Friday, October 23, 2009

The New Atheism Pitchforks

Occasionally there is heard from certain New Atheist quarters a good deal of vitriol against all forms of religion. It is one I fully understand - ever since I first heard Sam Harris on book TV a number of years back, boldly calling for an unflinching response to the sheer absurdity of religion and asking why we are always asked to approach it with kid gloves.

And soon after we began hearing about the New Atheists and their supposedly radical agenda. Although whatever that agenda was was a matter of debate. To some, it simply meant "coming out" and actually openly declaring themselves atheist, or dropping the agnostic moniker that has served as a sort of spiritual cover - a sort of peace offering to bridge the gap between the absurd and the agnosticist "possibility of the absurd".

And others began to go further. Instead of simply adopting a principled, yet passive posture, they went on the attack. They sought to actively promote their Atheism to the blindly religious masses. The famous books were written making the case that, while quite difficult to offer proof that God does not exist, there is actually ample evidence that he is an entirely human construct, and what's more a contradictory and illogical drawn one at that. Articles were written engaging the New Atheists in dialogue. Movies were made. Billboards erected.

I cheered them on. I still do. I admit I had always felt a need to hide my atheism. The history of oppression and social ostracism is real and powerful. But as science has steadily built up a vast body of data and theory on what people are and why we do what we do, people are more and more becoming skeptical of religion and its increasing anachronism.

But there was also a sort of self-righteousness that irritated me. It seemed like the old human game was being played where people feel like they need to take sides and form teams. This has long been a part of any social struggle - regardless of its legitimacy. There's an aspect of strategy and tactics to it: strength in numbers, hold the line, surround the enemy, put them on their heels, distract them.

This can all be very effective. But it draws its strength from a deeper human emotion and can end up bypassing reason. Part of its strength lies in just this fact. When reason and reflection come into the equation they can dampen that raw emotional energy and cause people to question whether they ought to keep up the fight. This is what demagogues have always exploited. Pitchforks don't pump as vociferously through calm rationalism as they do through certainty and allegiance to the cause. And of course we all know what happens when arguments lose reason.

A powerful idea emerged from the New Atheism that, while maybe not originating through emotion, has certainly been weakened by it - effective as it has been as a sort of dark magnet for the cause. This is the idea that religion is not just a negative force, but dangerous. So dangerous in fact that it presents an urgent threat to modern civilization. I think this was triumphantly illustrated by Bill Maher's Religulous, when near the closing credits images flashed across the screen of religious zealotry and violence while a rousing score blasted (was it Wagner?), tied together in a modern propagandist display of fearmongering. This was the bypassing of reason at its most forceful.

I personally don't buy it. Sure, I think religion, combined with desperation and ignorance that leads to fundamentalism, can do horrific things. I also thing it is, on its face, stupid. It encourages magical thinking, when thinking should be anything but. It codifies oppression and degradation. It sews division and dischord.

But it is also incredibly human. That is, evidenced by its near universal adoption throughout human history, it seems to come directly out of the way our brain is wired for consciousness and processing of external stimulus. One must begin then to tease out what religion is. In one sense it is a very rational set of rules and beliefs that have their own internal logical structure. But in another it is a purely sensory and irrational experience that allows one to quiet the mind and exist in a state removed from the confines of ordered consciousness.

Religion is both of these things. One exists to serve the other. What are different religions but different ways of organizing how one might tap into that "spiritual" state of unconsciousness. These are all accomplished in degrees. At one end you might have a simple and short re-framing of a conscious experience by appealing to a magical thought, i.e. "That bastard just stole my parking spot. Sweet Jesus have mercy on his soul."

Now, this example could highlight two very different responses to the same event, with two very different conscious outcomes. The driver, obviously angered by being wronged, appeals to her religion to salve the wound. Instead of allowing the complex to linger, continuing to affecting her conscious state, she does a sort of jedi-mind trick on herself, in the form of obedience to religious teaching, and she moves on.

But two people could perform the same ritual with two very different outcomes, based largely on interpretation owing to emotional and cultural development. Person A might curse and make the same "prayer", and self-comfort with the notion that "we are all God's children" and that "they know not what they do". Situation explained, cognitive dissonance resolved. Persona B might also self-comfort, but instead with the notion "they will burn in hell because they are sinners". Situation explained, cognitive dissonance resolved.

Both appealed to the same religion, but different versions of the dogma. One could be said to have left with kindness, while the other with anger and hostility. While a simple parking-lot annoyance is quite trivial, at the other end of the spectrum we have serious matters such as war and conflict. Yet one could also make the case that for every warmongering Osama Bin laden, or George Bush, there are those who identify with the religious traditions highlighting pacifism and diplomacy. For every Palestinian suicide bomber or Jewish settler, there are aid groups in Africa or soup kitchens downtown.

Ayan Hirsi Ali, no doubt owing to her personally horrific religious experience, finds many examples of ways in which the Koran explicitly lays out suggestions that only require a simple interpretation to lead believers to commit heinous acts. This may indeed be true. But while religious texts may be dangerous, and magical thinking may lead to conflict, it also has the power for much good. In many cases, religion may be the one thing that is keeping more harm from coming.

Now, the bad may certainly outweigh the good, and thus as a philosophical position is principled. But the reality is that we just aren't anywhere close to the eradication of religion. We live in a world in which religion is tied up in ethnicity, and cultural tradition is tied up in a complex web of reason and spirituality that does good and harm simultaneously.

This is why I find the argument that some in the New Atheist movement make, that religion is urgently dangerous and needs to be cast completely out of society, both false and impractical. It is certainly sometimes dangerous, but also often very helpful, and in any event deeply tied into cultural and ethnic patterns of thought that aren't easily separable. For this reason it just isn't practical to rid society of religion, even if the threat it posed warranted such hostility.

Religion has been compared to other social ills, such as racism, or unjust political movements. But this is reductionist nonsense. Sure, there are specific tenets of specific religious dogma that one can certainly call unjust
and wrong, and intolerable (homophobia being a prime example). But to cast a net over the entirety of religious thought is reaching a bit.

People will always be ignorant and small-minded, with or without religion. They will really on logical fallacies in their thought, they will ignore complexity for easy answers. Religion can certainly contribute to this behavior. But it can also offer people a way to transcend it, or at least the complexities of consciousness that would encourage it.

And so in this way I think it should be given respect. At the very least as a part of one's cultural behavior that they should not be made to feel ashamed of having accepted. By doing so we are not tolerating any specific ideas or practices that are unjust or directly cause harm. We are tolerating the right of each individual to find their own way in peace.

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