Posts Tagged ‘atheism’

Classy Atheist Graphic Design

June 1, 2008

Speaking of atheism, the “Come out as an atheist” website imageand attendant graphic design are, I think, very nicely done. The web page isn’t too busy—probably the most common problem with web design, as seen for example in the homepage of the campaign’s most prominent member—the Caslon typeface in the headings is classy, and the swashy Scarlet Letter A has a nice level of  groovy coolness. And I think the “Come Out” message is pretty savvy in today’s climate, at least for the campaign’s target audience. God knows (can I say that in this context?) this is far better conceived than that ridiculous “Brights” thing.

Christopher Hitchens explains Martin Luther King

April 5, 2008

When you find someone citing an opponent saying something outrageous, it generally behooves you to check the source. It’s easy to take statements out of context, to twist their meaning, to make things up altogether. So when I read in Chris Hedges’ I Don’t Believe In Atheists that Christopher Hitchens said of Martin Luther King that “In no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, was he [King] a Christian,” I thought I should check the source. And in fact it was misleading to strip the sentence of its context. The whole passage is far less believable:

Christian reformism arose originally from the ability of its advocates to contrast the Old Testament with the New. The cobbled-together ancient Jewish books had an ill-tempered and implacable and bloody and provincial god, who was probably more frightening when he was in a good mood (the classic attribute of the dictator). Whereas the cobbled-together books of the last two thousand years contained handholds for the hopeful, and references to meekness, forgiveness, lambs and sheep, and so forth. This distinction is more apparent than real, since it is only in the reported observations of Jesus that we find any mention of hell and eternal punishment. The god of Moses would brusquely call for other tribes, including his favorite one, to suffer massacre and plague and even extirpation, but when the grave closed over his victims he was essentially finished with them unless he remembered to curse their succeeding progeny. Not until the advent of the Prince of Peace do we hear of the ghastly idea of further punishing and torturing the dead. First presaged by the rantings of John the Baptist, the son of god is revealed as one who, if his milder words are not accepted straightaway, will condemn the inattentive to everlasting fire. This had provided texts for clerical sadists ever since, and features very lip-smackingly in the tirades of Islam. At no point did Dr. King—who was once photagraphed in a bookstore waiting calmly for a physician while the knife of a maniac was sticking straight out of his chest—even hint that those who injured and reviled him were to be threatened with any revenge or punishment, in this world or the next, save the consequences of their own brute selfishness and stupidity. And he even phrased that appeal more courteously than, in my humble opinion, its targets deserved. In no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, was he a Christian.

[God Is Not Great, pp. 175-176]

So MLK could not possibly have been a Christian because he wasn’t vindictive enough.

I already knew that Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, and other “New Atheists,” demonstrate no real understanding of religion, judging it entirely by its most viciously stupid (and unfortunately, loudest) examples. And I knew that they are fond of the rhetorical trick of defining terms such as “religion” and “Christian” and “atheist” so that anyone they (and their intended audience) admires is classed among the irreligious. But this is even more than I had expected. When the result of a line of argument is that patently absurd, you have to wonder about the arguer.

Where to start? There are some genuinely interesting and subtle specifics in there about the relationship of Christianity to Judaism, and the milieu in which Jesus and the evangelists lived, and about the links between the old and new testaments. But I’ll ignore those for the moment, and hope to come back to them in a later post. For now I’ll just mention that even among the most literal of literalists the relationship of what sacred tests actually say and what people believe and how they act is subtle. Yes, Christianity does have a long and deplorable tradition of condemning heretics to Hell. It has an equally long and altogether admirable tradition of forgiveness. Yes, Jesus said “Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell,” but he also said “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” and “Turn the other cheek.”  Mainline Christians (whom Hitchens et al seem to regard as irrelevant and somewhere between pathetic and contemptible) tend to ignore the hellfire bits altogether now, and in my experience evangelicals and fundamentalists (real ones, not televangelists) value forgiveness and love, not vindictiveness and schadenfreude.  They are genuinely concerned with the welfare of your soul, annoying as that can be.  The possibility of your spending eternity in a lake of fire is something that bothers them, not something they exult in.  They genuinely mean it when they say, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”

Hitchens goes on to say that

This does not in the least diminish his standing as a great preacher, any more than does the fact that he was a mammal like the rest of us, and probably plagiarized his doctoral dissertation, and had a notorious fondness for booze and for women a good deal younger than his wife.  He spent the remainder of his last evening in orgiastic dissipation, for which I don’t blame him.  (These things, which of course disturb the faithful, are rather encouraging in that they show that a high more character is not a precondition for great moral accomplishments.)

