Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Rosenau jumps on the Gnu Atheists = Teabaggers bandwagon

There was a time when Josh Rosenau was one of the more reasonable of the anti-gnu brigade. He would occasional make a point I felt was worth listening to and contemplating. But some time in the last year or so, he went completely off the deep end. His latest stunt: He has bought into the absurd comparison between New Atheism and the Tea Party. His justification? Tea Partiers (some of them) say that Obama is a secret Muslim; Jerry Coyne says that Obama is a secret atheist.

Where to begin? On a superficial level, this sounds like a convincing analogy, but just the tiniest iota of honest reflection shows it to be a completely ludicrous comparison.

Now, I need to start off by saying I disagree with Coyne on this one. I think the preponderance of evidence suggests that Obama is sincere in his Christianity (though I do think he considers the literal truth or falsity of it to be irrelevant) and in any case, we ought to respect people's self-identification unless it is clearly erroneous. Obama says he's a Christian; that makes him a Christian. If it turned out the Pope didn't believe in God, would that mean bears didn't shit in the woods?

With that out of the way, let's look at a few things here. Let's start with motivation, because that's the easiest one: Coyne is nominally attempting to discern the truth, and if we dig a little deeper we see he is probably being optimistic. He wishes Obama was an atheist, because a) he thinks an atheist president would do a better job, and possibly b) he admires Obama and so wants to view Obama as part of his tribe. Now, I'm speculating about Jerry's internal subconscious motivations here, and I could be way off -- but the point is, we see that at worst Jerry is being irrationally optimistic. There is certainly nothing nefarious in Coyne's intentions, of that we can be sure.

Contrast this with the Tea Party. It is plainly obvious they are painting Obama as a Muslim in an effort to discredit him. Do we really think there are Tea Partiers saying, "Yeah, it doesn't effect Obama's ability to do his job, but I do think he is secretly a Muslim"? Come on... On a side note, if we imagine a hypothetical devotee of Islam who speculates positively that Obama might be a secret Muslim, while that would obviously be pretty irrational, it's not the kind of attempted slander being perpetrated by the Tea Party. There's a big difference between saying, "I bet this guy is secretly on my team," vs. "Look out, that guy is secretly on the other team!"

Next let's look at what is being claimed. It is a feature of Tea Party conspiracy theories about Obama that he is not only secretly a Muslim, but that he is doing so in an attempt to covertly usher in Islamic influences to American politics -- even that he is seeking to "destroy America". In contrast, Coyne is speculating that Obama is a secret atheist who nevertheless approves of faith, and is simply concealing his unbelief in order to avert prejudice against him. Again, if we imagine our hypothetical Muslim who claimed that Obama was secretly a moderate believer in Islam, that he nonetheless approved of Christianity and other faiths, and that he simply had to hide his true faith in order to maintain electability... well, that's a little crazy maybe, but it does not merit comparison with the Tea Party.

Lastly, let's look at plausibility. Now, I am inclined to take any given politician at her word regarding her faith. But does Rosenau really think there are no closet atheists in American politics?!? That we have never had a congressperson (or even a president! It's a virtually certainly we have) who privately found religious belief to be logically untenable, but kept it to himself anyway? I think it's a safe bet that there are a number of secret atheists in Congress, and at all levels of politics. We know there are plenty of ordinary folks, people who aren't even in the public eye, who have to conceal their atheism from their employer. Why would it be remarkable if the president happened to be one of those people?

We also know that plenty of churchgoers are secretly atheists. (Fuck, thanks to Dennett and LaScola, we know that plenty of clergy are secretly atheists) Many of these people aren't even hiding their atheism out of fear or anything: They appreciate the communal and ritual aspects of their chosen church, but find true belief to be a fanciful and unlikely position. These people are all over the place.

Now, I must reiterate here that I think Obama is sincere in his faith; reading Dreams from My Father gave me the impression that while Obama was initially drawn to Christianity for the potential of black churches to organize community activism, that he soon became so enamored with the whole thing that he ceased to care about the validity of the truth claims and was willing to swallow the dogma along with the community whole hog. However, the fact that Obama goes to church is not evidence that he couldn't possibly be an atheist. Quite the contrary, it says very little -- especially for someone who has admitted that he joined initially for political reasons, and especially for someone whose employment, and possibly whose very life, would be in danger if he were to come out as a nonbeliever. While I do not believe it to be the case, it is entirely plausible that Obama might have attended Christian churches for decades and publicly professed Christian faith, while all the time being an atheist.

