I love reading Andrew Sullivan’s blog. His posts on faith are usually really interesting and many of his readers write very thought provoking posts that -at the very least- gin up a live debate. Recently an atheist wrote in to describe his or her thoughts on the difference between theists and atheists. I agreed on the main principles of what the reader said, but had some problems with the reader’s points and conclusion.
The reader writes:
“I bet one of your readers has the actual stats, but let me just say that I believe the atheistic political regimes (Lenin, Mao, Stalin, etc) in the 20th century evened up the historical body count between atheists and theists. A history-aware atheist probably ought not be decrying religion as being an inevitable force for tyranny and suffering. There is a lot of bloody glass in the way of throwing those stones, folks!”
First off, these “atheistic” regimes might have been secular, but their crimes were quite obviously not committed as a result of their atheism. Let’s say for example that a Catholic man succumbs to road rage and fatally shoots someone who cut him off in traffic. Even I, a person who is very anti-religion, could not blame this incident on his religion. It was not religion’s fault that the man committed a horrible act, and I would be very intellectually dishonest to blame it on his religion. But your reader is essentially blaming atheism as the cause of any violence committed by any atheist. Did the atheist regimes your reader cites commit their crimes specifically because of their unbelief in God? Quite obviously they did not. We are all aware that humans can be brutal animals and can be motivated to violence by many non-religious feelings like lust for power and hatred. Until people start flying planes into buildings or conquering other countries because their atheism told them to do so, I will not consider the historical body count between atheists and theists as especially relevant.
Also, its important to point out that activist atheism can be seen as a part of a larger fight against irrationality. I am willing to bet that most atheists are atheists because they value rationale and science as the basis for human government and decision making. Religion just happens to be the most visible and disruptive way of thought that openly rejects these values, hence most people that value rationale and science over all else are atheist. My point is that none of the atheistic regimes the reader quoted were based on open debate, rationale and free thought. Atheism is quite obviously a negative belief, but most atheists do share the positive belief that rationality is better than faith in the long run. Can anyone honestly say that the problem with the atheistic regimes quoted by your reader was that they were too rational or open to debate? So yes, atheism in it of itself does not guarantee a good person or government, but the values that support atheism usually do, and that’s what the world needs more of, not less.
The reader continues: ” As a result of not seeing religion and faith as the same thing, many of us atheists having no problem being faithful. We are looking for deeper meaning in community, in relationships, from spiritual texts (sometimes even religious texts), in mushroom visions, meditation, hiking, and all the rest. We may hold beliefs which are neither falsifiable nor observable in any sense, so they wouldn’t pass muster for Dawkins or Harris, yet they are utterly without reference to God.“
This anti-Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens sentiment is surprisingly popular with unbelievers but it totally misrepresents their views and I think aims to place the person saying it in the middle of everyone, in the same way that a politically uninformed person would say “well I think BOTH parties are just as corrupt”. In other words, its meant to show how intelligent and well thought out their position is, but in reality is only said because they have not actually paid much attention to the debate. Staying in the middle is a safe way to look like you are thinking about the issues, but without actually doing it.
But the readers derision of Hawkins and Harris is just not fair to them. Neither Hawkins or the rest have ever railed against personal decisions of taste against “which are neither falsifiable nor observable in any sense”. I have watched all the new atheists at length and have never seen them rail against meditation, hiking or other activities. In fact, Harris has talked about the benefits of meditation at length. But the reader is confusing activities that do not claim to be the ultimate truth and light. For example, the reader includes that “hiking” is ” neither falsifiable nor observable in any sense, so they wouldn’t pass muster for Dawkins or Harris”. But, people who go hiking are not saying that it is the un- alterable word of God and that people who do not hike will spend eternity in hell. And that’s the difference between these activities that a person enjoys doing these activities and religion.