Friday, April 20, 2007

The impact of atheistic books

Via James Hrynyshyn of the Island of Doubt, I became aware of this article in Canada's Maclean's magazine.

Is God poison?

A new movement blames God for every social problem from Darfur to child abuse

A bad start, since most atheists, including those mentioned in that particular article, are well aware that atheists can cause problems as well. What we are just saying, is that there is nothing inheritly moral about religion.

God is a delusion, if his enemies are to be believed: nothing more than the creation of a species with prefrontal lobes too small, and aggressive instincts too strong, for its own good. His worship is poison: his adherents commit child abuse -- metaphoric and actual -- on a daily basis; and the murderous clashes of rival gangs of his followers are the greatest single threat to humanity's future. Whatever else God may be, he is most assuredly not dead. You can take his critics' word, and the depth of their passion, for that.

Does the last two sentences make sense to anyone? I think it might be a way of saying that religion is not irrelevant, even if you don't believe in a god, but I don't think anyone has made that claim. Rather, I think that's what many people find problematic. But it's true that God is not dead, just like Thinkerbell is not dead.

Next month sees the publication of Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, a coruscating moral denunciation by the polemicist tutti polemicists. It will join the steady stream of atheist texts that began five years ago, after 9/11 so brutally demonstrated that religious fanaticism is still a force to be reckoned with. So too is atheism, at least as far as book sales go. Oxford scientist Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, which combines merciless schoolboy-level mockery of religion with the lessons of evolutionary biology, has been a fixture on bestseller lists since the fall. Letter to a Christian Nation, in which American Sam Harris casually states that raising children to believe they are members of a religious group is a "ludicrous obscenity," nevertheless became a Book-of-the-Month club selection last year. And Michel Onfray's In Defense of Atheism, which drips with Gallic scorn for the feeble-minded faithful, and praises the French Revolution for turning all the churches into hospitals, was a bestseller across Europe and, in translation, now on this side of the Atlantic as well.

I hadn't heard about Onfray's book before. Might need to get hold of that. And neither had I heard about Harris' book becoming a Book-of-the-Month club selection. That's great, since it brings his message out to a wider audience than many would have expected.

"The argument between faith and non-faith is cresting again, in a way that's not been seen since the Scopes monkey trial," Hitchens says over the phone from his Washington home. "Whether we're arguing about intervening in Darfur or about the recognition of gay marriage, underneath we're always arguing about religion." He could easily have added from an endless series of other topics across Europe and North America: hot-button issues in a debate many thought was long over.

Today, 82 years after Scopes, the never-ending struggle between supporters and opponents over inserting Intelligent Design, creationism's latest incarnation, into the nation's schools is a religious fight. (It's one that invokes fierce passions: judges who have ruled ID unconstitutional have received death threats.) Angry debates over the permissibility of abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, and the public display of religious symbols and icons are all essentially faith-based. In America many of the devout not only wish to maintain the customary display of Christmas imagery in public places, but add to it, in particular by posting the Ten Commandments in courthouses.

In more secular Canada the now-settled issue of gay marriage rights was fought over scriptural grounds; so is the residual matter of whether marriage commissioners can opt out of officiating gay weddings. As with pursuing conscientious objector status in wartime, only a religious justification will receive even a hearing. A tiny Quebec town's adoption of "standards" for its (non-existent) immigrants is now internationally infamous. Across the country there have been fights over practices associated with the stricter forms of various religions -- wearing facial veils (Islam), carrying even symbolic weapons (Sikhism), gender segregation (Judaism) and the less-than-scientific biology taught in some religious schools (Christianity).

No surprise, then, that what Hitchens calls "the oldest argument in human history" is increasingly engaging the public. In London's Westminster Central Hall on March 27, some 2,000 people turned out to hear Hitchens, Dawkins and philosopher A.C. Grayling debate a trio of religious authorities on the question "We'd be better off without Religion." (The motion carried, 1,205 to 778.) Hitchens is pleased to see the interest. He thinks it's a sign of hope. "We atheists never thought religion would die out," he continues, "because it comes from fear of death, but we did think theocracy would die. Instead, those of us who used to think we'd just live a life free from religion are fed up with insults and threats from believers, with Danish cartoonists who can't work and murdered Dutch filmmakers, with saying getting AIDS is better, more godly, than using condoms. You know who's a neighbour of mine now? Ayaan Hirsi Ali -- America's first refugee from western Europe in living memory."

