With Friends Like These…

October 13, 2007

I’m in an interesting place for an atheist.  I’m having a crisis of faith. 

Anyone awake has heard of Richard Dawkins… especially since the release of his shiny-faced book, "The God Delusion."  It spent several weeks at the top of the charts, and was read by thousands and thousands of people… and my first reaction to this was what you would expect: Good.  Good, because it’s nice to see that our culture has reached the point where openly discussing a subject like atheism isn’t a prelude to pitchforks and torches.  It may be in Kansas… but that’s Kansas, and nobody cares.  Because it’s Kansas. 

Dawkins’ book was then followed by the Christopher Hitchens title, "God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," and my response to it was not exactly what I would have expected – I was pissed, disappointed, and a little offended… even though I, essentially, agreed with what the title was saying.

I chuckled the first time I heard the title of Dawkins’ book.  I chuckled because not only am I an atheist… but I’m an iconoclast as well, and I can appreciate the glory of a well-aimed thumb in someone’s eye.  Especially when that eye spends most of its time looking down on those it considers inferior.  The more vocal Christians in this country are a pretty hideous bunch most of the time.  The most strident Christians – the fire-and-brimstone, "God is love, unless you’re a cock-sucking, Commie faggot" chaps have supplied most of the kindling for my ire.  As a skeptic, and a moral relativist (which basically means that I don’t really believe in much, and recognize that the only reason something is Right is because I think it is), I grow very weary of ethical outrage and hand-wringing.  I shudder when I hear people say things like, "This is a Christian country… founded on Christian principles," when even the most cursory glance at our history suggests very strongly to the contrary.  America was founded by Enlightenment thinkers… God-fearing men, maybe, but certainly not die-hard Christians.  The Bill of Rights states pretty damn clearly that there should be a separation between Church and State… and that neither figure can, or should, interfere with the other.  I like this idea.  Theocracy is a terrifying concept to me. 

I had a student a few semesters ago who argued this point with me.  This was in my Semantics class… and we were debating the legality of physician-assisted suicide – a concept I find not only ideally legal, but rather inspiring.  The class was pretty split, as one would expect… and we did a rather decent job sticking to the real points of the debate, rather than talking about the morality of it.  But, inevitably, the young woman I had expected to pipe up did, and led us down the thorny path of Righteousness.  She said it was sinful… it was wrong.  That only God had the right to decide who lived and who died; except for in cases of Capital Punishment, of course, for which she was a most vehement supporter.  "And besides," she added, "this is a Christian country… so there’s no way it should be legal."

As one would expect, I corrected her on this point… explaining that in no way is this a Christian country… it is simply a country with a great many Christians in it.  To which she responded by pointing out that America was colonized by Christians fleeing from religious persecution.  This is true… many of the original settlers in this country were fierce Christians.  "But the difference here is," I explained to her, "that they weren’t Americans… they were British.  The people who actually created America stipulated quite clearly that this was not to be a Theocratic state… and that while Americans had the freedom to choose and practice their religion unhindered… they also had the right to be free of it.  This is not a Christian country."

She bristled.  I digressed.

I am so easily exhausted by Christianity because of its practitioners’ insistence on butting their nose into non-Christian’s business.  Give me the Buddhists, who don’t give a damn what you believe, as long as you take off your shoes when you walk into their house, and be mindful of bugs.  All of the "progressive" ideals I hold dear – gay marriage, physician assisted suicide, able and intelligent sexual education for minors – are targets for a great many American Christians… the "judge not, lest ye be judged" people.  Their disapproval goes beyond simply disagreement, and instead is communicated through screams of fiery judgment.  They’re evil ideas… horrible, ungodly, sinful philosophies which must be plucked from our society like fleas from a dog’s ass. 

Personally… I don’t see what right they have to judge.  For as judgmental as I am… I’m really more of a live-and-let-live kinda guy.  At the end of the day, just take off your shoes and mind the bugs.

So, the bottom line is: I’m not really down with baby-J’s peeps.  I find their worldview archaic and simplistic… bordering on psychopathic, the more literal they become.  "The world is 12,000 years old, because that’s what a 2000 year old book, written in a time when people wiped their asses with their bare hands, told me," is a pretty tough sell when trying to explain life, the universe and everything.  So, when I saw that Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens were aiming their whithering, English snark at the holiest of rollers, I got a little giddy.

