Wednesday, April 26, 2006

[random][politics] "Trying to Understand Angry Atheists"

Ah, yes - the "angry atheist" trope. Rabbi Marc Gellman's Newsweek article above, subtitled "Why do nonbelievers seem to be threatened by the idea of God?", can really only be addressed by turning it all around: Why are believers threatened by the lack of God? Let's look at the article in depth, shall we? It starts off well enough:
I think I need to understand atheists better. I bear them no ill will. I don't think they need to be religious to be good, kind and charitable people, and I have no desire to debate or convert them. I do think they are wrong about the biggest question, “Are we alone?” and I will admit to occasionally viewing atheists with the kind of patient sympathy often shown to me by Christians who can't quite understand why the Good News of Jesus' death and resurrection has not reached me or my people.
Okay - all well and good so far.
However, there is something I am missing about atheists: what I simply do not understand is why they are often so angry.
Huhn? And the proof here is...? A sweeping generalization; this really doesn't bode well.
So we disagree about God. I'm sometimes at odds with Yankee fans, people who like rap music and people who don't like animals, but I try to be civil. I don't know many religious folk who wake up thinking of new ways to aggravate atheists, but many people who do not believe in God seem to find the religion of their neighbors terribly offensive or oppressive, particularly if the folks next door are evangelical Christians. I just don't get it.
That sentence in the middle there really gives me pause: "I don't know many religious folk who wake up thinking of new ways to aggravate atheists, but many people who do not believe in God seem to find the religion of their neighbors terribly offensive or oppressive, particularly if the folks next door are evangelical Christians." With the rare exception, atheists aren't the ones trying to force their religious views into law, rabbi. And evangelical Christians are, to my knowledge, the single group most likely to be trying to force a theocratic world view on my society. By extension, this includes me, does it not? That's offensive to me. It's also oppressive. I don't want to live in a theocracy - our rules are goofy enough without explicitly dragging supersition into the mix. And, well... I tend to get a bit touchy when others try to oppress me. If that's anger, then so be it. Personally, I think I'd be being a bad citizen if I rolled over and meekly let such things be done in the name of superstition, but hey! To-mah-to, to-may-to, right? But I gotta say - this isn't looking like a promising bit of writing, Rabbi Gellman.
This must sound condescending and a large generalization, and I don't mean it that way, but I am tempted to believe that behind atheist anger there are oftentimes uncomfortable personal histories.
Yup. Condescending and a huge generalization. Nope, less and less promising by the sentence; nay, by the clause.
Perhaps their atheism was the result of the tragic death of a loved one, or an angry degrading sermon, or an insensitive eulogy, or an unfeeling castigation of lifestyle choices or perhaps something even worse. I would ask for forgiveness from the angry atheists who write to me if I thought it would help.
Woah. Stop the presses. Why are conversion narratives somehow more valid if they're about someone 'finding God'? How many people who profess to be 'born again' have done so because of tremendous personal pain? Isn't that one of the favorite tropes of Christians, for instance? "I was lost but now I'm found" and all that? Why is that the only valid experience, Rabbi? If that sort of hurt requires forgiveness on your part, shouldn't you also be forgiving those who've found a theistic philosophy by which to live? After all, you haven't done anything to hurt them, either.
Religion must remain an audacious, daring and, yes, uncomfortable assault on our desires to do what we want when we want to do it. All religions must teach a way to discipline our animal urges, to overcome racism and materialism, selfishness and arrogance and the sinful oppression of the most vulnerable and the most innocent among us. Some religious leaders obviously betray the teachings of the faith they claim to represent, but their sacred scriptures remain a critique of them and also of every thing we do to betray the better angels of our nature. But our world is better and kinder and more hopeful because of the daily sacrifice and witness of millions of pious people over thousands of years.
Where does it say that atheism does none of those things, Rabbi Gellman? Is not atheism 'an audacious and uncomfortable assault'? Oh, that's right - it's an assault on your theism, it calls into question your beliefs and the necessity thereof. I don't need what I see as an overbearing and intrusive fairy tale personified to tell me not to hurt others. Hurting others is wrong. Why? Because no one likes to be hurt. I don't like it when I'm hurt, so I can reasonably assume that others don't like it either. Where is the need for religion to reach that conclusion? Where does it say that atheists don't participate in making the world kinder and better? Come to think of it, where does it say that one is required to adhere to some kind of theistic belief to be a 'good, kind, and charitiable person'? You yourself admitted that no such condition exists in your third sentence, first paragraph. Which condition is it, Rabbi? If both are true, then why is one condition superior to the other?
