Tag Archives: Hitchens

The New Atheism and Elections

It seems a particular point of contention among the New Atheists that the American public isn’t willing to vote for an atheist president. While there is definitely undue judgment directed at atheists in our culture, I’ve never understood this complaint.

It is not enough to glibly compare atheism to having dark skin. The entire concept of democracy rests on the people selecting a leader who shares their values. To suggest that religious conviction is not relevant to that selection is to presume atheism.

I’ve heard many from this group that they would vote for any candidate that is atheist, then immediately chide the religious for taking the same approach (voting exclusively for theists).

Traditionally, atheists seemed to understand this. They knew they were in an ideological minority, and didn’t demand that others vote against their own belief systems, just as I don’t demand that others vote for candidates who support my minority positions.

There is the irony, of course. Atheists are beginning to call themselves an oppressed minority which has been wrongly accused of being evil at precisely the historical moment in which their numbers are exploding and their civility toward theists is plummeting.

I, for one, am more impressed with the moral courage of those atheists who are willing to assert and defend the notion that God does not exist than those who simply claim to “lack belief” (as most New Atheists do). I am more pleased with the kindness of those who treat me with respect than with those who insult my intelligence simply because I disagree with them. I listen more intently to the arguments of those who have taken the time to understand theology than those who see no difference between an eighteenth century deist God and the God of Christianity (and show no interest in learning).

The New Atheists, in fact, have been named by others because they can’t seem to understand these differences. To read their books, one is left with the impression that they see thoughtfulness as the act of rejecting religious belief and respect as the way one treats other atheists. I’ve seen no attempt, not even a feeble one, to understand what it is theists actually believe.

In short, while I’d definitely prefer a candidate who reflects my views, I would seriously consider voting for an atheist. What I will certainly never vote for, however, is a New Atheist.

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.