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On Being Uncontroversial

As the so-called "New Atheists" like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens attract increasing media attention, they've come under fire for supposedly being too sweeping in their denunciations of religion, too "extreme" in their criticism. Defenders of the established order, many of whom are religious liberals, pour scorn on these outspoken nonbelievers for daring to express their opinions with passion and confidence. Consider the following entirely typical example, whose title says it all: The New Atheists loathe religion far too much to plausibly challenge it.


...one has to question whether all the aggression isn't counterproductive. Robert Winston voiced increasing concern among scientists when he argued in a recent lecture in Dundee that Dawkins's insulting and patronising approach did science a disservice. Meanwhile, critics in America argue that the polarisation of the debate in the US is setting the cause of non-deism back rather than advancing it.

For all that Madeleine Bunting bemoans atheists' "vituperative polemic", she shows little reluctance to denounce them in at least equally aggressive and insulting terms. But what is her alternative? If our criticism of religion is too harsh, what should we be talking about instead?

The danger is that the aggression and hostility to religion in all its forms... deters engagement with the really interesting questions that have emerged recently in the science/faith debate.

...Does that make religion an important evolutionary step but now no longer needed - the equivalent of the appendix? Or a crucial part of the explanation for successful human evolution to date? Does religion still have an important role in human wellbeing? In recent years, research has thrown up some remarkable benefits - the faithful live longer, recover from surgery quicker, are happier, less prone to mental illness and so the list goes on. If religion declines, what gaps does it leave in the functioning of individuals and social groups?

There is much of importance that can be gleaned from this passage. First and foremost, it shows unintentionally that the denunciation of atheists has nothing to do with the language or tone of their criticism, and it especially has nothing to do with the accuracy of their criticism. On the contrary, atheists are called "shrill" and "hysterical" and "extremist" if they criticize religion in any way at all. (For purposes of calibration, Bunting writes for a Roman Catholic newspaper called the Tablet and is a fellow at the Templeton Foundation, which seeks to reconcile science with religion.) On the other hand, people who praise religion are not subject to similar criticism, as we can see from Bunting's loaded question about "what gaps" would be left in society if theism declines.

There is a double standard being applied here. According to Bunting and others, the position that religion has done more good than harm is an entirely acceptable, moderate, mainstream position. However, the position that religion has done more harm than good is an outrageous, aggressive, provocative position. This is nothing less than hypocrisy employed in an attempt to stifle a legitimate and important debate. Apparently, we are free to find religion fascinating and complex, to call it the basis of morality and spirituality, and to suggest that it should be intensively and devotedly studied. But any suggestion that we might be better off without it is denounced as extremist and beyond the pale, despite the vast harm that has been done and is still being done by religious fanatics around the globe.

Bunting's gushing about how wonderful religion is and how extensively it should be studied remind me of the famous Buddhist parable of the poison arrow:


It is as if a man had been wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and kinsmen were to get a surgeon to heal him, and he were to say, I will not have this arrow pulled out until I know by what man I was wounded, whether he is of the warrior caste, or a brahmin, or of the agricultural, or the lowest caste. Or if he were to say, I will not have this arrow pulled out until I know of what name or family the man is — or whether he is tall, or short, or of middle height... Before knowing all this, that man would die.

The parallel is obvious. Right now, religion is causing vast harm around the world. Right now, it poses a grave and serious threat. Until this threat has been ended and the harm stopped, there is no excuse for saying that it is rude to criticize religion or that we should calmly study it instead. On the contrary, these criticisms need to be heard. We need more of them, and they should be made as often and as loudly as possible. If anything, today's atheists are paragons of civility compared to human-rights movements of previous generations.

My conclusion? I am not, nor will I ever be, ashamed of who I am. I will not apologize for defending the positions I believe in, nor will I apologize for speaking out with energy and passion. I will entertain any fair criticism of my beliefs, but I will pay no regard to those who put on a pretense of high-mindedness and try to silence positions they find disturbing by calling them uncouth and radical. Every civil-rights movement, every great advance in human thought, was called thus at its inception. Being passionate is nothing to be embarrassed about, but rather is the only way to win people over and stir them to action. As Digby said:

Humans need to feel part of something, that they have a stake in the outcome. Emotion is what moves people... To get people engaged you have to give them something to care about, to feel connected with, to want to devote some of their precious time and resources to something for which there is no direct compensation except a feeling of doing the right thing or righting a great wrong. Change requires energy and energy is one thing that sophisticated intellectual salons and learned political journals, however important they may be, simply do not provide.

And so, let the so-called moderates wring their hands. Let religious liberals bemoan our incivility because we fail to concede the fight to them at the outset. Let the accommodationists study the problem to death and fiddle while Rome burns. If they will not take up arms and join battle against the fundamentalists who threaten us all, then we will. And if they want to call us uncompromising and controversial, they may do so to their heart's content. None of these groups have any power to silence us, and so long as we know to disregard their unfounded criticisms, they will not succeed in doing so.

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