Saturday, May 25, 2013

There Are No Teams

I’m re-reading Antony Flew’s 2007 book There Is A God: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind.  In the Preface, Roy Varghese laments the rise of the “new atheists,” Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens.  Dismissing their work as largely demagoguery, he ties them to Bertrand Russell (who was influential to my deconversion), whom he accuses of contributing little to advancement of religious discussion, but gaining notoriety through sarcasm and colorful language.  He then, says the following:

"The chief target of these books is, without question, organized religion of any kind, time, or place.   Paradoxically, the books themselves read like fundamentalist sermons.  The authors, for the most part, sound like hellfire-and-brimstone preachers warning us of dire retribution, even of apocalypse, if we do not repent of our wayward beliefs and associated practices.  There is no room for   ambiguity or subtlety.  It’s black and white.  Either you are with us all the way or one with the enemy.  Even eminent thinkers who express some sympathy for the other side are denounced as traitors.  The evangelists themselves are courageous souls preaching their message in the face of imminent martyrdom."

I think Varghese is exactly right on this point.  While his preface is an amazing example of how to be a hypocrite while also saying something important, this paragraph sums up a huge problem on all sides of the religious conversation.  We all think we’re right.  We all think “they” are wrong, and more than being wrong, they have bad intentions, and can’t be trusted.  When I was attending beer church, this was on display constantly.

When Antony Flew came to believe in God (the Prime Mover, not the Christian God) based on what he perceived to be solid evidence, he was practically carried around the world by believers proclaiming, “See!  You guys are wrong!”  Likewise, when evangelical preachers like Dan Barker and Jerry DeWitt go from Christians to atheists, they are touted by the freethinkers as an example of how Christians ought to be able to see the error of their ways, and reject their silly faith.

What’s interesting about the converts (Flew, Barker and DeWitt) is how noticeably different their approach is compared to the evangelicals (Varghese, Hitchens etc.).  Because they’ve been on the other side, they don’t treat people who disagree with them like they’re stupid.  Certainly they weren’t stupid when they held those beliefs themselves.  I think people like Flew and Barker can be quite useful for those who need validation as they reach the conclusion that they’ve been wrong.

We might ask ourselves why it’s so easy to demonize people who have done nothing other than hold a different idea.  What threat does an atheist pose to a Christian?  What threat does a Christian pose to an atheist?  Certainly there are some doctrines that don’t help mend these fences.  Eternal hell as punishment for not holding a narrow truth certainly presents an issue.  Fortunately, this doctrine is losing steam, both as it contributes to people leaving their faith, and as believers reject it as bad theology.  With that threat less prevalent, can we begin to discuss these issues in good faith, assuming that no matter who is speaking, she is being honest in what she says, and charitable in her responses?

For those to whom the existence or non-existence of God matters, who have rejected agnosticism as laziness, and who try really hard to determine the answer to the question, let’s hammer out the arguments thoroughly, admit when we’re wrong, and see if by having these discussions, we can improve the world we live in.  The solutions to poverty, wars, and inequality don’t require common ground on God.  If we’re willing to trust each other, I think we’ll find that we want the same things, and can achieve those things together.

For your viewing pleasure:
Dan Barker’s testimony:
Jerry DeWitt’s testimony:
Anthony Flew:
 (sorry for how crappy Flew’s video is.  He’s an old, old man, and most of his more coherent stuff is pre-YouTube)

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