Secularism and the Open Mind

USA Today had an opinion piece that gets to the heart of the push for cooperation between atheists and religious moderates.

Tom Krattenmaker starts by buttering us atheists all up… before the criticism.

Critical thinking might be to secularism what faith is to devout religious believers. Thinking rationally, questioning assumptions, embracing complexity and eschewing the black-and-white — these habits of mind are, to the champions of non-belief, a keystone of the secular worldview and a crucial part of what separates them from religious people.

So why, when it comes to matters of religion, do secularists so frequently leave their critical thinking at the door?

He points out that authors like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins are attacking the wrong bogeyman:

They are correct in criticizing those who have used religion to create suffering in the world. And those acting in the name of their faiths have indeed furnished far too many case studies. Unfortunately, the forms of religion most often in the spotlight these days lend credence to the idea that religion is a dark-ages anachronism that must be eradicated if the human race is to advance.

Yet both achieving a more constructive national dialogue and making progress on our most pressing problems depend on just the opposite happening [we shouldn't be antagonizing allies by "sneering at their faith"]. Neither the secular nor the religious camp is going to drive the other out of business. So how’s this for an idea: Cooperate.

… couldn’t they engage with religious moderates and progressives, who tend to approach their faith in non-literal ways that do not require the suspension of rational thought, and who frequently lean in the same political direction as secularists do on the big issues of the day? Do secularists really want to antagonize these potential allies by sneering at their faith?

It’s a nice point, but Krattenmaker is missing the key element in all of the atheist literature. Even moderate Christians believe in the resurrection of Christ and that God listens to their prayers. Those ideas do require suspension of rational thought. That’s what the authors are against — believing in the supernatural, as well as all the evil that can come from that.

I think atheists can work together with those groups for precisely the reason the author mentions — we agree on so many political/social issues — but the atheist authors are rightly attacking all forms of religious belief, not just the super-conservative versions.

We would be unwise to ignore the religious moderates since they could be good allies (and vice-versa), but cooperation doesn’t mean we can’t criticize their beliefs.

Secularism’s clear thinking has much to offer a world riven by unthinking ideologies and hatreds. And even though it defines itself in opposition to religion, surely secularism is capable of understanding that religion is more — at least capable of more — than irrational indulgence in supernatural fantasies. Learning more about religion would be a good start.

I’m curious what he thinks we atheists don’t understand about religion. Most atheists I know were raised in religious homes. We lived it. We breathed it. It’s not like we’re attacking something unknown to us (unlike most religious attacks on atheism).

And what is religion capable of doing that a group of well-organized, well-funded atheists can’t?

All I can think of right now is give hope — false hope, in my opinion — but maybe I’m missing something.

One more excerpt:

As the atheist writer and religion scholar Jacques Berlinerblau recently put it, “Can an atheist or agnostic commentator discuss any aspect of religion for more than 30 seconds without referring to religious people as imbeciles, extremists, mental deficients, fascists, enemies of the common good … conjure men (or) irrationalists?”

I’m pretty sure I could do this. But if I ever needed to win money from PZ, I now know what to bet him :)


[tags]atheist, atheism, USA Today, religious, religion, moderate, Christian, Jesus, God, Tom Krattenmaker, secularism, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Jacques Berlinerblau, PZ Myers[/tags]

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    This topic always disturbs me because I can’t settle on where I sit on the spectrum (as you can no-doubt tell from my comments here and my posts on skepchick). The question of how we can both cooperate with moderate religious folks and attack all religion at the same time is what stops me dead in my tracks. I agree with your post, Hemant, but how does it translate into practical action?

  • http://friendlyatheist.com FriendlyAtheist

    I think working to support causes both sides agree on (equal rights for gay couples, stem-cell research, pro-evolution education, real sex education) would be the best way to cooperation. Lobbyists from both sides are already working together. Churches with moderates need to invite atheists to their events when in support of these causes. Atheists need to invite these churchgoers to rallies/events/etc. We may have different reasons for wanting, say, equal rights for all people (God wants it that way versus it’s a basic human right) but the goal is the same.

    The issue of arguing beliefs would be a different venue altogether.

    It’s not like we have to do both at once.

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    That sort of makes sense. But why would Christians want to cooperate with people who say their belief is irrational (even in another venue) and why would atheists want to cooperate with people who say they are going to hell (even in another venue)?

    I agree that the need to cooperate on these important issues is often bigger than our disagreements, but when the disagreements are about something so personal and close to the heart (on both sides), it’s quite difficult to overcome the emotional distance that is created.

