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God & Gall

Well, it looks like I beat the rush a bit with last week’s posts defending Richard Dawkins and asking questions about whether humility or hubris dominates among the loudest voices in the American brand of political religiosity. Since those two posts, the apparent backlash on nonbelievers began over the weekend, while I was away from the blogosphere, and it’s not just conservatives getting in on the act.

Progressives are putting distance between themselves and the loudest voices among today’s brand of atheists. RJ Eskow notes that a all out blowar has broken out in response to his post “15 Things Militant Atheists Should Ask Before Trying to Destroy Religion.” I’ll get back to RJ’s piece in a minute. But first I wanted to take on this Wall Street Journal op-ed that declares “Without God, Gall Is Permitted.”

Gall? Gall, did you say? First of all I’d point anyone who wants to go on about the “gall” of today’s vocal atheists back the the list of outrages in the previous post and in an earlier one. Read those and then talk to me again about “gall.” As I said before, the “gall” or “arrogance” that most vocal atheists are accused of consists of little more than this: the simple assertion that religious faith does not deserve special exemption from criticism; that is should no longer be the great conversation stopper.

The chief complaint of the Wall Street Journal columnist seems to be, as KipEsquire puts it, “Atheists are mean.” Again, I’d point to the examples in the previously mentioned posts, or just the stories of the Dobrich and Smalkowski families, or stories like what happened to Tempest Smith. If the best accusation that can be mustered is that atheists are not nice enough, or not deferential enough to religious belief, then the author hasn’t thought much more deeply about his subject than he suggests atheists have about faith.

But take a look deep into the dark heart of what people like Dawkins and Harris are writing about, and ask yourself if a proper degree of deference is going to be sufficient against it. I’ve written about it more than a few times here, and read several books about it. And it looks like I’m going to read one more. Chris Hedges (war correspondent, “son of a preacher man,” and author of War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning and Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America)has another one coming out, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America.

As a war reporter (I’ve read War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, which recounts some of what Hedges has seen on the war beat), you’d think little in the realm of U.S. domestic politics could shock or frighten him. As the son of a Presbyterian minister and a graduate of Hardard Divinity school, Hedges isn’t as easy to paint with the same brush that’s being applied to atheists. But he’s delivered a “field report” of sorts on politics and religion in America, and what he’s saying sounds vaguely like what Dawkins, Harris and others have been saying. But Dawkins and Harris (or any other atheist) probably couldn’t get away with using phrases like “American Fascists,” without being called alarmists.

So what about a guy who’s seen the realities of war, fascism, and theocracy (he’s covered Hamas and Slobodsn Milosevic) congeal like so much human blood and guts spattered on the ground, up close and personal? Can he call it as he sees it?

Writing of Ohio megachurch pastor Rod Parsley and his close associate, GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell, he says, “[T]he heart of the Christian religion, all that is good and compassionate within it, has been tossed aside, ruthlessly gouged out and thrown into a heap with all the other inner organs. Only the shell, the form, remains. Christianity is of no use to Parsley, Blackwell and the others. In its name they kill it.”

You say they would like to impose a totalitarian system. How much of a conscious goal do you think that is at the upper levels of organizing, with, say, somebody like Rod Parsley?

I think they’re completely conscious of it. The level of manipulation is quite sophisticated. These people understand the medium of television, they understand the despair and brokenness of the people they appeal to, and how to manipulate them both for personal and financial gain. I look at these figures, and I would certainly throw James Dobson in there, or Pat Robertson, as really dark figures.

I think the vast majority of followers have no idea. There’s an earnestness to many of the believers. I had the same experience you did — I went in there prepared to really dislike these people and most of them just broke my heart. They’re well meaning. Unfortunately, they’re being manipulated and herded into a movement that’s extremely dangerous. If these extreme elements actually manage to achieve power, they will horrify [their followers] in many ways. But that’s true with all revolutionary movements.

The core of this movement is tiny, but you only need a tiny, disciplined, well-funded and well-organized group, and then you count on the sympathy of 80 million to 100 million evangelicals. And that’s enough. Especially if you don’t have countervailing forces, which we don’t.

