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The New Atheism

Two Priests Respond (I)

Rev. Dr. John R. Mabry opposes the New Atheist caricature of religion.

I’m not sure how it got started, but soon after the spate of offerings by the New Atheist authors, someone started calling their books ‘atheist porn’. It made me laugh when I first heard it, probably because it’s not far from the truth. Pornography can be titillating and fun – but it’s also objectifying, sapping the people portrayed of their humanity and falsely representing them for the profit and gratification of others. Similarly, the New Atheist literature is fun, even titillating – who doesn’t like to see the New Atheists take potshots at goofballs like Pat Robertson and the Ayatollah Khomeini? But it also objectifies religion, intentionally misrepresenting it as a one-dimensional, universally fanatical phenomenon.

I do understand the impulse: it’s far easier to set up a straw man and knock it over with a clever rhetorical one-two punch than it is to grapple with the reality of religion in all its complexity, variety and nuance. Dawkins, Hitchens and the like are smart enough to know that; so either they are being intentionally disingenuous, or they need to get out and mix more – with someone other than James Dobson [U.S. conservative Evangelical broadcaster] and Osama bin Laden. What they would discover if they did is that the God they don’t believe in, most religious people don’t believe in either. A great number of religious people – especially in developed countries – do not insist on the exclusive truth of their particular religious brand; do not wish death or sanctions against those who believe differently (or who don’t believe at all); and do not reject the scientific method, or philosophical inquiry.

As a religious educator, training chaplains and spiritual directors for ministry in hospitals, hospices and private practice, I know how vitally important it is that my students understand and are prepared to meet the variety of religious experience and expression that will confront them in their workplaces. If the scene were as the New Atheists depict it, not only would my students be out of jobs, since religious people would all be reactionary fanatics who would only deign to be ministered to by their proprietary clergy, but none of them would even be there, since none of them are religious conservatives.

In my book Faith Styles: Ways People Believe (Morehouse Publishing, 2006), I outline six ways that people hold faith: Traditional Believers (who believe their faith is the only legitimate one), Liberal Believers (who believe that their faith is one among many valid spiritual expressions), Spiritual Eclectics (who follow not one faith, but pick and choose elements from many spiritual traditions), Religious Agnostics (who enjoy the benefits of spiritual community, but are not convinced of its truth claims), Ethical Humanists (atheists and agnostics who may find a sense of belonging in – and a connectedness to – the cosmos) and Jack Believers (those who believe the Traditional Believer paradigms, but cannot adhere to their ethical codes). Of these six ways of holding faith, the New Atheists only acknowledge three: Traditional Believers, Jack Believers and Ethical Humanists. Fully half of religious humanity is not represented in their model of reality – and that, sad to say, makes it no model of reality at all.

In Moderation

Although you wouldn’t know it from the writings of the New Atheists, the truth is that there are such things as religious moderates, religious liberals and religious progressives. There are religious people who believe that critical thinking in matters of religion is essential to mature faith, and indeed, a key component of religious faithfulness. There are people who understand that our images of divinity are the result of a primal human impulse to anthropomorphize Mystery because it makes it easier to relate to. There are people who understand that symbols are not identical with the things they signify – who do not turn ideas, images and ideologies into idols. There are people who do not think that violence is the proper response to dissent – who in fact see tolerance, compassion and liberty as the litmus test of authentic spiritual expression. There is no serious consideration of this vast cross-section of religious life in the writings of the New Atheists: but then again, you don’t expect that kind of nuance, realism and complexity from porn.

Unfortunately, when the New Atheists do bring up moderate and liberal religion, it is only to dismiss it out of hand in a paragraph for not being ‘authentic’. But who are the New Atheists to determine that only conservative, intolerant and fundamentalist expressions of religion are authentic? I contend that I am more of an expert on my own spiritual life than anyone else, including Christopher Hitchens. I also contend that dismissing the faith of a vast cross-section of humanity – indeed invalidating the faith of even one person – is as much religious violence as any of the intolerant behaviors the New Atheists condemn.

Now I must confess that I actually love the New Atheist literature. I have scarfed up every book I could get my hands on: The God Delusion, God Is Not Great, The End of Faith, even Bill Maher’s film Religulous. I enjoyed them all immensely, and found myself agreeing with about 90% of what they say. But it’s the other 10% and what they completely ignore that torpedoes their credibility. That’s too bad, because there is a lot of value and validity in much of what they say. Intolerant, violent and exclusionary forms of religion ought to be challenged and questioned. But forms of religion that are not extremist, reactionary and uncritical do exist, and need to be acknowledged. So I call the New Atheists to the same integrity that they would insist upon in their academic writings. I invite them to get to know people who don’t fit into their cookie-cutter approaches to religion, in order to present an accurate depiction of contemporary religious life.

Professor Dawkins, I recommend you check out the worship at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, where gay and lesbian people are accepted as full and worthy members of both laity and clergy. Here the very tolerance and liberality you pretend does not exist in religious communities is on display in full pageant. Mr Hitchens, I invite you to my own community, where Gospel readings are proclaimed side-by-side with readings from the Hindu Upanishads and the Buddhist Sutras. Mr Harris, perhaps you should find a Quaker meeting house, a Reformed or Reconstructionist or Renewal Synagogue, a Sufi group, or a Green Sangha, and get to know the very real people there. I invite you to come to understand the faith that inspires them to compassionate action, appreciative dialogue, and interfaith cooperation on behalf of the poor and the oppressed.

Granted, the New Atheist literature wouldn’t be as much fun were it not drawn in simplistic, black-and-white dichotomies portraying an intelligent and reasonable ‘us’ against the ignorant and belligerently religious ‘them’. But acknowledging the reality and the authenticity of moderate, liberal and progressive forms of faith would make for a literature that would at least be accurate, realistic and honest. Philosophy only has integrity when it describes the world we actually live in. The New Atheists, unfortunately, are writing fantasy – as indeed pornography always is.

© Dr. John R. Mabry, 2010

Fr. John Mabry, OHW, is pastor of Grace North Church in Berkeley. He holds a doctorate in Philosophy and Religion and teaches theology at a number of San Francisco Bay Area schools. He is the Director of the Interfaith Spiritual Direction Certificate program at the Chaplaincy Institute for Arts and Interfaith Ministry in Berkeley, and Associate Director of the Master’s Program in Spiritual Guidance at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto.

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