Monday, September 11, 2006

Against Atheism

Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where's the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense; it can be lethally dangerous nonsense: Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others: Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labeled only by a difference of inherited tradition: And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let's now stop being so damned respectful! –Richard Dawkins

A reader offered me this quote from the respected evolutionary biologist and popular intellectual in the Gramscian tradition who has often provided a Marxist perspective on political and scientific issues that I appreciate. Here he echoes Sam Harris, the outspoken atheist I wrote about the other day who believes that September 11th proved that religion is dangerous and a threat to life on this planet.

While I believe there are dangerous people in the world, from Osama and his followers to President Bush and his cronies, I do not share the hatred of religion and aggressive atheism of Dawkins and Harris. Into this mix I will add Brian Flemming, director of the documentary film "The God Who Wasn't There" which I saw the other night. And I've also discovered numerous blogs by atheists on the web who largely repeat the insights of Harris that 1) religions are based on myths which are not true; 2) religious identity distinguishes between those who are with us, the believers, and those who are not, the unbelievers; and 3) religious scriptures, which believers declare to be literally true, frequently advocate the killing of unbelievers.

All of this is unarguable. But it's not the whole story. Harris, et al, make their case against religion by setting up a straw believer, a fundamentalist Christian or Muslim, and declaring that he/she is typical of all who consider themselves religious. It allows for little difference. And like many of my non-religious friends, Harris is sure who knows who is a Christian: "You cannot be a Christian if you're not convinced of the core dogmas of Christianity," he said in a recent interview. Oh? And what of those who think the story of the virgin birth may be a fairy tale but who are so impressed by the idea of loving your enemies that they become Christians (i.e., particpate in a Christian community of some sort) by studying the teachings of Jesus about caring for others and trying to put them into practice?

I don't associate with any fundamentalist Christians who claim to believe in the literal truth of the Bible and who condemn to hell anyone who does not take Jesus Christ as his personal savior, whatever that means. I know these people exist, because I read about them and see them on television. There are those who call themselves Christians that hate homosexuals and abortionists, to the point of wanting to kill them. But I've read the Bible and the Gospels and I simply do not understand how they can draw conclusions so different from mine. The Jesus I follow preaches the Gospel of love and compassion for all one's neighbors.

Simply put, there is no such entity as "Christianity." There are many christianities, may ways that people have chosen to interpret the religious texts and put them into practice. I believe that fundamentalists are in the minority, although I do not have any statistics at hand to prove that. I suspect also that there are many islams, many ways to interpret the Qur'an and follow the will of Allah. Unfortunately, in the clash of civilizations that Samuel Huntington sees happening, the positions on the front line are taken by extreme fundamentalists. And critics like Harris think that's the whole story. They take the violent verses out of religious texts and point to them as evidence that religion is dangerous, and ignore the frequent admonitions to love one's enemies, care for the neighbors around you. Rather than see the ubiquitous presence of the Golden Rule in all religious traditions, they would have you believe that all religions place purity and orthodoxy ahead of alms giving and charity.

When I studied religion in Europe's middle ages, I learned that historians based their understanding of what people believed on written commentaries by the clerical elite. They were, after all, the only literate class and the common people who made up religious congregations did not write books. But when scholars like Carlo Ginzberg, author of The Cheese and the Worms, found ways to study popular spirituality, they discovered that there was no theological consensus among the masses, no matter what the clerics thought. It's the same today. Critics like Harris get their evidence from the Pat Robertsons and the Billy Grahams and the other talking religious heads, but they do not understand the diversity of faith or what it means. Statistics are no help; I suspect people tell the pollsters what they want to believe, not what is truly present in their hearts.

The atheists have my sympathy. Clearly the fundamentalists are a breed apart. But they do not represent the whole. Harris, according to a review of his first book in the New York Times, singles out Islam as the reigning threat to humankind which unfortunately links him to the views of some Christian commentators, like Ann Coulter. He also apparently attacks the war against drugs along with pacifism and offers a defense for the use of torture in wartime. In addition, according to a review in the San Francisco Chronicle, Harris "quotes with approval a rhapsodizing comment about Israel's treatment of Palentinians." And the reviewer in The Nation says that Harris "advances a rationalist arguament in support of Bush's jihad," adding that "atheism can as easily propel one to the right as to the left."

I went to mass this morning. There were no blinding lights, bells and whistles; God did not speak to me. Just the usual liturgy, boring homily, and familiar music. The words spoken and heard were comforting, their very repetition instilling the idea that life is meaningful -- we are are not just meat in motion but flames of spirit in the midst of the mystery of life. The tools of reason are useful but not enough. To understand and celebrate the mystery we need the brilliance of Bach and the vision of Monet, at the very least. I don't recognize my faith and my spiritual practice in the acidic nay saying of atheism.

2 comments:

Mystic Wing said...

Very astute commentary. Well done.

James Hillman somewhere wrote that we'd be better off if we simply let our symbols breathe and reveal themselves, rather than turning them into literal truths, or debasing them because they don't hold up to the test of logic.

Spirituality and religion become dangerous forces when they become dogma, it seems to me. In its pure form, though, the religious instinct is man's finest.

Mystic Wing said...

Very astute commentary. Well done.

James Hillman somewhere wrote that we'd be better off if we simply let our symbols breathe and reveal themselves, rather than turning them into literal truths, or debasing them because they don't hold up to the test of logic.

Spirituality and religion become dangerous forces when they become dogma, it seems to me. In its pure form, though, the religious instinct is man's finest.