Jesus did by reading the gospels; his ancient counterpart learned what Jesus did by reading Joshua and 1 Kings.”  This explain such gospel oddities as Matthew’s Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the backs of two donkeys, from Zechariah 9:9, while Luke and John have him riding on one.

Milestoneworship continues his case for NT reliability with the following:

However, with such a variety of accounts, and the close dating of these accounts to the occurence of the events recorded, historians have virtually agreed on three factual events that the Gospels record:  1)the discovery of an empty tomb three days after Jesus’ crucifixion, 2)the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and 3)the disciples belief in the resurrection.  I argue that the best explanation of these events is the miraculous resurrection of Jesus.

I consider this to be a moving of the goalposts, so to speak.  The question before us concerns the overall reliability of the NT, not a specific claim made within it.  But since support of the latter can assist in making the case for the former, I’ll nonetheless address it.

Milestoneworship’s argument is one popularized by Christian apologist William Lane Craig.  The facts presented here may indeed be agreed upon by historians, but that doesn’t necessitate the conclusion that God miraculously raised Jesus from the dead.  This is a theological statement, not a historical one, as NT scholar and historian Bart Ehrman pointed out to Craig in a formal debate on the topic.  And as Richard Carrier has shown, it is far, far likelier that Jesus survived, to give but one possible outcome (theft and misplacement are a couple others).

The above response is but a partial case against the reliability of the NT.  Much more could be said about the anonymity of the gospels, their possible authorship well into the second century, formation and disputes over the NT canon, parallels to previous religions and deities, the tremendous amount of early Christian apocrypha which testifies to a wide diversity of belief, and so on.  It is a fascinating subject, but one that is extremely historically clouded, as well.  To be sure, Christian apologists have their responses to each of these objections, and more, just every other faith does with respect to its traditions and holy texts.  But when neutrally evaluated, the reliability of the NT cannot be established by any rational standard.

Today’s lesson in bad apologetics

One of the main reasons I’m a follower of no religion is due to religious believers themselves.  Specifically, their arguments, which tend to range from the absolutely fruitcake batty to the…quasi-absolute fruitcake batty.  Today’s exhibit is brought to us by sntjohnny of Anthony Horvath’s Christian Apologetics Ministry, in a blog entitled Why Christians Don’t Believe in Pixies, Fairies, Ancient Legends.

Looking closely at the url of the above, you can see that sntjohnny’s first inclination was to title his blog something along the lines of “Why Christians Don’t Believe in Pixies, Fairies, Flying Monsters”.  Truth be told, it’s a title he probably should have stuck with, because by declaring that Christians don’t believe in ancient legends, he essentially claims that the Bible relates accurate history.  While safe on theological grounds, such a position is untenable on historical ones.  One must search far and wide for any Bible archaeologist who would agree with him.  To quote just one such expert:

With most scholars, I would exclude much of the Pentateuch, specifically the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers…much of what is called in the English Bible “poetry,” “wisdom” and “devotional literature” must also be eliminated from historical consideration…Ruth, Esther, Job and Daniel, historical novellae with contrived “real-life settings,” the latter dating as late as the second century B.C. –William G. Dever

Sntjohnny is perturbed by the skeptic’s argument that the reason we don’t believe in the Christian god is for precisely the same reason Christians don’t believe in Zeus, Thor, Allah, etc.  Such reasoning, declares sntjohnny, is “stupid” and “idiocy.”

Why?  Because the default position one should have is to believe in supernatural agents, until proven otherwise!

The only people assuming that there isn’t a God or supernatural entities before they lift a finger are the atheists…Christians, of course, are already on record believing that ’supernatural’ entities exist.  The clearest example would be angels, and their fallen counterparts, demons.

So, since Christians believe in angels and demons, therefore such agents must exist.  Take that, stupid atheist!

Sntjohnny continues,

It is entirely plausible, according to the Christian worldview, for there to be other agents besides human agents.

Plausible based on…all that evidence of other (supernatural) agents?  Documentary films such as Poltergeist?

Since, however, the Christian proceeds based on evidence rather than presupposition…

Except for Calvinists, but they’re not True Christians™ anyway.

