Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Church of the Non-Believers

Suggested links on the New Atheism to provoke thought.

Gary Wolf in Wired:
The New Atheists have castigated fundamentalism and branded even the mildest religious liberals as enablers of a vengeful mob. Everybody who does not join them is an ally of the Taliban. But, so far, their provocation has failed to take hold. Given all the religious trauma in the world, I take this as good news. Even those of us who sympathize intellectually have good reasons to wish that the New Atheists continue to seem absurd. If we reject their polemics, if we continue to have respectful conversations even about things we find ridiculous, this doesn't necessarily mean we've lost our convictions or our sanity. It simply reflects our deepest, democratic values. Or, you might say, our bedrock faith: the faith that no matter how confident we are in our beliefs, there's always a chance we could turn out to be wrong.
Penn and Teller Creationism BS video.

Mitchell Cohen in Dissent interview:
I think this debate raises some poignant challenges to the left both in the U.S. and around the world. (The new religious aggressiveness is not just an American phenomenon). The left everywhere ought to be identified with both tolerance (this has not always been so) and with critical intelligence—the latter often means challenging religious precepts, ambitions and institutionalized power. The hard thing is to balance the tolerance and the criticism, to insist on pluralism but not to allow religion to privilege itself in the public realm. The left should always want people to think for themselves, but this cannot mean “you must be secular like me” since it also should not mean “you must be religious like me.”

Religion is a fairly broad category and leftists need to make distinctions among different types of religious behavior and religious commitments just as they would insist that “there are leftists and there are leftists.” After all, there are “leftists” who want a freer, more egalitarian world and there are Stalinists (or people who are still trapped within Stalinist mental structures, even if only implicitly). And there are religious leftists and liberals who are allies and comrades of secular leftists. While I am thoroughly secular, I know many religious people who are fine, thoughtful people—and I know many secularists who have been able to justify in left-wing language either mass murder, terror or religious fanaticism. These things are “objectively” anti-imperialist, you know, especially when they come from the Mideast. I have heard people—Americans and Europeans—throw fits about Bush’s religiosity all while they always “understand” Hezbollah or Hamas.

Here we come to another side to this story. Responses by liberals and the left to religious aggressiveness have sometimes been timid and sometimes self-deceptive. The left has always had a problem with the modern liberal state for social and economic reasons. But that liberal state did not come about simply because of “the rise of the bourgeoisie,” as an old, reductionist mantra had it. It also arose, especially in Europe, because of religious civil wars that finally exhausted murderous, God-crazed combatants; a political space and order, a domain of adjudication, was needed above organized holy warriors....

In my view, a secular state needs a humanist basis. Yes, that means that I think secular humanist culture should be privileged in liberal democracy (or in what I would prefer, social democracy) but not religion. The reason is that it can encompass religious lives, whereas religious culture cannot do the same for secularism and atheism. Humanism, with its Renaissance origins (among thinkers who were mostly religious in some way), fostered pluralism by legitimizing multiple authorities, leading people to evaluate for themselves, to see varied points of view, not just to accept a last word from one authority.

[Some of these arguments and formulations were presented before in a different context in Mitchell Cohen, “Auto-Emancipation and Anti-Semitism (Homage to Bernard-Lazare),” Jewish Social Studies, Fall 2003.]

These are prerequisites of citizenship in a free, pluralistic society – a society that assumes its members are grown-ups and can make choices about different options in life—secular, religious, or some mix—and then also can legitimately change their minds.
Jason Rosenhouse on Dawkins' The God Delusion:
One of the weaknesses of Dawkins' book is that he frequently writes as if the really important distinction in forging a civil, livable society is theism vs. atheism. It isn't. The important distinctions are secular society vs. government involvement in religion, and rational thought and evidence vs. irrational faith and revelation. You can reasonably say that theism is more closely associated with the bad parts of those last two dichotomies, and atheism is more closely associated with the good parts. But atheism good / theism bad is not born out by the evidence.
Can the rest of us have our planet back? Audio Rant.

