Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness. -- George Santayana
One of the common criticisms directed against the “new atheists” – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, the late Christopher Hitchens, Michael Shermer, Bill Maher, Julia Sweeney (formerly of Saturday Night Live), et al. – is that they seem to be such an angry bunch of people who, in their anger, are often downright “snarky” to people who espouse religious faith, especially a monotheistic faith. This is a strange complaint, especially when such a charge is leveled against “new atheists” by conservative evangelical / fundamentalist believers, who habitually fulminate darkly against the moral chaos that would ensue from a consistently practiced atheism. A consequence – so the argument proceeds – that the “new atheists” escape only because they implicitly, and hypocritically, espouse the moral and ethical principles of the very religion – usually Christianity – they profess to vilify. For the most part – not entirely, not altogether, but for the most part – I think the characterization of modern atheists as an unrelievedly splenetic bunch is an example of a single swallow being mistaken for spring. Most of the religious believers’ reaction to alleged atheist anger is an overreaction to, and misinterpretation of, the admittedly more confrontational character of modern-day atheists and atheism.
To be sure, we should admit at the outset that atheists can, on occasion, be a rather “snarky” and cantankerous and gratuitously splenetic group of people. For example, I am always irritated when Bill Maher, in his monologues and in his conversations with guests and panelists on the matter of religion, alludes to “talking snakes”, as though all Christians believe in such as being as constitutive of Christianity as belief in the Divinity of Christ. There are also the “magic underwear” references to Mormon ritual garments. (I wonder if Maher also refers to Jewish men’s yarmulkas as “magic hats” and a prayer shawl / tallith as a “magic scarf”.) His critique of religion, as exemplified in his movie Religulous, is grossly oversimplified, so much so that Maher is, to borrow George F. Will’s expression, “a pyromaniac in a field of straw men”. (I will only accompany Maher as far as agreeing that monotheistic religion is generally unhealthy, but a critique of monotheism leaves non-god-centered religions like Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism untouched.) At times, prominent atheists also have a tendency to impugn the intelligence of people who believe in God, as witness Daniel Dennett’s designation of “brights” for atheistic secular humanists – implying that people who believe in God are less than intelligent. Other examples would only belabor the point, which is that, to paraphrase Mitt Romney’s description of American business, “Atheists are people, too.”
That said, however, much atheist anger is amply justified. For example:
- About 43 percent of Americans would not vote for an atheist for President
- Christian evangelization is often tolerated on American military bases and military academies, and atheist members of the military are sometimes subject to harassment and even death threats
- Former President George H. W. Bush has been quoted as saying, vis a vis atheism and atheists, “No, I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God”. Sorry, Mr. President, but the “establishment” and “free exercise” clauses of the First Amendment to the US Constitution were ratified in 1791, and so have been around roughly a couple hundred years longer than the “one Nation under God” phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance, which only dates to the 1950s.
- To this day, there are laws on the books in some States – unenforceable since the 14th Amendment incorporated the Article VI prohibition on “religious test[s]” against the States – that require office holders and even jurors to profess belief in God.
- Mother Teresa used her influence in the Church and in the world to promote suffering as a means of drawing closer to God instead of as a motivation for relieving suffering wherever it was found. Her spiritual offspring in the Missionaries of Charity continue this tradition of valorizing suffering instead of advocating for the abolition of the unjust social and economic structures that perpetuate it. For more on Mother Teresa's attitude toward poverty, see the late Christopher Hitchens' book on Mother Teresa The Missionary Position.
- As recently as the last few weeks, the fundamentalist pastor and televangelist John Hagee extended a cordial invitation to atheists to leave the United States and basically not to allow the door to hit them in the derriere on the way out, because, he said, America is a “Christian nation”. The Huffington Post quotes Hagee as advising atheists to “take your Walkman and stuff it into your ears” or just “leave the country”, and in an sermon in 2012 telling “atheist[s] watching this telecast” that “this country was not built for atheists nor by atheists. ... It was built by Christian people who believed in the word of God. ... If our belief in God offends you, move ... [W]e don’t want you and we won’t miss you, I promise you.”
- And, last but not least, there is the hoary and perennial charge that atheists, lacking a belief in a monotheistic god to underwrite their moral precepts, have no principle beyond naked brute force to back up their moral judgments, an especially bizarre criticism, given the warfare that laid waste to Europe for 200 years during the 16th and 17th centuries, all fought by professedly God-loving Christian factions, not by godless atheists, and the warfare between Catholics and Protestants that turned Northern Ireland, and on many occasions, even parts of central London, into a great killing field well into the 1970's. For a classic statement of this position on the necessity of monotheism as a basis for morality, see one of the late Francis Schaeffer's last-published works, A Christian Manifesto -- a grand exercise in the pot calling the kettle black of whose irony Schaeffer seemed pristinely unaware.
Again, examples could be multiplied and cited indefinitely, but the fact that many atheists are angry is more an argument in favor of the lucidity of atheism and atheists than a demonstration of their bad temper.
I am convinced that most of the charges of bad temper and irascibility on the part of atheists have a different and more subtle cause: atheists have come out of the closet and are finally and unabashedly giving religious faith, especially monotheistic religious faith, some serious competition. Atheists are no longer reticent. But this is only another way of saying they have become honest. In his controversial book The End of Faith, Sam Harris says that, at least in western culture, religion is given an almost knee-jerk respect and immunity from criticism not accorded any other, more secular, belief system. A professional paleontologist who asserted that the earth was only 6,000 years old would be laughed off the stage and might very well have her tenure revoked. But a fundamentalist Christian making the same assertion will usually be greeted with awkward but reticent silence. Asking honest questions pertaining to evidence, historical fact, and the ethical implications of religiously based moral positions is seen as somehow … well … impolite and in bad taste, a good excuse to keep your eyes downcast while you scuff the ground with your toe. And, Harris continues, this aversion to the honest critique of religious assertions and beliefs, more often than not, emanates even from moderate and rational religious people themselves, i.e., the very people who would have the greatest vested interest in salvaging their faith-tradition from being discredited are silent.
Where have you been silent when you should have spoken?
(c) 2014, essay, James Cowles
Thursday – Thoughtful Thursday, offering something to think about. Often, we are so attached to our own way of thinking that we don’t even consider new things. This will be an offering of something to pull us in deeper. It walks hand in hand with Becca’s “Nurturing Thursday.” While Becca’s prompt is geared towards self-care, this prompt is geared towards self-challenge–perhaps a specific type of self-care! Only by considering new ideas, can we grow. Growth comes in many ways. Through letting go of unhelpful ideas and moving on, or through challenge that grounds you more firmly and knowledgeably in your current ideas. #thoughtfulness #FindingGod