Saturday, April 7, 2007

Religion and neo-atheism

Leading into this weekend when billions of Christians around the world are commemorating the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, it was interesting to have E.J. Dionne, Jr. write an editorial about the "new vogue for what you might call neo-atheism."

In it he makes reference to an excellent essay in National Review (sorry, no link -- we had read it in the dead-tree edition) by Michael Novak called "Lonely Atheists of the Global Village." Novak reviews recent books by three self-avowed neo-atheists.

Among Novak's comments is the observation that Christians find it fairly easy to step inside the atheistic point-of-view and understand it (and have been doing so since the earliest days of Christianity,) whereas atheists seem to have little capacity for understanding or empathizing with the point-of-view of those who hold religious beliefs.

Indeed, both in Novak's review and in Hal Johnson's excellent review in the New Criterion (again, sorry, dead-tree stuff) of one of the books in question -- Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation, the reviewers are struck by the condescending and dogmatic approach of this particular strain of atheism.

While they lacerate believers in general and Christians in particular (traditional Judaism is also singled out for some very harsh words in at least one of the books as well) for a supposed inability to ask themselves hard questions, it seems that atheists of this sort exhibit at least as much lack of self-examination, if not more.

Dionne agrees with this point: "But what's really bothersome is the suggestion that believers rarely question themselves while atheists ask all the hard questions."

It is true that atheists ask hard questions of Christians -- but that's not really the point of being open-minded is it? The question is whether someone who rejects Christian belief is capable of asking hard questions of themselves. Those who reject Christian belief are every bit as capable of engaging in self-congratulatory circular reasoning (and of smugly preaching to the choir) as are the religious.

Speaking specifically of Christianity and the hard questions and struggles with doubt involved, it was certainly no more easy for an educated (or even uneducated) 1st century Jew, a 4th century Roman, or medieval Christian scholar to believe that a body dead for 3 days came back to life again than it is for a 21st century scientist.

And regarding the history of instances of inhumanity by those professing a Christian creed, Novak points out that none of the neo-atheists in question do any self-searching about the extreme brutalities and genocides carried out by avowedly atheistic regimes. Atheists would argue that those genocides were not carried out by "real atheists" like themselves, but by crazy men.

Of course, critics of Christianity do not give any credence to the Christian assertion that acts of inhumanity toward man are evidence that one is not following Christian teaching -- Christians are expected to take responsibility for brutalities committed in its name a millennium ago, while atheists feel no need to take responsibility for brutalities committed in the name of their unbelief even a few short decades ago (even when said atheists hold specifically Marxist views.)

During this weekend of commemorating the Resurrection of Christ, we would hope that even those who do not share Christian beliefs would take the time to step inside the world of thoughtful traditional Christian belief -- or back into it -- and give it the same sympathetic and open-minded hearing that Christians are urged to give to positions of skeptical unbelief.

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