Saturday, August 11, 2007

Atheism gets militant

Asymmetrical warfare

If you haven't read your summer issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review (June 2007), you may be unaware that nonbelievers have been getting feisty. In fact, atheists are breaking the unspoken code of conduct that is supposed to prevent them from saying unkind things about religion. David Carlin of the Community College of Rhode Island explains it all for us: The blame belongs to Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, secularists who dared to write bestselling books that boldly flaunt the banner of the ungodly.
The sociologically interesting thing about these anti-Christian, pro-atheism best-sellers is that they violate what has been, for most of the 20th century, an unwritten rule of American cultural good manners, namely, that you are not supposed to attack the religious beliefs of a fellow American in a public and conspicuous way....

It followed from this rule of good manners that atheists and agnostics were not allowed to attack theism in general or Christianity in particular. There was of course no law against such attacks, but for an unbeliever to attack Christianity was regarded as a great breach of courtesy.
Now don't you feel bad? Attacking religion is unmannerly.

Of course, one might protest that religionists have never balked at heaping abuse on nonbelievers. Yes, that's true. However, as Carlin points out, that is also part of the unspoken compact of courtesy toward religion. Secularists are supposed to just grin and bear it. It's tradition!
One notable and rather inconsistent feature of this speak-no-evil taboo was that it did not require reciprocity between theists and atheists. Atheists were expected to abstain from criticizing religion, yes, but religious believers were not expected to abstain from criticizing atheism. During the first decade or so of the Cold War, it was the most normal thing in the world for those defending the American way of life to denounce Communism as being “atheistic” or “godless.” The implication here, of course, was that atheism is a very bad thing. And if Communism, a bad thing, was made even worse by being atheistic, then non-communist American atheists, while not perhaps as bad as their “red” cousins, must be pretty bad. Another way of putting this is to say that during the middle years of the 20th century atheists were excluded from the theistic consensus—the Judeo-Christian consensus—that dominated American cultural life. Just as African-Americans were “second-class citizens” by virtue of belonging to the “wrong” race, so atheists were second-class citizens by virtue of having wrong views on religion.
So, so true. And now you probably think you can tell where Dr. Carlin is going with his argument.

But no. His analogy between the plights of nonbelievers and African-Americans is a red herring. He's not going to go anywhere with it. Certainly he is not going to argue that atheists should be accommodated as people with equal standing in the polity (although I presume he does extend that equality to racial minorities). No. He deeply regrets it. Rather, he is sounding the trumpet for a vigorous counterattack. He views with alarm the growth of secularism in a once “Christian nation.” Even worse, the enemy has seized the high ground and people no longer believe in a uniquely Christian America (or, more grudgingly, a Judeo-Christian America).
Those days are gone—and probably gone forever, despite the wishes of some cultural conservatives who would like once again to define the United States as a Christian nation, or at least as a Judeo-Christian nation. There are now too many atheists in America for the US to return to that old self-definition of itself. Though still relatively small in number, atheists are disproportionately represented in what may be called the “command posts” of American culture[—]refer to elite universities (including law schools), the national press, and the entertainment industry. Their influence in American political and cultural life is very, very great. It is unlikely that theistic Americans will ever again be able to forget that significant numbers of their fellow-Americans are atheists, or to pretend that this atheistic minority simply doesn't count. (In the present discussion I am counting almost all “agnostics” as atheists, since the great majority of American agnostics, while willing to grant that there is a slim—an exceedingly slim—chance that God might exist, are for all practical purposes deniers of the existence of God.)

