Jeff Jacoby Doesn’t Like Atheists…And Is A Fucking A$$#ole

November 26, 2008

Another genius column from the Boston Globe’s resident right-wing nutjob, Jeff Jacoby, yet again arguing the superiority of faith in “traditional religion.” He starts off with the anecdote of a boy who, learning of the Nazi’s atrocities, abandons his faith and takes up the writings of Bertrand Russell (one of them atheists, just like Freud, Einstein, Sagan, Hemingway, Voltaire, Huxley, Vonnegut, Twain, and all those other mental midgets in the shadow of the great Jacoby). The boy is soon set straight by a rabbi:

“[O]ne of the staff rabbis strolled by and asked what he was reading. To Wolpe’s defiant answer – ‘Bertrand Russell’ – the rabbi made a surprising reply: ‘Good.’ Startled, Wolpe asked what he meant.

‘David, how old are you?’ the rabbi asked in return.

‘Seventeen.’

‘Well, I’d rather have you grow out of him than grow into him.'”

HAHAHAHA!!!! He sure told him! Grow out of it indeed! Good show, Jeff Jacoby! Only, that doesn’t make any fucking sense, does it? How does this little witticism shed any light whatsoever on whether or not the gods exist? Or the merits of Russell’s arguments in his writings? In fact, Jacoby doesn’t even tell us what Bertrand Russell’s arguments ARE, never mind bother to try to refute them. But hey, we’ll all grow out of it.

Jacoby then takes aim at Bill Maher and his film Religulous (confession: I haven’t seen it yet), calling the comedian “caustic” and his movie “a profane, condescending, and often funny rant against religion,” the “often funny” thrown in, of course, to show that right wingers have senses of humor, too (Palin praising Tina Fey’s impersonation – even though the sound was turned off – comes to mind). Jacoby doesn’t like Maher’s portrayal of religion as silly:

“It’s also easy to portray faith as a goofy fairy tale if you spend your time deriding tales of ancient miracles – a burning bush! A virgin birth! A prophet swallowed by a fish! – but never pause to acknowledge the far-fetched improbabilities inherent in atheism.”

Excuse me, but aren’t those “ancient miracles” an important part of the religions were talking about? Correct me if I’m wrong, but when the vast majority of Chrisitians, in this country and elsewhere, watch the movie the Ten Commandments, and they see Moses parting the Red Sea, they believe they are, more or less, watching a documentary, no? And the virgin birth that Jacoby dismisses as an “ancient miracle” (SOOOOOO first millenium!) – is that not a CORNERSTONE of most forms of Christianity, including its largest sect, Roman Catholicism?

And what are these “far-fetched improbabilities inherent in atheism?” Jacoby links to this as an example, which is some nonsensical site that claims to calculate the ridiculously long odds of the genome of E. Coli spontaneously being generated from the random synthesis of DNA. In other words, it’s purporting to ask what the odds would be of coming up with the DNA of E. Coli if you were to randomly add nucleotides together one after the other. This idiocy isn’t, to tell you the truth, worthy of discussion, unless that discussion is about how a little bit of wildly incomplete scientific knowledge can be worse than none at all. It’s utterly an exercise in throwing around science-y sounding words and numbers (E. Coli! DNA! genome! 1 in 10 to the 3,000,000th power!) in order to sound expert-y and brainy without actually knowing anything. The truth is, even if this calculation were completely accurate, and were actually giving us the probably of something occuring (which it really isn’t in the first place), even THAT wouldn’t mean anything, because atheists ARE NOT CLAIMING that E. Coli’s genome arose spontaneously one day out of thin fucking air. But even putting this aside, the fundamental point Jacoby is trying to make is that our complex world could not possibly have arisen from a less complex system without Jesus or Yahweh or something making it so. Basically, less complex systems cannot spontaneously rearrange themselves into more complex systems. In general this is true, but the problem is that that is not what happened. A portion of a system can indeed become more complex provided equilibrium is maintained by increase entropy (i.e., chaos, lack of order, lack of organization) elsewhere in the system. So I can build a car, but only at the expense of breaking down order elsewhere (in that case largely by burning fuel, i.e., breaking down complex carbon molecules into simpler molecules). If you don’t know much about math or science and the above is all gibberish, that’s fine. The more general point is that Jeff Jacoby (and many other right wingers) believe that you can never see the creation of something more complex from something less complex without there being a god to do it for you, when the truth is that such spontaneous complexity is completely unproblematic in mathematics and science, and any reputable mathematician or scientist will say as much. But because most people will neither bother to follow the reasoning of this (or possibly understand that reasoning), for time immemorial Jacoby’s argument will hold sway with the stoopids, because, after all, he’s using the same big, sparkly, science-y, smart-guy words that the scientists do, so he must know his shit.

