Atheism gets some face time in Canada

The cover of the latest issue of Maclean's magazine, which is the Canadian equivalent of Time or Newsweek, asks "Is God poison?" The secondary headline to the feature, which is online, says "a new movement blames God for every social problem from Darfur to child abuse." Well, I don't know if it does all that, but at least the magazine is finally paying attention to the rise of what, for lack of a better term, is being called "new atheism."

The piece starts off well enough, if rather belatedly, by reviewing the recent crop of books extolling the problems with religion (Dawkin's The God Delusion, Harris The End of Faith) and the soon to be published Chris Hitchens take, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything).

I, for one, am hardly to going take issue with a statement like "The atheist authors all agree a clash of civilizations is under way, but it's not between East and West, or Muslims and Christians, but between rationality and superstition," something that could easily be part of an Island of Doubt manifesto. But eventually the author, one Brian Bethune, shows his stripes, and they aren't pretty. Consider this odd section:

Dawkins, in particular, seems spiritually deaf to everything from the sense of wonder to the pull of family and community.) Except, perhaps, for Hitchens, who seems to be the only one who admits to having religious friends, the atheists' own dirty little secret -- their contempt for moderates -- is never far from the surface of their books.

How does he cram so many wrong statements into such a short piece of writing? First, if you'd like to know what Dawkins has to say about the sense of wonder that science can induce, then perhaps you should try reading his works, including The God Delusion. I recommend page 5 of Unweaving the Rainbow, but there's plenty of other examples. In fact, his work his practically littered with reverence and awe of the natural world.

Next, Hitchens is described as the only atheist out there with religious friends. Again, pay more attention. Dawkins, for one, in his documentary The Root of All Evil (essentially the film version of The God Delusion), makes much of his friendship with a leading figure in his local church. Daniel Dennett, who almost certainly should have been mentioned in Bethune's story thanks to his marvellous 2006 book, Breaking the Spell, has plenty of religious friends and colleagues, as does Michael Ruse, another atheist who has written widely on the subject.

And finally, whoever said contempt for moderates was a secre? Dawkins and Harris make no bones about it. It's all there in black and white in the books of the pages that Bethune was supposed to have read.

And then we get the inevitable dismissal of atheism as arrogance writ large:

...what they disdain as the arrogance of faith, its claim that everything we ever needed to know was revealed from on high 3,500 years ago (or 2,000 years ago, or 1,300 years ago), is matched by their own

Surely there must a novel criticism left out there unsaid? Maybe some atheists are arrogant. But for me, Bethune is mistaking the frustration of centuries of banging heads against walls for arrogance. It's a wonder the Dawkins et al are as patient and polite as they are, considering what they're up against: people who won't read before passing judgment.

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Why is the discussion so centered around downsides of religion anyway? If religion had no perceived downsides and was a mere harmless delusion, does this mean that we wouldn't be having this discussion?

I'm not a regular reader of Macleans, but from what I can tell the magazine has, in the past few years, descended from a fairly standard newsmagazine into an ugly, childish tabloid. Bethune's stroy seems to confirm that assessment.

The manner in which irritable theists consistently equivocate with regard to the word "arrogance" is one of more perplexing of the many screwy points they attempt to muster. The reasoning seems to beakin to "It's as arrogant to insist on a reliance on observation, reason, and evidence in furthering knowledge as it is to deem the Bible the only book anyone truly needs." Huh? This makes as much sense as "People bitching about the sociopathic behavior of murdering thieves, child-rapers and cat incinerators need to take a close look at their own shortcomings in the area of conscience."

I liked the quote about atheists who admit that they have Christian friends. Funny stuff. This atheist has many Christian friends, but that doesn't mean I don't sometimes pity them for their irrationality.

Combine "spiritually deaf" with "sense of wonder" in a blender and you get a goo that has been served ad nauseum in a religiously dominated prison. Since I am an antique geologist from the khaki trousers & laced boots generation I maintain a habitual politeness in the field and expect the same from project participants. On a few occasions I have been subjected to the slimy confidences of evangelism, for my own good of course. When etiquette is broken the Skeptigator emerges for a tender lunch.
I am delighted with the new tools of analysis in naturalistic observation and with the 'new Enlightenment' that is emerging.
Pick a good wine to go with the new menu!