Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Passionate Atheistic Blow Back (The New Atheists)

Books such as these are blowback, or unintended consequences of careless and overreaching religious teachings and structure. There is much in these books that I agree with but I want to comment on a few things that concern me about them.

Technically, Bertrand Russell is not a "New Atheist" but I do want to mention his famous book wherein he endeavors to list all the major mistakes made by Christianity over the last 2000 years, I merely want to point out that a similar list also could be made of all the mistakes made by governments over the last 2000 years, but notwithstanding all the mistakes that governments have made, some form of government has always been needed and will continue to be needed. Likewise, some form of religion will always be needed. Just as government is an evolutionary emergent, so is religion. Both serve necessary purposes in the evolution of the world.

Libertarians like to think of a world without governments but their views are extreme and do not convince most people that libertarianism would not lead to anarchy. Libertarians make the ideological mistake of wanting to minimize the size of governments when the goal rather should be to optimize the size of governments. Passionate atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins remind me of Libertarians in that these authors seem unconcerned about any resultant anarchy that no doubt would follow from a mass and rapid exodus of people from their traditional religious structures. So far Dawkins, Hitchins, and similar proselytizing atheists have not persuaded me that their brand of atheism would not also lead to some kind of anarchy (at least in the short run).

Dawkins wrote in his 1998 book, Unweaving the Rainbow:
Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where's the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let's now stop being so damned respectful!
This statement by Dawkins reminds me of the time I served as a juror. After the trial was over, the jurors assembled in the jury room and almost immediately one confident man volunteered to be the jury foreman and was elected by the others. We then took a preliminary vote of guilty or not guilty. There were two that voted not guilty--then commenced a long effort to persuade these two holdouts to change their vote. For a while the ten jurors were patient but soon some of the more dominant jurors became frustrated and let the tone of their voices become sarcastic and derisive. Of course the two holdouts reacted to this disrespect by not wanting to agree with their “enemies.” Next the amazing part: after a long and tiresome deliberation process, the hitherto less outspoken jurors began to take their turns at persuading the two holdouts. The gentle jurors succeeded. Case closed. For days afterwards I kept pondering in my mind the power of gentle persuasion and I vowed that if I ever served as a juror again I would not show my cards too soon but would wait for the bullies to talk themselves out first.

Sometimes Dawkins and Hitchens are bullies.

Hitchens wrote:
Religion is man-made. Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their prophets or redeemers or gurus actually said or did. (p. 9)
I say, however, so what if religion is man made? So are governments, disposable diapers and the scientific method. Even if science ultimately replaces religion, it is not prepared to do so yet. I prefer Voltaire's logic when he wrote "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." And Einstein said, "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

There is still an important role for religion to play in the world which I hope to explore more fully in other posts.

Hitchens also wrote:
If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world. (p. 220)" He is right about that one but I am not sure that it would be a better world.
All three of these authors are superbly talented individuals whose arguments should be studied even though their books are not balanced. I highly recommend Russell’s, “A History of Western Philosophy” instead. Dawkins is superb when he talks about evolution. Hitchens can make me wince and laugh out loud by his belligerent sarcasm (but so can Howard Stearn whose style I find to be despicable, albeit captivating). I hope that all the creationists, Islamists, and all kinds of fundamentalist zealots will read these authors but to most people, my children included, I recommend being careful with this kind of book that can leave you feeling angry, because when you are angry your judgment is impaired. I recommend reading Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, Peter Hitchens, or Krista Tippett, for starters. (Listen to Tippett in audio. Her style and tone set the standard for seekers with a religious background.)


Five days after I wrote this post, al Qaeda-affiliated gunmen killed 52 Christians and Police inside of a Baghdad church in an attempt to empty Iraq of Christians. This kind of religious extremism makes me angry too and helps me to understand the rudeness of the above mentioned authors. Yet it would be an imprudent indulgence to lash back without calculating all the consequences.

So I say, exterminate the murderous religious extremists but leave the rest of religion to be enlightened by education and diplomacy. And do not make the mistake of shooting back at everything religious or spiritual.

The following authors are among the prime movers of the New Atheism movement: Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Victor J. Stenger and Christopher Hitchens.

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