It should be noted here that Hitchens is generally fond of vice, and so this paragraph is not necessarily the insult it sounds like.  And he actually has a point about goodness and greatness, and saints with feet of clay—whatever the truth of the allegations about King (which I feel a bit bad quoting).  Perfect saints are boring and not terribly interesting, and are not useful as role models.

Now I should mention here that Hitchens himself doesn’t really believe what he says, or at least he has himself said the opposite.  (I’m not sure he can be said to believe in anything, and he is admirably unbound by any foolish consistency.)  In his review of Ann Coulter’s screed Godless, he says in response to her equation of liberalism and Godlessness and to her “crass choice” of the word “lynching”:

The umbrella group in this campaign was even called the ‘Southern Christian Leadership Conference’, not that this prevented many secularists and atheists from participating in it. Finally, I think we can safely say that Dr Martin Luther King “appeared” to believe in god.

Hitchens is an enormously entertaining writer, even when—especially when, come to think of it—he is at his most vitriolic and infuriating.  In that he is not unlike a saner and more literate (if less leggy) Ann Coulter (do read that review, which is funny).  But don’t take anything he says seriously without a heavy dose of critical thinking and fact-checking.  Perhaps he would tell you the same thing.

The God Delusion

March 28, 2008

I picked up Richard DawkinsThe God Delusion as airplane/vacation reading last week. As with everything I’ve seen by the “New Atheists”–Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett–I find myself in complete agreement with 95% of Dawkins’ points–indeed, with practically everything except his overall premise.

Let me get some of the obvious points of agreement out of the way. Yes, belief in an anthropomorphic personal God, especially as described in pretty much any set of sacred scriptures, has no rational justification. Yes, many dreadful things have been done in the name of religion (but note how I phrase that, and read on). Yes, it boggles the mind that evolution and stem-cell research are at all controversial. Yes, people who claim that our Constitution and laws are based on the Ten Commandments are either willfully ignorant or outright lying. Yes, atheism should be respectable and acceptable in public life. Yes, atheists are on average exactly as moral and ethical as religious people.

That said, on to the more interesting criticism. Dawkins is a prominent (and interesting) enough figure that his book has elicited a great many responses, to many of which he responds in turn in his preface to the paperback edition. I’ll start by responding to his responses to the responses (his paraphrases of which are in bold):

  • You can’t criticize religion without a detailed analysis of learned books of theology. Dawkins points out that learned books of theology are really irrelevant to his point that “the God hypothesis” is very weak. Theologians generally start with the assumption that God exists and proceed from there; attempts to prove God’s existence based on logic or other “scientific” are laughably weak. He’s right there, so far as that goes. The real problem I have isn’t his simplistic analysis of theology, or his simplistic treatment of, say, the Bible, it is his (apparently) simplistic understanding of religion as a whole, on which more below.
  • You always attack the worst of religion and ignore the best. To this Dawkins responds that for most practical purposes religion is the worst of religion: “to the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of Robertson, Falwell, or Haggard; Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini.” The “best of religion” is to Dawkins significant only in that it enables and encourages the worst. To this I would say that (i) I hope (and think) that he’s wrong about the numbers–and I’ll note that he doesn’t provide any actual evidence for his position–and that (ii) in my experience the vast majority of evangelical/fundamentalist/pentecostal Christians are altogether more admirable than their alleged leaders such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and Ted Haggard (I am resisting the urge to make a Ted Haggard joke here.  Oh heck, watch this.).  Dawkins is right that the Robertsons and Falwells have altogether too much influence over too many people, including, very unfortunately, much of our government, but their influence can be (and is) overstated.
  • I’m an atheist, but I wish to dissociate myself from your shrill, strident, and intemperate, intolerant, ranting language. Dawkins points out that in comparison to the language used in e.g. restaurant reviews his is quite mild. Religion, he says, enjoys a wholly undeserved freedom from criticism. Indeed, one of his goals is to help change that. To a certain extent I agree with him here: his language really is pretty mild, though it must be said that in this he is unlike his fellow New Atheists Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. There is however, a certain communications gap at work here: one man’s wit is another man’s rant.
  • You’re only preaching to the choir. Well, he is preaching to the choir, but choirs like to be preached to. And there is a point: he is trying to convince “closet atheists” to come out, to make atheism respectable. This is a laudable goal.
  • You’re as much of a fundamentalist as those you criticize. No, he’s not, exactly. I believe Dawkins when he says he would be willing to change his mind on, say, evolution, overnight if presented with incontrovertible evidence. That is in fact the way science works, and scientists love nothing more than having to change their minds (not that you’d know it from the way they talk sometimes, but it’s true). The problem here is more subtle, and really applies more to the likes of Hitchens and Harris than to Dawkins himself. The New Atheists may not be fundamentalists about evolution, but the are perilously close to unshakable belief in the superiority of their own reason over, well, everyone else’s. That unshakable belief is just as odious as Christian fundamentalism, and would be just as dangerous if there were more like them. Chris Hedges discusses this at length in I Don’t Believe In Atheists; I’ll have a bit more to say on it below.
  • I’m an atheist myself, but religion is here to stay. Live with it.
  • I’m an atheist myself, but people need religion. I’m more or less with him here; the first statement (whether it turns out to be true or not) is stupidly self-defeating, the second really is patronizing.

