Monday, July 18, 2016

July 15, 2016 Final Column From the Shelbyville, KY Sentinel-News Series On Belief and Unbelief

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.

As Ms. Allewalt and I bring our series of columns to a conclusion I want to express my appreciation for her willingness to take part in this effort. When I presented the idea to her it was with the assumption that she would speak her mind, and she certainly did. For some years now Ms. Allewalt and I have continued an ongoing conversation, and while we seldom, if ever, find agreement on the topic of religion, we have managed to find common ground on other subjects. I am grateful also for Sentinel-News editor Todd Martin’s kindness in agreeing to publish our columns. He was immediately receptive to the idea and graciously provided the space for our writing. And, certainly, I must also express appreciation to the readers who took the time to read our offerings and to share with us their comments.

In preparing to write my final thoughts about this series of columns, I gave a good deal of thought to not only what I would say, but also to how I would say it. The tone in which one writes and speaks is just as important as the words one uses, I believe. In our present historical and social context, we seem to have all but forgotten about the importance of maintaining a civil and thoughtful tone. I believe in respectful discussions, even when there are great discrepancies between the beliefs being discussed, and while it is obvious that Ms. Allewalt and I are very far apart in our beliefs about religion, I have endeavored to strike a proper balance between tone and honest critique. Any critiques that I have offered, I should note, are aimed solely at concepts and beliefs rather than at Ms. Allewalt herself, or any other atheist for that matter.

I must admit that, shortly after submitting my columns to the Sentinel-News, I began to wonder about what this series might accomplish. As I mentioned in my introductory column, the gulf between belief and unbelief is a very wide chasm, and my fear was that Ms. Allewalt and I might simply talk past one another, or lapse into characterizations that would be too broadly drawn. Religious believers and atheists alike too often sit in judgment of one another and use arguments based upon stereotypes that are neither effective nor worth making. From my perspective I take offense, for example, at the insinuation atheists often make that religious people border on the delusional because of their beliefs. Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, makes it very plain that this is the manner in which he views religious people. Dawkins is certainly not alone in his insult. The late Christopher Hitchens, who was often a quite brilliant writer and astute observer of human nature, proved to be neither in his swipe at religion and religious people, pompously titled God Is Not Great:  How Religion Poisons Everything. Everything? Only the most biased amongst us could make such a claim.

It is not only the insinuations made about people of faith that I find to be both erroneous and offensive; I also take exception to some of the most basic claims made by atheists. There is, for instance, the claim that the more people know the more likely they will be – or should be – to abandon their religious faith. Generally couched in demeaning language that assumes religious belief is equal to holding outdated, ridiculous notions that no right-thinking person could conceivably hold, it is a point of view that mistakenly compares anything ancient to nothing more than outdated and infantile ideas unworthy of consideration by modern people. Sam Harris, for instance, in his book The End of Faith, remarks that to the ancients a wheelbarrow would be a breathtaking example of technology. Mr. Harris evidently has never taken note of the architectural achievements of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and other civilizations. The ancients also gave us math, astronomy, and, among other wonderful and beautiful examples of brilliance, literature that continues to have a powerful influence on humanity. That we continue to read and study the Iliad and The Odyssey bear witness to the brilliance of ancient philosophers, and they have achieved a literary status that Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris will never see, reminding us that history has a way of separating the wheat from the chaff. Ancient does not automatically equal outdated and irrelevant, and to make such a claim is both silly and arrogant.

I would also fault atheism for not being as self-aware as it claims. Atheists often present themselves as having a level of objectivity that is not possible among religious believers, but I find that atheism is absolutely no more likely to foster objective thinking than any other belief system and is just as prone to fall victim to the same error that affects all of humanity, which is the inability to be adequately self-aware so as to see our own shortcomings. There are plenty of people on both sides of the belief versus unbelief debate that are blind to the fact that they simply see what they want to see. One person’s great insight is another’s foolish claim, and we make that judgment based upon what we already believe. Richard Dawkins is a great commentator on religion if you are already in agreement with him, while to others, like myself, he would be better served to save his commentary for his field of expertise, which is science.

Speaking of science, I am somewhat bemused at how atheists sometimes claim that a laboratory is solely their domain and a place where religious believers are not welcome. No one owns science. Science is a tool, a method of study and discovery that is populated by people of many points of view, none of which disqualify them from scientific pursuits. Science has benefitted from a long line of religious believers who have, and continue, to offer their God-given intellects to the interest of discovery and progress.

And while there is much left to say, I am now out of space, but again, I thank you for reading.

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