Steven Waldman - The Development of Religious Liberty in America
I suspect that if the Founders were to visit us they would mostly be amazed and proud of how well their formula has worked. Compared to our past, and to most other countries, we have relatively little religious conflict and have seen one barrier after another fall. Religious "sects" once persecuted as false and heretical – Quaker, Catholic, Unitarian, Jehovah's Witness and Southern Baptist -- later sent men to the White House. At various points in recent years, we've had five Catholic Supreme Court Justices; five Jewish Cabinet secretaries, and five Mormon U.S. Senators, and stunningly little controversy resulted. We've witnessed a Ramadan dinner at the White House; a Hindu priest opening a session of the House of Representatives; and a Buddhist sworn in as Navy Chaplain.
Michael Shermer - Atheists Are Spiritual, Too
Spirituality is a way of being in the world, a sense of one's place in the cosmos, a relationship to that which extends beyond ourselves. There are many sources of spirituality; religion may be the most common, but it is by no means the only. Anything that generates a sense of awe may be a source of spirituality-art, for example. Consider the 1889 post-Impressionist painting 'The Starry Night' by Vincent van Gogh. It is a magnificent swirl of dark and light, punctuated by stars, with the sky and land delineated by horizon, and the infinite vastness of space hovering over humanity's tiny abode.

Van Gogh painted the conflict between body and soul, between objective and subjective, and between outer and inner experiences. As he told his brother, Theo: "I retain from nature a certain sequence and a certain correctness in placing the tones. I study nature so as not to do foolish things, to remain reasonable-however, I don't mind so much whether my color corresponds exactly, as long as it looks beautiful on my canvas." In fact, van Gogh described 'The Starry Night' to his brother as "an attempt to reach a religious viewpoint without God." Read "spiritual" for "religious."
Ronald Aronson in The Nation - 2
The surprising response to the New Atheist offensive should thus inspire us to think politically as well as philosophically. As a first step this demands creating a coalition between unbelievers and their natural allies, secular-minded believers. I am speaking first about many millions of Americans who nominally belong to a religion but effectively live without any active relationship either to it or to God, or belong to a church and attend services but are "tacit atheists," living day in and day out with only token reference to God. And I also include the many believers who accept the principle of America as a secular society. These include members of the liberal Jewish and Christian denominations, who have long practice in accommodating themselves to science and the modern world and who, as the National Council of Churches website tells us, may remain inspired by Genesis while not needing to take it in "literal, factual terms." Many of these turned up in the most significant finding of the Baylor survey, namely that more than one in four American "believers" does not mean by this a personal God at all but a distant God who has little or nothing to do with the world or themselves. This sounds very much like the deist God of "unbelievers" Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.

These believers, along with those who think of themselves as "spiritual," as well as professed unbelievers, help to explain why according to the Pew study so many Americans--32 percent--want less religious influence on government. Twenty-four percent say that President Bush talks too much about his religious faith and prayer, and 28 percent deny that the United States is a Christian nation. Most dramatically, a whopping 49 percent believe that Christian conservatives have gone too far "in trying to impose their religious values on the country." This, then, is an unreported secret of American life: Considerable numbers of Americans, religious and secular, are becoming fed up with the in-your-face religion that has come to mark our society.
Ronald Aronson in The Nation - 1
What began with publisher W.W. Norton taking a chance on a gutsy, hyperbolic and idiosyncratic attack on religion by a graduate student in neuroscience has grown into a remarkable intellectual wave. No fewer than five books by the New Atheists have appeared on bestseller lists in the past two years--Sam Harris's The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and now Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great. The scandalized media have both attacked and inflated the phenomenon. After the New York Times Book Review, for example, ran a thoughtful review of Harris and then a negative front-page review of Dawkins, the daily paper published two weak op-ed attacks on the writers and a vapid article on how atheists celebrate Christmas, followed by tongue-in-cheek admiration in the Book Review for Hitchens's ability to promote his career by saying the unexpected
Video Hedges Vs. Hitchens - "a scathing critique of both religious and secular fundamentalists."

A Purple State of Mind A conversation of two friends in an attempt to bridge the gap between believer and non-believer.
We've become a nation of speech-makers. Everyone has their bullet points. Everyone takes aim. Left versus right. Gay versus straight. Atheist versus believer. The shrapnel has caught all of us in the crossfire, and we struggle to respond like soldiers; we fire back, but our own guns fail us. As a person of faith, Craig is troubled by the perception of Christians as judgmental and hypocritical. How could Jesus, the great defender of the poor, the hungry and the hurting have been turned into a hater? As a reporter in the Balkans, John witnessed the process by which religious and ethnic identity drives division. He's unnerved by the potential for a war of words to become something far worse.

