Becky Garrison is the author of the just-released The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail: The Misguided Quest to Destroy Your Faith (Thomas Nelson, 2008). She is also Senior Contributing Editor for The Wittenburg Door, an online Christian satire magazine.
The book’s description (on Amazon) is this:
… Garrison steels her pen and takes on the ungodly program of the New Atheists, skewering each argument with her sharp satiric wit. Garrison turns aside the atheists’ assault without ignoring its real criticisms, namely, the church’s inadequate response to war, evolution, medical ethics, social justice, and other important issues in the post-9/11 world.
Reading through the book, I didn’t think it responded to most of the New Atheists’ arguments, much less “each argument.” Garrison says that she wants the book to “build bridges” between atheists and Christians, but I just became more and more incensed as I read it. It wasn’t because she was attacking the New Atheists. It’s because I thought she was getting a lot of things just plain wrong.
To her credit, she did offer to answer my main questions (all of her responses are below).
And in full disclosure, after her diatribe against the New Atheists, she features a full-length interview with me (a.k.a. a “friendly” atheist) in the appendix. I’m appreciative that it was included and I like how I was portrayed.
That said, the rest of the book didn’t do anything to make me think the New Atheists are misinformed. Garrison is not an apologist or scientist, so she can’t take on a number of the New Atheists’ claims in certain areas (nor does she try to). But that leaves her with only her sense of humor to criticize them and I don’t believe atheists will be swayed by that.
You can judge for yourself.
Before we get to the interview, Garrison wanted to mention this:
I want to note that as the Senior Contributing Editor for The Wittenburg Door (www.wittenburgdoor.com), I am a religious satirist who takes aim at sacred cows. As I stated in The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail, I do not claim, nor do I desire to claim, a position as an apologist. There are many talented theological types that can tackle that beast. So, please don’t take everything I say at face value. When fellow satirist Jonathan Swift penned “A Modest Proposal: For Preventing The Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public” back in 1729, he never intended that the poor actually eat their own children as a means to alleviate poverty. Rather, as an Anglican clergyman living in Ireland, he employed his satirical skills to address the massive ills he saw before him. Likewise, while I make my statements with my tongue firmly implanted inside my cheek, buried beneath the literal text are golden grains of truth.
Here is my interview with Garrison:
Hemant Mehta: You say this early on:
“With so many people seeking spiritual solutions to our contemporary crises, how do we account for the recent rise of these New Atheists (‘Brights’), a group that tends to define the ideological conflict as being ‘between the Brights and the Dims, the Rationalists and the Superstitious?’ In dishing their dirt, anti-God gurus Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett have succeeded in grabbing the media spotlight and the New York Times Best Seller List by ridiculing people of faith.”
You say a lot of things in this paragraph that are inaccurate. This includes: saying New Atheists are the same as Brights (a lot of Brights would disagree with you), citing the opposite of a Bright as a Dim (instead of a Super), saying Dawkins/Harris/Dennett are anti-God (when that label could only correctly be applied to Christopher Hitchens), and saying they are ridiculing people of faith (rather than faith itself).
Becky Garrison: My sources for the term “Brights” were Gary Wolf, “The Church of the Non-Believers,” Wired, as well as Daniel Dennett’s ongoing use of the term. My suggestion to those who don’t want to be called “Brights” is to take it up with those that taught me the term. [bg] Also, unless a New Atheist turns into another Anthony Flew, the satirist in me will continue to call them anti-God gurus. BTW- The quote you cited is listed in the endnotes as follows: “The New Atheism,” Front Toward Enemy.
HM: You equate Sam Harris to Ann Coulter:
“For Harris, 9/11 was the spark that started the fire that led to The End of Faith, while Coulter used this tragic day as a license to spew racist remarks. Both are deplorable.”
Do you actually think spewing racial hatred is the same as criticizing religion?
BG: To quote Sam Harris, “If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion” (See “the Temple of Reason,” Sun Magazine) and “Since 20 percent of all recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage, God is, quote, ‘the most prolific abortionist of all.’” (Letter to a Christian Nation, 38). Even though I have never been raped nor had an aberration, as a woman I find these two statements on par with Coulter’s most racist rant. Simply put, both are deplorable.
HM: You say this about Daniel Dennett:
“[Daniel Dennett] must be brilliant because no one can understand what he is talking about.”
