Two very different religious responses to the ‘new atheism’

Dines D'SouzaFirstly we have Dinish D’Souza. He’s not at all happy with the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris and responds to their descriptions of the harm caused by religion with counter-claims that actually atheism is behind history’s mass murders. This is also the man who just days after the Virgina Tech high school killings rather insensitively decided it would be a great opportunity to attack atheists for apparently not doing anything, which drew this sensitive response from an atheist professor at the college). In short he’s pretty rabid in his hatred for atheists.

Anyway he’s now laying into Pat Condell, who although quite witty and charming is pretty hardline in his attacks on religion – on his website he states: “Hi, I’m Pat Condell. I don’t respect your beliefs and I don’t care if you’re offended.”; The trouble is that Condell and D’Souza are almost a perfect match, confirming the very worst they see in each other’s beliefs. The video post of Condell that D’Souza includes on his site responds to the angry ‘burn in hell’ comments he has received from earlier videos and so the cycle continues.

D’Souza doesn’t seems to recognise there are extremes on both sides although doesn’t see himself as part of that (naturally):

If the televangelists are guilty of producing some simple-minded, self-righteous Christians, then the atheist authors are guilty of producing self-congratulatory buffoons like Condell.

What worries me about this mirroring is that cannot have a happy ending. As beautifully clear and well argued as the God Delusion is, it’s arguments against religion will largely have the effect, not of making atheists of people (well not many), but of bolstering existing atheists and firing up believers to come up with counter arguments to confirm their own poisition and the walls go up even higher. Alister McGrath is one example with the Dawkins Delusion and now D’Souza claims with the smugness he attributes to Condell that his forthcoming book

“will empower believers and challenge unbelievers. It meets skepticism and atheism on its own intellectual ground, which is the ground of reason and evidence. …Stanley Fish [says] “The great merit of this book is that it concedes nothing. Rather than engaging in the usual defensive ploys, D’Souza meets every anti-God argument head on and defeats it on its own terms. Infinitely more sophisticated than the rants produced by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, What’s So Great About Christianity leaves those atheist books in the dust.”…

Well good luck with that.

Jay MichaelsonOn the other hand

…the new atheism is an important, useful auditing of our religious ideas. We should read its arguments and, rather than defensively parry them, consider them with a critical mind. And where appropriate, we should check our religious zealotries with careful reflection, ethical consideration and, yes, quiet meditation before they lead to dangerous consequences.

But he also points out a number of weaknesses in the new atheists’ arguments as applied to religious moderates.

To begin with, all the leading atheist tracts assume that religion….is bad science, basically, which insists that untenable propositions be taken on faith — especially since they can’t be proved, and can often be disproved relatively easily. This may be the religion of most Christians and some Jews, but most of Judaism is, in the familiar formulation, more about deed than creed — more what you do than what you believe. Keep the Sabbath, act justly, pray, obey the dietary laws? You’ve got most of Jewish law covered right there, regardless of what you believe about God and history….

Second…the religion conjured by the atheists is altogether too rational….For most spiritual liberals, however, religion is what gets you in your guts: It’s the primal archetypes that speak to the heart, the embodied rituals, the symbols pregnant with thousands of years of history….most people…need a system that provides meaning, community, ethics and story; they thirst for symbol and myth.

Finally, there is the element of community. Yes, as Hitchens relentlessly points out, most people’s images of God are primitive. But this is the genius, not the failure, of religion. As Maimonides wrote more than 800 years ago, religion works because it speaks on multiple levels. Philosophers can find their truth in biblical text (albeit with some linguistic stretching), and people too busy feeding their families to study philosophy can find ethical guidance and communal myth.

So if religious people can be self critical can’t we humanists and atheists? Who do we want to see when we look in the mirror – D’Souza or Michaelson?

Advertisements

5 responses to “Two very different religious responses to the ‘new atheism’

  1. Interesting post and (I think) I can see where you are coming from over this. However, I dont agree. Michaelson writes:

    … assume that religion….is bad science, basically, which insists that untenable propositions be taken on faith — especially since they can’t be proved, and can often be disproved relatively easily.

    This is not an assumption as such, it is pretty much the definition of religion. Anything which doesn’t fit this description doesn’t need to feel “hurt” when Religion is criticised – it is like a cat being offended when a dog is criticised.

    The issues most atheists have with religion is the fact it makes unsupported claims and demands irrational acts on the basis of an unproven entities existence. If it didn’t do these things, I doubt most people would have a problem with it.

