Saturday, April 30, 2011

I Liked the Old Atheists Better

Stephen Prothero, a scholar of religion at BU, recently wrote a book titled God Is Not One. It is mostly an interesting read and is essentially a brief tour of major world religions with the intent of highlighting their differences. He includes a chapter on atheism which, while not a religion, is nonetheless an important and influential worldview (some contemporary forms of atheism, however, do seem very much like a religion).

Atheism is not new. It has been a significant intellectual viewpoint since at least the ancient Greeks, though atheists have always been in the minority. Prothero points out that some of greatest intellectuals (e.g. Nietzsche, Marx, Sartre) as well as some of the worst dictators (Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot) have been atheists. The so called "New Atheists" (e.g. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris) have given a new public face to atheism and have written some of the best-selling books of the past decade. Prothero observes that this particular group of atheists seems to be very religious, holding their beliefs "with the conviction of zealots and evangelizing with verve." Chris Hedges, a former writer for the New York Times, sees the New Atheists as a "secular version of the Religious Right." These self-proclaimed freethinkers end up being just as hate-filled, bigoted, and dogmatic as the religious fundamentalists they usually take aim at.

Prothero writes, "One of history's most dangerous games begins with dividing the world into the good guys and the bad guys and ends with using any means necessary to take the villains out. New Atheists play this game with brio, demonizing Muslims, denouncing Christians and Jews as dupes, and baptizing their fellow "brights" into their own communion of smarter-than-thou saints. Like fundamentalists and cowboys, they live in a Manichean world in which the forces of light are engaged in a great apocalyptic battle against the forces of darkness. They, too, are dogmatic and uncurious and every bit as useful to neoconservative policymakers as right wing televangelists."

Prothero asks why we can't recognize that we can just as easily kill in the name of progress (the French Revolution and the brutal dictatorships of Stalin and Lenin come to mind) as in the name of God. Sam Harris actually writes, "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them." The problem here is the strange but seemingly attractive notion that it is OK to be ultra-dogmatic and aggressive as long as you are "right." To me, the Spanish Inquisition would still not be acceptable even if the Roman Catholic Church's dogma was correct and the heretics indeed held false beliefs.

Prothero also mentions an interesting tidbit about the French New Atheist Michel Onfray. Onfray accuses fellow atheists like Dawkins and Dennett of being "Christian atheists." In other words, these atheists embrace Western moral values (which are predominantly Judeo-Christian) while rejecting Christianity and Judaism. Onfray, to my mind, is a bit more honest when he follows Nietzsche and insists that if atheism is true then there is no need for man to follow conventional morality. Onfray too recognizes the religiosity of many of today's atheists, writing (quoted by Prothero):

"The tactics of some secular figures seem contaminated by the enemy's ideology: many militants in the secular cause look astonishingly like clergy. Worse: like caricatures of clergy. Unfortunately, contemporary freethinking often carries a waft of incense; it sprinkles itself shamelessly with holy water."

Prothero doesn't only discuss St. Dawkins and St. Hitchens, though. He also tells the story of Amanda Gulledge, an "Alabama mom" and an atheist whose children have been shunned by other neighborhood children because they "haven't accepted Jesus as their Savior." Gulledge spoke at an atheist conference Prothero attended, and he noted the sharp contrast between the apparent goals of the more public New Atheists and "normal" atheists like her. One group wants to eradicate religion from the planet and the other wants atheism to be considered a valid viewpoint "deserving of a fair hearing." Prothero further contrasts the two different approaches in terms of the gay rights movement: "One is like trying to turn everyone gay and the other is like trying to secure equal rights for homosexuals."

I appreciate Amanda Gulledge's story, and I am ashamed that Christians would treat children like they have treated Amanda's children. I find it much harder to appreciate what the New Atheists seem to bring to the table: angry, overblown rhetoric and an astonishing level of close-minded, self-righteous hubris. I like how Prothero closes his chapter:

"I wouldn't walk around the block to hear Christopher Hitchens take cheap shots at Christians. But I'd get on the subway, and maybe even a plane, to hear Amanda Gulledge tell me why her kids are good people too."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Pagans, Sex, and St. Paul

So a while ago I wrote a little bit about God and sex and attempted to clarify what Christianity actually teaches about sex. In that post I mentioned the apostle Paul.

In one of his letters to the Corinthians, Paul writes that it is good for husbands and wives to have sex and says that it is perfectly all right for people to get married if they want to. I see this as a pretty clear endorsement of sex and marriage, but Paul also states that while it is fine and good if people marry, it is better to be celibate. Paul doesn't say this because he thinks sex is bad, but because those with the gift of celibacy (which, Paul writes, only some possess) have more time to devote to God. Still, in my mind this put a bit of a damper on the endorsement.

I'm currently reading The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity and came across an interesting note. Early Christians varied in their beliefs regarding whether or not they still had to strictly follow Jewish law or if they were free from the law or other social conventions. According to historian Henry Chadwick, "the pagan world was familiar with the widespread belief that sexual contact between man and woman hindered the soul's rise to higher things." This belief was adopted by some groups within the church, and was one of many reasons Paul wrote to them. Paul was not writing to people who thought that sex was good and telling them yes, sex is fine, but refraining from sex is better. He was writing to people who thought that sex was bad and was telling them no, sex is good, even if being celibate is better. Set in this context, Paul's affirmation that marriage is a good and acceptable thing is a stronger statement than I originally thought.