Monday, November 13, 2006

The New Atheists

When I was young, Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian was still popular on college campuses and the Humanist movement was undergoing something of a revival from its earlier formation under the auspices of the Humanist Manifesto in the early 1930’s. Atheism and agnosticism were, at least at a sub-level of American socieity, serious alternatives to various doctrines of religion.

Today mega-churches compete with shopping malls for customers and the influence of the political arm of these churches is felt as the state is now used more and more to enforce their narrow view of acceptable human activities. No serious contender for public office in this country is allowed to freely hold views (or, at least, publicly admit them) that might question the existence of the Christian God or at least a politically acceptable theistic alternate such as Judaism.

However, all is not lost. There are new voices challenging the politically correct orthodoxy of Christianity as well other institutionalized religions. Gary Wolf interviews three contemporary writers on the subject of the challenge to religion: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.

Gary Wolf in Wired:
… Where do you stand on God?

It's a question you may prefer not to be asked. But I'm afraid I have no choice. …

This is the challenge posed by the New Atheists. We are called upon, we lax agnostics, we noncommittal nonbelievers, we vague deists who would be embarrassed to defend antique absurdities like the Virgin Birth or the notion that Mary rose into heaven without dying, or any other blatant myth; we are called out, we fence-sitters, and told to help exorcise this debilitating curse: the curse of faith.

The New Atheists will not let us off the hook simply because we are not doctrinaire believers. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it's evil. Now that the battle has been joined, there's no excuse for shirking.

Three writers have sounded this call to arms. They are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. A few months ago, I set out to talk with them. I wanted to find out what it would mean to enlist in the war against faith.

Dawkins looks forward to the day when the first US politician is honest about being an atheist. "Highly intelligent people are mostly atheists," he says. "Not a single member of either house of Congress admits to being an atheist. It just doesn't add up. Either they're stupid, or they're lying. And have they got a motive for lying? Of course they've got a motive! Everybody knows that an atheist can't get elected."

This autumn, Harris has a new book out, Letter to a Christian Nation. In it, he demonstrates the behavior he believes atheists should adopt when talking with Christians. "Nonbelievers like myself stand beside you," he writes, addressing his imaginary opponent, "dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living. But we stand dumbstruck by you as well – by your denial of tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service to your religious myths, and by your attachment to an imaginary God."

Dennett is an advocate of admitting that we simply don't have good reasons for some of the things we believe. Although we must guard our defaults, we still have to admit that they may be somewhat arbitrary. "How else do we protect ourselves?" he asks. "With absolutisms? This means telling lies, and when the lies are exposed, the crash is worse. It's not that science can discover when the body is ensouled. That's nonsense. We are not going to tolerate infanticide. But we're not going to put people in jail for onanism. Instead of protecting stability with a brittle set of myths, we can defend a deep resistance to mucking with the boundaries."

The New Atheists have castigated fundamentalism and branded even the mildest religious liberals as enablers of a vengeful mob. Everybody who does not join them is an ally of the Taliban. But, so far, their provocation has failed to take hold. Given all the religious trauma in the world, I take this as good news. Even those of us who sympathize intellectually have good reasons to wish that the New Atheists continue to seem absurd. If we reject their polemics, if we continue to have respectful conversations even about things we find ridiculous, this doesn't necessarily mean we've lost our convictions or our sanity. It simply reflects our deepest, democratic values. Or, you might say, our bedrock faith: the faith that no matter how confident we are in our beliefs, there's always a chance we could turn out to be wrong.
You may read the entire article here.

1 comment:

joloco said...

I respect your position yet wonder why you find it necessary to condemn the likes of Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett. Surely you do not believe that those who look unapprovingly at these three will tolerate your stance. I believe that your take on this situation is of personal value to your worldview. Yet don't fool yourself, you sir are anathama to the same religious folk spoken of by the three you find so absurd.