THE BLOG

The Sad State of Atheism Today

Roll over Carl Sagan, and tell Voltaire the news: Some of today's atheist spokesmen have hijacked its noble intellectual tradition in favor of flawed logic, appeals to bigotry, and a deliberate refusal to study the facts before forming an opinion. You don't have to look any further than the Huffington Post for evidence of atheism's moral and intellectual decline.

I spent some time this afternoon debating Gary Bauer and Sean Hannity on the Hannity show, on the topic of prejudice against Muslims among Christians in the West. Now I'm spending the evening writing about prejudice against Muslims by self-described "progressive" atheists.

Finally, there's common ground between these two groups: they both kick Muslims around, and they both disagree with me! (And they say miracles don't happen ...)

Marty Kaplan does a fine job deconstructing Sam Harris' latest screed. Harris is now ready to pimp GOP talking points in order to make his case. My God (oops - sorry!), is there nothing this man won't say to advance himself and his fundamentalist strain of atheism?

I met Sam when we both participated in a group seminar on faith and progressive politics. He seemed pleasant enough, but when I cited the exhaustive works of research that have been conducted on fundamentalism in Islam and other religions he pointedly refused either to discuss them - or even to express willingness to look at them.

How can anyone argue for the virtue of knowledge and reason over faith and emotion, yet refuse to either examine the data or subject one's own arguments to logical challenge?

Specifically, Harris would not acknowledge the research of Martin E. Marty and the Fundamentalism Project, whose complex multidisciplinary study found several intriguing patterns in the distribution of fundamentalism throughout all faiths.

Among the Project's findings was the discovery that fundamentalists, who average roughly 20% of any major faith today, all seek to acquire power using similar techniques and belief systems. Their beliefs share much more in common with fundamentalists of other faiths than they do with their co-religionists, a finding that challenges the notion that Islam is an especially evil religion.

This finding challenges an assumption that is deeply cherished by Harris and his ilk, and equally beloved by Bauer and the Christian Right: that Muslims are more extremist than other people. That makes great fodder for recruiting wavering Christians to atheism, or convincing Americans who question the Iraq invasion that we're at war with a world of "Islamofascists."

Besides being willing to do Karl Rove's dirty work, the Harris crowd revels in using anti-Muslim bigotry to promote their conception of atheism. Bertrand Russell would no doubt be appalled at their faulty reasoning, their disinterest in acquiring new knowledge, and their unwillingness to engage in reasonable debate.

Nothing would disappoint Russell more, however, than their calculated appeals to bigotry. Russell, the foremost atheist of his time, was a tireless campaigner for peace and for the dignity of all peoples and faiths. Comparing Russell and Harris is like comparing Martin Luther King and Jerry Falwell.

I'm a person of faith who has no problem reconciling reason and knowledge with my form of belief - but then, I don't believe the way fundamentalists do. I don't believe in the kind of God who is a superpowerful person, or a "being " in the literal sense. Yet I've met Jews, Christians, and Muslims who believe as I do, and I've learned from all of them.

My "Higher Power's" relationship to this universe is not that of a dictator and his subject. It's more like the relationship between a beautiful piece of music and the notes of the song. But even those who believe in a more literal God vary in their forms of belief, as this study explains.

How can atheists work with people of faith to create a better society if they won't even read and learn about their fellow human beings? Yet some still refuse, because knowledge might interfere with their own cherished beliefs - not to mention their sales pitch.

If previous posts on this topic are any indication, I'm about to be flooded with a wave of bitter, harsh, and personal comments - about my beliefs, the absurdity of Christianity, and the vile nature of Muslims. They will be characterized by condescension and a certainty of the writer's own correctedness - a certainty, by the way, that I don't claim for myself. And this, from the "pro-rationality" crowd.

Here's Martin Lewis on Islam: "When was the last time agnostics or atheists got offended and went on the rampage when someone trashed - or even questioned - their beliefs?"

You could've said the same thing about blacks after the Los Angeles riots, couldn't you? "When was the last time white people got offended and went on the rampage when someone got let off for a crime against them?"

I'm not defending rioters. I'm simply pointing out some inherent biases in the comment. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have rioted in Israel, and one of them killed the peacemaking Prime Minister. Christians have rioted, too. People tend to riot because they feel powerless, not because they're inherently evil. (Killing's another matter - it's always indefensible.)

