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September 28, 2007

Jerks all around me

Why can't atheists see sacred texts as sacred to them — to those believers over there -- and behave respectfully when not provoked? It is simply not true, in a normal, etiquette-infused vision of life, that we think truth must be stated at every time and in every context. We tell Grandma that she's looking well when she's looking terrible. We tell Grandpa that he's going to be fine when we haven't the faintest idea how things will turn out for him. We lie to people in small ways every day to make interactions gentler and less tense, and to be kind to others. Indeed, in a wonderful against-the-grain philosophical book some years ago titled The Varnished Truth (University of Chicago Press, 1993), philosopher David Nyberg argued that white lies are the "glue" that hold the civilized world together. Why shouldn't a similar gentleness and desire to avoid hurtful comments inform atheists when they write about books that many hold sacred?

The most familiar rebuke to this rears its head regularly in the most scathing, sarcastic, and popular of the atheist wave, Hitchens' God Is Not Great. It is that believers in the God-given authority of sacred texts are "ultimately incapable" of leaving nonbelievers alone. Religion, writes Hitchens, "does not, and in the long run cannot, be content with its own marvelous claims and sublime assurances. It must seek to interfere with the lives of nonbelievers, or heretics, or adherents of other faiths. It may speak about the bliss of the next world, but it wants power in this one. This is only to be expected. It is, after all, wholly man-made."

The cosmopolitan atheist of today — the well-educated secularist steeped in the histories of various faiths, as well as the carnage they've produced back then and now — can't easily toss off Hitchens's point. Polite respect ends when believers insist on sacred texts as God's authorization of those believers to regulate, suppress, or punish the behavior of nonbelievers. In such situations, the atheist's politeness goes out the window because the believer has thrown his politeness out the window first. Is there anything as impolite -- a gentle word, to be sure -- as forcing one's moral rules on another because they supposedly come from a divine being whose existence the other doesn't accept?

As a result, we get the predominant tones in which atheists have assessed sacred texts over the centuries -- anger, disrespect, contempt, sarcasm, insult, dismissal, even pity. Consider three examples.

"The Bible," sighed Voltaire. "That is what fools have written, what imbeciles command, what rogues teach, and young children are made to learn by heart."

"As to the book called the Bible," thundered Thomas Paine, "it is blasphemy to call it the word of God. It is a book of lies and contradictions, and a history of bad times and bad men. There are but a few good characters in the whole book."

And, as nasty wrapper, there is A.A. Milne's point. "The Old Testament," he claimed, "is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief -- call it what you will — than any book ever written: It has emptied more churches than all the counter attractions of cinema, motor bicycle, and golf course."

Are Sacred Texts Sacred? the Challenge for Atheists

I'm not suggesting this is a law, but in my personal experience, as well as in my reading of the writings of public intellectuals, becoming a passionate advocate for atheiesm turns you into a jerk. I've had a few experiences with passionate religious advocates (Mormons, Lubavitch, religious leaders) and they are significantly nicer and more caring than the average person I meet. Religion has its problems. Further, I can see how if you you can't get over the feeling that all religion as nonsense, that it would be infuriating. All those people building their lives around it and through their wallets and ballots changing yours can get to you.

But I challenge my readers to consider the three most fervent believing and unbelieving people they know. Who is nicer? Who is kinder? Who is more helpful? More generous? Who interrupts more? Who mocks more? Who bullies more?

I make no apologies for horrors done in the name of deities. I'm just interested in a few things:

1) Does the sort of moderate religious expression in the West make the world a better place?

2) Does the presence of a large body of moderate religious followers engender and then enable the existence of religious extremists which produce the lion's share of negative religious externalities.

3) On a personal level, are the private benefits of being religious larger than the private costs?

4) If the answer to question three is yes, then if you can't believe, should you do it anyway?

Posted by OneEyedMan at September 28, 2007 2:33 PM


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