    It’s really hard for me to be around people when I know they think I’m going to hell and they are (even secretly) praying for me to “see the light”… it seems so condescending, and yet I know I am (secretly) hoping for them to “see the light” as well. It’s so not fun.

  • http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=47EBLD-ISyc Nick

    Hemant,

    I read the same piece this morning, and I found it to be thoroughly consistent with what USAToday usually puts in their Monday “Religion” Editorial spread with regard to mentions of atheism.

    I found it to be a “Wah, the atheists are making fun of Jesus and it isn’t fair because…well it’s not fair just because.”

    Krattenmaker invokes the argument that the New Atheism/Naturalism/Humanism, heretofore just “new atheism”, is just as dogmatic as the fundamentalists. He concedes that Dawkins and Hitchens DO have a point when they speak about confronting absurdity, but then is quick to point out the “lack of open-mindedness” inherent in the New Atheist movement. He is, in fact, invoking Theist argument number 3: That Atheism is as much a religion as any other. (I’m getting bored with invoking the ‘not stamp-collecting’ analogy at this juncture). In point of fact, Krattenmaker, like so many pigeon-holing theists, deputizes the tired Fox News BillO argument of how many wrongs have been done in the name of Atheism, a la Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, etc. This has been done to death in the complete ignorance of his own premise: that the new Atheism claims rationality as its very foundation. Dogmas are Dogmas, they are self-serving no matter whether they invoke God or not. The author seems to forget that faith is anathema to evidence with respect to his own thesis. The New Atheism would collapse, and rightly so, if empirical evidence was conclusive enough by rigorous standards to point to the existence of a Deity, ANY Deity. The religious are NOT so flexible with the contention that they may, in fact be wrong.

    Krattenmaker misrepresents the New Atheist worldview, and though he is willing to give light to the lighter points of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, et. al., he buries that light in a shadow. The dim bulb in his article is that TOO much reason, too much logic, too much human thinking leads to a close-minded dogmatism in itself.

    Again, I found this piece to be too much of a “Wah, the atheists are getting too much press and need to be pushed back” fluffer.

    -Nick

    PS 13 years of Catholic Education and from Nebraska. WELL VERSED in theology (Especially since it was a requirement all 4 years of HS.)

  • http://web.mac.com/zenner41/ JonJ

    I used to be a Quaker, though not really a religious one, and had no trouble working with Quakers who were much more religious than me on social issues, etc. But of course Quakers (except for the really far-out ones) don’t believe that atheists are going to hell and try to convert them. Tolerance of beliefs different from one’s own is a very important value for them.

    I don’t see any problem with atheists cooperating with religious groups of this sort (Unitarians, etc.), but of course these folks are a tiny fraction of all religious Americans. I agree that the best thing to do with the “you’re going to hell, and I’m going to save you” bunch is to bid them a polite “good day” and run like hell in the opposite direction.

  • http://www.dlcommunion.org Steve Petermann

    Hi FriendlyAtheist,

    Although I am a panentheist, I am also a pragmatist. If there was ever a time where everything should be done to bring people together to fight the enormous and potentially lethal problems of our world it is today. The question for thinking people is what will offer pragmatic solutions. Will the destruction of religion really heal the planet? Not likely. Surely there are elements of religious extremism that need to be agressively countered but that does not include the majority of religion worldwide. There are, to be sure, religious leaders (and religious politicians) who have shallow and perhaps dangerous beliefs and goals but their presence does not mean that religious belief, per se, must be irradicated. People are people and from my experience the overwhelming majority of both believers and non-believers are, on the whole, good people.

    Secondly, there is quite a bit of irony in the attacks on religion of the most prominent “new atheists”. What Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc. don’t seem to be aware of is that almost all of their criticisms of religious belief have already been lodged many times within religion itself. One has only to read Gary Dorrien’s The Making of American Liberal Theology to see this. Prominent theologians over the past couple of centuries have been criticizing the irrational and empirically unfounded beliefs found in religion. Are the atheists aware of this work?

    I’m curious what he thinks we atheists don’t understand about religion. Most atheists I know were raised in religious homes. We lived it. We breathed it. It’s not like we’re attacking something unknown to us (unlike most religious attacks on atheism).

    To understand the best religious and theological thinking it is not enough to just have cursory overview of religion that we get at the grass roots. More is necessary. Surely no one would accept as rigorous and thoroughgoing a view of science learned in high school or even at the undergraduate level.

