Will the True Nonbelievers Please Shut Up?

| May-June 2010

Science versus religion: The ancient battle has escalated into an all-out intellectual brawl, fueled by a seemingly interminable debate over evolution. But what if all the arguing, name calling, lobbying, op-ed writing, and book publishing is a distraction? What if that distraction is harmful to society?

The “new atheism” movement, led by biologist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), neuroscientist Sam Harris (The End of Faith), and philosopher Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell), has helped whip the debate into a fever pitch. The movement attacks in-your-face theism with in-your-face atheism. Exhibit A: UK buses plastered with ads stating “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

Everyone needs to remember, however, that “not all of the religious have a problem with science,” Chris Mooney, author of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, tells Free Inquiry (Feb.-March 2010). An atheist (and one-time atheist activist), Mooney finds fault in pitting science against religion. While he advocates for defending science education, in order to do so “it is critical that we mobilize the pro-science moderates,” he tells the secular humanist publication.  “The new atheism, as a strategy, flies in the face of this, since it is often about attacking and alienating the religious moderates.”

More than any other field, science plays a starring role in many of the most important policy debates and decisions of our time. “Broadly speaking, scientific illiteracy is the cause of 20 years of gridlock on the global-warming issue,” Mooney says. His recommended course of action: Give up the grudge match and allow scientific literacy to become a shared social priority.

5/26/2010 9:58:09 AM

I find this quote poignant because it came from a contempary source, "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful." ~ Lucius Annaeus Seneca "the Younger," Roman stoic philosopher, writer, and politician (4-65) Conscious or subconscious I think there is a wide range of definitions regarding a topic such as this. God is not defined by everyone the same way or called God for that matter. We cannot deny there is a "force" (too much Star Wars) that has effect on our planet and it's inhabitants. I never argue the exsistance of that force or the unknown effects is has on me. I also can't help but sense an undercurrent of narcissim in folks who "know " the maker of that force, particularly when it looks and acts like them. I beleive there is WAY too much out there to think we are that special. Some folks don't. We will see. Unfortunately, there is only one way to find out. I'm having too much fun at the moment so that will have to wait. "If you don't set goals you can't regret not reaching them." Yogi Berra

david kimball
5/26/2010 6:48:50 AM

On a scale of 1 - 5 for how people are in love with the level of their conviction, there are probably at least 5 levels. And you're right in that a moderate Humanist is never going to convince a level 5 theocrat. (I prefer the term Humanist because that says what I believe and what my values are but "atheist" says neither. I, as a Humanist, believe that I have the ability and the responsibility to do all that I can to develop all that it means to be human both in myself and in others.) Perhaps I might cause some Level 3's to question some things - but not 5's. So maybe we need some vocal Level 5's that can return the spit and the spittle coming from the Theocrats. I don't have a problem. Just like I don't even bother listening to the right wing-nuts, I would expect that Level 1, 2 and 3's not even bother listening. And the Level 1, 2 and 3's of the supernatural religionists shouldn't bother to listen to the Level 5's in-your-face atheists. So what's your problem? Why are you asking the Level 5 atheists to shut up but not the level 5 religionists? It sounds to me like you have a bug up one of your orifices.

andrew hughes
5/25/2010 8:51:46 PM

Oh and I suppose I should just talk nice over a cup of tea and hold hands. Is that it? Give me a break! This just a pathetic attempt to shut the atheists up period. A smokescreen to deflect criticism of religion. Deists cannot handle the challenge of having their belief system questioned and now smugly and hypocritically seek to define the parameters of the debate. It's not going to happen. Live with it and loose the fatuous handwringing. Deists have had a long run and a virtual monopoly on the subject for millenia by imposing there will through the use of propaganda, law and violence. This is such BS!

andrew hughes
5/25/2010 8:47:06 PM

Sorry for the typos. Wish there was an edit key. Missed an 'is' in one sentance. Misspelled their in another. Argggh!

