Editor’s Note: The mild humanist chaplain we’ve come to know gets a little edgy. In this two-part essay, he expresses his feelings about the “angry atheists” he has encountered. Having already read this, I’m eager to hear others’ responses, and then to add my own. / Linda LaScola, Editor
By Chris Highland
In response to an article I sent to him, written by a skeptical biblical scholar, a pastor replied,
“I think he’s more of an evangelical atheist than you.”
I appreciated that he felt that way.
Unfortunately, the image many people have of non-believers comes from the most agitated atheists. The most aggressive, angry and anti-religious voices seem to get the most press coverage, resulting in all non-believers getting branded with a bad name. Can we blame the faithful for getting the impression that the faithless are rather tactless and unkind?
I’ve never felt “called” to be an “atheist evangelist.” I don’t feel the need to convert anyone to my viewpoint or use all the mocking and memes out there to prove what a great apologist for atheism I can be.
Ten or fifteen years ago I was reading books by the so-called “new atheists” including Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.
While appreciating many of their logical positions, their arguments left me wondering: Why be so caustic and contentious? Are you aware how arrogant you appear? Who’s listening? Is anyone changing anyone’s mind in these matters?
Maybe it’s anathema to question these modern heroes of heresy, but I don’t mind becoming a heretic among heretics.
I often asked myself while reading the “aa” writers (agitated/angry atheists): Do they have any relationships with people of faith or do they simply not care? How does all their intellectual bombast go over when they’re talking with a loved one who believes? Are they only interested in sinking ships rather than suggesting alternate courses?
Some say they aren’t attacking believers, only religious beliefs. Yet, ask a person of faith how they feel about these aggressive attacks. Why wouldn’t they take it personally since these are deeply personal matters? And, I have to ask why these differences of opinion have to be skirmishes at all?
One blog editor wrote,
“I think there will be fewer ‘angry atheists’ when there is less to be angry about.”
Maybe. Though some seem intent to be bitter and grumpy, and besides, won’t we always find things to be angry about? The choice is, what do we do with our anger, whittle it into a weapon or get more creative?
Like many who have left faith, I went through a period of disappointment tinged with anger, but I refused to let that define me or determine my journey forward.
These tensions are illustrated by a story from the naturalist John Burroughs.
In his New York boyhood he witnessed regular disputes between his father and a neighbor who argued over beliefs in the Burroughs’ kitchen. The (Methodist) neighbor was the “aggressor,” whittling a stick while whittling away at old farmer Burroughs, an old- school Baptist. The neighbor was “more ready and smooth of tongue” with his arguments, but as John saw it, his father held “the greater depth of religious feeling.”
“Each looked upon the religious belief of the other with the utmost contempt.” The elder Burroughs “would not have been caught in [a Methodist church] on any account whatever.”
Looking back with the wisdom of years, Burroughs completes his description of these kitchen-table whittlings with this:
“The disputants of course never succeeded in changing each other’s views, but only in causing them to be held more tenaciously.”
In fact, he says that both old men “died in the faith they had early professed.”
How sad when people are so set in their ways they never seem to give an inch, learn or grow.
This story comes from The Light of Day (1900), which was John Burroughs’ own venture into the struggles and tensions between reason and religion, science, philosophy, naturalism and faith. The tone and manner in which he reflects on his family’s faith is admirable, sensitive.
“How impossible for me to read the Bible as father or [the neighbor] did, or to feel any interest in the questions which were so vital to them; not because I have hardened my heart against these things, but mainly because I was born forty years later than they were, with different tastes and habits of mind.”
What Burroughs touches on here is a major issue I have with those “aa”s who are so intent on converting (or de-converting) people of faith, so focused on forcing their arguments on “deluded” and “irrational” believers, so desperate to “win,” that they miss the humanity, the deep meaning so many find in faith. Why is that so threatening?
If a non-theist has family, friends or co-workers who have faith (who doesn’t?), is the mission to be an atheist evangelist? How is that any different than the old-fashioned evangelism? Unless we have a dramatic “game of thrones”-type clash of worldviews with combatants in a contest for superiority and domination, what purpose does any non-fictional evangelistic agenda serve?
I understand the need for “apologists” (defenders)—at least I understand their need to convince. I did that once upon a time. But I no longer have the need to argue my way into someone’s head or heart. “Do unto others” seems a reasonable guideline for atheists too. This is one reason I don’t go too deep in debate with intransigent atheists either (after all, with my “chaplain’s heart” and “natural mind” I consistently seek common ground with little time for seizing the high ground).
What purpose does it serve, these endless debates and arguments where people take sides and no side wins? We don’t see mass conversions to belief or non-belief. I’ve watched and listened to debates. I greatly prefer to view discussions and dialogues— honest conversations without having to put another person down.
I can appreciate some of what Hitchens or Dawkins toss out, though often with smirks on their faces. Yet, that’s how it seems to me: tossing stones at others while smirking with an air of superiority. This only convinces people that non-believers are elitist asses.
As one clergyperson asked me when we first met,
“Do you think religious people are delusional?”
He referred to The God Delusion by Dawkins. I responded by saying we all have our delusions, but no, I don’t think all people of faith are, on the whole, “delusional.”
Like so many in the religious community, many non-religious seem to be caught in the same loop of talking to themselves. I fall into that sometimes, primarily engaging online with people who generally think like I do about some things. There’s nothing inherently wrong with “hanging out” with others who share similar stories. It’s probably good to simply be aware of the bubble or echo chamber, realizing that people “outside” aren’t included or being engaged. That’s how I felt among friends and colleagues when discussing theology. It became a fun ping-pong game, but nothing ever really changed, except perhaps gaining a few new jokes.
Another great naturalist, John Muir, took a steamer ship from San Francisco to Alaska in 1890. Muir was a man of faith, though far more interested in this world than any other. Onboard the steamer he had a lively conversation with an old Scandinavian sea captain who was “a stubborn skeptic” but also “the kindest soul on board.” The sailor told Muir that he had no time “for nonsense and mystery and other worlds.” Muir the pantheistic believer was impressed with the old captain, “the best-natured growler” he had ever met. Muir stirred his shipmate’s curiosity about glaciers, the naturalist joking that the captain should “repent and be reformed” to go see Alaska’s glaciers for himself.
Wouldn’t it be good to hear more encounters like this, among respectful people who can both learn and laugh with each other?
Chris Highland was a minister and chaplain for many years in the SF Bay Area. Now teaching courses on Freethought in Asheville, North Carolina, he writes a weekly “Highland Views” column for the Citizen-Times. His new book, A Freethinker’s Gospel, is now available from Pisgah Press. Chris has been a member of The Clergy Project since 2012. To learn more, see www.chighland.com.
>>>>>>Photo Credits: By David Shankbone – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1 ; By Cmichel67 (Christopher Michel), CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67540292 ; By Ernest Walter Histed – The Critic: http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=chi.74712517;view=1up;seq=146;size=175, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47477471