I’m about to hop on a plane and fly off to New York for a few days, and now it seems like everyone is sending me op-eds from all over the place that are screaming against the “new atheism”. We must be effective to inspire such denunciations, and we must be striking deeply to cause so much obvious pain. It’s sad to see the agony people are experiencing as they witness the godless speaking out with such boldness, but they’re just going to have to get used to it. After all, if they’re really tolerant, they have to recognize people’s right to believe or disbelieve as they will…but I guess we’re going to have to face a few spasms of outraged accusations as religiosity is challenged.
A perfect example is in the Wall Street Journal; it shows why the WSJ opinions page has such a low reputation.
Without God, Gall Is Permitted
By SAM SCHULMAN
January 5, 2007; Page W11
When the very first population of atheists roamed the earth in the Victorian age—brought to life by Lyell’s “Principles of Geology,” Darwin’s “Origin of Species” and other blows to religious certainty—it was the personal dimension of atheism that others found distressing. How could an atheist’s oath of allegiance to the queen be trusted? It couldn’t—so an atheist was not allowed to take a seat in Parliament. How could an atheist, unconstrained by a fear of eternal punishment, be held accountable to social norms of behavior? Worse than heretical, atheism was not respectable.
In the 21st century, this no longer seems to be the case. Few acquaintances of Dr. Richard Dawkins, the world’s most voluble public atheist, wonder, as they might have a hundred years ago: Can I leave my wife unchaperoned in this man’s company? Indeed, the atheists are now looking to turn the tables: They want to make belief itself not simply an object of intellectual derision but a cause for personal embarrassment. A new generation of publicists for atheism has emerged to tell Americans in particular that we should be ashamed to retain a majority of religious believers, that in this way we resemble the benighted, primitive peoples of the Middle East, Africa and South America instead of the enlightened citizens of Western Europe.
Thanks in part to the actions of a few jihadists in September 2001, it is believers who stand accused, not freethinkers. Among the prominent atheists who now sermonize to the believers in their midst are Dr. Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett (“Breaking the Spell”) and Sam Harris (“The End of Faith” and, more recently, “Letter to a Christian Nation”). There are others, too, like Steven Weinberg, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Brooke Allen (whose “Moral Minority” was a celebration of the skeptical Founders) and a host of commentators appalled by the Intelligent Design movement. The transcript of a recent symposium on the perils of religious thought can be found at a science Web site called edge.org.
There are many themes to the atheist lament. A common worry is the political and social effect of religious belief. To a lot of atheists, the fate of civilization and of mankind depends on their ability to cool—or better, simply to ban—the fevered fancies of the God-intoxicated among us.
He’s partly right. Yes, I want to see people become acutely embarrassed about holding beliefs that contradict reality; does Mr Schulman think that it is not a subject for humor that many religious people believe the Earth is 6000 years old? I also think that we’d be better served if the default response to religious claims was deep skepticism—instead of allowing international policy to be influenced by apocalyptic predictions of people drunk on the book of Revelation, there should be an automatic dismissal of such considerations. We should purge our culture of the unearned deference given religiously-motivated ideas. This doesn’t mean religion should be banned, but that, for instance, we’d be better off without all that foolish support given to dogma that leads to repression of homosexuals, artificially dictated roles for men and women, the banning of information about sex and contraceptives.
Schulman glosses over that; he wants you to have the impression that atheists are using objections to the most horrible examples of fringe extremists to criticize religion, that we’re busy creating straw men from a few aberrations to bash, but it’s not true. Those are widespread beliefs that shape public policy.
Naturally, the atheists focus their peevishness not on Muslim extremists (who advertise their hatred and violent intentions) but on the old-time Christian religion. (“Wisdom dwells with prudence,” the Good Book teaches.) They can always haul out the abortion-clinic bomber if they need a boogeyman; and they can always argue as if all faiths are interchangeable: Persuade American Christians to give up their infantile attachment to God and maybe Muslims will too. In any case, they conclude: God is not necessary, God is impossible and God is not permissible if our society—or even our species—is to survive.
