Belief or unbelief
Bears upon life, determines its whole course,
Begins at its beginning.
~from “Bishop Blougram’s Apology” by Robert Browning
I wasn’t going to comment on the Papal visit to the UK. Oh, the Pope doesn’t like atheism? Say it isn’t so. Naturally, I was appalled at comments by Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Kasper effectively comparing atheism to Nazism, among other slanders. Of course I was.
However, I found Richard Dawkins’ response speech to be equally as frustrating (albeit for very different reasons):
Why? After all, I am an atheist. And I agreed with much of what Dawkins was saying.
As ever, though, I dislike how Dawkins presents the side of atheism. Merging fact with snide comments and vicious attacks, he truly does earn his nickname of “Darwin’s Rottweiler.” Along with four other authors, Dawkins makes up the core group of hard-line religious critics who have inspired the term “New Atheism,” a movement that demands that atheists take a less accommodating stance toward religion and instead call them out, criticize, and attack their beliefs whenever possible.
Nearly a year ago, the Brits had an Intelligence Squared debate asking whether atheism had become the new fundamentalism. While the debate ended in a negative vote (atheism has not become the new fundamentalism), there was much to be said by either side.
Howeverl, I want to point out something this debate really highlights. And that’s the two attitudes of the participants. The entire proceeding starts off rather civilly with Bishop Richard Harris and the wonderfully soft-spoken A.C. Grayling. Polite, yet firm in their opinions, these men set the tone for what could be a wonderful debate.
They are followed by Charles Moore and Richard Dawkins, two hot-headed, petulant children at the podium. Lobbying personal attacks at one another and at the beliefs of the other side, they do little to help their cause.
These two gentlemen represent both the side of religion and that of atheism. And while I’m focusing on New Atheism in this post, know that these same opinions hold true for me in regards to the religious.
The attack dogs of New Atheism, headed by Dawkins, do little credit to their own arguments. If their goal is to highlight the falsities in religious doctrine and shine the light of science into the attic of Christianity, vicious verbal attacks are a piss-poor way to go about it. How willing would you be to honestly listen to someone venomously insulting you, your intelligence, and your beliefs? How willing would you be to consider their words when they use mocking comments to make you look foolish and ignorant?
In such situations, your natural reaction is to become defensive. Defensive individuals cannot listen to an argument in an open-minded and fair way. They are, instead, picking each comment apart, looking for personal attacks. They miss the entire point of the speaker.
Now tell me, galleons… how is this an effective way to spread the ideas of atheism? Because that’s what Dawkins and company are doing- they are, like the evangelists before them, trying to spread their ideas to the masses.
[As a related aside here, I find it interesting that educated, cultured individuals claim to appreciate and respect the uniqueness and individuality of others, yet everyone is terribly keen to turn the entirety of humanity over to one set of beliefs (or non-beliefs, as the case may be). We value individuality… to a point.]
New Atheism is viewed with disgust by many atheists, in much the same way that Christian fundamentalists are viewed with disgust by many Christians. While I’m not saying that New Atheism is fundamentalism (see the debate if you really want to hear that question dealt with), I think that they share some similarities. If nothing else, they are seen in similar lights by others who share their beliefs (yet reject their methodology).
I wanted to like Richard Dawkins. He was the public face of atheism. Without having read his book or seen him speak, I knew this fact. His name cropped up all over the place. So, about two years ago, I purchased The God Delusion. After all, it sounded like something I would enjoy (full of science and such).
I think I managed about forty pages of it before I stopped reading in abject horror. This was the man who so publicly represented atheism? These remarks, these words, were what were coming to represent me?
Dawkins argues that there is no book of atheism- no Bible, no Torah, no Qur’an. And yet, his book, along with the books of Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Victor Stenger, and Christopher Hitchens, are becoming the staples of atheist literature. They are, in essence, becoming our Bible.
I’m not sure I’m comfortable with this.
Of course, not everything Dawkins says is wrong or even offensive. He’s an extremely intelligent, well-educated man, and he brings up many a good point. He truly shines when discussing the scientific- he’s one of those rare scientists who have a near-poetic way with words, a talent that can bring the wonders of science to the populous. It’s the fact that he coats so much fantastic information and insight in ridicule and verbal aggression that bothers me.
