Monday, November 5, 2007

The atheist as intolerant and narrow minded

There is an interesting column in City Journal written by Theodore Dalrymple entitled what "What the New Atheists Don't See. It on the new crop of atheist writers, Chrisotpher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins who are making the New York Times best seller list.

He takes to task the new atheists who cavalierly heaping scorn on religious folks and their belief in meaning and purpose beyond themselves. These folks say we can do it on our own without the help of God who transcends our little worlds. Dalrymple goes on to point out the consequences of men who think they can do it on their own. He says,
"Of course, men—that is to say, some men—have denied this truth ["we continue to long for a transcendent purpose immanent in existence itself, independent of our own wills."] ever since the Enlightenment, and have sought to find a way of life based entirely on reason. Far as I am from decrying reason, the attempt leads at best to Gradgrind and at worst to Stalin. Reason can never be the absolute dictator of man’s mental or moral economy.
He especially goes after Harris when he says,
This sloppiness and lack of intellectual scruple, with the assumption of certainty where there is none, combined with adolescent shrillness and intolerance, reach an apogee in Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith. It is not easy to do justice to the book’s nastiness...

Harris tells us, for example, that “we must find our way to a time when faith, without evidence, disgraces anyone who would claim it. Given the present state of the world, there appears to be no other future worth wanting.” I am glad that I am old enough that I shall not see the future of reason as laid down by Harris; but I am puzzled by the status of the compulsion in the first sentence that I have quoted. Is Harris writing of a historical inevitability? Of a categorical imperative? Or is he merely making a legislative proposal? This is who-will-rid-me-of-this-troublesome-priest language, ambiguous no doubt, but not open to a generous interpretation.

It becomes even more sinister when considered in conjunction with the following sentences, quite possibly the most disgraceful that I have read in a book by a man posing as a rationalist: “The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live.”

Let us leave aside the metaphysical problems that these three sentences raise. For Harris, the most important question about genocide would seem to be: “Who is genociding whom?” To adapt Dostoyevsky slightly, starting from universal reason, I arrive at universal madness.

Lying not far beneath the surface of all the neo-atheist books is the kind of historiography that many of us adopted in our hormone-disturbed adolescence, furious at the discovery that our parents sometimes told lies and violated their own precepts and rules. It can be summed up in Christopher Hitchens’s drumbeat in God Is Not Great: “Religion spoils everything.”

What are the consequences of the loss of the religious foundations of our society and culture? Dalrymple says,
The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.
He also makes the interesting observation that atheists often heap scorn on religious people for their metaphysical beliefs. Dalrymple points out that the atheist belief in Darwinian natural selection is also making a religious statement.
It is true that he would say that everything is part of God’s providence, but, again, this is no more (and no less) a metaphysical belief than the belief in natural selection as an all-explanatory principle.
What makes Dalrymple's comments especially interesting is he does not consider himself "a believer."

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