Irreligious Intolerance

I have just picked up on an interesting article from The Guardian which suggests that the well publicised ‘new atheist’ movement (represented by the Dawkins/Dennett type of school) is essentially motivated by a political agenda – and in particular fear of radical Islam and ‘fundamentalist’ America.

Bunting rightly recognises that in their “vituperative polemic” the new atheists may be doing themselves no favours – and also comments on the worrying tendency towards ‘irreligious intolerance’ – which sounds scarily like an atheist version of the Inquisition.

But perhaps most interestingly of all, she picks up on a point which the evolutionary thinkers have still failed to answer adequately – “the durability and near universality of religion is one of the most enduring conundrums of evolutionary thinking.”

But the ‘new atheists’ don’t seem to like debating questions they have no answers to.

4 thoughts on “Irreligious Intolerance

  1. I’ve read both Bunting articles, and the various responses to them.

    The problem with Bunting, if I have to pick one, is that of inconsequential argument. Saying that religion has been around for a long time is irrefutable. So it has. What has that to do with its truth or lack thereof? Social Instution X (insert anything: slavery, sexism, rape, delight in music, etc.) has also been around a long time. This says nothing meaningful either about it, or its claims, or even its future.

    Furthermore, Bunting suggests that the New Atheists (what exactly, is “new” about this? Bad historical sense operating here) are as “fundamentalist” as the religions they oppose. Um, by “fundamentalists” we mean, what, exactly? That they are speaking? That they are voicing their opinions without apology? That they are explaining why they think they are right?

    For those of us who remain unconvinced by either side (yes, we know that science has not answered everything), let the record show that the atheists at least have an ingrained imperative to welcome questioning, even of themselves. It goes with their territory. The religious can hardly claim the same.

    When I say “fundamentalist” I mean those who are willing to commit acts of violence against those who do not see the world their way. I mean those who insist on making everybody in their lives (their children and their dependants, for example) also be ruled by anachronistic laws allegedly given to mysteriously chosen individuals between several hundred to several thousand years ago. These rules are held to be the template for all human existence then, before then, and ever since then forever after, amen. I know this because the religious say so. It is true because it just is. Inconsistencies and contradictions in the holy texts, not to mention outright outrages, murder, bloodshed, sanctioned genocide, and don’t get me started on what they say about women; all these are unfortunate but nevertheless divinely ordained and outside the scope of my questioning or disagreement.

    I quite relish being able to ask questions safely, thank you. If these are atheist fundamentalists, I would much rather engage with them in the course of demanding that they try to explain the source of life to me than engage in the much riskier practice of asking religious fundamentalists to justify or explain their “truths” to me.

  2. Thank you for your comments. A few observations.

    You are, of course, correct to say that the longevity of a particular institution has no bearing on the truth of its claims or the value of the institution. Such an argument would indeed be inconsequential.

    But I don’t think that was the point Bunting was making. Dawkins seems to be suggesting that religion is both untrue and dangerous. At this point there seems to be a question about the ‘evolutionary potential’ of an untrue and dangerous idea.

    I take your point that ‘new atheist’ may be an unhelpful label. But labels do so easily attach to ‘generations’ of thinkers.

    Like you I am extremely nervous about those who “are willing to commit acts of violence against those who do not see the world their way.” Quite apart from anything else, a ‘faith’ which is imposed does not seem worthy of the name. And as a Christian, I am convinced that violence is inappropriate for a follower of Jesus (and yes, of course I acknowledge that many Christians are responsible for unacceptable behaviour in the past and in the present, and no doubt in the future).

    Likewise, as a Christian, I relish the opportunity to ask questions safely. Both about my own faith and about the beliefs of others. But on that note, I would be interested to know about what you perceive to be the “contradictions in the holy texts.” My reading of the Bible suggests a consistent message.

    I would suggest that asking (non-violent!) religious people to “justify or explain their ‘truths'” is not inherently more dangerous thatn asking an athesit fundamentalist.

    And I would also suggest that the ‘rationality’ which is often held up as the prerogative of the atheist or scientist is actually mis-named. I would argue that a philosophical consideration of the basis of knowledge of the world inevitably leads to the holding of ‘irrational’ presuppostions by those who do not presume an external source of morality or truth.

    But perhaps we are stepping outside of the scope of this particular article…

    Thanks again for your comments.

  3. May I jump in? It seems okay to ask questions here.
    (Thank you for giving space for these questions, but you are not exactly standard fare in terms of public debate. Everybody else just tells me that I am hellbound, although they are always sorry about that, and pities me for not having faith, which, if I did, would answer all my questions. Imagine my frustration.)