“I might retort that such hostility as I or other atheists occasionally voice towards religion is limited to words. I am not going to bomb anybody, behead them, stone them, burn them at the stake, crucify them, or fly planes into their skyscrapers, just because of a theological disagreement.” (Dawkins)
While it is true that we don’t see the mass murders, genocides, and wars happening in the name of atheism, I have to point out that this is because atheism has been such a quiet, minority situation. Religion has been so heavily tied into the politics of countries that it naturally became embroiled in the wars of its people. When religion dictates political views, attacks/wars become religious in nature as opposed to political (as politics is a footnote compared to the body of text that is religion in these situations).
It wasn’t until comparatively recently that we started to see secular nations in any great number (though I will add that there were secular states in the Islamic world as early as the Middle Ages). And, interestingly enough, we see the ceasing of religious wars perpetrated by those nations…
Coincidence? I have a hard time believing that. I think the union of politics and religion was always a wicked one, one that has done more to damage the reputation of various world religions than anything else.
However, religious atrocities are often perpetrated, not by entire states, but by extremist sects. In so much as I hate the idea of holding an entire group responsible for the actions of the few, so too do I detest the citing of various atrocities committed by extremist sects as indicative of why religion, as a whole, should be condemned.
The problem of these extremist sects, though, brings me to a concern I have regarding New Atheism. Because these New Atheists are the extremists of the atheist collective. Extremism that could spark our first atrocities in the name of atheism.
It’s only a possibility. Some would argue it’s preposterous, seeing as more crime is committed by people who don’t pursue higher education and atheism is more prevalent among those with post-high school educations. However, intellectuals are often more charismatic, as well. Charisma that can turn unstable individuals (intellectual or not) to the side of atheism, unstable individuals who can do for atheism what extremists have already done for Islam and Christianity.
Beyond what you may brush off as “nonsensical” concerns regarding atheist extremism (and, to be fair, they are rather inflammatory and extremists statements to make… I don’t think anything like that would happen, and men like Dawkins certainly wouldn’t attempt to actively instigate such behavior, I just bring it up as a possibility) and the fact that I don’t think it’s helping to sway anyone to our side, why do I have such a problem with these New Atheists publicly and viciously attacking religion?
Mostly, it’s because I respect people with religious beliefs. I don’t agree with them and know their deities are constructs, but I still respect these people and their need to believe.
A few days ago, I was on my way home from work and listening to the Radiolab episode on stress. They were discussing some experiments performed on rats that showed the different ways we cope with stress.
Life is comprised of a series of small and large stressors. As Jad and company discussed in their podcast, some people can handle stress and others… can’t. The ones who can’t get sick when stressed. The ones who can, however, have a variety of ways of dealing with that stress. Coping mechanisms.
When you think about it, religion is nothing more than one of these coping mechanisms. Not too long ago, I mentioned that many of our beliefs arise out of us dealing with our own mortality. Religion is a coping mechanism to deal with the “unknown” of death (and, in the past, the “unknown” of how the world worked). Critics say that the religious are denying the truth… and that is correct. Denial is a type of coping mechanism, a method of avoiding an unwelcome/unpleasant truth.
Death is a stressful concept. In order to cope, some need the fantasy of a creator and an afterlife. A reward for their “good behavior.” A reason, a meaning to their lives. These things are not present in reality, so they resort to the fantasy of religion in order to cope with the stress of the unknown.
This is not wrong. To prevent getting sick from an inability to deal with stress, it is much healthier to have some form of outlet. Some way of dealing with it. If religion is what works for these people, so be it. Not every coping mechanism works for every person. Different methods work for different people. And while religion is obviously not a coping mechanism an atheist needs, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a requirement for others.
So yes, I respect the religious (though not necessarily their doctrine… condemnation of women, sex, and homosexuality are not things I can respect in any regard). I respect their right to believe in order to cope. Is it a delusion? Well, in that regard, Dawkins was correct. It is. But it’s necessary for some people to lead normal, healthy, stable lives. Some people need antidepressants. Some need religion. So it goes.
