11 September 2010

Do "New Atheists" Ignore Liberal Religion?

[Note - this blog post started out as a reply to "Islam, Fear, and Lies" on Rev. Cyn's blog.]

Do the so-called "new atheists" ignore liberal religion? Do they uncritically condemn all religion by assuming that the most extreme religious fundamentalists are representative examples of religion in practice?

These are very common criticisms of the "new atheist" writers.

However, I don't think it's a matter of the so-called "new atheists" ignoring liberal religion.

It's simply a matter of liberal religion being so tiny in numbers and influence that's it's not relevant to the questions surrounding the harm that religion causes in modern society.

As a "first-order approximation," one can ignore the influence of liberal religion in the wider religious world.

I'm sure that any suggestion that liberal religious folks ignore our lack of religious influence that begins with the equivalent of "consider a spherical cow in vacuum ... " will be condemned as too simplistic.

But there is data to back up what I'm saying.

All one needs to do is look at the exit polling data after the California Proposition 8 vote that denied marriage equality for all California residents in 2008:

Protestants were supporting Proposition 8 (65% in favor vs. 35% against).

Catholics were supporting Proposition 8 (64% in favor vs. 36% against).

Contrast the majority of religious persons voting against against marriage equality with the "none" demographic group (no religious affiliation) -- they were 90% against Prop 8 and only 10% in favor of it.

Religion appears to interfere with the ideal of supporting justice, fairness, and equality for all citizens.

And having no religion seems to be much more helpful in promoting justice in this example.

Second, some of the so-called "new atheists" like Sam Harris think that the moderate and liberal religious members of the various religious traditions are ineffective at countering their religious fundamentalist co-religionists.

Here are a few passages from Sam Harris' book The End of Faith where he discusses this:
According to Gallup, 35 percent of Americans believe that the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of the Creator of the universe. Another 48 percent believe that it is the "inspired word of the same" ... still inerrant, though certain of its passages must be interpreted symbolically before their truth can be brought to light. Only 17 percent of us remain to doubt that a personal God, in his infinite wisdom, is likely to have authored this text or, for that matter, to have created the earth with its 250,000 species of beetles. Some 46 percent of Americans take a literalist view of creation (40 percent believe that God has guided creation over the course of millions of years). This means that 120 million of us place the big bang 2,500 years after the Babylonians and Sumerians learned to brew beer. If our polls are to be trusted, nearly 230 million Americans believe that a book showing neither unity of style nor internal consistency was authored by an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent deity. A survey of Hindus, Muslims, and Jews around the world would surely yield similar results, revealing that we, as a species, have grown almost perfectly intoxicated by our myths.
While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence. From the perspective of those seeking to live by the letter of the texts, the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist. He is, in all likelihood, going to wind up in hell with the rest of the unbelievers. The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivaled. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don't like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us. This is not a new form of faith, or even a new species of scriptural exegesis; it is simply a capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing, in principle, to do with God. Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance ... and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism. The texts themselves are unequivocal: they are perfect in all their parts. By their light, religious moderation appears to be nothing more than an unwillingness to fully submit to God's law. By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally. Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question ... i.e., that we know there is a God, and that we know what he wants from us ... religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of the wilderness.
Finally, some "new atheists" like Greta Christina are concerned with religion from a philosophical point of view. Greta thinks that religion is faulty from an epistemological point of view. And she would raise this philosophical objection even with moderate and liberal religious voices like the United Church of Christ:
I think science and faith are mutually exclusive.

Now, before you jump down my throat: I think religious believers can be scientists, and good ones. The evidence for that is pretty obvious. Most scientists throughout history have been religious believers, and many scientists today are as well. I'm not saying that having religious faith means you can't be a scientist.

I'm saying that -- as approaches to life, as approaches to understanding reality and engaging with the world -- faith and science are radically different. Science is an approach to life and learning that is willing to question anything, give up any belief or opinion, if a preponderance of evidence contradicts it. Faith is an approach to life and learning that starts with an assumption that it isn't willing to discard. The more progressive faiths are willing to bend and change to adjust to reality; but the basic assumption -- the existence of God and the soul -- can't be relinquished if you're going to maintain the faith. It's an approach to life based on an assumption that's not only unproven, but unprovable. And it's an approach to life that says it's okay to make this big, unrelinquishable assumption about the nature of reality based entirely on tradition, authority, and personal intuition.

(That's an oversimplification -- of both faith and science -- but for the purposes of this post, it'll have to do.)

And if you're a scientist with religious faith, it's very likely that, at some point, your faith and your science are going to collide. And when/if it does, you're going to have to make a choice. You're going to have to decide which approach you value more.

(The big conflict in the 20th century was obviously evolution, colliding with the idea of life being designed. In the 21st century, I think the big conflict may be neuroscience, colliding with the idea of the soul.)
If most religious folks were religious liberals (e.g. Unitarian Universalist, United Church of Christ, Quaker, Reform Jewish, Ethical Culture, etc), Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Greta Christina, and other "new atheist" writers probably would not be the outspoken critics of religion that they are today. There might be much quieter philosophical objections but we wouldn't be seeing the large number of best-seller books.

We deceive ourselves and others when we object to the "new atheists" first-order approximation descriptions of religion by pointing to religious liberals as a counter-example.