Best Believe: A Critique of "Disbelieving Disbelief", Part 1

Best Believe: A Critique of “Disbelieving Disbelief”, Part 1

In Chapter 1 of Disbelieving Disbelief, edited by Phillip Brown, Robert Martin provides a brief overview of the position of well-​​known atheists Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, identifying their principle objections to religion being that it is irrational, immoral, and obstructionist (one might add redundant). They are described as leaders of a “New Atheism”, which is repeatedly, and rather unfairly, described as being militant. This is a gross mischaracterisation, because militancy connotes the use of violence and actual combat, neither of which are characteristic of the four individuals in particular, nor the atheist movement in general. Atheists and secularists are not the ones flying planes into buildings and killing abortion clinic doctors.

Religious apologists wax indignant when criticised by atheists and secularists, though they shouldn’t find this criticism surprising. After all, it was Christ who said to his followers that they should expect to be mocked for their beliefs. The hypersensitivity displayed when this occurs is a sign of just how much they have had to concede, and increasingly is indicative of their wavering conviction. Even harmless questions and arguments are often construed as aggressive and strident. But that is all they are – harmless questions and arguments. Atheists don’t kill the religious for disagreeing with their atheism, but the same cannot be said of the religious treatment of atheists, either historically in the West, or even to this day in the Islamic world.

The only difference between the so-​​called “new” atheism and the old is that the religious can no longer get away with burning atheists alive. Without this deterrent, atheists are free to speak their minds, and we will not soon forget how the religious behaved when they were in charge and really believed they had God on their side.

Robert Martin is the director of the City Bible Forum in Melbourne. Below are written exchanges between him and I regarding my above thoughts of his first chapter in Disbelieving Disbelief.

Robert: Militant does not connote the use of violence. Militant can mean “vigorously active and aggressive, especially in support of a cause” and this is an apt description of the New Atheists.

Jonathan: The Oxford English Dictionary defines militant as, “Favouring confrontational or violent methods in support of a political or social cause”. The origin of the word in late Middle English is “engaged in warfare”, and in Latin is “serving as a soldier”. Even if this definition did not include violence, militancy still has connotations of violence judging by its common usage. I know of no other discourse in which people are referred to as militants without having carried out some form of violence or having been engaged in some form of combat.

This argument is a semantic one, but for as long as we are content to refer to suicide bombers as militant Islamists and those who murder abortion clinic doctors as militant Christians, it remains utterly unfair to label the likes of Richard Dawkins militant for his mere — albeit at times vehement — disagreement with the religious.

Robert: I am not indignant at atheist critiques of religion. I welcome intelligent, constructive criticism and argument. Yet I wish this was what the New Atheists offered, but I am constantly disappointed. I’d suggest that you re-​​read some of the aggressive, arrogant, diminishing, and insulting language used by New Atheists (some was evidenced in the book) to speak about the religious.

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I followed Martin’s suggestion and re-​​read the evidence he provided in the book. What follows is a breakdown and summary of citations for Harris, Hitchens, Dennett and Dawkins. Citations are numbered as they appear in Chapter 1 of the book.

Harris is cited 24 times:

He emphasises the value of science and rationality as an intellectually valid and honest means of understanding the universe (9, 10, 76); argues that faith (as a process of reasoning) is not only unjustified (11), but dangerous (50); states that all religions are guilty of preaching truths without evidence (15), and that due to competing religious certainties religion is a potent source of violence that hinders the progress of civilisation (20, 48); provides religious opposition to stem cell research as an example of how religious beliefs hinder progress (35); is cited as having started writing The End of Faith a day after 9/​11, which is used as an example of religiously inspired violence (23, 24); highlights how religion suppresses sexual expression (39, 41, 42), and how many suffer due to opposition to condom use (43); advocates secularism (55); is critical of Jesus (29), and religious texts (not religious adherents) (69); discusses the need to counter the intellectual and moral pretensions of religion and faith (72, 73, 74); dissociates the actions of tyrants who happen to be atheist with their atheism (59); finally, Harris is chastised by Martin for what he views as his simplistic presentation of the problem of evil (though we are not told how it could have been improved) (78), and labeled as a “quasi-​​scientist” despite holding a PhD in neuroscience (77).

