Saturday, September 29, 2007

A Kinder, Gentler Atheism

That's what Carlin Romano wants:

Much of the believer/atheist debate, about God or sacred texts, takes place on printed pages, not at marriage receptions or in doctors' offices or during water-cooler conversations. We tend to be friction-averse in the latter settings. When we think, as intellectuals, of how atheists and believers should behave, or do behave, we often invoke the printed-page model of no-holds-barred assertion of truth and belief, of argument and counterargument, regardless of whether the heavens fall. But there's no obvious reason why the punch-counterpunch paradigm of the page should dominate our discussion of sacred texts.

Not all secularly inclined intellectuals agree. Berlinerblau, for instance, says the goal of his book is "to outline a coherent nontheological, nonapologetic paradigm for the study of ancient Scriptures," while making plain that "the peculiar way in which the Bible was composed in antiquity makes it far too contradictory and incoherent a source for public-policy decisions in modernity."

He seems to feel that such a goal requires an enormously aggressive critical spirit and focus on truth in sacred texts. He writes that "the secular study of the Hebrew Bible (or any sacred text) is animated by a spirit of critique. The motto of our enterprise might just as well be 'criticize and be damned!' We are bound by honor to cast aspersions on the integrity and historical reliability of holy documents. A scholarly exegete reads such work in heckle mode. He or she cannot accept that the Bible is the infallible word of God as mediated by mortals (as the secularly religious and most biblical scholars often contend), nor the distortion of the word of God (as some radical theologians have charged). The objective existence of God — as opposed to the subjective perception of Him — is not a legitimate variable in scholarly analysis. The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is a human product tout court."

This strikes me, the bravura virtues of Berlinerblau's style aside, as machoism pretending to be scholarly integrity. Why can't atheists see sacred texts as sacred to them — to those believers over there — and behave respectfully when not provoked? It is simply not true, in a normal, etiquette-infused vision of life, that we think truth must be stated at every time and in every context. We tell Grandma that she's looking well when she's looking terrible. We tell Grandpa that he's going to be fine when we haven't the faintest idea how things will turn out for him. We lie to people in small ways every day to make interactions gentler and less tense, and to be kind to others. Indeed, in a wonderful against-the-grain philosophical book some years ago titled The Varnished Truth (University of Chicago Press, 1993), philosopher David Nyberg argued that white lies are the "glue" that hold the civilized world together. Why shouldn't a similar gentleness and desire to avoid hurtful comments inform atheists when they write about books that many hold sacred?

The most familiar rebuke to this rears its head regularly in the most scathing, sarcastic, and popular of the atheist wave, Hitchens' God Is Not Great. It is that believers in the God-given authority of sacred texts are "ultimately incapable" of leaving nonbelievers alone. Religion, writes Hitchens, "does not, and in the long run cannot, be content with its own marvelous claims and sublime assurances. It must seek to interfere with the lives of nonbelievers, or heretics, or adherents of other faiths. It may speak about the bliss of the next world, but it wants power in this one. This is only to be expected. It is, after all, wholly man-made."

The cosmopolitan atheist of today — the well-educated secularist steeped in the histories of various faiths, as well as the carnage they've produced back then and now — can't easily toss off Hitchens's point. Polite respect ends when believers insist on sacred texts as God's authorization of those believers to regulate, suppress, or punish the behavior of nonbelievers. In such situations, the atheist's politeness goes out the window because the believer has thrown his politeness out the window first. Is there anything as impolite — a gentle word, to be sure — as forcing one's moral rules on another because they supposedly come from a divine being whose existence the other doesn't accept?

As a result, we get the predominant tones in which atheists have assessed sacred texts over the centuries — anger, disrespect, contempt, sarcasm, insult, dismissal, even pity. Consider three examples.

"The Bible," sighed Voltaire. "That is what fools have written, what imbeciles command, what rogues teach, and young children are made to learn by heart."

"As to the book called the Bible," thundered Thomas Paine, "it is blasphemy to call it the word of God. It is a book of lies and contradictions, and a history of bad times and bad men. There are but a few good characters in the whole book."

And, as nasty wrapper, there is A.A. Milne's point. "The Old Testament," he claimed, "is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief — call it what you will — than any book ever written: It has emptied more churches than all the counterattractions of cinema, motor bicycle, and golf course."

