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Monday, June 4, 2012

Five Questions for an Atheist

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Five questions for an atheist.

1.) I have many atheist friends who are atheist in the same way that they are meat eaters or people who prefer corduroy over denim or khakis. They don't make much noise about their atheism.

In recent years, though, there has been a new type of atheist in public life. In a December 3, 2006 essay, "A Modest Proposal for a Truce on Religion," two-time Pulitzer-Prize-winner and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof chastised New Atheists for being "snarky," "obnoxious," "militant," "in-your-face," "offensive," "acerbic," "intolerant," "mean," "contemptuous," "fundamentalist," and "dogmatic." Google "obnoxious atheists" or "angry atheists" and you find much discussion.

"Obnoxious atheists" is a significant enough of a trend that Nick Kristof needed to write about it. What do you make of this?

2.) One thing I like about the Judeo-Christian tradition is our emphasis on self-examination, confession, and conversion. The Old Testament prophets are always haranguing the Jews to examine themselves, confess their sins, and return to God. In the microcosm, in Catholicism, self-examination, confession and conversion are ritualized. In the macrocosm, the Vatican has issued statements like the December, 1999 "Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past."

Most remarkable for me is a November, 1965 letter from Polish bishops to German bishops. The Poles were horribly victimized by the Germans during World War II. And yet, in this letter, Polish Catholic bishops were able to say to Germans, quote, "We forgive and we ask for forgiveness." Given the context, this sentence alone takes my breath away.

There is a massive scholarly literature devoted to the Judeo-Christian emphasis on confession and renewal and its contribution to Western Civilization. Confession has been seen to be key in the Western emphasis on individualism, the invention of the novel, the concept of progress, etc. But really confession and renewal are necessary in any movement because, simply, human beings, no matter how good their intentions, screw up.

I don't see that same willingness to engage in self-examination, confession, and conversion among the atheists with whom I have spoken. In fact, I see the opposite. I encounter atheist who refuse to acknowledge atheism's flaws.

Atheists often toss off the poorly supported and certainly false cliche that "religion is responsible for more murder than any other cause." In fact, though, monsters, acting in accord with atheism-inspired ideas, have set the records for mass murder: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot.

As Dostoyevsky said, "If God does not exist, everything is permitted." This is not mere speculation. The philosophical foundations for mass murder, found in Madison Grant, Kenneth L. Roberts, Lothrop Stoddard, and Heinrich Himmler, include line after line attesting, paraphrase, "Now that we've gotten rid of the Judeo-Christian tradition and its idea of a God who loves everyone equally, we can start getting rid of the unfit." In the microcosm, you have murderers like Leopold and Loeb, who used atheist ideas to argue for their thrill murder of an acquaintance.

I would never suggest that my atheist friends have anything in common with Stalin or Nathan Leopold – they don't. Rather what I would like to see is their acknowledgment that ideas founded on atheism lead to murder. Without this kind of self-examination, confession, and conversion, yes, Atheism remains a potential weapon.

Do you have any comments on atheists' resistance, so far, to taking serious account of how atheism has had an impact on the real world?

3.) Along with the gifts of the Golden Age of ancient, Pagan Greece, the Judeo-Christian tradition is one of the major building blocks in the foundation of Western Civilization.

The Adam and Eve myth, for example, gave us the idea that God loves and values each individual life; it is from a Talmudic commentary on the Adam and Eve myth that we get the saying, "He who saves one life saves the entire world." This is a radical statement of the value of the individual, and it is truly a Judeo-Christian ideal.

"In Christ there is no male; there is no female." This biblical idea of respect for women was so revolutionary, according to Rodney Stark, it is why Christianity, an outcaste sect of losers, of "women, children and slaves" – all equally despicable to a proud Pagan like Celsus – was able to overturn the Roman Empire.

Christians, according to Stark, unlike their pagan neighbors, did not kill their female children, and allowed them to mature physically before giving birth. Simple demographics show that a female child born to a Judeo-Christian culture has a much better chance of survival than one born to a Muslim, Confucian, or Hindu culture.

