Whatever you do, don’t call me an atheist.
It will probably come as no surprise to hear that, on the whole, I’m not a true believer. I don’t believe in God, Allah, Jesus, Mohammed, or any other higher power that is on offer. I have come to this belief (or lack thereof, as the case may be) after many years of thought and personal exploration. I don’t feel the need to “convert” religious people to atheism, nor do I feel a particular need to constantly argue about belief with them. Simply, they believe, and I don’t.
Recently, however, I’ve started including a caveat whenever religion is discussed – I don’t believe in God, but I’m not an atheist. The reason I’ve started doing so is because I find myself disinclined to be associated with some of the more famous atheist names, and some of the more recent atheist activities. I don’t believe in God, but I don’t believe in Dawkins either.
Richard Dawkins is a very talented and intelligent man. His books are interesting, compelling, and convincing reads. Broadly speaking, I believe the same things he does (i.e. in the existence of evolution, that evolution explains our development, that there is no higher spiritual power, etc). I don’t, however, believe that the best way to go about spreading your message is to be abrasive, combative, and, to a certain degree, as extremist as those you deride.
Due to his status as a prominent atheist and his obvious pro-evolution stance, Dawkins appears in countless interviews and programs. One such example, which I found particularly hard to watch, and which demonstrates my difficulty with Dawkins, is his interview with a creationist woman named Wendy Wright. I’ve embedded the first part here, you can follow on to watch the entire interview (7 parts) on youtube.
I found it genuinely difficult to watch this interview all the way through, and probably not for the reasons you might expect. Granted, the creationist is quite annoying and her laugh/dismiss way of answering each question gets old very quickly indeed. But equally annoying is Dawkins’ interview technique; he doesn’t address any of her questions, merely batting them away. Rather than addressing her points, he simply verbally bludgeons her for the duration of the interview. In short, while it is supposed to be an interview, it is actually two people talking beside each other, with neither listening to, or addressing the queries of, the other party.
The documentary “The Root of All Evil?” aka “The God Delusion” is another program which, in my opinion, misses the mark. In this program, Dawkins had the opportunity to address genuine questions and issues, but instead, he simply paraded the worst examples of extremist faith believers possible, to reinforce his own point that religion is the cause of all wrong. While it is true that there are extremist factions associated with almost every religion, the majority of followers of any religion are not represented by these extremists. Choosing only extremists to demonstrate what is wrong with religion is fundamentally flawed – it doesn’t really represent any of those belief systems accurately, and it only demonstrates the beliefs and practices of a minority of followers. Rather than consulting anyone with more moderate beliefs (i.e. one of the majority), Dawkins specifically selects the most extreme believers, knowing that it is much more difficult, if not impossible, to construct an argument for those extremist beliefs that would harm others, for example (who would really argue that it is correct to want all non-Muslims off the lands of Muhammed, and that it is acceptable to resort to violence to achieve that?).
What’s so annoying about this is that it is poor, lazy argument technique. It is harder to paint those with moderate beliefs, the majority, as crazed, dangerous, or insane, so he doesn’t try. And this is exactly the kind of argument that he will not tolerate from any believer, as seen recently in his reaction to the Pope’s comments with regard to atheism and Nazis. The Pope’s comments appear to be directed at atheist extremists, and while it is not made clear what he sees as an extreme atheist, what is clear is that he is, somewhat ironically, employing the same strategy as Dawkins – highlight the worst possible example, and imply that they are the majority. It’s sloppy, lazy, ignorant, and offensive to imply that simply because extremists exist that everyone who believes anything (even if that belief is no belief) agrees with the extreme views. And Dawkins is often as guilty of that as the various Creationists, Muslims, and religious leaders he interviews and rallies against.
I absolutely don’t support the Pope, or any of his declarations that seem to imply the worst of any who don’t believe in God, but that doesn’t mean that I think it’s acceptable to lower myself to his level by painting all religious people as fundamentalist extremist nutters. To do so will, ultimately, achieve nothing; no one will learn anything, it will only serve to prove to each side of the debate that they were right to assume the worst of the others.
Indeed, one could argue that this has been shown by the Pope’s recent visit. The comments made in his speech about atheism rapidly overtook most of the other issues to do with his visit (e.g. child abuse, monies from fund-raising, etc.) and brought out the worst in all concerned, leading to the word Nazi being used more times in the last week than I have seen it used in several years previous. True believers from both sides (yes, atheist “true believers” too) spent the duration of the visit trading verbal blows, and by the time it was all over, both sides were convinced that their assessment of each other was correct. After all, did the Catholics not call atheists Nazis? And did those Nazi atheists not do all within their power to disrupt the Pope’s visit, up to and including threatening arrests, violence, etc? Well, no, not really. An ill advised comment in the Pope’s speech led to a ridiculous game of chinese whispers, resulting in people maintaining that the Pope had said outright that atheists are modern-day Nazis, and overreaction to internet chatter and personal opinion led to prominent atheists (such as Stephen Fry, Terry Pratchett, etc) being virtually tarred and feathered by newspapers, and even to people being arrested, to protect the Pope.
The demonisation of atheism in the media means that many people will believe that the Pope was right to compare atheists to Nazis, and that being an atheist means that you want to murder the Pope, declare anarchy in the Holy See, and redecorate with a combination swastika and pentagram theme. The demonisation of the Pope in the media (mostly internet based, to be honest) means that many people will believe that the Pope actively molested children himself, and that all young people should be kept at a safe distance, lest they be sucked in, molested, and warped by his papal-magnetic-child-bothering field, provided he’s not too busy spending money senselessly and denying any and all accusations.
Time and time again, both sides of the debate engage in the same ridiculous, over-the-top mud slinging, and afterwards, they go home, safe in the knowledge that they were right after all. Surely it is time for a new tactic? Would it not be more effective to ignore the ridiculous comments, and instead focus on the real issues (e.g. child abuse, money, etc)? Would it not be better to prove disparagers wrong by behaving in a dignified and mature way?
Argue against religious belief if you want, but please do so logically, rationally, and well. Using twisted, exaggerated, contorted examples of faith does no one any good, and merely serves to show that fundamentalists exist in every walk of life, even if they choose to call themselves atheists.