Saturday, October 8, 2011

Bill O'Reilly: Poopyhead

This past week, Bill O'Reilly had Richard Dawkins on his show to talk about Dawkins' new book The Magic of Reality.  The book is partially aimed at a younger audience and has some great illustrations while describing, as its subtitle indicates, "How we know what's really true".  Topics include the age of the universe, what objects are made of, the structure of the earth, the causes of tsunamis, the diversity of plant and animal life, and human origins.  And critically, it address how we know these things.

I actually just received a copy of the book yesterday and after briefly thumbing through it, it looks like it will be a very enlightening read, even for someone who reads a good amount of science writing.

O'Reilly doesn't even get to the actual interview before getting things wrong.  In the intro he says Dawkins is "on a crusade to convince believers they're idiots."  This is not true; none of the New Atheists deny the fact that many Christians are quite intelligent.  However, being intelligent does not make one immune to believing in things that are not grounded in evidence.  The fact that many Christians are quite intelligent actually highlights the fact that our minds are quite adept at compartmentalizing rational thought processes from those rooted in emotion, tradition or a sense of community.  While the key tenets of Christianity (original sin, the virgin birth and resurrection, et al) are not supported by evidence, believers are clearly capable of exercising rational thought - in their jobs, their personal finances, etc.

For example, diving a vehicle requires rational thought processes based on evidence: if you want to change lanes you will check to ensure that there isn't a car next to you in that lane.  You don't, however, take that fact on faith.  The New Atheists wouldn't argue that because someone is religious, they would not be able to drive; rather that the brain is capable of separating irrational beliefs that, in many cases, isn't an issue of life and death as it would be if your faith was that the lane next to you is always clear.

So no, the mean atheists aren't out to convince you that you're an idiot.  The purpose of outspoken atheism is to get people to think critically about their beliefs and why they hold on to them.  I was a Christian for 26 years before I seriously examined what I believed and why I believed it.  And that introspection was set off by the likes of PZ Myers and the SGU podcast by unapologetically calling out absurd notions like transubstantiation.

But back to O'Reilly, who immediately tries to take Dawkins to task for 'advocating atheism' to children, which is rather ironic given the prevalence of Sunday School, church youth groups, and summer bible camps.  And that's not even touching the more extreme, yet accepted, forms of Christianity-based indoctrination of Jesus CampsKen Ham's indoctrination sessions, or child 4 years old.  Let's play a snippet, just to get a succulent taste of the exploitation at work:

And writing a book about natural phenomenon is the functional equivalent to indoctrinating children with atheism.

O'Reilly claims that Dawkins is mocking god by saying that its a myth, and when Dawkins points out that he talks about ancient myths from numerous ancient cultures (yes, including the Judeo-Christian myth), O'Reilly says "You're trying to get to the kids and say 'you're an idiot if you believe in God'".  That seems like poor pedagogy.  But let's see what the book actually says.  Here's an exceprt from chapter 2, Who was the first person?
 Here's a typical origin myth, from a group of Tasmanian aborigines.  A god called Moinee was defeated by a rival  god called Dromerdeener in a terrible battle up in the stars.  Moinee fell out of the stars down to Tasmania to die.  Before he died, he wanted to give a last blessing to his final resting place, so he decided to create humans.  But he was in such a hurry, knowing he was dying, that he forgot to give them knees; and (no doubt distracted by his plight) he absent-mindedly gave them big tails like kangaroos, which meant they couldn't sit down.  Then he died.  The people hated having kangaroo tails and no knees and they cried out to the heavens for help.  
The mighty Dromerdeener, who was still roaring around they sky on his victory parade, heard their cry and came down to Tasmania to see what the matter was.  He took pit on the people, gave them bendable knees and cut off their inconvienent kangaroo tails so they could all sit down at last; and they lived happily ever after.
 After giving several more examples of origin myths, Dawkins comments:
Stories are fun, and we all love repeating them.  But when we hear a colorful story, whether it is an ancient myth or a modern 'urban legend' whizzing around the internet, it is also worth stopping to ask whether it - or any part of it - is true.  So let's ask ourselves that question - Who was the first person? - and take a look at the true, scientific answer.
 That is quite a far cry from O'Reilly's claim of calling kids idiots for believing in God.

O'Reilly goes on to assert without a shred of evidence that "the Judeo-Christian philosophy isn't a myth, its reality".

And then he goes on to conflate atheism with the despotic regimes of Mao, Pol Pot, and Stalin.  This is such a weak argument it is weird that anyone still finds it worth parroting.  As Dawkins says, there is no logical connection between atheism and doing evil things while, if you believe you have heard the divine word of the supreme being, there is an obvious logical connection to doing evil with religion.

One other point I'd like to make, which is that when Dawkins asks O'Reilly what of the 10 Commandments O'Reilly values, he responds citing 'do not kill'.  Which is a curious one for several reasons.  First, this is a value shared by all cultures whether they are religious or not, so its not a terribly profound revelation (no pun intended), and certainly not a logical consequence of believing in a god.

Second, is O'Reilly so cynical that he doesn't think his viewers will realize that the Republican party which is infinitely entwined with the religous right (and vice versa) is full of war hawks salivating over the opportunity to go to war with Pakistan, Yemen, Iran or whomever else it finds to be a convenient target?  Or that the religious right is just as entwined in fanatic over-interpretation of the Second Amendment?  One might think that such an ostensibly docile 'philosphy' that values notions of 'do not kill' would not actively and vehemently promote the ownership and use of firearms.

But none of this matters to O'Reilly or his viewers, which only further illustrates the ability of the mind to compartmentalize rational from irrational thought processes.

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