And then I thought about it some more.

Dawkins and Hitchens are both extremely intelligent people.  Dawkins is an accomplished science writer, and has done more to open my mind to the intricacies of genetics and biology than nearly anyone else I’ve ever read (Carl Sagan and my father holding the one and two spots, respectively).  Christopher Hitchens, though I am frequently in disagreement with him politically, is a blisteringly intelligent man, and one of the fiercest debaters I have ever had the privilege to witness.  His arguments are a delicious blend of brevity and pissiness… and while I don’t always agree with him, I am in awe of his ability to make the point.  I am terrified of Christopher Hitchens.  I hold both of these men in the highest esteem, intellectually, philosophically and professionally.  So it disappointed me greatly when I stopped to consider just how low the blows they were throwing actually were.

Look at the titles… are these titles adequate orators for a philosophy of wit, intellect and rationality?  Do titles like these speak of Oxford and Cambridge and PhD’s?  No.  Not at all, actually.  They’re classless and petulant, and make glib reference to a worldview and philosophy which, while absurd in my estimation, is still held by 90% of the people on Earth to be gospel.  No pun.

My spoutings and ravings about Christianity are alright on a blog… they’re disrespectful and pissy… I realize that.  They’re acceptable by virtue of the fact that I’m a 26 year old blogger from New Jersey with a Ba in English Lit and an MA in Creative Writing.  I’m a nobody.  No one listens to me.  I’m largely useless.  But Dawkins and Hitchens and Daniel Dennett (another crusader for atheism… and the father of the Bright movement – an organization of humanists who believe in a fundamentally non-spiritual world) are the atheists’ triumvirate.  These three are the generals.  They’re our spokesmen.  So what does it say about me when my leaders are being childish?

My e-caterwauling aside (most of it is done through the lens of hyperbole), I do respect the right of every single human being to believe whatever the hell they want.  I find the idea of a cloud-surfing benefactor who talks like Yoda, and sired a Jewish zombie to be complete drivel… but if some guy wants to wear a tie and talk to him… that’s fine by me.  I just want him to extend me the same courtesy. 

My intellectual problems with religion, Christianity especially, are nothing compared to my political and moral ones.  A man can worship his ham sandwich if he likes, as long as he doesn’t pluck out his neighbor’s eyes for not doing so too.  As long as we’re all getting along, and having enough respect to not get in each other’s way, who really cares?  Life’s too short… you’ve got an afterlife to get to, and I’ve got a dinner date with some worms.  It’s when we proselytize, preach and force one another that we start finding problems.  Discussion is fine.  I like discussion.  I love talking about God with people… not to convert them, but just out of my love for debate.  Learning about someone’s faith – or lack thereof – is a great way to learn about how they see the world.  I’ll sit down with a theist any day to talk about the world… I’d disagree with him, sure… and even find his beliefs to be ludicrous I’ll still respect his choice, his right to believe them. 

So I don’t like Christians because they stick their nose in my business.  So how can I overlook Richard Dawkins who says, "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down." 

Why?  Why do they have to be atheists?  Why must your book operate under a condition.  Why the angle? 
Rather than a conversion tool… why not just stick to the concepts.  The book, which I never finished due to a lack of interest, and my chronic inability to finish a book, does this to an extent.  It’s a kind of naturalist’s manifesto… deflating argument after argument with logic and scientific observation… none of which I object to…

But it’s the packaging which bothers me.  It’s the attitude.  Why must we sink to the point of name calling, when the concepts do the work for us?  Why can’t this simply be about the ideas… and not about your opinions?


At the end of the day… I don’t care so much about what Richard Dawkins thinks about religion so much as what he can teach me about science.  I don’t give a good God damn about Hitchen’s opinions on Jerry Falwell – even though I agreed when he called him an evil little toad… on national television… on the day he died – but am instead more interested in learning about history.

This is the level of debate in our culture.  It’s not about what you say… it’s about how you say it.  It’s not enough to have logic by your side… you need a sharpened pair of claws as well.

What are my leaders saying about me?  What kind of image are they portraying of the Godless?  How much does this kind of approach help? 

It doesn’t.  It makes us look stupid.  Your job is to be calculating and rational.  Being mean and cheap is my job.

You wanna help guys?  Stop trying to convert… and instead lets just converse. 


One Response to “With Friends Like These…”

  1. Georgia Says:


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