Silly and Stupid Atheist Challenge

PZ Myers - Atheist ChallengeChristopher Hitchens offered up an atheist challenge to religious believers: name one moral act that is excluded from the atheist population. Well, that’s a silly challenge. Even brain damaged Biblical literalists understand that atheists can be good people. What is the purpose of this challenge but to get into the gutter with the most vile of apologetics of the cultural Christians? Nothing obviously. And this is a big part of my problem with the modern atheist community. Are we really going to be just like them? Are we really going to show that our understanding of their culture is as vapid as theirs is of ours?

But I was listening to a lecture that PZ Myers gave back in 2010, Science vs Religion: How Faith Makes Us Wrong. And he ended it with his own atheist challenge: name one example where religion has provided us with a novel insight about the natural world. I actually like PZ Myers, but his atheist challenge is beyond silly. It’s just stupid.

How about a theist challenge: name one example where science has provided us with a novel insight about theology. Religion is not in the business of coming up with insights about the natural world. It serves a sociological purpose. Asking it for insights about nature is like asking Dancing with the Stars for insights about nature. It’s absurd.

Who Cares About the Atheist Challenge?

I say all this as someone who doesn’t think that religion adds much to society. Human experience is so varied that what we once got from religion we can now get in countless other ways. The one thing that religion could provide us is some kind of social cohesion. But given that most people still follow ancient religions, we don’t get that. In fact, we get rather the opposite. But there are trends toward a shared spiritual sense. And I do think that humans are likely reach some kind of shared insight. But it will be no thanks to the atheist community that acts every bit as tribal and intolerant as the the theistic fundamentalists.

Myers brought up a tired old atheist complaint: why didn’t God tell the people to wash their hands?! Oh my God! Jesus said it wasn’t necessary to wash your hands! He must not be God! Well, as I would have said when I was ten: duh! What do people like PZ Myers think the Bible is, anyway? It’s just a bunch of folk tales and the results of sectional fighting about how the Jewish and (later) Christian communities should be. It was, in that way, no different than the Iliad was for the Greeks.

The problem with so many atheist complaints — and totally on display in the atheist challenge — is that they are committing the straw man fallacy. Most people think of this only in terms of the individual. There are theists who make stupid arguments and 99% of the time spent by professional atheists is used to refute these arguments. So we get the atheist challenge to show that atheists can be moral. And we get the atheist challenge that religion should provide scientific insights. These do not address the best arguments theists make. It’s unbelievable that atheists act this way.

Saving Atheism From Itself

And before my atheist friends get all upset that I am yet again complaining about the atheist community, consider this: it’s embarrassing. We atheists are supposed to be the smart ones. We’re supposed to be the open-minded ones. But instead, we’re just like them. We’re more interested in winning people to our side than in looking for the truth. The fact that I still complain shows my commitment. But I have to admit, it is failing me. More and more, I see the atheist community as bankrupt and irredeemable.

Odd Words: Baldachin

Fuechsel BaldachinThere were certainly a lot of weird words on page 21 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition! It’s not surprising that I didn’t know “balneal” and “balneology” since they have to do with bathing. But it is surprising that I didn’t know “bandog,” given my interest in people breading dogs to be vicious. But instead, I picked the word “baldachin.”

Baldachin Is Not Banal

On page 21 there was a word most literate people know well: banal. A question that has been much debated during my life is how this word should be pronounced. The fact that such a debate should stand out in my life certainly says much about the kind of life I’ve led. But up until I was in college, it never occurred to me that anyone would pronounce it other than “bənäl.” But no. There were lots of people who pronounced it “bānəl.”

What’s interesting is that with a hard-a, the word sounds rather aggressive. And the people who preferred it were quite aggressive on the matter. The people who preferred the more laid-back pronunciation tended to be more laid-back in general. “Banal” still strikes me as a laid-back word. If one wished to be aggressive, one would just exclaim, “Boring!” And that would be that.

The Dying Hard-A of Banal

Apparently, the whole hard-a “banal” is an American thing. Oxford doesn’t even mention that pronunciation in its definition of banal. But even Merriam-Webster lists this pronunciation third — with “loser” in parentheses after it. (I’m just kidding about the “loser” part.) My bet is that this pronunciation is falling out of favor because it just sounds silly.

Anyway, enough of that. On to “baldachin.”

Bal·da·chin  noun  \bal’-də-kin\

1. a silk fabric embroidered with gold or silver threads.

2. a canopy carried over an important person or sacred object.

3. a canopy over an altar

Date: late 16th century.

Origin: from the Italian word baldacchino, which means canopy.

Example: They can well have resulted from the application of cloth of the baldachin to the surface of the panel before the paint had dried entirely, and from the consequent absorption of some of the paint by the cloth.Carl Hermann Kraeling