Thursday, 29 December 2011

The Unicorn Delusion

Recently I re-watched a debate, from 2010, between Bart Ehrman & Dinesh D'Souza (found here).  In it, D'Souza makes an argument that I've heard him make numerous times before.  So as not to mischaracterize it in any way, I'll quote from Dinesh directly...

"If you really don't know, than what do you do?  Generally, you ignore it.  I don't know if there's life on other planets.  But I don't go debating guys who think there is.  I don't know if there are unicorns, I don't believe there are.  But I haven't written any books called 'The Unicorn Delusion', 'The End of Unicorns', 'Unicorns Are Not Great'...there is something about this new atheism, the aggression about it, and its obsession with God.  One of my atheist debating partners, Christopher Hitchens, I think he probably thinks a lot more about God than a lot of lukewarm Christians.  So there's an interesting thread that links belief and aggressive unbelief."  (Bolding mine)

It should be noted that Dinesh typically gets a great reaction from the crowd when he presents this.  In other words, the argument has been rhetorically effective for him.  It almost seems to me as if he keeps it in his back pocket, for extraction at the appropriate time (often during the q&a period) when he most wants/needs the audience to feel that he's just had a brilliant insight into the very nature of the God debates.  (But one that only he was smart enough to pick up on.)

So, what's my problem here?

Well notice, first off, that Dinesh began by making a case against agnostics ("if you really don't know...") but then flipped to making one about "aggressive" atheists.  That's fine by me, in so far as it goes, but I do think it's worth noting that he uses this bit regardless of who his opponent is or what their specific beliefs actually are (and Ehrman is an agnostic, not an atheist).

Secondly, it seems to me that the thrust of D'Souza's point lies in the bolded statement above.  I don't want to put words in his mouth but, to phrase it another way, he's essentially saying "why do unbelievers care about God so much?"  "Why don't they just ignore him!"  Bubbling just beneath these comments is the subtle (or maybe not so subtle) implication of a spiritual war, raging inside the heart of every infidel, an anger against God that results in their near obsession with destroying all things God related.  Of course Dinesh never says as much, since he knows such a premise would likely be challenged, but this is how I would have taken his statements while I was still a Christian myself (and I suspect he intends for the believers in the audience to make the same connection).

But there is a fatal flaw in Dinesh's line of reasoning.

Can you see it?

Here's the thing...some unbelievers are fixated on God, but not unicorns, because belief in the former is pervasive and harmful (and belief in the latter is fringe, at best).  As hard as it may be for Dinesh to believe, this is why they care so much about God.  Many of the so called "aggressive" atheists feel that religion is holding us back, as a society, if not causing irreparable harm (or even the potential destruction of our very species, should the wrong people happen to get their hands on nuclear weapons).

There is a thread of truth to what Dinesh is saying though.  People do often simply ignore things that they don't believe in.  Most of us don't spend a lot of time trying to debunk the beliefs of those who think they were abducted by aliens, for example (although thankfully there are some, such as Michael Shermer, who do this for us).  But suppose there were millions of people the world over, who insisted that we should be teaching our kids about the "truth" of alien abductions in elementary school...would Dinesh be o.k. with that?  Or, if it were unicorns instead, would he stand idly by and allow belief in unicorns to invade the science class?  I sincerely hope not.  What if teachers were being pushed to "teach the controversy", about whether or not there really are unicorns?  Or if scientists were being accused of having an institutional bias against further research into unicorns?

So, what Dinesh fails to see (or admit), is that actually people would write books called "The Unicorn Delusion" etc.. if in fact there were a unicorn delusion!!

But there isn't.

There is however a very large "God delusion", and therein lies the key to understanding this distinction that seems to puzzle D'Souza so.


  1. Yeah, NonStampCollector pretty much nailed it here:

  2. I frequently get questions along the lines of "If you think it's all nonsense, why do you waste your time debating it?" My answer (in more or less snarky terms depending on the demeanor of the qustioner) is "Because a bunch of you nut jobs showed up at the very good high school my children attended and demanded that curriculum choices be driven by your interpretation of your magic book rather than the best peer reviewed research in the fields of biology, psychology, sociology, history, and education."

