There is an opinion article that appeared on CNN yesterday titled “Hey atheists, let’s make a deal.” It sounded like an innocent enough title, and I clicked it, hoping to gain some fresh, calm insight into the modern-day religious situation. Overall I had high hopes as CNN has had some interesting religion stories in the past (such as this one from last week), but also some disappointing ones (such as this one, which I criticized).
In “Hey atheists, let’s make a deal,” the author Rachel Evans uses the classic “just as bad” argument (which I wrote a post on here) in trying to make a silence deal: atheists stop criticizing Christianity based on its fundamentalist leaders and Christians stop criticizing atheism based on its own “fundamentalist” leaders.
(Image source unknown.)
Now of course, Evans spends three paragraphs bashing Dawkins and atheism before even getting to the deal:
Famed atheist Richard Dawkins has been rightfully criticized this week for saying the “mild pedophilia” he and other English children experienced in the 1950s “didn’t cause any lasting harm.”
This comes after an August tweet in which Dawkins declared that “all the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”
Dawkins is known for pushing his provocative rhetorical style too far, providing ample ammunition for his critics, and already I’ve seen my fellow Christians seize the opportunity to rail against the evils of atheism.
At least Evans does not jump on the bandwagon of saying that Dawkins actually defended mild pedophilia (props to her). In fact, Dawkins acknowledges the misinterpretation. But it is still interesting that Evans quotes the phrase “saying that… didn’t cause any lasting harm” as if Dawkins was attempting to make an authoritative statement. With a couple of surrounding sentences:
As soon as I could wriggle off his lap, I ran to tell my friends, many of whom had had the same experience with him. I don’t think he did any of us any lasting damage, but some years later he killed himself.
This clearly shows that Dawkins is giving an opinion, and presumably knows the others he speaks of are in a relatively well-off condition.
However, the main point that seems to be missed was the question of whether one should judge someone’s actions according to modern day standards. Dawkins considered it to be not as bad (but still bad, obviously) in the 1950s as it is today, when now we know so much more about the harmful effects that it causes. For another example, we would probably consider Thomas Jefferson to be more moral than the leaders of the Westboro Baptist Church, but Jefferson owned slaves, while none of the WBC own slaves. If anyone wants to discuss this I’d be happy to indulge, but this is getting really far from the topic. Anyways…
In the second paragraph, Evans mentions a post by Dawkins which is factually true. Yet she uses the word “declares” as if Dawkins just made it up to anger Muslims.
The third paragraph is just further painting Dawkins as a target, and then says, “I’ve seen my fellow Christians seize the opportunity to rail against the evils of atheism.” I appreciate Evans’ rhetoric, cleverly overloading words/phrases with positive connotations on one side (“fellow,” “Christians,” “seize the opportunity”, “rail against” [in the context of attacking unjustice]), and then putting “evils of atheism” on the other side. This makes good writing, but it is hardly an impartial view. The bias induced by these paragraphs then set the stage for the terrible deal to come.
In the next three paragraphs, she gets to the deal:
As tempting as it is to classify Dawkins’ views as representative of all atheists, I can’t bring myself to do it.
I can’t bring myself to do it because I know just how frustrating and unfair it is when atheists point to the most extreme, vitriolic voices within Christianity and proclaim that they are representative of the whole.
So, atheists, I say we make a deal: How about we Christians agree not to throw this latest Richard Dawkins thing in your face and you atheists agree not to throw the next Pat Robertson thing in ours?
Again, she is attempting to play the fair mediator position by appearing to treat the two sides equally. Perhaps she genuinely believes this is a fair comparison, and if so, I admire her willingness to bridge the gap.
However, atheist “fundamentalism” is incomparable to religious fundamentalism. We should attack religious fundamentalism because it holds outdated, unchanging, unyielding views on social and moral issues (LGBT rights being the most prominent current issue in America), and because their views actually affect public policy, and they attempt to deny rights and liberties to millions of Americans. And this is Christian fundamentalism we’re talking about: fortunately, very few people are being killed. Religious fundamentalism in the Islamic variety would be much worse.
Atheist “fundamentalism” is quite different in that, even if you take Dawkins, Harris, etc. to be the “fundamentalists,” the main message is to question everything, even their own views. This is hardly fundamentalism, any more than not putting up with intolerance is in itself intolerance.