    This may be the religion of most Christians and some Jews, but most of Judaism is, in the familiar formulation, more about deed than creed — more what you do than what you believe.

    Here we get quite a twist of reasoning. This is basically saying you can insult Christianity / Islam all you want, but Judaism shouldn’t be a target because it doesn’t care what you believe, just how you act.

    For me, that is complete madness. More obviously it is almost instantly falsified by this:

    Keep the Sabbath, act justly, pray, obey the dietary laws? You’ve got most of Jewish law covered right there, regardless of what you believe about God and history

    Let’s start with the first one. Keep the Sabbath. Why? What rational reason is there for it – without invoking faith and belief in an unprovable being? Jewish law may claim to be about what you do not what you believe, but the law is written to make you observe the beliefs. This is the main issue people have with religion.

    Michaelson is not identifying weaknesses in atheistic arguments, he is trying to modify religion to make it nebulous and turn it into a harder target. His final comments are weak at best, does he view the “good religion” as nothing more than an adult version of believing in Santa Claus (if so, I agree with him)?

    Implying religion is good because “people who are too busy feeding thier families to study philosophy” can get ethical guidance is patronising to say the least. These are the people whose “ethical guidance” is leading them kill, maim and torture other people who are too busy feeding their families… This implies all religions are equally valid, so I assume he advocates and supports the return of the Norse deities, the Icelandic myths and so on. If we can accept one Deity, why not them all?

  2. Thanks for reading and responding TW.

    “This is not an assumption as such, it is pretty much the definition of religion. Anything which doesn’t fit this description doesn’t need to feel “hurt” when Religion is criticised – it is like a cat being offended when a dog is criticised.”

    Is that right? I think often atheists are pretty sweeping in their attacks and if someone follows a religion without the ‘bad-science’ components they might be treated with wonderment (e.g. why honour the Sabbath if God isn’t telling you to?).

    I take your point about him suggesting Judaism is different from other religions in this respect, there are Christians (e.g. Christian humanists, Quakers, unitarians) for example that are less interested in the bad science stuff.

    What rational reason is there for keeping the Sabbath? How about spending time with your family, creating an oasis from the hustle bustle of everyday life, reflecting on important things. Sure, anyone can do that on any day of the week if they want but it is somehow strenghthened by the tradition and communal dimension.

    I think it’s a bit condescending to say religion without the bad science is like belief in santa claus and I don’t think his points about the qualities of religion are weak.

    I think it’s fair to say people need quick and ready moral rules of thumb (humanists are quite honest that the golden rule is the main one you need) and not patronising. I think it’s true that if we become too wedded to a rule book without critically reviewing it, the rules can become out of date or the ends rather than means (which is where the conflict and abuses often appear). But not all religious strands of thought work like this – liberal Judaism is just one example where the rules have been reviewed in light of changing contexts (of course some people see adaptation as a sign of weakness).

  3. Hi, Im from Melbourne Australia.

    I think the Black Adder had it about right when he obviously anticipated Dinesh’s rantings altogether:

    Utter Crapp!!!

    Besides which just check out the company that Dinesh keeps as well. All the usual right wing raving loonies with their “absolute truth” claims.

    His record of love, compassion, and tolerance speaks for itself. There is no evidence whatsoever for any of that in his life so far, or in the company that he keeps.

  4. The usual shouting match between the two camps of “true believers” is just show business. Full of sound and fury and signifying nothing whatsoever.

    Dinesh, McGrath and all the usual “religious” true believers all advocate the patriarchal mommy-daddy Parental Deity. Which is also why Dinesh’s right wing fellow travellers are pathologically hostile to feminism.

    Hitchens et all quite rightly cant subscribe to the Parental Deity—a deity which by its very nature infantilizes those who subscribe to it.

    http://www.aboutadidam.org/readings/parental_deity/index.html

    These references give an Illuminated understanding of the origins & consequences of the secular vs exoteric religious culture wars.

    1. http://www.dabase.org/noface.htm
    2. http://www.dabase.org/ilchurst.htm
    3. http://www.dabase.org/2armP1.htm#ch2

    These references give a comprehensive critique of the usual Christian “truth” claims—there aint no truth to it whatsoever.

    1. http://www.dabase.org/proofch6.htm
    2. http://www.beezone.com/AdiDa/jesusandme.html

    Plus on the natrure of Real God.

    1. http://www.dabase.org/dht7.htm
    2. http://www.realgod.org

  5. John – well put. I think we should only feel pity and compassion for someone so intolerant. A good example of what not to be.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s