Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

April 7, 2009

On Distancing One’s Self from the “New Atheists”

Filed under: culture, media, religion — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 8:44 am

The concern-trolling, many-truths Madeleine Bunting takes another opportunity to complain about those loud and certain new atheists.  Bunting apparently finds them as annoying as the fundamentalists.  

In a way, I wish Bunting were a pastor.  When I went to church growing up, we sang songs about how much Jesus loved us and how one would know it (it’s in the Bible in case you couldn’t guess).  We also sang about Noah’s flood during Bible camp.  Now, I grew up in Western Michigan, which is conservative but I didn’t consider the church radical.  We were Methodists afterall.  It is odd that no one mentioned the fact that there is actually no evidence for Noah’s flood or that rainbows are caused by white light separating out into different wave lengths.  It is one thing to say that Noah’s flood should be given the same status as Santa Claus from the luxury of an ivory tower, but doubting the supposedly divinely inspired word of God when no one in your culture does  is another.

Case in point, when I was in elementary school I knew the basics of sexual reproduction even if I didn’t know the exact mechanics.  The one thing I did know is that it took a male and a female.  So, we apply this rule and try to make it jive with the creation story of Adam and Eve.  Adam and Eve begat Cain and Abel.  Cain kills Abel.  Now what?  Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had stumbled upon the wife of Cain problem.  I asked my parents and they told me to ask our pastor, which I did.  Now here is a quiz for Ms. Bunting.  Did the pastor tell me a) the story can’t be taken literally or b) there were other people contemporaneous with Cain?  

If Bunting chose option a, she would be wrong.  He told me there were other people that God apparently created.  This should not surprise anyone.  This is how religion behaves.  Sure, the theologian may defend God as a transcendent purpose and a vague intellectual absolute when debating with atheist, but know, in the churches there is no hint, absolutely no indication, that anything you are told shouldn’t be taken as if it were the literal truth especially when a child asks an honest question.  How else could a child interpret it?  Pastors are authority figures.  It would be one thing if peddling nonsense was limited to just adults.  It is quite another thing when children are the explicit targets.

Here is another case study.  At Christmas, one of my nieces exclaimed “Happy Birthday Jesus” which I took the opportunity to correct.  Christmas is not Jesus’ birthday; it is the day we celebrate Jesus’ birth.  I don’t blame my niece for this misunderstanding.  Generally, we celebrate people’s birth on their birthdays.  It is just in this case, we don’t.  In fact, the best evidence in the Bible suggests Jesus was born in the spring, not during the winter solstice.  So, why do we celebrate Jesus. birth during the winter solstice?  This isn’t a question I should have to answer.  It is one that any intellectually honest person in a church should at least mention during Sunday school or at least give some hint of future revelation.  Instead, we see the clergy carefully construct sentences that give no hint of the underlying history which they know or should know.  This is not coincidence, and the reason it will never happen is transparent: it is inconvenient.

It is easier for the church to act as if the creation story, the virgin birth, walking on water, water into wine, Noah’s flood, Jonah’s fish adventure, etc. are true than to defend their obvious nonsense.  Who is to blame when someone calls the church on its misleading duplicity?  According to Blunting, the blame belongs to the new atheists and their certainty.

It is telling that Blunting is never specific about what the new atheists are so certain about.  Dawkins rates the probability of their being a theistic god at approximately the same probability there are fairies under the garden.  From the evidence I’ve seen, I concur with that assessment.  Now, I am willing to change my mind if compelling evidence to contrary appears.  Dawkins has previously stated his commitment to do the same.  But given the claims are so extraordinary, it would require evidence many times greater than that for evolution, as an example.

For my part, the chain of coincidences would have to be so great it would be more likely that I had gone insane than the existence of Jehovah been proved, that is how deep the gulf that runs between my conception of what a universe would look like if Jehovah actually exists and the one I perceive myself as inhabiting.  It is would also be more probable that I were experiencing an atheistic universe inside a theistic one.  Such notions are a foundation of solipsism, where observable reality plays no role in informing our opinion about the universe we inhabit.  There is nothing we can do to disprove solipsism’s radical skepticism, maybe Blunting is looks forward to the day of when we can get rid of the new atheist’s demands for objective evidence and therefore pontificate indefinitely on various aspects of imagined realities without any hope of resolution.  I have no doubt it is easier for the intellectually lazy to be coddled in unassailable ignorance, but a minority of us see a real virtue in trying to view the world as it really is.

In the same theme, Bart Ehrman takes the opportunity to bash the “new atheists” also

Ehrman – who grew up casually Episcopalian, became a fundamentalist in high school, had his faith eroded by decades of studying the Bible’s textual history and now calls himself a “happy agnostic“– seems to be riding the same anti-religion wave that has swept Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens onto the best-seller list and late-night talk shows. But he says that while they share some readers, he tries to distance himself from the so-called new atheists.