5/25/2010 7:31:59 PM

I'm not a scientist. I believe that most who are have a good handle on what they're doing, and choose to leave them to it. They have, after all, an important contribution to make in the world. I am a lover of story and metaphor, of paradigms and points of view. I love the millions of ways in which a metaphor can be understood and instruct, and the millions of ways our lives can be enriched through story. Religion, for me, is a part of that. At the risk of oversimplifying, the only problem, as I see it, is our insistence on being right. Ambiguity is a fact of life and inherent in that is the existence of many views, beliefs, paradigms. To those of you who believe in God, I would say that there are as many paths to Enlightenment as there are people to walk them, and this includes science. To those who would call themselves Atheists, I would say that it takes as much faith NOT to believe in God as it does to believe, especially if one considers the concept of God as a metaphor all on its own. What's important, in my mind, is that we are willing to hear, learn from and appreciate one another. Aside from everyone wanting to be right, why is that so difficult?

jeffrey turnbull
5/25/2010 3:44:05 PM

Part IV: A wonderful aspect of the quest for Ultimate All-explaining All-embracing Reality-awareness is that it not only answers conceptual/philosophical questions, but the direct experience of innate Reality simultaneously clarifies and resolves hitherto unending questions in regard to self-identity. The direct inner discovery/experience of Reality is simultaneous to the discovery of one's own true innate identity, far more deeply, convincingly evident than what is offered in any religious course, university course, self-help course, etc. Because the Real Reality is, by definition---i.e., existing and in effect at every point in every lesser time-space dimension---also in effect in every iota of my own being and your own being. We are each offspring, facets, reflections of Reality; it is not possible for us to be any other or any less. So, the experience of direct awakening to Reality is the direct experential Knowing of oneself...never again to be goaded, coerced, tempted, or fooled by those who are selling identities to lost souls, i.e., recruiters in the Religion racket, the Science/Intellectual/Education racket, the nationalism/war racket, the ethnicity racket, the gender racket, the HUMAN racket...these are all limited/false identities which, if believed, cause so much pain to those of us who were only seeking an identity in which we would finally be loved and accepted.

jwt meakin
5/25/2010 3:32:06 PM

Vigorous debunking of religious fairytales may not advance society much (though I think it does), but it sure is fun.

jeffrey turnbull
5/25/2010 3:27:58 PM

Part III: The Eternal Prize---i.e. Awakening to Pure Whole Innate Innefable Reality---is not easily attained nor bestowed in this third-dimensional earthly curriculum, for most. (Though I have read of one so awakened who claims that it IS easy, once we have cleared the B.S. from our minds.) So, it is often referred to as 'The Quest', as it generally demands of the quest-er, or quest-ioner, a deep sincerity and enduring lifetime commitment to achieve conscious clarity of the nature of this inner Reality. (This Reality is everywhere and always present---sincerely contemplate this---there is not an atom of space, nor a moment of time, nor a single thought where this One Conscious Real Essence is not...both within/inside and outside, for in Reality there is no such distinction. In Reality there is only One, no possibility of a second, or separate other. Of course, this is true only for one who has been granted/gifted the direct experience of it; this 'direct experience' is in contrast to mere conversion in terms of conceptual B.S., which is not at all meaningful, nor sufficient for genuine liberation, or any real awakening. The honest person will notice how liberating it is merely to be in silence, in nature, in gentle sunlight, sans clothing, breathing slowly and deeply, noticing the subtler energy flows, and not being fooled by the enticements of thoughts and beliefs, but relishing the experience of the freedom of the Reality of nothingness, as it deepens, spreads, unites

