The science-religion debate »« Respect for religion-4: Religion as Conversation-stopper

Respect for religion-5: Are the new atheists practicing bad politics?

There is no doubt that atheists are becoming more outspoken these days and this has led to people asking why these ‘new atheists’ are now so ‘militant’. I do not think ‘militant’ is quite the right word. What has happened is that atheists are undergoing a change of attitude about what is and is not considered respect for religion.

It used to be that when it came to discussions about religion, a different standard applied than to discussions about (say) politics. With the latter, you could come right out and say that someone was wrong, and that was not considered disrespectful. But with religion, that was not the case. It was considered bad form to say that god and the afterlife did not exist and that those beliefs had no basis.

What atheists and others were supposed to do when god came up was to just be quiet and not challenge religious beliefs or statements of faith. But it was never clear why this has to be the rules of the discourse. After all, if someone claimed that they believed in the fairies dancing in their garden, we are not obliged to ‘respect’ that belief by not challenging it. At the very least we might ask for evidence or say something like “Really? How interesting. What makes you believe that?” So when someone says that they believe in god, why should we not respond the same way? But if we did so, they would likely be insulted because religious beliefs are supposed to be either self-evidently true or exempt from the rules of evidence or the bar for evidence is set so low that anything goes (“I know god exists because I feel his presence when I pray.”).

The new atheists are having none of this old-fashioned notion of what constitutes respect for religion. The most that ‘respect’ can command is that we do not treat religious believers as being crazy because it is undoubtedly true that people who are perfectly rational about almost everything can have irrational beliefs in compartmentalized areas of their lives.

Respect cannot, and should not, be extended to discouraging the challenging religious beliefs. What the new ‘new atheists’ are doing is expressing their skepticism about religion directly, publicly, and sometimes in a spirit of mischievous humor.

The Blasphemy Challenge, where individuals post video clips of themselves cheerfully denying the Holy Spirit, are direct challenges to the fundamental beliefs of Christianity. The trigger for this challenge is the passage in the Bible (Mark 3:28-29) where Jesus draws a very clear line in the sand and says: “I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.” In other words, this particular sin, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, is the ultimate no-no, the sin that cannot be forgiven, ever. What the people behind the site say is that passages like this are meant to frighten people into believing in god, and the ‘respect for religion’ trope is being used to prevent people from pointing this out.

In the past, atheists would have simply ignored things like this. If you don’t believe in a god, why would you care if you were condemned by this non-existent god? But now, there are hundreds of them going online, publicly risking damnation by making jokes about the Holy Spirit. They are not calling religious people names or things like that. They are simply and publicly saying what they don’t believe.

This new atheism has ruffled quite a lot of feathers in a religious establishment that has got accustomed to having their pieties accepted unquestioningly. The Rational Response Squad, which is behind the Blasphemy Challenge, was even profiled on Nightline. In the interview, it is interesting how often the idea of ‘lack of respect’ comes up in the words of religious believers and the interviewer. But all the atheists are saying is that there is no evidence for god and they are not afraid of hell because there is no evidence that it exists either. The language of the atheists is scientific while the religious people appeal to faith and mystery and fear of hell.

Once again, it is perhaps the existence of the internet that has been the galvanizing force in this new movement. Formerly atheists were isolated. But now they are realizing that there are many, many more of them out there than they thought, and they are joining up with others, and discovering that being an atheist, far from being a lonely experience, is a lot of fun. That has to be a good feeling.

There is a political price to be paid for speaking out this way. Some religious people are using the well-known public dislike for atheism to cast doubt on science by implying that science and atheism are joined at the hip and to argue that modern science demands atheism. Richard Dawkins says that he is sometimes told even by people who agree with his views that he is helping the forces of religious fundamentalism by enabling them to portray all scientists as atheists and that hence science itself is atheistic.

This has happened to me too. As some readers know, I was on Ohio’s Science Standards Advisory Board. During the struggle to keep intelligent design creationism (IDC) out of the standards, I was told that my public atheism was actually being used by some IDC advocates on the board to argue that evolution was atheistic and thus bad. It was gently suggested that I be more discreet about my atheism. I think that what some ‘moderates’ fear is that people’s attachment to religion is so strong that if asked to choose between god or no god, and if science is identified with no-god, , they will choose god and thus science will be rejected, and the religious moderates will end up allied with the fundamentalist and extremists.

This really is the fundamental political question.

I think that the best political alliances are those formed around specific issues, not on the basis of compatible ideologies or even people. For example, in the movement that opposes the Iraq war, there are many factions, ranging all over the political and religious spectrum, who are unlikely to agree on other issues. And that is fine. Coalitions should form because they advocate similar policies on a particular issue.

The same thing arises with social issues like poverty and health care. The alliances for each will again be formed on the basis of agreement over specific policy proposals. When forming such alliances, each person and group will stay true to their own principles but come together on strategy and tactics to achieve a certain result.

For example, I work with and support a religious group, the InterReligious Task Force in Cleveland which does excellent work on highlighting issues of injustice in Central and South America. They began their work in response to the brutal rape and murder of four Catholic nuns by the US-supported dictatorship in El Salvador in 1980, and their motivation arises from the feeling that their religion calls upon them to fight for justice. I respect that. My motivation is different from theirs but we agree on the goal of justice for the people of that region and that is sufficient for joint action.

The same should apply to the science-religion question. I think that there is nothing wrong with the new atheists pointing out that the beliefs of even mainstream religions are not rational, but still joining with them to oppose the teaching of IDC as science. Presumably mainstream religions are opposed to teaching IDC in science classes because they think it is a bad policy. Thus they should be willing to work together with anyone, including atheists, on this issue even though the new atheists seek that ultimate end of religious beliefs altogether. This kind of disagreement does not have to be a barrier to working together on those things on which they agree.

I do not think there is really a problem here, except for a shallow understanding of the nature of coalition politics. The problem, if at all, is that people get offended because they are mixing the public with the personal. If someone disagrees with them because of their views on topic A, they are personally offended and will not work with them on topic B, even if they agree with them.

Comments

  1. Corbin says

    Hi Mano,

    This is all very interesting. I suspect that the public demand for
    “respect for religion” comes from the more typically from
    conservative/fundamentalists from all religious stripes. Many on the
    “religious left” are comfortable with a more pluralistic/ecumenical
    perspective that allows and even encourages the formation of political
    and cultural alliances, of being tolerant of differences, of
    challenging authority and past practice, and being in dialog with
    critics.

    I think perhaps a more interesting angle is this notion that seems to
    be attributed to the “new atheists” that a case can be made that (a)
    the world would be significantly better off if religion were
    eradicated and (b) that there is therefore some kind of moral
    imperative on rationally thinking atheists to work actively towards
    promoting this end. To my mind, such an assertion goes beyond simply
    arguing that religion is “irrational” — it implies that in a global
    sense religion is a very bad thing for humanity, a disease, something
    akin to smallpox.

    I’d be curious to know (1) do you think I have described a fair
    characterization of the some of the recent arguments made by some of
    the new atheists, and (2) if so, do you think that the case has been
    made to successfully made to support this point of view? Something you
    might take up in future blog postings….

    -Corbin

  2. says

    Corbin,

    Yes, I think that is a fair characterization of the views of (at least some of) the “new atheists.”

    This is an interesting question that I have been mulling over and will write about when I have a set of coherent thoughts!

    Mano

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