24 November 2014

'Anti-theists' and atheists who don't give a damn

Reza Aslan's fifteen-minute fame meter started when he lucked into an interview with an idiot reporter on Fox News. After the reporter repeatedly and cluelessly questioned Aslan's motives, and implicitly his right as a Muslim, to write a book about Jesus, that book became a best-seller. If the controversy over Zealot put Aslan in implicit antagonism with reactionary Christians, he's moved on now to take on another popular target: the so-called militant (or "New") atheists represented on the best-seller lists by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens. Aslan has arrived late to this fight, which pits the militants not just against the believers but also against some atheists who resent their zealotry. Writing for Salon, Aslan suggests alternate labels for two types of atheist. Reserving "atheist" itself for those folks who happen not to believe in gods and leave it at that, he does away with vague adjectives in favor of dubbing Dawkins and Harris "anti-theists," distinguished by an open hostility toward religion that some mere atheists may lack. This novelty aside, Aslan's argument against the anti-theists is familiar stuff: they're absolutist, intolerant, the mirror image of those fundamentalists they most despise, etc.  In Aslan's own words:

Like religious fundamentalism, New Atheism is primarily a reactionary phenomenon, one that responds to religion with the same venomous ire with which religious fundamentalists respond to atheism. What one finds in the writings of anti-theist ideologues like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens is the same sense of utter certainty, the same claim to a monopoly on truth, the same close-mindedness that views one’s own position as unequivocally good and one’s opponent’s views as not just wrong but irrational and even stupid, the same intolerance for alternative explanations, the same rabid adherents (as anyone who has dared criticize Dawkins or Harris on social media can attest), and, most shockingly, the same proselytizing fervor that one sees in any fundamentalist community [hyperlinks in original].

The writer dismisses the anti-theism he's just defined as "rooted in a naive and, dare I say, unscientific understanding of religion – one thoroughly disconnected from the history of religious thought," though he notes with liberal care in advance that there's nothing wrong with people feeling this way. Aslan prefers, obviously, those atheists who simply opt out of faith, presumably without casting aspersions on the remaining faithful. The crucial difference, it seems is that the mere atheist thinks that religion is wrong in a more-or-less value-free way, but doesn't consider his opinion binding on anyone else, while the anti-theist thinks that religion is bad. An atheist just happens not to eat meat, for the sake of analogy, while an anti-theist is a self-conscious vegan and PETA member and sometimes annoying in his advocacy. The one decides that meat (or religion) is not good for him; the other concludes that it is not good, period.

I wondered for a while whether we needed this new (or newish) label. Whatever happened to anticlericalism, after all? That was the past's word for open hostility toward religion, but after thinking it over I decided it doesn't quite fit our present-day antagonism. As the word implies, anticlericalism is above all hostility toward a priesthood, while Aslan's anti-theism really indicts all believers, the rabble perhaps more so than their leaders in our democratic age. Anticlericalism arguably resented the power or wealth rather than the beliefs of a priesthood, while anti-theists presumably recognize belief as the source of priestcraft's power and wealth and directs its attack accordingly. 

I don't consider myself a militant atheist but I find the atheism preferred by Aslan a rather milquetoast thing. For him, atheism should be no more than a consumer choice: if the preacher's pitch doesn't work for me, that doesn't mean it shouldn't work for anyone. Is it possible, however, to feel that way about religion? Can you reject the appeal of faith without feeling that it's a lie or a con? The answer is yes if only because I've read some high-profile intellectual atheists who take that stance. Longtime readers may recall John Gray's harsh criticisms of the New Militants, many of which are echoed by Aslan. Gray is an atheist himself but has argued that people -- most of them --  need myths of some sort in order to cope with an otherwise meaningless world. He counts the idea of progress itself as such a myth, and it may be true that in order to accomplish or even try some important things we have to believe in things, like our own success, that we can't prove. Faith in something is necessary to culture and society, arguably, but I don't know if religious faith is that kind of faith, and I'm less convinced than some are that religion has to be accepted as such a faith. I don't argue that religion must be destroyed, or at the least I don't assume that destroying it is any shortcut to a better world. But I like to believe that I rejected religion not just because it's wrong for me, but also because it's wrong in a way that others can and perhaps should recognize for their own sakes. Religion too often is a lie or con for us to agree for civility's sake not to mention the fact. If that makes an atheist uncivil or demotes him to the anti-theist ranks in Reza Aslan's eyes, then let's recall that many of us find religious proselytizing quite uncivil. If one must be tolerated, so must the other, and so must their mutual criticism. If I can tolerate preachers promising hellfire for the likes of me, then believers ought to be able to stand the rhetoric of atheists or anti-theists without whining the way Aslan does. His outraged tone is disproportionate to our moment in history. Call me, Mr. Aslan, when Richard Dawkins starts chopping off heads.


Anonymous said...

I'd go one further and, rather than call it "anti-theist", call it "anti-lie". Since the main problem with religion - all religion - is that it is based on a lie. That there is some overwhelmingly powerful magic sky fairy that will eternally reward those who (unwittingly) chose the correct form of fear and worship and eternally punish those who didn't.

This lie has been used to commit many and varied amoral acts (predations one might say) by man against man with the justification "god commanded me to do it."

According to religionists, god made man in his image. God hides and has always hidden himself from man. From the "biblical" point of view, god deceives man, for instance, by creating fossils and rocks that would indicate the earth is far older than 6000 years. For what purpose? Doesn't that same bible insist that god's enemy, Satan, is the deceiver? From a certain perspective, it could be argued that god must be Satan. And who, in their right mind, would worship and obey the epitome of evil?

Samuel Wilson said...

This sounds more like "anti-Abrahamic" than anti-anything else, at least once we get to the last paragraph. Still, it does seem that the "anti-theists" are those who can't see religion as other than a lie and can't dismiss it with the apparent indifference of other atheists.

Anonymous said...

Well, the abrahamic-based religions are the religions with the most violent histories.
That's because of the danger religion has proven itself to be.

It is, as Marx said, the opium of the oppressed masses, and like drug addicts, they won't give up their addiction easily. Beside the fact that living a lie simply isn't healthy and allowing others to live a lie is simply making yourself an enabler.