[Note: This is Part II of a series of posts being the title “Mending Fences”]
When Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the other “new atheists” first launched their attacks on religion a few years ago, I was delighted. After decades of relative silence, the mass media was finally giving some atheists a chance to present my view that virgins don’t have babies and that dead people don’t regain consciousness. Harris, Dawkins and other new atheists dared to argue in public that there is no sentient version of God; they reminded believers that all believers were atheists regarding Zeus, as well as all of the purported gods other than their own God. The writings of the new atheists energized considerable discussion, much of it thoughtful. Even a cursory review of the many websites and YouTube videos considering religion makes it clear that many teenagers and young adults have actively joined discussions triggered by the new atheists.
In the wake of this energized discussion, many of us became proficient at pointing out the hundreds of contradictions and absurdities in the Bible. We repeatedly called foul whenever we spotted theists cherry-picking the Bible (none of you are wearing clothes made of linen and wool, I hope!). We repeatedly reminded believers of Carl Sagan’s caveat that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Many of us dug even deeper, studying the philosophy of science, so that we could clearly explain to believers that to be meaningful, claims had to be falsifiable. Not that these arguments actually convinced believers (at least, not in my personal experience), but they did serve to announce our view that religious claims must no longer be privileged—they shouldn’t be assumed to be true and that they must be put under the microscope (as Daniel Dennett urged in Breaking the Spell) like every other natural phenomenon. We made it clear that we weren’t convinced when believers attempted to explain their beliefs by reference to ancient apocryphal supposedly-sacred writings strewn with ambiguity and self-contradictions. Thanks to the arrival of the new atheists, all of these important issues started receiving unflinching media attention.
These past few years have been emotionally and intellectually exhilarating for skeptics of all stripes. Those of us who have maintained skeptical websites have become further energized and intellectually sharpened by reading each others’ posts and by carefully re-reading the Bible and the Koran armed with scalpels rather than intellectual queasiness. The books and media appearances of the new atheists, as well as the many websites by hundreds of newly awakened atheists, have created a community where there had previously been only isolated individuals. The work of the new atheists thus revealed to each of us that none of us was alone in scrutinizing and criticizing the supernatural claims of religions. Many energized atheists have boldly stepped out of their closets and started becoming vocal as a group, especially when believers callously asserted that all atheists are ipso facto immoral and hell-bound.
Somewhere during the past few years, it further dawned on me that atheists were victims of systematic bigotry. What else could you call it when, contrary to the facts, all of us were judged to be unstable, unpatriotic, untrustworthy or unfit at parenting? These charges were grossly unfair. Our “crime” was this: we dared to question Christian religions with the same degree of skepticism that Christians used when they questioned the teachings of Buddhists, Moslems and Hindus.
Over the past few years, in addition to realizing that we were part of a project much larger than ourselves, many of us went a step further and became vocally anti-religious. Many atheists (I was one) felt justified in aiming their own arrows at all preachers and all religious teachings. Encouraged by the new atheists, many websites of skeptics and atheists (including Dangerous Intersection) joined in the rock-throwing with gusto. These rocks have sometimes been aimed at all religions, all versions of faith and all people of faith. Many of these attacks characterized all believers as mentally undisciplined and/or naïve. Our intense outpouring of energy hostile to all religions was understandable given the many years during which atheists have been shunned or disparaged by politicians and the mass media. This outpouring was also understandable in that moderate religions sat in silence while fundamentalists of all stripes spewed hatred and aggression.
Who among us doesn’t still feel the intense emotional sting when reminded of the following statement by George H. W. Bush, speaking as the Vice-President of the United States on August 27, 1987 (while running for President) :
“No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots. This is one nation under God.”
No wonder the new atheists counter-attacked with such vigor!
The writings of the new atheists didn’t merely attack the people who mindlessly characterized us as second-class citizens, however. Their attacks went much further. Sam Harris argued (again, this resonated with me) that as a result of their religious beliefs, all religions were absurd and dangerous and that all religious moderates have been giving cover and encouragement to the destructive practices of religious extremists. Similarly, Richard Dawkins argued that religious moderates make the world safe for fundamentalists by promoting faith as a virtue and by enforcing an overly pious respect for religion. In a 2006 interview published by Time Magazine, Dawkins, referring to fundamentalists, stated: “Why bother with these clowns?” Harris and Dawkins, joined by Christopher Hitchens and others of similar temperament, have attacked every sort of faith and every type of religion. In this article, I’ll refer to these writers and their supporters as the “anti-religion” new atheists.
Not all new atheists are “anti-religion” new atheists. For example, Daniel Dennett gets his well-considered points across clearly and forcefully without calling for the elimination of all religions. Instead, Dennett has proposed that parents may teach their children any religion they want, as long as it is not likely to close their minds:
A) through fear or hatred or
B) by disabling them from inquiry (by denying them an education, for instance, or keeping them entirely isolated from the world.
