Thursday, March 8, 2012

Why Atheists Eat Their Own

Bryan Appleyard at The New Statesman is an agnostic who's growing increasingly perplexed at the intolerance he finds among his atheistic brethren. He tells the following tale:
Two atheists - John Gray and Alain de Botton - and two agnostics - Nassim Nicholas Taleb and I - meet for dinner at a Greek restaurant in Bayswater, London. The talk is genial, friendly and then, suddenly, intense when neo-atheism comes up. Three of us, including both atheists, have suffered abuse at the hands of this cult. Only Taleb seems to have escaped unscathed and this, we conclude, must be because he can do math and people are afraid of math.

De Botton is the most recent and, consequently, the most shocked victim. He has just produced a book, Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion, mildly suggesting that atheists like himself have much to learn from religion and that, in fact, religion is too important to be left to believers. He has also proposed an atheists' temple, a place where non-believers can partake of the consolations of silence and meditation.

This has been enough to bring the full force of a neo-atheist fatwa crashing down on his head. The temple idea in particular made them reach for their best books of curses.

“I am rolling my eyes so hard that it hurts," wrote the American biologist and neo-atheist blogger P Z Myers. "You may take a moment to retch. I hope you have buckets handy." Myers has a vivid but limited prose palette.

There have been threats of violence. De Botton has been told he will be beaten up and his guts taken out of him. One email simply said, "You have betrayed Atheism. Go over to the other side and die."

De Botton finds it bewildering, the unexpected appearance in the culture of a tyrannical sect, content to whip up a mob mentality. "To say something along the lines of 'I'm an atheist; I think religions are not all bad' has become a dramatically peculiar thing to say and if you do say it on the internet you will get savage messages calling you a fascist, an idiot or a fool. This is a very odd moment in our culture. Why has this happened?"
I think the answer to this question is that it's a symptom of insecurity. Any group that believes it must crush dissenters is a group which lacks confidence in their own belief system. They fear disagreement because they fear that they've committed themselves and their lives to a noetic structure that simply cannot withstand scrutiny and rational analysis. Rather than give up their beliefs they seek to shield them from challenge. We see this today both in the Muslim world and among atheists.

Appleyard goes on to analyze the "New Atheism":
First, a definition. By "neo-atheism", I mean a tripartite belief system founded on the conviction that science provides the only road to truth and that all religions are deluded, irrational and destructive.

Atheism is just one-third of this exotic ideological cocktail. Secularism, the political wing of the movement, is another third. Neo-atheists often assume that the two are the same thing; in fact, atheism is a metaphysical position and secularism is a view of how society should be organised. So a Christian can easily be a secularist - indeed, even Christ was being one when he said, "Render unto Caesar" - and an atheist can be anti-secularist if he happens to believe that religious views should be taken into account. But, in some muddled way, the two ideas have been combined by the cultists.

The third leg of neo-atheism is Darwinism, the AK-47 of neo-atheist shock troops. Alone among scientists, and perhaps because of the enormous influence of Richard Dawkins, Darwin has been embraced as the final conclusive proof not only that God does not exist but also that religion as a whole is a uniquely dangerous threat to scientific rationality.

The neo-atheist cause has been gathering strength for roughly two decades and recently exploded into very public view. Sayeeda Warsi, co-chairman of the Conservative Party, was in the headlines for making a speech at the Vatican warning of the dangers of secular fundamentalism, which aims to prevent religions from having a public voice or role. Warsi, a Muslim, subdivides propagators of this anti-religious impulse into two categories. First, there are the well-meaning liberal elite, who want to suppress religion in order not to cause offence to anybody. Second, there is the "perverse kind of secular" believer, who wants to "wipe religion from the public sphere" on principle.