To be called to a level of goodness and sacrifice so constantly and so patiently by a loving but demanding God may seem like a naive demand to achieve what is only a remote human possibility. However, such a vision need not be seen as a red flag to those who believe nothing.
No red flags here, Rabbi. If you want to believe in YHVH, so be it. That's fine by me. But again I'm struck by your phrasing - why is it somehow more elevated, more pure, to try and be a good person through mythology than through atheism?
I can humbly ask whether my atheist brothers and sisters really believe that their lives are better, richer and more hopeful by clinging to Camus's existential despair: “The purpose of life is that it ends."
What despair, Rabbi? Perhaps it is such mischaracterizations of atheism that make us, well, a little peevish. How is my life necessarily enriched by believing in folk tales, however well-established they might be? Does believing in a Supreme Other really add that much to your life, Rabbi? Do you really need that Other to see the world as a wonderful and worthwhile place? To me that sounds empty. Crippled. Fearful. Selfish, even: I want more! I want more! There must be more! What if there is no more, Rabbi? What if this is all that there is? You find that reason to despair? Why? What would you be missing? Really and truly, what would you be missing? I can live my life fully, and to the greater good of humanity without once ever needing to grab onto theistic supersition.
I can agree to make peace with atheists whom I believe ask too little of life here on planet earth if they will agree to make peace with me and with other religious folk who perhaps have asked too much. I believe that the philosopher-rabbi Mordecai Kaplan was right when he said, “It is hell to live without hope, and religion saves people from hell.” I urge my atheist brothers and sisters to see things as Spinoza urged, sub specie aeternitatis—“under the perspective of eternity.”
See, I can't make peace with those who ask too much - if that asking too much involves forcing me to submit to a belief system to which I do not subscribe. Merely possessing a theistic belief structure and expressing it publicly are not asking too much. Asking others to be better people, to, in the words of Bill and Ted, "Be most excellent unto each other", is not asking too much. Requiring me to deny my own conscience is. Religion may save people from the hell of hopelessness - but why do they possess that sense of hopelessness in the first place? Might not those very causes of hopelessness be addressed without resorting to theism? Inequity, oppression, injustice, bigotry - why is theism required to combat these? In many cases, theism contributes quite happily to these. Theism is not the only solution - some might say that it has a longer track record of demonstrating that it can't be a solution.
And to try a little positivity. Last Sunday I took two high-school girls to Cold Spring Labs to meet Dr. James Watson. One of the girls wants to be a research scientist, and the other has no idea yet, but I think she will be a great writer. I think they also both want boyfriends. I want them to stay smart and not dumb down to get a boy. Watson spoke and listened to the girls, and they left, I hope, proud about being smart. I know that Jim believes way more in Darwin than in Deuteronomy, but he also believes that at Cold Spring Labs the most important thing is not whether you are a man or a woman, not whether you believe in God. The most important thing, as he says, is “to get something done.” Now there's an atheist I can believe in.
Condescending again: where does it say that atheists are negative? The attitude expressed by Dr. Watson is my own - "by their works ye shall know them", isn't it? Well, my daily works contribute as much to society's betterment as any theists. And being continuously condescended to in such a way, continuously discounted, tends to make one angry, Rabbi. I'm not angry with theists - I'm angry with theism, particularly with any flavor of theism that demands my subjugation. I'm angry with the enshrinement and institutionalization of theism. And I won't apologize for that anger. I will apologize for some things, though. For instance, I'm sorry that you're so insecure in your own faith that my expression of my own deeply-held beliefs makes you uncomfortable. I'm sorry that you can't see how most atheists follow the same path as Dr. Watson. And I'm sorry that your inability to see these truths - a spiritual colorblindness, if you will - requires you to put me down. I'm not about to stop being who I am. If you can't see that as anything but anger, well... I might even be a little sorry for that too. Not because I'm wrong, or unsure of my own choices, my own life. No, I'm sorry that you've stunted yourself. But that seems to be something that your own version of theism demands.

