Atheist Jihad

It is the curse of intellectuals that they find it hard to commit themselves to any controversial cause. Such a move is difficult because we are (I assume) used to withholding judgment, bracketing conclusions, always rendering only provisional, tentative opinions, looking over our shoulder for some stray piece of data, something we hadn’t thought of before, to come sneaking in and making us reexamine the whole shebang. But if we join some cause, we are cutting short that process. By taking a stand we know we are taking a big risk. It is what Tillich called the existential risk of faith. But it also involves the risk of intellectual dishonesty, because we know we will be forced to defend the position we have publicly taken, and it will do the grand cause no good if all we can say about it is, “Well, so far so good!” or “It seemed like a good idea at the time!”

Another consideration that keeps some of us on the sidelines is our inability to draw the lines of the issues in the same way most combatants in the debate draw them. The issue heavy on my mind as I write this is that of today’s militant atheism. My problem is that I find myself in the odd position of being a “Christian atheist” as Thomas J.J. Altizer put it forty years ago. Among many other things, this means that I take offense at the anti-religious oversimplifications of tin-eared ideologues like Richard Dawkins. I take umbrage at the attempts of some secularists to eradicate any expression of religious culture from the public square. It is clear to me that Christianity in our society is under attack by groups like the ACLU. But on the other hand, it is equally clear that science and reason are under attack from half-educated Creationists and Intelligent Design swindlers, not to mention militant Islamists. I scorn the nonsense made of the Bible by fundamentalists like Tim La Haye, partly because I despise the puppet-theatre version of Christianity they use the Bible to reinforce, partly because I love the Bible as a fascinating object of study. I laugh at the pathetic attempts of apologists to prove God exists objectively, out there in the universe. But I take quite seriously the judgment of Carl Jung that God is an intra-psychic, not a metaphysical, reality. So whose side am I on? My own, I guess.

The other day I read an interview with Richard Dawkins, whom I regard very highly as an exponent and defender of the glorious doctrine of Evolution in a time when, as H.P. Lovecraft predicted, the fearful are retreating as fast as they can into the imagined peace and safety of a new dark age of superstition. All honor to Dawkins! He is manning the fortress of Helm’s Deep like noble Aragorn against the advance of the grunting and deadly Orcs. But when it comes to religion, something I fancy myself to know something about, he is one of the Orcs. His views, though better informed, are not far from the comical polemics of the late Madelyn Murray O’Hare.

It remains inconceivable to me how ostensible “humanists” can remain utterly oblivious of the beauty and ingenuity of religion as a creation of human culture. How can they fail to notice the great motive power of faith to make fearful troglodytes into compassionate gods and bodhisattvas? Albrecht Ritschl said it was the only thing that separated the human race from animals. Were Dr. King and Albert Schweitzer and Mohandas Gandhi merely led astray by their religious beliefs? I cannot think so. Do their great deeds suffice to prove the truth of the traditional theologies they inherited? Of course not, nor would any of them have said so.

And worse yet, unless the interviewer misunderstood him, Dawkins believes it to be a form of child abuse for religious parents to indoctrinate their children in their religion. I see what he means, but I point to the parallel with Santa Claus. The other day, in one of my wife Carol’s Philosophy for Children classes, the kids began discussing the reality of Santa. It was a heated, divided discussion. And suddenly the spark of insight flashed: one little girl exclaimed that if you don’t believe in Santa, then you can’t believe in Jesus either! She made the connection that both are simply objects of faith, accepted only on parental say-so. I think it is good to play the Santa game with one’s children, knowing full well that the day will come when Mr. and Mrs. Claus reveal their true identities. In the meantime, we will have inculcated a wholesome sense of wonder. When it comes to religion, my approach is different. I have made it my goal to teach my daughters the basics of their inherited tradition, leaving it up to them to decide what they do or do not believe. They have been given a taste of what it is like to be religious, and they have reacted differently. Which is their business. I trust them to think, and to rethink, for themselves.

But Dawkins seems to be implying that the government should “protect” these innocent souls from being contaminated with counter-revolutionary beliefs. You mean, Big Brother should prevent parents from raising their children as they see fit? It’s funny how, after all the efforts some of us have spent trying to distinguish atheism from Communism, that someone like Dawkins starts speaking with a Stalinist accent.

I read another interview with Sam Harris. He also sees religion as the root of all evils. The trouble is that in religion the ordinary standards of critical thought do not seem to apply. Religious beliefs are not only exempted from rational scrutiny but believers consider it a virtue to believe even in the absence of evidence –or even in the teeth of the evidence! As if it were some sort of cognitive isometrics. Ask any “believer” if they would scrutinize their decision for a particular brand of religion the same way they would weigh a decision to vote for this or that candidate. No, they would not! That would be “doubt,” the devil’s hypnosis. It is only the luck of the draw when particular individuals or populations have imbibed fairly peaceful (though no less arbitrary) creeds. But then there are the Jim Jones cultists and the Islamo-Fascists.

Instead of viewing violent religious extremists as the inevitable lunatic fringe such as any movement will generate, Harris makes the exception into the rule and sees the calmer believers as a terrorist bomb in sleep mode. Remember how Stokely Carmichael used to say that while the Southern bigot was a snake, the Northern liberal was a snake in the grass? Harris views moderate, non-literalistic religious folks, the tame, Politically Correct pew-potatoes of Methodism, Episcopalianism, Lutheranism, etc., as snakes in the grass. By their staid placidity and their pretense of sweet reason, Harris thinks, they are putting a good face on the devil of religion. So he summons all such non-literalists, such demythologized “believers,” to come out from among the fundamentalist Babylon and thus expose her for the Great Harlot she is.

Pardon me if I think Harris is actually summoning the only survivors with a conscience to jump out of the lifeboat, leaving it to the ruthless to set the course without opposition. Indeed, Harris reminds me of gun-control advocates who think they will prevent school snipers by taking the guns away from those who would never use them for such a purpose. The snipers will find a way to keep theirs.

Forgive me if I think Harris basically feels a fastidious anxiety over the failure of sloppy reality to fit in with his oh-so-neat theoretical categories: religion is bad, so good people should not belong to it. But they do. Hey, Sam: maybe it’s time to rethink those categories. In fact, Harris himself is a Buddhist! He realizes the irony of his position by calling for a secular Buddhism, urging that Buddhism “get out of the business of religion.” Funny, that’s just what I thought Gautama Buddha said he was doing! He stripped away the trappings of Vedic Hinduism to focus on the more important business of higher consciousness and its attainment. Could the Buddha help it if onlookers decided what he was pursuing was more worthy of the name “religion” than that which he had cast off? I would say the same of Harris’s attempt. And who knows that eventually he will not come to entertain the possibility that all those icons, rituals, pagodas, and sacred images were all along “merely” ways of celebrating the core experience that he has retained? If he does arrive at that conclusion, then I believe his secular Buddhism and my Christian atheism will not be very far apart.

So says Zarathustra.

Robert M. Price
November 2006


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