And you’re not familiar with Rod Parsley, here’s a taste of what he’s cooked up in Ohio and would like to serve up to the rest of us.

And perhaps the only thing that separates Hedges from Dawkins, Harris and others is that he acknowledges of “all that is good and compassionate” in Christianity, whereas Dawkins and Harris don’t. And should they have to? Is it necessary for them to to genuflect in the general direction of faith? If they don’t, does that render everything else they say invalid? The author of the Wall Street Journal piece seems to think so, and echos the oft repeated the good that religious faith does in the lives of individual believers, as well as others, and in society at large, but doesn’t seem to realize there’s another side to that coin.

RJ, on the other hand, rightly points out that the the usual role call of religion’s crimes against humanity is based in reality, but that religion is probably not the sole factor in any of them. Dawkins, as I’ve pointed out before, as acknowledged as much regarding the political factors in the Israel/Palestine conflict, while going on to also address the religious aspects of the conflict. Which I think basically amounts to the extreme factions of the three religions fighting over the same patch of land — and the piece of rock it contains, which has seen a lot of action according to the various faiths, including: the creation of Adam, Cain’s and Abel’s pre-murder sacrifices, Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac, Jacob climbing that ladder of his, the parking of Noah’s arc, and Muhammad’s ascension to heaven — in the desert from which all three emerged.

Removing religion from in any of those cases, if that were even possible, wouldn’t do away with the political realities that contribute to the problems as well. But it might (or might have, in the past) have effectively turn down the flame in some places, bringing things down from boil to a simmer. And almost definitely, in the case of some items on the list, like the Crusades, the witch trials, or persecutions of same-sex oriented persons (which basically has it’s origins in the advent of Christianity and it’s spread into other cultures via colonialism (many of which had previously managed to accept and fit such persons in to the structure of their societies) some unnecessary harm and suffering inflicted on the basis of religious belief would be, or could have been avoided.

The reality is that religious belief benefits some people, and harms others when wielded as a weapon by its beneficiaries. That religion can be said to have done some good for some people doesn’t make it unique. There have been plenty of irrational systems that have benefited those who embraced them while visiting all manner of misery upon those outside of the system’s “in-group.” In those circumstances, some people would be worse off without the system in question, but some would be much better off without it.

The obvious comparison is one I hesitate to make, because It’s like dropping a match in a room full of TNT, so I’ll let Hedges make it instead, in answer to Michelle Goldberg’s question about the Democrats’ recent overtures to evangelicals.

Doesn’t it make sense for the Democrats to reach out to the huge number of evangelicals who aren’t necessarily part of the religious right, but who may be sympathetic to some of its rhetoric? Couldn’t those people be up for grabs?

I don’t think they are up for grabs because they have been ushered into a non-reality-based belief system. This isn’t a matter of, “This is one viewpoint, here’s another.” This is a world of magic and signs and miracles and wonders, and [on the other side] is the world you hate, the liberal society that has shunted you aside and thrust you into despair. The rage that is directed at those who go after the movement is the rage of those who fear deeply being pushed back into this despair, from which many of the people I interviewed feel they barely escaped. A lot of people talked about suicide attempts or thoughts of suicide — these people really reached horrific levels of desperation. And now they believe that Jesus has a plan for them and intervenes in their life every day to protect them, and they can’t give that up.

So in a way, the movement really has helped them.



Well, in same way unemployed workers in Weimar Germany were helped by becoming brownshirts, yes. It gave them a sense of purpose. Look, you could always tell in a refugee camp in Gaza when one of these kids joined Hamas, because suddenly they were clean, their djelleba was white, they walked with a sense of purpose. It was a very similar kind of conversion experience. If you go back and read [Arthur] Koestler and other writers on the Communist Party, you find the same thing.

(And before you start the obvious argument about the atheism of the Nazis or communists, Dawkins and Harris have offered pretty convincing arguments that such movements have much in common with religion, including dogma and the persecution of “heresy.”)

