July 11, 2004

Sunday Sermon

from - smijer

What makes evil atheists evil? Someone close to me suggests that the common perception of atheists as dirty and threatening comes not from the pulpit, but from the unhappy coincidence that the most vocal atheists tend also to be the dirtiest and most threatening - giving atheists an undeserved bad name in much the same way that many hypocritical Christians give Christianity an undeserved bad name (or, one can almost hear our rebel-flagwaving neighbors saying, the way some lazy or criminal African Americans give all of them a bad name). At the time, I disagreed. My reasoning was that the average Joe or Sally Churchperson has probably never knowingly had any meaningful interaction with an atheist. They haven't had an opportunity to judge atheism by its outspoken proponents, because they've never really encountered them. But I think it goes much deeper than that. I began to think of outspoken atheists since Voltaire, and whether they have truly conformed to the theory. Could the real outspoken atheists give the rest of us a bad name, if we knew who they were? Here is the list I have compiled. It is quite incomplete, but I would argue that it is, at least in some ways, representative:

  • Voltaire: According to this brief biography, his "intelligence, wit and style made him one of France's greatest writers and philosophers." These words (or some variant of them) are attributed to Voltaire, "In 100 years [the Bible] will be forgotten and eliminated". Obviously, his prediction failed, yet we see from it his outspokenness against religion. Interestingly, it was a religious group that disinterred his body after burial.
    In 1814 a group of "ultras" (right-wing religious) stole Voltaire's remains and dumped them in a garbage heap. No one was the wiser for some 50 years. His enormous sarcophagus (opposite Rousseau's) was checked and the remains were gone. (see Orieux, Voltaire, vol. 2 pp. 382-4.) His heart, however, had been removed from his body, and now lies in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. His brain was also removed, but after a series of passings-on over 100 years, disappeared after an auction.

  • Thomas Paine: One of America's founding fathers, a great patriot and veteran of the Revolutionary war, he was among the first to publically criticize the practice of slavery. His outspokenness against religion led him to write The Age of Reason, a pamphlet of early Biblical criticism.
  • Bertrand Russell: He was a great mathematician and logician from the early 20th century. In addition, he spent six months in jail for his anti-war activities in the first world war. He did have moral failings in the realm of sexual morality (that favorite of the priestly class), but he was certainly no dirtier or more threatening than any Christian adulterer.
  • Richard Dawkins: Maybe this is one of those atheists that give us a bad name. He is much more likely to win the Nobel Prize for Biology than for Peace. He is just a biologist and science popularizer. He is sometimes crass and condescending in his denunciations of Young Earth Creationism and other such nonsense. But, still - no... we cannot convict him of being dirty and threatening on the basis of mere style. He is an outspoken proponent of philosophical natualism: the philosophy that all that exists conforms to natural regularity.

    I left off scores of well known (and often well-loved) atheists who were not outspoken about religion. A nice list of well known ones can be found here.

    When atheists are outspoken, they may speak out against one of three things. First, they may speak out against people. They may call call Christians moral or intellectual weaklings. That would rightly make them (individually) seem dirty and threatening. But the ones I've mentioned weren't in any such habit. Certainly, I am not. My position is, to paraphrase Michael Shermer , that religious people are (often) smart people who are good at rationalizing things they came to believe for not-smart reasons.

    Second, an outspoken atheist may criticize ideas. They may remark on the self-evidently ridiculous notions of people walking on water, people coming back to life after several days dead, or talking animals. Any of these things are ridiculous, and would never be taken seriously by Christians outside the context of their mythology. However, people do take it seriously when we laugh at their intellectual idols. I think the propensity to attack bad ideas garners a measure of vilification from the pulpit and the parishoners.

    Third, and last, an outspoken atheist may speak out against that fragile side of human psychology that makes us feel that we need to believe in these unbelievable things, and makes us terrified to give our beliefs an honest examination. It is this part of our psychology - the part that creates those most shallow but unshakeable convictions, that causes us to hate and lash out against that which threatens to show our convictions false. And, it is the fear residing in this part of our psychology that creates the most negative impressions about atheists, whether it is summoned by our own fear of death, by an e-mail chain letter (where the obnoxious atheistic college professor gets his comeuppance at the hands of a faithful student), or from the pulpit.

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    Posted by smijer at July 11, 2004 12:44 PM
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