jeffrey turnbull
5/25/2010 3:04:56 PM

Part II: Despite what we are taught in the American Compulsory Public Mis-education Factory System Production and Training Line for Conformist Capitalist Clones, worker-drones, wage-slaves, soldiers, and sheeple...global human history is actually full of examples of sublimely-awakened/inspired truth-lovers/liberators who ever encourage us to revere and share Truth-awareness for sake of ultimate liberation from our daily delusional suffering. Many of these beings made no attmept to leave behind a lasting social order or structure based on their awareness. Some of these beings created religious orders or communities. Some passed on without creating such a social order, yet others fashioned communities in their name after their passing. (Most people know, or can guess, what happens when the founder of a social group or order exits the group, leaving others to attempt to carry on in accordance with the founder's principles.) "No argument could last long if on one side only lay the wrong." ~ Benjamin Franklin. "Institutional Religion is Satan's masterpiece." ~ anon. Despite having been raised strictly as an atheist/scientist/secularist, an honest truth-seeker can awaken to the reality of the invisible realms of timeless consciousness...with or without religion. And despite having been raised in a strict religious upbringing, an honest truth-lover can awaken to a greater, freer Reality of Love/Light than is offered in the authoritarian restrictions of sectarian religion.

william harryman
5/25/2010 3:02:25 PM

The new atheists have been focusing exclusively on the negative influence of religion in society - oppression of women, Jihad, the inquisition, the Crusades, assorted religious wars, suppression of science, and the list could go on and on. Yes, all of these things are true. When religion is at the root of these types of behaviors, we are talking about a closed system: one that can not tolerate any other form of religion, one that requires strict obedience from followers, and one that has often taken on political and/or economic goals rather than spiritual goals. Think Westboro Baptist Church. On the other hand, religion has fed the poor, protected the weak, fought against injustices (such as slavery), sought equal rights for all human beings (well, except gay folks), provided cultural and personal boundaries for those who are transitioning from a tribal egocentric worldview to a more ethnocentric worldview, and on and on. This form of religion tends to be (though not always) a more open system, seeking to help others and not persecute them. This is religion as represented by Sojourner's Journal. More importantly, all the major religions offer a technology for transcendence, a set of practices that can transform consciousness in fundamental ways. This is the baby the new atheists throw out with the bath water. Read more on defining terms in the war on religion: http://tinyurl.com/24u4c

howard lewis_2
5/25/2010 2:47:30 PM

I disagree with Mooney (at least as he's described in this article). The more atheists speak out, the more atheism will be accepted as a respectable choice.

jeffrey turnbull
5/25/2010 2:35:09 PM

Here I go again, silly me, thinking that there may be some possibility of saving the masses/them-asses from a deep addiction to ignorance/darkness/confusion/endless argumentative antagonism... Amongst the constituents of the human family, there are tremendously diverse degrees and combinations of idiocy on a vast plane and continuum of ignorance of Reality. The subjects of Religion, Spirituality, Philosophy are but points of entrance into the question of Reality, as in 'What is IT, what is Reality?' Or, after putting aside all the B.S. (Belief Systems), what is REALLY REAL?---What is Really-Really-Really-Really-Absolutely-Ultimately REAL---in contrast to what are mere conceptually fabricated, argument-inducing, ideological, polarizing, abstract, impractical, harmful, limited, limiting conceptual Belief Structures? 'The greater the ignorance, the deeper the dogma.'---this principle is true whether applied to religious or to secular/scientific fascists and demagogues. Another principle, too, is figuratively relevant here: "To the person whose only tool is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail." For generation upon generation, multitudes of children, young persons, have been subjected to an abjectly stultifying upbringing by ignorant, ideologically limited parents, teachers, authorities...brought into this world in the most confusing situations of dysfunctional and violently coercive, controlling families and communities... These children came here for Love

eric solstein
5/25/2010 12:39:13 PM

It's already been said, but let me weigh in and add my bulk to the forces of reason. After (how many?) years of forced silence and oppression, someone is spitting back in the eye of superstition, and you want to shut down the voice of enlightenment in the interest of playing nice together. Your kumbaya approach to religiously motivated violence and racism is as witless and out of synch here as it is in Palestine, where you ignore the root cause of the problem (a refusal to even acknowledge an other's right to exist) and put the burden of peacemaking on the beleaguered party.

