Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Actually, we DO have something in common with fundamentalists.

(Originally posted by Pat on 7/13/10)

It's a disturbingly common accusation, made by accomodationist atheists and moderate religionists alike, that affirmative atheists (or New Atheists, as we are known, though all must agree we are nothing new) are “just like fundamentalists” in some way. This is generally taken as a wholesale refutation of everything we are saying, which is at best a hasty generalization and at worst guilt by association.
The usual response is to point out all the ways we are not like fundamentalists—we are open to rational persuasion, we value scientific discovery, we support free inquiry, and so on—and this is worth saying, since in all these respects we are clearly better than fundamentalists.
But in fact I think we do share something in common with fundamentalists, something beyond what we share with everyone else. (Obviously we are all human, we all feel joy and suffering, we all have biological and emotional needs, et cetera. We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.) There really is something about affirmative atheism that is closely akin to religion fundamentalism, something that probably frightens accomodationists and moderates.

This is the fact that we actually believe what we are saying.
For Richard Dawkins and Pat Robertson alike, truth matters. Sentences like “God exists”, “God hates fags” and “Jesus loves you” aren't mere formalities of speech. They are real claims of fact, claims about the way the world works and the way human beings ought to live.
Now, religious moderates would surely deny the claim that they don't believe what they say, but that is because they have what Daniel Dennett calls “belief in belief”. They will insist that they really do think that a Roman Jew was born of a virgin, not because they really think this plausible, but because they have assigned social and emotional value to the affirmation. For an Irish Catholic to deny that the Son of God presents himself in wheat products is for that same Irish Catholic to deny their family, their heritage, their culture, their fatherland. To ask them to agree that this is a wildly implausible epistemic claim is (at least in their mind) equivalent to asking a US Marine to spit upon an American flag.
But the truth is, if they really did believe these things, they would live in a radically different way than they do. If you really think that people who do not accept Jesus will burn forever, you can't possibly believe that it is “rude” or “arrogant” to proselytize belief in Jesus. On the contrary, you must think proselytizing an obligation, a duty, the bare minimum of what a decent human being would do. You should indeed agree that one could, perhaps even should, do much more radical things if there is a good chance it will gain converts. You should be impressed at the heroism of people who baptize infants and then kill them, people who torture nonbelievers until they convert, people who immolate themselves as an act of martyrdom. For if Hell is real, these acts are not merely rational—they are noble; they are heroic. They pay a finite cost to oneself for an infinite benefit to others.
And if, like all reasonable human beings, you are appalled by this sort of action, it can only be because you realize, at least on some level, that religion is false. You can only be appalled by smashing the skulls of newly-baptized babies if you don't really believe that those babies will be sent to Heaven. You can only cry at a funeral if you recognize that “They are in a better place now” is a lie.
I wish I knew how to explain to people that their “belief in belief” is harmful. I wish I knew how to convince them that changing your mind in the face of new evidence is not spitting upon your heritage as an Irish Catholic or a Sunni Muslim, but on the contrary it is embracing your much deeper heritage as a rational being. It is to throw away a narrow, petty notion of identity (as Americans, as Christians, as men, as Whites) and replace it with a deep, fundamental truth of identity (as life forms, as sentients, as rational beings, as moral agents). To abandon religion in favor of science is not to throw away your connection to your family, but rather to recognize that your family in the true sense extends not only to some tiny geneline, nation or sect, but indeed to all life on Earth and all energy in the universe.
But religion matters; it's important. I remember an accomodationist atheist telling me once, “God just isn't relevant to my life”. I have thought about it ever since; I honestly don't know what that means. How can God not be relevant to your life? How can you not care how the universe is run? If you think you are going to be rewarded or punished eternally for what you do, how can that not affect what you choose to do? It would be like having a gun pointed at your head and saying, “Shoot me if you like; bullets are not relevant to my life”. It would be like learning that the brakes on your car are broken and climbing into the car anyway, saying, “Brakes just aren't relevant to my life”.
Now, there is a sense in which God isn't relevant to my life—but that is the sense in which I am quite certain God doesn't exist. Unicorns are not relevant to my life, because there are no unicorns. Alien invaders are not relevant to my life, because there are no alien invaders. But if there were alien invaders, that would be something worth knowing! If there were a God, that could not fail to affect my life! It's not even like aliens or unicorns, which (one imagines) could be hiding in the shadows, watching us quietly, keeping to themselves, never interacting with us. God, if he is who everyone seems to think he is, must be the master executive of the universe itself, the one who controls the laws of nature and shapes them to his will. He must be someone who oversees, someone who rewards and punishes human deeds. And that sort of being could not fail to be relevant to our lives! Moreover, the idea of God—the question of whether there is, in fact, such a being—cannot fail to be relevant. One can no more afford to be agnostic about Heaven and Hell than one can afford to be agnostic about bullets and brake fluid.
It is we affirmative atheists who recognize this, and state it openly. We are the ones who realize that religion makes claims about reality, very important claims that ought to be considered, examined, tested. We realize, unlike the accomodationists and the moderates, that we aren't just throwing around words, we aren't just making empty statements of cultural affiliation. It's not all a game, in which there are Red Sox fans and Yankees fans—it's the real world, in which either Muslims will be rewarded in heaven, Christians will be rewarded in heaven, or neither will be. Fundamentalists realize this too, which is why they are so dedicated to their beliefs.
So, yes, there is something that Richard Dawkins and Pat Robertson have in common. It is conviction. It is honesty. Though they disagree on almost everything else, they do agree on one thing. They agree that the truth matters, that one's beliefs should comport with the facts; they agree that when one speaks, it should not be in empty formalities but in honest statements of sincerely-believed propositions.

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