Tibor Krausz has an article at Killing the Buddha, an online magazine founded by the awesome Jeff Sharlet, about atheists. I think he tends to paint with a bit too broad a brush, something he accuses others of doing, but much of what he says is spot on.
Judging by their lack of intellectual honesty and conceptual coherence, many of my fellow atheists appear to be rather sophomoric, no offense. Much of “new atheistic” discourse these days, so lovingly trotted out on social media from Facebook to YouTube, has degenerated not so much into a principled stance against religious obscurantism as into a nonstop juvenile lampooning of the faithful for their foibles, real or imagined.
Latching onto the late and great polemicist Christopher Hitchens’s catchy but wrong-headed dictum that “religion poisons everything,” my fellow atheists clearly revel in flinging their barbs at all the faithful, seemingly all the time, without any attempt at some distinction among them. Talk about painting with a broad brush.
Popular atheism is turning into a fad whose main apparent purpose is to make you feel like you belong to an exclusive club of self-styled “brights” so that you can congratulate yourself on your cerebral superiority to those religious “morons.”
But here’s the thing: The mere fact of not believing in the supernatural doesn’t make you a well-grounded rational individual, let alone a humane soul. It’s a start, yes, but only that.
Being an atheist in and of itself is not a praiseworthy stance. Without sound underlying morality and humanistic principles, atheism is mere naysaying that finds its sole raison d’être in fierce opposition to anything that smacks of religion. Many self-styled “secular humanists” are strong on the “secular” part, but rather less so on the “humanistic” bit. You know, trifles like compassion for fellow human beings, including those who happen to think differently from you.
As someone who spends much of his time lampooning the faithful, I actually agree with him on this. I see a lot of this and it bothers me as well. Do I think we should stop criticizing and ridiculing noxious and absurd religious claims? Of course not. But I think we (as a group; I obviously don’t mean everyone) need to make some distinctions and leave room for some gray area. The world just isn’t as black and white as we’d like it to be, with all the really smart people on our side and all the stupid people on the other.
In fact, I really wish so many of my fellow atheists would stop claiming that religious people are stupid. I was a Christian as a young man. I didn’t get any smarter when I left Christianity. There is a good deal of ignorance among Christians, especially of the fundamentalist variety, but ignorance is not the same as stupidity. And we have plenty of ignorant and none-too-bright atheists among us as well, and more than our fair share of irrational, tribalistic behavior.
I also wish that we’d stop saying that religion poisons everything. It simply isn’t true. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is one of the great artistic achievements in our history and that fact is not changed by its religious theme. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach is no less beautiful for its religious motivation, nor is the Ave Maria any less haunting to me.
And this is not limited to religious art. The many homeless shelters run by priests and nuns are not “poisoned” by their religious beliefs, nor is the work of groups like Buddhist Global Relief, the Michigan Peace Team (mostly nuns and priests) or Quaker groups that fight against war. Many religious groups fight diligently against injustice and inequality and to claim that their efforts are “poisoned” by religion is demeaning. We can argue with them about the existence of God, of course, but we should not denigrate their work merely because they are motivated by their religious views.
I also think Krausz is right that atheism doesn’t get us very far on its own. As Dale McGowan says, “Atheism is the first step; humanism is the next thousand steps.”