What is so difficult to understand? I found his books among the easier to read and most informative out of the New Atheist crop of books.
BG: My description of Daniel Dennett as a Monty Pythonesque philosopher, who reminds me of Dr. Jenkins in Animal House, represents my satirical take on philosophers. I would take Dennett semi-seriously except that when he replied to Orr’s review, he bragged that he only devoted a scant six pages of Breaking the Spell to the arguments for and against the existence of God. Apparently, he found almost all of the theological research on these topics to be “so dreadful that ignoring it completely seemed both the most charitable and most constructive policy.” (See “A Mission to Convert”). How can anyone pen a book critiquing God and yet refuse to engage with contemporary theological thinkers such as N.T. Wright, Jürgen Moltmann, and Walter Bruggeman? Using this illogic, I could stroll around the International UFO Congress in search of “scientific” data.
HM: You don’t argue against Christopher Hitchens because his publishers did not let you excerpt any material from God is Not Great. Couldn’t you still have argued against his ideas? He makes similar arguments against religion in his writings for Vanity Fair and Slate.
BG: Articles and other material can supplement an author’s arguments but they don’t take the place of the primary source material. As I noted in my book, how anyone can publish a book filled with anti-God diatribes and then not allow the person who penned this poison to get into the ring and go the distance with a seasoned satirist remains a mystery. While Hitchens possesses the ability to pen poisonous sound bites that make me laugh despite myself, he doesn’t make any substantial arguments that aren’t made by Harris, Dawkins or Dennett.
HM: You write:
“If you don’t want to believe in God, fine. But why can’t these New Atheists give followers of the faith the right to believe in God if we so choose? I’d be happy to have us all play in our own respective spiritual sandboxes, except that religious extremists and now the New Atheists keep throwing sand in our faces.”
(p. 18)When did the New Atheists ever say they wanted to take away your right to believe in God? Certainly they want to convince you that an actual God’s existence is not supported by any evidence, but I’ve never heard them say you shouldn’t be allowed to believe if you so choose.
BG: Here I would beg to differ. I see no difference in the New Atheists’ tone and tactics from that of say Focus on the Family. Both camps employ rhetoric that implies they want to create a monochromatic world that’s viewed through their own particular lens.
HM: You have a section in the book where you compare the New Atheists’ “game plan” to the Iraq War strategy and say the New Atheists have no way to “define victory.” You say:
“Doesn’t look to me like they’ve come up with any comprehensive anti-God evangelism campaign whatsoever.”
To me, that’s not the issue. If people are going to agree with the atheists, it has to happen organically, after a long thought process, hopefully sparked by the atheists’ books. There is no organized plan. The books were written by people fed up with the irrationality of religion — some writing without knowledge of the others. You ask what they are fighting for (p. 23), but isn’t it obvious that they’re fighting for what they believe (and most atheists would agree) is the truth? You also ask if promoting atheism serves the common good (p. 25), but again, that’s beyond the question of truth. It’s also beyond the question of atheism, which is merely one answer to one question (Do you believe in God?)…
BG: I’ve been able to engage in civilized discourse with the vast majority of atheists I’ve met. Again, I am employing the tools of satire to target four New Atheists, who have chosen to go after God with all the tact of a Star Wars stormtrooper. To quote evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson in his book Evolution Is for Everyone, “[Darwin’s] interactions with people from all walks of life were primarily respectful and cordial. We can learn from his humility and good humor in presenting his theory to others, in addition to the theory itself.” (page 6) So, perhaps certain contemporary Darwinians could take a page from Darwin’s playbook and follow not just his methodology but also his manners.
HM: At one point, you attack the idea that religion could be a meme. You write:
“According to Dawkins, a meme spreads from one brain to another brain, like a virus. Hence, one can become infested with religion as though faith was a contagious and deadly disease… If you’re confused, that’s OK. Most other scientists don’t seem to get it either.”
Did you look at any of the numerous scientific papers written about memes? What resources were you using? When writing about how religion could be a meme, you say, “While this isn’t a popularity contest, wouldn’t the entire scientific community embrace wholeheartedly a discovery of this magnitude?” That seems to be a misunderstanding of what a meme is. It’s not a scientific “discovery” at all; it’s just a theoretical way of looking at certain ideas.
