Reza Aslan, someone who I find interesting and have some respect for, has published an article about atheists as evangelists for their cause. He makes specific mention of the atheist bus advertising campaigns going on around the world. I agree; that is basically atheists evangelizing. It’s us pushing a message that, as one of the signs says, you can be good without God. It’s important to note that these aren’t designed to swing over the religious. They are instead designed to appeal to those who already doubt their faith and perhaps need a bit of a nudge.
But then I pretty much part company with him for the rest of the article.
The parallels with religious fundamentalism are obvious and startling: the conviction that they are in sole possession of truth (scientific or otherwise), the troubling lack of tolerance for the views of their critics (Dawkins has compared creationists to Holocaust deniers), the insistence on a literalist reading of scripture (more literalist, in fact, than one finds among most religious fundamentalists), the simplistic reductionism of the religious phenomenon, and, perhaps most bizarrely, their overwhelming sense of siege: the belief that they have been oppressed and marginalized by Western societies and are just not going to take it anymore.
“Scientific or otherwise?” Surely isn’t everything that’s quantifiable as “truth” based in science? As for the second point, Holocaust deniers (and I’ve been dealing with one recently on, of all places, Amazon), are people who continue to believe the Holocaust never happened despite all the information to the contrary. Creationists are people who refuse to believe in the scientific explanation for the existence of life, the universe and everything, despite all the information to the contrary. Now perhaps he could have made a better comparison with, say, flat-Earth people, but the comparison is valid.
As to the literal reading of scripture, by taking a literal view of scripture we highlight its faults. We say that you cannot claim God is loving, caring, kind and forgiving when the Bible, Old and New Testaments, show the opposite. By approaching it from a literal angle, we use the words of believers against them. I don’t see that highlighting the faults in what someone claims to believe is a bad thing.
And, yes, atheists are oppressed and stigmatized by Western society. In this country, if I remember correctly, we have one (1) member of the House of Representatives who is openly atheist. That’s out of, what, 435? Even he’s from pretty much the most liberal district in the country, and I’m willing to bet that there’s people even there who blanch at the idea of voting for an atheist. That’s not even mentioning the fact that we have to put up with crap like “In God We Trust” on our money, “One nation under God” in the Pledge, and constant fights with the religious zealots who want to bring creationism into the classroom.
Here’s something to consider. This past weekend Rick Perry, the Republican governor of Texas who once spouted off nonsense about how Texas should leave the Union (and isn’t that just the sort of person we need as President? Someone who doesn’t want his state to be part of this country?), held a big religious rally in Texas. It was technically non-denominational, but come on. This is Texas. It was a Christian event through and through. I could see any number of other political figures being willing to attend such things even, sadly, our President, but tell me: how many politicians can you name who would attend an atheist rally and are still planning to run for office?
The principle error of the new atheists lies in their inability to understand religion outside of its simplistic, exoteric, and absolutist connotations. Indeed, the most prominent characteristic of the new atheism–and what most differentiates it from traditional atheism–is its utter lack of literacy in the subject (religion) it is so desperate to refute. After all, religion is as much a discipline to be studied as it is an expression of faith. (I do not write books about, say, biology because I am not a biologist.) Religion, however it is defined, is occupied with transcendence–by which I mean that which lies beyond the manifest world and towards which consciousness is oriented–and transcendence necessarily encompasses certain theological connotations with which one ought to be familiar to properly critique belief in a god…[this continues in this vein for quite a bit]
From what I can tell here, Aslan is basically saying you can’t understand religion unless you’re a religious person. Bullshit. Besides, most atheists were raised in various different religions and have since moved past them. I was raised Methodist, for example. I attended a Methodist summer camp. I was in our church’s youth group. I know about religion at least in part because I was raised with one. Since then I’ve spent time learning and studying about it. I’d never seek to write a book on biology because, as with Aslan, I am not a biologist. But I have studied religion and I feel qualified to write about it. I can’t yet write books about it, because I don’t know as much about it as Dawkins, Hitchens and some of the others, but they have spent their lives studying religion and so, yes, they are qualified to write about the subject.
Also this is like saying that you can’t write about anything you personally haven’t experienced. This means you can’t write women’s issues unless you’re a woman, can’t write about gay issues unless you’re a gay and can’t write about ancient history unless you’re John McCain. Bollocks to that.
