Over at Salon.com, Ian Murphy has a piece profiling five atheists who “believe in some powerfully stupid stuff, thereby eroding the credibility of all atheists.” Well, he doesn’t so much profile them as he does offer ham-handed criticism of them.
Making the list are neuroscientist Sam Harris, talk show host and comedian Bill Maher, magician Penn Jillette, activist Ayaan Hersi Ali, and columnist S.E. Cupp. One quickly notices that three of the five (Jillette, Ali, and Cupp) could, generally speaking, be characterized as limited government advocates. This would not be striking, but for the fact this advocacy itself seems to be the greatest measure by which Murphy considers them to be ruinous to the reputation of the atheist community.
I always found it to be curious that many atheists, and indeed skeptics of religious institutions in general, fail to see the intellectual consistency in applying that same skepticism to the efficacy and efficiency of the state. One who applies the same standards to the state as he does religion is almost certain to find that the two bear considerable resemblance. For example, they both tend to satisfy sentiment as opposed to reason. They will both operate according to false doctrines and reject rational adjustments when it suits the needs of those in power.
Note, my most pointed criticisms of religion were almost always of the tendency for the clerical class to ally itself with those who wield state power. As I wrote in 1800, “The clergy, by getting themselves established by law and ingrafted into the machine of government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man.” It is the cleric’s wielding of the power inherent in the state that ultimately represents a threat to the individual. But that power is not made benign because it is wielded by civil magistrates or well-intentioned moralist busy-body. Therefore, approaching it with a credulous attitude is not only intellectually inconsistent, but dangerous and irresponsible.
To cure himself of this intellectual inconsistency, a skeptic must first ask himself, are religion and state not both man-made institutions? As such, are they therefore not both equally reflections of mankind’s flaws including his tendency to err?
I would submit that Murphy’s piece at Salon is representative of the skeptic communities greatest flaw: its unwillingness or inability to apply its skepticism in a more objective way. They seem to apply it only to that institution that they themselves find superfluous, while the state, a considerably more deadly institution, escapes similar scrutiny.
If this is what passes for skepticism, I’d happily consider accept the label of dogmatist.