BG: The section where you extrapolated this quote contained my scientific sources. Here’s the rest of the quote: “Lewis Wolpert, a developmental biologist, states, ‘Just what a meme is and how it is distinguishable from beliefs, I find difficult.’ (See Lewis Wolpert, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief, 30.) Also, Orr sees “no difference between saying that my morals derive from, say, Christianity and saying that my brain hosts a ‘Christian morality meme.’” (See “A Mission to Convert”.) As I am a satirist not a scientist, I took great care to quote those scientists who were well respected in their respective fields by their contemporaries. I brought this up because I found it telling that except for Daniel Dennett, I was hard pressed to find anyone who wholeheartedly supported Dawkins’ application of the “meme” into the religious debate. Meanwhile, this scientist ridicules the efforts of fellow scientists Francis Collins, Joan Roughgarden and [Kenneth] Miller when they discuss the intersection of science and religion. I, for one, would love to see reasoned and well informed debates on this topic instead of the truly god-awful “Christian vs. Atheist Celebrity Death Match” where the worst of both sides of the debate was on full display.
HM: You write:
“I fully understand why New Atheists like Sam Harris believe an event such as 9/11 proves there is no God.”
When did Harris write that? Do you know the difference between saying there is no god versus not believing that one exists in the first place? The New Atheists never say the former, just the latter.
BG: If Harris believes the latter, then I’d suggest he refrain from penning articles with inflammatory titles such as “There Is No God (and You Know It)” (The Huffington Post).
HM: There’s a part where you quote someone saying “The scientific method… cannot measure love and joy in a family. But it can measure a growing bank account, larger cars, and increasingly sophisticated gadgets.” You go on to say “In the end, which matters more?” This is a false dichotomy. It’s not that atheists want science to be the end-all-be-all for everything. But it’s the best method we have of discovering the truth. By using the quotation, you seem to be implying that the reason people use the scientific method is for their own self interest.
BG: I am quoting from Ron Sider’s seminal book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Here you raise the question that has plagued scientists, philosophers and theologians throughout centuries – “What is truth?” We can’t explore this question in a meaningful manner dialogue as long as Christian fundamentalists or their secular counterparts choose to demonize the other.
HM: You write:
“But when these New Atheists show their true religious colors by viewing evolution (aka science) as their God, my satirical sense starts getting antsy.”
Obviously, no atheist considers evolution or science to be a religion. Hell, with proper evidence, good science can be overturned, whereas God is always supposed to be perfect and never changing. When do the New Atheists treat science as a religion?
BG: In a nutshell, there are limits to every discipline, a point those with a humble heart recognize and accept. As an outsider looking in, “select” New Atheists seem to have proclaimed Darwin as their God. If that is not the case, then I suggest they dial down their rhetoric and allow for a more nuanced discussion instead of speaking in absolutes. These four horsemen of the Atheist Apocalypse come off just as odious and obnoxious as the most obstinate “family values” fanatics.
HM: You call my group the Secularist Student Alliance! (Footnote 21, p. 209) It’s the Secular Student Alliance! That’s just unforgivable…
BG: Sorry bud – I put in a request for it to be included in the second edition. A libation of your choosing is on me whenever we meet in person. After all, my mantra is “you state your views, I state mine and then we go out for a drink.” Cheers.
Garrison also added this addendum:
Right after I sent off my questions to you, I got a review copy of The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by Andrew Comte-Sponville. As written on the book jacket “According to Conte-Sponville, we have allowed the concept of spirituality to become intertwined with religion and have lost touch with the nature of a true spiritual existence. In order to change this, however, we need not reject the ancient traditions and values that are part of our heritage; rather, we must rethink our relationship to these values and ask ourselves whether their significance comes from the existence of a higher power or simply from the human need to connect to one another and the universe.” While we all may reach a different conclusion as to the origin of these values, I pray those of us who are willing to engage the other can enter into this kind of a dialogue sans shouting. (My satirical self only rears its head when I’m unduly provoked by those who force fed their religious metanarratives on the rest of us like we’re some goose being prepped as their fois gras treat. [vbg])
If you have any questions for Garrison, she has agreed to answer them. Please leave them in the comments and I’ll pass them along to her.
[tags]atheist, atheism, Rational Response Squad, Nightline, Christian, apologist, Jesus, Christianity[/tags]