Now I’m not saying we just let these destructive words and actions go—not at all. It’s important for both believers and atheists to decry irresponsible views and hateful rhetoric, especially from within our own communities.
(Believe me. There are plenty of Christians who raise hell every time Robertson says something homophobic or a celebrity pastor somewhere says something misogynistic.)
Again, the situation is asymmetric. The Bible is filled with hateful rhetoric, and it is somewhat up to moderate religious folks and atheists to called out when fundamentalists quote these passages. Some passages literally say to kill gays or atheists. At best, “The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” implies all atheists are fools. On the other hand, Dawkins uses logical arguments to counter some statements held sacredly by theists, and this is considered to be offensive. No matter what measure of morality you use, it is clear that debating someone and challenging their beliefs is not equally as bad as labeling an entire group of people as fools or holding sacred a book that says to kill many different groups of people.
This brings me to the following point: It sure took a lot of effort to find that quote by Dawkins, and even if fully misinterpreted, it would not even be that bad (e.g. in terms of body count). On the other hand, one can easily find hundreds of far worse examples in the Bible or in the writings/speeches of fundamentalists that require no verbal gymnastics to parse. This yet again demonstrates the imbalance of the deal.
Skipping ahead a bit:
Only then can we avoid these shallow ad hominem attacks and instead engage in substantive debates that bring our true differences and our true commonalities to light.
It’s harder to go this route, and it takes more work and patience, but I’m convinced that both Christians and atheists are interested in the truth and in searching for it with integrity, without taking the easy way out.
Yet again, this runs into an asymmetry that makes the deal sound poetic but doesn’t change the fact that it is nonsense. The second sentence really disturbs me:
…I’m convinced that both Christians and atheists are interested in the truth and in searching for it with integrity, without taking the easy way out.
When you have a Bible that you know is the truth, isn’t your search for “truth” just to validate the Bible? On the other hand, when you use the scientific method and question everything along the way, there is no ultimate truth you know ahead of time that you are trying to validate. There is a difference between actually searching for truth and cherry-picking evidence to support something you think ought to be true.
Skipping forward a bit more:
And I’m willing to bet that the same collective groan emitted by millions of Christians each time Pat Robertson says something embarrassing on TV sounds a lot like the collective groan emitted by millions of atheists when Richard Dawkins rants on Twitter.
Again, this is a comparison of apples and oranges. When Pat Robertson says something about homosexuality, for instance, I have no doubt that a vast number of Christians actually disagree with the content of what he says. However, when Dawkins tweets something questionable on Twitter, it is invariably because some people don’t understand the post, don’t get sarcasm, or don’t know of the previous tweet that the current one is referring to. (And yes, I think Twitter is a terrible medium for debating religion, as demonstrated by this.)
Still, in the end, it’s not about who has the most charismatic or generous personalities in their roster, nor about who has the most “crazies.” It’s about the truth.
So let’s talk about the truth, and with the people who most consistently and graciously point us toward it.
Here’s something I can agree with. (I still think the phrase “who has the most ‘crazies'” is comparing incomparable things, but I’ll let this slide.) However, I think there is still a huge gap in what we consider to be proper ways to search for truth, and the reason for this gap is a deep difference in our worldviews that cannot be so easily solved by saying let’s talk about the truth.
Evans wrote a good article, but had a very biased vocabulary in a deal-making situation where she should have been more impartial. Also, even if the deal itself doesn’t seem very appealing, it is thought-provoking, and the overall idea is a good attempt at the problem.
I think the proper response is to reject the deal, for several reasons:
- It is hardly a fair deal, as without criticizing Christianity in itself, we cannot actually solve any of the root problems that fundamentalists continue to spread to the public and to political/social policy. On the other hand, the problem with the public image of atheist “fundamentalists” can be more simply solved by telling them to stop using Twitter, and instead stick to platforms where it is not as easy to misinterpret something, or some solution along those lines.
- The deal assumes that fundamentalist atheism is just as bad as fundamentalist Christianity.
- The deal doesn’t really solve the root problem; in fact, it only makes it worse by silencing voices in the debate.
A better deal would be for both sides to listen to what the other has to say, and debate the content itself, and not dismissing things just because they come from “fundamentalists” of either side.
(Edit: Hemant Mehta, aka. The Friendly Atheist, wrote a post on this CNN article today as well, also criticizing the false equivalence between atheist and religious fundamentalism. His article, which is quite interesting to read, is here.)