Sunday, July 20, 2008

The problem with the New Atheism

'The New Atheism' is the term that has been used to describe the recent surge in books on atheism over the last couple of years. Authors in this genre include Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. I’ve read stuff from some of these authors, and I've been feeling, for a while now, slightly uncomfortable with the way in which the New Atheists have exerted themselves in the public sphere.

Alister McGrath, in his historical outline of atheism, The Twilight of Atheism, argues that atheism is ultimately a worldview of fear, a fear of what might happen if religious maniacs were to take over the world. Atheism, he argues, thrives when the church is seen to be privileged, out of touch with the people, and powerful. Although I don't agree with McGrath that fear is the motivation for atheism as a belief, I do think that fear is the motivation for vocal atheism. The recent surge of atheist books, it can be argued, is probably a knee-jerk reaction to the rise of religious fundamentalism in the United States and in the Islamic world. Like many other individuals, the New Atheists are worried, and their worry is fully justified.

But where the New Atheists have erred, I think, in their approach is that they have alienated themselves from other groups – which include Muslims and Christians alike – who also share the same concerns about religious fundamentalism. I think they have done this by doing two things: first, by presenting the idea that atheism is linked to evolution; and second, by adopting a unbalanced strategy of attack that does not take into consideration the positive attributes of religion and religious living.

In terms of evolution: the creationists have always preached – quite falsely – the idea that evolution and religious belief are incompatible, and that evolution is based on atheism. I believe that Dawkins, in particular, has entrenched this idea by stating, for him at least, that evolution led him to atheism. I often wonder if Dawkins, through other, similar comments, hasn't unwittingly provided the ammunition the creationists need to strengthen their attack on evolution in the political sphere. There are many, many theists who don't regard evolution as threat to their faith, but I wonder how many young, bright theists will decide against pursuing evolution as a career, because they might mistakenly believe that evolution will kill their faith.

In terms of unbalanced attack: the New Atheists have written much on the evils of religion, but they have written little – as far as I have read – on the positive aspects of religious belief. The idea that all of religion is bad is a view that immediately divides the entire religious debate into two camps: those who don't follow evil religion (i.e., the good guys) and those who follow evil religion (i.e., the bad guys). This binary view automatically alienates those theists who exist in the grey area between these two extremes, those theists who share similar values to the New Atheists in terms of respecting democracy, secularism, and civil virtues.

By painting all of religion with the same brush, and by linking atheism with evolution, I think the New Atheists have weakened their position considerably. There is value in a lot of what they say, but I think the tactic they have used of bringing their concerns to the wider world has alienated many who otherwise might be willing to give them a hearing.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Yielding to doubt

How does one deal with doubt about God’s existence? I recently watched Prince Caspian, the latest instalment of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, and was interested to see that one of the themes of the tale – if we consider the Christian symbolism intertwined in the story – was how the Christian journey is sometimes characterised with doubt. At one point one of the main characters, Peter, wonders in distress: “I wish he’d [Aslan] just given me some sort of proof.”

Doubt seems to be a recurring theme in Christian literature, and it seems that many Christians battle with it. I recently received an email from a Christian struggling with uncertainty, and his anguish was something that I could completely relate to. But what struck me most about his email is that his doubt in God was followed by a form of self-abasement. The question “Does God really exist?” was followed by “What is wrong with me?” The feeling of guilt that accompanies doubt is, I believe, a result of two general Christian beliefs: the first, that doubt is undesirable; the second, that God is perfect, and thus cannot be blamed for an undesirable situation. In other words, doubt is a problem; and if we doubt, we are to blame.

As a doubting Christian, I also believed there was something seriously wrong with me when I tried in vain to get some sense of God. But the one thing that I slowly realised is that the problem didn't lie with me at all, but with Christianity (or with God, if he exists). I couldn't for the life of me understand why a loving God would hide himself from me, and cause me so much anguish through the doubt I was experiencing. One day I came to the conclusion that a hidden God is no different to a God who doesn't exist. If there is no difference, I reasoned, then why waste energy and time – and experience so much anguish – believing in him.

When I finally gave up Christianity, doubt no longer remained an issue. No longer did I have to expend so much mental energy trying to believe in invisible demons, virgin births, parting seas, and people rising from the dead – things that seem so contradictory, incredible, and counter to everyday experience and common sense. I felt a strange sense of relief when I finally changed to a worldview that seemed more consistent with what I plainly observed in the world around me.

I now view doubt
as an opportunity for change, no longer as a threat. Questioning my own beliefs has lead to growth as it has enabled me to discover problems in my thinking. In the words of Dan Barker in Losing Faith in Faith, I conquered doubt by totally yielding to it, and I think – for me at least – I am better for it.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Book: 1984

I could not help, while reading 1984, comparing this George Orwell classic to another dystopian novel: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Both cover a similar, overarching theme of how the collective, gone bad, infringes on the freedoms of the individual. While Orwell focuses on the incredible evils that can result from a totalitarian state, Rand focuses on the virtues of individualism.

There are many differences between the two novels, but one that I noticed, quite clearly, is how Rand’s work – filled with idealism and optimism – differs to Orwell’s, which is deeply cynical. In Rand’s world, good – individual liberty and freedom – can only win, and does win eventually; in Orwell’s, evil – resulting from the abuse of power – can win, and win absolutely.

This got me thinking about how our culture tends to believe the idea that good is somehow much stronger than evil, and despite what humans do, good – the ultimate source of which lies somewhere outside of us – will somehow win in the end. This belief is entrenched in the media, religion and literature: think of the all to common narrative where the hero – even after much suffering and sacrifice – wins eventually, and evil is always defeated. The belief that there is something intrinsic in good that makes it more powerful than evil is widespread. But is it really true?

1984 seems to crush this ‘just world’ bias. Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, is not the strong-willed, confident hero that we see in Rand’s story, but a middle aged, unattractive, nervous guy with a varicose ulcer on one ankle, who rebels against the totalitarian state of Oceania. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s heroes, with god-like qualities, eventually come away unscathed as they tussle with the powers that be; in 1984, Smith is tortured, beaten, starved, and finally broken down completely by those in power.

I wonder if there is a possible danger in believing that good will always win, as it might encourage complacency when we observe abuses of power. Instead of taking action, a few individuals might sit back, not believing that the horrors described in 1984 can actually happen. “Evil will never fully take over our country and lives”, they might think “because good will always prevail.” And some might also add: “because God is in control.”

But one can argue that there is no god, or any other entity out there, who will ensure that good will prosper; it is totally up to us, and us alone. What freed the Jews from the concentration camps, or disbanded apartheid? Was it not human intervention – through the bearing of arms or through negotiation – that halted these acts of violence and suffering? In other words, Orwell’s message is that those with the most power will determine if good or evil prospers, and this places the responsibility on each one of us, in democratic societies at least, to hold those in authority accountable for the way they wield their power.