(See Breaking the Spell, p. 328 (2007). Paul Kurtz, the “father of secular humanism,” is another example of a world-class skeptic who doesn’t bash all religions to make his points.
[Note: Kurtz is also founder and chairman of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, formerly the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), the Council for Secular Humanism (publisher of Free Inquiry Magazine), and the Center for Inquiry.]
I agree with many of the arguments raised by many of the New Atheists, including many of the scientific and intellectual arguments raised by the anti-religion new atheists. I agree with them that the people who promote religions have a lot of explaining to do, and that they all fail miserably at explaining their supernatural claims. I agree with Daniel Dennett that it’s time to put religion itself under serious and sustained scientific scrutiny, and to let the chips fall where they may. I suspect that the scientific results will not be good for believers, since first-rate science has an extraordinarily long track record of being inconvenient to religious claims.
Though I have relatively few problems with the factual arguments raised by the new atheists, I am concerned that their slash-and-burn approach to religion is counterproductive to the long-term needs of those who are atheists. Attacks claiming that all religions are poisonous viruses remind me of the “Just Say No” approaches to drug addiction and sex education barked by politicians. All of these campaigns ignore the emotional, social, psychological and evolutionary factors that might explain the craving (to use drugs, have sex or join religious communities).
The anti-religion atheists seem to think that the believers simply need to think more, and then they will see the light. In other words, the anti-religion atheists present the “problem” as a one-dimensional deficit of analytical thought. They argue that religious belief is an abstract intellectual hurdle that can be remedied if only religious people would take the time to consider the evidence (and lack thereof). According to many of the arguments inspired by the anti-religion atheists, religious people are weak-minded or intellectually careless—they are essentially fools to believe the things they believe. The problem is thus presented as a simple one with a simple solution: believers need to open their eyes to reality and just say no to their wild fantasies. Maybe the anti-religion atheists don’t intend for their framing of the issue to look so simplistic but, based on many conversations I’ve had with believers, this is how the new atheist movement looks to many believers on the streets.
I’ve done some “soul” searching over the past few years and I have recently come to the conclusion that many of the free-wheeling attacks on religion by anti-religious atheists have been counterproductive to what should be our top priority: ending bigotry against atheists. Here are the biggest problems with the rhetoric used by the anti-religion atheists:
• There is no evidence that the sharpness of recent attacks on religious moderates has done anything other than seed distrust, making it more difficult for atheists to collaborate with religious moderates on pressing political and social issues on which we should be allies.
• By declaring all religions to be destructive “viruses,” the attacks confound, insult and isolate good-hearted believers who can plainly see that much good in the world (e.g., helping the poor and pushing for civil rights) has been accomplished by religious moderates who were inspired by their religious beliefs.
• These harsh attacks take aim at those who use a simplistic label (“religious”) that describes only a small sliver of the complex political, intellectual and moral views of believers. Yes, they are self-proclaimed believers in “God,” but they have many other beliefs–many of them are closet skeptics who are in the process of losing their internal wars.
• Many anti-religious attacks don’t recognize any sense of proportionality. These attacks lash out at all types of “religious” people equally, including people who are conflicted about their religious beliefs and people who are barely religious at all, thereby isolating people who would otherwise be more receptive to our views.
• Many of the recent attacks on religion jump the gun to the extent that they claim, as undisputed scientific fact, that religion is not an evolutionary adaptation. A better approach is to recognize that the scientific examination of religion has barely begun and we still have a lot to learn. I discuss this further down (also, consider the work of David Sloan Wilson).
I believe that atheists should adopt a new approach to religion focused on bringing down the temperature of the current clash. When we lecture and chastise all believers, we are being counterproductive. We should start with the obvious premise that all people react terribly to condescending lectures. Instead of attacking all religions, we should nurture dialogue with religious moderates and those who are conflictedly-religious and employ smarter PR in order to give atheism a friendlier face. Our arguments should be as smart, fact-dependent and unrelenting as ever, but we need to recognize that it’s going to take some time to plant our seeds and let them sprout. We need to be patient and compassionate, even when forced to deal with in-your-face hostility delivered by proudly ignorant fundamentalists. We need to be politically savvy, not just intellectually agile.
Should we nonetheless continue to question tenuous supernatural claims? Absolutely. In the long run, though, I don’t believe sharply worded attacks will result in a decrease of supernatural claims by religions. When attacked, Believers don’t tend to open their minds to new possibilities; rather, they retreat back to the safety of their traditional beliefs. I have yet to convince any religious believer that his or her faith is unjustified by evidence (though I have often tried to review the evidence with believers). Even those religions that are widely considered to be the most dysfunctional have a long history of bouncing back stronger when attacked. Based on the lack of past success in berating religious teachings, we should continue to expect an equal and opposite reaction to the extent that we combine our atheism with “anti-religion.”