Purple State of Mind, our movie, is an 80-minute effort to bridge the cultural gap, to push past politics, and wade into the middle ground where most people live.
The Wire as a Prophetic Rant against the System Ditto.

An atheist's life - Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro, Barack Obama's mother.

Theists aren't happy about the New Atheists - video and comments.

New Atheist Sam Harris and pro-religion blogger Andrew Sullivan debate on Beliefnet.

The Problem with Religious Moderates - Sam Harris
If religion addresses a genuine sphere of understanding and human necessity, then it should be susceptible to progress; its doctrines should become more useful, rather than less. Progress in religion, as in other fields, would have to be a matter of present inquiry, not the mere reiteration of past doctrine. Whatever is true now should be discoverable now, and describable in terms that are not an outright affront to the rest of what we know about the world. By this measure, the entire project of religion seems perfectly backward. It cannot survive the changes that have come over us-culturally, technologically, and even ethically. Otherwise, there are few reasons to believe that we will survive it.

Moderates do not want to kill anyone in the name of God, but they want us to keep using the word "God" as though we knew what we were talking about. And they do not want anything too critical said about people who really believe in the God of their fathers, because tolerance, perhaps above all else, is sacred. To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world-to say, for instance, that the Bible and the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish-is antithetical to tolerance as moderates currently conceive it. But we can no longer afford the luxury of such political correctness.
The New Atheists loathe religion far too much to plausibly challenge it - Madeleine Bunting with reader's comments.
What's clear is that this wave of New Atheism is deeply political - and against some of its targets even a devout churchgoer might cheer them on. What they all have in common is a loathing of an increasing religiosity in US politics, which has contributed to a disastrous presidency and undermined scientific understanding. Dennett excoriates the madness of a faith that looks forward to the end of the world and the return of the messiah. What Dawkins hates is that most Americans still haven't accepted evolution and support the teaching of intelligent design; according to one poll, 50% of the US electorate believe the story of Noah. He argues that "there is nothing to choose between the Afghan Taliban and the American Christian equivalent ... The genie of religious fanaticism is rampant in present-day America."

Harris similarly draws an analogy between Muslims and the American Christian right: "Non-believers like myself stand beside you dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living. But we stand dumbstruck by you as well - by your denial of tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service of your religious myths and by your attachment to an imaginary God."

This is popular stuff - a plague on both your houses - on both sides of the Atlantic after a war on terror in which both sides have used their gods as justification for appalling brutality. But it tips over into something much more sinister in Harris's latest book. He suggests that Islamic states may be politically unreformable because so many Muslims are "utterly deranged by their religious faith". In a another passage Harris goes even further, and reaches a disturbing conclusion that "some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them". This sounds like exactly the kind of argument put forward by those who ran the Inquisition. As one New York commentator put it, we're familiar with religious intolerance, now we have to recognise irreligious intolerance.
The New Atheism
by A. J. Chien
According to some booksellers, wanting to “know thine enemy” is partly why books have been selling even in the Bible Belt. But another dynamic may also be at work. Dawkins suggests that what John Stuart Mill wrote in the nineteenth century remains true today: “The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments, of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue, are complete skeptics in religion.” But in a highly religious culture, declaring oneself an atheist can be as difficult as open homosexuality was fifty years ago. Today, after the Gay Pride movement, 55% of Gallup respondents declare willingness to vote for a homosexual candidate: a lower percentage than those who would vote for a Catholic, African-American, woman, Mormon, or septuagenarian, but higher than the 45% who would vote for an atheist . Dawkins and others hope to help inspire an Atheist Pride movement, building a critical mass that would encourage closet non-believers to come out.

Dawkins’ central argument is a variation on the argument from design, which he sees as “easily today’s most popular argument offered in favour of the existence of God.” Organized complexity in nature could not have arisen by chance. Just as upon finding a watch one would infer a watchmaker, upon finding eyes, wings, or digestive systems one should infer a maker of nature. In his earlier book The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins admires the wonder of the 18th century theologian William Paley who made this argument, preferring it to the blasé reply of those who see no need to explain nature. But of course Dawkins and modern science give a different explanation than Paley’s. While genetic mutations do arise by chance, occasionally a mutation improves fitness. Individuals with such a mutation tend to have more descendants, enlarging the mutation’s share of the gene pool. Over a great many generations, a succession of thus naturally-selected mutations leads to complex adaptation and the appearance of design.