The central, most compelling myth of the Old Testament is one in which God works to liberate slaves. This narrative was central to the Slavery Abolition and Civil Rights movements.

Nancy Pearcey, in "Soul of Science," argues that the Judeo-Christian conception of God and creation lead to the invention of science.

Our legal code is founded on Judeo-Christian concepts.

In the introduction to her book on world myth, scholar Barbara C. Sproul acknowledges all of this when she says that even if one does not believe in the Judeo-Christian God, if one grew up in the West, one probably believes in these very Judeo-Christian ideals.

Does jettisoning the Judeo-Christian tradition give you any pause? At what might be lost? At what rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem – at what might come next?

4.) What do you like most, or find most attractive, about religious belief in general, or Christianity in particular?

I ask this specifically because of a comment made by an atheist internet friend, Jeanette. After Pope John Paul II died, she watched his funeral, and commented wistfully that she wished she could be part of that tradition.

5.) What do you find least attractive about atheism / atheists?



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These are all genuine questions. Will post, as comments or as stand-alone posts, all civil and on-topic replies. 

8 comments:

  1. 1) the only truce we want with religion is when they decide to their religion to themselves. Yes, some atheists are obnoxious though.

    2) Atheism is not flawed. It is the absence of belief in a deity, nothing more. Several of those people were not actually atheists. It is a blatant lie to try and make atheists look bad. Regardless of if they were atheists or not, atheism does not instruct them to kill like religion does.
    God has nothing to do with morals. If murder is wrong, it is wrong with or without a god. This is a blatant lie that effectively portrays atheist as people without any morals who think everything is permissible.
    No. no ideas founded on atheism can lead to murder. Atheism is not something to found anything on. It is a lack of belief in a deity, nothing more. Yes, there are various atheistic world views that can be used to found murder, but this is not atheism in general, and again, this is vastly different to religions that demand the execution of heaps of people and religious people have carried out these orders and still do to this day.

    3) Contains another blatant lie. The legal system is not based on Judeo-Christian concepts. The Bible is fine with slavery, and even sets rules on it. Of the commandments in the Bible that are shared with the legal system of the US or any other country in the western world, the vast majority of them (such as don't kill, don't steal and so on) are found almost universally. What it lacks is an allowance of slavery, setting the punishment for raping a non-betrothed virgin to marrying her, some sort of punishment (in a truly Biblical place, this would be death) for worshipping another god, not worshipping god, not observing the Sabbath, leaving your house on Saturday, lighting a fire on Saturday, cursing or disobeying your parents, wearing clothes made from 2 dissimilar materials, being a homosexual, and so on. What is found instead of any stuff like this is the first amendment, which goes directly against several commandments. No one is required to worship God, no one is required to observe the Sabbath, there is no punishment for blasphemy and so on.
    Abandoning the Judeo-Christian concepts would lead to a more advanced and civilised country, which we already have significantly, with no racism, slavery and sexism and other things such as not worshipping god or being a homosexual being allowed.

    4) The components which are found almost universally, such as the golden rule.

    5) There is only one point to atheism, this means it is the best and the worst point, the least and most attractive.

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  2. Hi, thanks so much for responding. I do wish you used a real name. For example, I don't know how to address you.

    I don't know if you are still reading here, so I don't know if you'll see my reply, so I don't know if I should respond to your every point.

    So, I'll respond only to one point for now.

    You wrote:

    "the only truce we want with religion is when they decide to their religion to themselves"

    That sounds as good to me as it does to you. We all know, though, that it doesn't work in real life.

    For example, the other day a man was smoking outside my window. I told him to move. He got angry; I got angry. He didn't move; I had to breathe his smoke.

    Our choices and actions affect others. It's that simple. That isn't just true of religion, it's true of everything.

    That's why Ron Paul or any other Libertarian will never be elected president.

    From smoking to religion. Peter Singer says that parents should be allowed to kill their own children. The Judeo-Christian tradition says we can't allow that, even if the children are not "ours." It is our duty to protect others. Our religion demands it of us.

