Friday, January 7, 2011

Two Wrongs Don't Make A Right

If you were carefully paying attention to this televised tumult, I want to believe that like me, you would have found it difficult to believe that these sounding boards for their respective philosophical positions, could be so full of sound and fury signifying nothing. This is a clear example of when two wrongs don’t make a right.

Take Bill O’Reilly for example. In this exchange, he appears to be vastly ignorant of the subtleties and the complicated nature of the debates between theists and atheists. He also seemed to be more interested in extracting an apology from an unwilling interlocutor for a statement that he (O’Reilly) could just as easily have made were the circumstances different. If this was supposed to be a rational discussion, or an attempt to tame the verbal or rhetorical excesses of his guest by a dispassionate presentation of facts or logical argument, O’Reilly failed miserably to do so.

Nevertheless, to be fair to this guy and the rest of the O’Reilly Factor team, they seem by comparison to the rest of the talking heads on Fox News, to be more serious about the commitment to fairness and balance in their news reporting—even if O’Reilly’s personal views hew heavily to the right. At least there is the pretension [one can’t ask for any less] that different views are entertained or at least given an opportunity to be aired. Personally, I would prefer a non-confrontational and discussional ambience to O’Reilly’s interviews, but hey, how is he going to stay ahead of the curve in a 24-hour news cycle dominated by sound bites, twitter journalism, and the attention-seeking antics of the Glenn Beck-Rush Limbaugh-Sarah Palin trinity? It is no wonder that broadcast journalism has become like sport—one better find a way to quickly grab the short attention span of the average American or wither into insignificance. But I digress.

Then there is Dave Silverman, president of the American Atheists group. I am sure he must have been reliably informed of Bill O’Reilly’s notorious and annoying penchant for cutting people off as they are trying to make a point, and so he came prepared as it were, to out-O’Reilly his host on that particular segment. That came at a cost: he didn't seem so much different from or even more informed than O’Reilly or the millions of Americans that his group would fain accuse of feckless God-worship.

Let us examine this noisy spectacle, shall we?

A) O’Reilly insistence that the billboards are an insult to theists is inconsequential. Freedom of Speech, mate. Atheists have every right to denounce whatever they want to denounce. This will be similar to the way that theists also have the right to believe and state their convictions; or to denounce whatever they are convinced to denounce. It will amount to nothing more than the tyranny of the majority for atheists, or other minorities to be required to recant their beliefs or identity to please or blend in with majority opinion.

B) Mr. Silverman’s assertion that “everybody knows that religion is a scam” is both logically incoherent and factually inaccurate. How can he defend this pointless assertion? If everyone knows that religion is a scam, then you would expect, by human actions and utterances, that every human being realizes this. It wouldn't matter if anyone still chose to profess a faith; everybody’s words and deeds will show unmistakably that everyone knows religion to be a mere flight of fancy. This is highly incongruent with the real world for we find that in many cases, belief in God is seldom based on human knowledge or mentation but is deeply rooted in personal experiences, revelations, and a keen sense of affinity or oneness with the transcendental.

C) The so-called New Atheists of today are so intellectually inferior to the atheists of yesteryears that one just can’t help but feel nostalgic for the sort of robust but intellectually-stimulating challenges the former atheists offered to theism. In its place, we have a bunch of rather amateurish rabble-rousers who often do not take the time to fully understand the informed Christian positions on the issues they are so adamantly opposed to. For example, Mr. Silverman’s conception of the Christian God seems to be the oft-caricatured depiction of “an invisible man in the sky”. Is it any wonder that he runs around informing people that God-belief is a myth? How tiresome this atheist objection really is! If he genuinely believes that the theist conception of God is akin to some unseen human hovering somewhere in the stratosphere, he ought to be congratulated for his evangelical atheism. At this point in the interview, both men were consumed with upstaging the other that they really had no time to weigh the other’s comments carefully.

D) O’Reilly then oversteps his boundary as a mere journalist, in trying to establish a rational basis for a belief in a supernatural existence. His example? Tides—yes, sea tides! Of all the things begging for at least the mild suspicion that there may be a non-physical realm or a non-physical being, O’ Reilly chooses to talk about tides! O’Reilly needs to read a science book sometime; or at least do a little Google-based research into the subject of tides. He would have found out that tides are easy to understand and can be easily explained to a 3rd-grader: the rise and fall of sea-levels are simply caused by the combined forces of the gravitational forces exerted by the moon and the sun as well as the rotation of the earth. O’Reilly’s unfamiliarity with tides hardly rises to an existential question in my opinion, and thus wouldn't qualify as food-for-thought to anyone seriously contemplating the larger questions in life.

E) If O’Reilly’s ignorance of basic science was disappointing, it was even more disappointing to notice that Mr. Silverman didn't know this either. For one saddled with the task of badgering the supposedly intellectually-complacent body of willful God-believers to drop their "tiresome God-belief", Silverman displays an astonishing lack of depth. How effective an advocate for his world-view is he going to be if he cannot even attempt to answer simple posers like this? Perhaps, this is because he did not have enough time with a combative talk-show host to attempt a halfway decent reply. But his insistence that he does not need to know the legitimate answer to O’Reilly’s quandary or his satirical reference to “Thor on top of Mount Olympus making the tides go in and out” negates or belies this suspicion. Pray tell, who would want to take this guy’s atheist preachments seriously when he does not even seem to know that the Norse god Thor does not belong with the Greek Olympian pantheon?

In the end, this is just another made-for-television charade pitting two fulminating blowhards. What they lack in sophistication or carefully thought out answers, they make up excellently in sound and needless histrionics. Atheists can put up as many billboards as they choose denouncing whatever theist belief they deem constipatory; they have the constitutionally-protected right to such actions. There should have been no reason for O’Reilly to haul in a specimen of this atheist worldview for an afternoon of half-witted hounding.

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