Angry, Angry Atheists

Angry, Angry Atheists March 14, 2011

I don’t care if it is on HuffPost, I’m not going to ignore the latest piece by David Wolpe in which he asks the question, “Why are atheists so angry?”  He’s prompted to this query because he’s been the object of a considerable amount of derision in the responses to his HuffPost pieces.  (Anyone looking for love on the internet is definitely in the wrong place!)

I guess there are a lot of angry atheists out there.  I can certainly be one of them.  My anger is almost always limited to what people do to others in the name of some truth claim attributed to God.  So, for example, I get truly angry about the treatment of gays and lesbians.  I have yet to see any kind of real movement against gay rights that is not completely dependent upon theistic justifications.  Even those who claim they’re not deriving their homophobic positions from religious positions are usually revealed to be liars.

I also get angry at what theism has done to women, children and the other weak among us any time that theists get a little wind in their sails and start running things.  For evidence of this, see pretty much any theocracy that’s ever existed.

To his credit, Rabbi Wolpe recognizes why atheists would feel this way:

No one can seriously deny that religion has been guilty of wickedness in this world and has provided cover for wickedness. I refer not only to abusers who hide under the cloak of clergy, but religious persecutions, the stifling of speech and dissent, the mistreatment of women — the crimes are legion. While as a believer I think there is much more to be said about this topic, it is certainly reasonable for people to be angry at religion for its abuses, particularly people who have themselves been victims.

He then goes on to enumerate the other possible sources of our anger.  That we blame religion on retarding scientific progress.  That we do not address serious religious arguments.  That we lack a sense of wonder.

Maybe all of this is true for some atheists, but those of us who identify as secular humanists do not view the world that way, no matter what kind of silliness fills the comment sections of the HuffPost religion page.

Plenty of religious people have made important scientific discoveries.  Reasonable modern non-theists, however, claim that the more that is uncovered the less necessity there is to invoke the existence of supernatural powers.  This has removed – or at least critically wounded – the explanatory power of theism.  This is why there is an increasing indifference to a “personal God” among scientists.  That’s not to say that there aren’t theistic scientists, but their number is diminishing for good reason.  The more we know, even though it’s still very little, the less we need deities of any kind.

About the more sophisticated theologians that we hear so much about, Wolpe states, “There is an arrogant unwillingness to engage with religion’s serious thinkers.”  This charge I must take seriously since I have personally spent some number of decades engaging them.  I even honor them as part of my intellectual history.  On my office wall there are pictures of Maimonides and Mordecai Kaplan.

Maimonides is there because, though his ultimate conclusions about the world do nothing for me, I admire his tireless efforts to wrestle with the science of his time (although the science was wrong).  I would not, however, seek contemporary wisdom in Maimonides’ writing.  How could he provide it?  Instead I draw inspiration from the effort that he undertook to treat “science” seriously and to re-evaluate religion in its light.

Kaplan’s picture is in its place of honor because, though he could never let go of a God “idea,” he did let go of God as a being.  In so doing, he took a very long stride toward defining God out of existence by transforming God into a metaphor for a purely human process.

Since Kaplan, however, I have not really encountered a serious consistent theologian whom I can take seriously.  Now perhaps it is my own intellectual deficiencies that are to blame for this, but I think not.  What I have mostly found in the words of Whitehead and his intellectual descendants, is a desperate effort to keep God alive by defining him in ever more abstract terms.  At some point the definitions become so imprecise that I am no longer sure what kind of God is left; it is certainly not a personal God, a being or an entity.

Finally, Rabbi Wolpe makes the claim that “…there is sometimes in the atheist a want of wonder.”  This is not a charge for which I have found any substantiation.

Richard Dawkins, for example, can be criticized for a lot of things, but a lack of wonder is not one of them.  The entire “new atheist” approach is championed first and foremost by scientists.  They exemplify the very essence of wonder.  The non-theists that I know are in constant awe of the universe.  We are also quite struck with our great good fortune to be conscious beings living here.  That’s why we consume so much science.  We also make all kinds of art, including poetry that is no less awe-struck than that of the ancient God-intoxicated authors of the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic literature.  It is also considerably more informed.

As for the religious, we are often told (not unreasonably) that they should be divided into at least two groups.  One group consists of  those who already have all the answers.  In the other are the liberals with their more sophisticated and nuanced theologies.

The latter group, to which Rabbi Wolpe and all of the others like him supposedly belong, claims to represent the real spirit of religion.  They contrast themselves quite starkly with the fundamentalist in temperament.  Wolpe himself states in this very article that the incredulity of atheists about other views “reminds me of the most self-assured of the faithful, who suffer the same intellectual imperialism.

“Yet it was Rabbi Wolpe who stood on a stage in Mexico and sided with two undeniably conservative Christians, William Lane Craig and R. Douglas Geivett in a debate against scientists / atheists Matt Ridley, Michael Shermer, and Richard Dawkins.  These two Christians have been outspoken in their support for continued oppression of gays and lesbians, to name just one example of their theologically justified immorality.  But in the name of their common theism, Rabbi Wolpe stood by their side.Come to think of it, that made me quite angry.  So there’s another answer to Rabbi Wolpe’s question.

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