A few months ago, I wrote about my “issues” with the Dawkins/Dennett anti-religion campaign, which concluded:
Dawkins and Dennett simply cannot understand the impulse to cling to an antiquated belief system not grounded in fact. (They seem incapable of recognizing that religion, despite its myriad flaws, provides a type of moral succor in times of strife that science can’t.) To convince the masses of the errors of their ways, they’re using the only weapon at their disposal: logic. The irony, of course, is that faith is not grounded in logic. Reason is toothless in the face of belief.
This may sounds a little didactic (because it is). But my goal wasn’t to defend religion, or to deny atheists the luxury of expressing their righteous indignation. My goal was to carve out a space for those of us in the middle: Non-believers who understand that faith can play a healthy role in the lives of others. Atheists who oppose evangelizing on principle, whether it’s practiced by fundamental Christians or the Anti-God Squad. People more interested in building bridges of understanding then in fortifying their own position.
Being a science writer, with a blog hosted by a science magazine, I steadied myself for an onslaught of indignation. Surprisingly, the vast majority of responses came from like-minded folks who felt that the New Atheists public education campaign was pointless and divisive. But one reader argued that, while Dawkins and Dennett’s approach was unlikely to “win over the faithful,” it was useful, because it served to counter-balance evangelical Christianity and other extremist beliefs. He wrote:
I think it will inject energy into many introverted and inactive naturalists. I see Dawkins using his one-sided stance to create a dyad that just hasn’t existed before; which allows all of us to pick a more public position between Faith and Empiricism that works well for us. Before this “New Atheists Movement”, the dyad was well defined on the Faith side, and loosely defined on the Empiricism side.
It’s an interesting argument, and I can understand his position. Religion-fueled violence is wreaking havoc across the globe. Over the past couple of decades, the Christian Right in America has successfully hijacked the podium and woven their perspective into public’s imagination by exploiting the media and exercising their political muscle. Hell, they’ve even managed to get a dyed-in-the-wool believer into the oval office.
These are undoubtedly scary times for liberal secularists. And the commenter is right in saying that it’s time for us to step up and make ourselves heard. In no way am I advocating rolling over in the face of attacks on the separation between church and state, abortion rights, gay marriage, and sex education. These rights must be vigorously defended. But that’s not the primary goal of the New Atheists.
Dawkins and those in his camp aren’t interested in brokering a compromise with the other side to ensure that our basic rights are safe, and people on either side have the freedom to conduct themselves as they see fit. That wouldn’t signify a victory in their minds. They want to catalyze a total ideological conversion. If everyone gave up god, we wouldn’t have these problems to begin with, they argue. While this is a logically defensible position, it is completely unrealistic–a position destined not just to fail, but to breed contempt on both sides in the process.
This is a prime example of the fruitlessness of binary thinking. ‘Hell fire and brimstone fundamentalism’ versus ‘caustic atheism’ gives us a balanced “dyad,” but it gets us no closer to our goal: Harmony. (It also have the unfortunate side effect of spawning pseudo news events like this ABC Face Off, where Kirk Cameron (!) takes on the Rational Response Squad.) These types of arguments are very elegant on paper, but when put into practice they do little more than feed the flames.
In a perfect world, liberal secularists could convince religious extremists to renounce god and embrace rationalism and all would be well. But surely the New Atheists know we don’t live in a perfect world?
“There is a running thread in American history of idealism that can express itself powerfully and appropriately, as it did after World War II with the creation of the United Nations and the Marshall Plan, when we recognized that our security and prosperity depend on the security and prosperity of others. But the same idealism can express itself in a sense that we can remake the world any way we want by flipping a switch, because . . . . we’re morally superior. And when our idealism spills into that kind of naivete and an unwillingness to acknowledge history and the weight of other cultures, then we get ourselves into trouble,” Barrack Obama was quoted as saying in a recent New Yorker profile.
He was talking about politics, but I think the New Atheists (in spite of being headed up by a Brit) are falling prey to the same destructive strain of naivete, and Christopher Hitchens recent entrée into the debate only promises to further enflame the situation.