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The New Atheists

I have respect for atheists. I would far prefer that a person were intellectually honest enough to say that they don’t believe in God, and to move on with their lives than stay in a religious tradition for which they had no love or passion out of a sense of obligation or fear. (With caution, I suggest that God would probably also prefer that attitude over hypocrisy.) The so-called “new atheists”, led by such thinkers as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins, are a different story altogether.

For as long as people have thought about such things, there have been doubters, skeptics and unbelievers on the religious spectrum. Like I said, I think that’s great. Sure, I think that faith is important, but being without it doesn’t make somebody a bad person, doesn’t mean that God hates them, and doesn’t mean that they’re going to burn forever. It just means that they’re being honest with themselves and the world, and that’s also important. This kind of honesty allows for a far wider range of inquiry than does a cultural assumption or a fear of questioning. There has even been a lot of amusing literature on both sides of the fence in which thinkers of every stripe have poked fun at their adversaries while making useful or interesting points. Just read some Voltaire for a great example. So what makes the new guys different?

The new atheists share their approach to the subject with Christian, Jewish and Islamic fundamentalists. They have latched onto a philosophical system, almost always founded on one or more large assumptions, insist that their system must be taken as a priori factual truth. Experience and observation are of no importance to the new atheists if those experiences do not agree completely with their theoretical framework. Further, just like other religious fundamentalists, the new atheists choose ridiculing and attacking those whom they consider to be their opponents as their first resort. They then go on to criticize those opponents for making use of the same tactics (always forgetting that it is only their fellow fundamentalists who do so, not the more moderate believers and unbelievers out there who make up the majority of both “sides”).

Take, for example, the new atheist holiday, Blasphemy Day. On this day, new atheists the world over commit acts of blasphemy against any and all religions (other than their own) as an invocation of the god of reason, ignoring the fact that reason is a posteriori (that is, reason has an opposite strategy for inquiry to mere assumption). Blasphemy Day was celebrated this year by an art exhibit full of images of Christ in various ridiculous postures. Some of them actually were pretty funny, like “Jesus Painting His Nails” which showed Jesus using fingernail polish on the nails used to crucify him. The capper, though, were other, more significant activities such as PZ Myers driving a rusty nail through a consecrated host.

I can’t even begin to express what that action means to a Christian, and therein lies the problem: I can’t express it because the new atheists wouldn’t listen. If I were to say, “Charles Darwin was completely wrong and evolution is complete shit,” (a statement with which I do not agree, by the way, being a supporter of evolutionary biology myself) it wouldn’t even begin to compare to destroying a consecrated host. I am not here trying to condemn the action as a damnation-worthy sin as many Christians might, but instead as an extremely hurtful and cruel public act on par with repeatedly slapping a person’s parents as they look helplessly on from behind shatter-proof glass. And I’m not even Catholic!

I’m frankly more hurt by this than angry. I would never drive a rusty nail through God Is Not Great; I just choose not to partake of it myself. Can’t the next generation of atheists have similar courtesy for something of significantly greater importance for their neighbors? And there is an additional layer to this issue: I very much doubt that a priest just gave them that consecrated bread and said, “Oh, sure! Have fun!” Did somebody sneak it out of a Mass hidden in their mouth like the supposed witches were accused of doing in the 17th century? Isn’t that just a bit juvenile? I suppose that many of the attendees at Blasphemy Day events just don’t feel like ponying up the cash to join the Church of Satan, so they have to hold their own low-budget black masses without membership cards.

In the end, I can only feel a bit of pity for the new atheists. They clearly aren’t as intellectually rigorous as their forebears, and their philosophical system is entirely reactionary. What’s more, they’re reacting to a reaction! Fundamentalism in religion is what happens when rigidly-minded religious people fail to integrate new information; atheist fundamentalism is what happens when rigidly-minded atheists fail to take account of the good work that moderate and liberal religionists have worked for. I hope that those of us unhateful faithful may befriend the “unfaithful” who are willing to dialogue with us as we, as a species, move forward.

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