  3. I agree that it is a flawed line of reasoning. One could say that the reason young earth creationists are obsessed with debunking evolution is that they secretly think it is true.

    For me, I have an interest in Christianity because I was a Christian for 25 years. It's not that easy to let something like that go. If I had been a Muslim I would instead be concerned with examining Islam.

  4. Mike, you're right, thanks for the link.

    Vinny, good answer and I especially like the "majic book" part.

    Dave, good points, it's surprising to me that Dinesh can't see this. I remain interested in Christianity for the same reasons as you but I think, for people like Hitchens, it had more to do with the genuine conviction that religion does great harm (at both the individual and collective level).

  5. Hi, Respectful,

    Here's what puzzles me though. I can fully understand why people set out to debunk toxic religion, and spiritual abuse. There are certainly plenty of types of religious conviction that can lead to harm. Many people of faith would actually agree and support the concerns of the non-theists in this.

    However, I've noticed that more than a few of these more well known, and aggressive atheists seem to have set out to debunk any type of spirituality or faith in God in general. Often, they can come across as quite hateful, and just full of mocking contempt toward people of faith.

    How is it that they seem unable to seperate out a faith that leads to love for one's neighbor, respect for the earth, and good works, things like that, with a world view that is abusive? I mean these are highly intelligent people. It seems to me that there have to be some deeper issues going on.

    Dinesh has written a book, something to the affect of "What's So Great About Christianity.."
    He discusses the many positive aspects of the Christian faith, and how religion has helped to shape Western civilization in ways that have been to the good as well.

    Why does this seem to be overlooked by the more public atheists?

    On the other hand, one could point out terrible atrocities committed under totally godless regimes throughout history. This is never addressed either by these folks, as far as I know.

    I'll tell you the truth. There was a time when as a committed Christian, I would not have thought twice about even voting for a non-theist as president if he or she was the best person qualified. A person's religious convictions in terms of political office would not have even been on my radar screen. In recent years, I've come to feel very differently.

    I truly believe that many of these folks are simply the flip side of the coin of the extreme religious right. They seem to me to have more than a few temperment and personality traits in common.

    I want to add a disclaimer in case I am being misunderstood. I am not speaking of all non-theists. Many are certainly kind, compassionate and respectful people..But, like anything else, it's all a missed bag.


    1. The simple answer is that these faiths of love they neighbor also encourage its adherents to murder said neighbor for sorcery or working on a Saturday. If the only tenets of those religions were love and respect for others I feel none of us would take issue with it but that's just not the case. Never has been. As for many atheists being aggressive or hateful, you really should consider the sheer hatred and outright hostility atheists face. This hatred is also accepted by the majority of people. Atheism still faces the death penalty in some countries and it still precludes people from public office in many places in america, legally. Atheism only recently became decriminalized in many places. I myself was assaulted in highschool for admitting I was an atheist. Putting on a pretense of pleasantness or being unreasonably reasonable to religious opponents doesn't help us or protect us. We shouldn't have to pretend to respect the beliefs we don't actually respect. If your religion canonically states women are inferior and merely property in not going to act like I respect it. Respect is not given it is earned. I think that using harsh language rather than pogroms and violence like, the religious have traditionally done, is respectful enough.

  6. Wow, well there was a lot going there, Rebecca, so let me take it point by point (and I'll try to be as brief as I can :)).

    Firstly, most atheists also believe in "love for one's neighbor, respect for the earth, and good works" etc. If you came to the conclusion that Christianity was false (hypothetically speaking) would you stop believing in those things? My contention is that you would not. You would still care about them just as much as you do right now!

    I hear what you're saying re: the "new atheists" harsh critique on religion. I agree with you here, partially, but keep in mind as well that simple personality differences often come into play. Christopher Hitchens & Richard Dawkins, for example, tend to be more blunt and "angry" sounding, whereas Sam Harris & Daniel Dennett do not. Why do Christians so often forget about the atheists who don't sound "angry" (such as Harris or Dennett), and focus instead on only the ones who do (like Hitchens or Dawkins)?

