There is little new under the sun when it comes to anti-theistic arguments. Whether it be high minded philosophical critique or rabble rousing anti-clericalism, what was old is now new.
Richard Ostling observed in his Get Religion post “Is the ‘New Atheism’ any different from old atheism?” the content of the criticism remains the same, but the tone has changed. The new atheism has taken a:
[A] tactical lurch toward emotion-laden partisanship and take-no-prisoners rhetoric that might make a Fundamentalist blush.
In this week’s Crossroads, aGet Religion podcast, Issues, Etc., host Todd Wilken and I discussed two posts that touched on anti-theism — but approached the subject from different perspectives: French media disdain for religious believers and a “heretical” Episcopal bishop.
While there have been other non-theistic Episcopal bishops, Jack Spong of Newark was the media darling of the ’90s. A fixture on talk shows and op-ed pages in his day, Bishop Spong was the subject of a profile written by the Religion News Service that was released in advance of his next book.
Pressed by Todd whether my dislike of the story was motivated more by my theological disagreements with Bishop Spong than journalistic concerns, I responded that I had no quarrel with Bishop Spong being Bishop Spong. What stoked my ire was the the lack of balance, hard questions of context in the RNS piece. It was more of a People magazine puff piece than journalism.
The second half of the story was a review of my criticism of two different accounts of the trial of four French West Indian immigrants in Paris, accused with kidnapping and torturing a fellow immigrant. They have denied the charge, and in their defense have claimed they were exorcising demons from their victim. The journalistic issue I saw was the discrepancy between AFP’s English and French language stories — released at the same time. The English language version noted the defendants said they were motivated to act by the tenets of their Seventh-day Adventist beliefs. But it included the information the four had been expelled from the church some time ago — and that their actions were contrary to that church’s doctrine and discipline.
The French version omitted this disclaimer. Todd asked me why the two versions differed. I said it could have been two different teams at work in the AFP office (French and English language) or it could be an example of writing to the audience’s interests. In the culture of the Anglosphere, religious beliefs and religions have always had a place in the public square. This is not the case in France, where faith is regarded by the elites as a private matter that should not intrude into public life. The French-language AFP article represented a secular worldview that saw no utility in reporting on the religion details. The attitude of the article was that these benighted immigrants were motivated by their weird (Seventh-day Adventist) faith and these odd “Evangelical Christians” need no further discussion.
The attitude is one I have encountered more and more in recent years — one cited by Richard Ostling in his Get Religion piece — that traditional Christian believers are crazy or stupid. The attitude is not new — see Schleiermacher’s On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799), but the tone of disbelief is no longer cultured, more aggressive, and oblivious to the ideas of others. This is the attitude one encounters in the mainstream media, such as AFP. And it runs through Jack Spong’s books. (And this aspect of his work was studiously avoided by RNS in its puff piece.)
Perhaps Todd was correct in surmising that my animus towards the RNS piece was personal. I have been an object of pity from some of my clerical brethren for my beliefs. One bishop asked me how I could believe in such things as the Virgin Birth, bodily resurrection, even though I was well educated. I was a traitor to my class — “one of us” who had gone over to the other side. I was not stupid, therefore there must be something wrong with me — or I was playing a deep game.
A recent exchange between New York Magazine and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia aptly illustrates the contempt religious believers receive at the hands of the media.
Scalia: I even believe in the Devil.
NYM: You do?
Scalia: Of course! Yeah, he’s a real person. Hey, c’mon, that’s standard Catholic doctrine! Every Catholic believes that.
NYM: Every Catholic believes this? There’s a wide variety of Catholics out there …
Scalia: If you are faithful to Catholic dogma, that is certainly a large part of it.
NYM: Have you seen evidence of the Devil lately?
Scalia: You know, it is curious. In the Gospels, the Devil is doing all sorts of things. He’s making pigs run off cliffs, he’s possessing people and whatnot. And that doesn’t happen very much anymore.
NYM: Isn’t it terribly frightening to believe in the Devil?
Scalia: You’re looking at me as though I’m weird. My God! Are you so out of touch with most of America, most of which believes in the Devil? I mean, Jesus Christ believed in the Devil! It’s in the Gospels! You travel in circles that are so, so removed from mainstream America that you are appalled that anybody would believe in the Devil! Most of mankind has believed in the Devil, for all of history. Many more intelligent people than you or me have believed in the Devil.
NYM: I hope you weren’t sensing contempt from me. It wasn’t your belief that surprised me so much as how boldly you expressed it.
Scalia: I was offended by that. I really was.
Are Christians crazy or stupid? Or are people of faith merely viewed with contempt?