Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Nothing to Fear

As a historian, my interest grows as I see commentary on the "New Atheism." The "Big Four" - Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens (sounds like British law firm) - have created a stir that stimulates skeptics to be more militant and religious apologists to fire up their debating skills.

There is absolutely NOTHING new about any of the ideas brought forward any of these or other atheists. They are part of a generational cycle of reaction against religion that characterizes the academic and chattering classes of the West. From the first "free thinkers" of the 17th century to today's militant atheists, hatred of religion will always have adherents and auditors, especially if there are a few juicy scandals among some religious groups.

There are four basic tactics of the anti-religious elites. Some are presented with honorable intent, while others cynically exploit ignorance or use the tools of propaganda to influence their hearers.

Tactic Number One: Vilify the awful things done in the name of religion in order to distort the beliefs of that religion. It is amazing how the same historical events come up, with no attempt to read multiple accounts of the same events.

For example: The Crusades of 1095 to 1291. The standard atheist screed is, "Look what religion does! It promulgates violence and intolerance and it merely the tool of the political elite."

Response: The Crusades were a complex series of geopolitical events that involved Christians, Muslims, Jews and above all, the economic and political concerns of competing civilizations. The losers were the pious of all faiths and the winners were the rich and powerful. None of these events "proves" or "disproves" the Divine.

The fact is that the new atheists are really out to destroy Christianity and hope Islam will go down in flames someday. The creator of the recent movie 2012 was happy to destroy the holy sites of Judaism and Christianity because he hates religion; however he did not want an Islamofascist fatwa on his head, so the Dome on the Rock and Mecca were spared!

Tactic Number Two: Create a huge divide between religion and science and assert that science represents intellectual and moral progress while religion is regressive and intellectually infantile. All the radical atheists consider their perspective the only tenable one for "fully informed and sane people." Obviously, only these "brights" should be in charge!

Response: The vast majority of scientists before 1900 were not atheists and even today most scientists argue that these are separate domains. Science does not aim to destroy religion and most religious adherents respect the hard work of the scientific community. The problem arises when a scientific theory (Darwinian Evolution) becomes more than an explanation of natural processes. In the hands of the impious and unscrupulous, it becomes an excuse to exclude God from Nature or to justify ethnic supremacy or other totalitarian ideas.

Most religious folks can live with a world older than Bishop Ussher's chronology. They will not, however, yield the ground of meaning and morality to chaotic, impersonal, random and violent forces.

Tactic Number Three: Question the validity of key Christian beliefs, especially the resurrection of Jesus. If met with intelligent responses, question the historicity and veracity of the Bible. To add a bit of spice, attempt to reduce Christianity and Judaism to an amalgamation of beliefs culled from other faiths and philosophies, with no need for any supernatural intervention. In fact, go back to science and roundly affirm the impossibility of verifying any miracles.

Response: Yes, there is a measure of faith for any theist. Yes, Christianity (along with Islam and Judaism) shares some ideas and moral precepts with other systems. But this is not the same as declaring the resurrection impossible, Jesus barely a historical figure or the growth of Christianity merely a natural phenomenon.

Jesus of Nazareth is a historical figure verified by multiple accounts, sacred and secular. His followers were transformed and became zealous missionaries because they believed in Jesus' literal resurrection. The growth of Christianity, accompanied by its ethical, social and spiritual good, is not possible if it is only an amalgamation of other belief systems.

Tactic Number Four: When all else fails, hold God hostage for not intervening to prevent evil in all circumstances and/or his (apparent) failure to talk to us like any other person.

Response: The problem of evil is vexing for anyone, skeptic or theist. The most passionate believer can not explain fully why a "sneer was found across the universe"(G.K. Chesterton). In an of itself, though, evil is not a proof or disproof of the Divine - it is a problem that God and humankind must face. Once again, the atheists miss the point. By holding God accountable to humans, we are missing the very definition of God that is part of Monotheism.

Theists must clarify their thinking, speak boldly and humbly, and above all, live lives of exemplary love and service. There is nothing to fear from the new brand of atheism - it is the old ideas repackaged for a gullible, narcissistic consumer culture. Atheism is the preserve of cultural elites.

There is no room for smugness. Real faith and the communities it creates must be renewed continually. We must be alert to the forces that seek destruction of the Divine in humanity. All this said, we have nothing to fear is we "do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God."

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