It’s that unnecessary infliction of pain and suffering in the name of faith that people like Dawkins, Harris, and others are responding to; whether it’s the bombing of a women’s clinic, the attack on the World Trade Center, or the persecution of people who are gay or lesbian. (Interestingly enough, I’ve yet to hear an atheist advocate for discrimination against LBGT persons.) And that unnecessary suffering makes them angry at its cause.

it’s the anger that seems most unsettling to the WSJ columnist, who seems nostalgic for atheists of old, who at least had the decency to be sorry that they no longer believed, and even saddened by it, if only because it lost them the esteem and fellowship of their fellow citizens. (How many people keep their unbelief to themselves today — in the closet, if you will — at least in part to avoid awkwardness or the possibility of being ostracized? That, as PZ Myers points out, is a painful process that has less to do with the validity of religion than with its strength as a tool of acculturation.) The confident, unapologetic unbelief today’s atheists seems to much to bear, especially when augmented by pointed criticism and anger, which I guess comes across as “meanness” that the WSJ author bemoans.

My response is pretty much the same as Kip’s.

But the real flaw in the argument, in my opinion, is that most atheists, from my experience, actually have little problem with “believers,” faith, or for that matter with God. It’s the leaders and the insitutions of such people, especially the theocrats, who earn our wrath.

I have better things to do than to go around mocking people who say things like “I don’t go to any church, but I do believe in some ‘higher power,’” or “I believe in the teachings of Jesus, but not the Pope.” Such people are usually harmless and occasionally even benevolent. I get along fine with them.

But if you try to defend organized religions, whose sole purpose (other than self-perpetuation) is typically the denial of reason, freedom and human happiness on earth, then yes you are contemptible — and dangerous — and I will mock you with all the righteous indignation I can muster.

And why shouldn’t he, or anyone else?

What seems to be most bothersome about Dawkins, Harris, and others is that they don’t seem to differentiate between religion and fundamentalism. RJ sums it up in a pretty good example of what I’m talking about.

What has been well-documented are the harms caused by fundamentalism. Fundamentalism has been a wellspring of individual violence that encourages brutal behaviors like female genital mutilation (whether or not those behaviors originated with it), and has often been a source ideology for totalitarianism. All of these negative tendencies have been described in exhaustive detail, by both journalistic and academic sources.

What the atheists in question are asserting is that religion is the source of fundamentalism, with all it’s attendant unpleasantness, and that the perpetuation of former makes the perpetuation of the latter inevitable. In other words, you can’t have one (religion) without the other (fundamentalism), because one supplies the seed and source material; scriptures to be misinterpreted or literally interpreted, often with disastrous results for someone. How do you realistically excise fundamentalism from religion, keeping “all that is good and compassionate within it” as Hedges says, while jettisoning the rest?

Is there any realistic hope of that? Or is it more likely that there will always be some persons drawn towards the easy certainty of fundamentalism, ready to uncritically accept, literally interpret, and legally (or violently) enforce upon the rest of its meaning as they understand it?

That much is already happening. We don’t have to look to the Crusades, the Inquisition, or Salem, MA to see it. As I pointed out in the previous post mentioned earlier, we have more than enough evidence that what’s really under attack isn’t faith, but freedom from faith. Call me crazy, but I find that a lot more galling that the aggressive godlessness of guys like Richard Dawkins. Any day.

8 Comments

  1. Word up.

    But when you made that comment about three faiths fighting over the same rock, my brain started saying “Wow. It’s a big rock. I can’t wait to tell my friends. They don’t have a rock this big.”

  2. Terrance,

    Well-written, balanced post. Thanks. I agree that the attack on “freedom from faith” is much more “galling” than Dawkins et al. could ever be, and much more of a threat in the US and worldwide. The “threat” of Dawkins/Harris (esp. Harris) is more to the progressive and anti-clerical movements, although that’s a topic for another day.

    I think Dawkins and Harris engage in a lot of fallacious reasoning, though, and that it shouldn’t be off-limits to call them on it. The vehemence of the responses against me – most of which either ignored or grossly mischararacterized my position – demonstrates the extent to which the attack on “freedom from faith” has polarized debate. I think Dawkins/Harris have then exploited & exacerbated that polarization, but their effect is minimal compare to that of the religious dominionists’.

    Still, they’d rather fall back on weak arguments and ignore historical and social data to make their point. Take their counter-argument, which you cite, when people point out that the evils they attribute to religion didn’t diminish under non-believing regimes: they say Communism is a “dogma” that persecutes “heresy.”

