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Religion has doomed Shmuley Boteach’s mind July 6, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.

In the Jerusalem Post, Shmuley Boteach claims that “Godlessness has doomed Britain”:

British influence in the world […] has gone off a cliff over the past century. I would argue that the new, militant atheism that is becoming characteristic of Britain is a key reason. Atheism is a philosophy of nihilism in which nothing is sacred and all is an accidental.

While it has some brief, flashy moments, life is purposeless and meaningless.

There is no soul to illuminate and no spirit to enliven — just decadent flesh. Human love is a prank played by our genes to ensure the propagation of the species, and poetry and faith are shallow distractions masking the inevitability of death. Men are insemination machines incapable of ever being truly faithful, and women are genetically programmed to seek out billionaire hedge-fund managers, the better to support their offspring.

Boteach’s ratio of stupidity to word count is so high, it’s hard to know where to begin. For starters, what exactly is “militant” about characteristic atheism? Atheists are not threatening anyone with violence or impinging upon anyone’s rights (which cannot be said of many religious activists). Why are atheist critiques of religion any more militant than Boteach’s critique of atheism?

Boteach’s screed is a textbook example of the straw man fallacy, with a generous sprinkling of non-sequiturs thrown in for good measure. Atheism is not a philosophy: it is merely the position that since there is no good evidence for the existence of any deities, there is no justification for believing in them. Apart from wishful thinking, does Boteach have any evidence for the existence of a god, or an immaterial soul that survives death, or purpose in nature? I don’t think so.

But of course, the fact that there is no god or soul or cosmic purpose does not entail that our lives are meaningless and not worth living; and I’m unfamiliar with any atheists who claim otherwise. I, for one, think that the opportunity to live in this amazing natural world and to understand it scientifically is quite precious and wonderful — in fact, I think life is far more wonderful for not being part of some cynical game set up by a dictator god. So who exactly are these nihilist atheists Boteach is talking about?

Boteach also commits the familiar fallacy of assuming that if we are the possessors of selfish genes evolved by natural selection (which is a fact), then we ought to respect our genes’ priorities and obey all our biological impulses. But we are clearly capable of making value judgements and taking actions that contravene the interests of our genes — has Boteach never heard of birth control, for instance?

After utterly misrepresenting atheistic worldviews, Boteach goes on to claim that religion is necessary for a moral society. For example, he tries to credit Christianity with abolishing slavery:

Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 […] with Christian abolitionists like William Wilberforce taking the lead against that abomination.

If slavery is such an abomination, why doesn’t the Bible condemn it instead of condoning it? Incidentally, William Wilberforce’s evangelical Christianity led him to support politically and socially repressive legislation, impinging upon free speech and workers’ rights; and here’s what he thought of women anti-slavery activists: “for ladies to meet, to publish, to go from house to house stirring up petitions — these appear to me proceedings unsuited to the female character as delineated in Scripture.”

Finally, Boteach asserts that the decline of religion in Britain is to blame for its contemporary social woes — “football hooliganism, the gratuitous degradation of women in its most-circulated publications, and one of the highest out-of-wedlock birthrates in the world.” Obviously, we would never see such horrors in a highly religious society, like the United States (where 92 percent of the population believe in God). Right?

True, America has many of these same problems, and a great deal more of its own. But the spiritual underpinnings of the American republic ensure that values are constantly debated, and that soul-searching is a never-ending element of the national discourse.

Never mind that the teenage birth rate in the U.S. is the highest in the developed world — about ten times that of predominantly secular Switzerland and the Netherlands; never mind that forty percent of Americans believe the ludicrous proposition that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so”; at least America has “spiritual underpinnings”! Somehow, though, all that never-ending debating and soul-searching leads to completely warped positions on issues like gay marriage and stem-cell research and abortion…

By the way: even if it were true that religious societies are the healthiest (which it isn’t), that still wouldn’t give us any reason to think that God really exists or that any religious doctrines are actually true.

So, was any critical thinking at all employed in the writing of Boteach’s column? One might almost be forgiven for thinking that religion dooms its followers to a life of sloppy reasoning and bad argument.



1. Ophelia Benson - July 17, 2011

Oh right…because obviously the theocratic countries are flourishing while the secular ones are on the brink of extinction.

Shmuley Shmuley Shmuley…

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