    Here’s the deal with the seemingly newly “awakened” atheists. Or at least, this is what it seems like to me. It used to be okay to be quietly atheist or agnostic and not bother anyone, with the understanding that the areas of life in which matters of faith arose were safely private and would not intrude one way or the other. We were all wrestling with these questions in ways that we tried not to let impact anyone else.

    However, faced with anti-science postures on the one hand, even in public schools, with perennial questions about who, precisely, has sovereignty and decision making power over women’s bodies and their functions, on the other and-I’m running out of hands unless I momentarily take recourse in some many-armed Hindu god…– and suicide bombings and fatwas on my third and fourth hands, being polite about religion and deferentially neutral towards our religious neighbours isn’t enough to guarantee a calm life anymore.

    Thus, whilst I agree that fundamentalists are the worst possible examples of any belief system and have possibly done more to harm the image of religious faith in general than anything they have accomplished against non-believers, there are nonetheless some troubling stubborn facts. I do not know any fundamentalists, but I read what they write, and I have heard them speak. (variously, about their various religions) I DO, however, know many Christians, Jews and Muslims, and a few people of other faiths. Indeed, this is just about everybody I know, and includes those I love as well as those I do not; those I respect as well as those I do not; and so forth. There are a few atheists scattered here and there (at least, openly atheist ones, as opposed to who knows how many in the closet) but they tend to talk about other things.

    The religious people in my life are all more or less moderate–they have to be, or they would not be able to talk to me, or to each other. One of the things that comes up in my conversations with these people is a recurring examination of fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are firstly just as (actually more) upset about their co-religionists who do not agree with them as they are about people of other religions and about people of no religion at all.

    I quite see their point.

    Fundamentalists cannot imagine what there is to talk about, to debate about or to discuss, when it is all neatly written down and iterated in The Book. (For example, The Torah, The Bible, or The Qu’aran.) All one has to do is look it up. That is the fundamentalist point of view, and really, as an argument, it has the merit of being fully backed by the available textual authority. The Torah. The Bible. or The Qu’aran. If anyone can put themselves into the shoes of the fundamentalists, just for an instant, it is actually rather easy to see that they are right, on their own terms. They do exactly what it says to do in The Book. They act as they are told to act in The Book. They have never pretended to be doing anything else. (Granted, when they begin to opine about areas not covered by the relevant Book, then they are making it up on the fly, just like the rest of us.) Even this cannot change the knowledge that where The Book does lay down a rule, the fundamentalists can hardly be faulted for following it. These, after all, are the terms under which they believe, and the conditions for their entrance to heaven.

    Everybody else’s problem is that they disagree with those terms. To the fundamentalists, that is the exactly right… your problem is that, having been given The Truth, you insist on nevertheless parsing and fussing with it until it fits the way you want. Again, I have no immediate way of disagreeing with them. In this way, one finally arrives at the conclusion that it isn’t possible to modify religious beliefs with any credibility nor is it possible to cosily point to moderate view points as representative of “alternative” versions. There just isn’t that kind of wiggle room. You either do what The Book says, and you believe The Book to be completely true and the word of God, or you don’t. If you do, then act accordingly. If you do and don’t act accordingly, then you are wrong, or mistaken. If you don’t, then it is all moot.

    Since you ask about contradictions in the Bible, here are a few that I am/have struggling with. Deutoronomy has this thing (Deut 24) about everyone being responsible for their own sins. However, Isaiah (14?) insists that children shall be punished for the iniquities of their fathers. As you can imagine, this has various reverberations for me, from questioning Abraham’s behaviour re: the sacrifice (what on earth had that poor boy done to merit being offered up like that? and what did they talk about on the way home from the altar? Okay, the last question was frivolous, but the first was serious). In addition, thinking about Abraham and the sacrifice then leads one to wonder if the almost-sacrificed son is still expected, as per the commandment, to honour his (almost-killer) father, on pain of death. It seems a bit much to demand. I freely admit that I went back to look at these texts as a consequence of reading both Hitchens and Dawkins, but my questions pre-date these particular authors.

    I consulted the texts myself, took care to read as many different translations as I could, and also looked up some commentaries and opinions by variously certified “experts” speaking from positions of long acquaintance with these texts and religious points of view.