Just as the Supreme Court's Brown [v. Board of Education] decision of 1954 gave a signal to the nation that the days of second-class citizenship for blacks were bound to come to an end, so, although rather less dramatically, the Court's school prayer ruling of 1962 (Engel v. Vitale) signaled that the second-class status of atheists was bound to come to an end. Under our theistic or Judeo-Christian consensus, it was generally felt that schools should not compel students to say prayers that might be offensive to members of this or that religious denomination. The Court's ruling extended this “sensitivity test” (as it may be called) to atheists. Just as there must be no Christian prayers that offend Jews and no Protestant prayers that offend Catholics, so there must be no prayers that of fend atheists. But all prayers offend atheists; therefore there must be no prayers at all.
Thus we have come to this pretty pass: atheists and their camp followers gaining equal status. But this cannot stand!

You see, atheists are anti-Christian. Christians must therefore fight them rather than try to live in neutral accommodation with them. Christians are losing the battle. The rising tide of unbelief has crested in a deluge of open secularism. As evidence, we can note the presence of one member of the House of Representatives, Pete Stark, who describes himself as a nonbeliever. (There is also one Muslim, Keith Ellison, who must be placed with Stark on the anti-Judeo-Christian scales.) No wonder Christians like Carlin see themselves faced by imminent defeat. What must Christians do as they gird their loins for battle?
Although it is too early to be sure (only time will tell), my strong suspicion is that the atheistic sellers I mentioned at the beginning of this essay mark a new stage in the history of American atheism and anti-Christianity. The atheists of America are “coming out of the closet.” They are passing from a stage of practical atheism (which is where they have been ever since the beginning of the sexual revolution) to a stage of practical-plus-theoretical atheism. That is to say, practical atheism will continue (in the form of sexual liberty, abortion, same-sex marriage, and perhaps polygamy and euthanasia) but will be supplemented by theoretical defenses of atheism and attacks upon Christianity.

If I am correct about this development, it presents both a danger and an opportunity to American Catholicism. It is obviously a danger, since it will permit pro-atheism propagandists to seduce Catholics, especially young Catholics, from the faith. Many of the bestseller attacks on Christianity, it is true, are nothing but warmed-over versions of the criticisms made in the l8th century by the likes of Voltaire and Tom Paine or of the 19th century criticisms made by “agnostics” who wielded anti-Christianity weapons manufactured out of the Darwinian theory of evolution or the German higher criticism of the Bible. Philosophically and theologically sophisticated Catholics have long since concluded that these old attacks, while superficially clever, miss the mark and leave the faith undamaged. But the typical young Catholic is not philosophically or theologically sophisticated; indeed the typical young Catholic of today is not even well informed about the contents of his/her religion.
Ah, yes. We have to think of the children. Today's young people are too unsophisticated to resist the blandishments of secular logic and science. You have to be equipped properly if you are to fight the lure of rational thinking.

Carlin looks back nostalgically at life the way it used to be in the Catholic “ghetto,” where parochial schools protected young people from the baneful influence of liberal education in public institutions. Immersion used to be rather effective, entangling people in a web of thought that often manifested itself throughout the decades. As G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown said, “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

Carlin wants to embed the hook deeply, so as to be able to jerk the subject back from the brink of secular thinking. But insular Catholicism is past, so the inculcation of dogma and right thinking must be pursued in the world as it is, as not as Carlin and his coreligionists would have preferred it. Carlin does recognize this and thinks it's time to take the fight to the enemy, the bold atheists who are loudly and proudly enunciating their independence from religious doctrine.
Yet the new atheism is an opportunity for Catholics as well. The enemy is no longer hidden, he is now out in the open; and other things being equal, it easier to fight a visible enemy than a concealed one. One of the great deficiencies in American Catholic life since the 1960s is that the leadership of the Church in this country—I mean bishops and priests—seems for the most part not to have realized that a massive attack was being made on Christianity in the form of practical atheism.... These leaders seem to have believed that they were still living in an older America, the America of their youth, a country that was hospitable to Christianity in general and to Catholicism in particular. They were mistaken about this, and, fortunately, the new atheism (as reflected in the four best-sellers) will prevent them from deluding themselves any longer. Realizing the danger, they will now have no choice but to fight back....

