Moderates, Atheism, and Mutual Cooling in the Culture Wars

It’s fair to say I have mixed feelings on the atheist movement. On the one hand, more than a few of my closest friends count themselves as leading lights in skeptic circles, and the work they do, pushing back the fog of fundamentalism and bigotry, serves an invaluable counterweight to the type of religious militarism that’s almost as dangerous under cross as it is under crescent.

On the other hand, there’s a tendency at the movement level for atheism to lapse into a new kind of dogma and, like fundamentalist Christianity, reject the very pluralism that the movement used to hold out as a goal. Ross Douthat notes the problem, and I tend to agree: atheists and religious moderates should be able to find common ground in rejecting fundamentalism, both as a worldview, and in validating those parts of organized religion that tend to actually create better people. I object to, and take offense at, the notion that humanity needs a divine being to provide an objective morality substantial enough to quash our naturally selfish impulses. To men and women of a certain conviction, a decent respect for the life and property of others should flow naturally — without any need for recourse to some heavenly notion of punishment and reward — from the simple fact that we are, in fact, bound together in our destinies. But for those who need the crutch of religious morality, let them have it.

But if we see an angry, militant type of atheism emerging as a dominant force in the movement, we shouldn’t overlook the role religious fundamentalists have had in creating that wing. Any alliance between religious moderates and non-theist moderates would face fire from both sides: militant atheists who view religion as a plague to be eradicated, and militant theists who see atheists as something less than human. Productive dialogue requires two willing players; arguably, we don’t have either.

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12 comments

  1. To men and women of sufficient quality, a decent respect for the life and property of others should flow naturally — without any need for recourse to some heavenly notion of punishment and reward – from the simple fact that we are, in fact, bound together in our destinies. But for those who need the crutch of religious morality, let them have it.

    Um. That is – and I’m being as diplomatic as I can here – a funny way create productive dialogue, because that seems like a pretty condescending point of view.

    1. You’re entirely correct. I’ve tried to change it — is that better?

      1. No. If your starting point is (as I’m reading it, and correct me if I’m wrong) that atheists are superior because they can formulate moral imperatives on their own, while religious people need a “crutch” of “punishment and reward” to do the same thing… well, that’s not really the best way to create common ground.

        I also think it’s wrong, because that respect you’re talking about is not something that exists naturally; it’s created by social forces, particularly a combination of positive normative reinforcement and negative fear of censure, prosecution or other forms of punishment. Some of those social forces are religious in nature, and people of a religious disposition obviously respond better t those, but the basic mechanism is the same for everyone.

      2. That’s a good point — so is the argument that both theists and atheists derive morals from the same sources, just atheists contextualize it in a different manner? That’s a good way of putting it, much better than I did.

        1. Moreover, Atheists are less likely to follow antiquated moral guidelines resulting from literal interpretation and adherence to an ancient text. Frequently, even those theists who eschew strict scriptural literalism have a tendency to use these outdated morals to support a personal agenda.

          Atheism can be dogmatic, but more often in a sense that some who identify as atheists do so either for wrong reasons, or through erroneous reasoning. Bill Maher might be a self proclaimed atheist, but his anti-vaccination views hardly make him a skeptic. which makes me wonder if he’s only an atheist for the ratings. Anything accepted at face value without even a modicum of critical evaluation is dogma and should be discouraged.

          P.S. I had former friends tell me they could no longer trust me upon finding out that I was an atheist, and these friends were not the pillars of morality either.

        2. – so is the argument that both theists and atheists derive morals from the same sources, just atheists contextualize it in a different manner?

          The same sources in the general sense, yeah, if not the specific. We all need a combination of positive and negative reinforcement to stay within the limits of legal/acceptable behaviour. So we follow the laws both for positive, normative reasons – it’s “the right thing to do”, it allows us to continue to participate in society, and it makes for a safer society for us all – but also because of the very real negative threat of prosecution and ostracisation if we do not. No society could function without one or the other impulse being present.

          Of course, the specific sources of those laws and norms differ from community to community, but the basic mechanism is the same for everyone.

  2. I’d also add that all major religions are human interpretations of divine lessons. And therefore subject to a whole host of human frailty and fallability. Oh, and a lot of moderate religious persons don’t ned the “punishment and reward crutch” – rather we have tendency to look at religious teachings on morality and ethics to reinforce a true reading of historical fact.

  3. My religious beliefs are best expressed with “Jesus was evil and Mohammad a fraud.” (I like the meter). If any of the godstapo have a problem with that they can get over themselves and if they want to make something of it they can talk to my .45

    Religions at best are silly things that deserve to be mocked and their adherents offended. The serious ones, though, yeah. Plague to be eradicated.

    1. “The serious ones, though, yeah. Plague to be eradicated.”

      First, I suppose we have to separate faith from religion. Organized religion encourages group-think mentality without any objective test allowing for safe dissent. Paradoxically, that same lack of objective testing of reality is what allows for so much dissent and variation, which often reach dangerous extremes. With so much smiting in certain scripture, more level headed adherents will have hard time tempering their fundamentalist brethren.Faith or belief, on the other hand, is of more personal nature and can;t be overly condemned without examining the whole gamut of irrational beliefs, supernatural or otherwise.

      What bothers me the most is that any criticism of a major religious view is rude and insensitive. Religions, by definition, are exclusive of other religions, and a monotheistic belief automatically dismisses a pagan view. Atheists are somehow arrogant for pointing that out the irrational nature of all faith, but those calling Mormons “a cult” are somehow exempt from such accusations of arrogance.

    2. Religions at best are silly things that deserve to be mocked and their adherents offended. The serious ones, though, yeah. Plague to be eradicated.

      That honestly doesn’t say much considering how many other things you generally find worthy of eradication.

      1. As the saying goes, 90% of everything is crap.

  4. Couldn’t resist commenting on the Mormon…Cult thing. As a former (read excommunicated) Mormon, I have lots of love and respect for the many good things I gained from growing up Mormon–including a sense of morality, self restraint, and responsibility to the larger community. However, in researching the term “cult” for my own information–and for writing my own WordPress blog, MyMormonMind–I found myself concluding that by definition the religion of my childhood and early adult years is indeed a cult. But that is not saying anything pejorative. Rather, by definition religions with beliefs and practices which differ greatly from the larger norms and which are novel creations, are properly termed “cults”, while those with the kind of differences that result from mere schism are properly called “sects.” Next I intend to research the kind of dogmatism and fundamentalism that deems all religious people to be “silly” and deserving of mockery and offense.

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