In the last few years, so many books have rolled off the presses challenging God, belief and religion itself (by Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger and Christopher Hitchens, among others) that a visitor from another planet might think America was in the iron throes of priestly repression. You’d never know that we live in the age of Paris Hilton, HBO, Internet porn and flip-flops. The 17th century Catholic Church proscribed Galileo — just imagine what it would have done with the creators of “Entourage.”
Here we start out poorly. One assumes you have to object to something only when being persecuted by it. Siegel is saying we can’t object to magical thinking unless we’re undergoing an inquisition? And that Paris Hilton is the symbol of our freedom? Atheism = tolerance of trashy whores and nudity on the TV (in the US)?
…that the separation of church and state is inscribed in our Constitution; that no priest, minister or rabbi holds any top position in the federal government; and that even the state board of education in Kansas recently forbade the teaching of creationism. The Catholic Church imprisoned Galileo and hounded Voltaire and his fellow philosophers; Harris & Co., meanwhile, are dining out on their self-styled iconoclasm in every corner of the media.
It’s true, atheism, in this country, does not result in imprisonment or persecution. We call this progress. But it’s also ignoring the points made by Dawkins and Hitchens about religion’s influence around the world, real persecution of those that are different in theocratic states, and the quieter discrimination and reviling of science and reason that we must constantly be vigilant of in this country. Siegel then goes on to acknowledge the problems he spends his first paragraphs saying don’t exist, and makes the idiotic argument that books about atheism don’t do any good unless they’re designed to convert opponents.
Who, exactly, are they aimed at? Who is the ideal reader of these attacks on belief in God? Not Muslim or Christian fundamentalists, obviously, because one of the engines driving religious fundamentalism today is, precisely, a hostility toward modern science. If anyone thinks that Dawkins’ book, “The God Delusion” — with its “scientific” attempts to refute the existence of God — is going to persuade today’s religious fanatics, here or abroad, to loosen up and enjoy a little MTV, you have to ask yourself just who is “deluded.” It’s hard to imagine anyone abandoning his faith after reading Harris’ condescending polemic, or the science of Dawkins and Dennett, or Hitchens’ vitriol.
I sincerely doubt that the goal of any of these writers is conversion of people like James Dobson or Ted Haggard, and no one realistically thinks that is the objective of the books. There are such things as people without their minds made up, people on the fence, and those that would like to solidify their arguments and understanding of atheist philosophy. Clearly they are selling though, so maybe Siegel should spend less time worrying about their audience.
The attacks in the books often don’t make much sense either. For instance, Bush and his gang preach Christian values while lying us into a slaughterhouse overseas, ransacking our public coffers and ignoring social inequities and iniquities at home — and so our heroic anti-religionists attack . . . Christian values. But shouldn’t they be attacking Bush and Co.’s hypocrisy in betraying Christian values instead? Such polemics are a case of throwing the sacred bathwater out with the baby. The analytic philosophers used to call such arguments that so sorely miss the mark “category mistakes.”
Ah yes, we call this argument the “Courtier’s Reply“. The problem is clearly not religion, because Dawkins et al., aren’t writing about true religion, you know, people helping out their neighbors and working in soup kitchens. Fanaticism has nothing to do with real religion which is all sweetness and light all the time. As J.J points out, this is a straw man, because the issue isn’t the moral lessons of each religion being obeyed (although as Hitch points out many of these are highly questionable). It’s much harder to defend what Dawkins actually attacks, the improbability of the existence of deities or the supernatural.
Now so far, all we’ve seen is the usual tripe. But we haven’t really seen how far down Siegel can stoop in his criticism of the new atheists. Prepare to see, quite possibly, the most absurd and offensive arguments yet against the new atheists.
If anything, you could imagine these assaults on religion becoming infamous in the Muslim world, confirming for fundamentalists that the West is every bit as godless — and hostile to Islam — as they thought. Hitchens’ intemperate invective against Christianity, Judaism and Islam, for its part, will probably strengthen the resolve of fanatics in all three religions. What an intellectual mess.
Wow. Now the argument is, don’t write about the danger of fanaticism, because if you do, you’ll make them mad, and terrorism is your fault. Don’t dare defend free inquiry and rationality, because that irritates the psychotic fundamentalists who burn books, kill gays, oppress women, and blow up people. We must always think first of not hurting their feelings. That’s the best argument I’ve heard yet for faith. Shut up or they’ll kill you.
That’s pretty low, can Siegel go lower?
These arguments don’t offend me or my beliefs. But they make me concerned nevertheless, because I think they strike a blow against something more important (at least to me) than belief in God. In their contempt for any belief that cannot be scientifically or empirically proved, the anti-God books are attacking our inborn capacity to create value and meaning for ourselves.
To be sure, the current assault on religious faith is the product of a centuries-long movement, beginning with the Enlightenment, toward the supremacy of science and empiricism and a rejection of unverifiable beliefs. But that campaign against religious faith and superstition triumphed long ago in the West, where we now live in a technological, irreligious age beyond the wildest Enlightenment hopes. When our anti-religionists attack the mechanism of religious faith by demanding that our beliefs be underpinned by science, statistics and cold logic, they are, in effect, attacking our right to believe in unseen, unprovable things at all. Their assault on religious faith amounts to an attack on the human imagination.
For the imagination is what embodies concepts, ideas and values that cannot be scientifically verified and that have no practical usefulness. Because the existence of God is undemonstrable, unverifiable and the object of an impractical leap of faith, religion, it seems to me, is one of imagination’s last strongholds.
The basic proposition seems flawed doesn’t it? After all, isn’t religion used, again and again, as a tool to avoid thinking about the difficult questions? Where did life come from? God. How did the universe form? God. Religion is a shortcut that short-circuits the imagination! It is dogmatic. By definition, it exists to preclude original thought. Faith isn’t some wonderful key to the imagination, it’s the lock caging original thought!
It is the rational exploration that is generating new theories, new understandings, and further exploration of the universe. The escape from dogma has freed our imaginations to imagine new (and heretical) possibilities. And it’s not just science. Look at art! Who else thinks things have gotten better since artists have been freed from constantly making images of Jesus on the cross or endless pietas? Siegel makes the absurd statement that without faith we somehow are unable to love, or be creative, or be good to one another, as if atheism somehow involves the conversion of humans into heartless automatons. The fact is that atheists love, are altruistic (and not out of fear of being punished by sky-daddy), create art, science, and wonder, just like anyone else on the planet. Their ability to explore the unknown and take leaps of faith is increased, not decreased, because they don’t pretend to already have all the answers.
This really should be patently offensive to atheists, as it makes the assumption that without God one somehow becomes subhuman (the implication of course is that atheists already are). Dawkins et al., are not making the argument that we should become robots, tied to cold logic and unable to do anything new because rationality isn’t prepared for the unknown. They are making the argument that we should free our minds from dogmatism and illogic which hampers our creativity, our compassion for our fellow men and women, and locks us into patterns of behavior prescribed by ancient texts that are contradictory, bigoted, and irrelevant in our modern age.
Siegel’s arguments are absurd, and irrelevant. But then, so is Siegel.