These past few days have seen me trawling the ole’ interwebulator once more. (As soon as the inevitable gobs of grant money start flowing into this magazine’s coffers, my first demand shall be the purchase of a little trawling troll to do this for me.) Shoals of porn aside, it’s curious how much of the web’s chatter is devoted to the two topics traditionally barred by barmen – to wit, religion and politics. The distinction between the two often gets rather blurry of course, but there are those engaged in the debate whose politics seem entirely devoted to the eradication of religion, or who make a religion of crushing faith. God is not in his heaven and Jesus is certainly not alright with them.
For an exhaustive discussion of the issue at hand, see the ongoing fisticuffs between atheist pugilist Sam Harris and anti-fundamentalist believer Andrew Sullivan. (Warning: this thing just goes on and on, like the Bible, or Madonna.) Harris is what Wired contributing editor Gary Wolf calls a “New Atheist.” “The New Atheists,” writes Wolf in his excellent profile of the most prominent among them, “will not let us off the hook simply because we are not doctrinaire believers. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it’s evil.”
Speaking roughly, outspoken politicized atheists such as Harris and Richard Dawkins hold the following: that belief in God is a childish delusion (harmful even to children); that religious faith is not worthy of respect and should not be tolerated; and that belief in the supernatural is a false and dangerous idea, inspiring a fanatical violence that threatens to destroy civilization.
To take the last first, it should be obvious from a little thing known as the 20th Century that belief in the supernatural is not a pre-requisite for a horrendously violent political force that threatens to destroy freedom, democracy and life as we know it. Indeed, it was a fanatical faith in the scientific and the material that inspired the merry mass murder of Lenin and Stalin. As should also be plain from European history, it was not atheism but secularism – the notion that confessional faith should be a matter of private conscience, starved of state power – that put an end to the religious bloodletting of previous centuries. And as should be clear from the entire history of our species, the ingenuity of humans in finding something to kill each other over is practically inexhaustible.
Without the argument from harm, it seems to me the whole attack on religion becomes rather gratuitous. In secular countries, religious conviction causes most believers to give alms to the poor rather than slashing people’s throats. So what if someone believes in divine revelation? As long as believers don’t insist that their personal faith replace an objective measure of truth (and recent debates over intelligent design aside, most in this country don’t), the effort to brand them as idiots strikes me as a cruel-hearted waste of time.
Most of all, it seems lacking in all humility. The basis of scientific knowledge to me – what makes it so powerful – is its essential humility in the face of the unknowable. This, incidentally, is why I prefer it to faith. Unlike religion, science does not make absolute claims. It cannot. Its assertions of truth are necessarily provisional, its process of verification limited to what can be tested and observed. Faith can make the absolute claim that God exists, and I cannot disprove that assertion through science. But it’s an assertion that’s of little use to me because an absolute claim based on personal revelation can be made about anything – goblins, boogie men, interwebulator-trawling trolls. All such claims are equally unverifiable. To insist so maniacally that God does not exist comes rather too close to a religious conviction, a kind of supernotralism if you will.
Personally, I won’t even say I don’t believe in God. If “God” means a supernatural, all-powerful, all-creating being that “knows” I exist, I think it highly unlikely. But since verification either way is impossible, it’s rather a dull debate. What I can’t quite fathom is how anyone could believe that said being is both all-powerful and all-benevolent. If “God” is responsible for all that occurs, or has the power to change it, how can he/she/it then be kind and loving? I’m happy to stipulate that God exists if a believer will agree with me that God is something of a jerk. How else to explain newborns with terminal diseases, condemned to suffer for all their brief lives? I imagine I’ll be told the devil is in the details. But then again, I don’t believe in him either.
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