Note - I write a column for the Shelbyville, Kentucky newspaper, the Sentinel-News, every other Friday. On June 3rd, the Sentinel began publication of a series of columns about belief and unbelief, written by myself and a member of our community, who is an atheist. I thought it would be an interesting conversation and I appreciate the Sentinel-News and my co-author for participating. For the privacy of the other person I am not including their name in the columns as I publish them each week on this site. Even though the person has publicly agreed to have them published in the Sentinel-News, I am not assuming they want their columns or name published on this site.
How sweet it was in years far hied
How sweet it was in years far hied
To start the wheels of day with trustful prayer,
To lie down liegely at the eventide
And feel a blest assurance he was there!
And who or what shall fill his place?
Whither will wanderers turn distracted eyes…
—From God’s Funeral, by Thomas Hardy
One of the more difficult parts of a conversation about belief and unbelief comes when pointing out what one understands to be the shortcomings of the opposite belief system. In this column that is what Ms. Allewalt and I will do – list our objections to the point of view represented by the other. In spite of our disagreements, I appreciate that Ms. Allewalt is willing to do this publicly, as I imagine that being an outspoken atheist in a largely religious community has neither been easy nor without its share of challenges.
This was the most difficult of the columns in this series for me to write. It was not that I find any arguments from the side of atheism convincing. On the contrary, I find the usual list of accusations – that religion has been responsible for more wars and more deaths than any other factor throughout history (an accusation that represents an incredibly bad reading of history), that logic and faith are incompatible, that science and faith cannot coexist, etc – to be badly reasoned and not at all challenging. These accusations are, in my opinion, based upon so many false assumptions and such bad reasoning they do not merit discussion. My difficulty in writing this column was in keeping to the agreed upon 1,000 word limit per column.
In stating my objections it is important to note that they are not, of course, representative of every atheist, as people who express no religious faith do not represent a monolithic block of views, just as religious people do not. My disagreement is primarily with those who write and speak in the public sphere, the group most commonly referred to as the “new atheists,” and represented by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett in what might be called the more intellectual side of the unbelief spectrum (though not very intellectually impressive, in my opinion) and the likes of Bill Maher in the field of pop culture. “New” is, in my opinion, a rather erroneous label, as they offer nothing that is actually new in terms of thinking and are rather shallow intellectually. I have read some of what they have to offer and found it very unimpressive, either in reasoning, supposed factuality, or depth of insight. In comparison to what I would call the more “classic” atheists – Bertrand Russell, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, et al – the new atheists are a very shallow lot. The classic atheists had a much greater sense of the consequences of their beliefs – or lack thereof – and would probably be puzzled by their modern cohorts, who would find a particularly harsh critic of their thinking in Nietzsche, who was critical of a good deal of atheism because, in his opinion, it shared many of the philosophical underpinnings as Christianity. Thomas Hardy, as evidenced by the quote at the top of this column, at least understood that the absence of belief in God would, in fact, leave a longing in much of humanity that could not otherwise be satisfied and would imply also the death of a moral basis to life.
I would also fault atheism for being rather derivative, and not at all the free-thinking and liberating force it purports to be. Atheism is, in a sense, a product of religion, or at least a reaction to what is seen as the excesses or faults of religion, particularly the institutional variety. Many atheists’ arguments, it seems to me, have less to do with the question of God’s existence as with their objections to what they see in the history of religion (the Inquisitions, the Crusades, etc.), in a fundamentalist/literalistic reading of the Bible (which, ironically, is how many atheists also read the Bible), and in the hypocritical lifestyles of some religious leaders and their followers. Valid points though they might be, those points really have little to do with the question of God’s existence.
Perhaps most commonly, atheism repeatedly offers the reminder of the faults and excesses of the church throughout history. That point is not without some merit, but it would be going too far, I believe, for anyone to fail to see a fallacy that lies within that accusation, and that is the fact that we are all complicit in systems, structures, and social orders that have caused a great deal of damage to countless members of humanity throughout history and into our present day. While one might make the point of leaving organized religion because of its shortcomings, one would also do well to understand that their own level of complicity is not diminished by such an action. Separating one’s self from religion and religious belief does not absolve one, for instance, from the complicit association with a nation that committed horrible atrocities against the native peoples of this land, enslaved Africans, and imprisoned American citizens because of their Japanese ancestry at a time when we were at war with Japan, and seems to have little concern with the collateral damage of civilians because of the use of military drones. That is on the macro level; there is also the micro level, which speaks to our own community, that not only has failed to pass an ordinance to offer protection to all citizens but seems to protect structures and systems that all but guarantee that such an ordinance will not even be rightly considered.
As a person of faith I will express one point of gratitude for atheists and their arguments. After consideration of their points – and the subsequent rejection of them – I have become ever more convinced of my own faith.