THE REGRESSIVE LEFT FALLACY

Here we are with another example of skeptics making thinking errors that they’d pick up on if someone else did it. However this is a bit more than just a failure of logic – it’s also a distortion of the original term. While words can and do change meaning, it doesn’t mean that we can appropriate a phrase and twist it to mean whatever we feel like. We get all pissy when “deniers” are referred to as “skeptics”, so let’s not be hypocrites as well, eh?

The “regressive left” was coined by Maajid Nawaz in his 2012 memoir “Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening“, describing ‘”well-meaning liberals and ideologically driven leftists” in the United Kingdom who naïvely and ‘ignorantly pandered to” Islamists and helped Islamist ideology to gain acceptance.’  It is related to another of his phrases “the racism of low expectations“, which refers to the application of lower moral standards to people within minorities, based on the notion that they are unable to take criticism or adopt universal standards of morality, due to their being backward or uncivilised.

However, this phrase is really doing the rounds on the internet at the moment, applied to anyone who is prepared to step outside of their comfort zone and find common ground with those who are different.  A significant part of the problem is hostility to religious folk, something written about here, by Hayley Is A Ghost.  And the atheist community’s favourite example of such “loony left” behaviour is the Goldsmith’s LGBT Society’s support of the University’s Islamic Society.

Here’s a summary of what happened:

The SU’s Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society invited Maryam Namazie to give a presentation.  Some members of the Islamic Society were unhappy about this and attended the talk with the intention of interrupting her and preventing her from speaking.  With SUs being what they are, and student bodies being willing to support the oppressed, reports of what happened were misrepresented as the event being discriminatory to Muslims, and many people were outraged about it (which would have been a fair response if that was what actually happened).  Other student societies who campaign for social justice stood in solidarity with the Islamic Society, because they saw an alignment of principles.  And this is where it started to go really, really wrong.

Now, the LGBT & Feminist Societies aren’t populated by idiots.  These are educated, if idealistic, young adults standing up for human rights in spite of the knowledge that Islam isn’t totally OK with women and The Gays.  It was the problem of perceived oppression that was the issue.  It’s something that many of us would do if we believed that people were being unjustly treated, even if we don’t personally share all the values of the group we seek to assist.

In keeping with their behaviour at Namazie’s talk, the Islamic Society then behaved in a not-entirely-honourable fashion:

Tweet by Goldsmiths Islamic Society's then-president
Oh dear.

Tweets by Goldsmiths Islamic Society's then-president
#cringe

It was rather amusing to see this clash of cultures played out in the Twittersphere, but I never thought of it as anything more than an awkward misjudgement of the character of others.  The LGBT and Feminist Societies acted in good faith, and perhaps naively, expected others to do so as well.  Anyone with half a brain knows that #notallmuslims are like this, and it should have just ended as an unfortunate incident that hopefully teaches us to be more aware of others’ motivations.  But no!  Never ones to miss an anti-theist bandwagon, it really captured the imagination of the skeptical movement, and not to be discriminatory in their nature, they then aimed their mockery at SUs as well as Islam – in particular any of the left-leaning societies (this is a weird thing, most skeptics I know are left-of-centre, yet right-wing ideas are very popular if they push the right buttons.  Maybe we’re not sceptical enough).

One thing I heard was that they were like “turkeys voting for Christmas”, and that Skeptical Trump Card, The Regressive Left (booooooooooooooooooooo!).  Well, at the time, I felt quite off about it, but it wasn’t clear enough in my mind to articulate my opposition to it.  But the popularity of this idea grew, and it got more tiresome with every minute.  And so, here’s some commentary from the recent #womensmarch:

I wonder how much this person cares about women’s rights on days they can’t point out a contradiction?