Most of us do not focus on Muslim religious belief (which I’ll happily agree is just as insane if not more so than Christianity) because we do not live in a Muslim society, and criticism of Islam simply isn’t relevant. I would be overjoyed to see the Middle East and Asia and Africa become entirely secular, but that change would have to be driven by the inhabitants of those regions; I can’t impose it on them. I would like to see American christians abandon their beliefs because it would directly and immediately improve my life (I’m being selfish) and because they are my friends and neighbors and relatives.
What is new about the new atheists? It’s not their arguments. Spend as much time as you like with a pile of the recent anti-religion books, but you won’t encounter a single point you didn’t hear in your freshman dormitory. It’s their tone that is novel. Belief, in their eyes, is not just misguided but contemptible, the product of provincial minds, the mark of people who need to be told how to think and how to vote—both of which, the new atheists assure us, they do in lockstep with the pope and Jerry Falwell.
For them, belief in God is beyond childish, it is unsuitable for children. Today’s atheists are particularly disgusted by the religious training of young people—which Dr. Dawkins calls “a form of child abuse.” He even floats the idea that the state should intervene to protect children from their parents’ religious beliefs.
You can also read all of Schulman’s commentary, and not only will you see no new criticisms of atheism, but you won’t see any defense of christianity. The whole thing is a cranky tirade against those who dare to disbelieve, propped up by dishonest accusations.
Arguments are not false merely because they’re old, as any defender of religion should know. We have to keep repeating them because the theists keep indoctrinating their children to ignore them; when you’re fighting dogma with reason, of course it’s going to take time and patience and continuous instruction.
I should like to see his evidence that we “new atheists” claim every religious person thinks in lockstep with the Pope and Falwell. It’s simply not true: I criticize religious moderates because they are religious, not because they are extremists. The “moderate” part is good, and I can sympathize with the majority of believers as well meaning, and maybe even striving for virtuous goals. My complaint is that they reach for those ends by flawed methods, methods that have a history of being easily subverted.
For the new atheists, believing in God is a form of stupidity, which sets off their own intelligence. They write as if they were the first to discover that biblical miracles are improbable, that Parson Weems was a fabulist, that religion is full of superstition. They write as if great minds had never before wrestled with the big questions of creation, moral law and the contending versions of revealed truth. They argue as if these questions are easily answered by their own blunt materialism. Most of all, they assume that no intelligent, reflective person could ever defend religion rather than dismiss it. The reviewer of Dr. Dawkins’s volume in a recent New York Review of Books noted his unwillingness to take theology seriously, a starting point for any considered debate over religion.
Ah, if you saw my email…this “you atheists think you’re such smarty-pants” sentiment is so common. It’s not true, like so much of this op-ed’s assertions. I agree that brilliant people have also been believers, and that there are some truly stupid atheists; if a stupid person leaves the church, it won’t make him smarter, except in the sense that he has perhaps learned one new thing.
We don’t write as if we were the first to discover the bible is full of foolishness—we write to point out that people like Schulman freely confess to the superstition, but never actually do anything about it, other than defend it. Oh, and they’re also fond of waving theology at us, as if that has anything to do with honestly evaluating the truth claims of religion. Theology is an exercise in logic and history and rhetoric that has nothing to do with determining the validity or the accuracy of religious claims about the universe.
The faith that the new atheists describe is a simple-minded parody. It is impossible to see within it what might have preoccupied great artists and thinkers like Homer, Milton, Michelangelo, Newton and Spinoza—let alone Aquinas, Dr. Johnson, Kierkegaard, Goya, Cardinal Newman, Reinhold Niebuhr or, for that matter, Albert Einstein. But to pass over this deeper faith—the kind that engaged the great minds of Western history—is to diminish the loss of faith too. The new atheists are separated from the old by their shallowness.
I do find it impossible to see what there is about the doctrine of damnation or the concept of transubstantiation that could possibly have been satisfying to great thinkers, either, except that we all have cultural baggage that is not the product of rational thought. So? I must be shallow.
