May 10, 2008

In response to my recent piece on science and religion, one of the commenters, GM, took me to task:  “you may want to consider and ask why atheists seem angry.  There’s no indication that you understand why.”  I have to confess, GM was right:  I do not understand why some atheists are so angry.

I have no trouble understanding that some people cannot give intellectual assent to faith, and I have long known atheists and agnostics.  But none of the atheists and agnostics I know are angry.  In fact, they respect the role Christianity played in creating our civilization and plays today in the lives of millions.  This attitude is unsurprising, since my nonbelieving friends are conservatives, and it is hardly possible for a conservative to hate the font of Western civilization.  Not so the “new atheists” such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and PZ Myers, and their followers, who are defined by a bitter, all-consuming hatred of Christianity.  We are a long way from the wistfulness of Dover Beach.

If anyone doubts the existence of this rage, I invite him to peruse the websites of Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers and such online forums as “Raving Atheists.”  Once there, he will find a universe of people who regularly prattle on about how smart they are and how stupid believers are—there is a move afoot for atheists to identify themselves as “brights,” and Dawkins modestly bills his website as a “clear-thinking oasis”—and who think it a telling point to compare belief in God to belief in “the Flying Spaghetti Monster.”   Not all the new atheists are equally angry—PZ Myers was taken aback when Christopher Hitchens called for the mass murder of Moslems at an atheist gathering—but none of them appears capable of approaching religion with equanimity.  Only a disfiguring rage could lead the angry atheists to brand Benedict XVI, a gentle lover of felines and Mozart, who has also written dozens of books, a “sanctimonious monster,” in Myers’ phrase, or a “completely undistinguished human being,” in Hitchens’ words.  This rage is directed at more than such unlikely targets as the Pope.  Indeed, Dawkins’ website is now hawking a video in which he and Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett expore the question of whether religion is the “root of all evil.”

What a strange focus of inquiry for the angry atheists, all of whom grew up in America and Britain, one a nation with no state church, and the other a nation whose religious establishment is famously mild.  I will admit, wondering whether religion is the “root of all evil” is not a question that naturally comes to mind when I Iisten to Christmas carols, or go to church and join with people who gather together out of a common love, or when I encounter any of the numerous examples of Christian charity that dot the American landscape.   I am not led to wonder whether religion is the “root of all evil” when I read what social scientists have found, such as University of Virginia psychology professor (and atheist) Jonathan Haidt, who writes on his website that religious believers are “happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people.”  (Hat tip to Russell Seitz for linking to Haidt on his blog).  I am not caused to wonder whether religion is the “root of all evil” when I consider the history of the past century, which saw the most murderous war in human history fought for purely secular reasons, atheist regimes murder at least 100,000,000 people, and the great evil of Soviet Communism overcome in large part because the visit of Pope John Paul II to his homeland helped inspire a then unknown electrician and his compatriots in their strike at the Gdansk shipyards, a strike that saw the workers decorate the gates to the shipyard with images of John Paul and Our Lady of Czestochowa and which ended when that electrician, Lech Walesa, signed the Gdansk agreement with an oversized souvenir pen bearing a picture of the Pope, a pen so large that anyone watching on television was bound to be reminded of the one institution that had stood up to Communism from its beginning.   I did not wonder whether religion was the “root of all evil” when I went to Europe last spring, and admired the great cathedral of Paris, marveled at the stained glass in Chartres, and was overwhelmed by the treasures of Italy, from the wonderful frescoes in Assisi, to the Caravaggio masterpieces lurking in a side altar in the neighborhood church five minutes from our hotel in Rome, to the glories of St. Peter’s and the apogee of Western art found in the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo vividly portrayed man’s origin on the ceiling and man’s destiny on the wall.

These are obvious points, but they do not trouble the new atheists, who are so removed from the way ordinary people experience religion, and so infatuated by the brilliance they detect in themselves, that they never seriously consider them.  (Those interested in a more detailed response to the new atheists might enjoy my review of Hitchens’ atheist manifesto).   GM informed me in the same post where he chided me for not understanding why atheists are so angry that “Dawkins and Myers…do not discount religion’s past role in culture a la Bach et al., both for good and ill.”  But they do try to discount Bach.  Both Hitchens and Dawkins claim that before Darwin, men had to believe in a creator, so it was possible for a genius like Bach to believe.  But this is an evasion.  Bach, who placed an invocation to God on each of his manuscripts—a practice also followed by Haydn—did not believe in an abstract, impersonal creator; he believed in the same God that the Christians so despised by the new atheists do today.  Belief that the universe was in some manner created does not entail belief in Christianity or in any religion, and Bach and his contemporaries knew this.  As Pascal, another genius on the level of Bach, wrote in the memorial of his own intense religious experience that he always kept with him, “Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars.” 

Indeed, even many years after Darwin, geniuses continue to be found among those whose belief would disqualify them from the fellowship of the “brights.”  To take just two examples, I suspect that Waugh and Tolkien will continue to be read and enjoyed long after the only place it will be possible to find a book by Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris will be the dusty backshelves of university libraries.

If anything, the constant need of the new atheists to belittle religious belief suggests a defensiveness, a need to reassure themselves that they are right.  Not to mention its obvious obtuseness.  Anyone wondering how an intelligent person could believe in “magical wafers” should wonder instead how anyone who has listened to this could ever refer to the Eucharist in such a manner, whether he believes in transubstantiation or not.  Anyone who thinks “the Flying Spaghetti Monster” is the equivalent of God might wonder instead why no one who believes in such nonsense has ever written anything like the St. Matthew Passion  

The new atheists would do well to ponder the wisdom of Charles Murray, who told Reason in an interview that “I’m not a believer, but I am also not nearly as confident as intellectuals were 50 or 60 years ago that I do know the truth.  I am much less willing to say, boy was Johann Sebastian Bach deluded [because he believed in God].”  And they might also ponder the words of Thomas Fleming, who wrote in his The Morality of Everyday Life that “After two thousand years the Christian religion, especially in its more traditional forms, is a vast treasury of philosophical and theological thought, poetry and art, ritual and custom.  Even if there were no God and Christ were no greater than Mohammed, Christianity would offer the possibility of a rich and passionate life undreamed of by the village atheists who join objectivist circles and sue schoolteachers who tell Bible stories in class.”  Or who go about making fools of themselves on the internet.




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