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Discourse Deferred

To the Editor:

Jo Page’s column, “At Cross Purposes” [Reckonings, Oct. 22], laments the combativeness of some atheists today in arguing for their beliefs and against religion. She calls it mean spirited “God bashing” that “does nothing to advance the much-needed aim of seeking common ground.”

It’s nice to see religious believers advocating mutually respectful dialog. For several millennia their response to atheists was mostly intolerant hate-filled demonization—indeed, burning them alive, literally. And many Christians still say atheists will, and/or should, burn in Hell. Today’s militant atheists do not want to burn anybody, but merely to get a hearing for their ideas, something denied them during all those centuries.

Yes, there’s some extremism and rough language, which doesn’t help. But it doesn’t come close to the deadly extremism of religious persecutions throughout history. And as for this civil dialog that religionists like Ms. Page are quick to accuse atheists of undermining—where is it? I have rarely seen any serious efforts by the religious to reach out, engage with, and understand atheists. Page herself describes an interfaith dialog among Christians, Jews, and Muslims—but, typically, no atheists, who are still widely deemed beyond the pale. (A recent College of St. Rose debate on religion and ethics, in which I participated representing humanism, was an all-too-rare exception.)

I’m all for respectful dialog, seeking common ground, and so forth—it’s long overdue on religion’s side—but religion has a lot to answer for, and its claims to truth must be subject to open public scrutiny and debate. What religion really seems to want is a continued free ride in public discourse—to saturate the air with its sanctimony while being exempt from serious intellectual challenge. We take for granted the cut-and-thrust of feisty political debate, with all its name-calling, but religion is considered a sacred cow we’re not supposed to criticize, and faith a bar to any argument. Religious believers don’t like being challenged in this way and try to delegitimize it. They can dish it out but they can’t take it.

Frank S. Robinson

Author of The Case for Rational Optimism


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