Harsh stuff. Yet the very sophisticated understanding of history and society that often justifies the atheist's snappishness in such remarks — the elegant scholarship, for example, of Taylor's and Lilla's books — should also lead him or her not to stir conflicts of believer and unbeliever unnecessarily. Because sophistication implies an equal grasp of etiquette and tolerance as a bulwark of civilized, nonviolent life together on the part of believers and nonbelievers. In that respect, Taylor, Lilla, and Roy's second wave of books — books as thoughtful as those of Dennett and Dawkins, but considerably less offensive — wisely pay little direct attention to sacred texts, focusing more on how believers have behaved than on their authorizing documents.

That's all to the good. In advanced, progressive, tolerant societies, we also don't go up to strangers and tell them that they're ugly, that their children are repulsive, that their clothes don't match, that they need a bath, that the leisure activity they're engaged in is stupid and a waste of time. In the same way, atheists should not, unprovoked, go on and on about how sacred texts lack God's imprimatur. And believers should not blithely go after atheists. If this sounds like the credo of an American — an odd creature of history who might be an atheist or believer — the plea is guilty. One can, of course, line up the bolstering high-culture quotations on this side too, against the belligerent atheists. Schopenhauer's proviso that politeness is "a tacit agreement that people's miserable defects, whether moral or intellectual, shall on either side be ignored and not made the subject of reproach." Even Eric Hoffer's lovely line that "rudeness is the weak man's imitation of strength."

The simple answer, then, to how atheists should respond to sacred texts is: politely, if possible, employing all the wry ambiguity book critics use when awkwardly trapped with the author or admirer of a book about which they have reservations. "It's really quite amazing," one might say, or, "You know, I was just reading it the other day — it's as good as ever."

But when believers start to use sacred texts to oppress, the atheist must attack and reject the "divine" aspect of their books, out of self-defense and because it interferes with the individual's freedom of conscience and behavior.

Some things, after all, are sacred.

I'm all for politeness, but not at the expense of self-censorship. At the watercooler and at social events, for sure, politeness should reign. But if one's true convictions cannot come out in print, then what sphere is left?

If believers are committed to knowing the truth, then the greatest service that an unbeliever can do him is to subject his sacred texts to as much scrutiny as possible. As the saying goes, what does not kill his faith will only make it stronger.

I'm not a fan of Hitchens or Dawkins argumentative style. It's possible to hate the delusion but love the delusional. But with the multi-century head start that religious polemicists have over their secular counterparts, I don't think that atheist authors will be able to pull even in the bile category with them anytime soon.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, the message is that atheists should be polite to believers even though they don't deserve it? Thanks, but if it's all the same to you, I'll stick with Dawkins. I like my atheism neat.

We are bound by honor to cast aspersions on the integrity and historical reliability of holy documents

Oh well, if it's a question of honor, that's all right then. Courage too, I've been told. And when honor and courage call, the stout-hearted must answer. Can't have a bunch of dishonorable milquetoast atheist scholars holding back now, can we? Except maybe at the watercooler.

But do keep it up. I know you've been at this for two hundred odd years, but never fear, there are lots more lucrative careers out there just waiting to be fulfilled and you never go out of style. Nor, as it appears from those quotes from Voltaire, Paine and Milne, do you have much new to say. I guess there are only so many ways to call a fairy tale a fairy tale. But Duck, have you ever wondered why nobody ever wrote a book called: "The Grimm Brothers are Not Great!"

It's possible to hate the delusion but love the delusional.

My, my. Everyday in every way, David's insight gets stronger and stronger.

September 30, 2007 3:49 AM  
Blogger monix said...

You might like to read the (polite?) response to Hitchens from the papal household.

September 30, 2007 4:10 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

There have been books written attacking the authenticity of the Grimms. Their inauthenticity is first-year stuff in folklore courses.

Nor, obviously, has Romano read Renan.

His screed is incoherent in simultaneously describing atheists as biblically deficient and as erudite about many kinds of scriptures. Well, which is it?

Do I know the Bible or not? If I don't after 14 years of straight-As in religion at Catholic schools, then why not?

Anyhow, you can point me to as many polite remarks about atheists from leading religious figures as you can find on Google. Hope you don't get carpal tunnel syndrome looking for the first one.

September 30, 2007 12:17 PM  

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