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The new atheism

Dave Budge has a link to an interesting Wired article about the three leading lights of current atheist advocacy (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett) and their outspoken evangelism. It’s certainly worth reading.

The author winds up stopping short of endorsing the sort of evangelism of that trio. I tend to stop short as well, but for a different reason, which I’ll get to in a second, but I think he does it for a bad reason (partially).

Where does this leave us, we who have been called upon to join this uncomprising war against faith? What shall we do, we potential enlistees? Myself, I’ve decided to refuse the call. The irony of the New Atheism — this prophetic attack on prophecy, this extremism in opposition to extremism — is too much for me.

The New Atheists have castigated fundamentalism and branded even the mildest religious liberals as enablers of a vengeful mob. Everybody who does not join them is an ally of the Taliban. But, so far, their provocation has failed to take hold. Given all the religious trauma in the world, I take this as good news. Even those of us who sympathize intellectually have good reasons to wish that the New Atheists continue to seem absurd. If we reject their polemics, if we continue to have respectful conversations even about things we find ridiculous, this doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve lost our convictions or our sanity. It simply reflects our deepest, democratic values. Or, you might say, our bedrock faith: the faith that no matter how confident we are in our beliefs, there’s always a chance we could turn out to be wrong.

The first paragraph is kind of silly – it’s the kind of thing fundamentalists like to do: paint the unbelievers as just as fanactical and self-assured as they are. Here, it’s just a word game: he decides to call warnings of negative consequences “prophecy.” Extremism is, of course, a slippery charge. I prefer we make arguments and decide from that.

The second paragraph is better, but it still seems wrong. Tolerance is a noble feeling, but it’s never been absolute. We don’t tolerate anti-semites, racists, communists, etc. Jews really could control the world, but it’s a vanishingly small possibility, as Dawkins would say. Just to be clear, by tolerance I mean respect in polite society. Everyone, whatever their views, must be allowed to express themselves. The idea of intolerance of religion that Harris and the others propose is simply conversational intolerance: we don’t take people seriously who say certain things about race, for example. As Harris has pointed out ad nauseum, if someone is arguing against abortion and says he is doing so because it offends Zeus, we stop taking that person seriously. That’s really the intolerance they’re arguing for. The question is whether religion of any kind is on the same level of absurdity as anti-semitism and racism. Wolf doesn’t really say, which I think leaves his conclusion unconvincing.

Then again, I come to the say conclusion, really. The first point of disagreement between me and Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett is that I don’t see religion as as big of a problem as they do. I think it has a negative influence overall, but I don’t think it’s going to result in our destruction. Fundamentalism might, but we don’t need to completely reject religion to combat that. I don’t buy their claims about moderates enabling fundamentalism. The most effective critics of fundamentalism are often liberal believers. I’m not to that point in Dawkins’s book, so maybe I’ll be convinced later. I similarly disagree with Dawkins’s belief that the larger conflict is supernaturalism vs. naturalism. Or rather, I don’t believe that’s all that important. To me, the most important thing is for people to be able to live their lives in whatever manner they wish, as long as they don’t hurt others. Fundamentalism and other negative consequences of certain religious beliefs (e.g. anti-birth control) hinder that goal. Liberal religion, not so much. People like Dawkins and Harris are blinded by their intense dislike of religion and adopt untenable positions (Harris on the roots of suicide terrorism, Dawkins on the secularism of the founding fathers).

I still believe religious belief is dangerous. Believing things without evidence or reason and accepting that you are doing so is a dangerous mindset. Regarding religion, however, it’s not that dangerous. People are good at compartmentalization. Some atheist activism is good, but we don’t need the hysteria advocated by the so-called “new atheism.” There are simply more important things to do.

Categories: Religion
  1. S4R
    October 24, 2006 at 9:32 pm

    “I don’t buy their claims about moderates enabling fundamentalism.”

    They most certainly do enable it. Cause might be a more complicated matter, but a fundamentalist –if they’re told at all to remedy their extremism– is simply told to believe in a different way. That’s like telling an alcoholic to drink beer instead of hard liquor.

  2. October 25, 2006 at 9:17 pm

    I look at it as taking a smaller step. It seems to me that religion is powerful because of intense emotional belief, not really because of any of the sort of political views that come out of some kinds of religion. I think it’s easier to ask someone to rethink their conception of the supernatural and the associated real world implications than to tell them to abandon the core of their belief – the part they’re truly attached to.

  3. S4R
    October 26, 2006 at 9:43 pm

    I’ll agree it’s easier to convince someone to switch political parties than to abandon their faith, but liberal believers haven’t proven adequately effective in their efforts to quell extremism. Their failure to remove god(s) from the equation leaves the door to religious fundamentalism open.

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