Battling God

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.

More like this

Lots of good thinking here. What I want to know now is: Why do the "New Atheists" care so much? Evanglism -- Christian or atheist -- hardly seems like a rational endeavor, nor a very smart one. Attempting to persuade people to give up their most cherished beliefs is hardly an efficient way to pursue change.

By Jeff Sharlet (not verified) on 12 May 2007 #permalink

"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."

What if the goal is not Harmony but rather Truth? These are scientists we are talking about, after all. And isn't the definition of a good scientist a person who elevates the search for truth higher than harmony or ego? How should a scientist point out that the major world religions are incorrect on a variety of factually verifiable issues in a manner that promotes harmony rather than division?

By Paul Prescod (not verified) on 12 May 2007 #permalink

Read abou the -- I'm all for Dawkins and Hitchen's tilting at the god windmill in the public discourse. We need visible atheist extremists around if only to keep room for dialog in the middle.

Having read only their popular scientific writings, I cannot speak specifically to the anti-theistic works of Dawkins or Dennett, but I have read and followed the contributions of Sam Harris, and I feel that in so much as your criticisms are meant to apply to the whole of the so-called school of "New Atheists", the brush is too broad.

At least in Harris's books, lectures, and debates, I haven't encountered anything that I would characterize as willfully obtuse or generally ignorant. He seems to have done a very respectable job of acknowledging the benefits some people have reaped from religion, as well as identifying particular religious practices as potentially offering legitimate gains in the realm of human well-being. However, what he has done is placed these positive aspects in the same context as the negative effects that ideological faith has wrought.

Also, I disagree with your assertion that the only tool/weapon at the atheists disposal is logic. While it is certainly fair to say that most of these prominent figures are apt logicians, and can be expected to fully engage a philosophical debate on the matter, most of the popular writings and appearances I have seen have depended far more on accurately presenting historical and contemporary events. In which case, the immediate emotional reactions to accounts of the crusades, the inquisition, and islamic jihad could generally be expected to have a more profound effect on the audience than the subsequent logical arguments that invoke these episodes as evidence against certain theistic positions.

If this is evangelization, what sort of discussion of religion could fairly be excused from that charge?

By atlas1882 (not verified) on 12 May 2007 #permalink

The paragraph where you mention,

"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"

Is this a new development in human existence? I get the impression that people have the idea that this is new in American politics, and in government in generally. From my meager history education, this seems more of a common practice. Played out by various religious groups and sects at different times.

Its good to see a calmer voice on the topic though. I skip over many of the down-with-religion posts here. They were exciting at first, but now they sound too much like posts on the flip side of this confrontation.

By joltvolta (not verified) on 12 May 2007 #permalink

I think you're painting the Dawkins/Dennett position as a little more utopian than it actually is. I have certainly not heard them say that if religion completely went away, all would be sweetness and light. They argue that rational problem-solving would have a better chance without supernaturalist thinking, so a reduction of that type of thinking should have a real net benefit. You say that their attitude doesn't get us closer to our goal: Harmony. I'm not sure that Harmony is necessarily the goal.

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.

You might have a point there if atheists were not already viewed with contempt by a shockingly large number of the religious. I'm sure you've seen the polls on how many people would not vote for a well-qualified atheist candidate. I could also point you to studies on discrimination against atheists in child custody cases (you can find this sort of thing on Ed Brayton's blog) and slanders against atheists and atheism on the ground that they allegedly have no moral basis and no meaning in life are a daily occurence. Get out of NYC and tour a few red states.

By Mustafa Mond, FCD (not verified) on 12 May 2007 #permalink

You're really overestimating the role of the Christian Right political machine if you think they are largely responsible for electing Bush. Half the voters elected him.

Also, I am no fan of Bush and did not vote for him, but what's with the dig at "dyed-in-the-wool believer"? When was the last time we had a non-believer as president? And anyone likely to be elected in 2008 is a theist. Certainly all the leading candidates are.

Atheists who oppose evangelizing on principle, whether it's practiced by fundamental Christians or the Anti-God Squad.

The only definition of "evangelical" in my dictionary that could apply to an atheist is "marked by fervor or zeal". Sounds like enthusiasm to me, why would anyone oppose that in principle?

Speaking as a strict Dawkinsmyerserist, I oppose the more common definitions of "evangelizing", not because they want to convert me to their views. In subtle ways, we all do that all the time, and in some ways it merely marks intellectual integrity. I oppose traditional evangelizing because the certainty of their position often requires ignoring the facts or torturing logic, and they are not shy about attempting to force these ill-derived views on me through the laws. This can hardly be compared with a straight face to a scientist or philosopher pointing out that religious views have no justification in those areas, and ought to be treated as such.

They want to catalyze a total ideological conversion.

Are you sure about that? I agree with your argument against that ever happening. However, I don't think it is unreasonable to expect significant movement as a society to tolerance for religous views only similar to the tolerance we have a for a friend in a tight spot who rubs his rabbit's foot, or who tries to find guidance for life in his horoscope. It is the free ride given to religious idiocy that would never be granted to other idiocy of similar caliber to which I object. Let religion be treated as the quaint psychological folk remedy it is, rather than some sort of alternative path to knowledge, and I predict Dawkins, Dennet, Harris, Myers amd I will become a lot less concerned with what religious people think.

I also challenge anyone chanting the Dawkins-atheists-do-more-harm-than-good mantra to produce evidence of it. My money says they are doing far more good than harm. There is the Overton Window. Also, the impact they will have on young atheists who are surrounded by belivers and consequentally doubting their views and themselves will be far more dramatic than the effect they will have on most Christians. As has been been solidly documented, many attitudes towards atheists rise to a level that would be called "bigotry" were it aimed at any race or gender. What could be worse than that?

And as for the educated middle, I'd say the "vitriolic" Dawkins et al will have little effect on them at all. Such people base their views on their personal evaluation of the evidence. Dawkins' personality isn't going to change their views.

The difficulty with framing arguments regarding faith and reason is that one must resort to generalizations in order to make a point. But at what point do those generalizations become so broad as to become meaningless?

The author seems to believe that he occupies some sort of middle ground, but even that is entirely dependent on his context and in my view not entirely accurate.
Additionally, to say that, "religion fueled violence has wreaked havoc across the globe" is true in a certain respect but can you honestly equate the bombings and other acts of inhumanity in someplace like Iraq or Afghanistan with the "religious right"?

There is a vast continuum of viewpoints on faith and reason. Implying that they are diametrically opposed seems a little too simple. Now, if you want to discuss the rigid orthodoxy enforced by the science establishment, that would be pretty interesting.

This whole "religion is the province of the weak-minded and only simpletons could believe any of it" thing has pretty much been beaten to death. There are at least a few scientists out there who don't claim to have all the answers, yet seem able to have some religious faith without putting their brains on the shelf. Commentary on CNN