Two of my best friends are atheists. Unfortunately, this particular school of thought is not well represented in public discourse. Unbelief is something that I’ve always lived with myself. Unlike some people, I don’t see it as conflicting with my faith. It’s not an either-or thing. I just accept it as a natural part of being human.
A long time ago, Penn Jillette wrote a piece on “positive atheism”, which says that atheism can be a powerful force for encouraging people treat each other decently.
I hope it works. However, if you know anything about Penn Jillette or if you have read his piece, he does not simply explain things in neutral terms. There is always an undertone of superiority in his writing and speaking. As a performer and comedian, that's part of his personality. I'm glad atheism as a positive creed has so much potential for him. But the recent history of social systems based on such non-belief teaches us that Jillette's creed doesn't necessarily convert folks into or create clever, witty thinkers like him.
A typical sentiment within positive atheism is “I have everything I want in my family and in the visible world, it is selfish to want more from the unseen world.”
This is a subtle ad hominem because it infers that people who DO believe have some hidden, selfish motivation and not satisfied with the world around them, almost like spoiled children. And it infers that NOT believing is somehow selfless and magnanimous. It’s like saying “look how humble I am.”
There is a semi-famous atheist debate group with a presence on myspace and with their own broadcast show. I'm not going to type out the group’s name because they have an automatic Google search set up to monitor who writes about them. Anyone who takes their name in vain receives swift retribution from their young sturmtruppen. One of them is in his 20s and claims to be a Biblical expert. His motto is that he can deconstruct the Bible better than those who believe in it. There is actually graphic with the guy’s name followed by the phrase “Ancient Texts Expert”.
A 24 year old claim to be an ancient text expert? Some of you reading this are snickering, I know. Wait, it gets better. One of their tactics is to bring any challenger onto their show with 10 questions of their choice about the Bible. The atheists will present their own set of 10 questions to the challenger. The idea is to prove who knows more by coming up with questions that the other cannot answer. Wow, we're at Harvard. This is exactly how questions of literary criticism are decided, isn't it? This is high school debate stuff.
I know some of the venerable readers of this blog have spent time around real experts, fluent speakers and readers of Armenian, Syriac, Latin, Greek, etc. I know some of you could pick the Bible apart too... far better than I could, or a 24 year old. But none of you would go around calling yourselves "experts". I certainly wouldn't say that of myself. I haven't earned the title. But I’m sure there are legions of young people in the audience who really believe that some independent evaluation process actually certified this 24 year old “rationalist” as an expert. Don't TV preachers get their audiences in the same way?
To have a broadcast show that they control, edit, and where the audience is theirs alone, can anyone truly believe they have the capacity to be fair? Or that it is professional enough be an honest, impartial, unemotional debate? Does anyone among the hip and cool atheists really care about academic rigor or intellectual honesty?
In other words, the anti-Christian crowd allows itself to indulge in the same prejudices it complains about in Christianity. But ya know, it never really was about being fair or academic, was it? It never was about an altruistic desire to raise man above superstition. Its about scene cred. Its all about feeling like your better than someone else. Its about getting a free pass to act like a religious bigot.
You may have heard of this atheist debate team since they recently debated Kirk Cameron and an evangelist. I started to read the online story but I quit when I read this: "Former child star Kirk Cameron and his evangelist colleague Ray Comfort had pledged to prove the existence of God, scientifically."
You've got to be kidding. O God, please no. Its the end of Western civilization as we know it.
I'm never gonna waste my time reading the article or watching the video on Youtube. What's the point in watching this parade?
I can imagine how disappointed the 20-something atheists must have been that they were not able to debate Jaroslav Pelikan himself while he was still alive. So with heavy hearts they were forced to debate Christendom’s second-in-line, Kirk Cameron . No offense to Kirk Cameron, but its like saying “I’m not a philosophy professor, but I play one on TV.”
In times of unbelief, setting up a google alert in order to carry out a jihad against believers would never have crossed my mind. That is not debate, but rather a series of stunts, a perpetual contest of one-up-manship, and it absolutely trivializes the entire issue. What brought me into belief were more ontological issues, the nature of our being, the limits of human knowledge, etc. (The fact that I kept running across doctors who didn’t believe in evolution was interesting too). It wasn’t a ten question pissing contest over Bible trivia that convinced me one way or the other.
The other side is that there are legions of younger people who know nothing about the subject matter and who don’t care enough to know it for themselves, but they will jump on the atheist bandwagon simply because it’s cool to shite on Christianity. I live with it. I hear it all the time. And the few times i can actually get a few words in about the original greek or something like that, their eyes glaze over because its absolutely lost on them. These are the inheritors of the enlightenment? These are the heroes of rationalism?
There are atheists who express a genuine respect for those of us who believe, such as a couple of good friends of mine and two or three professors I had in college. But my recent ongoing encounters with the pop-atheism so prevalent in modern culture make me think that it has a built-in weakness that will be difficult for its disciples to overcome. It is my interpretation that there is an arrogance that causes them to assume they are inherently more intelligent than believers. Therefore, since they are not communicating with intellectual equals, they don’t have to try as hard when it comes to academic rigor or logic and critical thinking. Ergo ten question shoot offs.
The practical issue is not whether a belief system meets your personal requirements for proof (because even atheism is subjective), or whether you are more intelligent than the millions of believers who have lived before you, the practical issue is whether a belief system has helped make the world a better place. The great experiments in organized atheism (which taught that religion was the opiate of the masses) made a contribution to our world comparable to that of Al Qaida.
International human rights did not blossom with Descartes and the enlightenment. Rather, the legal and philosophical writings which laid the foundation for international human rights were developed by Roman Catholic clerics such as Bartolomé de Las Casas. The enlightenment was not a rational emergence from Catholic superstition, it was driven by a new middle class that wanted to pursue unrestrained capitalism without moral responsibility and without being encumbered by a conscience... a conscience which was, at the time, represented by the Roman Church.
I recently came across a Romanian blog by an atheist that called the Communist regime "evil". I found it amusingly ironic. Since God is a fairy tale, the idea of "evil" is an arbitrary philosophical construct. If there is no higher moral authority, then there is also no basis for morals or ethics. The right of raw power is justified. Any system of morals or ethics is derived from whatever is agreed upon by the community. That being the case, the communist system was not "evil". Since the people living in the regime were either complicit with its methods or powerless to change it, the Communist governments did nothing wrong at all.
Now that Communism is gone, I guess the tables are turned and atheists, who themselves have never seen the inside of gulag or never had a grandfather killed for his beliefs, all of a sudden they are "victimized" when they merely see an icon or if they encounter free speech exercised by a religious person. They really have it hard, don’t they?
I stood on the edge of atheism once and it did not open a new utopia of ethical possibilities. On the contrary, it offers only the right of raw power. Believing in no God gives me the ethical ability to kill and eat someone's children, or beat someone’s sick grandmother to death if I want to. The only thing holding me back is the power of local government. It offers free license to be a religious bigot towards any fellow human who believes in anything not scientifically measurable.
Yeah, I know these attitudes I’ve described are characteristic of only the worst examples. But for some reason the worst examples and most condescending representatives of non-belief seem to find their way into mass media.
When fleets of atheist charity organizations show up after the next tsunami, I'll take Penn Jillette’s creed more seriously.