I also notice that after railing at the new atheists for only picking on christianity, Schulman only mentions great Jewish and Christian thinkers. How about Mohamad ibn Musa Al Khwarizmi or Abu Raihan Mohammad Ibn Ahmad al-Biruni? Does their brilliance and reason and skill also validate the doctrines of Islam? I’d argue that their minds are testimonials to the potential of humanity, not the power of some invisible ghost or magical ritual. Invoking Goya or Einsteins says great things about what we can do, and I rather resent the way the apologists use human accomplishments to falsely brace their superstitions.
To read the accounts of the first generation of atheists is profoundly moving. Matthew Arnold wrote of the “eternal note of sadness” sounded when the “Sea of Faith” receded from human life. In one testament after another—George Eliot, Carlyle, Hardy, Darwin himself—the Victorians described the sense of grief they felt when religion goes—and the keen, often pathetic attempts to replace it by love, by art, by good works, by risk-seeking and—fatally—by politics.
God did not exist, they concluded, but there was no denying that this supposed truth was accompanied by a painful sense of being cut off from human fellowship as well as divine love. To counter it, religious figures developed a new kind of mission—like that of the former unbeliever C.S. Lewis: They could speak to the feeling of longing that unbelief engenders because they understood it—and sympathized not only with atheism’s pain but with the many sensible arguments in its favor.
We are social organisms, so when a majority of society hold particular beliefs, it pains us to dissociate ourselves from them; especially with religious beliefs, which are often used as glue and a goad to reinforce conformity. It is not surprising that many find pain in breaking away from the crowd (Darwin is an excellent example. Reason led him in one direction, away from god-belief, yet as a well-fitted cog in his culture and as a person who loved others who did not question religion, he did not want to openly divorce himself from it, and the problem tormented him). This, again, is not an argument for the validity of religion. It says it is a powerful tool of acculturation, which none of the new atheists deny.
I have a different solution. Let’s build a community of atheists who are outspoken and willing to happily announce their skepticism. We could have a few prominent advocates who are successful in their fields and act as great role models. Then, I think what you’ll see is that more and more people will be able to leave that smothering blanket of fog called religion without pain, without the sense that they are pariahs in their communities, freed of the social extortion that Schulman sees as a virtue. That sounds much more productive than the C.S. Lewis approach of making poor excuses for foolishness that allow smug theists to feel that they’ve reached out to the godless.
There is no such sympathy among the new apostles of atheism—to find it, one has to look to believers. Anyone who has actually taught young people and listened to them knows that it is often the students who come from a trained sectarian background—Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, Mormon—who are best at grasping different systems of belief and unbelief. Such students know, at least, what it feels like to have such a system, and can understand those who have very different ones. The new atheists remind me of other students from more “open-minded” homes—rigid, indifferent, puzzled by thought and incapable of sympathy.
Oh, man … now “open-mindedness” is the mark of the beast, and he’s calling atheists stupid. Wasn’t he just complaining about the strategy of calling all christians stupid and denying the intelligence of those great christian thinkers of the past? Maybe I need to rethink this. If Sam Schulman thinks an effective strategy to get atheists to turn to religion is to call them rigid, indifferent, unthinking and unsympathetic, maybe we should get more vigorous in criticizing the mental facilities of the religious.
The new atheists fail too often simply for want of charm or skill. Twenty-first century atheism hasn’t found its H.G. Wells or its George Bernard Shaw, men who flattered their audiences, excited them and persuaded them by making them feel intelligent. Here is Sam Harris, for instance, addressing those who wonder if destroying human embryos in the process of stem cell research might be morally dicey: “Your qualms…are obscene.”
The atheists say that they are addressing believers. Rationalists all, can they believe that believers would be swayed by such contumely and condescension? They seem instead to be preaching to people exactly like themselves—a remarkably incurious elite.
Well, since Schulman seems to believe that believers can be swayed by the contumely and condescension of his piece, apparently the answer is supposed to be “yes”.
I don’t care whether you’re an atheist or a Christian, but you have to admit that Schulman’s article is nothing but a bitter rant against atheism that offers no reason to support religious belief, other than that those atheists are such bad, bad people. If this is the strategy being used in the anti-atheist backlash, I don’t think we’ve got anything to worry about—it’s the same old damning we’re used to.