Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Atheists Believe In You

One of the more popular positions to take lately is embodied by author Chris Hedges in his book "I Don't Believe In Atheists".

A defense of faith, the book claims that radical atheists are just as much a threat as fundamentalists. I'll ignore that he continues to misuse the word fundamentalist (there are no atheist fundamentals, so how can you be a fundamentalist?), and instead concentrate on his argument.

His claim is that the New Atheists (specifically Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris) are just as bigoted as the religions they attack. Additionally, and this is where his claims get a bit strange, he seems to say that claiming religions have impeded moral progress means that there must be moral progress. He does not believe there is moral progress, as the existence of this progress would indicate a move towards a final point of total morality- a utopia. Utopian mindsets, he says, are dangerous.

First points first, he charges the New Atheists with encouraging violence against religion and trying to snuff it out entirely. In fact, only one of the mentioned authors could be interpreted to have said that and it would take a healthy dose of self-convincing to do so. Sam Harris does indicate several times in his book that our supposed "War On Terror" is really a "War On Islam", but it's not politically advantageous to say so and so we call it a War On Terror.

That certainly seems damning, but when I first heard him say that I never once thought he was encouraging anyone to hunt down Muslims. Perhaps he would have been better served to say that it's actually a war on the stubborn and violent refusal of the majority population of Muslim-dominated countries to accept and adapt to modern day society, but Sam Harris is a man who values brevity. You can see this in his "Letter To A Christian Nation".

Hedges has experience with Muslim countries, and he says that the way they're addressed in Harris's books is simply racist. Fair enough, but Hedges provides little evidence to vanquish Harris's evidence. Harris quotes dozens of surveys taken in major Muslim countries regarding the use of violence for religious purposes. The percentage of those who find it acceptable is shocking. Simply labeling those statistics as racist does not make them untrue. You must either show contradictory evidence, or show that the procedure through which the "racist" evidence was obtained was flawed. It's not racist to think that a black guy stole a car or a white guy embezzled from his company if they actually did those things. The statistics seem to indicate that the parties perceived as violent actually are violent.

To move on to the point that there has been no moral progress. That's going to be a difficult point to make. His evidence for this is that the greatest slaughters have occurred in the 20th century in both Hitler and Stalin's regimes. That is certainly true, but allow me to draw an analogy. In the past hundred years, humans have done more to pollute the planet than in the entire history of humanity previously. Does that mean, then, that there has been no environmental progress, that we have completely failed to utilize our resources with greater efficiency?

Of course not. Think back to the near death of the buffalo in America, with people shooting them for fun and leaving the carcasses behind completely unused. With that mindset and the tools of today, it would be trivial to drive entire species extinct in the span of a month. The same goes for those regimes- not that they were signs that morality hasn't progressed, but that the tools we currently have are so much more effective at what they do that previous eras could not hope to compete. Rest assured, if Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan had access to automatic weapons and gas chambers, their death tolls would have been much, much higher.

I would counter his argument by pointing out that there were only two of those slaughters, when a slaughter of that magnitude is so easily accessible to anyone with power, is proof that there is moral progress in our international society.

Similarly, his conclusion that moral progress necessitates a final Utopian point is false. Consider the mathematical example of an asymptote. An asymptote is a line on a graph that forever reaches toward a number, but never reaches it. An easier way to think about it would be to divide ten by two again and again and again. You understand that you're getting closer to zero, but you will never get there. That is progress without end.

Or, to put it more concisely by paraphrasing author and all-around awesome guy Warren Ellis:
"The world can be neither perfect nor doomed. But it can be better."

Most of these authors agree that religion isn't going anywhere. Christopher Hitchens has been quoted repeatedly saying religion will never die, "or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other." The goal of the so-called "New Atheists" isn't to banish religion to the shadows of human history, though many may believe the world would be better for the change were that goal plausible.

No, the goal is to put religion on the same footing as political beliefs. It must not be above criticism or reprisal, and it must not carry any authority simply by virtue of its self-importance. The goal is to get closer to zero. We understand we will never reach it.

There is some humor to be found in this. All of this arguing back and forth really has nothing to do with the truth of the matter. The argument is whether or not atheism or religion is healthier for society. Which one is actually the truth never enters into it.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Interesting article...came here from your first posting on the SGU site.

I don't share your admiration for Harris, whom I view as the weak link in the trio of frontline "New Atheists" - which is a bit of what Vonnegut would call a "grandfaloon." His humorless superficiality, if alloyed with the Hitchens and Dawkins, opens a line of attack that is probably unfair on the writings as a whole.

Hedges has already moved on to an attack on the "collateral" casualties of the Iraq/Afganistan wars. I think his anti-New Atheist screed (he says he has no problems with the usual run of atheists) was just a jumped up magazine article.

In any case, as you said, there hasn't been a serious advance on the general idea of freedom of belief. I think Dawkin's "world safe for Fundamentalism" quote has a whiff of totalitarianism to it, as does Hitchens invective, but it takes a vivid imagination to expand that into a real threat.

Best, IrishJazz