Concerning the Charge of Militant Atheism

Last night, Salon published an excerpt from Frans De Waal’s book Bonobos and the Atheist, which rails against dogmatism as it exists in both religious and non- religious circles.  Dogmatism is a target well worth going after, and I have no reservations about joining him in neutralizing it, but De Waal is mistaken about what constitutes a dogmatic position, and what makes for a militant atheist.

Waal is a Dutch intellectual, and shares the opinion of fellow Dutch intellectuals that regard both religion and atheism as pesky noisemakers that try to guard and preempt attack from the opposing side and evangelize before they ‘get’ any more sorry souls.  He writes that a philosopher described atheism like ‘sleeping furiously.’  Saying, in other words, that not doing something–believing–sure demands a lot of energy and attention.  That is true, and it is an ironic circumstance, or it would be if atheism did not still bear a lot of social stigma.  De Waal points out the difficulty atheism faces as a political group, and although his anecdotes demonstrate his aversion to American Catholicism and the anhedonia of European Protestants, his account of atheism is restricted to one debate and some crude accounts of the premises of some of Christopher Hitchens’ and Sam Harris’ more tenuous arguments.

He asks, “what would be the point of atheism in the absence of religion,” claiming that atheistic identity is largely defined by what it rejects, and that referent naturally detracts from its self-realization.  He neglected, however, to even Google what the Horsemen might have to say on the subject.  Harris has a talk on this very topic, doubting the utility of terms like atheist or its many offshoots.  De Waal is right that atheism has few purported goals beyond shaking faith in its tracks, but as Harris argues, that is all that it intends to do.  To criticize atheism for lacking in any communal framework, cohesive movement or coherent political goals, is to overestimate its intentions.

Unlike De Waal, however, atheists do not react to a perceived ignorance with indifference.  A European atheist has a luxury that an American atheist doesn’t.  Although religious institutions are a mainstay of both the U.S. and the E.U., I don’t imagine the push for creationism, the suppression of gay rights or reproductive rights is nearly as strong in the land of windmills.  In that way, evangelizing is no more a religious virtue than it is a democratic one, and if atheists hope for anything, it’s that reason has more currency than faith for material creatures.

The difficult thing about the argument for atheism or faith is that, at its core, there is little argument to be had.  The claim to the existence of God is not subject to evidence of any kind.  This was not always the case; as science has assimilated all the existential assumptions that were once part and parcel of religious dogma, they have relaxed the terms of what God represents and how we stand in relation to Him.  The Ptolemaic universe is gone, the germ theory explains pestilence sufficiently, geologic and climatologic science has explained natural disasters.  Superstition has been replaced by more coherent and consistent explanations, and despite the growing part of religious orthodoxy that has been abandoned, the God explanation, is retrofitted to encapsulate all the knowledge that it previously resisted, only to show how God was really more clever and awe-inspiring than we had previously thought.

The argument for faith for deists and pantheists necessarily looks toward the cosmos and its many mysteries for some chance of a redemptive universe.  A possibility, I might point out, that is not excluded by atheists, but it is also not expected as it is among the faithful.

That brings me to the argument for atheism.  Both atheists and theists have trouble with the term, because it seems to make the same epistemological mistake as theism, and believe what it cannot show to be true.  This, I believe is the only proper context for calling one a militant atheist.  Atheism, is ostensibly agnosticism, but given what is known about the universe, and religion’s unmistakably human origins, atheists act on the improbability of a theistic or deistic omniscience, and resolves neither to sit on the fence nor to keep their mouths shut about the epistemological overreach of others.

Again, however, atheistic arguments cannot rule out any possibility, only infer from what we have learned about ourselves and the universe.  The most persuasive case for the type of atheism I describe, comes not from the New Atheists (who for the most part reiterate arguments from a long line of skeptical writers and philosophers) but Occam, a 14th century logician and friar that said that the simplest explanation is likely the correct one, or put another way, the best argument is one which bears the fewest assumptions.  That is the germ that inspired the observational sciences that were born out during the Enlightenment.  What has come to be known as Hitchens’ Razor is, to my mind, the closest one can come to a takedown argument for evidence of God or any spurious or faith-based claim is, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

As I hope I’ve made a convincing case for here, atheism is not a radical position, but there can be radical atheists.  What then of the theistic position and militant theists?  In either case, the existence of militancy is overblown.  Is there or was there ever a war on Christmas?  No.  Would serious ethical dilemmas be resolved if there were no churches?  No.  The line between civil rights and religious freedoms is unnecessarily complicated by, what it seems, is a religious lack of respect for the first amendment and the SCOTUS’s need to kowtow to public opinion.  If any amendment was ever in need of an originalist, it is the first.

Having said that, there are a number of issues in the U.S. that would fail to spark a controversy, were so many of its voters absent a Biblical worldview.  The argument for climate change has little persuasive scientific rebuttal, but because a selective reading of the Bible has proven persuasive to so many Americans, we are years behind in renewable energy infrastructure.

It is however my contention that a position of faith or a the- or deistic position is inherently more dogmatic and prone to misgivings about abandoning religious orthodoxy.  I am in agreement with De Waal, in that one’s faith is entirely capable of functioning independent of one’s democratic engagement.  Where that is the case, my response is either indifference or even curiosity, but religious prejudices loom large for many Americans still, and appeals to its social and psychological utility or charitable donations will not save it from a living history of political and moral hegemony.

Faith is indefensible when it comes to reason.  It is its own defense; I do not pity or resent those who have it, but wish only for that admission.  As long as faith serves as an explanation or justification for anything that demands an actual answer, the charge of religious dogmatism should be issued.  Certain religious convictions are, of course, capable of mounting a defense not held up entirely by faith, but the relevance of those justifications are often not very meaningful in the 21st century.

A personal faith is likely ineradicable; the tendency to make assumptions beyond our scope of knowledge is, if not natural, incredibly ubiquitous.  The reasonable (atheistic) impulse is to corral it in free-society to the point of material benignity.  The real and latent threat of assuming what follows this life is that people act on those assumptions in this one.  If praying and kneeling were the only consequence of religious devotion, you would hear but a peep out of me, but when civil rights are denied, contraception deemed worse than terminal diseases, and martyrdom becomes the outgrowth of the fear of non-existence, I will respond to it with vigilant rationalism.


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