I’ve been thinking recently about militant atheism, and in particular about Richard Dawkins’ video The Root of All Evil? Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the kind of intellectual snobbery that so often characterizes the atheist vs. Christian debate and the way that atheists like Dawkins play on people’s contempt for ignorant or foolish people in order to make Christianity look bad.
It’s something that comes up again and again, and usually the response of intellectual Christians is an understandable, but also lamentable, desire to distance ourselves. “Well, yes, of course those Christians are stupid and laughable – but that’s not what Christianity is!” The problem with this response (and it is one that I am often guilty of myself) is that it implies that the true Christian is a man of learning and sophistication and that people whose understanding of theology or history or science makes us want to facepalm are somehow less worthy of the name of Christ.
Perhaps a better response would simply be to ask why it is that militant atheists so often pick on their intellectual inferiors as a way to bolster their convictions? I mean, if I want to make the case that atheism is less intellectually credible than Christianity I don’t go around looking for some Marxist-Leninist nutjob who believes in armed socialist revolution to hold up as proof that atheism leads to violence. I don’t hunt down some guy who believes that we don’t need God because humans were created as a servitor race by alien reptiles. I don’t go to Bad Religion concerts and interview stoned-looking kids with anarchy tattoos on their heads, then sneer at their lack of theological sophistication.
Atheists who don’t know the first thing about the politics of the Crusades, whose understanding of the Bible is painfully simplistic, and who have a cringe-worthily superficial knowledge of how Church councils operate are a dime a dozen. But so what? Showing that these people are ignorant doesn’t prove anything – ignorance is hardly a rare commodity, and no religion or ideology has a monopoly on it. More to the point, it is the universal state of human beings: even the most intelligent of us is familiar with only an infinitesimally small fraction of human knowledge, and human knowledge itself represents a laughably negligible drop of everything that there is to know.
Sneering at other people’s ignorance should not earn anyone points in a debate. The practice of holding up the dumbest possible examples of the ideology that you oppose, pointing, laughing, and lobbing com-box insults at them is just an obnoxious exercise in self-congratulation. It’s the modern equivalent of putting the village idiot in the stocks, asking him simple questions that he can’t possibly answer, and then pelting him with rotten fruit when he gets them wrong. It’s dunce-shaming, and it’s despicable.
Yes, there are people out there who are less intelligent than you are. And yes, some of those people believe things that are blatantly untrue. But in the same way that it’s inexcusable for a 300 lb bruiser to beat up a spindly 110 lb nerd, it’s bullying when a brilliant, internationally renowned evolutionary biologist picks on a guy who thinks the earth is 6000 years old.
It’s not that there’s a lack of intelligent Christians out there. There are plenty of folks who could fly circles around Dawkins in a religious dogfight – however brilliant the man may be as a scientist, his knowledge of theology is understandably primitive. It’s not his field. But Dawkins chooses instead to engage with people that he can flatten, not on the basis of the superiority of his arguments or his position, but simply on the basis of a vast difference in IQ.
This tendency seems, too often, to be endemic to the militant atheist community. I’m not saying you don’t find it elsewhere (say, in the Catholic blogosphere, for example), but it’s rarely such a mainstay of a movement’s behaviour and thought. Rooting out and ridiculing stupidity on the part of Christians seems to be a more or less perennial obsession of popular atheism, in some cases to the point where the movement appears to consist of little else.
Christian intellectuals, I think, need to be more careful about validating this kind of behaviour when we’re talking to atheists. Instead of trying to distance ourselves from our less educated brethren, we need to defend them. Just because a guy didn’t finish highschool and grew up in small town rural Murica, that doesn’t make him any less a brother or sister in Christ. Maybe he’s a little confused as to the relationship between the Bible and the 2nd amendment, but he still has a precious immortal soul and he’s a beloved child of God.
Instead of throwing our fellow Christians under the bus, I think we need to call out atheists and name this behaviour for what it is: intellectual cowardice. Atheists who believe that Christianity is wrong should be able to demonstrate their convictions in a fair fight. Preying, instead, on the uneducated and the simple is lazy, cruel and dishonest. It doesn’t prove that Christians are stupid. It just proves that the militant atheists who act this way are bullies and boors.
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