    Also, Hitchens nearly always had this tone, even when criticizing things that have nothing whatsoever to do with religion (ie. Bill Clinton) so I don't think it's fair to say that every angry atheist has some "deeper issues going on". Maybe they just have a really passionate personality...would you agree that's a possibility?

    On the topic of "angry atheists", generally, I would encourage you to watch the following talk, when you have time,

    O.k., moving on to Dinesh's seems to me that you have accepted all of his arguments, without so much as even investigating the other side.

    Here are a couple of critiques for you to check out,

    The first one is here...

    And here's a really long one...

    In terms of the "atheist regimes" be honest, most atheists don't really take this line of argumentation seriously. The reason for this is it makes a fundamental mistake; namely, assuming that atheism was this or that regime's defining characteristic. Actually, as Christopher Hitchens has pointed out, some such regimes have more in common with religion than true atheism (and Hitler, who is often mistakenly cited as "atheist", actually believed he was doing "God's work"!). Also, it tends to turn into a bit of a "pissing match" (excuse the term), since many thousands of people have died at the hands of Christianity too so why bother wasting our time comparing which side has supposedly killed more people (completely pointless in my opinion).

    Rebecca, I would encourage you to take a broader look at atheists. And, remember, the single biggest mistake you can make is to focus on style and, in so doing, ignore substance. Hitchens, for example, actually had some pretty good arguments, like the one I mentioned here,

    Alright, well I think I touched on each of your points, but I look forward to continuing the dialogue from here.

    1. Hi, Respectful,

      Yes, I agree that there are many atheists who are very humanitarian. As a matter of fact, there are more than a few who can put the Christians to shame. However, it does seem to me that this is probably in spite of atheism, and not because of it. It seems to me that atheism is pretty much an "empty room." I mean no disrespect in my comment, but am being honest in my feelings.

      If I believe that humans are no more than highly evolved animals, and we are all here by mere chance. The universe doesn't necessarily arc toward justice, and love..than what is to logically prevent someone from falling into nihilism, or a totally materialistic, or hedonistic mindset. If I think that this world is all there is, it seems to me easier for folks to reasonably fall into the paradigm of getting mine while I still can..doing what seems purely good for me.

      Of course, I think most non-theists don't do this. They do take a leap of faith, assign purpose to their lives, and try to make a positive difference in the world.

      But, it does seem reasonable to me that if people believe that we are made in the very image and likeness of God, not here by mere chance, that the universe has an ultimate purpose, etc..there is a much firmer philosophical base for loving our neighbor as our self, and understanding that our efforts to make this world a more peaceful, and just place can never be in vain. I also would be very concerned about a culture firmly based in atheism through many generations.

      It's certainly true that atrocities have been committed in the name of religion, but can anyone seriously think that these people were consistent in following the ethic of Jesus Christ. No way. But, if atrocities are committed under atheist regimes, what logical reason can be given that this is actually immoral or unjust if the end seems to justify the means? Who is to say, and who gets to decide, really?

      What concerns me about many who try to "debunk Christianity," Respectful, is this notion that somehow religion is the center of the problem, and that the world will become a better, and more peaceful place if faith is totally eliminated from the earth. I think, in fact, fallen human nature, is the heart of the problem. We've become alienated from God, and from each other. This reality is manifest whether people fall into various forms of philosophical materialism, or toxic and abusive religion. Religion is not the issue, but something much deeper.

      Rightly practiced, and understood, the gospel of Jesus Christ can bring people together. If Jesus was about anything, it was inclusion, caring for the outcasts, peace,and justice..

      I do see your point about some non-theists just having a more passionate personality, and that we need to look beyond style to see the substance of what is being said. It's always good to be reminded of this, Respectful.

      And, as always, thank you for your time in replying to my comments.


    2. No offense taken, whatsoever, I appreciate your honesty.

      I don't think you give your fellow man nearly enough credit Rebecca. If you stopped believing in God, tomorrow, would you personally become more nihilistic, materialistic, or hedonistic? Why not?

