Friday, November 17, 2006

If You're Going to Yell, Please Yell Softly

So, Jewcy has gotten in on the Newsweek/Washington Post concept of fostering dialogue online. Their “Big Questions” series opens with a discussion between Sam Harris and Dennis Prager.

“Author of the thundering anti-theist polemics The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris may just be the Thomas Paine of an emerging movement to wrench religion out of American life. Prager is a nationally syndicated talk radio host who trumpets the virtues of the Judeo-Christian tradition and skewers the arrogance and moral idiocy of atheists. For the next four days, each of them will send us one e-mail per day.”

I can’t imagine why atheists would be angry, when Jewcy refers to Harris’s work as polemic, and describes him as a person who’s attempting to “wrench religion out of American life,” whereas Prager is lauded for “skewer[ing] the arrogance and moral idiocy of atheists.” Fair and balanced; nothing upsetting there. I'm going to assume they were being tongue-in-cheek because I know the Jewcy guys and they have good senses of humor.

Now on to the meat of the post (you knew it had to come eventually).

Periodically, I post parts of an on-going discussion that I’m having with The Rooster about atheism and religion. What you don’t know is that these posts are a microcosm of the actual argument. Were I to post every detail, no one would ever get any work done; least of all me. In the interest of contextualization, I’ve been keeping up on the explosion of the atheist/theist debate in magazines, journals, talk radios, newspapers, and online. It seems that everyone’s having the same problem we’re having: attempting an argument on two different levels, with too many variables. We’re arguing about two distinct topics: God and Religion. The Rooster, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins may not believe in God, but God is not truly the target of their anger and frustration. They are called a-theists, but what they truly are is anti-religion.

Now, whenever someone places the “anti-“ prefix in front of a word, everyone gets their panties in a bunch and the dialogue goes down the toilet. These men do not believe that religion is the root of all evil, nor would they argue that eradicating religion would suddenly make the world a perfect place filled with sunshine and rainbows. The truth of the matter is that they believe that the mindset of religion, one they characterize as inherently false because it rests on believing not provable or disproved myths, combined with the explicit assertion that a particular religion is The Pathway to The Truth, creates a culture of conflict and paves the way for bloodshed, particularly when dealing with fundamentals and absolutes. Without religion to foster falsehoods, they contend, our minds would be free to pursue other, newer methods for accessing the Truth of the Universe: science and reason. Religion served its purpose thousands of years ago, when wisdom literature attempted to deduce the hidden order of the universe, but our methods have since improved and it is time for our minds to improve along side them. This argument is entirely atheistic, which is to say that it has nothing to do with God. So let’s leave God out of it.

I know, I know. My atheists will argue that God is at the root of the argument, at the crux of the issue, but really, God is beside the point. So when Harris and Prager argue on Jewcy, Harris talks about the effects of religion on society and Prager talks right past him, about the atheistic belief that there’s no God. And then we enter into the abyss of proving an alternative hypothesis. When arguing about religion, why can’t those defending the faiths talk about the benefits of religion? Why do they (we?) always find recourse in attacking the philosophical claims of atheists without addressing the meat of their arguments and the source of their anger. Surely, the argument that atheistic states have committed as many atrocities as theistic states is true, but not one that adequately defends religion. I know because I’ve offered this defense, to no avail (and felt slightly icky afterwards). They are saying that religion has nothing to offer but pain and suffering, that it is an outdated system that only does harm, that the meager benefits it may offer in terms of culture and community only compound the suffering it causes by creating false boundaries between people. Those of us who choose to associate with religion (or those who feel it’s inborn and not a choice, but an internal reality, like blue eyes and fair skin) should be able to offer positive content.

Why choose religion? What benefits does religion offer? How would the world suffer if religion were gone (not abolished, the aforementioned atheistic states tried that to calamitous ends)? Frame the argument without “Because God said so” or “Because we have no choice.” Not because those may not be valid truths (I’m not even touching that), but because they are beside the point and aren’t compelling to people who do not believe in a God who demands that we follow a set of laws and rituals, who do not believe in God at all.


the BFG said...

My mind is trying to answer all of the questions at once, but I only have ten fingers with which to type. So, here is one thought. Without religion, humanity would still be waiting for visual proof before appreciating the beauties and uglies of the world. Religion, in much the same way as does science, provides the opportunity for people to interact with the mysterious is some "tangible" way (tangible here meaning that we can wrap some part of ourselves around something otherwise entirely outside of our current realm of sight).

Additionally, without irrational belief, there wouldn't be any trust, the least rational and most powerful risk many of us take.

And a question, for any of you who wish to answer: when you read books on religion, do you jump back and forth from viewpoint to viewpoint? Or do you read Dawkins, love him, and stick with his ilk?

Anonymous said...


I don't believe trust is irrational. I believe it is non-rational. (For more on this theme, see my comments in the Neil Gillman Would Be Proud post). Through millions of years of evolution, and the selective advantage of trusting people (but not too much), we ended up the homo sapiens we are today: trusting, but cautious. The analogy to religion just doesn't exist. Trust is not the same as faith.

Also, when Harley writes, "Not because those may not be valid truths" about the God hypothesis, she unintentionally shows the attitude that atheists find so irritating. The probability of there being a God is extremely small (all positive arguments for the existence of God are fatally flawed in one way or another), and the probability of there being a specific, religious God is, in the words of Dawkins, "vanishingly small." Part of what infuriates atheists is that someone like Harley, one of the most reasonable religious people ever (a sort of dubious distinction, I know) is able to say "not that those aren't valid truths" and not get called to task for it.

Anyway, rant over. Harley, call me baby. I miss you.

-The Rooster

Anonymous said...

It is ironic that the "left" side of the argument is the one counsels against tolerance of religion and the "right" side of the argument is one that is on the defensive. Wasn't it recently that it was the left wing that was more concerned with diversity?

Of course, if there is one type of diversity ideologues rarely countenance, it is diversity of thought. Especially any thought that disagrees with their own.