Tuesday, November 07, 2006

New variations on an old, old tune

I have a work colleague who has become, over the course of the last year and a half or so, a pretty good friend. Like me, he has a real interest in good books and good films, and we enjoy recommending things we've read or seen to each other, and comparing and contrasting opinions as if we were Siskel & Ebert or something. Also like me, he is happily married and the father of a son close to the age of mine. In short, we have much in common, and that is part of why we seem to get along.

There is one major difference between my friend (let's call him Steve) and I, however -- one that was bound to come up in our discussions of what makes great art, family life, fatherhood, etc. Steve is a committed atheist -- and I don't mean one who simply believes that there's no proof for the existence of God and so he just doesn't want to be bothered trying to solve the riddle that no one can solve. No, he's the type that takes it a step further, and claims that not only is there no rational basis for belief in any kind of supreme being, but that religion itself is the root of all evil and the main cause of much of the suffering that has been endured by the human race throughout the ages. That no human being who claims to be a rational person and to be concerned with the future of humanity has any business whatsoever clinging on to what, in the words of a recent movie character, is a "ridiculous superstition." It's not only wrong-headed, in Steve's view, to believe in a God -- it's morally irresponsible. To do so is to perpetuate and foster unnecessary conflict and division in a world that could use a whole lot less of both.

Obviously, Steve is not shy about sharing his opinions and thoughts with me concerning why religion is a sham and why the world would be a much, much better place without it. In fact, he regularly challenges me on my Roman Catholic beliefs, which are well known to him, and on the idea of believing in God in general. He does not do it in a mean-spirited way, and I have actually enjoyed the ongoing dialog we have had on these subjects. As I said, he has become a friend, and there is much about him that I respect and even admire. He's a witty, intelligent man who obviously loves his family and cares about his work and the way he lives his life.

I bring this up only because our ongoing conversations happen to coincide with a trend in the publishing world that is pretty hard to miss if you are at all tuned in to the world of books. In the last few years there has been a spate of popular books about atheism, books that openly and brazenly challenge the very idea of religion in general and, in many cases, call for its out and out dismissal. And as in all things in this business, if one book is successful, a whole slew of others will follow as sure as the sun rising in the morning. You can always count on that.

To wit: about two years ago, a young Stanford philosophy graduate named Sam Harris made a splash with his first book called The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. The book basically took the events of 9/11 and made them the jumping-off point for a full-scale attack on religious faith in general, arguing that it always leads to division and conflict and ought to be more or less discarded for the good of humanity. This type of argument is, of course, nowhere near anything new: in fact, he seemed to be re-hashing many if not most of the same arguments made a long time ago by figures like Voltaire and David Hume, and more recently, Sigmund Freud and Bertrand Russell. Russell's book of essays from the 1950's in particular, Why I Am Not a Christian, still remains an oft-cited text for contemporary atheists.

Harris is back at it this year with a smaller book called Letter to a Christian Nation, which is supposedly his response to all of the mean-spirited, Hell-invoking letters he received from Christians in response to the first book. (I don't doubt that he did receive such letters -- I wish I could say I did doubt it, but we American Christians especially are unfortunately pretty accomplished at picking at splinters while ignoring planks.) He's also been in major newspapers, magazines and web sites a heck of a lot lately, I've been noticing, preaching his "religion is the root of all evil" and "all religion is inherently opposed to 'genuine' morality" gospel pretty much wherever he can find a pulpit. Maybe it's just chance (thought I doubt it), but these appearances in Op-Ed columns everywhere happen to coincide with the rash of brisk-selling atheistic screeds I mentioned earlier. The Cambridge biologist Richard Dawkins' new book The God Delusion is currently a bestseller, garnering a front-page review from the likes of the The New York Times Book Review, and Daniel C. Dennett's recent Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is also selling well, from what I have read. And let's not forget that everybody's favorite British-contrarian-posing-as-an-American-journalist (one of Steve's favorite columnists, not surprisingly), Christopher Hitchens, will bless us with his own offering into the sweepstakes, wittily titled God is Not Great, next year! (Speaking of Britain, even the Guardian (UK) has noticed this phenomenon in American publishing, and posted an article about it recently online.)

As Steve likes to say hopefully, "Maybe Americans are finally starting to come around!" I like to playfully counter remarks like this with observations like, "Steve, your problem isn't with religion -- it's with us! Human nature itself... if there were never any religion, and humanity had been guided all along by other noble polestars such as Science or Philosophy, we would still be divided into our separate camps, bickering and fighting and even sometimes going to war to defend our own entrenched positions. It's just the way we are. You can't simply pin it all on the back of religion." Which is exactly what Harris seems to be doing also, in those well-articulated and aggressive arguments that are getting so many column inches these days. (Look on the Boston Globe and Newsweek web sites for recent Op-Eds by Harris if you're interested.)