Is it just possible that Obama did all those things while secretly adhering to Islam? Well, I guess, but it seems far less plausible. For one, it's not hard to imagine an atheist publicly praying to Jesus and not feeling as though she is doing anything wrong. It's more difficult to imagine a devout Muslim doing the same thing and feeling like that was okay, that it was not a betrayal of his values. (And if the Muslim in question is not unflaggingly devout, why would he maintain his faith intact through decades of immersion in a different faith community?) For another, when Obama first became involved with Christian churches in Chicago, if he had really been a Muslim at the time it seems somewhat more likely that he would have sought out members of that faith community for the purpose of grassroots organizing. I suppose it's just possible that this very young and politically raw Obama had the foresight and the cold calculating nature to recognize that black Christian churches were a more fertile field for organization, and so to have hid his Muslim faith in order to mine that community... Yes, this is all possible, but it's far more of a stretch than Coyne's rather modest suggestion that he chose to embrace this community despite a disbelief in their central truth claims and dogmas.

So let's check our scorecard: The Tea Partiers' claims that Obama is a secret Muslim are malicious, conspiratorial, and implausible. Jerry Coyne's claim that Obama is a secret atheist is benign or optimistic, matter-of-fact, and (although unlikely in my opinion) at least baseline plausible. The only thing the two have in common is they probably aren't the most rational position.

Rosenau is engaging in a rather sick, twisted, and frankly obvious bit of false equivalence here. The only question is whether he is doing so intentionally and dishonestly, or if he really is that much of a fucking idiot.


  1. Except that you haven't made the case that anyone except a few outliers who may be sympathetic to the Tea Party position on various issues have claimed that Obama is a secret Muslim. The claim as I've always heard it by the non-outliers is that by Moslem law Obama is a Moslem, which is true, but irrelevant given Obama's policies and his history as a member of Rev. Wright's church.

  2. Well, I'm not sure that is a fair characterization of the American right wing these days, since reputable polls show that something like 16% of Americans (and an even higher share of Republicans) think Obama is a Muslim. The "by Muslims law he's a Muslim cuz his dad was!" excuse is, first of all, kind of pedantic and dumb (a religion does not get to decide who its members are, the members do! Otherwise, what's to stop me from just saying "we are all Pastafarians!"?), and second of all, it is not my impression that anywhere near the majority of the "Obama is a Muslim!" crowd leans on this pathetic excuse.

    Rather, it seems to me that silly canard usually surfaces when a mainstream politician is pressed on the issue. This gives her the ability to look halfway sane in the eyes of most, while simultaneously pandering to the idiots who think Obama is trying to bring Sharia law to America. It's a modern form of race-baiting, frankly.

    However, all of that is tangential to the point of this post. In this context, the claim that the Tea Party can be fairly associated with the Obama-is-a-Muslim crowd is Josh Rosenau's claim, not mine. (Though I think I'd agree, but that's beside the point) What I am objecting to is the rather bone-headed comparison between Coyne's speculation about Obama's literal beliefs on religion vs. claims that Obama is a Muslim.

    In other words, your comment starts with "You haven't made the case...", but that case is not relevant to the point I am making in this post. I think I could make that case if pressed, but I don't need to in order to make my point about Rosenau.

  3. Yes, I realize that Rosenau was making the case, but the second to last paragraph in your post, not to mention the overall tenor of it, was that you were adopting his view of the Tea Party, which is at best a caricature. Most conservatives I know believe that Obama's policies can be explained by his philosophical orientation rather than by whether he is Moslem or a Christian of the Rev. Wright variety.

    Which raises the question, why do you feel there is an incompatibility between supporting the Tea Party and being an atheist or a New Atheist? You might not have meant that, but it's what you seem to be suggesting.