Hitchen is playing fast and loose with the truth about Hirsi Ali - she left the Netherlands, because she lost her citizenship, when it was found out that she had lied to obtain it. This is not to say that there were not credible threaths on her life, but those were not the reason for her leaving Europe - a job at the AEI might have a lot more to do with it.
Other than that, he is to a large degree right, even if he tries to put it in the most brutal way possible.

As Hitchens suggests, atheists were already uneasy with trends in their own Western societies when they awoke to the rude shock of Islamic terrorism -- the attacks in New York, London and Madrid, the murderous Sunni-Shia civil war in Iraq. The events galvanized them, but not only against militant Islam, as one might expect. The atheist authors all agree a clash of civilizations is under way, but it's not between East and West, or Muslims and Christians, but between rationality and superstition. Onfray, who despises equally what he calls "the fascism of the lion" (the Western side) and the "fascism of the fox" (the Muslim world), refuses to take sides, while Dawkins and Harris are primarily devoted to battling American Christianity.

I think that if the author had done his research a little deeper, he would have found that Dawkins is devoted to fight against all irrational beliefs, though he is primary focused on Christianity right now, since it has the greatest direct influence on his daily life in Britain. So, no he is not "primarily devoted to battling American Christianity" - he is primarily devoted to battling the brand of Christianity that affects his life the most - this would be the fundamentalist brand, that has won some influence through PM Tony Blair, and which affects the world through US foreign policy.

The Oxford professor, in particular, seems genuinely worried over the possible emergence of the ultimate rogue state, a nuclear-armed American Christian fundamentalist theocracy. (Dawkins' anti-religious beliefs are tightly grafted to his anti-Americanism. Especially his anti-Bushism: "I just can't stand the man's style," he told the Times of London, "the way he swaggers and struts and smirks and the way he looks sly and deceitful and the way Americans can't see it.") Like Harris, Dawkins thinks something can and should be done about this -- oddly enough, through ridicule of "dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads."

Dawkins is no more anti-American than I am. I thought we had reached a point where you could be anti-Bush without being considered anti-American. Apparently that is not the case in Canada.
Oh, and laughter has always been the biggest enemy of fear.

Hitchens, on the other hand, is virtually the last leftist supporter remaining for George W. Bush's war in Iraq, and finds himself rather in the position of Churchill making common cause with Stalin. ("If Hitler had invaded hell," the wartime British prime minister remarked, he, Churchill, would at least have made "a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.") As a British expat and an admirer of Hirsi Ali, who was driven from Holland by Islamic death threats, Hitchens is not inclined to see Europe as the font of all secular virtues, or America as its antithesis. (Not like Harris, an American who constantly exudes the impression his overtly religious countrymen are embarrassing him in front of the Europeans.) And he allows himself to have been a "guarded admirer" of Pope John Paul II's moral and physical courage.

Hitchens is a leftist????? Man, they most smoke some impressive weed in Canada.

From now on, I am leaving out some paragraphs here and there, since it's a quite long article. Instead I am going to c&p those parts of the article that I have comments to. Obviously, I recommend reading the article in full.

Religion kills, Hitchens says, because it is tribal and totalitarian, the most extreme form of in-group/out-group marker ever known. Although some faiths are more pacific than others, that has more to do with their relative powerlessness -- were the Amish, say, to rise to supreme authority over other faiths, they would soon begin to resemble the medieval Catholic Church. Power corrupts religion uniquely; because it considers its doctrines uniquely right, it necessarily seeks to interfere in the lives of non-believers. Thus religion offers a constantly available licence for ordinary people to behave cruelly, sometimes "in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow." The entire history of Christian anti-Semitism -- not to mention its racial offspring, the Nazis' Final Solution -- is a case in point. And the cruelty and irrationality is still enacted regularly in less violent ways in the present day.