    The difference between Dawkins and his ilk is that the criticisms from prominent theologicans are constructive instead of destructive. Change in religion is not easy. Religion holds existential import for many people and many are afraid of change. How can change occur? History has shown, I think, that harsh critical polemics only create an equally harsh reaction. For atheists I think E.O. Wilson would be good model. Although he is an atheist, instead of coming out with diatribes against religion he has chosen to forego this in favor of seeking cooperation with even the religious right to save the planet.

    My fear is that when prominent scientists and those in the academy publically display so much vitriol for religion, they will steer many young people away from scientific careers. What is needed now is the best and brightest minds to solve the problems we face, no matter their inclinations towards religion or not.

    I have absolutely no problem with criticisms of religious belief coming from unbelievers. Criticism from outside the faith is an essential force for overcoming the idolotrous (raising something preliminary to the absolute) elements of religion. All the great theologians took seriously, serious criticisms and responded. The comments of Nietzsche, Sartre and Russell were taken very seriously by religious thinkers. Unfortunately Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens et. al. are not in their league and, in my view, have made things worse rather than better.

    So I say, criticize away and if it is done within a pragmatic, rigorous spirit and in a non-insulting manner, I think the environment for cooperation will be much better.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    “Learning more about religion would be a good start.”

    This burns me up. This particular line of thinking — and it’s a common one — always burns me up.

    Atheists (at least the ones I’m familiar with) know a HUGE amount about religion. We often know more about religion that religious believers themselves. Even if we weren’t brought up in religious homes (I wasn’t). I was just in a debate on my own blog with a minister, and his level of ignorance about the supposed accuracy of Biblical prophecies was astounding.

    We know about religion for the same reason black people know about white people; for the same reason queers know about straights. We have to. Religion is the dominant culture. It’s shoved in our face every day. We ignore it at our peril — and we couldn’t ignore it even if we wanted to.

    My experience has been that when believers say, “Well, you just don’t know enough about religion,” what they tend to mean is, “You haven’t heard the details of my particular version of religion.” Or, more insidiously, “If you knew more about religion, you wouldn’t be an atheist, because religion is so obviously true.”

    I concur with F.A. On issues such as same-sex marriage, stem cell research, abortion, etc., I am willing, able, and happy to ally with believers. But when it comes to the issue of the role of religious faith in society, we are not allies. We are not on the same side.

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    Prominent theologians over the past couple of centuries have been criticizing the irrational and empirically unfounded beliefs found in religion. Are the atheists aware of this work?

    Yes, but alas most religious people seem to be totally ignorant of it. Or, in the case of the evangelicals that I’ve known, they think that theologians are irrelevant at best, demonic at worst. Dawkins et al seem to be well aware of this. Are you?

  • http://www.dlcommunion.org Steve Petermann

    Hi writerdd,

    Yes, but alas most religious people seem to be totally ignorant of it.

    I agree, just as most people are ignornant of the best thinking in science. This is a problem that theologians as well as scientists has been concerned about.

    Or, in the case of the evangelicals that I’ve known, they think that theologians are irrelevant at best, demonic at worst.

    I guess it depends on who you are talking to. There are many evangelicals who don’t pursue their own theology beyond simplistic formulations but, in my experience, the more thoughtful pay a great deal of attention to the theologians, albeit the conservative kind.

    However, that does not relate to the point I was making. If Dawkins and others want to attack religion, per se, they should attack the best thinking available. Just because the general public doesn’t know the deepest thinking doesn’t invalidate religion itself, anymore than the lack of understanding of science in the general public invalidates it.

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    I disagree, it is not the “best thinking” in religion that should be attacked, but the popular bs. It doesn’t matter what the “best thinkers” have to say if the general religious community thinks what they say is garbage.

    Dawkins directly addressed this in his book however, when he stated that he doesn’t consider theology to be a real field of study.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Some atheists know a lot about religion, though no one knows more than a small fraction of the huge subject. Most of the atheists I’ve encountered on blogs know a little bit about whatever sect they were exposed to and reacted against and a bit of the lore garnered from reading pop-atheism. In that they aren’t much different from the general population, even those who profess religious faith.

    Just because the morning post bemoaned the lack of acceptance of evolution in the United States implying that the majority of Americans think it’s “garbage” I don’t think we should discount the best thinking in evolutionary science. Just think what we’d have to discount in math, etc. if that was the standard.