So the argument from design fails: true, it’s highly unlikely that organized complexity arose by chance, but it didn’t. This much only shows that God’s existence isn’t proven. But Dawkins aims at more, to prove God’s non-existence, by varying the argument to apply to God. A being capable of making nature must have an organized complexity of its own, and it’s highly unlikely this could have arisen by chance. So God, at least a creative God such as the God of Abraham, probably does not exist. I think Dawkins is right that there’s no good reply to this, because it exposes the double standard that’s essential to all versions of creationism or "intelligent design": nature must be explained, but God not at all.
A Bahai perspective on The New Atheism.

Against ideological atheism - Damon Linker in The New Republic:
Politically speaking, liberalism takes no position on theological questions. One can be a liberal and a believer (as were Martin Luther King Jr., Reinhold Niebuhr, and countless others in the American past and present) or a liberal and an unbeliever (as were Hook, Richard Rorty, and a significantly smaller number of Americans over the years). This is in part because liberalism is a philosophy of government, not a philosophy of man--or God. But it is also because modern liberalism derives, at its deepest level, from ancient liberalism--from the classical virtue of liberality, which meant generosity and openness. To be liberal in the classical sense is to accept intellectual variety--and the social complexity that goes with it--as the ineradicable condition of a free society.

It is to accept, in other words, that, although I may settle the question of God to my personal satisfaction, it is highly unlikely that all of my fellow citizens will settle it in the same way--that differences in life experience, social class, intelligence, and the capacity for introspection will invariably prevent a free community from reaching unanimity about the fundamental mysteries of human existence, including God. Liberal atheists accept this situation; ideological atheists do not. That, in the end, is what separates the atheism of Socrates from the atheism of the French Revolution.

....Still, the rise of the new atheists is cause for concern--not among the targets of their anger, who can rest secure in the knowledge that the ranks of the religious will, here in America, dwarf the ranks of atheists for the foreseeable future; but rather among those for whom the defense of secular liberalism is a high political priority. Of course, many of these secular liberals are probably the same people who propelled Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens onto the best-seller lists by purchasing their books en masse--people who are worried about the dual threats to secular politics posed by militant Islam and the American religious right. These people are correct to be nervous about the future of secular liberalism, to perceive that it needs passionate, eloquent defenders. The problem is that the rhetoric of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens will undermine liberalism, not bolster it: Far from shoring up the secular political tradition, their arguments are likely to produce a country poised precariously between opposite forms of illiberalism.
I don't believe in atheists - an interview with Chris Hedges in
The Enlightenment was both a curse and a blessing, because it was really a reaction to the kind of superstition, intolerance, bigotry, anti-intellectualism of the clerics, of the church. But it also ended up with the Jacobins, [who said] well, if we can't make certain segments of the society "civilized," as we define civilization, then they must be eradicated, in the same way that you eradicate a virus.

I write in the book that not believing in God is not dangerous. Not believing in sin is very dangerous. I think both the Christian right and the New Atheists in essence don't believe in their own sin, because they externalize evil. Evil is always something out there that can be eradicated. For the New Atheists, it's the irrational religious hordes. I mean, Sam Harris, at the end of his first book, asks us to consider a nuclear first strike on the Arab world. Both Hitchens and Harris defend the use of torture. Of course, they're great supporters of preemptive war, and I don't think this is accidental that their political agendas coalesce completely with the Christian right.

Do you think the new atheists are similarly uninterested in their impact? It seems that what the New Atheists write and say is somewhat a performance.

Well, not Harris. Harris is just intellectually shallow. Harris doesn't know anything about religion or the Middle East. For Hitchens, it's about a performance, and that was true when he was on the left. He hasn't changed. It's all about him. It's all about being a contrarian. He reminds me of Ann Coulter, he's that kind of a figure. He's witty, and he's funny and insulting. You know I debated him, and in the middle of the debate he starts shouting, "Shame on you for defending suicide bombers!" Of course, unlike him, I've actually stood at the edge of a suicide bombing attack. That kind of stuff is just ... it's the epistemology of television. They make a lot of money off it, but it's gross and disgusting and anti-intellectual and not at all about real discussion.
A review of The New Atheist Crusaders and their Unholy Grail: The Misguided Quest to Destroy Your Faith by Becky Garrison, review by Carl McColman.
"Scorn the devil and he will flee," wrote Martin Luther, and this appears to be one of Garrison's guiding principles as well. She gently pokes fun at the new atheists, but she's also aggressively willing to go after the blind spots in their logic, with an overriding theme of her book being, "Why do you only pick on what's wrong with religion? That hardly seems fair." She points out that while the new atheists are renowned for their scientific acumen, they make for pretty lousy theologians — since they're arguing against a caricature of religiosity that most informed believers would themselves disavow.

