In a recent op-ed critiquing the aggressive rhetoric of the New Atheists, I quoted philosopher Daniel Dennett as saying "Anybody who goes through seminary and comes out believing in God hasn't been paying attention." It turns out that Dennett didn't say this; he was quoting a member of the clergy interviewed for his fascinating study, which describes how some preachers lose their faith but remain in their pulpits, preaching a gospel they no longer believe or perhaps have redefined beyond recognition.
Dennett has accused me of being a "faith fibber," a term applied to religious critics of the New Atheists who, in their enthusiasm to vilify non-believers, distort the truth. This is an ironic charge, since religious believers generally claim to be speaking from a higher moral ground. "Faith fibbers like Giberson," Dennett wrote, "are polluting the media with their misrepresentations of the New Atheism."
Dennett's charge, and a subsequent civil email exchange with him, got me thinking about the discourse on religious belief that currently heats up the blogosphere. As I reflect on the various exchanges, I see no evidence that religious believers are standing on any higher moral ground. The vilification of the New Atheists is accompanied by caricature, hyperbole, misprepresentation and a distinct lack of charity.
On the Answers in Genesis site, to take one example, Ken Ham published a report about the atheist that Christians love to hate entitled "Dawkins Ranting in Oklahoma." The audience was described as "mind-numbed robots," and Dawkins' ideas were sarcastically dismissed as communications from "an extraterrestrial." Anti-evolutionary religion sites across the Internet make similar claims. But not all the charged-up rhetoric is on the lowbrow backwaters of the Internet. A passage from the 2007 book "Oracles of Science: Celebrity Scientists versus God and Religion," compares Richard Dawkins to a "museum piece that becomes ever more interesting because, while everything else moves forward and changes, it remains the same."
Alas, I have to confess to having authored the museum metaphor. It was a cheap shot and, while hardly the cheapest of all possible shots, it was probably about as cheap as could reasonably sail past the staid editors at the venerable Oxford University Press. Certainly my co-author, the late Father Mariano Artigas, would have objected to anything less charitable.
I have to confess that the temptation to ridicule one's debating opponents is all but unbearable, especially when playing street hockey on the Internet, where one must shout to be heard. In the past few months I have tried hard to come up with clever rhetorical attacks on Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris, PZ Myers and countless others whose ideas I was supposedly challenging. PZ once wrote the following about me, which I thought was pretty clever: "I will have no truck with the perpetuation of fallacious illusions, whether honeyed or bitter, and consider the Gibersons of this world to be corruptors of a better truth." Of course, I responded to his evangelistic assault on me by calling him "Rev. Myers" in an essay on Salon.com. And so it goes. (I recommend against verbal swordfights with PZ Myers -- you can't win.)
But back to my point: Christians have rules, which presumably are still in force on the Internet: One of the best known is "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you." And yet the rule that many Christians seem to follow when they lay their hands on their keyboards is quite different: "Ridicule your enemies; misrepresent those who hate you; caricature and malign those that mistreat you."
Or, as Daniel Dennett would put it, "Be a faith-fibber for Jesus."
Confession, they say, is good for the soul. So Dan, I was a faith fibber. Sorry about that.