Saturday, January 13, 2007

Juxtapose These Posts

A couple of days ago I read this post by Dagoods at Debunking Christianity. While he is an atheist and I am a Christian, I often finding my self saying a quiet Amen! after reading some of his posts. He and I, you see, share a pet project: bringing charity back into conversation.

In his most recent post he laments the lack of charity that Christians (and probably other theists as well) bring to their conversations with atheists. He rightly notes that when a Christian asks, "Why are you a atheist?", they are, rather than actually asking a question as an appeal for information, simply opening the conversational door, so that they can inform the atheist of the real reason for their position, their true motives.

Just as I attack broad, overarching functionalistic theories of religion - whether it be the evolutionary approach of E.O. Wilson, or the psychoanalytic approach of Freud, or the sociological approach of Durkheim, or any of the others - he is offended by that same trend in Christian (and probably other theists) approaches to his own atheism. What each of these approaches have in common is a refusal to treat a phenomenon as it presents itself. Rather, they must seek to insert that phenomenon into their broader world view. While to a certain extent we must all do this - we each organize the data presented to us by our sense perceptions, fitting it into some larger narrative so that we can then understand us; this is the nature of reflection - we must also remain aware of the limitations of this approach. It is quite possible that a new piece of information may not, in fact, fit into the narrative we use to describe our experience of the world. Phenomena not only confirm our world view; they sometimes discomfirm it.

Being open minded means understanding that your beliefs are not always right. It means constantly testing your beliefs against the available information. This is important when conversing with others, especially when they don't share your most basic assumptions.

This morning I read this post by Asbury Theological Seminary's Ben Witherington. In it he attacks the "Angry Apostles of Atheism," a marvelously alliterative phrase that also describes a real and distressing development. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and their ilk - the advancing public face of atheism - understand very little about religion, yet feel qualified to pontificate wildly on the dangers of it, explaining the real reason people are religious with the same arrogance that religious people use to try to explain away atheism. At no point do they ever attempt to apply any sort of interpretive charity to the subject. The phenomena of religious belief and devotion are not a part of the mental narratives of their lives, so they must, of necessity, be stupid, foolish, and dangerous. They are, as such, incapable of noticing the wide variety of religious experiences and expression, nor can they bring any nuance into the discussion. They are simply dogmatists, attacking religion with the same fervor that fundamentalists attack the evils of "secularism."

Witherington identifies certain hypocritical problems in this form of aggressive atheism - a form of atheism that I see all too often in the comments at Debunking Christianity, and in posts by some of the bloggers there. (This is by no means to say that everyone at Debunking Christianity participates in this problem, or I wouldn't waste my time going there almost every day!) However, I'm afraid he fails to notice some of the same tendencies in himself.

When he builds up constructive arguments for the value and validity of religious experience, when he demonstrates that not all Christians are ignorant fools, or when he attacks the arrogant dogmatism of certain atheistic assumptions, Witherington offers us a valuable service. However, much like those who frequently ask Dagoods why he is an atheist, only to answer their own question, when Witherington offers his own sweeping assertions about the nature of atheism he not only fails to distinguish between the many forms of atheism, but he also exercises some serious intellectual hubris.

When he says things like

Yes, friends you see, fundamentalism is not in the end a position on the arc of the religious or theological spectrum. It is a mindset that can be embraced by conservatives or liberals, true believers or atheists. It is what Bloom complained about when he bemoaned 'the closing of the American mind'. It has to do not merely with the lust for certainty, though that is a crucial component, but also the actual belief that you have found that absolute certainty such that faith is no longer required, it has become unassailable knowledge.

He is dead on, not only instructive but even helpful. However, when he says

But at the end of the day, it does seem probable to me that atheists like Dawkins are in denial about God, because they are in fact in denial about their own nature and condition-- created in God's image. It is of course galling to human pride to discover that one is not a self-made person. It is galling to learn that one owes one's very existence to another outside of the oneself. And it is most galling of all to learn that that Person is not merely one of one's parents, but in fact one's heavenly parent, the Creator. It has been said that one cannot know who one is, unless one knows whose one is-- 'little lamb who made thee' asked William Blake. And here in lies the rub for atheists. They cannot truly learn who they are, and the very nature of human existence without knowing their Maker. When one learns whose one is, one learns who one is.

he assumes that the atheist position comes from a kind of existential dishonesty. While this may be the case for some atheists - each of us, to a certain extent, is guilty of a little existential dishonesty, a refusal to believe the truth about ourselves - many atheists that I know personally are, far from being in any kind of denial, actually a great deal more honest with themselves than many religious people.

Atheism, from the atheist perspective, doesn't come from extreme hubris or a willingness to deny the most fundamental truths about one's self and one's position in the universe, any more than religious belief and devotion, from the religious perspective, comes from ignorance, superstition, or the need for cosmic paternalism. If we are to truly understand each other, and as such live in a peaceful society, we have to meet each other where we are, quick to listen, slow to speak, and especially slow to become angry or assume the worst about another.


PamBG said...

The whole approach of "I'll tell you the real reason that you are an atheist/a Christian" seems to me to be a failure to be empathetic and to try to see a situation from the other person's point of view.

The people who tell me "the real reason" that I'm not their sort of Christian are frustrating; the people who tell me "the real reason" that I'm a Christian I tend to politely ignore. We had Madeline Murray O'Hare in my day - a fundamentalist atheist as I call them - and such people will ever be before us. (My answer to the statement "You are only a Christian because you need a crutch" is to say "Yes".)

I believe that there are some people who are consitutionally unable to see another person's point of view. For the rest of us, it should not be the norm for our patterns of discussion and I would hope we could model more civilised ways of interacting with those who disagree with us.

I do admit, however, to losing my temper at times! There is nothing I hate more than someone who thinks they know my motivations and thoughts better than I do. I feel totally unheard in that kind of situation.

DagoodS said...


Thank you for the kind words. Interestingly, it is those of a more…liberal (may I say?) view of theism such as yourself, that take the full brunt of this attack.

Just today I was reading elsewhere, and a blogger noted (paraphrased): “You cannot include those who are ‘liberal’ in their religion, because by being liberal, they are really not practicing their religion at all!”

Apparently you and I must be dogmatically certain about our every belief and use every opportunity to shove it down others’ throats, or we do not qualify as “real” practitioners of our beliefs. *grin*

I am empathetic with Witherington’s post. I have always abhorred the claim that theists are “deluded.” It seems to be the exact opposite side of the coin of “You really know there is a God, but are denying it.” It appears to be: “You really know there is no God, but are denying it.”

Having been a theist for the majority of my life, I was not deluded. Nor do I look back and say, “I was deluded.” I was different.

These are difficult discussions for many to exhibit charity. We take our beliefs very seriously (otherwise we wouldn’t blog long hours about them, but rather would be blogging on new and fascinating recipes, where I am sure there are equally vicious attacks) and when others dismiss them, or portray them as insignificant, that can be hurtful.

Worse, we each have our built-in “choirs” that the more dogmatic, rhetorical and brutish we become, the more it is encouraged to “pour it on.” The propensity to lash back is…unfortunately…all too tempting.

Reasoned debate in which one changes their position is seen as a weakness—not a virtue anymore.