Most of the citations of Harris represent him voicing mere statements of fact. Anyone who doesn’t believe religions are guilty of preaching truths without evidence, or that religion is a potent source of violence, is invited to read any newspaper on any day of the week. Even people who take issue with these arguments would be hard-​​pressed to call these mere observations arrogant or diminishing. People who take such statements to be insulting should learn to distinguish between criticism of religions, specific religious authorities, and religious believers generally, and consider the possibility that they are being hypersensitive.

Hitchens is cited 23 times:

Hitchens echoes Harris’ assertion that religions promulgate falsehoods (16), are sources of immoral behaviour (33), and that they should be opposed for this reason (75); he also attests to the value of science (19, 77); comments on non-​​overlapping magisteria (80); is critical of the Old Testament and the totalitarian nature of the God represented therein (25, 26); comments on how religion has hindered medical progress (34), and progress generally, but is now less able to do so than it has been historically (36); he also comments on religious suppression of sexual repression (40); argues that religious indoctrination is child abuse (45); that faith impedes free inquiry (46); advocates secular ethics (56), and a new enlightenment (63); comments on the resemblance between the totalitarian and religion (61, 62); refers to intelligent design proponents (not religious adherents generally) as “boobies” (66), and derides Augustine (again not religious adherents generally) (67); finally, Hitchens is cited four times as part of Martin’s criticism of his scholarly ability (86, 94, 95, 96).

Nothing Hitchens is cited as saying could be taken to be diminishing or insulting about religious believers (only intelligent design proponents, of whom most happen to be religious). Rather, his statements refer to scripture, the character of God, religion itself and its impact on society and progress.

Dennett is cited 10 times:

He explains the epistemological superiority of the scientific method in advancing knowledge (6, 8); describes religious beliefs and practices as natural phenomenon that can be studied scientifically (18); is cited quoting Steven Weinberg (22); suggests that most would be uncomfortable living by the standards set in the Old Testament (28); advocates the tolerance of religion (53), but defends the discarding of “diplomatic reticence towards religion” (1); is praised by Martin for what is seen as his less confrontational approach (65); considers reason and an understanding of evolution liberating (71); and finally is chastised by Martin for focusing on the philosophical, rather than historical validity of the New Testament (81), though one wonders why Martin expected anything different from a philosopher?

Nothing here could be fairly deemed even remotely aggressive, arrogant, diminishing, or insulting.

Dawkins is cited 29 times:

He explains the value of evidence (7); argues that faith (as a process of reasoning) is not good (12, 13), that the scientific method is, but that religion stifles the scientific thinking (44); describes religious beliefs and practices as a natural phenomenon that can be studied scientifically (18); calls religious beliefs (not religious adherents) “super dumb” (17); is vociferously critical of God (27, 70), Jesus (30, 31), and doctrine (32) (again not religious adherents); describes the nature of religious morality (38), and refers to 9/​11 as an example of the impact religion can have on an individual’s morality (23); highlights religious treatment of homosexuals (39); how religious indoctrination is a violation of the rights of children (45); cites opposition to stem cell research and the Amish as examples of religion’s impact on society (35, 47); states that the crux of all intelligent design proponents is the God of the gaps argument (37); argues that religious moderates unwittingly shield religious extremists (49), that evil is not done in the name of atheism (58), and that Stalin is an example of an atheist who did terrible things but didn’t do them in the name of atheism or because he was atheist (60); refers to the ontological argument (not the people who use it) as “infantile” (68); and six times is cited for the sole purpose of his scholarly ability being criticised by Martin (84, 85, 87, 90, 91, 92).

The only instance Dawkins is cited in which he could be taken to have said something diminishing or insulting about religious adherents, rather than merely about religion itself, the character of God, the arguments for God’s existence, or the nature of religion and its impact on society, is when he refers to an individual who murdered an abortion clinic doctor as “dangerously religious” (21). It is understandable that people who identify as religious might be offended that religion is blamed for such atrocities. However, the fact of the matter is that the extremists are the ones who have scripture, and often the clerical institutions on their side, not the moderates. This sobering fact is discussed more in the reply immediately below.

