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Dear Cenk Uygur: Don't Let Them Use Atheism To Divide Us

Even though I have a problem with organized religion, I'd rather attempt to reform it than to try eradicating it.
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Dear Cenk: No, I don't think you're a "fundamentalist atheist." I suspect that you and most progressive nonbelievers are humanist atheists. Natural allies like us are being polarized by a few people with anti-religious rhetoric but very non-progressive opinions. They're dividing us, and playing on our shared frustration with the insanity of religious extremism, so they can challenge secular ideals that have lasted since the Enlightenment.

First let me offer a confession (if you'll pardon the expression): Here's where I went wrong. I thought my use of terms like "fundamentalist atheist" would be clear, as long as I devoted paragraphs in each piece to carefully explaining why I was only referring to a few nonbelievers.

It didn't work, and I realize now that's partially my fault. People of nonbelief have been so battered in this country - and we've all been under siege from Christianist politicians for so long - that some readers couldn't see past the word "fundamentalist."

Somebody even wrote the editor of another blog that publishes me to say that he was a major donor and was withdrawing all financial support until my writing on atheism was banned from the site. Now that's what I call fundamentalism. But there again, my escalation in rhetoric probably didn't help.

I thought that modern progressive nonbelievers would recognize that I was speaking from an essentially humanist perspective. The American Humanist Society says "humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity."

I could be wrong, but you sound like a humanist to me. Yes, I consider myself "spiritual" (although not religious), but I firmly believe that only the facts provided by science and reason should provide the common body of knowledge in a secular society. In other words, I'm a humanist, too. Humanists support the old Enlightenment ideals of social tolerance and progressivism. Most atheists do, too, but I'm opposing the few who don't.

For example, Cenk, did you know that Sam Harris spreads neoconservative misinformation about a "clash of civilizations"? He condemns the entirety of Islam - including your Muslim friends and relatives back in Turkey - as "all fringe and no center." He's saying that your relatives are potential terrorists, part of the Islamofascist threat.

This sort of confused neocon hyperbole has already screwed up our country's antiterrorism effort. It purposefully overlooks the research of Reza Aslan and other Islamic scholars, and ignores (as just one example) the nearly 1,000 American and British imams who signed fatwas denouncing terrorism. Sam's a big fan of torture, too, which makes him the Alan Dershowitz of secularism.

He also badmouths liberals, using the same sweeping generalizations he makes about Muslims. Marty Kaplan and others have rightfully called bullshit on Harris' piece in the LA Times. He denounces liberals as soft on terror and associates them with conspiracy theorists - but that's where intolerance can lead you.

Meanwhile, the American Humanists are defending Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison against Rep. Virgil Goode. They point out that Goode's Christianist attack showed disrespect not only for Muslims, but for Jews, Wiccans, Buddhists - and atheists. That's what I call righteous nonbelief.

And, by the way, I'm not the one who connected atheism with intolerance. It's Harris who raised the issue by denouncing religious tolerance. "Tolerance is not without its liabilities," he writes in his first book. "Our fear of provoking religious hatred has rendered us incapable of criticizing ideas that are now patently absurd and increasingly maladaptive." Really? Advocates of tolerance like Norman Lear and the National Council of Churches have been on the right side of every critical battle between science and fundamentalism in the last quarter century. They've led the criticism of bad ideas about abortion and stem cells fwithout hesitating out of "fear of provoking religious hatred."

I'll repeat what I've said for over a year now: "I have no problem with atheism, just intolerance." The fact that you don't believe in God doesn't make you intolerant, and neither does the fact that you argue publicly against religion. My quarrel is specifically with Harris and his weak argument against tolerance. Cenk, can you tell me when religious tolerance has ever prevented the open exchange of ideas? I sure can't, and I'll bet Sam can't either.

At a seminar last year where we were both panelists, I cordially asked Harris whether he would be willing to read and consider research from the National Academy of Arts and Sciences that suggests most religious people - even non-moderates - don't accept these sacred texts entirely as literal fact. It says they often interpret them partly as truth (e.g. "Jesus rose from the dead"), partly as metaphor, partly as obsolete tract ("if you lay with a slave woman ..." etc.), and partly as moral guide. He didn't answer me, nor have either he or Dawkins responded fairly and directly to the many other critics who have made the same point.

Anyone who argues for the precedence of science and reason over religion should acknowledge counterarguments based academic research, even if it undercuts their position. They can challenge their data and conclusions, but they can't pretend the studies don't exist and still claim to represent "reason." That's my beef with Harris and Dawkins, and it's why I called them "fundamentalists."

According to the studies I've read - including that one Harris wouldn't acknowledge - believers of all faiths organize themselves into several categories in the real world. They're not divided simply into raging fundamentalists and hypocritical, enabling moderates. They range from literalist/fundamentalists to non-literalists, the latter employing religion as an ethical system and shared cultural practice.

You can think the last group is silly, if you like, but they haven't been hijacking our politics or encouraging young men to fly planes into buildings. As you said, fundamentalism is the enemy.