So what is to be done? Atheism (and by “atheism” here I mean both practical and theoretical atheism) will have to be confronted directly in the marketplace of competing ideas and values. Catholic intellectuals, both clerical and lay, will have to reply to the atheistic intellectuals who “prove” that theism and Christianity are wrong; and they will have to make these replies, not simply in Catholic forums, but in the larger forums of American intellectual life. Catholic education will have to be strengthened and expanded, so that ordinary Catholics will be equipped with the knowledge needed to withstand attacks on their faith. And when I say “Catholic education” I don't refer only to Catholic schools. I mean that a strenuous effort will have to be made—through homilies, lectures, seminars, discussion groups, periodicals, books, book clubs, etc.—to reach adult Catholics. In general, the specifically Catholic element in the intellectual life of American Catholics will have to be elevated far above where it is at the moment.
This is a fascinating (and paradoxical) clarion call. How is one to elevate Catholic scholarship and intellectual endeavor during a time of retrenchment and enforcement of orthodoxy at Catholic universities? The dogmatic straitjacket chokes off the flow of free inquiry that is the life blood of a university or any intellectual community. Galileo was famously uncomfortable trying to wear it and today's Catholic intellectuals may be less than delighted to enlist in a campaign to turn Catholic education into shock-troop indoctrination.

I'm sure that is not what Carlin thinks he is proposing. He believes in the truth of Catholic doctrine, so he sees his call for a war against atheism by means of enhanced Catholic education as logically defensible. Secularists who are standing on the sidelines, however, some of us equipped with Catholic educations ourselves, may marvel at Carlin's sweet and unspoiled faith.

Education is not the friend of faith, Catholic or otherwise. Rational thought is not the ally of dogma, Christian or otherwise. That's why many religion-based colleges and institutions require their faculty members and associations to subscribe to a set of beliefs and promise not to depart from them. Here are the conclusions. Do whatever research and reasoning you want, as long as you don't violate the preordained conclusions. Sad to say, though, you can't rely on unfettered inquiry to leave faith intact.

Faith is based on a need to believe. It rests on a foundation that cannot be examined too closely, else its arbitrary nature becomes exposed. Channeling intellectual endeavor as a weapon against secularism is doomed to failure because intellectual endeavor does not confine itself to channels. Carlin had best step back so as to be ready when it overflows the channel's banks.

24 comments:

John Armstrong said...

nonbelievers have been getting feisty

I believe the word you're looking for is "uppity".

The Ridger, FCD said...

Wow. "practical atheism will continue (in the form of sexual liberty, abortion, same-sex marriage, and perhaps polygamy and euthanasia)" - I had no idea atheism included all that stuff. I guess for Carlin, anything that isn't Catholic is by definition atheism?

Anonymous said...

Wow. Just wow. I cannot believe that this guy can honestly come to the conclusion that atheists no longer being second class citizens is somehow a bad thing.

It just boggles the mind.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Worse - atheists no longer being *happy* about being second class citizens.

pdf said...

This is gratuitous, sure, but I could not resist.

These leaders seem to have believed that they were still living in an older America

Yes, they are still living in the older America where pedophilia is ok.

pdf

Tim said...

Of course atheists are for all those icky things. After all every atheist thinks in lock step with each other, and if you don't believe in God surely you believe its all right to have 5 wives and want to gas Granny when she gets a bit lame of step.

Hmmm, sounds disturbingly like the way the ultra nutters see Jews. In their worldview if someone is a Jew they believe exactly the same things as every other Jew.

False Prophet said...

Carlin has it wrong: I credit my Catholic schooling as a big part of turning me against the faith. First of all, religious education was so slip-shod, most of my fellow graduates remain ignorant of what Catholic doctrine actually is. Since I studied Catholic doctrine more than any of my friends and relatives (I studied the early Christian church in undergrad), I am easily able to defend my atheism against the poorly-understood faith of most Catholics. Studying the BS of Catholicism helped open my eyes too.