Some atheists (particularly New Atheists) slam the concept of the “God of gaps” (where religious belief fills in the “unknowns” in science). The ability of people to believe both in scientific teachings and in a creator. They say that nobody who is educated enough to understand how science explains our world and universe can possibly believe in God.
And yet… nearly 40% of scientists are religious (15% of those within the National Academy of Sciences). These men and women, exceptionally bright and steeped in the facts that outline how our universe operates, they still believe in some higher power. Why? Why do some hold on to religious belief while the majority of scientists do not?
Dawkins and his entourage don’t care about the why. They simply attack these people, calling them foolish. They want these scientists give up their “childish” beliefs. They don’t bother to attempt to understand these people, these deist scientists.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, on the other hand, has a much more Humanist approach to the whole matter:
Tyson exhibits respect for his fellow man, for the religious minded. He is civil and open-minded. He strives to understand them.
It’s only upon understanding why someone is religious that we could ever even hope to show them they are wrong (if such a thing can even be done). But, more importantly, by working to understand people who believe something different from yourself, you develop a greater tolerance for their differences.
Peace between the religious and atheists (or between religions in general) cannot be achieved through bitter reproaches and anger. It takes that understanding, that respect, that tolerance to build peace.
As Simon Barrow said in regards to the Pope’s words in the UK:
“The pontiff has misjudged his wider audience by pandering to exaggerated fears of antagonism to religion, rather than building bridges of understanding and cooperation between the peacemaking and justice-loving heart of Christianity and those of other or no faith committed to doing good in a plural society.”
So, why do I care? After all, what New Atheists are saying is correct. What does it really matter how they go about it (so long as it doesn’t involve physical violence)?
I guess, in the end, I expected better of atheists. That’s all. You can criticize my opinions (and that’s really all these are today- meandering, vaguely idealistic opinions) all you want, but I’m mostly just disappointed in us. I feel Dawkins is brilliant, and it saddens me that he feels he has to lower himself to the level of verbal aggression in order to get his point across (a method which I don’t think accomplishes its goal).
This is it- one of the final vestiges of the idealism I’ve lost as I’ve gotten older. I wanted to believe that atheists, those people who were educated and aware and so very present in reality that they didn’t require the archaic trappings of religion, could rise above the petty and slanderous methods religion had been using for years. I wanted us to be above that.
But I suppose that the blame does not rest solely on the shoulders of the New Atheists. Their need to speak out, to actively and forcefully push their… our… views is reactionary behavior. Too often, atheists are thwarted in their attempts to reason with the religious, simply because deists have little logical basis for their beliefs. Stonewalled in attempts at civility, they naturally reacted with more aggressive measures.
So, while I remain saddened by the perceived need for New Atheists to resort to measures that only help sow bitterness, I cannot, in good conscience, lay all the blame at their feet. The real problem is in the culture of ignorance fostered by religion. I think that most people (even the New Atheists) can accept belief in its purest form. While they don’t share it, they can tolerate it. What causes problems is the corrupt framework of religion, skewing that need to believe shared by so many into something dangerous, blind, and stupid.
To go back to the Papal visit here, I just want to bring up something of interest (sorry, Dawkins):
Dawkins criticized the Pope for comparing atheism to Nazism. The reason the Pope’s comments upset so many people was not just their inaccuracy (egregious though that may be), but because the Holocaust and Nazism are topics that evoke particular emotional responses. To compare something to Hitler brings about a very specific emotional reaction in people. It’s a cheap shot, but a powerful one.
And yet, despite Dawkins speaking so vehemently against the Pope’s words… I’d like to show you something. This is a clip from October of 2009:
That’s right- Dawkins compared a belief in creationism to Holocaust denial*. He was pressing the same buttons the Pope did, only he did it one year earlier. Dawkins was using the Holocaust to get those emotional reactions out of his listeners, to better drive his point home. And then he had the gall to say the Pope was out of line?
If you really think about it, both actions were pretty deplorable.
*These comments have nothing to do with how I feel about creationism trying to worm its way back into education (and, sadly, succeeding). Science classes are for scientific theories, those verifiable by experiment and data collection. If you want to teach your child creationism (or intelligent design or whatever moniker you decide to slap on it), do so on your own time. In Sunday school, in your own home, but not in the public education system.