8 Comments:

Blogger Simon said...

He's right - we've nothing to get angry about. I mean, it's not as if the guy running the country talks to his imaginary friend and openly boasts about it...

4/27/2006 04:34:00 AM  
Blogger protected static said...

Exactly - why should anyone get angry about that? ;-)

4/27/2006 06:25:00 AM  
Blogger XaurreauX said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4/27/2006 09:32:00 AM  
Blogger protected static said...

Hey, it's the Internet... These things happen.

4/27/2006 09:49:00 AM  
Blogger XaurreauX said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4/27/2006 11:23:00 AM  
Blogger XaurreauX said...

[This is a repost. In my original, I misspelled Rabbi Gellman's name. Additional changes/corrections were made.]

Rabbi Gellman plays a very skllfull game of condescension while claiming to do the opposite. It's not that he doesn't "get" atheists. What he "gets" is an astute understanding of his intended audience's fear, pedestrian sentimentality, prejudice and willfull ignorance. He builds strawmen to man the counter at a fish market selling red herrings.

His remark implying that atheists see a red flag at the idea that "[T]o be called to a level of goodness and sacrifice so constantly and so patiently by a loving, but demanding God" is deliberately intended to evoke in his audience the feeling that atheists are offended by compassion and sacrifice itself. Rabbi Gellman is well aware that his "fans" will lap up this two-dimensional confection like a puppy going after a dropped ice cream cone.

At the end of the article he skillfully provides an account of a meeting with Dr. James Watson. By this facile "the exception proves the rule" example he no doubt assumes he will simultaneously emphasize his point and show fairness and sensitivity to "good" atheists. Would that Joshua had had that same sensitivity when, according to the Rabbi's mythbook, pregnant Canaanite women were were gutted and young girls were taken as sex slaves by maurading Israelite soldiers. [Attention theists: this is the spot where the "out of context" excuse may be inserted.] If you look up, you will see ontological parachutes billowing as Judeo-Christian apologists bail out.

No anti-atheist diatribe masquerading as a desire to understand atheists would be complete, of course, without a facile reference to atheists' purported "uncomfortable personal histories." Clearly, if we were healthy, happy, caring and cared for people we atheists would have the sensitivity and the clarity to reach a level of enlightnement only available in a universe created and run by a paranoid, schizophrenic, sexist homophobe. And the moral decency to recognize it as love! We certainly wouldn't need to nitpick world views that embrace absolutism followed by excuses as Reality unfolds, indifferent to interpretation.

Using the tired "angry atheist" copout is merely another version of the tune those theists who are threatened by atheists whistle as they pass the graveyard.

4/27/2006 11:44:00 AM  
Blogger Brian Dunbar said...

I seem to the lone theist here.

I think the angry atheist vs the angry theist bit is blow out of proportion. We're talking about noisy guys on the fringe whose voice is magnified all out of proportion by the powers of the mighty interweb.

A pox on both their houses.

5/03/2006 02:48:00 PM  
Blogger protected static said...

I seem to the lone theist here.

Only today - remember the VB6 guy a couple of days ago? ;-)

I got a lot of hits on this piece because Newsweek uses technorati to track links to their stories. As they say in the financial services industry, "These results may not be typical."

5/03/2006 03:30:00 PM  

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