    We have to work out boundaries. It's an unavoidable part of human life.

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  3. 1) Self-identifying atheists make up about twice the population of self-identifying Jews in the US according to several general surveys that ask mutually exclusive faith identity questions (including the Pew Survey on Religion) at 3-5%. Add in agnostics, and you're knocking on 6-9% of the US population. Jews make up around 2%. Now, think of all the Jews that you know, and double that number. Take all the "obnoxious" atheists you know and subtract it from that number. What's left is all the people you probably don't know are atheists that don't bring up the subject. Why? Because religious people whine about it when atheists bring up religion. You're part of the problem why nice atheists don't talk about it.

    2) Hitler is in no way faith-inspired (a non-excommunicated member of the Roman Catholic church, though I wouldn't even consider that as motive for his Nazism). If you want to have an ideology to talk about with atheists, Humanism is probably that ideology. Humanism was created in the reaction to WWI of man's capacity to destroy. You suggest I read church apologies (there's still a lot to apologize for, to be honest...and I've read the apologies), so I suggest you read the Humanist Manifesto within the historical context of the eras in which it was written (post WWI and post WWII and during the height of the Cold War). The point of humanism in general is that we can import good and moral true ideas on their own merits and they don't have to be embedded in religions that have all this baggage.

    If you want a Christian view on what Atheism can contribute to society, I suggest you read the theology of Paul Tillich. In his view, there are kinds of morally constructive atheistic beliefs and he outlines what those are. Also in his view is the concept of "theistic idolatry" (the worship of a kind of God that isn't worthy of worship).

    And ahhh, social Darwinism. Let's get this one settled. Evolution isn't the creation myth of atheists. It isn't the source of any kind of value system, for that would be the Naturalistic Fallacy (to say something is good because it comes from nature). In fact, it's the Catholic Church who claims Natural Law as a foundation for morality! There are plausible ways of establishing morality outside of the existence of God that are available to theist and atheist alike, such as social contract theory (though the church considers Natural Law to also be available to atheists, but it doesn't seem to make much sense out here). Much of it invented during the enlightenment by deists who gave up on God as a source of help for humanity. Enlightenment values have served the US well in establishing its godless Constitution.

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  4. 3) The equality position between men and women in the early church was very quickly lost. I don't think you can claim credit for a spark that was extinguished so easily by some statements from the epistles (1 Timothy 2:12 "But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet." or a litany of other verses). Many cultures had experimented with gender equality during this time, and early Christianity was not a monolithic force, but a set of scattered conflicting sects that were consolidated into 2 large groups then "catholicized" from 2 branches: the Jerusalem Church and their gnostics and the Pauline/Marcione and their gnostics.

    Anyway, if a tradition contains many separate narratives for the value of human beings and you take the one that's nicest, what's the basis for determining that? Your standard is coming from somewhere outside of the Bible (perhaps popular culture's slow influence upon your tradition?) The Old Testament definitely contains much more and many more points about women as part of property law. The garden of Eden story is a Promethean tale anyway, and the woman is the hero. God punishes humanity for eating of the tree of KNOWLEDGE (carnal knowledge? well, that's one way to look at it...or just knowledge in genera...or esoteric knowledge as the gnostics would put it) by not allowing them to eat of the fruit of everlasting life. The snake is forced to crawl upon the ground, but likely flew before then (a competing serpent god was a flying winged serpent god).

    4) I love the book of Job as a wonderful human story. No matter what the failings of theodicy are, Job suffers because of forces beyond his control. He seeks comfort in his friends and wife (who seemingly abandon him), but yet he holds on. He never curses God, but he does call God to the mat and demands an explanation. The explanation he gets is actually no explanation at all. God never tells Job why he suffered, he just fixes the suffering. It is the plain story of this kind of indifference that seems to map most cleanly onto reality...that reality seems to be the worst of all possible worlds: indifferent. Between that and Ecclesiastes...2 great books.

