How harmless is it to post an article about why people should read the bible on a site devoted to religion? I did on this very page, and it evoked more than 2,000 responses, most of them angry. I had previously written a similarly gentle article about how God should be taught to children that evoked more than 1,000 responses, almost all negative and many downright nasty.
It is curious that a religion site draws responses mostly from atheists, and that the atheists are very unhappy. They are unhappy with the bible ("foolish fairy tales" is one of the more generous descriptions), unhappy with the idea of God (the "imaginary dictator" whose task in human history, apparently, is to ensure that oppression and evil triumph) and very unhappy with anyone (read: me) who presumes to offer religious advice to the religious. Only the untutored assume that religious people predominate on websites (Huffington Post Religion page, On Faith in the Washington Post, Beliefnet.com) devoted to religion.
In the past when I have debated noted atheists -- Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and others -- the audience was heavily weighted toward my opponents. That makes sense. Each of these men -- like Dawkins, Dennett and others -- brings with them a large following. But why seek out a religious site solely to insult religion? I wondered: Why are atheists so angry?
Here are four reasons, none exclusive of the others:
1. Atheists genuinely resent the evil that religion has done. No one can seriously deny that religion has been guilty of wickedness in this world and has provided cover for wickedness. I refer not only to abusers who hide under the cloak of clergy, but religious persecutions, the stifling of speech and dissent, the mistreatment of women -- the crimes are legion. While as a believer I think there is much more to be said about this topic, it is certainly reasonable for people to be angry at religion for its abuses, particularly people who have themselves been victims.
2. They are convinced that religion is a fairy tale made up of whole cloth that impedes science/progress/rational thought. No avalanche of counterexamples, from noted scientists who are believers to the way in which the scientific method has flourished in the monotheistic west (as opposed to say, the non-monotheistic eastern societies) will serve to dissuade. That which is understood to have happened to Galileo is all, apparently, one needs to know.
3. Here is where I make my bid for more obloquy to be visited on my head. There is an arrogant unwillingness to engage with religion's serious thinkers. Too many atheists assume that a couple of insults will substitute for argument. They suffer from the incredulity of those who cannot believe anyone would disagree. It reminds me of the most self-assured of the faithful, who suffer the same intellectual imperialism. "I am right," a statement we all identify with from time to time, becomes "therefore you are stupid for disagreeing." A disagreeable sentiment, to say the least. And a narrow, thoughtless one, to boot.
4. Finally, I will go so far as to say that there is sometimes in the atheist a want of wonder. In a world in which so much is still not understood, in which multiple universes are possible, in which we have not pierced the mystery of consciousness, to discount the supernatural is to lack the openness to mystery that should be a human hallmark. There is so much we do not know. Religious people too should acknowledge this truth. Epistemological humility -- the acknowledgment that we are at the very first baby steps of understanding -- is far wiser than arrogance on either side. After all, we comprehend with our brains, and who knows how limited are our only organs of understanding?
So please, feel free to vituperate, argue and belittle. But understand that the religious dialogue is not advanced by shaken fists and snide asides. To quote the prophet, "Come let us reason together (Isaiah 1:18)." All of us ought to be astonished by our miraculous ability to talk, think, dream and disagree. Our first response to life should be gratitude and wonder that we share this remarkable world so far beyond our poor power to grasp. Now, let the derision begin!
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