The new atheists will say that religion is not just wrong but evil, as if religion has a monopoly on radicalism and violence; if one is to blame religion for acts of violence carried out in religion’s name then one must also blame nationalism for fascism, socialism for Nazism, communism for Stalinism, even science for eugenics.
Religion is evil to the extent that it presents a view of reality that almost certainly is not true. That’s a real problem. It’s also used as an excuse to kill people all over the planet, both historically and even now. I can’t think of one time when society thought it was a good idea to kill off lots of people in the name of atheism.
As far as eugenics go, yes, what people thought was science, but was about as scientific as the notion that vaccines cause autism, was responsible. So in the negatives for science we can pencil in “eugenics”. In the negatives for religion we can pencil in (takes a deep breath), “The Holocaust, the Crusades, the Inquisitions, 9/11, 7/7, the oppression of the Palestinians, the on-going conflict between India and Pakistan, the problems of Ireland and Sri Lanka, the recent split of Sudan between north and south, the Balkan genocides in the 1990s, the Rwandan genocide, the African slave trade, the Defenestration of Prague, the original split between India and Pakistan, the whole notion of monarchy, the concept of ‘manifest destiny’, the missionaries who destroyed native cultures around the world, oppression of women and gays, anti-abortion terrorism, many of Japan’s war crimes during WWII, and war upon war upon war.”
So, you pick a winner there.
Oh, and just add more to the religion column: “The Lord’s Resistance Army, the various Islamic dictatorships who justify their dictatorships by invoking religion, the Catholic Church’s stand on birth control, the fact that there are still state religions in various nations, and the fact that blasphemy laws still exist in various nations thus stiffing free speech.”
There you go. Oh, you want more? This time more historical rather than modern? Right-o. “Wahabism, the wars between the Catholic Church and the C of E, the slaughter of non-Christians in Jerusalem and Constantinople, as well as the slaughter of Christians in those cities, both done in the name of God, the human sacrifices of the Aztecs, the Carthagians, and the Jews, the early wars to spread Islam, the various religiously-based social codes that held the lower-classes to be low because ‘God’ wanted them to be that way, the entire caste system of India, the mere fact that something like the Papal states existed, the fact that the Byzantine Emperor was supposed to help spread the faith, the fact that to this day the monarch of the UK is also ‘defender of the faith’ and head of the Church of England, Roman legal codes that required worship of the Emperor, and all the various and sundry ways in which religion says, ‘my imaginary friend is better than your imaginary friend and that makes me better than you.’”
Tired of this yet? Not me. “Anders Breivik, David Koresh, Jim Jones, Warren Jeffs, the Southerners in the old Confederacy who claimed God was in favor of slavery (it is supported by the Bible), and made sure to mention God in their various founding documents, conversion of Mormonism after death, stoning people to death for adultery, stoning a rape victim to death for adultery because she was raped by a married man, turning boys into sex toys in Afghanistan because men aren’t allowed to associate with women in healthy ways, stigmatizing sex in general and, last but not least, lying to people about the fundamental nature of reality.”
Phew. I need a break! You know what the really sad part was? All of those were off the top of my head. Religion is so insane and has done so much evil, that I was able to pop off all those examples without having to look up anything. If I had bothered to look up religious horror through the centuries, I’d probably fill another several screens.
Anyhow, I think I made my point. Science: One error with people following the “bad science” of eugenics. Religion: all that other crap.
What if one viewed the recurring patterns of religious phenomena that so many diverse cultures and civilizations–separated by immeasurable time and distance–seem to have shared as evidence of an active, engaging, transcendent presence (what Muslims call the Universal Spirit, Hindus call prana, Taoists call chi’i, Jews call ruah, and Christians call the Holy Spirit) that underlies creation, that, in fact, impels creation? Is such a possibility any more hypothetical than say, superstring theory or the notion of the multiverse?
Yes, those are very much more hypothetical because by using the scientific method we can’t “prove” any of them. Superstring theory and the notion of the multiverse actually have some evidence behind them. Things like chi’i do not.
The new atheists claim that people of faith are not just misguided but stupid–the stock response of any absolutist.
I don’t claim that people who believe are stupid. Quite the contrary, people like St Augustine, C S Lewis, Andrew Sullivan and, yes, Reza Aslan, were or are clearly very intelligent. They had to be in order to do the mental gymnastics needed to allow their minds enough to believe in such a fundamentally immoral endeavor as religion.