Saturday, April 07, 2007

atheism, the new religion

In the last couple of months, I've listened to interviews with controversial atheists Sam Harris (once) and Richard Dawkins (twice), and also read the recent column Mr. Harris syndicated nationally. I haven't read their books, though I do plan on reading The End of Faith, which has been sitting on my shelf for a year now. I'm mainly responding to Harris. Richard Dawkins strikes me as someone who enjoys fanning the flames, being at the center of a storm of controversy -- someone who relishes stirring things up. I just don't have a lot of energy for that. His arguments seem to me to be as much about getting his fifteen minutes of fame as anything else. But while that element is present in Mr. Harris's arguments, I find them much more interesting and thought provoking. 

At the heart of both Mr. Harris's and Mr. Dawkins' argument is a firm belief that fundamentalism is the true face of religious belief. Mr. Harris mostly pokes fun at religious moderates; he claims that theologically they are on shaky ground compared to their fundamentalist counterparts. Mr. Dawkins claims that religious moderates make extremism possible, by mainstreaming religious beliefs that are centuries out of date. But who says? They have no way to back that up, it's just their opinion about the religious experience. And it has the added bonus of making their argument 100% easier-- then they only have to respond to the extremists.  

In short, at the same time that they criticize the fundamentalist mindset, they insist that fundamentalists have the only correct way to experience religion. The millions of us out here who have religious beliefs but don't share fundamentalism's strict (biased) interpretation of some ancient text are just dismissed with a jibe about "believing what we want to believe." It's easy to set up the terms of your argument and then insist that that is the only way the discussion can be conducted. Good job, guys. But it ignores the truth of the experience of millions of people on the planet who have deeply-held religious beliefs that are based on compassion and tolerance.

never finished this one but I'm posting it anyway.

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