THE BLOG
11/23/2006 12:08 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Reptiles of the Mind -- Giving Thanks for Rational Atheists

Here's a fair measure of the moral and intellectual decline that's overtaken 'pop-culture' atheism: its primary spokesperson in the U.S. is also an outspoken advocate for torture. The totalitarian mindset knows no philosophical bounds.

This Thanksgiving, I'm grateful that some forceful voices - particularly atheist ones - are being raised in opposition to the ugly trends in anti-religious thought. Ugliest of all is the notion that tolerance of others' beliefs is a bad idea and must be stopped.

My feelings about Sam Harris and his guru Richard Dawkins are no secret. I consider the rejection of tolerance an uncivil, unenlightened, and unreasonable act. What's more, I condemn the intellectual dishonesty that underlies this group's core arguments, especially their refusal to acknowledge the complexity and variety of religious thoughts, emotions, expressions, and beliefs.

How can you argue that science should take a dominant role over faith when you fail to meet a scientist's first obligation, which is to acknowledge the data whether or not it supports your point of view?

The notion that the world's conflicts would be greatly reduced if there were no religion may be esthetically pleasing to those that repeat it, but there is no objective evidence to support it. None. There are plenty of opinions on the topic. There's simply nothing that resembles proof.

As I written before, the campaign to end war by ending religion is a 'faith-based initiative.'

I've consistently opposed the tendency of these irrationally-minded atheists to caricature all religious people based on the most extreme examples of their beliefs. Recently a number of voices have been raised to support my point of view, many of them belonging to atheists.

(I'm not an atheist, although I'm the proud, loving, and grateful son of an atheist mother. She has spent many years combating the religious right - as have I, in many posts like this early one on fundamentalists hijacking pharmacies, and my favorite - "Was The Universe Intelligently Designed ... By Satan? I also have Jews, Catholics, and Southern Baptists in my family tree. This is the Melting Pot, after all. )

San Diego activist/atheist Jeff Archer, for one, rejects the hate-filled rhetoric of the Harris faction. Archer wrote me to say the following (I quote with his permission): "Sam Harris is no spokesperson for atheism. I have criticized Harris for the same reasons as you: lack of scholarship in his writings. I have said that I find it sad that an atheist can write a piece that looks like it came from a fundamentalist Christian website. I have called Harris' writing about Islam not only inaccurate, but racist. Sam Harris is merely an author who writes half-researched and slanted pieces. He is no spokesperson for atheists."

A recent conference on science and religion turned into something of a free-for-all between the group I call "the evangelical atheists" and other, more rationally-inclined nonbelievers. Richard Dawkins excoriated believers in his usual style: - colorful, highly opinionated, and without foundation in either historical or sociological research.

Adds journalist George Johnson:

(Dawkins') take-no-prisoners approach (religious education is "brainwashing" and "child abuse") was condemned by the anthropologist Melvin Konner as simplistic and uninformed.

Like his adversary, Konner is an atheist. Unlike Dawkins and Harris, Konner actually studies the behavior and beliefs of religious people. He's not willing to use caricature and ridicule in support of his own beliefs.

Sam Harris told the group that "the core of science is not a mathematical model; it is intellectual honesty." Ironic words, considering the absence of intellectual honesty and the deliberate distortion of sociology and history prevalent in his own work.

Psychologist Steven Pinker recently criticized the Committee of General Education at Harvard for the position it took on "reason and faith." He argued - I believe correctly - that "faith" was being used as a euphemism for "religion," and that universities should be bastions of reason alone.

Pinker is an atheist, while I can probably best be described as a person of faith. We nevertheless agree that education is a rational process, and that faith - like inspiration - is a personal experience. It's wise to study the history, sociology, and literature of faith, just as it is to do the same for the arts. In the end, however, universities should no more get into the "faith" business than they should tell artists what to create.

Pinker's right to nail the committee for its misguided attempt to "balance" reason and "faith." That's not a university's job. An academic institution should be a place for open debate while remaining a citadel to reason.

Pinker's atheism and his advocacy for separation of faith and reason haven't impaired his intellectual rigor or honesty, however:

There is also considerable disagreement over whether religion really is the driving force behind the conflicts that are commonly attributed to it. Many people in Ireland insist that the Ulster conflict is about British rule versus Irish unification, not about Protestantism versus Catholicism. And among the Islam-aligned forces with which our country is currently entangled, Saddam Hussein's Baathism is more secular and nationalist than it is religious. Whether or not religion is a major force is a question best left to our colleagues in history, government, and area studies, in the context of the broadest possible study of world affairs. This empirical issue should not be prejudged in the categories of a general education requirement.

Nor, I would add, should it be prejudged to sell books or score cheap debater's points.

"Science is a philosophy of discovery," said astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, while "intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance." I agree. "Intelligent design" is an attempt to shoehorn the ineffable and numinous into the rigors of scientific thought. It's a doomed exercise, one that's as ill-suited for scientific chambers as it is for the chambers of the human heart.

That's why it's tragic when scientists like Dawkins or self-described scientists like Harris (he's never published a paper to my knowledge) ignore valuable studies into the psychology and sociology of fundamentalism, like the extensive multidisciplinary study led by Martin E. Marty. (Harris pointedly refused to agree to examine the work, which directly refutes some of his own assertions, when we both participated in a recent seminar.)

Fundamentalists reject "tolerance" because they see it as the doorway to evil, one which gives errant visions equal time with God's unchanging truth. ("That word 'broad-minded,'" sang the Louvin Brothers, "is spelled S-I-N.") The Evangelical Atheists explicitly reject tolerance, too. They argue that those who preach tolerance are creating a friendly climate for extremism. They offer no documentation to support their argument, only the rhetoric of vituperation.

The mystic religionist William Blake might have been thinking about the literalists of both God and atheism when he wrote that "the man who never alters his mind is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind." Long before Carl Sagan popularized the concept of the "lizard brain," the poets and contemplatives saw that a closed mind was a cold-blooded creature. When rigidity of thought enters, can torture be far behind?

Besides: If atheists frame the struggle for freedom of science as a battle against religion, who do they think will lose in this country? Hint: Place your money on the man with the pulpit and the Rolex.

That's why I'm grateful this Thanksgiving for rational and humane atheists like Konner and Pinker. Without them, the great atheist tradition of Bertrand Russell, John Lennon, and Carl Sagan is in danger of become just another epicenter of rigidity, self-righteousness, and hate speech. That would be tragic for everybody.

What - didn't you think I'd pick a fight this Thanksgiving? We still get to argue core issues like religion in this country. That's another reason to be grateful.

Besides, holidays were made for family fighting! Now, stop shouting long enough to pass me the cranberry sauce.

A Night Light