Secondly, nothing makes a topic more boring than having to do homework for it in high school.

Interrobang said...

He's got a lot of nerve (I'd say "chutzpah," but that's the wrong religion) talking about warmed-over defenses of atheism, since nothing in Christian apologetics has changed in a millennium or so... SSDP*, as we'd say in the pungent idiom of me misspent yout'.

_______
* For "Same Sh*t, Different Pile

Lifewish said...

Since when was "old America" Catholic-friendly? It was only fifty years ago that JFK was being attacked for his Catholicism.

JohnnieCanuck said...

Indeed, I don't think you'd have to turn over too many protestant rocks today, to find someone saying Catholics aren't real Christians.

Phoenician in a Time of Romans said...

So what is to be done? Atheism (and by “atheism” here I mean both practical and theoretical atheism) will have to be confronted directly in the marketplace of competing ideas and values.

Bring it on.

AL said...

Carlin says that "philosophically and theologically sophisticated Catholics" have addressed the charges of the atheists and religious skeptics. So what exactly were these "philosophically and theologically sophisticated" arguments? I'm always hearing ABOUT them, but never actually hearing them. Does he mean that the mental gymnastics and ad hoc rationalizations used to prop up an exceedingly absurd house of cards is "sophisticated?"

Bob Evans said...

"Education is not the friend of faith, Catholicism or otherwise. Rational thought is not the ally of dogma, Christianity or otherwise"

That's a broad brush you wield in stating that as an absolute, Zeno. Actually, the more verses of scripture "unsophisticated" Christians are shown, especially those that pertain specifically to apparent Messianic fulfillment, the more vibrant the faith becomes for them. There are right around 300 verses where the New Testament authors, and Jesus himself cite specific Old Testament verses as being fulfilled in the person of the historical Jesus. You can find 50 of those here:http://biblia.com/jesusbible /prophesies.htm. This also applies to al's question?comment as well.

If you had said that it will be a monumental undertaking to get an educational program organized, I would have no problem agreeing with you. My educated guess though, is that there would be no shortage of lay- Christians thoroughly familiar with these verses, who would be eager to volunteer their time if Carlin's scenerio were to arise. That's my response to the "bring it on" guy, also. The foundation on which the faith rests can be examined very closely, to borrow from your terms.

Apart from that, your posting was wonderful. You didn't merely provide snippets of Carlin's words that would exclusively support the atheist outlook. You framed it in a very professional way. It's very apparent that you were a journalist.

vjack said...

It really is fascinating how quickly reason, critical thought, and morality go out the window when one becomes convinced that a god is on one's side. Of course the religionists are going to view us as second-class citizens - we reject their god. This makes of less deserving of everything they want for themselves.

Icky Chris said...

....Many of the bestseller attacks on Christianity, it is true, are nothing but warmed-over versions of the criticisms made in the l8th century by the likes of Voltaire and Tom Paine

Gosh. Don't want to be lumped together with those awful people do we?

You know those guys - two men who so greatly influenced the American revolution that gave Catholics a mostly Protestant country where they could freely practice their Catholic religion.

Russell Blackford said...

All I can say is that I defend both the theory and the practice, if those are the definitions.

Anonymous said...

Polygamy!?!! What a RETARD!!! Doesn't he realize that the only currently socially-sanctioned polygamies are religious in nature?

He should be more worried about people french-kissing dogs. I hear that when the atheists are in charge that's going to be happening all over the place. Eeew.

Anonymous said...

>Atheism will have to be
>confronted directly in the
>marketplace of competing
>ideas and values.

I love that! That's a GREAT idea!! Talk about bringing a knife to a gun-fight.

When a delusional person of faith starts threatening to smack down on atheism using reason, that's kind of like Pee-Wee Herman saying he's going to kick Mike Tyson's azz.

Eamon Knight said...