 

It featured heavily on my timeline, and, well, I’m not one to let these things slide:

The Regressive Left strikes again!
Of course I had to weigh in. Friends don’t let friends make dumbass mistakes like this.
This person, commenting elsewhere, summed up how I feel about the whole debacle:

I decided to educate myself on the identity of woman in the picture, with the US flag headscarf. Her name is Munira Ahmed, and she intended the image to demonstrate that she, as a Muslim, is as American as anyone else.  And it’s an important point: Muslims are as diverse as just about any population you can think of.  The caricature of Muslims perpetuated by the New Atheist Movement is horribly simplistic and creates division.  We can’t say with any integrity that we will not support those women who look different from us, or those who are oppressed by our country’s actions.  And what about Muslim women who do feel oppressed by the headscarf?  Do we support them, but only as long as they take it off when in our presence?  Of course it is possible to hold both beliefs: that Muslims are human beings who we should care about, and that the headscarf can be a tool of female oppression.  That doesn’t seem so regressive to me.

THE GOD OF THE GAPS FALLACY FALLACY

“The God Of The Gaps” is something I hear mentioned a lot in skeptical circles. The concept is that because it has taken humans many thousands of years to develop the scientific knowledge we now collectively hold, that religion was used as a placeholder while we caught up with the facts. But I can see numerous problems with this idea – which, as I discovered while researching this article, never originally meant what skeptics take it to mean nowadays. It was actually a term used by Christian theologians to caution against the type of argument in which believers would say “well, science can’t explain this, therefore God”.  And that’s actually a pretty smart argument – if you’re a person of power within the Christian religion (or any religion), things are going to get awkward when your evidence for God’s existence is progressively overturned by advances in science.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_of_the_gaps

However, in popular modern usage, it means something rather different; a version of the argument-from-ignorance fallacy, that:

  • There is a gap in understanding of some aspect of the natural world.
  • Therefore the cause must be supernatural.

But this is a huge simplification, nay, thinking error, in terms of what’s actually happening in the minds of believers.

Categorising the argument this way is useful for understanding the history and philosophy of religion and science, as we can see the pattern of questioning and rejecting religion during the enlightenment years of scientific inquiry & discovery.  This is an important part of history that we must understand & record, but we mustn’t make the error of thinking it was a well-executed plan. We can look back and observe the changes, and learn from how the knowledge spread. But to conflate the evolution of human learning 200 years ago with the reasons that people choose faith over reason today, doesn’t make any sense.  It is effectively a post hoc, ergo propter hoc argument on our part.

1. While there are some unknowns about many areas of science, we know enough about the scientific origins of just about everything now to only have gaps that would accommodate a vanishingly tiny god. There are many religious sects that keep their adherents ignorant, precisely because of the risk of them abandoning their faith if they were to hear of alternative explanations. There are no more significant gaps.

2. A common mistake skeptics make is to assume that other, ordinary, people make choices based on logic and reason. Trying to “debunk” faith with science is like arguing with the archetypal chess-playing pigeon. It is completely pointless. Both sides leave the discussion thinking that they’ve “won”, having achieved nothing. Faith in anything is just that: faith. And faith occurs independent of any knowledge to the contrary. It is powerful, illogical, and rooted in emotional needs. The devout are able to hold their strong beliefs in a world of information because of cognitive dissonance.  The gaps may get smaller, but the faith does not contract in turn.

3. Not only is it a mistake to think that one can argue on a rational basis with a fundamentalist, but it is to fall into a trap from which one cannot escape. To think that the deeply religious are less intelligent than the rest of us is naive and dangerous. Our religious debating opponent is not stupid – they are well-practised in arguing against attacks on their beliefs, and one useful tactic is to play it coy, to let us believe we have the upper hand, and then pull the rug from under our feet. Arguing against belief with science will never be successful. If someone is to leave their faith, they must arrive at that conclusion by themselves.

To summarise, The God Of The Gaps Fallacy Fallacy is one argument we really need to drop. We’ve been arguing this point for decades and have gained no ground. If anything, it’s made the faithful even more firm in their convictions. And it reinforces the stereotype of the hard-hearted, uncaring, dogmatic atheist. We need to stop picking fights that we’ll never win. It’s not a betrayal of principles; we spend much of our time firming them up and confirming our convictions anyway! If the faithful can hold such stock in their stories in the event of conflicting evidence, why can’t we trust in what we know to be fact?