I’ve been catching up (thanks Mary) with other blog posts addressing atheism, in particular the New Atheists and their strident criticism of religion, in particular those appearing in response to R. Joseph Hoffmann’s views and posts by Stephanie L. Fisher. One that has particularly caught my attention, along with its related comments, is The Irrationality of Atheist Opposition to Atheism by Eric MacDonald. Part of my initial curiosity Eric’s post was learning that it was related to a lead post by Stephanie L. Fisher, and that Fisher’s post had subsequently been taken down. This is the second time this has happened recently — presumably on her own requests after others responded critically. (R. Joseph Hoffmann has since explained in a comment below that he removed Steph’s guest post as a matter of routine policy. I am sure Stephanie will like to repost it somewhere where it can have a more stable history.)
I enjoyed Eric’s post enough, and many of the related comments to it, and was incensed enough over assertions by some who like to be called humanists but object to being called atheists (even though they apparently do not believe in god/s), to join the fray with my own thoughts on the importance of atheists publicly challenging religious belief systems. My own thoughts are amateurish and inchoate compared with those expressed by Eric. But one has to start somewhere. Perhaps feedback can help me sort out with a bit more depth and rationality my own ideas. So here goes.
I am an atheist and a secular humanist. I sometimes do good deeds, like donating to worthy causes and people in need. I sometimes give my time and effort to help strangers in difficulty, and I sometimes speak up on behalf of those unable to do so for themselves, and I have been involved in several social justice and anti-war activist campaigns. None of this is anything special because I know in these things I am no different from most people I know.
The reason I state this here is to point out that at no time do I do any of these things in the name of atheism or humanism. I do not attribute any of these things to my atheism or sense of humanism.
If you were to ask me about my grander views of our place in the universe, I would speak of a sense of identification and one-ness with all humanity above any sense of nationalism or racial identity. I would speak of the distinctive characteristics that make us human, and our universal values, as staging posts in the ongoing process of evolution.
I am an atheist and a humanist because of rational and scientific understanding of life, the universe and everything. My atheism or humanism does not prescribe for me how or what to think about gods of humans. It is what I have come to understand through rational and scientific processes about gods and humans that makes me an atheist and secular humanist.
Religion is different in obvious ways. It does prescribe what to think about humanity’s place in relation to the supernatural, and the place of the individual in relation to all others. Some people may conclude there is a god for any number of intuitive (not scientific) reasons, but religion is much more than the simple idea of god.
This is not to say nonreligious thinking by definition is without risk. Scientific inquiry can of course find itself being hijacked for a terribly wrong cause, and people can arrive at ideologies and race theories that profess to explain humanity and prescribe what is true about our species. Prescriptive ideology and such theories of race are to be as much deplored as any other system of thought-coercion. Ideology starts where free inquiry stops — historically with a bullet or meat hook.
Simply being human means living with risk. Even our planet, with its unpredictable forces and competing life-forms, is only partially fit for human habitation.
We don’t need to add to our risks by allowing, unchallenged, fundamentalist belief systems that prescribe self perceptions and perceptions of others that are divisive, oppressive and very often psychologically and emotionally damaging.
Any of us who has knowledge of how fundamentalist belief systems work, in particular those related to religion, and who has an opportunity and ability to speak out or work with others, has a moral obligation to warn against this form of toxic and personally and socially harmful religious belief.
But where does that leave the liberal forms of these religious ideas?
Now I like it when Christians participate in social justice and anti-war causes. It’s good to hear some of them speak out for the values that have become the norms of enlightened modern society. Christianity has managed to survive through the centuries largely by managing to keep catching up with evolving cultural values. At least it is no longer pro-slavery. Some of its leading lights today have joined the secular causes for women’s and gay rights.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this. But I do feel queasy when I hear them justify these actions in terms of their religious beliefs. Baloney! Those religious beliefs change with the times. I suggest that those adherents of religion would be just as committed to social justice causes in any other environment. I believe in doing my bit for humanity for the simple reason that it is part of my human nature to want to do that. There is no need to rationalize my actions in terms of some other belief system, unless I really am acting against my will. There is no need for religious activists to use their good deeds to promote their religious belief systems.
Those religious belief systems should be challenged by atheists and secular humanists for the simple reason that they support the foundation of the worst of the fundamentalist belief systems. One can even say that fundamentalists are on the whole merely taking seriously, or literally, the fundamentals of what the liberals believe and teach. I can’t imagine many clergy more liberal than John Shelby Spong. Generally speaking I think it is fair to say he does not want anyone taking the Bible literally. But he does want people taking it seriously, and to believe in a God essence of some sort behind it all. He reserves a licence for jumping the rails of rationality (critiquing the Bible) and embracing a form of irrational mysticism. Faith trumps rationality and scientific reasoning.
So ultimately even one like Spong stands within the same faith-centred perspective as any fundamentalist does. The battle between the two is how to build on that faith foundation. To what extent should they embrace the values of the secular world? Spong is fearful that unless they embrace them Christianity may die. His fundamentalist opponents believe Christianity will die if they do embrace those values. The contest is over tactics. The strategy, the goal, the foundation, — all of these are the same.
We saw an astonishing case of just how irrational and out of touch with normal secular thought processes liberal theologians can be recently when Butler University’s Associate Professor James McGrath publicly declared he had no ability to formulate his arguments as a syllogism and that he had no answer for the logical argument of Earl Doherty. He could only reply that he preferred to think the way his theological peers do, and once again resorted to spitting insults. When introduced to a book analyzing artefact by artefact (from the scholarly publications) the archaeological evidence for Nazareth, his immediate reaction was not to seek to read the book for himself but to ask someone to debunk it, and to publish blatant falsehoods about what the author had written. If there is anyone who epitomizes all that Hector Avalos has pointed out is plain wrong with liberal biblical scholarship today it is surely James McGrath.
The examples of irrationality and out of touch thought processes among liberal Christian scholars can be multiplied. This area of institutionalized (mostly liberal Christian) scholarship does little for public enlightenment or the values of rationality and norms of logical or scientific thought processes.
Not all liberal Christian scholars are like McGrath, fortunately. There are a number who do have the honesty to acknowledge the weaknesses of their own scholarly processes, and I have engaged with a few who are courteous and intellectually honest. I would include Spong himself among those. It would be uncivil and disrespectful to go out of my way to criticize them personally for their beliefs. Nor would never think to challenge my octogenarian mother over her religious beliefs.
But public debate is different. Atheists and secular humanists who speak out against religion in all its forms have a rightful place in society. There are reasons to believe that even liberal forms of religion are torchbearers for the a belief system that does bring in its wake much harm from the widest societal levels down to thwarted personal developments of individuals.
Sure there is also good done by many religionists, and of course many individuals have had their lives turned around for the better when they have turned to a religion. (Hitler for a while also did much good for young people, women, the unemployed and transport systems. Many who experience some of the more extreme excesses of fundamentalist religion can say the experience was totally without benefits.) That is all part of the debate that deserves to be aired and addressed.
I am personally not fussed on the politics of some of the new atheists, and I have criticized some of the statements of Hitchens and Harris that I think fan ignorance. But that’s no huge deal. It widens the debate and opens opportunities to express and correct public ignorance.
Any attempt to stifle public criticism of religious beliefs is to be deplored as a retrograde step for human progress.
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