    There are a substantial number of secular (or even atheistic) conservatives, who might not agree with everything any Tea Partyist has ever said, but still agree with much of what the Tea Party stands for. You seem to be assuming that no such person exists. I would think that you would want to draw them into the fold rather than try to keep them out. But maybe I've misunderstood.

    Which brings up your comment that the idea that the religion gets to decide who is a member of that religion is pedantic and dumb. If so then it would follow that an atheist doesn't get to decide that someone else can't be a Tea Partyer and a New Atheist.

    If a religion imposes certain obligations on you or give benefits to you as a member of that religion, they get to decide who gets the obligations and benefits. If a religion has a certain philosophical outlook, they can say that you're not a member of that religion if you don't have that outlook. As a practical matter many people when asked what religion they are will answer based on the principles of the religion.

  4. Okay, to clear part of this up straight away, I do not think one cannot be both a conservative/Tea Partier and an atheist, or even a so-called New Atheist. Now, I personally find some of the values conventionally associated with each to be inconsistent, but you're spot on when you say that doesn't mean I get to decide what someone else "really" thinks or how they can identify themselves.

    (By the same token, even though I think faith and science are incompatible, there are obviously many scientists who have religious belief. I would certainly not deign to say "He doesn't really have faith because he's a scientist" or "She's not really a scientist because she has faith." The fact that I see a contradiction does not undermine the sincerity of either identity.)

    Now as to the overall tenor of the post -- well, obviously I'm pretty negative on the Tea Party movement in particular and conservative politics in general, and I don't really make any effort to conceal that. :)

    It seems that you associate the Tea Party with its original roots from a couple years ago, i.e. an honest focus on fiscal conservatism within a (little-L) libertarian perspective. I have deep ideological sympathies for libertarianism, even though I have come to believe it is ultimately unworkable in practice -- and in fact it does not surprise me that there is non-trivial overlap between atheism and honest libertarianism, since both are associated with an explicit rejection of authoritarian thinking. Little-L libertarianism is a philosophy I happen to think is wrong, but for which I have respect.

    Now, what I hear coming from politicians who are conventionally identified with the Tea Party movement as it exists today, it seems to me the libertarian and fiscally conservative rhetoric is a sham. I see the movement permeated with social conservatism (which is soooo incompatible with little-L libertarianism, I just can't see how people don't notice this!), I see distortions of the fiscal impact of various policies in order to favor big business even when the long-term economic impact is negative, I see people being duped into voting explicitly against their own interests... In short, I see nothing worthy of respect.

    The only big-name politicians I can think of who are conventionally associated with the Tea Party movement and seem even remotely sincere about the principles it lays claim to are Ron and Rand Paul. To be clear, I think they are both all wrong on all sorts of policies -- but the principles they claim to hold and the principles they demonstrate in practice are more or less compatible most of the time.

    But you take people like Bachmann, DeMint, Palin, etc., and I think these people are dishonest assholes (even by politician standards). The brand of Tea Party they preach is, to my mind, a lie, and not remotely worthy of respect -- not even respectful disagreement.

    That's my two cents. I'm sure we disagree strongly :) I do want to reiterate, though, that being an atheist/New Atheist/Gnu Atheist and being a liberal vs. a conservative are two separate issues, and I would never deign to say, "You aren't a real atheist because you align with the Tea Party!" or anything like that. Of course not.

    As to your last paragraph, that only seems to me to be saying that religion X can decide that person A is not a member, regardless of how person A self-identifies. Fine, that may be true in many cases, but I absolutely reject the idea that religion X can decide that person A is a member regardless of person A's self-identification.

  5. Interesting note: Joshua is a convert to Islam himself. And he frequently quotes Dr. Nadia El-Awady in his blog. Dr. El-Awady wrote an homophobic article where she argues that homosexuality is no different a choice than choosing what to eat and thus no legitimacy to being gay as it is merely a sinful lifestyle choice.

    Joshua is clearly not showing us all his cards. I don't doubt that he is sincere in his advocacy for teaching evolution, but there is a storm of crazypants and religious based intolerance underneath as well.

    Just google: "Joshua Rosenau Nadia El-Awady abrar" to find the sources.