    That’s a cheap way out, onre that actually cuts against them. Punishing heretics is a characteristic of fundamentalism, not all religion — so why not attack the problem as I and other define it: fundamentalism? Because that undercuts their argument. In my opinion, they’re trying to have it both ways.

    As I say, thanks for a balanced look at the issue.

  3. I tried to start an atheist “coming out” meme on my blog, and nobody has taken me up on it. Not even my sister (although she’s working full time and has a 3-month-old baby — excuses, excuses!). I’d say fully half of my readers are atheists, but they won’t budge. They think it’s rude to tell people, or unnecessary — their lack of beliefs is personal, or there is nothing to discuss, by definition. Only my OTHER sister, the religious one, spoke up that she thought “coming out” was important. She’s gay, and I think that gives her a broader perspective on it.

    I understand not wanting to hurt people’s feelings, and I understand being nervous to reveal something so personal (never mind that OTHER personal things get bandied about on blogs all the time), but I was still kind of disappointed. Oh well, I guess at least no one can accuse us of being lemmings.

  4. I’m a little weary of the “we’re just asking for the right to criticize religion” argument. For one thing, it’s usually the fallback position after someone points out many religious folks don’t deserve to be called names or treated like idiots. It’s starting to sound like Limbaugh’s “I’m just an entertainer!”

    And I think many of these aggressive atheists confuse freedom of speech with freedom from criticism. If you’re acting like a jerk, someone’s going to call you a jerk. If Dawkins et al. want to make inflammatory and (from what I’ve seen so far) under-supported accusations, then he can expect an equally vigorous response.

    And before you start the obvious argument about the atheism of the Nazis or communists, Dawkins and Harris have offered pretty convincing arguments that such movements have much in common with religion, including dogma and the persecution of “heresy.”

    Wouldn’t that suggest to you that it’s not religious belief that’s the significant problem but some other aspect of organized human behavior, like authoritarianism and intolerance for differing viewpoints?

    And perhaps the only thing that separates Hedges from Dawkins, Harris and others is that he acknowledges of “all that is good and compassionate” in Christianity, whereas Dawkins and Harris don’t. And should they have to? Is it necessary for them to to genuflect in the general direction of faith? If they don’t, does that render everything else they say invalid?

    “Genuflect” isn’t the right term, but of course they should acknowledge the positive actions of religion. First of all, because it’s not wise to antagonize people needlessly, especially when they share a lot of your same concerns about fundamentalism. And secondly because the (often gross) imprecision of speech atheists accept weaken their claims to a rational argument. When someone says “religion is responsible for most of the misery in the world,” it sounds a little like saying “microbes are responsible for most of the disease in the world.” It’s oversimplification to the point of distortion.

  5. The MEAN to do well Atheists.
    As I have written before, I tire of debating the obvious.
    Who is mean? Who is not? Who cares!
    If the truth comes from a raving maniac way out in the desert. So be it!
    But if delusion, lies, intolerance, comes from a soft-spoken cleric then we are suppose to buy into it?
    Give me the cold hard truth any day over a nice warm meal and a wicked lie.

    The simple fact is “There are no Gods”. I will say it again so that it will be perfectly clear to all you nice Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Hebrews, and all the other nice believers of fairy tales and superstition.
    “There are no Gods!”
    Now that we have gotten that out of the way maybe we can now start repairing all the damage done by all those nice people.

    Look, you are not going to convince these religious types to give up their fairy tales. Personally I believe they are insane. But in this potentially Great country it is an acceptable form of insanity and rightfully so.
    The problem lies in religions inherent divisiveness and intolerance. The “if you are not with us, you are against us” attitude or “ the tool of Satan”, “Evil empire”, “heretic” etc. They are all part of a dangerous stew that has been brewing and the government seems to be encouraging, sponsoring, and courting it. Faith-based anyone?
    There is a, just as dangerous, flip side of this intolerance. A carte blanche tolerance for those within the collective of the ‘fable-ists’.
    Protect a ladies honor and lie about an affair with her and you get impeached.
    Con us into a war on the wings of lies with countless dead and butchered and you get re-elected so you can butcher some more.
    But it is okay because you to talk to Jesus every night and and you say “God called me to run for the Presidency”. So lets send some more of our children to Iraq for the holy, righteous and nice, but never mean crusade.