I find it problematic that Hitchens wants to put the sins of Hitler at the feet of religion. While it is quite true that Nazism was not the atheist ideology that many religious people think it is, the crimes commited by the Nazis were due to the personality cult surrounding Hitler and the national glorification expressed through ideas of racial purity (among other things).
I think it could be more correctly be claimed that Nazism, Communism and fundamentalist religion share certain traits (claims about absolute truths and predefined rights and destinies).

The polemicists' total rejection of faith makes the very existence of religious moderates a puzzle to them. (Dawkins, in particular, seems spiritually deaf to everything from the sense of wonder to the pull of family and community.) Except, perhaps, for Hitchens, who seems to be the only one who admits to having religious friends, the atheists' own dirty little secret -- their contempt for moderates -- is never far from the surface of their books. They assert that moderates enable fanatics by allowing religious arguments a privileged place -- it was a liberal Catholic debating partner who told Hitchens that religious liberty demanded that mohels be allowed to carry out their ancient rite as they saw fit. "In a funny way," Dawkins said in an interview last fall in reference to one devout scientist, "I have more respect for a young creationist," referring to someone who proclaims that life on earth is only 6,000 years old.

Anyone who had read anything that Dawkins have written could not possible write anything like "Dawkins, in particular, seems spiritually deaf to everything from the sense of wonder to the pull of family and community". His books are a constant testimony to his sense of wonder. And why should atheists not feel the pull of family and community? We are all part of both.

That contempt, along with the stridency and a totalitarian disdain for everything to do with religion, is rooted in fear and failure. They think they're losing. The triumph of atheism, so confidently proclaimed by its prophets more than a century ago, now seems as far off as the Second Coming. In 1867, in his landmark poem "Dover Beach," Matthew Arnold could only hear the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the sea of faith, but the religious tide has turned with a vengeance. "This Letter," Harris concludes his book, "is the product of failure -- the failure of many brilliant attacks upon religion that preceded it, the failure of our schools to announce the death of God in a way that each generation can understand, failures great and small that have kept almost every society on this earth muddling over God and despising those who muddle differently."

No, they don't think they are losing. They think that they are not winning. There is quite a big difference between those two stances. The religious fundamentalists have a great influence, but they have always had that. Now is the first time that atheists are actually being heard in the US, largely due to people like Harris and Dawkins.

The mock humility of this may be worthy of a televangelist -- can't Harris see a single positive reason for religion's ongoing vigour? -- but it is the atheist perspective encapsulated. That makes it an enigma for Christians, particularly those outside robustly religious America. Aren't the ungodly in charge now, the churches empty on Sunday, religious leaders and religious viewpoints shouted out of the political arena? Are not contraception, abortion and, very soon, homosexual marriage the norm across the Western world? Who's winning this war anyway?

Since the rest of the article is mainly dealing with the US, this is a non sequitur. However, let's deal with it anyway - a number of countries, Poland among them, have gone towards a more restrictive abortion policy. In Denmark, a right-winged memeber of Parliament, who happens to be a priest, stated yesterday that the scarf worn by Muslims are equivalent to the swastica worn by Nazis, during a debate in Parliament. Does that sound like religious viewpoints are shouted out of the political arena? And to keep it more local to the author of the article, it's just a couple of weeks ago that I wrote about how religious-based bad science teaching was on the march in Canada.

There is more that I could comment on, but this post is getting overly long anyway. I can't really say that I am too impressed by the article, but at least there are now articles about atheism, and the arguments against the presumed morality of religion, out there. Hopefully they will be better written, and better researched, next time.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

My inaugural address at the Great White Throne Judgment of the Dead, after I have raptured out billions! The Secret Rapture soon, by my hand!
Read My Inaugural Address
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April 21, 2007 8:30 PM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

How exactly does that related to the post? I took a quick glance, and it seems to be a lot of rambling writing.

As an aside, are you aware that Hitler's first name was Adolf, not Adolph? And that the cartoon picturing Muhammed with a bomb showed a bomb with a fuse, not a time bomb?

If that website is serious, I would recommend getting some help. Seriously! Right now!
If not, well, then you obviously have too much time on your hands.

April 21, 2007 8:42 PM  

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