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