The latest issue of Free Inquiry magazine turned up in the mail this week. Lots of interesting material, as always. One article that caught my eye was “Building on a Religious Background,” by C. L. Hanson. Hanson grew up as a Mormon, but is now an atheist. She currently lives in Switzerland and has a blog.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that a single claim can seem either obviously crazy or perfectly reasonable, depending on how you have been exposed to it. Consider the Mormon belief that God was once a human and that humans can become gods. As a teenager, it was an epiphany for me to encounter Christians who scorned and ridiculed this belief — not because they considered it a deadly heresy but because they regarded it as obviously absurd. Meanwhile, these same Christians believed in an omnipotent three-in-one god with no beginning who loves his human children and promises them an eternity of unchanging subservience (best-case scenario) or an eternity of torture. I’d been exposed (at least tangentially) to mainstream Christian beliefs my whole life, so their theology didn’t really shock me. But I was shocked by their crazy belief that Mormon theology was somehow objectively more crazy than their own theology.
Interesting stuff. Later on we come to this:
I want to make it clear that although I’m interested in engaging thoughtful believers in constructive, civil dialogue, I’m not denouncing other approaches. No matter how nice and well-meaning I may be, “apostates” are viewed wit suspicion in Mormonism as in many other religions. That’s why I don’t want to disparage the outspoken “new atheists” who are highly critical of religion. They’re the ones who open up the midle ground where “nice,” tactful atheism can occur — by moving the poles of the debate. You are misunderstanding the dynamics of the debate if you think that angry atheists harm the position of the bridge-building atheists. In fact it’s quite the opposite. The only reason religious people see you as nice atheist — as opposed to seeing you as a servant of Satan who deserves no place in the discussion — is because there’s someone else out there who’s less “nice” providing contrast. If any atheists advocate crime or violence or taking away religious people’s civil rights, then I’ll denounce them for it. But if they’re offending people by challenging the wrongheaded notion that religion has a monopoly on morals and ethics, I’ll thank them for forcing those points onto the table of discussion.
This sits well with what I have argued in several previous posts. We need both warriors and diplomats, as the saying goes. The endless hand-wringing about how the New Atheists are scaring away the moderates is unwarranted.
Hanson’s essay does not seem to be available online. So go make a trip to your local Barnes and Noble and pick up a copy. Better yet, subscribe to the magazine!