I read with great interest the article in this month’s WIRED magazine about The New Atheism. It seems that a few prominent atheists are making an intellectual call-to-arms. Among them is Richard Dawkins, who has been a significant influence in my life via his books “The Selfish Gene,” “River out of Eden,” and “Unweaving the Rainbow.” However, my friend Pete from the U.K. seems to find him arrogant, and after reading this article, I’m starting to wonder about him myself.
The New Atheists are condemning religion, and also condemning anyone who does not condemn religion. Dawkins justifies his arguments by claiming that religion is bad for society–that it is contributing to our destruction. While there is certainly a lot of recent evidence to support his theory, I think he is wrong. To get a better explanation of his views, I encourage you to read the article. (It’s online in its entirety, and it’s free.)
While I am an agnostic, and take exception to people who call us “fence-sitters,” I believe that religion serves a very specific and necessary service in society. Pardon the aside, but allow me to explain.
Fact: We all have brains.
Fact: Not all brains are equal.
Fact: Our brains can formulate questions that our brains are not equipped to answer. (“Our reach exceeds our grasp.”)
How we resolve this dilemma will vary based upon several factors. Some people only have enough willpower or brain power to accept the answers that others feed them. Others, have a little more willpower and/or brain power, and come up with answers (theories, religions) and provide them to other people. Still others are able to question those answers, and accept or reject them on the basis of reason. Finally, a scant few are even able to question their programming from where these questions arise.
But the vast majority of people fall into the first group; they simply need answers. Without the backdrop of religion, and the peaceful contribution of its answers, I’m not sure the human race would fare very well, or even survive. Granted, the answers are patently false, but they keep a lid on the boiling pot of the human psyche, and keep us from killing each other.
In fact, one could argue that humans have survived because our brains created the “safety valve” of religion–a method to keep us from going nuts with far-reaching, unanswered questions. Enter God, stage left.
And these new strident atheists are also putting the cart before the horse. Their aims are, ostensibly, humanistic. Many religions have humanistic goals that can ride along peacefully with secular organizations with similar goals. Jesus said to feed the hungry, so most Christians are fine (and even donate to) secular organizations that feed the hungry. But this apparently wont sate Dawkins. So I am left wondering if his goal is a humanist world, or an atheist one.
Lastly, I don’t think Dawkins qualifies his culprits well enough. If religion were a city, the proverbial “bad neighborhood,” where all the crimes are being commited, would be the fundamentalist neighborhood. These are the people who believe in killing. These are the people who believe that Jesus is coming back, and therefore our stewardship of earthly resources is a non-issue. These are the people who take away the rights of others because they are “sinners.”
The article suggests, however, that the moderates within a given religion validate the extremists. To wit, all the peaceable non-violent Muslims are passively allowing the Al Sadr-type Muslims to practice violence as a form of religion. The New Athiests are concluding that it is therefore wrong to tolerate any religion at all. Perhaps they are trying to “dumb down” their theory for all of us burgeoning atheists, but it’s not too complicated for us to understand that it is wrong to use violence, and it is wrong for a member of a religion to tolerate others who commit violence in the name of their religion. I suggest that these atheists avoid sweeping generalizations, lest they become the fundamentalist branch of atheism.
Religion is fine. It is good, even, based on the purpose it serves. Fundamentalist religion, however, is bad. Dawkins should reframe his argument.