Still, Garrison saves her best shots and most salients points for Christians (and other believers) themselves. She notes that what really fires up the new atheists is how Christianity has been reduced to sloganeering ("repent of your sins and you'll be saved"), bad science (since evolution isn't in the Bible, it must not exist) and mass marketing. Exasperated, she asks, "Why would anyone in his right mind want to follow such a banal, bubble-gum belief system? I know I wouldn't."

Garrison suggests that Christians need to spend less time defending their faith against atheists or other secularists, and more time following the examples of people like Shane Claiborne or Peter Rollins, who are so busy actually trying to live the Gospel that they don't have time for middle class prejudices or the latest Jesus jewelry. Her message is as simple as it is powerful: once Christians actually get down to the business of following Christ, most of what annoys the new atheists will disappear anyway. Testimonies.

NPR - God No! transcript.

Stanley Fish objects to the evidence of the new atheists and their own faith in the NYT.

A (poor) theological response by John F. Haught in The Christian Century
Dawkins declares that the biblical God is a monster, Harris that God is evil, Hitchens that God is not great. But without some fixed sense of rightness how can one distinguish what is monstrous, evil or "not great" from its opposite? In order to make such value judgments one must assume, as the hard-core atheists are honest enough to acknowledge, that there exists somewhere, in some mode of being, a realm of rightness that does not owe its existence completely to human invention, Darwinian selection or social construction. And if we allow the hard-core atheists into our discussion, we can draw this conclusion: If absolute values exist, then God exists. But if God does not exist, then neither do absolute values, and one should not issue moral judgments as though they do.

Belief in God or the practice of religion is not necessary in order for people to be highly moral beings. We can agree with soft-core atheists on this point. But the real question, which comes not from me but from the hard-core atheists, is: Can you rationally justify your unconditional adherence to timeless values without implicitly invoking the existence of God?
Over a half-century ago, January 18, 1948, the minister of All Souls Church in Washington D.C., A. Powell Davis, had this response to people like Haught in a powerful sermon described here. (The sermon itself doesn't appear to be online.)
And even to those who claim to seek no God, Dr. Davies reached out a hand as a fellow-pilgrim. in a sermon, "The God of the Atheist," he quoted movingly beautiful passages from Robert Ingersoll, noted nineteenth century agnostic, who nonetheless was "so bold for truth, so quick in sympathy, so generous in compassion." Dr. Davies quoted Ingersoll's words: "He who loves, worships," and added, "Upon such a man I have nothing to urge. Certainly no word of reproach. Nor do I have a wish to better his thinking, or improve his creed. If he will not kneel beside me, I will stand beside him." "Why should any of us be confined within a single area of religious culture?" he asked. "When I read Amos and Jeremiah, I say 'Would to God I were a Jew.' When I read the Parable of the Good Samaritan, I say 'Would I were a Galilean.' When I read the 13th of 1st Corinthians, I wish with all my heart that I might be a Christian after the manner of the Apostle Paul. When I think of Buddha and his Eightfold Path, I say, 'I, too, would be a Buddhist.' And when I remember the trial of Socrates, I say in awe but with exalted spirit, 'Oh that I might be so brave a humanist.' And thus at the end, there is nothing I can say but that, like Emerson and Charming, I want to live with the privilege of the illimitable mind."
"Too often," according to the Washington Daily News, "the religious man is a bigot, the righteous man a humorless doctrinaire, the crusader an intolerant ass. Dr. Davies was certainly religious, righteous and a crusader, but he was broadminded, witty and kind." It should perhaps be pointed out that many Christians brand Unitarian Universalists like Dr. Davies heretics. They also find the welcoming of Muslims and pagans and atheists and Budhists and Christians, etc. into congregations confusing to say the least.

1 comment:

Gary said...

Note to Danny Haszard,

I am not a fan of the Jehovah Witnesses, too little love in their religion, but this post had almost nothing to do with them. No reason to post your list of the wrongs of the door knockers.