As submitted to the Daily Maverick.
During the Easter period we had the usual opportunity to read and hear plenty of content on religion and atheism, including ongoing debate around “New atheists” and their alleged stridency or militancy. But regardless of how particular individuals in this debate might choose to engage, we shouldn’t forget that it’s not automatically strident or militant to assert a point of view, no matter how much any participant might disagree with the view being expressed. More importantly, we shouldn’t forget that tone has absolutely nothing to do with the truth or falsity of what is being said.
Yes, atheists can be dogmatic. Anyone can be dogmatic, but while Catholics (for example) have little choice but to consider the Pope as at least broadly representative of their world-view, atheists have no obligation to fall into line behind a Dawkins or anybody else. One key advantage of an evidence-based worldview is that you can be persuaded by good arguments, and not persuaded by weak ones, regardless of who makes those arguments.
This isn’t to say that some atheists aren’t fundamentalist, nor that some aren’t uncritical disciples of some bestselling celebrity atheist. Both sides of these culture wars make the mistake of over-generalising, and both sides make the mistake of being unwilling to pick and choose between various potential points of view, based on the quality of the arguments for those points of view.
As I’ve argued previously, there are better and worse ways to encourage reflection on these issues – one way that certainly seems unhelpful to me is to caricature a point of view into labels such as “Islamophobic”, or to lump an incredibly disparate group of people together into a collective of “New atheists”. Some atheists are frequent offenders in this regard in asserting that “Muslims” or “Christians” believe one thing or another.
We should all stop doing this, but it might sometimes be slightly more difficult than atheists like to think it is. If you start from a position of thinking that a naturalistic worldview (in other words, one that can’t accommodate at least gods or souls, but often – and certainly for me – even things like free will) is our best guide to the truth, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you have an epistemological advantage over others, more generally.
Atheists can be fundamentalists, not only in their atheism, but also on other emotive topics like climate change or fracking. They might also be fundamentalist in their blanket rejection of any possible good coming out of religion, which can lead them to be hostile and demeaning towards people who don’t share their views.
But fundamentalist atheists typically only cause offence and irritation, while fundamentalist religious folk have been known to cause significantly worse outcomes – although these are becoming increasingly rare, at least outside of theocracies. (Lest someone feel inclined to yell out “Hitler” here, let the man speak for himself: “My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Saviour as a fighter.”)
The Kim’s of North Korea are themselves gods, so their misdeeds clearly can’t count as evidence of evil atheism. Stalin was a fanatical Marxist, possibly a psychopath, and while he was certainly strongly opposed to religion, his potential atheism hardly seems the most plausible explanation for his atrocities. One could problematise any such example, and just as atheists shouldn’t cite the Reverend Fred Phelps as representative of Christians, Christians shouldn’t think of these murderous dictators as representative of atheism. Fanaticism, not only belief, kills – and the only question of importance is whether one type of belief (broadly metaphysical) is more likely to lead to fanaticism than the other (broadly naturalistic).
Of those readers that are Christian, few – hopefully none – will read the Bible as a literally true handbook on science, history or morality. Instead, it’s a sounding board for debate against the backdrop of a commitment to a certain sort of life, exemplified in the figure of the Biblical Jesus. That this is a better route to peace, economic equality and so forth than a fundamentalist reading of any religious text goes without saying, and critics of religion who don’t recognise this are certainly not playing fair.
But that this route is better doesn’t mean it’s the best route, and this is the point that is often emphasised by more sympathetic critics of religion. If we were to imagine starting afresh, disregarding the centuries of privilege that religious viewpoints have enjoyed, we’d arrive at a different understanding of religion.
When faced with the choice between centuries-old texts that includes a bunch of weird injunctions, bad science and so forth, but which also contains passages that are inspirational, we’d be far less inclined to take them seriously today if they were not so embedded in our cultures. They might well continue to serve a powerful role in our lives, but they wouldn’t lead to wars or to children dying while having demons cast out of them.
There are of course also more recent books that can serve the purpose of inspiration or guidance without including false or outdated claims, capable of interpretations that allow for misery. And while it’s true that many, perhaps even most, religious believers don’t reach for those interpretations, others do find them plausible – and it’s this ongoing possibility that is at issue for many atheists, particularly of the non-fundamentalist sort.
The believers of the type highlighted by the recent Dawkins survey are of little concern to me, because they aren’t the sort to bomb abortion clinics or fly planes into buildings. But those who are inclined to do such things could count the moderate believers as being among their number (even while recognising their relative lack of commitment), and that larger number is the one generally cited in censuses or when a politician says that we are a “Christian” country.
As I often remark to my religious friends, if they were more active in denouncing Errol Naidoo, Fred Phelps, or Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau (not equivalently evil people, of course), many atheists would be left with little to do – at least in the supposed “name” of atheism. The (majority) of religious believers share many of the goals that non-believers do, and I do think it an obstacle to these shared goals that stereotype and caricature are so prevalent in the language of both the faithful and the faithless.
Leaving aside these regular misrepresentations of religious believers, it nevertheless remains true that atheists have things to legitimately be angry about – and also that it’s sometimes difficult to express these concerns without appearing to be dogmatic and hostile. While concerns around winning a public-relations battle shouldn’t lead us to forget those things that motivate the anger, persuasion remains impossible unless people are willing to communicate.
I don’t believe that encouraging communication needs to (or should) entail things like Alain de Botton’s “Atheism 2.0”, but it at least needs to involve dealing with real people and their sincere beliefs instead of preconceived versions of these, designed for ridicule. But those sincere beliefs can be criticised, and doing so isn’t necessarily shrill, strident or militant. Labelling them as such can be a way of simply ignoring them, just as labelling a religious person as a superstitious fool can be a way of ruling them out of (a conception of) rational discourse.
We should all care about eliminating unfounded or dangerous beliefs, whether ours or our opponents’. At root, this is a key premise of naturalistic or atheist positions, and it’s indeed a pity that many who hold those positions sometimes appear as dogmatic as those they criticise. But how ideas are expressed only makes a difference to how they are received – not to their truth. All of us could sometimes do with a reminder of this, whether we celebrated Easter or just a few days off work.