    5) Atheists have to rebuild their entire belief structures from scratch. In order for most people to do this, they don't often hit the rich veins of philosophical positions that are well-grounded. I find they often find true belief, though not often the kind of justification that religious folks demand (though in some cases, they demand the impossible and go outside of their own philosophical grounding into areas even *more* error-prone). This is also why atheists love to argue, though...they want to acquire good reasons...it's just our culture that's wrong, often promoting bullshit Oprahism over actual valuable ideas. I personally consider Oprahism and new thought to be much more dangerous to everyone than orthodox Christianity (little-o on purpose there).

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    It seems from your reply that you think atheism is some kind of belief system. "New Atheism" is a loose set of people with things in common (like a high regard for morality, etc) that's more than just non-belief, but it's still fairly non-specific. You're best off probably challenging specific aspects that many atheists hold. Many atheists right now are rather new to atheism, and most seem to eventually find themselves as some kind of secular humanist, though this is still rather loose.

    Peter Singer's arguments for abortion support that, but he has other arguments for not allowing parents to kill children. You're confusing Christian polemic about his arguments with his actual position. I usually make it a point to actually read opposing viewpoint material before critiques of it, unless I know the author to be very fair to accurate portrayal of facts (which is rare from anyone, theist or atheist). It's one way I express what is called "The Principal of Charity in Argument".

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  5. Asonge, you lost me here:

    "You're part of the problem why nice atheists don't talk about it."

    No, I'm not. I'm not responsible for Richard Dawkins' being frequently cited as an example of all that is wrong with New Atheist discourse, any more than I am responsible for Christopher Hitchens' alcoholism or Michael Shermer's losing a bike race.

    Also, in my estimation, maturity demands that people take responsibility for their own behavior. "Yes, I'm obnoxious but Christians made me do it" is not an example of maturity.

    In addition, blaming others for one's own errors makes for a very destructive social model. When we convince ourselves that we can behave badly because we assess others as behaving badly, we set up a destructive dynamic, a no-exit cycle of abuse.

    A very wise man advised that we behave well even towards those whom we assess as treating us badly. A revolutionary and admirable model.

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  6. Okay, you didn't understand my argument at all. I might not have been clear. I was saying that those who confront people about their atheism are lambasted, which has a SELECTION PRESSURE on what kind of atheists you tend to see. Also, controversy can expand the influence of an interaction on memory and in media coverage or in the telling of empirical accounts between others. I shouldn't have blamed you alone for the misperception, though. It all started with the demonization of communists as godless. Before communism (or rather anti-communism) became a big thing, folks like Robert Ingersoll and other atheists travelled the country and were among the highest paid speakers and debaters. This atmosphere is perpetuates itself in popular culture and pressures atheists, particularly if they want to be "nice people" not to talk about their atheism.

    I've got many conservative minister friends on FB who I talk with about atheist and church subjects a lot, and they actually have changed some of their arguments from the fear-mongering kind because it perpetuates stereotypes. No matter your accounting for it, please recognize that atheists are capable of moral knowledge. Even apologists like William Lane Craig make special note when presenting "The Moral Argument" that atheists can have moral knowledge. Many people who are in fact atheists (in the figures, I was counting self-identifying atheists) also don't wear the label because of the perception, and I don't think that atheists are completely responsible for it. That said, if you want to know why there are angry atheists, why not read them yourself? Greta Christina just wrote a book that's an extended version of her talk.

    And really, when it comes to the bits of new atheism that are worldview-related, they are very much under construction, but we've got a lot of work done on a groundwork of moral knowledge...we are offering something that competes, it doesn't just tear down Christianity and replace it with nihilism.

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  7. Asonge, again, thanks for your post. I admire your devoting energy to communicating with me. As you can see, my blog is new, and it has few readers. I admire your dedication to communication even if only one person (me) may read your post.

    It won't surprise you that I disagree with much of what you say.

    Let me ask you this -- do you want a reply from me on any given point? If so, let me know which one, and I'll focus on that.

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  8. Watching "The Plainsman."

    A great line: there's no Sunday west of Junction City, no law west of Hayes City and no God west of Carson City.

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