Those fanatical atheists
by Dan Gardner, The Ottawa Citizen
It’s popular these days to equate those who question God with the worst kind of zealots, but it’s not fair.
Yesterday was one major religion’s holy day. Today is another’s. Tomorrow is a third’s. So I thought this is an opportune moment to say I think all three of these faiths — these mighty institutions, these esteemed philosophies, these ancient and honoured traditions — are ridiculous quackery. Parted seas. Walking corpses. Nocturnal visits to Heaven. For goodness sake, people, the talking wolf in Little Red Riding Hood is more plausible.
In the past, I’ve tried to avoid talking about religion in such sharp terms. It’s not that I fear giving offence (which would be something of a limitation in my line of work). Rather, I know, as all humans do, that it’s scary knowing you’re going to die. And if belief in angels on high eases the existential fears of some, I won’t begrudge them. Whatever gets you through the night, as a long-haired prophet once said.
But a series of books doing quite well on bestseller lists — by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and, soon, Christopher Hitchens — argues it’s time to be a lot less deferential to faith, and I have to say I find it hard to disagree. After all, we live in a time when blowing children to bits is an increasingly popular form of worship, the most powerful man on earth thinks he’s got a hotline to God, and much of the electorate who gave that man his power would never consider replacing him with someone who does not believe the son of a carpenter who died 2,000 years ago sits in heaven advising presidents, fixing football games, and waiting for the day he will return to the Earth to brutally murder all unbelievers and erect a worldwide dictatorship.
Private, quiet faith is one thing. But when the guy holding the launch codes believes the end of the world could come any day and that’s a good thing, those who believe lives are limited to one per customer have a problem.
Those making this case have been dubbed the “new atheists.” They have also been called fanatics who are dogmatic, zealous and intolerant of other views — the mirror image of religious extremists. As one English university dean said in the Guardian, Richard Dawkins is “just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs in the Tube.”
Less Olympian thinkers have portrayed strident atheists as hacking away at the bonds of morality, which must inevitably lead to various forms of depravity ranging from the sexual to the genocidal.
Don’t you know Stalin was an atheist? That’s the way it goes. First you read Richard Dawkins. Then you have an abortion. Then you’re putting a fresh coat of paint on the Gulag.
This frames the debate in a pleasingly symmetrical way. Over on that side are the insane religious fanatics who fly jets into skyscrapers and march around with signs saying “God Hates Fags.” Over there are fanatical atheists. Between the two extremes are sensible moderates who take the Goldilocks approach to faith and reason. Not too hot. Not too cold. Lukewarm, please, keep it lukewarm.
The appeal is obvious. “All things to moderation,” the Greeks sensibly advised, and this looks perfectly moderate. Whether it can withstand a little scrutiny is another matter.
The first problem for the moderate believer comes from those who like their faith hot. You’ve agreed God exists and that He mucks about in the world. You’ve agreed this book contains His holy commandments. So how do you respond when the mad religious zealot says, “hey, here on page 23, it says we should slice open unbelievers and use their guts for garters. And over here on page 75, it says we should bury homosexuals up to their necks and stuff olives up their noses. If God exists and these are his holy commandments, then shouldn’t we get serious about the gutting and stuffing?”
One response is to make like a Philadelphia lawyer and spin plain words (“and yea, the Lord saith, the nose of the sodomite shall be stuffed with olives …”) until they don’t say what they plainly say. But the more common response is to simply pretend the garters-and-olives passages don’t exist and prattle on about how God is merciful and loving.
This is neither faithful nor reasonable. Still, as a practical matter, it will do in times of religious quiescence. But with religious zealotry in the ascendant, this non-answer is not going to keep the ranks of the nutters from swelling. And that’s dangerous to us all.
Then there’s the problem on the other side — among the atheists such as Richard Dawkins who have been labelled “fanatics.” Now, it is absolutely true that Dawkins’ tone is often as charming as fingernails dragged slowly down a chalkboard. But just what is the core of Dawkins’ radical message?
Well, it goes something like this: If you claim that something is true, I will examine the evidence which supports your claim; if you have no evidence, I will not accept that what you say is true and I will think you a foolish and gullible person for believing it so.
That’s it. That’s the whole, crazy, fanatical package.
When the Pope says that a few words and some hand-waving causes a cracker to transform into the flesh of a 2,000-year-old man, Dawkins and his fellow travellers say, well, prove it. It should be simple. Swab the Host and do a DNA analysis. If you don’t, we will give your claim no more respect than we give to those who say they see the future in crystal balls or bend spoons with their minds or become werewolves at each full moon.
And for this, it is Dawkins, not the Pope, who is labelled the unreasonable fanatic on par with faith-saturated madmen who sacrifice children to an invisible spirit.
This is completely contrary to how we live the rest of our lives. We demand proof of even trivial claims (“John was the main creative force behind Sergeant Pepper”) and we dismiss those who make such claims without proof. We are still more demanding when claims are made on matters that are at least temporarily important (“Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction” being a notorious example).
So isn’t it odd that when claims are made about matters as important as the nature of existence and our place in it we suddenly drop all expectation of proof and we respect those who make and believe claims without the slightest evidence? Why is it perfectly reasonable to roll my eyes when someone makes the bald assertion that Ringo was the greatest Beatle but it is “fundamentalist” and “fanatical” to say that, absent evidence, it is absurd to believe Muhammad was not lying or hallucinating when he claimed to have long chats with God?
Of course I realize that by asking this question I may be contributing to mass depravity and a crisis of civilization. But I thought I’d risk it. That’s just the kind of fanatic I am.
It should also be obvious from this that the supposed link between Dawkinsian atheism and Stalinist butchery is pure nonsense. Yes, Stalin did not believe in God. But he believed in History, Marxism, Leninism and all sorts of Hegelian mumbo-jumbo for which he had not the slightest evidence.
He was not a religious man, but he most certainly was a man of faith.