Friday, April 06, 2007

As I've said before

on more than one ocassion: Sam Harris is nuts. I don't think much of Richard Dawkins, either. And given what day it is, I certainly agree with E.J. Dionne:

As for me, Christianity is more a call to rebellion than an insistence on narrow conformity, more a challenge than a set of certainties.

In " The Last Week," their book about Christ's final days on Earth, Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, distinguished liberal scriptural scholars, write: "He attracted a following and took his movement to Jerusalem at the season of Passover. There he challenged the authorities with public acts and public debates. All this was his passion, what he was passionate about: God and the Kingdom of God, God and God's passion for justice. Jesus' passion got him killed."

That's why I celebrate Easter and why, despite many questions of my own, I can't join the neo-atheists.
All of this, for some reason, annoys Atrios, who drags into the conversation a poor man's (well, I guess Rick Warren is hardly a poor man) version of Pascal's wager. Fair enough. But you can see from this why Warren's version is as easily knocked down as Atrios says it is:

“Pascal's Wager” is the name given to an argument due to Blaise Pascal for believing, or for at least taking steps to believe, in God. The name is somewhat misleading, for in a single paragraph of his Pensées, Pascal apparently presents at least three such arguments, each of which might be called a ‘wager’ — it is only the final of these that is traditionally referred to as "Pascal's Wager". We find in it the extraordinary confluence of several important strands of thought: the justification of theism; probability theory and decision theory, used here for almost the first time in history; pragmatism; voluntarism (the thesis that belief is a matter of the will); and the use of the concept of infinity.
Does all of this mean Atrios is wrong? No. It's just a little surprising he takes such umbrage at something he says he really doesn't care about.

And whether he does, or not, is no business of mine. I rise only to point out that the fundamental problem with Dawkins and Harris, whom Dionne dubs "neo-atheists" (although Madalyn Murray O'Hair was never an icon of tolerance when she was alive), is their intolerance. Atrios seems to think that's okay, because people like Warren, as evidenced by his feeble version of Pascal's rather interesting argument, are equally intolerant. Two wrongs, somehow, make a right. Or at least balance the scales. Or something. Maybe it's matter requires anti-matter, or that each action must provoke an equal and opposite reaction.

But in any case, my problem with the neo-atheists is not what they believe, or refuse to believe, or even that they are intolerant in their beliefs. Certainly fundamentalists are just as intolerant, and Warren's rather screwy soteriology ("He's betting his life that he's right. I'm betting my life that Jesus was not a liar.") is as poorly reasoned as Harris' assertion that: "certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one." Aye, as the Bard said, there's the rub: neither extreme in this argument, makes any sense. It is true that

the proselytizing of Harris, even in the mean scary quotes Dionne provides, is at its most strident rather meek and mild compared to the equivalent proselytizing from believers which is a steady drumbeat in our mainstream discourse.
But I'm not sure Dionne is trying to say Harris should shut up so Warren can be heard. Indeed, Dionne expressly welcomes the challenge of Harris:

As a general proposition, I welcome the neo-atheists' challenge. The most serious believers, understanding that they need to ask themselves searching questions, have always engaged in dialogue with atheists.
On this, Dionne is right; it's called Christian apologetics, and it is, frankly, at the heart of all Christian theology. It's the reason Christian doctrine developed along the lines of Greek, not Hebraic, thought. It's the reason we have the Christianity we do today, from Rick Warren on one end, to Dom Crossan and Marcus Borg (and your humble host) on the other. Does the fundamentalist line dominate "our mainstream discourse"? Of course; because it's simple, simplistic, and easily sold. Does that negate all the work of Dorothy Day or Thomas Merton or the Jesus Seminar or Catholic Relief or food pantries run by coalitions of local churches, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, etc., etc., etc.?

I don't think so. I think we focus too much, too often, especially in blogs, on what we perceive to be "the mainstream discourse," as if real people really lived there. Just the other day Atrios noted that 20% of the people were interested in the Justice Department attorney scandal, which sounds like a small number; except 20% paid attention to the OJ trial, to the impeachment of Clinton, to Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction." Is 20% a large number, or not? If only 20% of American churches are operating food pantries and other aid to the poor, is that "mainstream," or not? I only ask because blogs were once famous for being so concerned about the absolute accuracy of facts, and I'm beginning to wonder when we can declare we know what "mainstream America" is thinking and talking about, when we also deride the media for not talking about what "mainstream America" is thinking and talking about.

Is religion simply what shows up on TV or on the bestseller lists or in the headlines? Or is it how people live their daily lives? Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are bestselling authors, but I know few people who would recognize either name, or could name any of their books. Are all my friends out of the mainstream? Are they really missing anything?

Dionne is entitled to his opinion, Atrios to his. My two cents? Tempest in a teapot, and my problem with "neo-atheism" is that it disgraces the valid critiques of religion that have existed for millenia. It is poorly reasoned, poorly argued trash, parading itself as new and searing insight. Rubbish. I have more respect for Bertrand Russell than I do for Sam Harris, and far more respect for Thomas Huxley than for Richard Dawkins.

But maybe that's just me.

No comments:

Post a Comment