Yet although I think their reasoning is specious, and that they distort history and sociology, I'll still defend the right of Harris and Dawkins to argue against religion. I've never said otherwise. A free society can't remain free unless everything is open to debate.

My nonbeliever mother (remember her?) has been fighting the Religious Right longer than any of us. She worked with an anti-fundamentalist political group in her community for thirty years. And for years she shared leadership of that group with an Episcopalian priest.

That was fine with her, because she's a humanist. Live and let live, as long as you do the same. I've mentioned before that Kurt Vonnegut was President of the Humanist Society, and he seems to share your dislike for religion. But he also wrote that he "wouldn't want to be human" if "the Sermon on the Mount didn't exist." I have a feeling he wouldn't like these illiberal atheists any more than I do.

Yet Sam Harris says moderate religionists like my mother's Episcopalian friend are worse than the fanatics. "Fundamentalists tend to make a more principled use of their brains than moderates do," writes Harris. He adds: "Liberal piety is apt to produce the most unctuous and stupefying nonsense imaginable." And in his LA Times piece he even suggests that conspiracy theories about 9/11 are "liberal" ideas.

Wow. This dude sure hates liberals. And he thinks Jimmy Carter's thinking is less "principled" than Bin Laden's. Sure you want to defend him? Because it's him and his compatriots I'm criticizing, not you.

"As long as it is acceptable for a person to believe that he knows how God wants everyone on earth to live," Harris writes, "we will continue to murder one another on account of our myths." That's a factual statement, not a theological one - and it's absurd. People who populated a world divided between, say, moderate Episcopalians and devout Quakers would not "continue to murder one another. " Yet both believe they "know" that God wants us to be kind and just. Don't talk nonsense and then expect to be immune from criticism on the grounds that you represent "reason."

Our friend the priest is a gentle man who interprets the Bible as metaphor, and believes that God is an invisible all-pervasive force that reveals itself - when He/She/It does - only through science. You may think he's misguided, but he's not going to murder anybody.

(I've said more about Harris here than I have about Dawkins, so I'll let these three progressive writers (1, 2, 3) make the case against him for me. They do it better than I could.)

Cenk, do you believe liberal moderates like that priest are less principled thinkers than Jerry Falwell? Do you think liberals don't understand the Islamic threat as well as conservatives do? Do you think that science is hurt when someone says "I think there's a God out there, but not the kind that overrules science"? I doubt it, and I doubt that many of the commenters on this site do either.

That aside, I don't agree with you when you say that "religion is wrong," because I think that's a simplistic statement. "Religion" can mean many things - some beautiful, some ugly, and some mysterious. According to the sociology, many or most "believers" don't believe the things you criticize (Leviticus and all that). What about the others, the ones that use religion as metaphor? Are they wrong, or just using a metaphor you don't like?

I've told you what I don't think about religion. Here's what I do think: You know from our discussions on the air at The Young Turks that I believe the Jesus story is an amalgam of older resurrection mythology, Jewish rabbinical folkways, hearsay, and the (semi-accurately recorded) sayings of a first-century itinerant Hebrew preacher. You also know that I distrust all organized religions.

Yet I'm with Vonnegut in believing that this unlikely confluence of influences created something compelling - something that has created heroes like Tom Fox and allows people like me to muster progressives of faith in posts like "Celebrate Christmas the Old-Fashioned Way: Defy Authority." And I think that itinerant folk rabbi said some inspired things.

So, even though I have a problem with organized religion, I'd rather attempt to reform it than to try eradicating it. That is, unless someone comes up with a compelling argument to the contrary - one that incorporates (or amends) the historical and sociological facts as they now appear.

Bloggers like PZ Myers, Weldon Berger, and Elton have misinterpreted my post, just as you did, and I respond to them here. I've also reconsidered my rhetoric, since it must have been at least partially at fault for the misunderstanding.

Now, how about yours? It may be emotionally satisfying to write "Fuck God," but does it help? It certainly encourages heated rhetoric from people like the guy who wrote "take your religion and shove it up your ass" on my last post (and this after I explained I have no religion.)

Comments of this kind support my argument in many ways, and so does the person who read your post and then came to mine so that he could write "you people sure look stupid when you pray." They help reinforce my position by making my opponents look more like real fundamentalists. But this "help" comes at too high a cost for my tastes, because it does violence to our shared values and goals.

Enough, already. Let us reason together, as that old reprobate Lyndon Johnson used to say.

Here's some good news we can share: With the swearing in of the new Congress, the Religious Right just lost its stranglehold on the Federal government. No more will we be subjected to the unchecked oppression of the Christian Dominionists.

Free at last ... but just for the moment. That's why we have to stay united. Idealist that I am, I still believe we can all work together - you, me, that priest, my Mom, even Richard Dawkins if he's willing - to fight fundamentalism and religious extremism and build a better society.

Am I right? You tell me. Otherwise I'm just taking it on "faith."

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