Maria, a liberal Catholic commenter on this site, had a few questions she wanted to pose to readers:
Recently, several books have been written about atheism. The three main authors that we have heard about most have been Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. What is everyone’s opinion on each of these authors? What do you like/dislike about them, what they have said, and their books? Do you feel their tones are too strident or not forceful enough, and why do you feel this way? What do you think are the good points they have made and the mistakes (if any) they have made? No doubt there has been much controversy over all the books and the authors, some good, some bad, and some mixed. What are you feelings/opinions on that? How fairly do think they have been characterized in the media? Has anyone met or directly spoken with any of these authors, and if so, what was that like?
Also, what do you think about the Rational Response Squad?
Here’s my answer: I greatly appreciate the authors. There has been more discussion about atheism in this country than ever before thanks to them. There are also plenty of new authors (I include myself in this group) writing about atheism who may not have had that opportunity if the interest in atheist literature not been there.
It doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything they say. For example, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens both talk about how teaching religion can be considered child abuse. In some cases, I agree. Teaching children that God created the world in six days, or that people who think differently from you are going to spend eternity in Hell, could rightfully be considered mental child abuse. At the same time, I know that I was taught a lot of religious lies (like the concepts of reincarnation and prayer), and I know I wouldn’t considered myself abused. So maybe they do take that concept too far…
Still, despite that, there are people who have never heard their arguments before. It’s wonderful to have those ideas put in their heads. What they do with those ideas is up to them. But everyone should learn to critically think about their religious beliefs and that’s what these authors have forced some people to do.
These authors are passionate about their (non) belief and, as a result, they mistakenly get criticized as being too “fundamental” or “militant.” Without getting into that whole debate myself, they have done more for atheism than perhaps any force in history, so there is something to be said for the tone of their rhetoric. But now, we do need atheists who can communicate their ideas in a “friendlier” way to those religious people put off by the authors’ strong stances.
I’ve met Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens before… I’ll tell my stories and then get to the point I want to make.
During a particular conference overseas, I saw a group of people walking on the same path I was on. A friend of mine was in that group and she introduced me to the people she was with. The last person, she said, was Richard Dawkins. (Of course, I knew this, and was just speechless, because he’s like a hero to me.) He simply said, “Hello, I’m Richard Dawkins” in his British accent and shook my hand… and I don’t know what I said in response because I was dumbfounded. Later that evening, I saw him again, was re-introduced to him in a more formal way, and I asked him if he would autograph some of his books I had brought with me (it was nearly half my luggage). He graciously signed all those books. I remembered that in the preface to one of his books, he mentioned how when one of his new books came out, people would line up at book signings and have him sign, not the new book, but his first book, The Selfish Gene, which sometimes frustrated him. His wife would console him by saying that once they read the first book, they would work their way up to the latest book. To try and say something that would impress Dawkins, I told him (honestly) that the first book I read of his was The Ancestor’s Tale and that was what got me interested in his writing. He seemed genuinely pleased by this. The rest of the conference, every time I saw him, he appeared to carve out time for everyone who wanted to talk to him and he always had a smile on his face.
When I met Christopher Hitchens, it was also at a conference (The Amaz!ng Meeting 5). He showed up at a hotel party that was for the members of the James Randi Educational Foundation forums– I don’t think anyone wanted to kick him out, though. When I got a chance to talk to him, he was (as usual) holding a small glass of liquor. I asked him to tell me the best dirty joke he knew. He was Christopher Hitchens– He had to know a hilarious one. He said he knew one, but it was very long. We had time. So he started telling the story. A crowd began to gather and after a *very* long setup, Hitchens told the punchline. It caused one of the girls in the crowd to slap the contents of the glass of liquor out of his hands and onto his shirt. That was pretty funny (moreso than the joke, anyway)… once he cleaned himself off, he was seen having debates with various people on subjects such as why women weren’t funny, Mother Teresa wasn’t good, etc.
My point is this. I think if you see Christopher Hitchens in an interview, what you see is what you get. In person, he acts pretty much the same way he does on TV. So criticisms (and praises) of his personality are usually in the ballpark of being accurate.
Richard Dawkins, on the other hand, gets a bad rap for reasons unknown. He was unbelievably nice to me, and other atheists I know have said the same thing. He’s one of the kindest guys you’ll ever meet. He may come off strong in The God Delusion, but it’s only out of his passion for the subject, not because he has horns growing out of his head.
As for the Rational Response Squad, I think the Blasphemy Challenge was a wonderful idea because it focused on the “Challenge” (not necessarily the “Blasphemy”) of coming out publicly as an atheist. There were a few horrible videos made, but mostly, they were positive and exciting to see. Obviously, they got a lot of publicity as well and atheism was exposed to many more (often young) people as a result.
You may not agree with the tactics of everyone I just mentioned, but I do think it takes all kinds. I think most atheists are on the same page with their goals– and I quote from the Secular Coalition for America’s mission statement– to “increase the visibility and respectability of nontheistic viewpoints in the United States.” Sometimes, atheists will hurt that cause, but for the most part, atheists help it. And sometimes, it’s just the reaction to our very existence that gets out of hand and ends up reflecting poorly on us.
[tags]atheist, atheism, Catholic, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Rational Response Squad, God, child abuse, religion, The Selfish Gene, The Ancestor’s Tale, The Amaz!ng Meeting 5, James Randi Educational Foundation, Mother Teresa, The God Delusion, Blasphemy Challenge, Secular Coalition for America[/tags]