Not covered so succinctly is Dawkins’ assumption that if religion were simply to vanish the world would be a better place. That may be true (insofar as any conterfactual can be said to be “true”), but neither Dawkins nor anyone else I know of has even come close to justifying it. Certainly any number of atrocities have been committed in the name of religion, but that is not at all the same thing as saying they have been committed because of religion. Religion is and always provided an excellent excuse for whatever people wanted to do anyway: Dawkins’ list of horrors at the beginning of his preface:

Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as “Christ-killers,” no Northern Ireland “troubles,” no “honour killings,” no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money…

[he left out the Thirty Years’ War, the French Wars of Religion, the fires of Smithfield,…] demonstrates plenty of correlation but less causation than one might think. The Crusades, for example, began because the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I wanted mercenaries to help him fight the Turks, and Pope Urban II was only too happy to rid Europe of even a small part a violent and greedy warrior class. Yugoslavia and Ireland’s problems are far more political than religious: the religions are merely convenient markers (I hope to post about this point at much greater length, eventually). Ditto for the Gunpowder Plot, on a smaller scale. Televangelists are only one species of a great order of scam artists. Even in the more difficult and less comprehensible cases of suicide bombers and honor killings and witch-hunts, true motivations are difficult or impossible to discern. Religion provides a channel for pre-existing hatred, and a tool, one of many, for unscrupulous leaders to control their duped followers. But it is neither necessary or sufficient for hatred and atrocity. If there were no religion, we would be more than capable of finding other reasons to kill each other in awful ways.

The last century provides what should be conclusive examples that we can commit unimaginable horrors without the aid of religion: horrors don’t come much more horrible than Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, to name only the two biggest and most obvious. Dawkins does discuss both at some length, but he misses the point, or at least my point. He seems to be defending atheism from the charge that, without a God-given moral compass, it leads inevitably to Hitler and Stalin. That’s not my point at all. My point is that they show pretty conclusively that religion is not the sole cause of the world’s ills.

Now what does link many of history’s evils is unthinking devotion to ideas and causes. Religion certainly excels at that. But so does nationalism, and even misunderstanding of allegedly scientific principles. Dawkins does understand this, I think. I fear that his fellow New Atheists Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens do not. Chris Hedges puts it strongly, using the language of sin:

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.

[And later:

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.


I have another deeper and more subtle problem with Dawkins and the other New Atheists, perhaps the root of all my disagreement with them. They don’t seem to understand exactly what religion is: they confuse Religion with Belief. An easy mistake, to be sure: most True Believers also confuse their religion with their belief. And belief is a central part of most religions, certainly of Christianity in its most prevalent forms. But any religion is much more than its belief system: it’s a culture, a society, a way of life, a worldview. That I think is why we refer to Christian children and Muslim children and Jewish children, a practice Dawkins despises: not because they believe in the various tenets of their religions (although they probably do, of course), but because they are part of their respective cultures.

Perhaps it is because they don’t understand, or at any rate acknowledge, the full reality of religion and religious experience that Dawkins and the other New Atheists do not admit of any categories other than “deluded believers in anthropomorphic deities” and “atheists.” That scares me a little; it reeks of a fundamentalism as insidious as the religious right’s. Or perhaps the reason they don’t allow “deeply religious nonbelievers” to identify as such is purely polemical: they want all nonbelievers to proclaim themselves proudly as atheists.