Part of the reason that I gave up reading the cadre of New Atheists self-styled as the Four Horsemen—Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins—was that, charges of arrogance aside, they seemed to exhibit a kind of cluelessness about how religion works in the lives of many people.
I read The End of Faith. I liked it. I thought Sam Harris made important points that people who do espouse faith benefit from considering. And I recognize Christopher Hitchens’ right to claim that “To ‘choose’ dogma and faith over doubt and experience is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid,” though I don’t agree that those are mutually exclusive qualities.
But after a certain point, their very certainty just plain annoyed me. In spite of their claims to the contrary, it is a kind of arrogance to look down your nose dismissively at the varieties of religious experience. And indeed, I have been at many dinner parties where, if the subject of religion arose, it was handily scoffed at or, if it were revealed that I was an ordained clergyperson, conversation took a different turn, as if someone had discovered that there was one of them in the room.
So I was pleased to discover, in The Chronicle Review, an article by Stephen T. Asma, professor of philosophy at Columbia College (Chicago) calling atheists to take a more commodious view of religions world-wide. It seemed a fair article and a good corrective to the excess excoriation of religion that characterizes much of the New Atheism. The charge Asma levels is that the New Atheists’ arguments against religion reveal a kind of provincialism on their part.
“If the horsemen left their world of books, conferences, classrooms, and computers to travel more in the developing world for a year, they would find some unfamiliar religious arenas,” he writes.
And he goes on to cite Buddhism, animism and Hinduism as polytheistic religions (as opposed to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the monotheistic systems that are the target of most New Atheist rhetoric) that play a central role in the lives of those in developing countries.
He doesn’t say that these traditions do or should substitute for reason, education, healthcare, economic growth. But he doesn’t dispute the value they impart to the society that looks to them. Asma writes:
“Religion, even the wacky, superstitious stuff, is an analgesic survival mechanism and sanctuary in the developing world. Religion provides some order, coherence, respite, peace, and traction against the fates. Perhaps most important, it quells the emotional distress of human vulnerability. I’m an agnostic and a citizen of a wealthy nation, but when my own son was in the emergency room with an illness, I prayed spontaneously. I’m not naïve—I don’t think it did a damn thing to heal him. But when people have their backs against the wall, when they are truly helpless and hopeless, then groveling and negotiating with anything more powerful than themselves is a very human response. It is a response that will not go away, and that should not go away if it provides some genuine relief for anxiety and agony. As Roger Scruton says, ‘The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation’.”
Asma would object to Christopher Hitchens’ claim that religion “comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge” and would instead have us ask: how can we distinguish between benign and dangerous religious systems?
And while he readily acknowledges the atrocities and bloodshed caused by religions, he also reminds readers of the Khmer Rouge regime: “There is much good ‘medicine’ in Buddhism (just as there is much good in other religions), but if the Asian Communists found you practicing it in the 1970s, you were as good as dead. And that form of militant atheism should ring a cautionary note: Religion is not the only ideology with blood on its hands.”
Rather, he concludes, religions (as well as ideologies) should be judged by the usual criterion of experience to determine which are helpful and which are harmful faith systems.
He writes, “Religious ideas that encourage dehumanization, violence, and factionalism should be reformed or diminished, while those that humanize, console, and inspire should be fostered.”
I came from reading the article hopeful that there was room for New Atheism to consider the possibility that faith can be beneficial, however much they may dispute the existence of a divinity; to quote Roger Scruton once more: “The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.”
But my optimism was short-lived. What followed in the online comments was a series of attacks on the author as well as rambling, anti-religious screeds (why is it OK to call people who believe in some kind of God “religionists,” a word clearly coined to be derogative) that seemed to be more about anger than logic, self-righteousness than open-mindedness.
The opportunity to have genuine compassion and reason-based dialogue is a terrible thing to waste.