      Most of us, including Christians, don't care about our fellow man because we have to or are commanded to. Both the good and bad parts of human nature (the latter of which you believe to be the "sinful nature") can be explained extremely well by evolution and societal conditioning (but that's a much longer discussion).

      I'd recommend you check out the book "Society Without God: What The Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment" (Phil Zuckerman). In it he examines Denmark & Sweden (two of the least religious nations in the world), both of which very frequently rank near the absolute best in the world when it comes to quality of life measures.

      I could go on, to cover some of your other points, but I'll leave it there for now and we'll take it from here :).

    3. Respectful, I can see your point.

      My undergraduate major was cultural anthropology. I think we are extremely impacted and conditioned by our culture. But, this is my whole concern. Western Europe, including Sweden, and Denmark, has been very much influenced by the Judaeo-Christian ethic for generations. That impact will certainly not wane overnight. It will take generations. But, when it does, will philosophical materialism provide the same kind of firm philosophical base, for pure altruism, loving one's neighor as ourselves, even caring for an enemy as the witness and influence of the Christian faith? I think not.

      In my own life, would I become more nihlisitc, materialistic, or hedonistic, if I left the faith? Probably not. I'm a middle-aged woman, and the Christian faith has so very firmly shaped my morals, and value system for many years. But, Respectful, I don't know that this is true for everyone, either, especially young people, or those who may come from more abusive home environments.

      I can tell you that my faith in Jesus Christ has definitely caused me to become more compassionate, caring, and less judgemental than I was previously as an agnostic, Respectful.


    4. Just to offer a different spin on the topic... Leaving Christianity can impact someone in different ways. For me, I was struck by a sense of urgency to not take any moments in this life for granted. No one knows for certain if they will continue to exist after they die and this should make us value the life that we do have.

      As for morals, I think it's good to be grounded in what history and our culture has proven to be the most beneficial. I think modern day standards of equality and family values trump those of the Bible. Also, there have been plenty of men and women that have come up with good standards to live by, not just Paul and the other writers of the Bible.

    5. Rebecca,

      I'm not sure I buy your argument that the societal health, of places such as Denmark, Sweden etc., is simply due to carry over from the "Judeo-Christian" ethic. It's an interesting theory, but one that you would need to actually prove, not simply assert as you have (and you have made no effort to do so).

      Rebecca, on this same subject, I thought you might also be curious to read this post (it's from a blog run by Ken Daniels, a former Christian missionary). It's called, "What if everyone were an atheist?"...

      Thanks for your thoughts Dave. I can relate to what you're saying here. I also find that I am even more concerned about the plight of the poor, now that I am an atheist (no more falling back on "God has a greater plan" type of thinking). If it really is all up to us we bear a huge responsibility to care for our fellow man and make this world a better place than it is.

    6. Sorry, I'm not sure why my comment, above, did all that weird spacing in the middle section (not intentional).

  7. I have always failed to see the "stridency" and anger in Dawkin's and Hitchen's writings and debates. Perhaps that is because I come from a similar cultural and educational background (not Oxford though- a lesser British University). I think it is more than coincidental that Harris and Dennett are American.
    I have often found Americans to take offense at certain types of British sarcasm.
    Anyway, good points about Dinesh and unicorns. Unicorn are allegedly delightful, helpful and pleasant creatures. They do no harm!
    There is no need for us to be angry at God, because he doesn't exist, but at all the atrocities in the Bible, and the nasty things still being done in the name of Christianity.
    So there are some great religious paintings and music and poetry (Milton, Paradise Lost etc.)but don't forget the harm they have done in perpetuating the myth, and giving people a more visible idea of what Heaven and Hell might look like. Missionaries? Good at destroying other cultures and bringing deadly diseases. Even relatively harmless modern churches waste peoples time and grab their hard earned dollars.
    So shut up Dinesh!

    1. Thanks Clare. You make a good point about the British vs. American thing. Appreciate your thoughts.