Wednesday, August 10, 2011

"Atheists Say the Nastiest Things"

This is the contention of one Gary Hardaway, author of a book by that title. In this self-advertisement, he wrings his hands a little over the question of why a Christian would write such a book, and thereby "alienate atheists instead of showing love and kindness." He tries to explain, but I think he misses two simple points which could serve as his defense: (a) true skeptics, if there are any, surely want to know when their arguments fall short; and (b) good manners can be a useful tool to reasoned conversation. So few feelings are likely to be hurt by a book which, as Hardaway claims his does, tries to show up some bad logic and some coarse manners.

On the other hand, we aren't sure that much good is likely to come from marshaling a list of things that the other team -- defined however you please -- had said or done to hurt you. Atheists, needless to say, have their own list of things that Christians oughtn't have said but did; so do Muslims. And don't get the Jews started. These lists are long and often humiliatingly on-target. In controversy, it is often more useful simply to be your own best self, and hope that your antagonists will be theirs.

Hardaway mentions the nasty tone in which, say, Sigmund Freud and Christopher Hitchens write of religious believers, and he is quite correct. Both men sometimes seem less interested in defending their own position than in disparaging those who disagree. But he follows with this misleading example:
British Mathematician and philospher Alfred North Whitehead writes, "As for the Christian theology, can you imagine anything more appallingly idiotic than the Christian idea of heaven? What kind of deity . . . would be capable of creating angels and men to sing his praises day and night to all eternity? [What] inane and barbaric vanity."
Well, no, it is certainly not polite. Whitehead is clearly bashing those crusty old Biblical conservatives, like us at the Egg, who prefer to imagine a Heaven as filled with trumpet-blowing angels and crown-casting-down saints as any Counter-Reformation altar painting. Our feelings would be hurt, except that they're not. This is clearly just a little rhetorical name-calling among friends.

And Whitehead is, notably, a friend to the world of Christian belief. Although himself ultimately an agnostic, he came from a family of Anglican clergymen, and well into his thirties flirted with Roman Catholicism. His affection for Christianity was reciprocated by Christians; Whitehead's later work is the intellectual starting place of "process theology," a curious invention still dear to a handful of pastors. He is the secular philosopher most beloved of many mid-century clergymen, including our own grandfather.

So Hardaway is barking up the wrong tree here, and readers ought to beware. He has mistaken an agnostic for an atheist, and friendly joshing for genuine disdain.

Not, mind you, that we are put off by atheists who occasionally, if paradoxically, offer their opinions on what God would do if only God were more like themselves. On the contrary, we have long cherished the idea expressed by George Bernard Shaw, in a letter to Tolstoy. We forget the precise words, but he says something to the effect that "if I were God, I would strive to create a being greater than myself." Obviously, no sentence beginning "if I were God" can be taken seriously, and Shaw's idea of the evolving Superman combines the lamest bits of Nietzsche, Mormonism and, yes, process theology. We think that Tolstoy said something to that effect. Still, however wrong Shaw's effort, we love it that he bothered to play.

If we were an unbeliever (see what we did there?), we would hope to express our convictions with clarity and generosity, and to show as much interest in the convictions of believers as Whitehead and Shaw did. And sitting as we do on the other side of the fence, we still hope for those things.

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