None of this is anything new – this is a classic argument used by creationists. Essentially they are arguing that the existence of life on Earth violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The Second Law states that entropy (disorganization, disorder, chaos) always decreases in a system. Life arising from non-life is the creation of greater organization, i.e., negative entropy. Therefore, the Jacobys of the world claim, you need Jesus/God/Allah/The Grand Poo-bah to explain it. To a physicist, this is dangerous nonsense, but it sounds smart enough to be right for the layman (as Stephen Colbert would say, it has truthiness). Here is what the National Center for Science Education says about such arguments:

“One of the creationist claims that I have tried to counter at all my debates is that the Second Law of Thermodynamics would be violated by the evolutionist model of species origins. I show that [prominent creationist Duane] Gish’s Second Law claim is flawed because he fails to recognize that examples of localized negative entropy do not violate the Second Law if they are outweighed by positive entropy elsewhere in the system so that the net entropy is positive. In particular, when Gish claims that the evolution of complex life in the biosphere represents negative entropy in violation of the Second Law, his conclusion is completely invalid because he fails to consider whether this localized negative entropy is outweighed by positive entropy effects such as entropy due to energy radiation from the biosphere into space. Thus Gish’s Second Law claim is as invalid as that of an accountant who claims a net profit on the basis of a high gross income, but ignores the possibility that the income is outweighed by expenses.”

Again, the above, to a scientist, is completely uncontroversial and straightforward. This fact alone does not say anything about whether or not there is a god. Maybe there is. Maybe he created everything and is waiting for us in the afterlife. But it DOES mean that Jacoby’s argument that atheism requires convoluted thinking along the lines of Jonah living inside a whale (which, Jeff, IS NOT A FUCKING FISH) is COMPLETELY FALSE.

Then Jacoby comes out with the religious-people-are-just-better-people nonsense:

“In a study released in September, researchers at Baylor University found that adherence to ‘traditional . . . religion greatly decreases credulity, as measured by beliefs in such things as dreams, Bigfoot, UFOs, haunted houses, communicating with the dead, and astrology.'”

Jacoby’s a big fan of “traditional religion.” Interestingly, he includes Mormonism in this category. Yet John Smith founded Mormonism in the mid-1800s – barely 175 years ago. Seances and astrology are FAR older than Mormonism (indeed, they are far older than Christianity itself). So how, exactly, is Mormonism (or any of the other modern forms of Christianity) “traditional religion” while astrology is not? Because it’s BEING DEFINED THAT WAY. In other words, this study is NOT showing that atheists are a bunch of credulous dupes who believe in New-Age-y stuff with crystals and Nostradamus and tree-hugging with the Druids (which is what Jacoby would like to imagine, I’m sure). It means that people who do not follow one of the traditional religions AS THEY DEFINE THEM – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc. – are more likely to follow astrology, believe in UFOs, etc. This is simply a product of the definition of the terms. If we divide the population into two groups – those who follow Christianity and the other “traditional” religions, and those who follow astrology and all the nutcase or ‘non-traditional’ religions (and put atheists in this category as well) – we find that the latter population tends to believe in the non-traditional stuff. Wow, what a finding. Let’s just say that you don’t exactly need to be an expert in econometrics or scientific methodology to figure out what’s wrong with the design of this study.

Finally, Jacoby moves to character assassination. We learn that:

“Maher, for example, claims that aspirin is lethal, doubts that the Salk vaccine eradicated polio, and has praised the horse that threw Christopher Reeve.”