In my personal experience, I’ve noticed that religious moderates are taken aback when caught in the crossfire between atheists and fundamentalists. Anyone doubting this is invited to randomly pick out a few people who describe themselves as “religious” and watch them get defensive when you mention Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. Most of my religious acquaintances become concerned when they see the intensity with which atheists have been pushing back at all people of faith. They bristle that they are made out to be proxies for every type of religious fanatic.
By “religious moderate,” I’m referring to anyone who is not a fundamentalist. By fundamentalists, I’m referring to those people who lean strongly toward xenophobia, judgmentalism, misogyny, bible literalism, antipathy toward disciplined fact-finding, disinterest in self-criticism, and a quest to fill government leadership with people in their own image and likeness. Alternatively, Jimmy Carter once offered this helpful definition of fundamentalist. A caveat: the set of all believers (and, as I will argue later, non-believers as well) falls along a blurry continuum. When we take the time to get to know them carefully, it’s not always easy to determine who is who. That said, this chapter is a call to change the way atheists dialogue with all believers, especially religious moderates. I do recognize, though, that it is often extraordinarily difficult for atheists to have meaningful discussions with fundamentalists, who are often not open to any meaningful discussion. It gets so bad so often that it’s pointless to try to talk religion with a fundamentalist. Note that I’m not saying that you should avoid them entirely. They are often your neighbors, and you will like have much in common with many of them. It’s just that it’s often not worth the trouble to discuss religion with them. Their defenses are too high to allow any meaningful exchange.
An important part of my new approach is to acknowledge that believers are not all the same. There are stark differences among believers. For example, none of my religious moderate friends, neighbors, relatives and co-workers demonstrates any kinship with Christian fundamentalists. I’ve never seen any of my religious acquaintances consciously providing any sort of encouragement or intellectual cover to radical fundamentalists. If anything, I have heard religious moderates expressing embarrassment and disdain at the antics of fundamentalist Christians (I didn’t hear these sorts of comments a few years ago, probably because I wasn’t listening). My moderate religious friends and acquaintances disagree with virtually every moral and political position asserted by the fundamentalists, as well as large numbers of fundamentalist religious claims. Nonetheless, it has become fashionable for many atheists to disparage all religions and all people who follow any religion (just Google “religion” and “stupid” to see for yourself).
Rather than argue that moderates are giving cover to religious fanatics, my experience suggests that most religious moderates have equally been giving cover to atheists. For instance, I don’t buy anti-religionist claims that Unitarians have encouraged right-wing religious extremists. In my experience, most fundamentalists despise Unitarians. Who is giving cover to whom? Isn’t it more accurate to say that religious moderates have been serving as a buffer between strident atheists and religious fanatics, giving cover to atheists?
It is critically important to draw our lines carefully. In January, 2008 a sincere atheist (I’ll call him “Joe”) posted a comment at Dangerous Intersection indicating that he had no respect for anyone who believed in God. Joe wrote that all believers lacked intellectual integrity. I responded by asking Joe a hypothetical: If he had been an adult in the 1960’s and if Martin Luther King had invited him to march in the deep South, would he have been willing to march, even though Martin Luther King was a man of faith who drew much of his energy from his religious convictions? Joe responded that even though he strongly believed in the civil rights movement, he would not have marched with Martin Luther King. He claimed that he needed to be true to himself and that he simply could not respect anyone who was religious, because all religious people lack intellectual integrity.
I was disturbed to read Joe’s comment. I understand the extent to which many atheists are frustrated and even infuriated by many religious people and their practices, but I also realize that we share much in common with most religious people and that most of the people on this planet happen to be religious.
I often think of Joe’s comment. I find it sad and haunting, because most of the members of every social movement to which I belong are religious, and I’m proud to work with them on those positions we hold in common. If for no other reason, atheists should consider working with believers in the spirit of simply trying to get important things done. This same attitude has been exemplified by E. O. Wilson, whose The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (2006) is a call for science and religion to work together to save Earth’s degrading biodiversity.
If I were to concoct a utopia, I wouldn’t see the need to affirmatively establish any traditional American religions, which all too often seem to function as bureaucratic country clubs with steeples. My utopia might resemble Scandinavia, where religions are more of a historical curiosity and not much of a political force. I happen to live in a real world country called the United States, however, where religions are ubiquitous and politically entrenched, and where many believers find deep comfort in religious teachings that confound me. What, then, is the best way to proceed?
Here is my position: A large number of church-going folks are politically aligned with most of the political and moral positions I hold for improving in my community. Therefore, many religious believers are my political allies, and they greatly outnumber us. We desperately need the religious folks as our allies in order to get anything done on a mass scale. We can’t afford to maintain any sort of broad-based “war” on all religion and all believers. Instead, we need to keep a narrow focus on what we’re really trying to accomplish in our communities, and to take care that we don’t antagonize the many religious people who are willing to remain our friends, co-workers and political allies. We must avoid ostracizing and antagonizing religious people who are willing to march with us to make the world a better place.