    Look I have better things to do, but can you see the danger? We do not have leaders anymore but politicians. Politicians who think nothing of pandering to the most gullible of us all.
    Where the critique for serving in public office is not your skills of leadership, but rather, if you talk to Jesus.
    Furthermore voting on the basis of a religious critique rather than on a candidates’ skills needed to run a country is exactly what got us into the mess we are in now.
    But hell I am just that mean trouble-making Atheist out here in the Bible belt.
    Maybe if I go out and have a talk with Jesus tonight then I will get with that nice ‘Purpose-Driven life’ program.
    The nice ‘Purpose-Driven life’ program of lies, deceit, collateral damage, sex is evil, no condoms to Africa (let’em all die of Aids), punish children who refuse to pray in our Public schools, teach Moses as the giver of truth in our public schools but not Darwin, run all non-believers out of town or make them pay, Jesus is a white boy, two men who love each other is wrong and they should be stoned to death, but a husband and wife beating the crap out each other and their kids, that’s okay, this is a white Christian nation, those Indians were just squatters, highway 61, if you are not with us you are against us, … “fool me once, fool me twice, won’t get fooled again”.
    I could go on and on…
    BUT
    Must we always be fooled again and again and again?
    Must we always buy into the “Purpose Driven” delusional, insane nightmare?
    There can be no good growth from a seed based on untruth.
    So don’t debate. Say it loud and clear.

    “THERE ARE NO GODS !!!”

    And to my nice ‘Fable-ists’,
    Wake up, smell the coffee and get on with living life and not a silly dream.
    And then maybe, just maybe, we can leave our children a planet of enlightenment and not another coming dark age.
    And if you see God, you bring him by, for he is in dire need of therapy.

    The “Mean” to do well Atheist
    Chester Smalkowski

  6. I am an atheist. I’ve been thinking about the problem of separating religion from its fundamentalist expressions. I think the problem with not doing so is that you then have to consider what you’re aiming for. A world without religion? I wish. Human beings have I think amply proven that they aren’t only capable of believing all kinds of silly bullshit, they actively want to do it, and have for all of recorded history, more or less all over the world. They will only turn from religion when you give them a religion-like alternative, like Communism.

    So. Given that we probably won’t ever get rid of religion, does it make sense to try, or is it rather a better idea to try and rein in its most dangerous forms? In practical terms I’d have to say the latter. On the other hand, maybe the appropriate tactic for doing so is to argue that all religion is silly bullshit, providing a more radical voice that makes the voice of the religious moderates seem more reasonable.

  7. I would really like to see a ban on the term “organized religion” (especially as a synonym for “Christianity, and Judaism and Islam when we’re talking about conflicts in the Middle East”). Does that mean religions are OK if they can’t find their socks and left their change for the bus in their other pants? That if a religion is wrong if it’s an “organized” group of Christians who devote themselves to feeding the poor, but if it’s just one guy who thinks that the Space Lords directed him to wipe out the “unfit”, no biggie (because he’s not, y’know, part of an organized faith)?

    And before you start the obvious argument about the atheism of the Nazis or communists, Dawkins and Harris have offered pretty convincing arguments that such movements have much in common with religion, including dogma and the persecution of “heresy.”

    This is about the stupidest atheist argument ever. Hey, these guys were militant atheists, but they were LIKE religious believers, therefore religion is bad! That makes…zero sense.

  8. The more I think about it, in those videos Dawkins at least seems to be perpetuating the teleological worldview of monotheistic religions. He talks about evolution as “climbing a mountain,” for example. But evolution implies no such thing as increasing complexity. (One of my favorite visions of evolution is in Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos, where after a nuclear holocaust humans evolve away from their cumbersome big brains and become more or less like seals.) Apart from evolution, he sees the proper path of human existence as a progression toward greater rationality and scientific achievement, but there’s no inherent reason for that other than its comparative desirability. Similarly, there’s no reason to believe that humans will ever give up war (although that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for peace wherever possible).

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