When I was writing my response to the Dalai Lama, I intentionally glossed over his lone mention of atheists. Today I regret my decision. Here’s what he said: “Radical atheists issue blanket condemnations of those who hold to religious beliefs.”
Let’s contrast that statement with this: “Compassion is equally important in Islam — and recognizing that has become crucial in the years since Sept. 11, especially in answering those who paint Islam as a militant faith. On the first anniversary of 9/11, I spoke at the National Cathedral in Washington, pleading that we not blindly follow the lead of some in the news media and let the violent acts of a few individuals define an entire religion.”
I think we have to begin with the obvious. A radical Muslim is more dangerous than a radical atheist. By orders of magnitude. There are simply no examples of atheists killing atheists over differences in atheist dogma.
Next, we must be honest about who we’re referring to when we say “radical atheists.” We’re not talking about Stalin or Mao. We’re talking about intellectuals and science-minded people who strongly believe in the value of empirically verifying everything before believing it. The driving force behind the atheist movement is the demand for uncensored discussion.
Let’s restate this dichotomy. It’s really important.
- Radical Muslim: Believes that all nonbelievers are heretics. Encourages and participates in killing anyone who voices disagreement with Islam. Actively participates in jihad. Subjugates women as second-class citizens.
- Radical Atheist: Blogs about how bad religion is.
Is anyone besides me offended that the Dalai Lama — an admittedly peaceful and genuinely nice person — has perpetuated the stereotype that atheists are really bad people while glossing over the real violence perpetuated by hundreds of thousands of admittedly violent and genuinely mean religious people?
The myth of militant atheism seems nearly ubiquitous. I have no doubt I’ll get angry emails about this post. But curiously, when it comes right down to it, the only evidence anyone can ever seem to produce for the existence of angry atheists is one of two things: Quote mines from a couple of authors, or the names of a couple of “radical” discussion boards. That’s the entirety of the evidence that there’s a huge population of angry atheists ready to umm…
What is it that they’re going to do again?
That’s not just a flippant question. What do people like the Dalai Lama think radical atheists are going to do? As far as I can tell, the most radical atheist agendas in America consist of things like separating church and state, ending tax exempt status for churches, and restricting the rights of parents to withhold medical treatment from children based on religious beliefs. Those are the most radical goals, folks. The most commonly expressed atheist goal is to use the power of reason to persuade religious people to abandon their beliefs and become atheists.
On the practical level, there’s simply no reasonable justification for comparing radical atheists to radical religionists. In fairness, Tenzin didn’t directly compare the two, but his only mention of atheists used the word “radical,” and did not include any disclaimers as to the completely dichotomous nature of atheist vs. religious radicalism. And we’d be disingenuous if we didn’t admit that there’s a popular perception of radical, angry atheists. Anyone who is genuinely interested in promoting peace owes us — the radical atheists — an honest representation.
But what about Tenzin’s accusation of blanket condemnations? Is it true that a large number of atheists condemn all theists? I think the short answer is yes, but it’s a qualified answer. When we say that “all theists are deluded,” we could rightly be accused of a blanket condemnation, but this kind of statement is far different from one like “all non-Muslims are evil heretics.”
“Condemnation” is a bad word for what most atheists say. It carries with it either moral or judicial guilt, and that’s simply not what we mean. Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and I are all on the same side. We believe all theists are deluded. But none of us believes all theists are bad people, or morally culpable for their delusion. In fact, we all view most of the flock as victims. It would be more precise to say that we’ve made a blanket statement. I just don’t think there are more than a small handful of atheists who would condemn all theists either morally or legally. (And they’re pretty much ignored by every “radical atheist” with any influence whatsoever.)
Our “blanket condemnation” is intended as a statement of empirical fact, and we happily welcome evidence to the contrary. Prove to us that god exists, and we will retract our statement. But if god is nonexistent, it’s logically necessary that belief in god is delusional.
But what about other blanket condemnations? Are there lots of atheists making other unfounded statements? Perhaps. Hitchens believes that religion in all its forms is poison. He’s said as much, in as many words. Is that true, and is it representative of the consensus atheist opinion?
I’d argue that as a bumper sticker slogan, “religion is poison” is more common as a perception of atheists than a reality. Even Hitchens is quick to admit that there are potentially positive aspects of religious belief, and that some people gain comfort, inspiration, and moral support from their religious belief. That’s the problem with bumper stickers. Science is generally not conducive to blanket statements, but news headlines require them. In order to understand the complexity of the average atheist’s position on religion, one has to have a thorough understanding of why we typically shy away from blanket condemnations and bumper sticker slogans.
In fact, this is one of the reasons why atheism has such an image problem. Science is hard. It takes more than a few seconds to explain most scientific principles. When you reduce science down to bumper sticker length slogans, you almost always reduce it to inaccuracy.
Unfortunately, most theists have been raised to believe that the “ultimate truths” are simple, elegant, and easy to explain. Platitudes and “truthisms” are seen as more believable than complex and lengthy explanations. Recall how Dawkins was tarred and feathered for a pregnant pause after being asked a question that demanded a careful and specific answer in “Expelled.”
If someone were to ask me whether I think all theists are deluded, it would take me at least ten minutes to answer completely. That’s more of an attention span than most people have for such questions. They want yes or no. But yes or no is inadequate to the question, since there are different kinds of delusion as well as different causes. Even though I do believe all theists are deluded, I think the cause and functionality (and ultimate rationality) of theist delusion is a complex, multi-faceted system. Any sort of blanket statement simply doesn’t apply equally to all theists when we break it down to real world utilitarianism.
Is the Dalai Lama guilty of imposing his own “platitudinal” mindset onto atheists? I don’t know. But I do know that there are a lot of people — including atheists — who are. Being an atheist doesn’t magically convey the appropriate attention to detail and complexity necessary to consider the question of theism and its causes, effects, and impact on the socio-political structure of the world. The simple reality is that most scientists (have you noticed how many of the big atheist activists are scientists?) have an ingrained aversion to blanket condemnations. If there is a judgment to be made, it is against readers and well-meaning bloggers who are not as well trained in critical thinking, and haven’t fully comprehended the complexity of the statements made by prominent atheist activists.
In the final analysis, it’s still a nasty catch-22. Without training in scientific critical thinking, most people aren’t interested in lengthy, detailed explanations of complex issues. But without understanding the need for such training, most people won’t receive it. But without abandoning truthism and platitudes, most people won’t get much farther than religious belief. But as long as most people are religious, they’ll insist on reducing atheist positions to platitudes and thus making them inaccurate.
And we’ll continue to be misunderstood and misrepresented.
* If you don’t know, TL;DR is internet slang for “Too Long. Didn’t Read.”