And less than one Muslim in 43,000 has ever participated in a riot. (I did the math in a previous post.) Far more Americans have been child molesters, percentage-wise, yet it would be bigotry to say we live in a nation of pederasts.

I don't know if Martin's an atheist or not, but this is a trick of anti-religionists who ride a wave of fear - to make insinuations that only Muslims have engaged in this sort of behavior. It smacks of piling on to a hate-fest against a persecuted minority in the west.

A study released today showed a 30% increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the U.S. between 2004 and 2005. The innocent victims of these crimes are being persecuted because of misunderstanding, fear, and hate. Is this really the kind of climate progressive atheists want to help engender?

This piece is particularly disappointing to me, given Martin's moving reflection on 9/11 and Cat Stevens. I'm a longtime admirer of Martin's work, and therefore that much sorrier to see him engage in this kind of rhetoric.

Martin, I hope you'll reconsider. (Sam won't; he's got a new book to sell.) Check out this video of hardliner Communists rioting in Russia in 1993. (Note: the video's accompanied by loud Russian punk music.) They're angry because the new government is dismantling their treasured system. Every single one of these rioters is an avowed atheist.

"But," some will say, "they're not rioting because they're atheists. They're rioting because they have other grievances, or because that's what people do over there when they're unhappy -- or maybe just because they're difficult people."

Right. Same with Muslims. Despite what the haters say, belief in forced conversions and the like is not intrinsic to Islam. Neither is terrorism or rioting. Those behaviors are based on other beliefs, issues, and motivations. Just as with Christians, or Jews, or other groups.

Harris' variation on this theme is to describe somebody about to blow up a roomful of innocent people, then asking you to guess their probable religion. "Muslim" is the expected answer - one that's accurate today. Thirty years ago, however, the answer would have been "atheist," because most terrorists were Communist members of the Red Army Faction and the Baader Meinhof gang.

Sixty-plus years ago the answer might have been "Jewish," during the days of the Stern Gang in Palestine. Even today, the answer could also be "Christian," since Christians have blown up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City and abortion clinics. (Some say the anthrax terror hunt came too close to the extreme right and that's why the Administration dropped it - although, to be fair to them, they couldn't catch Bin Laden either.)

I haven't changed my opinion since I wrote "The Evangelical Atheists." I respect atheists and will passionately defend their rights, even though some of them belittle and distort my own beliefs in return. The Harris-variety atheist can't - or won't - distinguish between believers in a "Daddy God," those for whom God represents the underlying beauty and music of the universe, or anyone in between. If they did, they might have to acknowledge that theirs isn't the only position for intelligent people to take.

The enemy isn't Islam or Christianity or Judaism or atheism -- it's fundamentalism, those rigid believers who over-identify with a "religion" and authoritarianism, not with the Transcendent or a belief system. That identification makes them want to impose their beliefs on others by force or bullying. I put the Evangelical Atheists into that category.

There are still brilliant and compelling atheist thinkers, like Daniel Dennett and Michael Schermer. I don't agree with them, but I feel we could have a civil and stimulating discussion.

I'm not a fan of Richard Dawkins' harsh brand of evangelism, however. His "Selfish Gene" idea is rank anthropomorphism, like the filmstrips called "Your Friend The Atom" we watched as schoolkids in the 50's and 60's. His attempts to use science to belittle religion has drawn criticism from a number of his fellow scientists, including most prominently Freeman Dyson.

"Those who can make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities," said Voltaire. That's as concise and brilliant a condemnation of extremism as has ever been written. Think, challenge, discover, say the Buddhists, the Sufis, the Vedantist Hindus, the enlightened Christians and Jews.

"There shall be no compulsion in religion," says the Quran. Some Muslims have forgotten that injunction, just as some atheists have forgotten what Bertrand Russell said: "I shouldn't wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine. "

Sam Harris apparently aspires to be the Rick Warren of atheism. If his fellow atheists don't agree with his message of intolerance (directly stated in this piece and elsewhere), they should say so. Otherwise, as a writer of popular literature, he stands as their spokesman. His anti-Muslim message adds to the climate fueling the rising number of anti-Muslim hate crimes.

If he's the best representative atheists can find, God help them.

A Night Light