    In addition, like almost everyone else, the trinity question foxes me completely. Jesus in John’s gospel, says that he and the Father are one, which I can just about manage to deal with. Yet, later on, still in John, he then says that the Father is greater than him. Honestly, this just twists my brain. Jesus is God, but Jesus is less than God. If Jesus is God, then that means that God is less than God. Or something.

    From where I stand, agnotics may be the only people with sufficient tolerance and sufficient humility to continue asking, and looking. Except it is hard when everyone is yelling at us for sitting on the fence. Me, I like the fence. It is a comfortable fence, a reasonable fence, a just and defensible fence. It is also an adjustable fence, and a flexible and tolerant fence. I hope.

  4. Nina, thank you for your thoughtful post. I am also grateful for your willingness to express your own feelings and questions rather than (as again happens so often in these kind of forums) simply ranting about any ‘religious’ position. So I am very grateful.

    There are a number of things I would like to say in response to this, but time is slightly limited today – so I hope you will forgive me if I address just a couple of points.

    Terminology is so important and difficult. ‘Fundamentalist’ is a term generally loaded with negative connotations in our cultural discourse. But I am a ‘fundamentalist’ in the sense that I accept the authority of the Bible. But where, perhaps, my position is different from the common caricature of a ‘fundamentalist’ is in my admission that there are many things in the Bible that are hard to understand. Given our limited human understanding (and I would add theologically the ‘fallenness’ of our understanding) there is some sense in which our conclusions about the Bible are ‘provisional’ (just as, actually, scientific conclusions are ‘provisional’ until new data contradicts them). At the same time, however, some aspects of Biblical message appear much clearer – and I do believe that God will ‘shed light’ if we approach Him humbly and are prepared to engage our brains too when we look at His word. So I try and speak confidently about things which are clear and more tentatively about things which are less clear.

    More than this, and this is where perhaps some ‘rationalists’ might become uncomfortable, I am prepared (again because of the difference between an infinite God and my own finitude) to accept there are some things I won’t fully understand, and indeed may even be counter-intuitive to me. This is not the same as accepting ‘contradictory’ propositions. But again – this is a massive topic – I could perhaps point you to some longer treatments elsewhere if you are interested in exploring this.

    Your question about Deuteronomy 24:16 and Isaiah 14:21 is a good one, but I do not think the texts are necessarily contradictory. The Deuteronomy text is given in the context of law – it forbids if you like (human) judicial punishment of children for the sins of parents. The Isaiah text is firstly ‘prophetic’ and so must be read in a slightly different way to e.g. a history text, or a letter, or a gospel etc. [incidently – I think this problem – of reading texts in a way other than they were designed to be read – accounts for the vast majority of apparent ‘contradictions’ in the Bible. You or I wouldn’t take the words of a ‘saying’ literally but would look for the truth conveyed in it – so we should do the same with e.g. Proverbs, or parables. On the other hand, if someone read a letter I wrote to you, they would not be able to understand it unless they knew something about what I was responding to and your situation, etc. etc. Again apologies for a very brief summary here of a very important point – again I can point you in the direction of useful books on the subject of how to read the Bible in context].

    Sorry that was a long digression in the middle of looking at the Isaiah text. I must confess that without looking at the whole chapter and trying to work out what is going on here I am nervous about making a comment on this particular verse. But here is what one commentator has written:

    “The OT forbids human judicial processes to punish children for parental sins (Dt 24:16) but the solidarity of the race necessitates just such visitations in the providential ways of God. For good and ill, children are the heirs of their parents (Ex 20:5-6). It was, however, royal practice to secure the throne by removing all challengers, and the best (1 Ki. 2:24f) as well as the worst (2 Ki. 10:1ff) of OT rulers fell into this wickedness. Here Isaiah imagines a proclamation going out to guarantee against the perpetuation of a royal line such as this.” (Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, 145-6)

    Now my hunch is that you, like me, will be a bit miffed by recourse to the expression “the providential ways of God” – another way of saying we don’t really understand. But I hope you read on, because understanding the OT context of knocking out royal challengers does affect the way we read something like this.

    I’m sorry if that is not a very helpful answer, but it is one to think about some more.

    Again, as far as the Trinity goes, precisely because it refers to the nature of an infinite God, I don’t think I would expect to fully understand it. However at the same time, I think we can understand the concept of equality of ‘value’ and difference in ‘role’. So in some senses Jesus is of the same ‘nature’ as God – he has the same ‘God-ness’ if you like. But his role is different, and his role is in submission to his father – so in that sense his father is greater than him.

    Time is up, so I will have to stop despite my partial answers. Keep looking, asking, and being tolerant. I will try and do the same.

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