Sunday, March 04, 2007

Inter-Atheist Kerfluffle

Atheism is on the rise!

Not that people are leaving Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism in droves -- quite the contrary, in fact. But over the past couple of years, the smallish number of people who believe there is no God have started talking, and writing, about their convictions with particular fervor. The much larger number of people who kinda-sorta don't believe, but aren't sure why, have been given considerable comfort by the recent writings of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, et alii. Call it the New Atheism.

First off, let's be honest: Given the faith-based horror of the last few years, both in the Middle East and in America, it is hard to blame these guys. Neither Pat Robertson nor Moktada al-Sadr makes the notion of a transcendent being sound very appealing.

That doesn't mean that Dawkins and Harris are right as to the matter in dispute, God's existence. Naturally, the Egg joins with the vast majority of human beings, both now and through history, in affirming that God exists. But more important is this: the fact that one can appreciate the motivation of the the New Atheists does not mean that their actual arguments are any good. They aren't.

And proof of this is a series of rather savage reviews, written not by apologists for theism but rather by the Old Atheists -- scientific and literary types who have long disbelieved in God, without attempting to make a career of it. They are unsettled first by the efforts of the young Turks to assault religious faith without any particular knowledge of its content. Literary theorist Terry Eagleton begins: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”

No less seriously, they point out that the New Atheists seem intent on blaming religion and its adherents for all the world's problems, in a manner that is surprisingly irrational and, well, bigoted. the old Atheists, even if they do not believe in God, can see the good that believers have done through the ages, and continue to do. (Don't believe me? Come visit my parish men's shelter.)

And the Old Atheists have been aropund long enough to recognize that there are plenty of problems caused not by religion but by its absence. H. Allen Orr writes, of his fellow biologist, “Dawkins has a difficult time facing up to the dual fact that (1) the 20th century was an experiment in secularism; and (2) the result was secular evil, an evil that, if anything, was more spectacularly virulent than that which came before.”

As we have said before, friends, the problem isn't God. The problem is human nature. And taking God out of the picture won't improve human nature. So even those who do not believe might find, upon sober reflection, that their own best interests are served not by railing against religion in the abstract, but rather by encouraging the world's religions to live up to their own high standards.

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