…he might dismiss a recorded instance of a miracle, say, in the Odyssey, not because he knows it can’t be real because the event is so old, but simply because the attestation of that event is very weak.  In other words, the reasons why a Christian might reject such things are not the same as the atheist’s.

You see, ladies and gentlemen, the atheist has ruled out reports of miracles because he has declared such things impossible beforehand.  No, it couldn’t be that their attestation is very weak, because, as we all know, the Bible and everything in it, has been indisputably verified as history.  Further, no Christian has ever become an atheist after a thorough investigation into Biblical claims.  Nope, none at all.

It gets richer.

Allow me to give just one example of how this might work:  Islam.  According to Islam, the angel Gabriel dictated a bunch of stuff to Mohammed.  I have no particular reason to believe that Mohammed didn’t receive a revelation.  But I do know that according to the Scriptures, ‘Satan masquerades as an angel of light.’  So, I am already alert to the possibility that a fallen angel might be up to no good (see also Gal. 1:8, which is more pointed concerning Mormonism, since Islam has no ‘Gospel’ at all).  I note, too, the inconsistencies in Islamic theology with the revelation that has come before, which Islam supposedly believes was delivered.  Finally, there is quite the epistemological bottleneck:  the only testimony here is Mohammed’s.

And there it is. The litany of the fundie. The Bible says it, ergo, it must be true, and everyone else’s supernatural claims, by extension, are false.

Compare that with something like the crossing of the Red Sea, which would have been witnessed by thousands.

Every one of which, curiously enough, failed to note it in any extra-Biblical record…

Compare that with Jesus feeding 5,000 people at a go, teaching publically in the temples, dying before hundreds, and then appearing- with a new body- before hundreds.

Miracles all vastly attested by the copious writings of contemporary Ancient Near East historians, like Philo of Alexandria.  Ok, maybe not.  But, dangumit, the Bible says they happened, so, voila, they did!

With apologetics like this, calling skeptical arguments stupid is actually a compliment.

When atheists get it wrong

One of my favorite bloggers, Ebonmuse of Daylight Atheism, occasionally writes on topics outside the typical atheist fare, such as morality or poetry, but also the subject of capitalism.

Having a better-than-average knowledge of capitalism, I cringe when such blogs appear, because they often deviate from Ebonmuse’s usual high standard of critical thought.  Too frequently, they contain long-discredited capitalist canards which only find currency among the hard left.  These are the “springboards” for Ebonmuse’s larger points he wishes to make about capitalism.  One is tempted to give Ebonmuse the benefit of the doubt and suggest that he is merely responding to one school of capitalism. But alas, its supporters (aka, free-marketeers) are far more in agreement on capitalist economics, than, say, members of a particular religion.  At the least, Ebonmuse should augment his assertions with relevant quotes or examples, but this is rarely, if ever, done.

What follows is my critique of a recent Ebonmuse blog entitled “Spread the Wealth: Further Thoughts on Capitalism“.  Allow me to reiterate that I agree with much of what Ebonmuse writes and greatly appreciate his contributions to free-thought, but I believe that some of his views on capitalism are simply wrong.

Ebonmuse starts with a fair summary of the vast benefits capitalism has wrought, but he goes badly off-track with the following:

Some people, especially libertarians, seem not to grasp this. They act as if competition itself was the end, as if inequality was the end – and this is absurd.

Competition and inequality are ends?! No, no, no! A thousand times, no! The absurdity here is ascribing such a view to people like libertarians.  Free-marketeers (a circle of individuals far wider than libertarians, by the way) would fully agree with Ebonmuse’s view that competition is merely a means to better ends.  When free-market economists like the late Milton Friedman argue for competition in the provision of public education, for example, they justify it not on the basis that competition is the good we will achieve, but what good competition will bring: more choice, better quality, higher standards, etc.  Tsk, tsk.  A few minutes reading Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, or Friedman himself would have quickly dispelled this ridiculous notion.

Ebonmuse continues:

The purpose of the economy is, or at least should be, to produce happiness, not to produce winners and losers. Competition is merely the means; the end is producing greater wealth and greater opportunity, and with them, greater well-being for all members of society.