I will admit that at first, this recent trend in all of its manifestations disturbed me, especially since I was dealing with similar arguments in the workplace (and still am). But since I've had a chance to think about it a bit more, I realize that these are just the newest variations on a very old tune. This is not to say there aren't compelling points within these arguments that we need to take very seriously -- there are, and we do. We always do. In fact I think the very presence of such arguments in the public square, and even in our relationships with friends and relatives, is good and healthy for Christian people. It forces us to think carefully about what we believe and how to articulate that in a clear and coherent way that has meaning to our contemporaries… just as St. Peter exhorted us to do: “…always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear…” (1 Peter 3:15, 16)

There’s no doubt that we live in a dangerous age filled with hurt and suffering, much of which is indeed being caused by ideologies informed by religion. But then again, think of all of the pain, death and despair caused in the 20th century alone – bloodier than the 19 centuries previous to it COMBINED – by ideologies that made a point of rejecting the notion of a God entirely. Some of these scientists and “progressives” seem to think that if we could just get the pesky monkey of religion off of our backs, we could then finally settle down and do some good in the world. Tell that to the victims of genocide in Communist Russia, Communist China, Nazi Germany, parts of war-torn Africa, France during the Revolution, etc. Theirs is an argument based on a crippling, and perhaps willful, ignorance of both human history AND human nature. You will never prevent men from searching for something transcendent and higher than themselves. You will also never prevent men from hurting and killing and visiting evil on one another. But without the hope that the first impulse might temper the second, nothing is left for us but despair. No matter what our latest highly educated, “enlightened” thinker may claim.


Mutt Ploughman said...

OUTSTANDING POST!!!! Duke, the writing here is top-tier. This reads like an Op-Ed piece might in any of those slick rags you mentioned earlier, 'cept they wouldn't have the rocks to post this POV. Clear, coherent analysis: the final paragraph here is superb. And you think you aren't a writer??? SHADDAPP!!!!!! This post was penned by a man confident in his faith, aware of tradition and history, and engaged enough with the world to know his intellectual/spiritual enemies....I am very impressed with this post!!!!

Aura McKnightly said...

Interesting stuff here. I've met people who subscribe to atheism before (co-workers) and although you can kinda see their POV, you're never sure how they got to that position. Maybe their parents are atheists too. For myself, I just think it's way too depressing to be so nihilistic. There's gotta be something more, so I choose to believe.

Duke Altum said...

Appreciate both you guys' reading and commenting on this post. It ain't easy to 'impress' Mutt, so I am honored! This one was sort of a personal one for me since this guy I work with engages me all the time about my faith... challenging both the what and the why of my beliefs. Which is TOTALLY FINE, I might add: in fact, I enjoy it... look, if you're going to choose to believe in the claims of Christianity in today's world, you're going to come under some serious fire. It's that simple. And you can either run and hide, which won't make too compelling a case for faith... or, you can read up, bone up on what you believe and why, keep in touch with current issues, and remember not to check your humility and graciousness at the door.

And anyway, as C. S. Lewis once observed (paraphrasing slightly here), "Good philosophy needs to exist, if for no other reason than that bad philosophy needs to be answered."

Also, it just boggles my mind that anyone could confidently declare as irrational or even non-sensical something that 98% of all human beings who ever lived have taken as a given… I mean, it’s one thing to say “I honestly don’t know if there’s any credence to the belief in a God,” but it’s entirely another thing to say, “Belief in any kind of deity or transcendent force in the universe is a delusion, makes no sense and doesn’t do anybody any good.” That’s just a staggering statement to make in light of world history and the entire scope of human experience… and when authors like Harris and Dawkins are out there saying stuff like that, THEY "need to be answered."

BTW, interesting side note: did anyone see that the scientist who LED the entire Human Genome Project that mapped out the entire human genome, Francis Collins, a man HIGHLY respected by all scientists of all persuasions and that NO ONE could accuse of being "irrational," recently took a HUGE professional risk by coming out with a book declaring his Christian convictions??? You won't see this on CNN, but apparently it will cause major ripples in the science world... interesting stuff huh??? The book is called The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

Aura McKnightly said...

It's not that I haven't asked why these people believe the way they do (or not believe as the case may be), but it's usually just a relegation against believing, as if believing in something beyond doesn't make sense. At which point, I usually say, you can believe what you want, but know that what you believe sucks.