“Why," she asks me, "are the followers of reason so unreasonable?"
Because deep down they suspect their life has been invested in an error, they feel it all slipping away and they're desperate to convince themselves that they've been right all along. The more voices on their own side who raise questions about their beliefs the more their confidence is shaken. They cannot tolerate a discordant note lest the whole fragile edifice of atheism topple over. Heretics must be reviled and excommunicated as an example to others who might stray from the consensus orthodoxy. As Appleyard says in his closing sentence:
There are many roads to truth, but cultish intolerance is not one of them.
There's much more in Appleyard's essay. Check it out at the link.

Fatal Tweet

Two stories circulating in the news illustrate the horrific oppression that exists in so much of the Islamic world, and neither of them have to do with the massacres taking place in Syria. Two men are about to lose their lives in state executions, the first because he's a Christian pastor who converted from Islam at the age of nineteen and is refusing to have his children indoctrinated in Islam, and the second is a young Saudi who was insufficiently reverential toward the Prophet.

Yousef Nadarkhani is a young pastor condemned to death in Iran on the charge of apostasy. It may seem odd, given the thousands of people condemned to die in Syria and elsewhere in the Islamic world every day, but Nadarkhani's case has attracted world-wide attention.

Here's a news summary of his case which provides a note of hope:
Hamza Kashgari's predicament is less well-known. The Washington Times brings us up to speed:
Hamza Kashgari is a 23-year-old journalist who wrote for the daily al-Bilad in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. On Feb. 4, the observance of Muhammad’s birthday, Mr. Kashgari sent out three tweets expressing what he would say if he met Islam’s founder.

“On your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you, that you’ve always been a source of inspiration to me, and that I do not like the halos of divinity around you. I shall not pray for you,” the first read. “On your birthday, I find you wherever I turn. I will say that I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more,” went the second. The third tweet said, “On your birthday, I shall not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more.”
In the West mixed expressions of praise and doubt are unremarkable, but in more enlightened climes like Saudi Arabia they can cost you your life.
The messages immediately caused controversy. Some welcomed and retweeted them, but thousands more angry Saudis called for Mr. Kashgari’s head for supposedly insulting Muhammad. He deleted the offending messages but soon lost his job. Last week, he attempted to flee to safety in New Zealand but was intercepted as he tried to pass through the Muslim country of Malaysia and whisked back to Saudi Arabia in a private jet. He is being held incommunicado in Jeddah while a prosecutor collects evidence to bring a case against him for “disrespecting God” and “insulting the prophet.” A conviction on either charge could bring the death penalty.

Freedom of thought is a capital crime in the Saudi kingdom. On Monday, Sheikh Saleh bin Fowzan Al Fowzan of the supreme committee of scholars in Saudi Arabia said, “We should first verify that this man did insult … Muhammad in his article on Twitter … if verified, then he must be killed.” There are reports that those who expressed public support for Mr. Kashgari’s message also could face the same charges; even a retweet could lead to the chopping block.

This is not merely a Saudi internal affair. When an Islamic theocracy may execute someone for a tweet, it’s an affront to humanity. “I view my actions as part of a process toward freedom,” Mr. Kashgari said shortly before his arrest. “I was demanding my right to practice the most basic human rights - the freedom of expression and thought - so nothing was done in vain.” These words may be his epitaph.
Those of us who value our right to freely express our opinion about whatever matters we choose without having to fear the state's wrath should thank God every day that we live in a time and in a country which places a high value on freedom of speech. Much of the world throughout much of the last fifteen hundred years has not. We should also keep in mind that those who want to execute Nadarkhani and Kashgari want to spread their theocracy around the globe and will use whatever means they can to accomplish it.

At the moment there are movements afoot to insinuate sharia law into the courts of Europe and even in the U.S. It's a step toward the imprisonment of our minds, toward holding them hostage to religious beliefs that seem alien, incomprehensible, and false. It's not at all a stretch to say that if we are apathetic or uninformed about that threat our children and grandchildren could well grow up in an America in which it is not merely impolite or vulgar to speak ill of religiously revered figures, but an act which could get one fined, imprisoned, or even killed.