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Robert: These are not “harmless questions” but often gross caricatures presenting (as you have) the extremes, e.g. murdering abortion doctors, as the norm.

Jonathan: Does not a book that labels New Atheists as arrogant, impudent, confrontational, and incredulously even as militant, present a gross caricature? There is an element of hypocrisy here that cannot go unnoticed.

It is in fact not a caricature at all (let alone a gross one) to present religious extremists as religious extremists. It would only be a caricature if all religious people were presented as extreme — they are not. That religious apologists should infer this from the statements of prominent atheists says more about what they think than what atheists do.

In fact, the argument put by well-​​known atheists, notably by Sam Harris, is that although religious extremists are not the majority of religious believers, that religious moderates and apologists shield extremists by making it taboo to criticise religion, and by defending religious texts (or portions thereof) that to the unbiased reader are patently evil. In other words, just because the majority of people who identify as religious are not extremists doesn’t mean religion is off the hook, or that criticism of it is any less valid. The argument that this should be the case is the centre versus the fringe argument. It is detailed below by Allister McGrath and responded to by Christopher Hitchens:

Invariably when talking to religious believers, whether members of the cloth or not, many seem to think that their specific interpretations or beliefs are representative of their religion, and rather arrogantly describe disagreeable interpretations of others as misguided at best and heretical at worst. It is a case of individuals attempting, though failing mightily, at reconciling their individualism with the inherent conformity of religious denominationalism. Therein lies the heart of the problem. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw: rarely does one believe religious texts or authorities mean what they say, instead one is convinced that they say what one means.

In the midst of countless varying interpretations given by different religious believers, we atheists must judge religions by their foundational and canonical texts, and statements made by their religious authorities, whilst assuming that religious authorities (supported by association of religious believers) are generally representative of the views of their congregations. We judge individual believers too, something only possible when their behaviour or beliefs are made known, but not for one moment is it assumed that all religious people think the same.

Many people who identify as religious simply aren’t. One could go so far as to say religious moderates are merely a mirage, and that no one who is truly moderate is ever really religious, they only wrongly identify as such. This is because monotheism demands an absolutism that is irreconcilable with moderation, and is dogmatic, divisive, and totalitarian by nature, irrespective of whether individual believers are or not.

Religious moderation is a mirage because we see in it that which we desperately want to, but which simply does not exist. We see a blissful oasis of spiritual enlightenment, an answer to our vain hope that that there is life after death, and the assurance that we won’t die alone in a metaphorical desert.

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Robert: In terms of atheists not killing the religious for disagreeing, I’d suggest you do some original research into Stalin and the gulag, for I think you’ll find there a violent atheistic regime intent on exterminating religion.

Jonathan: I wrote, “atheists don’t kill the religious for disagreeing with their atheism”. Clearly those who do not believe in God are not immune to immoral undertakings, but it is ludicrous to suggest that Stalin’s concern was with people who believed in God, rather than the procurement of the vast wealth religion possessed and the silencing of his critics. Anyone who doubts that Stalin’s true motivation was not his atheism but his ideological commitment to communism need only look at the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church he permitted during WWII when it was politically convenient, or his support of Uyghur Muslim Communists, supplying them with weaponry and the might of the Red Army in their rebellion, and helping them to establish the short-​​lived Second East Turkestan Republic, an Islamic state.

Christopher Hitchens often highlighted the resemblance of Stalinism — indeed of all totalitarian regimes — to religion:

Whilst Hitchens makes some interesting points, they appear superfluous in light of the fact this matter is reducible to the problem of correlation versus causation, and the failure of religious apologists to recognize that just because certain dictators were atheist does not mean their behavior was a result of their atheism. There exists no causal link between not believing in God and carrying out atrocities. Such a link could only exist if the argument from morality was true, and a lack of religious belief resulted in depravity, but it doesn’t.

Disbelieving Disbelief is available for purchase from Mosaic Resources.