Taking offense at the new atheists
Now there’s an expression I find useful: ‘new atheism’. I don’t think there’s anything particularly ‘new’ about present-day atheism, but atheists all over the world have been busier expounding their views over the past years. They’re growing more ‘missionary’ about it too. Reactions from the believing side -being religious- provoke wonder among atheists. At Café Philos, Paul Sunstone asks why ‘new atheists’ like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins offend the religious. Isn’t ‘being offended’ a sign of ‘being wrong’ and not wanting to face that? And aren’t religious people applying double standards? If we have to respect faith, don’t we also have to respect the lack of it?
I’m not familiar with Dawkins and have only read a few pages by Harris, but my country has also had it’s share of ‘new atheists’ and I’ve read some of them in my mother tongue. I consider atheism to be a perfectly respectable position, and an obligatory one for scientists. Usually I find myself assuming the role of an atheist among believers. Yet I do recognise some of the irritation these ‘new atheists’ cause among believers, among atheists I can just as easily assume the role of a believer. Why do we take offence? A couple of points and some illustrations.
- Atheists tend to aim their criticism at an outdated image of religion.
There’s no conclusive proof that God exists. That’s the main point every atheist discourse starts with. Sure, in the 19th century, in the aftermath of Aristotle and Thomism, people still believed you could prove Gods existence by sheer logic. Nowadays most believers have realised that logic (like time and space) is a phenomenon of creation of which God is not a part, nor is He subject to it. Proving God amounts to blasphemy. As I heard one believer once state: ‘As soon as conclusive proof of Gods existence is found, we know He doesn’t.’
- Atheists tend to read sacred scriptures literally.
I still wonder about the atheist friend of mine who burst from indignation when I told her that the biblical figure of Job was not an actual, historical person, but a character in a story, just like the prodigal son and the good Samaritan. It’s a view already present in the Talmud, but atheists nowadays won’t allow believers to play around with scripture like that. This is one of the reasons why atheists -much to their surprise- are labeled ‘fundamentalists’ by believers. Sacred scriptures started to be read literally with the rise of modernity. Anyone acquainted with Late Antique and Medieval exegesis would know that a literal reading of sacred texts was not the rule, but rather the exception. Most religions started out on the basis of mythologies, reworkings of, and polemics against mythologies, mostly in the form of alternative mythologies. None were ever meant to be read literally. Modern exegesis and theology operate on that basis and those notions have seeped down to ordinary believers. It is very tyring to discuss your sacred writings with someone who insists you’re not reading them correctly (i.e. literally).
- Atheists take the view projected by a -usually very vocal- minority as representative of the whole religion.
Every time I get into discussions with atheists I first need to clear prejudices about religious ideas, on modern science for example. No, the Catholic Church never had any difficulties with the Big Bang. The idea was even invented by a Catholic priest. No, Islam never had a problem with evolution, until some idiots started seeing it as an idea from the detestable West, and began importing Christian creationist literature. Yes I know modern science has opened up the possibility of creation being self-explanatory. I wouldn’t expect anything less. Only an amateur-God would make a universe in need of an explanation. Religions tend to harbour a wide variety of faiths, atheists only honor a part of them.
- Atheists do not recognise the internal debates that have raged in every religion.
Atheists tend to see faith as a collection of ‘silly ideas’, hence the nature of parody-religions like the Flying Spaghetti Monster. This causes them to address lots of attention to denying or scientifically explaining things like miracles and mystical experiences, apparently thinking that -being silly- these must be important aspects of faith. However, 99% of all believers have never had a mystical experience and 99.99% have never been involved in a miracle, in whatever role. Within religions, debates on the nature of (e.g.) miracles have raged ever since their inception. Views range from a direct intervention by God into the laws of nature to a flat denial of the existence of miracles. The latter can be found in the Talmud, so it’s not a modern invention.
- Atheists think legal
The idea atheists have about religion usually amounts to: ‘a collection of silly ideas that can be proved to be factually incorrect’. This means that what believers say is either true or false. Figures of speech, metaphors and what believers are really trying to say get hopelessly lost in conversations between believers and atheists. ‘That is not true and I can prove it’ is a productive phrase in court, but not in religion. ‘An attempt to express in a tentative, stumbling way, our experiences and convictions’ won’t work in court, but it might when you’re discussing faith.
- Most atheists have a chip on their shoulder.
The proportion of ex-believers among atheists of the missionary kind is very, very high. And the proportion of fundamentalist-like systems of faith that were left among these ex-believers is again very, very high. Lots (luckily not all) of atheist viewpoints are simply formerly religious viewpoints with a -rather uncreative- ‘not’ inserted somewhere. Nothing else has changed, not even being religious about it. This is another reason why believers sometimes hurl ‘fundamentalist’ at an atheist.
- Atheists do not (always) take their partners in discussion seriously.
Believers trying to bring more subtle notions into the discussion, things that go beyond the phrase ‘God does/doesn’t exist’ are quickly accused of foolhardiness, beating around the bush, trying to wiggle their way out, or cognitive dissonance. I’ve even once heard Stockholm Syndrome hurled at a believer. Believers are people too. It’s very difficult to keep you calm when someone decides to treat you like a psychiatric patient.
Having said all this: for atheists it must be tremendously difficult to distinguish faith from lunacy. Unfortunately fundamentalists are everywhere. They use the same words, images and ideas as ‘normal’ believers. Their systems of belief are simpler, much better understandable for the outsider and far easier to assail. They’re louder too. ‘Normal’ believers are just not the type of people to get loud about their -very private- convictions. The last thing on my mind is blame atheists for all this. It’s the believers (all of them) who’ve caused these misunderstandings.