“They seem to understand so little about religion,” he told me in a telephone interview. “If somebody attacked science with as little knowledge, they’d be laughed off the map.”

First of all, people attack the theory of evolution and therefore science (because it was discovered using the same method) with considerably less knowledge than any of the “new atheists” mentioned have towards religion. Far from being laughed off the map, it seems to be a prerequisite to getting one elected to the Texas Board of Education, a large state with a correspondingly large biology textbook market where standards they adopt become the de facto standards for many other states. This is a real struggle that has real implications for what children are taught in the biology classroom.

Either Ehrman is saying that the “new atheists” are more ignorant about religion than creationists who attack evolution (keep in mind, Kirk Cameron thinks you should be able to find a chimeran “crocaduck ” because birds and reptiles share a common ancestor and that banana’s are an atheist worst nightmare in spite of hundreds of years of cultivation and selective breeding) or we don’t laugh people off the map according to the criteria Ehrman supposes.

I can’t say that I’m that surprised this is how certain segments of the media portray the “new atheists,” the people with the sheer audacity to challenge establishment views and institutions with clarity and honesty. The central problem religion posses is that we leave our collective moral authority to the prejudices of illiterate goat herders. No matter how benign religion may become, the danger still lurks. All it takes is one charismatic person to look at the text and say, “we have been doing this all wrong, look at what it says right here.” Such people are impossible to deal with on a religious level, because once you accept the fact that the Bible is the infallible, or at least inspired, word of God all else follows. The only way to refute it is to reject the premise. This is something, by definition, a religious believer refuses to do.   Avoiding religious radicalism in the future means fostering secularism today. This is something that all the “new atheists” seem to understand, although apparently lost on Bunting and Ehrman.

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3 Comments »

  1. Morning! Nice post.

    Not excusing Ehrman (I hadn’t realized he was an agnostic from his books which I have causally browsed. He sounded more like a liberal leaning christian- a methodist or episcopalian perhaps)- but there is a lot of pressure to pander to the religious right. It’s sad but true. Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens have been antagonistic toward religion (rightly in my opinion) but too many atheists still think that if they play nice then the religious set will like them. Hah!

    On a more personal note: I recently read “Superstition” in which Parks notes that christians turned atheist turned back to christianity is so cliche as to be a foregone conclusion (not an exact quote). Having experienced a similar brainwashing of the church (my father was a pastor) I know how difficult it is to turn away from the faith and I also know the pressure that persists- so I applaud your ongoing blogs that attack and bring light to what the church does. And for me, your posts are a helpful reminder that I’m not crazy. The church really does take advantage of the weakest in order to keep an army of believers. I can occasionally feel like I am crazy or at least exaggerating the effects– but your story– the one you told about Cain is really a great example. And in fact, I was told the same thing! or a Sunday School teacher might have said, “Well, it’s a mystery that we’ll have to ask god some day.”

    Comment by Danette Baltzer — April 8, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

  2. Hi Danette,

    Thank you for commenting.

    I don’t think you were completely off about Ehrman. Agnostic is a very loose term. For example, Bertrand Russell called himself an agnostic. I would call myself an agnostic too if I hadn’t read “The God Delusion.“ It wasn’t that the book radically changed my position, but it made it clear that atheism is simply a statement of non-belief, not knowledge.

    I think you are right that Ehrman is coming out of a more liberal theologian position. If I remember correctly, he calls himself an agnostic because he has come to the conclusion, through his scholarship, that the Bible is not inerrant. I think the argument went that if God had not accurately preserved His words then it wasn’t a holy book but rather a human book which had serious theological implications given his evangelical background. If you are interested, I can dig up a citation. I think he is a still a theist though. So on Dawkins’ 7 point scale, 1 being I know there is a God and 7 being I know there is no God, and 4 being 50/50, I think Ehrman is between 2 and 6, leaning towards the low-side.

    I’ve been kicking around some ideas for a post about conversion stories. There is quite a bit I want to say about the topic particularly because it is such a popular mythos in the Christian apologetics community.

    Comment by codesmithy — April 9, 2009 @ 9:20 am

  3. I think that’s a great idea. I have actually wished that someone would do that. I used to participate on Topix because there was some of that– but not nearly enough and too many there were just interested in fighting with fundies. It was a worthless fight and you can still hear the same discussions if you look at the posts there. I’ll keep checking back to see if you get it going!

    Comment by Danette Baltzer — April 9, 2009 @ 6:24 pm


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