5/25/2010 10:36:57 AM

I think the opposition to religion is in direct proportion to the frustration we either moderate believers or non-believers feel in viewing the destruction of democratic values being made in the name of religion. I for one can't believe what is going on in the US with regard to human rights, most of it couched in religious terms. Here in Canada, the situation isn't much better, with support to women being cut, hostility to reproductive rights, reduction in support for abused spouses all being hidden behind some quasi-religious sentiment. Here, rabid conservative religious right people sneak onto hospital boards and prevent access to abortions, against our universal health coverage values. Our government denies funding to aid agencies that offer birth control options. They pretend to speak for all, or really don't care about other voices, because, after all, they speak for God. I do wonder how God feels about all this. I sense she isn't amused.

5/25/2010 9:20:50 AM

The need for "discovery" of religion is happening in its time and place. As technolgy grows and science tells us more about real possiblities rather than make believe the world can be made a better place contrary to what alarmists may profess. The important question is who are the alarmists and what purpose does their rhetoric serve. A confidence game is dependent on gaining an advantage or favor on the mark. Once the mark is tipped off to the ploy the con becomes much more diffcult if not impossible. Substituting the words advantage or favor with fear or love and the words tipped off with reality or science is the arguement we see in progress currently.

5/25/2010 8:06:38 AM

As always the question comes down to this: What would Shiva say?

5/25/2010 8:05:11 AM

I totally agree with Bill Crenshaw. For many years atheists have had to stand by while religious zealots have invaded our public airways/media, schools, organizations, politics and government entities. I have had to deal with evangelicals (the only ones who feel the need to recruit) and religious literature invading my home. Everyday I am forced to look at billboards and religious monuments and give up my peace and quiet, only to encounter an outdoor Catholic mass. I am tired of these hypocrites telling me I am going to hell and brainwahing our children. It is time atheists stand up against this tyranny and enforce the separation of chuch and state. While I respect someone's right to believe and practice their religion in their own home and church; it does not give them the right to go out in public and force their religion on me. I have science, logic, and common sense on my side and I won't be guilted into believing in a God that doesn't exist!!!

don w_2
5/25/2010 7:37:17 AM

I think the title says it all - if it also included True Believers as well. I am sick of both sides of the debate whether God exists or doesn't. I am as sick of Dawkins and his ilk as I am of creationists and evangelizers loudly promoting their brands.

bill crenshaw_2
5/25/2010 7:22:44 AM

Now I remember why I didn't renew my subscription to Utne. First -- have you actually read Mooney's book? Closely? Second -- have you noticed what just happened in Texas? The problem is not with atheists and agnostics finally being able to say, "hey, I don't believe" without being tarred and feathered and run out of town. The problem is with a radical religious right that wants to impose its narrow misreading of ancient texts on science, history, and the law. Have you read what THEY have been saying lately? Oh -- but I'm sure if we all just play nice, it will all work out. Be hot or cold, Utne. You know what happens to the lukewarm.

peter whittle
5/25/2010 7:14:14 AM

I'm reading 'The God Delusion' and finding it very valuable, in articulating the arguments I have been forming in my own mind since my mother died when I was 13 and the bearded man in the sky let it happen, in spite of my entreaties. I think this article is lily-livered. Yes sure, things can go over-the-top, but "anti" movements only exist because they oppose an existing force that can be intolerable. Religion has caused many offences, as Dawkins points out, so no one should object to opposition. What is "in your face" religion? Actually, a lot of religion that is pretty mild is still a cultural norm and therefore "in your face" if you happen not to go along with it. Which religions don't have a problem with science? None of them that have supernatural tenets can co-exist, going on Dawkins' arguments, and I can't fault them. I, for one, can now proudly state I am an atheist in some context where my religious beliefs appear to be inquired about, instead of feeling that I have to keep it quiet. Thankyou, Richard Dawkins. It doesn't mean moderate religious people can't continue to be so - they just have to expect a challenge when they engage in cultural norming, and why not?