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At Cross Purposes

In seminary I took a class on Jewish-Christian Dialogue. It was taught by a rabbi from the nearby Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. There were 20 of us, 10 Christians and 10 Jews. In order to keep discussion fair and balanced (did I just write “fair and balanced?”), our rabbi devised a “Decalogue for Dialogue.”

It was a remarkable class in many ways, characterized by mutual respect and especially notable for how our similarities far outweighed our differences.

But that didn’t surprise me. And not only because I’d spent my college years ensconced in the warmth and traditions of a culturally Jewish, if not religiously observant, community of friends.

Mostly, it was that we actually wanted to understand each other.

Of course, our rabbi took the position that Jewish-Christian dialogue wasn’t uncommon and certainly not extraordinary. In her view what was needed was a triologue among Jews, Christians and Muslims.

So she found an imam willing to come and talk to us. Blond-haired, with a Midwestern twang, he looked more like a professor than a cleric. And he talked professorially, too. In other words, this was a lecture and not a discussion. He was pretty clear on the superiority of his faith tradition, having some tolerance for Judaism and virtually nothing good to say about Christianity.

It was a strange, dispiriting evening. The group was accustomed to even-handedness and open-mindedness, not proselytizing.

Now, it wasn’t because he was Muslim that this happened. Our guest could just as easily have been an obnoxious Christian proclaiming the superiority of that faith. (And if you run up and down the airwaves, you’ll have no trouble finding Christian preachers doing just that any time of the day.)

But the point is—and a point discussed ruefully during our next class—that insults and extremism don’t work. They only cause harm.

And yet religious extremism is on the rise all over the world.

Fast forward to Blasphemy Day, Sept. 30th, 2009.

Atheists gathered worldwide to celebrate the freedom to belittle and denigrate religion. Religion of all kinds, though it seemed to me from the coverage I’ve seen that Christianity took the sharpest blows.

People de-baptized each other with hair dryers. Others offered to trade their Bibles for pornography.

The Center for Inquiry in Amherst, N.Y., even sponsored a contest inviting the creation of slogans that society might judge as blasphemous. The winner received a T-shirt emblazoned with the winning entry. According to CNN reporter Moni Basu, some of the slogans were so crude CNN couldn’t show them. But since the Center for Inquiry is all about freedom of expression, it didn’t reject any of them.

There was art work depicting a frantic football fan praying for a Hail Mary during the Super Bowl. And there were depictions of Jesus that scandalized even some of the atheists—Jesus’ blood flowing into a wine bottle, Jesus painting the nails of the cross, a communion wafer with a nail driven through it.

This, I discovered, is all part of the “new atheism.”

Of course we’ve all heard about “new atheism.” Christopher Hitchens made a career comeback with his book God Is Not Great. And Michel Onfray’s Athiest’s Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism and Islam, Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion all made big splashes in the cultural pool.

Hitchens, speaking to a National Public Radio interviewer dismissed faith as “sinister, dangerous and ridiculous.”

And he declaimed to a group of University of Toronto students, “I think religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt, and I claim that right,” accompanied by approving roars.

But how is all this God-bashing advancing mutual understanding and tolerance? How can it?

And apparently a rift is developing among atheists—those, like Jordan Stuart, a science advisor at the Center for Inquiry: “[There is] really a national debate among people with a secular orientation about how far do we want to go in promoting a secular society through emphasizing the ‘new atheism.’ And some are very much for it, and some are opposed to it on the grounds that they feel this is largely a religious country, and if it’s pushed the wrong way, this is going to insult many of the religious people who should be shown respect even if we don’t agree with them on all issues.”

Jordan believes the new approach will backfire.

As does Paul Kurtz, who founded the Center for Inquiry three decades ago to offer a positive alternative to religion and has worked to build alliances with religious groups over issues such as climate change and opposing the teaching of creationism. But Kurtz was ousted in what he called a “palace coup” last year — and he worries the new atheists will set the movement back.

“I consider them atheist fundamentalists,” he says. “They’re anti-religious, and they’re mean-spirited, unfortunately. Now, there [are] very good atheists and very dedicated people who do not believe in God. But you have this aggressive and militant phase of atheism, and that does more damage than good.”

“New atheism” is no different a kind of extremism than the very same religious extremism that they seek to denigrate. And, like any form of fundamentalism, it does nothing to advance the much-needed aim of seeking common ground.

—Jo Page

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