Happiness is certainly a desired end, but it is most definitely not the economy’s purpose to produce it; only individuals can do that for themselves.  This is more economic illiteracy.  The purpose of the economy–any economy–is to exploit limited resources to produce and distribute goods and services demanded by consumers in as efficient manner as possible.  Winners and losers are the inevitable by-product of a host of factors, many of which lie outside the control of us humans (at least for now), and appear in any economic system.  How does Ebonmuse propose to know when maximal happiness, and thus a fully purposed economy, has been achieved?  He does not say.  At least, he demonstrates a true understanding of competition’s role, though one wonders where he obtained it.  From Karl Marx?  It certainly could not have come from a free-marketeer…

We now come to Ebonmuse’s central point:

This is why progressive, redistributive taxation is a vital part of any civilized state’s economic policy. Those libertarian philosophies which would allow individuals to accumulate unlimited wealth without interference have lost sight of why an economy and a state exist in the first place. By allowing some people to acquire unlimited wealth, they have implicitly decided that their goal is happiness not for everyone, but only for a privileged few. By any reasonable standard of morality, this is wrong. By aiming at a suboptimal standard, they would construct a state that enjoys less prosperity and less happiness in general, and such nations will inevitably be outcompeted by those that ensure a fair distribution of basic resources.

Ebonmuse has committed a sleight-of-hand.  It is now the economy’s and state’s purpose to produce happiness, presumably achieved by the “vital” policy of progressive, redistributive taxation. But economies don’t tax; governments perform that function.  Does Ebonmuse believe it’s actually the state’s, not the economy’s, purpose to produce happiness?

It doesn’t much matter.  As well, a debate on the role of government is beyond our scope.  The question under contention is whether such taxation as Ebonmuse proposes will do as he intends.  Without any evidence or support, Ebonmuse asserts that predation of income translates into an increased level of happiness overall.  If some individuals possess “unlimited income,” this means, ipso facto, that others are sub-optimally happy.  Why is that?  Ebonmuse does not explain, but he does state that such a state of affairs is desired by libertarians.  What’s more, without any evidence or support, Ebonmuse declares that this state will produce less prosperity, less happiness, and relative competitive stagnation compared to countries which follow his prescription.  For someone who claims allegiance to reason, evidence, and logic, his assertions are remarkably lacking these qualities.

“That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence,” as an infamous contemporary atheist puts it, so, normally, we could dismiss Ebonmuse’s views on that basis alone.  However, since Ebonmuse is widely and rightly regarded as a studios blogger, I think more is needed to undermine his case.  So, in counterpoint, allow me to present the example of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is a city governed by China since 1989, but one who’s traditional free-market, low-tax policies have largely been allowed to remain unchanged.  Its tax rate for individuals and corporations around 17%, as well tax revenue as a percentage of GDP of 12.7%, are among the lowest in the world, yet its GDP per capita is one of the highest.  According to Ebonmuse, the citizens of Hong Kong should be downright miserable, what with all that unredistributed income floating around, yet surveys place its citizens above the median among international comparisons, exactly equal to the French.  If Ebonmuse wishes to make his case, he needs to explain away examples like Hong Kong and offer up those which support his claims.

At root of Ebonmuse’s errors, is the view–so common among critics of capitalism–that there is a fixed amount of wealth; if some people have more, it must mean that others have less.  The view is a fallacy.  There is no fixed amount of wealth. Rather than redistribute the pie, government policymakers need to focus on expanding it.  This is what motivates free-marketeers to champion capitalism and low, unbiased taxes.

Another error concerns the assumption that behavior will remain unchanged in light of new economic circumstances.  If we raise the tax rate to X, the treasury will obtain Y income.  True, but only in the short run.  Experience has shown time and time again that taxpayers respond to changes in tax rates.  Exactly how is not always predictable, but for the most part, high marginal tax rates actually produce a drop in revenues.  This is why many countries have actually lowered top marginal tax rates since the ’80s.

I encourage Ebonmuse to direct his considerable intellect toward garnering a better understanding of capitalism and economics.  It’s a bit of a shame to see such an important atheist blog somewhat discredited by a few flawed views.