    As omniscient as he is used to thinking he is and as he’s, no doubt, come to expect to be regarded, Richard Dawkins doesn’t get to decide what is and isn’t a “real field of study”. Considering that most of the informed reviewers were appalled at the ignorance he displayed in his book, it’s a pretty self-serving stand to take. It’s interesting to hear the new standards in scholarly writing, you get to write a book on something you not only know little about but you get to decide that you don’t need to know something about it. But then, why was PZ Myers so snooty about that book he reviewed? If it’s all right for his idol, why not for other writers? Double standards? I’ve always said that was what the neo-atheism was all about.

  • Aj

    However, that does not relate to the point I was making. If Dawkins and others want to attack religion, per se, they should attack the best thinking available. Just because the general public doesn’t know the deepest thinking doesn’t invalidate religion itself, anymore than the lack of understanding of science in the general public invalidates it.

    I haven’t read any thinking from theologians fullstop, it just goes vague and ambigious, to the point that they readily admit they don’t even know what they mean by God. As Dawkins says, if theologians came up with any good arguments that he hasn’t heard before, for the existance of God, he would listen. They concentrate on the area after the assumption that God exists, and all of it is nonsense (it really is), until they deal with God.

    Can you hear a scientist saying that not only does he/she not know what he/she’s talking about, but he has no evidence for it either? It’s not surprising not only do Dawkins and intelligent atheists completely ignore them, but that the religious do too. They’re a joke, and it’s ceasing to be funny. That invalidates religion, and it’s always been the point, it’s irrational, amusingly called non-rational by many of them.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Aj, what theologians are you talking about?

    You mean they are more vague than Dawkins “memes”. Here’s what J. Allen Orr said about Dennett’s “ways that memes were like genes”.

    So does Dennett believe that memes are like genes? He admits: 1) Memes are produced by “directed mutation,” while genes are produced by random mutation; 2) exchange between long-isolated cultures has everything to do with cultural evolution, while exchange between long-isolated species can’t happen; 3) memes can blend together, while genes don’t ; 4) memes show a Lamarckian style of evolution, whereas genes show only Darwinian evolution. By the end of this list, one begins to suspect that the most important feature memes and genes share is the sound of the words. This does not, of course, mean that no sort of theory of cultural change is possible. But it does mean that Dennett’s memetics-founded on a strict meme-gene analogy-is in a bad way.

    Clear as an obvious list of contradictions to explain “science” by the foremost academic disciple of Dawkins.

  • http://www.dlcommunion.org Steve Petermann

    writerdd,

    I disagree, it is not the “best thinking” in religion that should be attacked, but the popular bs. It doesn’t matter what the “best thinkers” have to say if the general religious community thinks what they say is garbage.

    But Dawkins and Harris are not just attacking the bs in religion. If they were I wouldn’t object except for the tone. They want to trash religion, per se. To do that they would have to do what everyone else has to do in every rigorous field, study and critique the best thinking available.

  • http://www.dlcommunion.org Steve Petermann

    Hi Aj,

    I haven’t read any thinking from theologians fullstop, it just goes vague and ambigious, to the point that they readily admit they don’t even know what they mean by God.

    You make my point for me. You don’t seem familiar with prominent theologians like Paul Tillich, Reinhold Neibur, John Cobb, Charles Harteshorne, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Marcus Borg, etc. These folks spell out what they think in very clear terms.

    Also, in my opinion, all formal arguments for the existence of God are indeterminate and therefore a non-starter from either side. That’s not going to settle anything.

  • miller

    I’m going to go ahead and admit that I am an ignorant atheist. My only education in religion is from my Jesuit high school (albeit a good one). I have never heard of all these philosophers, and am frankly not so interested in them. I have never read the Bible, nor any of the recent or not-so-recent atheist books. I don’t ever intend to read them. I guess I have a great deal of sympathy for apatheists.

    So anyway, I’m sure there are plenty of people who care only one step above me, who are willing to read Dawkins, but not willing to read about the opinions of dead philosophers. They may not get the whole picture, but all this low-level thinking is at least a first approximation of the higher-level stuff, at least a better approximation than whatever I know.

  • miller

    I’ll add that I do not think the “best thinkers” in religion are “garbage”. On the contrary, I have a great deal of respect, (thank you, Jesuits).

  • Maria

    Although I am a panentheist, I am also a pragmatist

    that’s cool, I have some pantheistic leanings myself. I agree with a lot of what you said in your comments


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