Author Frans de Waal writes for Salon.com, “Can the gap between the religious and the non-religious be bridged, when the debate itself is so attention-getting?”
Professor de Waal begins:
One quiet Sunday morning, I stroll down the driveway of my home in Stone Mountain, Georgia, to pick up the newspaper. As I arrive at the bottom—we live on a hill—a Cadillac drives up the street and stops right before me. A big man in a suit steps out, sticking out his hand. A firm handshake follows, during which I hear him proclaim in a booming, almost happy voice, “I’m looking for lost souls!” Apart from perhaps being overly trusting, I am rather slow and had no idea what he was talking about. I turned around to look behind me, thinking that perhaps he had lost his dog, then corrected myself and mumbled something like, “I’m not very religious.”
This was of course a lie, because I am not religious at all. The man, a pastor, was taken aback, probably more by my accent than by my answer. He must have realized that converting a European to his brand of religion was going to be a challenge, so he walked back to his car, but not without handing me a business card in case I’d change my mind. A day that had begun so promisingly now left me feeling like I might go straight to hell.
I was raised Catholic. Not just a little bit Catholic, like my wife, Catherine. When she was young, many Catholics in France already barely went to church, except for the big three: baptism, marriage, and funeral. And only the middle one was by choice. By contrast, in the southern Netherlands—known as “below the rivers”—Catholicism was important during my youth. It defined us, setting us apart from the above-the-rivers Protestants. Every Sunday morning, we went to church in our best clothes, we received catechism at school, we sang, prayed, and confessed, and a vicar or bishop was present at every official occasion to dispense holy water (which we children happily imitated at home with a toilet brush). We were Catholic through and through.
But I am not anymore. In my interactions with religious and nonreligious people alike, I now draw a sharp line, based not on what exactly they believe but on their level of dogmatism. I consider dogmatism a far greater threat than religion per se. I am particularly curious why anyone would drop religion while retaining the blinkers sometimes associated with it. Why are the “neo-atheists” of today so obsessed with God’s nonexistence that they go on media rampages, wear T-shirts proclaiming their absence of belief, or call for a militant atheism? What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?
As one philosopher put it, being a militant atheist is like “sleeping furiously.”
Waal uses the philosophy of atheist dogmatist Christopher Hitchens to illustrate “militant atheism”.
Take Christopher Hitchens, the late British author of “God Is Not Great.” Hitchens was outraged by the dogmatism of religion, yet he himself had moved from Marxism (he was a Trotskyist) to Greek Orthodox Christianity, then to American Neo-Conservatism, followed by an “antitheist” stance that blamed all of the world’s troubles on religion. Hitchens thus swung from the left to the right, from anti–Vietnam War to cheerleader of the Iraq War, and from pro to contra God. He ended up favoring Dick Cheney over Mother Teresa.
Some people crave dogma, yet have trouble deciding on its contents. They become serial dogmatists. Hitchens admitted, “There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb,” thus implying that he had entered a new life stage marked by doubt and reflection. Yet, all he seemed to have done was sprout a fresh dogmatic limb.
Dogmatists have one advantage: they are poor listeners. This ensures sparkling conversations when different kinds of them get together the way male birds gather at “leks” to display splendid plumage for visiting females. It almost makes one believe in the “argumentative theory,” according to which human reasoning didn’t evolve for the sake of truth, but rather to shine in discussion. Universities everywhere have set up crowd-pleasing debates between religious and antireligious intellectual “giants.” One such debate took place in 2009 at a large science festival in Puebla, Mexico. My own contribution concerned a different, more scientific session, but I sat in the audience of four thousand when we were being warmed up for the ultimate war of words. Asked whether they believed in God, about 90 percent of the people raised their hand in affirmation. The debate itself was set up in a distinctly unintellectual fashion. The stage showed a boxing ring (ropes around poles, red boxing gloves dangling in the corner), and the speakers walked one by one onto stage to martial music. They were the usual suspects. Apart from Hitchens, we got Dinesh D’Souza, Sam Harris, the philosopher Dan Dennett, and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.
I would be surprised if a single member of the audience changed his or her mind as a result of the debate, either from believer to nonbeliever or the other way around. We learned that religion is the source of all evil and inferior to science as a guide to reality, but also that without religion there would be no morality and no hope for those who fear death. Without God, moral rules are “nothing but euphemisms for personal taste,” exclaimed the rabbi, waving his hands above his head as if throwing pizza dough. Others spoke in a humorless, almost menacing tone, as if anyone who’d ignore their message would inevitably get into trouble. God isn’t a fun topic.
The circus-like atmosphere left me with my original question about evangelical atheists. It’s easy to see why religions try to recruit believers. They are large organizations with monetary interests that do better, the more people join them. They erect cathedrals, like the one I visited in Puebla, and chapels like the Capilla del Rosario with its 23 ½-carat gilded stucco. I’ve never seen such a blindingly ornate interior, probably paid for by generations of poor Mexican farmers. But why would atheists turn messianic? And why would they play off one religion against another? Harris, for example, biliously goes after the “low-hanging fruit” of Islam, singling it out as the great enemy of the West. Throw in a few pictures of burqas, mention infibulation, and who will argue with your revulsion of religion? I am as sickened as the next person, but if Harris’s quest is to show that religion fails to promote morality, why pick on Islam? Isn’t genital mutilation common in the United States, too, where newborn males are routinely circumcised without their consent? We surely don’t need to go all the way to Afghanistan to find valleys in the moral landscape.
More about the author from Salon.com:
Frans de Waal is the author of “Our Inner Ape,” among many other works. He is the C.H. Candler professor in Emory University’s psychology department. He has been named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.