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May 07 2007

Respect for religion-1: Are the new atheists rude towards religion?

There are two charges that are often laid at the feet of the ‘new atheists’. One is that they are rude, shrill, angry, and otherwise disrespectful towards religion. The second is that their challenge to religious beliefs in general (as opposed to just the fundamentalist and extreme variants) makes for bad politics, since they are alienating those religious elements who act as a moderating influence in our society and with whom elite science has formed useful alliances in the past.

As to the first charge of rudeness and shrillness, this is clearly not a statement about that actual tone of the discussion conducted by the new atheists. Most of the prominent new atheists are urbane academics who are not prone to yelling or using profanity or ad hominem attacks. I have seem numerous interviews with Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most prominent of the new atheists, and never once have I heard him so much as raise his voice or even seem angry. The worst charge that can be laid against him is that he can be testy with those people who make sweeping claims about evolutionary theory without seeming to understand what the theory actually says. He is actually very mild-mannered when compared with some of the other voices one hears in the media.

So whence does this charge of rudeness arise? I think it is because the new atheists are directly challenging the idea that religious beliefs should occupy a privileged place in public discourse that shields them from the kind of scrutiny that any other belief would merit. If, for example, some public official like a member of Congress or the President were to say that he or she believed in fairies and had conversations with them, that would immediately raise questions about the mental competence of the person involved. But saying that he or she converses with god through prayer not only raises no concerns at all, it is seen as wholly admirable. The fact that people do not even see a similarity between belief in god and belief in fairies is a testament to how powerfully our society has internalized the idea that ‘respect for religion’ means that one must not point this out.
In his book The God Delusion (p. 178), Richard Dawkins quotes the anthropologist Pascal Boyer who once over dinner at a Cambridge University college recounted the beliefs of the Fang people of Cameroon who believed that “witches have an extra internal animal-like organ that flies away at night and ruins other people’s crops or poisons their blood. It is also said that these witches sometimes assemble for huge banquets, where they will devour their victims and plan future attacks. Many will tell you that a friend of a friend actually saw witches flying over the village at night, sitting on a banana leaf and throwing magical darts at various unsuspecting victims.”

Bayer says he was dumbfounded when a Cambridge theologian turned to him and said “This is what makes anthropology so fascinating and so difficult too. You have to explain how people can believe such nonsense.” (italics on original)

Dawkins points out that the theologian, as a mainstream Christian, did not see any irony at all in referring to the Fang people’s beliefs as nonsense even while he himself believed many or all of the following beliefs:

  • In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.
  • The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus came back to life.
  • The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days.
  • Forty days later, the fatherless man went to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily in to the sky.
  • If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man, and his ‘father’ (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.
  • If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.
  • The fatherless man’s virgin mother never died but ‘ascended’ bodily into heaven.
  • Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), ‘become’ the body and blood of the fatherless man.

Note that this set of beliefs is commonly held by mainstream religious people, not just fringe groups. There will be differences amongst the various sects as to which to believe and which to reject (Catholics believe the last one which non-Catholics find preposterous) but clearly once you have accepted any one of them, it is hard to deny credibility to any of the others or to the beliefs of the Fang people.

What has disturbed the equilibrium in dialogue between elite science and elite religion is that the new atheists are saying that the beliefs of even elite religion are incompatible with a scientific outlook that values evidence. And this is what, I think, underlies the charge of rudeness, shrillness, etc. It is not the volume or tone or language or any of the other things that we normally associate with those words, but simply the fact that the new atheists have chosen to point out that, in an intellectually coherent sense, there is no such thing as a ‘respectable’ religious belief.

POST SCRIPT: Bush no longer influential?

I usually don’t pay much attention to the periodical generation of lists of the 100 best or worst this or that. Those lists tell us more about the people making up the lists than anything else. But I was intrigued by the recent release of Time magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world and the fact that George W. Bush was not on it.

It seems absurd to me that the leader of the world’s only superpower, and a man with a proven record of creating disaster and chaos, should not be considered objectively influential, if even in a negative way. The Mayor of New York, Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Israeli Foreign Minister, and Osama Bin Laden make the list but Bush doesn’t? Are there any reasonable criteria by which such an omission makes sense?

Yes, but only if you take the view that this list is not a measure of actual influence but simply measures the zeitgeist. And what Time seems to have decided is that Bush has become an embarrassment who is best ignored until the time comes when he slips away into obscurity at the end of his term, unless he is impeached first. His low approval rating of 28%, the lowest of any President since 1979, adds to his aura of being a loser.

Perhaps this cartoon by Nick Anderson, editorial cartoonist of the Houston Chronicle (in Bush’s home state no less), best represents how Bush is increasingly being perceived.

Bush12yearold.jpg

2 comments

  1. 1
    Jim Dudones

    They say you should never discuss religion and politics with friends. I think this is simply because people become too emotional about such issues. They are absolutely certain that their view is correct and they become angry when others do not agree or when they fear that their argument may be exposed as not so well thought out or even wrong. Folks get offended very easily. I refuse to accept that just because you find my remark offensive that it is actually offensive in some objective sense even though that is exactly what our culture teaches us. “It is offensive as long as someone thinks it is!” I personally think thats hogwash. Certain things are offensive to almost anyone but much of what is classified as offensive is actually just an over-emotional response to some stimulus.

    The religion vs athiest debate is the perfect storm for this situation. Highly emotional arguments on both sides about a critically important issue that matters on both sides. If I’m right you are a fool and if you are right I am a fool.

    Are some of the things written on this blog offensive to me? Perhaps, but I have choices. Rebut it, ignore it or get emotional about it and say something equally silly. I guess I assume that everyones comments are not meant to offend me (perhaps they actually are but I am too dense to notice?). Are some of the things I write offensive to others? I’m sure they are even when I do not mean to be so.

    I don’t find athiesm of any kind (including the brand you are expounding upon or the similar kind that Dawkins describes in the God Delusion) to be offensive-I find it fascinating. I think it is absolutely wrong but it is not offensive. At the end of the day we both seek the truth (as your book points out) and we both feel that we know what it is or at least some very limited aspect of it. Passionately making your case in an adult way should not ever be considered offensive and if it is, it is not your problem.

    Jim

  2. 2
    Erin

    Regarding the theologian, it strikes me (not having read the original) that Boyer may have been making an error. He seems to assume that the theologian meant to say, “This Fang stuff is clearly nonsense because it violates what my senses tell me about the world,” but it’s entirely possible that what the theologian really meant was, “This Fang stuff is clearly nonsense because it violates my theology, which I know to be a veridical representation of the world.” I don’t know how common such a worldview is now, but I am under the impression that it used to be pretty normal.

    I do think it is hard to be a good academic without being at least a little bit dispassionate about your subject matter, so I expect theologians not to be particularly devout. Of course, sometimes I’m disappointed ;)

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