For several years I led a monthly lunch-time Bible study class in midtown Manhattan that brought together business people from very divergent backgrounds and beliefs. During a reading of the Biblical account of creation, we discussed whether these ancient stories are meant to be factual reporting of historic events, or perhaps something else.
"It's important to realize that, in spite of the popular conception that there is an inherent conflict between science and religion - between, in particular, the theory evolution and the Bible account of creation - these two actually support each other, and can be easily reconciled." I said.
Suddenly, a man sitting across from me pounded his fist on the table, and shouted,
"That's Bullshit!! You can not possibly reconcile the Bible with evolution. The Bible was written by men, not some invisible super-being, and is simply a collection of superstitions and tribal stories, meant to control others."
"The Bible can be understood in many ways", I answered. "The stories are not necessarily historical facts, but can be read as allegorical lessons, ethical teachings, and mystical insights."
"That's just a spin." he said. "It's absurd - and dangerous - to assign anything else to it but that. Do you know how many wars have been fought in the name of religion? The world would be better off without this insane mythology!"
He sat quietly for the rest of the session. A few weeks later I received a copy of "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins, with a note from the man in my class: "I urge you to read this to open your eyes to the dangers of religion and faith. Somehow, though, I doubt that you will consider this."
I had, in fact, already read it, as well as most of the books by the so-called "New Atheists", written shortly after 9/11. I completely agree with their warnings about the threat presented by the growing rise of religious fundamentalism and extremism, and applaud their encouragement for people to think for themselves and to challenge doctrine of all kinds. These are, of course, important points. But these books don't seem content to stop there. What has struck me most powerfully about these books, and many of their adherents, such as the man in my class, is the angry, sarcastic, and dismissive tone, and the blind stereotyping of faith and religion.
Most take position that religion is inherently dangerous, because it encourages, or even forces, people to believe things that are objectively not true. Belief in anything that can not be scientifically provable - especially God - they argue, disables our critical thinking, and leads people to act wickedly and to do terrible things, like flying planes in to buildings filled with innocent human beings. Religion, and the notion of God, they write, must therefore be eliminated if humanity is ever to move forward to a future free from the superstitions and divisive beliefs that inevitably lead to conflict, prejudice, and war.
By now, New Atheism is an aging trend that has been strongly challenged on historical and theological grounds by many authors, including prominent scientists and philosophers. I have been looking at these New Atheists for several years from a different perspective, though, wondering about the real underlying motivation for many of the writers and followers. I have begun to ask:
1. Why are the attacks against religion and faith so personal and extreme?
We all know that anyone who is ready to strap a bomb on his back or plans to kill innocent people in name of religion must be condemned and stopped. But why do so many of these New Atheists seem to insist that anyone who is religious shares the same fundamental beliefs as these fanatics? This is factually wrong. According to a recent Pew Forum survey, 68% of Americans who claim to be religious agree that there are many ways to interpret the teachings of their religion. More than a quarter of religious adults - including about half of Jews - say their faith's sacred texts are written by men and are not the word of God. The truth is that most religious people are not fundamentalists, and a very large number do not read the Bible literally, and do not blindly follow the dogma of their faith. And, of course, man people who believe in God are not religious.
Only children - or adults who have never challenged their childish vision - think of God as some kind of super-being in the clouds who literally writes books and punishes those who don't do exactly as "he" demands. Yet this is how these New Atheists see God and the Bible, and they seem to assume that everyone else must as well.
2. Why do New Atheist stubbornly hold on to the wildly inaccurate claims that religion is the cause for most wars, and that people of faith are anti-science?
Whenever the topic of the danger of religion comes up - as in Bill Mahr's movie "Religulous -, someone authoritatively says "Religion is the cause of most wars: Look at the Crusades, the Inquisition, 9/11. Need I name more?" Well, yes, you do need to name more. The most devastating, and most recent wars have NOT been religious: Vietnam, Korea, WWII, WWI, The Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars, the America and French Revolutions, and the great conquest of the ancient world. In fact, it is obvious that the greatest destruction has come from non-religious, and often militantly atheist regimes.
In response, the New Atheists have made the claim that Communist Russia and China, and Nazi Germany, were actually "state sponsored religions". Of course this begs the question, "What is a religion?" If it is a system of unquestionable rules and submission to absolute authority, then while it applies to North Korea, actual religions fail this test, because all religions evolve through challenge and debate. If their concern is that religion is non-rational and subjective, then so is love, art, music, altruism, and much that is most vital to our happiness and growth.
These books also claim that religion closes our minds, turns us away from scientific investigation, and forces us to believe in that which is clearly not true. Again, history proves that this is not a simple truth. Many people of faith seamlessly mesh teaching of their faith with modern life and science, and radical thinkers such as Moses Maimonides, Isaac Newton, Renee Descartes, Frances Bacon, and Max Planck, were men who deeply believed in God, yet saw their faith as perfectly consistent with, and actually helpful to, their scientific exploration. Finally, the New Atheists seem to refuse to consider that religion has contributed anything positive. While religion has been used to bring much pain to the world, it has objectively brought much that is good, in the fight for social justice, the establishment of charitable organizations, the support of community, and the call to compassion.
3. Why do these authors so love being thought of as naughty rebels, and why are they so angry and bitter?
Like Jackson Pollack peeing in Peggy Guggenheim's fireplace at a dinner party, or a little boy yelling "poop" in a classroom assembly, the New Atheists seem to want to think of themselves as bad boys (and, yes, this is predominantly a male phenomenon), rebelling against adult authority, and reveling in the insistence that they are a persecuted minority. While perhaps this is a publicity position (books by thoughtful moderates usually languish in the remainder pile) it is not supported by facts. Worldwide surveys show that people who define themselves as "non-religious" or "atheists" total approximately 10% - 20% (and it's likely that the numbers are actually much higher because many are reluctant to say so). According to the Pew study, 25% of all American who claim to be religious see God as "an impersonal force" - the very definition of an atheist - and only 39% of Americans attend religious services on a regular bases. So atheism, and a tepid, or even contentious, relationship to religion, are actually very common (just come to any Jewish event to see this in action)
Something odd is going on here. While the New Atheists claim to be spokesmen for rationality and a brighter future of peace, many of their positions are plainly irrational, factually wrong, and violent in their implications. Their eagerness to label and destroy such a diverse and fluid institution as religion, and their childish parody of the notion of God, reveals a level of hatred and close-mindedness that points to something which, I suspect, is not directly related to the subject, but that stems from a painful and very personal dilemma that they refuse to consider.
The next blog will outline some reasons for this irrationality and nastiness.