Monday, December 18, 2006

Onward Atheist Solders

In a recent NY Times column Nicholas Kristof indicated that some current advocates of atheism are beginning to mimic the intransigeance and intolerance of their theist adversaries. Actually, this kind of militant atheism is not new, for I remember as a teenage enthusiast receiving (almost sixty years ago) a packet of such material from a New York advocacy group. All the same, there does seem to be an upsurge in what I would term aggressive, militant atheism.

Those who take this tack seem to hold that for too long they had held their fire. After so much pussy-footing, they have concluded, it is time to take the offensive.

I think that there is another reason. That is the fall of Communism fifteen years ago. Let me explain.

Richard Dawkins, the English scientist, is perhaps the most intense of the new Atheist Soldiers. His book, The God Delusion, is doing well--by definition, of course, among those who still read books. An ad for the book captures the tone. If we didn't have religion, all kinds of noxious things would disappear. There would be "no Crusades, no Inquisition, no pogroms, no 9/11, and no suicide bombings."

Perhaps so. But let me bring up another list. What set of regimes was responsible for the following: suppression of all opinion not in accord with Scientific Socialism; confinement of opponents to mental hospitals; discrimination against individuals because of class origins; prohibition of emigration and foreign travel; and (last but not least) the Gulags? Not so long ago these conditions afflicted some two billion human beings living in officially atheist states, including the Warsaw Pact group in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, North Korea, and Vietnam.

Now that most of these countries have changed, or at least moderated their regimes, it is easy to forget what had happened.

The reality is that there are different types of Christianity and different types of atheism. As far as I know, no Quaker has every participated in a Crusade. The gentle Episcopal clergy I know of are most unlikely to be involved in a pogrom. Most Muslims would be incapable of participating in a suicide bombing.

Of course, there are different kinds of atheists too. Dawkins and Sam Harris are unlikely to seek to have their opponents commmitted to a mental hospital or prevented from prevented from foreign travel. (Though come to think of it, the latter step might be helpful with Mormon missionaries. Just kidding!)

What matters is not the distinction between believers and atheists, but which kinds of these we are speaking of.

It is no help, by the way, to say that Marxists are not "genuine atheists." There are plenty of people to say that the boundaries of "genuine Christianity" do not include the Catholicism of Torquemada and Savonarola. Or as some would say nowadays, Fallwell and Robertson are not really Christians. Oh yes they are, just as Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were genuine atheists.

Moreover, as in Northern Ireland, religion is often a mask for economic differences. By contrast the Basques in Spain are just as troublesome as the IRA, but they are (most of them) Catholics like those they oppose.

Conversion of the world to atheism would not usher in the millennium. At all events it is unlikely to happen. Even in Western Europe, where growing numbers of nominal Christians are neglecting religious observance, these people have not become flaming atheists. Many are probably agnostics--as am I. In my view it is agnosticism that is the best antidote to fanatacism. Kristof is right: the new aggressivness among atheist advocates is a form of preaching to the choir that turns others off. I know that this is my reaction. Stop lecturing us, Dawkins and Harris. Hardly anyone cares about your certainties, however passionately expressed.

Long live indifference!

To be sure, I am mindful of the dangers posed by the Christian-nation folks, who want to establish a theocracy in the United States. But why should this problem push us into atheism? There are plenty of decent Christians, Jews, and Muslims. They form a stronger redoubt than militant atheism, which will never appeal to more than a small educated minority, while raising many hackles.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course, agnosticism is a perfectly cynical/skeptical stance, where one just "suspends" all judgment, because epistemological knowledge of the unknowable is just not possible. As "insurance," I recommend Pascal's Wager. While it is financially free, and the probability low, there's nothing like insurance against the risk that what in unknowable will not be excusable. Some deities apparently don't tolerate lack of evidence or reason as a defense at Judgment, that's why the Wager is good insurance, even if the probability is minimal.

Some keep insisting that "no belief" is itself a form of belief, it's simply epistemologically the negation instead of an affirmation. In that case, no belief in astrology, tarot cards, and other oracles are no less beliefs of disbelief, which, are negative beliefs, according to this theory. So, if I don't think of, much less believe, that sun won't rise in the morning, am I a believer in the disbelief that suns won't ever not rise, or am I just agnostic?

Granted, Harris and Dawkins are quite excited over their observations about "believers," and thus react that such beliefs, besides being irrational, are also not benign. It's one thing not to believe (as if this is a form of belief), but it's another to deny that believers are just benign suckers who are easily gullible. Look at all the "faiths" of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Freudianism, and Marxism (to name just a few), and perhaps "faith" is not benign, as least regards those who do believe, like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Robertson, Addler, psychoanalysts, Pascal, Calvin, and a host of others.

It's one thing to be gullible, it's another to be doctrinaire, and even more pernicious to be dogmatic. And what do these folk all have in common, you ask? Belief.

Now belief is distinguished from justified belief and different from knowledge, where no evidence of any kind can support the claims of the believer. The agnostic gets to play it safe, and adding Pascal's Wager is added insurance, in case that a lack of evidence and reason are not defenses against a deity's judgment for using commonsnese. But, do we take out insurance in case the sun does not rise tomorrow? Are we agnostic? Maybe probability is not all that probable, but at least some evidence exists for claiming that it isn't entirely a fantasy. And when does fantasy and gullibility morph into fanaticism and zealotry over a belief that has no evidence and no reason, are we to insure against those risks too? That's all Harris and Dawkins are asking. How far and how wide must we allow irrational and lack of evidence go before we ask why anyone believes at all?

Perhaps their questions are too rigorous, but they're not out of line. Unless we're going to abide every astrologer and oracle to guide our policies and our lives according to their beliefs in the stars and the planets. Asking about one's "sign," is different from insisting that only Scorprios get to call all the shots and decisions. Not a small difference.

6:49 PM  

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