To give you an example of how unfair Jacoby is being here, for the claim that Maher reveled in Christopher Reeve’s tragedy, here’s the interview he’s relying on:

“Q: What is your one belief people least want to hear?

A: My favorite cause is animals. When Christopher Reeve had his accident, we did a show that was respectful and tasteful. I certainly in no way tried to suggest that I was glad it happened. But I took it as animal abuse, you know. Most people go, “Are you kidding? Horseback riding is horseback riding.” Well, you know, at one point, people said the same thing about slavery: “What do you mean, it’s slavery? Of course we own them.” If you try to make a horse jump over something that it doesn’t want to jump over, I think it really should throw you off its back. You wouldn’t want to go around with a monkey or something on your back all the time.”

You may not agree with this (and Maher certainly acknowledges it is not a popular way of thinking), but it’s not exactly the evil shit that Jacoby makes it out to be, is it? This, by the way, is why I felt compelled to call Jacoby a “fucking asshole.”

At any rate, what does this have to do with faith vs. atheism? This all seems to argue that people “of faith” are nicer (one of his claims is that they give more to charity, too…does giving to their church or favorite televangelist count as charity? Answer: you BET it does!). Let’s say that that is indeed the case (even though I strongly doubt it and take it as a personal insult – one more reason for the “fucking asshole” epithet). Does that mean there’s a god? OF COURSE NOT. In fact, beside the nonsensical E. Coli bit that he links to, THERE IS NOTHING IN THIS ARTICLE that challenges atheism at all. This is the Boston Globe, folks, not Highlights.

Here a believer may ask me, how do I KNOW there is no God? I don’t. And here is the greatest misunderstanding about atheists (well, second greatest, after the belief that we hate God and Jesus and humanity and love Satan and are evil). As an atheist, I do not claim to know for certain anything about the gods or the supernatural. My claim is only that I see no logical reason to suppose that God or anything else supernatural exists. Sure, they all could – I can’t disprove it. I can’t disprove the claim that little ponies frolic on the dark side of the Moon when we’re not looking. I can’t disprove the claim that humans have souls but animals do not. I can’t disprove the claim that people have ESP, or that aliens are living among us, or that Bigfoot exists. I can’t prove that Elvis Presley is dead. However, and here’s the important point, JUST BECAUSE I CANNOT DISPROVE THESE THINGS DOESN’T MEAN THEY ARE TRUE. The burden of proof should be on the people making the claims, not on the doubters. If you want me to believe in a virgin birth, show me some evidence. And make it convincing evidence, not some bullshit about E. Coli that’s completely wrong. Maybe it’s nice to believe in it. Maybe it even makes you a better, happier, healthier, better-looking human being to believe in it. But it doesn’t make it true. Jeff Jacoby apparently thinks it does.

And what exactly does this dim bulb mean by “traditional religion” anyway? It’s ok to believe in any supernatural stuff provided that other people have believed it for a very long time? Can they all be right, Jeff? Jeff Jacoby believes in Judaism. Does this not mean he rejects the validity of the virgin birth of Jesus? And if he rejects that (and, I would assume, the very divinity of Jesus and many other important tenets of rival religions), why does he think it’s a good thing to believe in it? Shouldn’t people believe in what is actually true? And if he believes that Judaism is true, wouldn’t it be better for everyone else to believe it, too? This is what I fail to grasp. Aren’t all the other “traditional religions” second best? I mean, of course they’re better than atheism, because we all know that’s the fucking worst, but aren’t they still behind the ONE TRUE FAITH? And what about the really CRAZY and DESTRUCTIVE old-time, traditional religious beliefs? What if you follow the Aztec religion? That’s pretty traditional, but certainly human sacrifice is wrong, no? And certainly Osama bin Laden’s brand of Islam is fucked up, no? Can’t we all agree on that? Or how about the Christians who fire-bomb abortion clinics? Or those dudes who cut people’s hands off? Or genital mutilation? These are all done in the name of “traditional religion.” Jeff should make a list for us so we know what constitutes the GOOD traditional religions so I know what to believe.

Here, btw, is Bertrand Russell’s essay “Is There A God?,” from 1952.

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