Matt Arnold (matt_arnold) wrote,
Matt Arnold
matt_arnold

When Atheists Have Their Say

Edge.org brought my attention to responses in the letters column of the New York Times (quoted below the cut), by the three atheists most prominently cited in the resurgence of outspoken atheism-- Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. They plead for the simplicity and gentleness of their positions, against the reputations they are acquiring from those who have only heard about them from their detractors. Those who take the time to actually read their books find out that far from over-reaching, cruelty, or arrogance, they gently point out obvious ennobling and enriching insights which it has been impolite to mention.

In a free society, most secularists are far more interested in ending the immunity which religious faith is granted than we are interested in the hopeless folly of attempting to end faith itself. Unfortunately, it seems that faith reacts badly to challenges to its sacred-cow status, resulting in the mischaracterizations of the New Atheists.

A frequent objection is made that Harris, Dawkins and Dennett mischaracterize religion. Exactly what religious adherents are those objectors looking at? It doesn't matter that the top 1% most sophisticated religious people are not as bad as all that. They aren't the 99% who are making problems for us. There is a No True Scotsman fallacy at work here.
Argument: "Religious faith isn't a problem."
Reply: "I'd be wealthy if I had a nickel for every example of family, friends and local leaders in the past couple of months making an appeal to credibility, where no attempt in the slightest has been made to establish that credibility, and any such attempt would be considered disloyal. They call that 'faith'."
Rebuttal: "Well, no true religious faith is a problem." The remaining rebuttal consists of the flavor-of-the-month redefinition of religion and faith to have nothing to do with the tactic we encounter in our lives from about 325 million users of the English word "faith".

Few of those who call the New Atheists "mean" notice the focus on beautiful, ennobling, enriching, and motivational answers offered by secular world views to traditionally religious questions ... even for traditionally religious purposes such as understanding your brain and genes well enough to seek how to be happy and find meaning! This New York Times article about a conference of scientists dealing with religious objections to their findings is typical in that it focuses on how many of them were combative, but in this social climate the article is remarkable that it notices their positive alternative offering at all.

To the Editor:

Re "A Modest Proposal for a Truce on Religion," by Nicholas D. Kristof (column, Dec. 3):

Contrary to Mr. Kristof's opinion, it isn't "intolerant" or "fundamentalist" to point out that there is no good reason to believe that one of our books was dictated by an omniscient deity.

Half of the American population believes that the universe is 6,000 years old. They are wrong about this. Declaring them so is not "irreligious intolerance." It is intellectual honesty.

Given the astounding number of galaxies and potential worlds arrayed overhead, the complexities of life on earth and the advances in our ethical discourse over the last 2,000 years, the world's religions offer a view of reality that is now so utterly impoverished as to scarcely constitute a view of reality at all.

This is a fact that can be argued for from a dozen sides, as Richard Dawkins and I have recently done in our books. Calling our efforts "mean" overlooks our genuine concern for the future of civilization.

And it's not much of a counterargument either.

Sam Harris
New York, Dec. 3, 2006

The writer is the author of "The End of Faith" and "Letter to a Christian Nation."



To the Editor:

Nicholas D. Kristof is one of many commentators to find the tone of the newly resurgent atheism "obnoxious" or "mean."

Ubiquitous as they are, such epithets are not borne out by an objective reading of the works he cites: Sam Harris's "Letter to a Christian Nation," my own "God Delusion" and www.whydoesgodhateamputees.com (I had not been aware of this splendid Web site; thank you, Mr. Kristof).

I have scanned all three atheist sources carefully for polemic, and my honest judgment is that they are gentle by the standards of normal political commentary, say, or the standards of theater and arts critics.

Mr. Kristof has simply become acclimatized to the convention that you can criticize anything else but you mustn't criticize religion. Ears calibrated to this norm will hear gentle criticism of religion as intemperate, and robust criticism as obnoxious. Without wishing to offend, I want "The God Delusion" to raise our consciousness of this weird double standard.

How did religion acquire its extraordinary immunity against normal levels of criticism?

Richard Dawkins
Oxford, England, Dec. 4, 2006



DANIEL C. DENNETT

Re "A Modest Proposal for a Truce on Religion," by Nicholas D. Kristof (New York Times column, Dec. 3):

Presumably Mr Kristof chose the most inflammatory passage he could find in Richard Dawkins' book to illustrate his point about how "mean" and "obnoxious" the tone is, and what he came up with is Dawkins' short but appalling list of some of religion's blemishes: from the Crusades and witch-hunts of yore to today's 9/11, honor killings and "shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money." Good riddance to them all, says Dawkins. Would Kristof choose to defend any of these, or is he just shocked that Dawkins would be so impolite as to remind the devout of these dishonorable episodes? There is nothing "dogmatic" or "fundamentalist" about Dawkins' tone; he is simply speaking truthfully about matters that most people have trained themselves not to mention, or else to allude to in mealy-mouthed terms.
Tags: articles, atheism, humanism, memetics, religion, science, secular, secularism, theocracy
Subscribe

  • Post a new comment

    Error

    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic
  • 7 comments