....in the form of sexual liberty, abortion, same-sex marriage, and perhaps polygamy and euthanasia...

Funny, but I know of a number of Christians on the liberal end of the spectrum who are in favour of at least the first three things on that list. I guess "practical atheist" means "does not agree with Carlin's list of taboos".

Exoscoper said...

"Indeed, I don't think you'd have to turn over too many protestant rocks today, to find someone saying Catholics aren't real Christians."

And -- refresh my memory -- didn't some Catholic of rather high standing lately opine that Protestants aren't true Christians? I'm sure of it, I just can't remember his name ...

slavdude said...

One of the great deficiencies in American Catholic life since the 1960s is that the leadership of the Church in this country—I mean bishops and priests—seems for the most part not to have realized that a massive attack was being made on Christianity in the form of practical atheism.... These leaders seem to have believed that they were still living in an older America, the America of their youth, a country that was hospitable to Christianity in general and to Catholicism in particular.

Carlin apparently doesn't know, or has forgotten, that anti-Catholic sentiment is a part of our history reaching back to before the Revolution, and even back to the earliest colonies (Maryland, of course, being the exception). The America of their youth being friendly to Catholics? What about all the dire warnings about what would happen if a Catholic were elected President?

At best, Carlin's premise here is a bit disingenuous.

Sili said...

Two things came to mind when I read this:

1) Doesn't this man's favourite book say something about "turning the other cheek"? Or does that only apply to those who don't follow said book?

2) I'm amused that he complains that all the 'attacks' on christianity are just the same old, same old, warmed over stuff. I seem to recall that a good deal of the 'charges' levelled at evolution were dealt with by Darwin himself. (What use is half a wing/eye/&c?)

Monado, FCD said...

Wow. "practical atheism will continue (in the form of sexual liberty, abortion, same-sex marriage, and perhaps polygamy and euthanasia)"

I love how he inserts the phantom wedge / slippery slope into the ledger onto the side of atheism.

Chris Booth said...

David Carlin does not reason well: his arguments are dishonest and quite stupid.

For example. He is so self-absorpt that he projects his own nut-jobbery onto atheism, defining two types of atheism, practical and theoretical. There is no such thing as "theoretical atheism". That is absurd. There is no a-fairyist theoretics, no a-elfist theoretics, no a-Ramaist theoretics, no a-Thorist theoretics, no a-Zeusist theoretics, no over-arching atheist theoretics. They simply don't exist, so there's no theory of their non-existance. Atheisim no more needs a theoretical base than a-Tinkerbellism does. However, any claim of a supernatural invisible fairy with super powers--who likes him especially, the lucky boy!--is nonsensical and an extraordinary claim that needs to be supported with extraordinary evidence. Evidence they have had almost 2000 years to accumulate. Since there is no support of his claim of primacy over other religions, let alone any factuality to it at all, of course, he has to rely on the entire spectrum of logical fallacies and bad assumptions to make his points.

He is mistaken, though. His foes are not atheists, uppity or not. Before he goes toe-to-to with atheism, he has to subdue all the other religions. It is an unconsidered and egotistical assumption on the part of religious apologists that the only players are their religion versus atheism (and atheism's handmaidens, reason and science). Atheism is equally not Protestant, not Muslim, not Jewish, not Himdu, not Buddhist, etc. It is incumbent on amy religion to show first that theirs is the only valid religion, and *then* they are in a position to oppose atheism.

So, show us your stuff. Since you think your religion is the anti-atheism, it should be a piece of cake to bring ALL the other religions and Christian sects into your fold. Convince the Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc., and then present your universal and internally consistent body of proof. Until then, you are just a lying apologist for centuries of horror and rapine with a pathological desire to return to the glory days of brainwashing, coercion by threat and force, instruments of torture, autos da fe, mass murder, retrograde advancement in science and human quality of life, and above all, power and wealth. What you don't like about atheism--deep down--it is right, and you know it.