Contempt for the Enemy

“I think religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt, and I claim that right”
Christopher Hitchens

It strikes me as strange that a person who was, by all appearances, morally appalled at religion seems to feel that the promotion of ridicule, hatred, and contempt is acceptable behavior.

Hitchens, do doubt, believed that such behavior should be limited to truly detestable things (such as religion as he understood it). Still, this is one of the few areas in which his ethics did not seem to be lifted almost directly from the Bible, then turned back to criticize religious practice itself.

That is to say that, in spite of what many people seem to believe, moral standards are not the sort of things which are obvious to any reasonable person, which will be ultimately found out by any culture. It isn’t even necessary to study various cultures throughout human history in order to discover this. The simple fact that we argue so thoroughly about moral issues in our own culture should make that obvious. To me, it seems odd how many people are deeply aware that media influences popular perception of morals, but seriously doubt the idea that our history does the same.

Our culture’s ideas about morality has, for better or worse, been greatly influenced by our long history with Christianity. Things that we hardly think to question originate with Christ’s teachings. And it is in this sense which I doubt very much that the New Atheists have considered the consequences of ridding the world of religion – born of the Euro-American culture, they can’t truly imagine a world without religion, and have no way of guessing what that world may be like.

Of course, there is more than simply Christianity in our culture – even within the most committed group of believers. And one of the truly non-Christian ideas espoused by the New Atheists is the idea that a belief system (and, often enough, the people group who practice that belief) should be treated with contempt.

One would think that, as champions of reason, the New Atheists would promote the idea that each religion should be considered carefully, rather that taking such a dismissive tone. Likewise, as champions of love, Christians would promote the idea that every belief should be reflected upon with patience and empathy, rather than taking such a scornful tone.

This idea that there is an “other” out there, which deserves no respect, no courtesy, and no depth of consideration, is inherently opposed to Christianity. It is this attitude, much more than their atheism, which troubles me about the New Atheists. The idea that anything, whether religious or not, can be glibly dismissed as something that no reasonable person would accept is inherently anti-intellectual.

As much as this particular group seems to insist that there is no such thing as “New Atheists” that approaches to atheism have not changed, I see a clear difference between this and the thoughtful atheism of Nietzsche or Sartre.

So as to take my own advice, I’ve given New Atheism a lot of careful thought, and have reached the conclusion that it poses a much greater threat to intellectualism and the proper understanding of science than it does to religious practice.

2 responses to “Contempt for the Enemy

  • imbrocata

    You seem to imply here that one should tolerate the views of others only on the merits that someone actually holds those views. Completely side-stepping the merits of those views in and of themselves, you criticize Hitchens (intolerance?) for being intolerant. While we might agree that alien-abduction, witch-craft and many other practices and beliefs have no basis or empirical evidence in their favor, that they are indeed testable in the first place, we seem to split on whether one can call those claims into question; whether it would be intolerant and therefore wrong to do so. And certainly in the realm of religion, which Hitchens so ably dismisses as an extraordinary claim with an equally extraordinary lack of any evidence, ridicule and contempt is it’s due. Indeed, intolerance is it’s own just reward until a case can be made that such wild claims are verifiable and justified.
    Hitchens went on to say in that same thread, “Religion is “sinister, dangerous and ridiculous,” Hitchens tells NPR, because it can prompt people to fly airplanes into buildings, and it promotes ignorance. Hitchens sees no reason to sugarcoat his position.”.
    By your own definition then, will you ‘tolerate’ the religiously motivated acts of terrorism? Or the suppression of knowledge, which gained by empirical testing, does not fit into one’s worldview and so must be wrong despite it’s evidence?
    Or shall we just keep playing this game of not tolerating the other’s intolerance?

  • debilis

    While I completely agree that some views are clearly wrong, and should be called wrong, I see no reason why this requires contempt.
    I can say that Wiccans believe a number of demonstrably false things without throwing contempt at them.
    Nor do I see the reason why I can’t tolerate religion in general, while objecting strongly to terrorism. I can certainly protest government corruption while tolerating the idea that we should have governments.

    This appears to have been Hitchen’s primary mistake. He never seemed to grasp the idea that there are different types of religion.

    His one-dimensional view of religion as deserving of contempt, then, is one that, I flatly state, is as wrong as a belief in spell-casting. That does not, however, mean that I see the need to treat him, let alone all secularists, with contempt.

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