Faux Pas Tolerance: New Atheism Fosters Misunderstanding

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Here's a video blog a friend sent me a link to this morning, titled "More demands from Islam." On the author's site (here) is the following nice, big welcome message:

"Hi, I'm Pat Condell. I don't respect your beliefs and I don't care if you're offended."

He reminds me a lot of Dawkins/Dennet/Hitchens minus the education. As such, he says plenty that one could react to, but laying aside most the belligerent portions monologue the statement I want to focus on, coming around 3 minutes 50 seconds into the video, follows:

"My freedom is more important than your faith. Much, much more important. And besides, I just have this natural aversion to being bullied and pushed around by bigoted misogynistic ignoramuses. And I say that with all due respect."

A few moments later he generally refers to militants as stoning people for "the crime of having a private life."

I'm reminded of two quotes from books I don't currently have at my disposal, one from Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation and I think the other is from Os Guiness' Doubt. Harris speaks of liberal Christians as not understanding fundamentalism because they don't know what it's like to believe whole heartedly in a specific vision of truth. Os Guiness quotes a student speaking at his graduate school commencement, saying something to the effect that "we live in an erra where we are free to proclaim any creed, follow any world view, and hold any set of beliefs -- so long as we don't believe they are true."

There is a difficult complication here. What the "New Atheists," and indeed post modern society, put forth as "tolerance" is simply repackaged secular apathy. When we talk about being religious without "imposing" your beliefs on others, or practicing religion within the confines of one's on home, what we are in effect saying is that these beliefs are not important and, since we can't agree on what truth is, have no relevance to the grander world. Unfortunately, religion is, like politics, a branch of philosophy, which means that its entire point is to try and tackle the questions of the world at large.

"16 Percent of U.S. Science Teachers Are Creationists" says the recent headline on ABC news. This is considered a "problem." The "problem" the numbers are illustrating is that the secular, evolutionary perspective is not adequately poised to impose itself on the country's children.

Why is it that secular humanism (Which entails the feeling that the evolutionary picture has discredited conservative religion) holds a privileged place? "Because it is backed by rigorous science," the New Atheist would say, dismissing non-liberal religion as shallow dogma. Liberal religion, too, is hardly more than a lukewarm fusion of secular humanism and lip-service to belief, and as such many Christians do not see a problem: one's religious world view is simply not supposed to have impact on real life. You can believe it, so long as it doesn't govern your actions, your business decisions, your vote... the only accepted standard for action is humanism.

I don't have a solution to the issues -- such as if a religious majority should, if it believes in a specific morality, be allowed to outlaw abortion, or should "personal choice" be the buzzword -- I simply want to point out that its complicated. Dennet pines about the cultural spell that protects religion from criticism, and Condell heaps ridicule upon Muslims for holding their beliefs with such passion and confidence -- but the New Atheists forget that they too are men with beliefs and opinions, and that they too are being quite "impositional." "Ridiculous ideas should be ridiculed" Dawkins says, ironically, even as he rebukes conservatives for having the nerve to raise their children into "dogma."

Like most westerns I'm deeply infused with humanist tendencies, but frankly, I find the likes of Condell to be reacting in a very immature fashion: reducing the world to black and white only adds to the problem. Engaging in a condescending shouting match with the "other" is exactly what gets us into the situation we're trying to solve!

What we should be fostering is not a persuasionary battle of right vs. wrong, because we will never find resolution. These blatant debates are important to history -- questions such as the teaching of creationism in schools have profound impact on how our culture will develop. What I would prefer to see screaming children like Condell espouse, however, are the same tools we are forced to learn and use every day of our lives as we confront people who think differently than us.

The fact of the matter is people very rarely see eye to eye on any given issue, great or small. To learn to dialogue respectfully, to handle criticism maturely, to be aware of and curious about the myriad of different ways people might and do look at an issue -- this are skills we all must try and master in order to be successful in relationships and career. Simply putting people down for what they believe doesn't solve the problem, because that sort of arrogant closed mindedness is what caused it in the first place. The philosophical currents of the world we live in are indeed complex, and how to carry one's self among them is hardly and obvious question, but we could at least try and make sense of it together. If the long wind of the New Atheists were spent trying to convince people to look at the world in this way, to educate them in open-mindedness instead of convert them to a veritable anti-religious witch-hunt, it might actually do some good.

One final quote from Condell's video:

"In a sane society, the guy who actually stands up to make this speech would be bum-rushed out the door the moment he opened his mouth, run out of town on a rail and dumped in the river."

Now, I'm not British, and I don't know what "bum-rushed" means, but the point I'm getting at is that, as far as I'm concerned, nothing like this would happen to anyone in an ideal, "sane" society.


Eric Scott is a Computer Science and Mathematics student at Andrews University

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/640