Monday, July 20, 2009

On the new atheists

I've been following the "New Atheist" debate over at Sullivan's place with great interest. This entry in particular made me think about the whole phenomenon afresh. The truth is that I don't have a problem with other people believing there is no God. I disagree, but I can see the arguments, and having gone through a functionally atheist period myself I can honestly understand the reasoning. I don't even really have a problem with them being outspoken: this is a debate that's worth having, in my view. What I do have a problem with is that many of these people so often sink to the level of what they criticize. I mean, when I hear something like "religion poisons everything" I don't hear a difference between that and something like "only Christians can be good people", which is something that I've heard quite often, and that I feel is fundamentally unreasonable. Both are ridiculous. You can be a Jew, an Atheist, or whatever else and be a perfectly good person. And religion can be just as much a boon as a bear, unless one wants to disregard most of Western Civilization as fundamentally poisonous. I suppose the counterargument to that would be that the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were a movement against the religious mores of the day and a return to the values of an earlier, classical period, which is not entirely true (certainly not of the Renaissance), but while there were certainly Atheists like Spinoza that were important parts of the Enlightenment, both of those cultural movements followed Christian reform movements--Scholasticism for the Renaissance, the Reformation for the Enlightenment--that I think cannot be separated from these cultural moments. Admittedly, both periods involved adopting certain Greek and Roman ideas anew, but those societies were, of course, highly religious and ultimately these examples don't exactly help the argument that religion somehow destroys everything.

This isn't to say that there's nothing wrong with religion, especially what you see practiced in America. Indeed, it's easy to poke holes in the enormous balloon of pomposity that is Christianity in America, at least in terms of mainstream religious figures and the whole megachurch phenomenon. I'll even agree with much of it: American Christianity is too inclined toward smug self-satisfaction rather than humility, too wedded to a materialistic conception of faith, too obsessed with hot-button issues as opposed to more pressing questions of social justice, and fundamentally bigoted toward certain classes of people (though outside of gays it is very easy to overstate this). Ultimately, though, this description could just as easily describe America! Ultimately the question of why religion can be a force against good things is a question that isn't unanswered in my tradition. Religion is, I believe, a good thing, but fundamentally good things can be used to achieve evil things--they can be confused, misdirected, used as a vehicle to facilitate bad things. What fundamentally makes this sort of potemkin scheme work is pride, which is why it's such a slippery and dangerous sin.

At the very least, though, Christianity does label pride as such, even if it's often ignored. To say that religion poisons everything, though, indicates to me a very simplistic and dogmatic worldview that is just as selective and ideological as the fundies, with separable good and evil that don't ever show up in the same package. Perhaps those labels are too tied to a religious context to be useful here. But I hear the same sort of smug, unquestioning, absolutist finality to both of the extremes in this conversation. Religion is like anything, in that it can be used for evil and good, and even good things have some evil in them. Patriotism is, I believe, a good thing, but there's some evil in it--like exclusionism--that can come to the fore if one isn't careful, and sometimes it needs to be overridden, as would have been nice in the leadup to World War I. War is fundamentally a bad thing but there are some good aspects to it--it can promote ingroup solidarity, for example, and sometimes it's a necessary evil. Fundamentalists don't understand these sorts of distinctions--every religion has them, and for them it's just black and white, things are good or they aren't, and this is why fundamentalism is something to be avoided and scorned: it's premises virtually ensure that the bad things about religion will overtake the good.

I suppose I think that Atheists have to be mindful of not becoming what they're fighting. There are thoughtful, intelligent critiques to be made about organized religion and its place in our lives, critiques that could help out us religious folks if done honestly. The New Atheists, though, don't seem much interested in actual conversation. With the likes of Chris Hitchens, one detects only the anger of the absolutist who is frustrated that humanity just won't come around to his way of thinking. Needless to say, we could use less of this sort of thing and more humility, a greater desire to understand, and more open-mindedness. And this applies to both believers and nonbelievers.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.