the religion of atheism: how disbelief has become dogma

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Monday, May 24th, 2010

the religion of atheism: how disbelief has become dogma

over the last several years, more and more, i’ve attempted to engage the world around me with a continual spirit of humility. simply put, i try to live by the mantra, i might be wrong. undoubtedly, i fail often. i fight the urge to be right. it’s difficult to accept when others can’t just adopt my viewpoint. it’s easier to clone than to create.

at bare minimum, i attempt to create daily space in my life to hear out others’ viewpoints. from differing views of the christian faith to other religious particulars to outright atheism, i believe it’s healthy and generative to hear and consider the views of others.

sadly, this isn’t a popular value amongst those who adhere to the teachings of jesus. christians are—rightly so—often characterized as intolerant, judgmental and unwilling to even consider a differing sets of faith values. on the other hand, i’ve generally experienced that those who claim no religious beliefs (atheists, more to the point) are the most willing to engage and consider differing views. obviously, i’m painting in broad strokes, but these are certainly my experiences (and the experiences of many, i think it’s fair to say).

more and more, though, i’ve experienced a new side of this conversation. over the last several years, atheism has gained quite a bit of steam. with the rise of what some have dubbed “the four horsemen”—sam harris, richard dawkins, daniel dennett and christopher hitchens—atheism has become “speakable” in our very judeo-christian cultural climate. the “new atheism” has come to the forefront of news outlets, thinkers and the book industry.

but what has also come with it is a new system of antagonistic and, often, belittling proselytization. simply put, atheism has become its own religious system. no more is it simply a denunciation of others’ religious creeds, but an adoption of their own. while i’m very quick and careful to point out that all atheists are certainly not included in this description, but rather, the new breed of atheism seems to have earned these evaluations.

whereas the aforementioned so-called “four horsemen” are, by and large, good representatives (each with varying degrees) of what i’m describing, ultimately, we can look no further than our old pal bill maher. just a couple weeks ago, i blogged about maher. even in times i find myself disagreeing, i find him to be palatable due to his humor and the fact he’s a generally intelligent, reasonable person.

one of the areas, though, where maher is consistently unreasonable is in regards to religion. maher, of course, is an outspoken atheist. i don’t have a problem with that and i even (moderately) enjoyed his documentary religulous (though it had some glaring weaknesses). the problem, though, is represented in the following clip from his weekly show on hbo, real time with bill maher (from 5.14.10). it’s lengthy, but worth watching.

maher does quite a few unacceptable things (including misquoting/misusing john 14:6, telling mayor booker what he should believe and painting with an incredibly broad brush). my biggest beef is two-fold. first, maher, much like other atheists i’ve been in dialogue with, assumes the lowest common theological denominator. in other words, when booker attempts to articulate a progressive/liberal view of scripture, maher won’t allow it because it doesn’t fit into his narrow assumptions of christianity and the bible. one of the biggest problems i had with religulous (which, again, i generally enjoyed and benefitted from) is that he, by and large, picks the low-hanging fruit to pick on. instead seeking out the utmost expert theologians, he finds, for instance, a group of roadside truckers who hold worship services in the back of an 18-wheeler. of course, they look ridiculous.

more than that, though, maher presents my core thesis with this post: the new atheism has become a dogmatic system of bullying all to itself. it isn’t just about rejecting the beliefs of others, but accepting a new set of rituals: belittling, arrogance, a reliance on assumptions, broadly painted brush strokes and bullying. now, let me pause and say that list goes for many, many christians as well, but, much like fundamentalism, these words are beginning to be closely allied with the new atheism.

ultimately, my point in presenting all this is to offer a couple perspectives. first, it’s a bit of an apologetic as a follower of jesus. this type of rhetoric is unhelpful and only points to a narrow reality. there’s a broader christian viewpoint in which i believe many atheists could engage and find a space for collegial conversation.

finally, though, it’s a reminder to the christians who employ these tactics. remember that you stoop to a level with which you’d probably rather not be associated when we engage in this type of slander and theological bullying. it seems clear that the new atheism is the new fundamentalism, so we must make a choice to disengage from their tactics. to be like jesus isn’t to fight fire with fire, but to abide by a higher ethic of humility and grace and love and a willingness to sacrifice dogma for friendship.