Don't Admire My Faith, Examine Your Own

Much as Christians speak of loving the sinner, hating the sin, I can love the religious and hate the religion.

18/05/2016 10:10 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST
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Accepting the religious explanation is intellectual stagnation.

As a non-believer reading Brad Emery's article 'Dear Atheists, I Truly Admire Your Faith', I experienced a similar feeling to the one of sadness and helplessness he mentioned. His thoughts about atheists are not uncommon.

I can sympathise with his frustration -- it's true there is anger from some atheists towards Christianity. However, the irritation he demonstrates towards the alleged beliefs of atheists seem mainly due to misunderstandings.

His first is his treatment of atheists as a group of people, uniform in belief and organised under the name of 'True' or 'New' Atheism. Atheists are not united. They do not, despite the popularity of writers such as Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, have any doctrine or central text. The only essential 'belief' -- if we are to use that word -- is that there is no god, or, that there is no reason to believe there is one; an important distinction.

It is true that atheists are often scientifically inclined. The probable cause of this is that science now is what religion once was -- humankind's best way of explaining the universe. So Mr Emery is correct in this assessment; atheists do indeed prefer science and rationality to the 'answers' provided by the Bible.

He is wrong, though, to assert that trust in science requires the same faith as trust in the Bible, because science, as Carl Sagan said, is "a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge". We haven't shut the universities and closed the textbooks and left that mysterious particle, as mentioned by Lawrence Krauss, just hanging there -- they're still studying it. Accepting the religious explanation is intellectual stagnation. One day we might know more about that particle, and maybe we'll even learn it was made by a god. But atheists usually see no reason to arrive prematurely at this conclusion.

Mr Emery now moves his argument from cosmological to moral. He is half-correct in his assertion that atheists believe Christianity is the main source of evil -- generally speaking, many atheists feel this way towards religion as a whole. In this case, it's likely Christianity has become a victim of its own prominence, as well as the faith to which the generally more atheist-accepting West has been exposed the most.

But let's focus on the 20th century, as Mr Emery rightly chooses to, because it was a savage and devastating one even by human standards, though forgotten, he says, by atheist zealots such as Hitchens and Dawkins. It's possibly true that Dawkins doesn't dabble in this realm of argument often-and, being mindful of stopping shy of a 'No True Scotsman' fallacy, he is an unfortunate public face of atheism for several reasons -- but no such charge could be levied against Hitchens.

How could he have ignored that century, with all its fodder? The open support of the Catholic Church for the fascist regimes of Europe; their support of Hitler and the rise of the Nazis, stemming at least in part from their mutual hatred of the Jews; the plague of largely religiously motivated terrorism which consumed Ireland for the better part of the century. There was also an insidious religious element to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, and of course the institutionalised pattern of child rape. This is part of Christianity's rap sheet for the 20th century.

His claim as to Hitler's distaste for Christianity is spurious at best; many of his quotes can be dredged up to support either side. "I believe today that I am acting in the sense of the Almighty Creator. By warding off the Jews I am fighting for the Lord's work," he said in a 1936 speech. Scholars don't agree about his religiosity, and it doesn't much matter, because even in the cases of Stalin and Mao, their atrocities weren't motivated by any uniformly accepted atheist doctrine or teaching, as religious atrocities invariably are. They didn't do it in the name of atheism.

It's worth adding the famous Steven Weinberg quote: "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil -- that takes religion." Mr Emery, in fact, says it best in his own article, paraphrasing Professor John Lennox: it's not the lack of belief that's harmful, it is belief in other harmful things.

Mr Emery's point about having to put up with "offensive garbage" is valid, yet every ideology faces this, religious or not. He's right to be annoyed at atheists who play the victim card, but should be careful not to play it himself.

Much as Christians speak of loving the sinner, hating the sin, I can love the religious and hate the religion. I bear no ill will toward Mr Emery. I would, however, suggest he spare the effort of admiring my faith in a world without god; after all, I only believe in one less than him, and there have been many.

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