Wednesday, July 11, 2012

on extending charity in religious dialogue

If you prick Greta Christina, she bleeds, and she asks you why you would do such a thing. This is true even though Christina is atheist. The proximate source of her frustration is this rumination on grief by Anglican minister Gavin Dunbar, who takes a swipe at atheists from out of left field. If you're a nonbeliever and you clicked on the second link, you'll find plenty to get you frothing at the mouth, including blatant misunderstanding (one hopes not willful misrepresentation) of both scientific and atheistic claims.
The grieving atheist cannot provide any reason why he grieves, or why he (rightly) respects the grief of others. For to grieve the death of such a young man is implicitly to affirm the reality of the soul. Man is embodied, to be sure; but what is embodied is a soul, capable of memory, reason, and love. To grieve the loss of anyone then is to lament the departure of a unique being, whose mind and heart have touched our lives in spontaneously beautiful and inimitable ways. To grieve is to travel even beyond the lost life of a loved one to the origin and source of the love we have known, and there to register our gratitude. To grieve, therefore, is to affirm that there is a higher source of value than 'the selfish gene' - there is a God, who is absolute truth and goodness, the very possibility of knowledge and love.
It's interesting that you can see the glimmer of understanding that atheists are just folks much the same as everyone else. At least Dunbar acknowledges atheists do grieve and respect the grieving of our fellows, even if he thinks they have no reason to. This is a far cry better than refusing to acknowledge atheists have the same feelings as believers. Christina's response is almost perfect because it is so emotional and not coolly rational.
My first reaction… well, to be honest, my first reaction was pretty close to blind rage. As an atheist, I’ve been targeted before with bigotry, with hostility, even with hatred and threats of violence. But rarely have I encountered a critic of atheism who was so ready to deny even my basic humanity, who was so ready to tell me — and tell the world — that because I am an atheist, I see not only morality and virtue, but love and friendship and grief, as an illusion. I actually agree with Dunbar that grief is one of the things that makes us human… and it filled me with rage to be told that, because I don’t believe in a magical soul animating my body, because I don’t think I’m going to see my dead loved ones in an invisible forever happy place, I am somehow incapable of experiencing this essential humanity. My first reaction on reading this piece was pretty much to scream “Fuck you” at my computer screen, and be done with it.
My second reaction was a desire to carefully, painstakingly, as patiently as possible, explain to Dunbar exactly how and why atheists value life and experience grief, and to go through his piece with a fine-toothed comb taking apart every ridiculous myth and piece of misinformed ignorance. That project might take weeks, though, since this piece is so full of it. So I’ll just touch on the worst of it.
The most crucial point: Saying that life and morality and reason and virtue and emotions such as grief are physical processes – this is not the same as saying they are illusions.
When I read this I wondered if anyone actually had written a book about atheism intended for a Christian audience, not in order to deconvert the reader but to explain the way an atheist deals with the kinds of things the believer consults religion for. Most books about atheism I'm aware of are combative and spell out the case for atheism. Nothing wrong with that. But for atheists to get the kind of respect they seek in society (e.g., increasing the proportion of non-atheists who would be willing to vote for an atheist candidate for public office if she was otherwise tall, attractive, and pandered prettily), they need to convince people they are not a threat to the tribe, but that they belong to the tribe.
But after I’d thought about all this for a while, my urges to both blind rage and line-by-line demolition gave way… to a baffled irritation, focusing on one big question: 
Couldn’t he have asked us? 
Couldn’t Dunbar have gone down to his local atheist organization and asked them, “You know, I don’t get it about atheist grief — if you don’t believe in God or the soul, why do you value life and grieve over death?”
What I think Christina really wants here is greater charity of interpretation from religious people. Instead of using atheists as straw figures onto which he can hang whatever bizarre notions have inhabited his head, Dunbar should assume he doesn't understand what atheists think about grief if he can't articulate atheist beliefs in a way that sounds sensible. If he can't make sense of an atheist's grief, basic charity demands he do more research until he can either defend atheistic grief as Devil's advocate or until he has an argument (citations would be nice!) that, say, an agnostic might find plausible. Here he appears only to be taking potshots at the Other, which serves no purpose other than collective ego stroking.

This brings me to my only minor quibble with Christina's otherwise fantastic piece. She acknowledges charity is a two-way street, but she is soft on her own tribe. She writes
Now, I’m sure some believers will read all this and say, “But atheists do the same thing! They live in their atheist bubble, they imagine what believers think and feel, and they don’t ever talk to us to find out!” And sometimes, that’s true. But not usually. According to the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, atheists, on average, are better informed about religion and religious believers than believers are. In fact, atheists are generally better informed about the specifics of given religions than the believers in those very religions. We know a lot more about them than they do about us. 
It’s important to remember that most atheists were once believers. We’re familiar with religion because we’ve believed it ourselves. And it’s important to remember that, in most of the world, religious belief is the dominant culture. Atheists have to be familiar with it. It’s shoved in our face on a regular basis. Our friends believe it, our families believe it, our co-workers believe it, it’s all over the media. We can’t be ignorant of religion. We’re soaking in it.
Atheists do the same thing, full stop. Many atheists no doubt know quite a lot of technical facts about scriptures and the histories of different faiths, but in my experience vocal atheists rarely use their knowledge to try to understand or sympathize with believers. More commonly knowledge of the Bible is used to hammer believers into the shapes of religious caricature. Repeatedly quoting Biblical verses about stoning adulterers and disobedient children etc does nothing to illuminate the nuances of a religion as it is actually practiced by our contemporaries. An important exception is highlighting absurd verses when they're parallel to verses under discussion, like verses against homosexuality. But too often atheist scripture quoting is used to shut down dialogue instead of facilitating it.

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