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About Me

Just a person in recovery from years of spiritual abuse at the hands of good, upstanding Christian folks.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Atheists are Fundamentalists Too

Warning: this post is going to be a bit different in tone than my previous ones.

Anyone who has visited this blog should have figured out by now that I have problems with narrow-minded people. But not all such persons are equally to blame for their short-sightedness. Many, especially religious fundamentalists, are simply the products of factors outside their control. These include the brains they were born with, the homes they were raised in and their opportunities, or lack thereof, for education and intellectual enrichment.

An individual with limited mental faculties, who was reared in a home with few or no books in it and who was never encouraged to pursue academics has quite frankly been handed a raw deal. Such unfortunate persons are, on the whole, unlikely to ever be counted among the world's academic giants. This is no fault of theirs, and I hold no animosity whatsoever against them.

However, not everyone who is unlearned fits this stereotype. There are millions who were born with excellent cognitive abilities. They have supportive families and access to outstanding educational facilities. Yet despite these advantages they have chosen willful ignorance about subjects which they hold strong opinions of.

What's worse, some of them pretend to speak authoritatively on these topics. When called on their errors they ignore their critics and continue to spread nonsense. Worst of all they do this while declaring themselves to be champions of science and Reason.

The Economist magazine's website recently held a debate on the question "is religion a force for good or evil?" Representing the latter position was a rather uptight gentleman named Sam Harris. He is known in atheist circles as one of the "four horsemen," popular writers who attack religious faith. Other members of this fraternity include Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion," Christopher Hitchens, who penned "God is not Great," and Daniel Dennett, most famous for his tome "Darwin's Dangerous Idea."

Personally I feel that comparing these fellows to the apocalyptic images in Revelation is a bit of a stretch. I refer to them as "The Four Stooges." (Yes, I know what you're saying: there were only three stooges. But that's only if you don't count Shemp).

Anyway, the following were some of Harris' salvos in what proved to be a rather heated exchange:


"The truth claims of the world's major religions are not merely strange, they are patently ludicrous. The paradise promised to devout Muslims in the Koran is a garden complete with rivers of milk and honey, and enough silk brocade, almonds and virgins to go around. This vision of sublimity is so time-bound and provincial as to leave no doubt as to its origin. It is analogous to a modern cult organised around the promise of an afterlife in which every soul gets to drive a new Lexus."

"There is no question that people can transform their lives for the better, and many of these experiences are generally considered "spiritual", in that they can seem to confirm some of the core doctrines of the world's religions. Of course, they do nothing of the sort—because, as has already been conceded, the world's religions are mutually incompatible. The fact that Christian and Hindu contemplatives can both experience devotion, ecstasy, compassion, rapture, self-transcendence and other remarkable mental states proves, beyond any doubt, that such phenomena do not depend on the truth of any religious doctrine."

"Given the antiquity of the world's religions, their mutual incompatibility and the frequent barbarism enshrined as wisdom in their canons, there is no chance whatsoever that any one of them is the best possible description of this range of human experience. Whatever is true about us in "spiritual" terms can be discovered in the present and understood in the context of a maturing science of the human mind."


"When we doubt that science (and reason generally) can apply to questions of morality, meaning and spiritual concern, we are essentially saying there are truths that resist honest observation and clear reasoning, but which yield their wonders to minds that have been sufficiently prepared by lies (re: religious teachings)."

The above quotes are typical of remarks made by the Four Stooges. Some observations about them:

1.) They display a dismal lack of knowledge about the subject they criticize. For example,
consider the egregious errors Harris commits in this portion:

"The world's religions are mutually incompatible. The fact that Christian and Hindu contemplatives can both experience devotion, ecstasy, compassion, rapture, self-transcendence and other remarkable mental states proves, beyond any doubt, that such phenomena do not depend on the truth of any religious doctrine."

This statement conveniently ignores the many areas of agreement between the major world faiths. Hinduism and Christianity differ in many respects to be sure. Yet there are also numerous points on which they concur. Each affirms that the physical world is transcended and supported by a greater Reality which is eternal and spiritual in nature. Both religions tell us that the Universe is governed by benevolent deities.

Yes, Hindus do believe in a pantheon of gods. However, the majority of them acknowledge one God who is supreme above all, usually referred to as Vishnu, who, like the Christian Trinity, manifests Himself as three different persons.

They also have roughly equivalent moral codes. They acknowledge wrongdoing causes suffering and they teach that through faith, self-denial and practical compassion, humans may be united in sweetest fellowship with God, the source of all good.

These commonalities are shared by Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians and practitioners of lesser known faiths. Even Buddhism, which does not address the idea of God directly, proclaims the reality of the spiritual world. It also urges its adherents to practice charity, self-control and detachment from materialism and sensual desires.

An honest look at the major world faiths shows that Harris' charges of incompatibility are vastly overblown. To the contrary, they display remarkable agreement in many areas. This has lead many reasonable persons, including myself, to believe that they are akin to thirsty pilgrims, each of whom has found sustenance by drinking from the same well of divine truth.

Because of this, Christian and Hindu mystics are united with the same transcendent Reality in their metaphysical quests. They both experience the ineffable joy of touching the One who is ultimately beyond the power of language to describe. This affirms rather than denies the truth of their respective faith traditions. Harris' dismissal of these things is not only wrong-headed, it's pathetic.

2.) They reveal themselves as not only ignorant but also obscenely arrogant, judging the past by 21st century standards and making no attempt to understand or appreciate the rich subtleties and symbolism in sacred literature.

For example, Harris writes:

"The truth claims of the world's major religions are not merely strange, they are patently ludicrous. The paradise promised to devout Muslims in the Koran is a garden complete with rivers of milk and honey, and enough silk brocade, almonds and virgins to go around. This vision of sublimity is so time-bound and provincial as to leave no doubt as to its origin."

To rebut this claim one need only realize that to the ancients symbols such as rivers flowing with milk and honey were never meant to be taken literally. They are poetic devices intended to convey truths too profound for words to fully express.

To those interested in learning more about this subject I heartily recommend Karen Armstrong's outstanding book "The Case for God." In it she demolishes Harris' objections.

3.) While they speak incessantly of science and rationality, in the end they abuse both Reason and the scientific method for their own agendas.

Consider these words from Harris:

"When we doubt that science (and reason generally) can apply to questions of morality, meaning and spiritual concern, we are essentially saying there are truths that resist honest observation and clear reasoning, but which yield their wonders to minds that have been sufficiently prepared by lies (re: religious teachings)."

Implicit in this statement is the notion that honest observation and clear reasoning are beyond the capabilities of people with spiritual convictions. But history reveals just the opposite. Plato, Socrates, Augustine, Aquinas, Confucius, Jesus, Mohammad, the Buddha, Gandhi, Martin Luther King - all of them, and countless others, were keen observers of the world and excellent thinkers. Each of them also believed in God or some other form of spiritual reality. To say that their minds were "prepared by lies" is not only puerile, it's silly and stupid.

Regarding science, it's benefits to humanity are obvious. It has done a marvelous job of explaining how the physical world works, by carefully observing physical processes, developing theories to explain their workings and then testing those claims through experimentation.

Yet like all disciplines it has its limits. For example, how one one test the truth of this statement: "it is morally wrong to murder elderly women for their pension checks?"

To begin with one would first have to observe a valid moral standard then compare the act against it. But where in Nature do we find moral standards, valid or otherwise? The very concept of morality is a result of intuitive notions that cannot be verified by observing the natural world. The same is true of our ideas of beauty, our appreciation of music and the insights we gain from reading great literature, or from simply watching a sunset. These things are beyond science's ability to address.

Nor can the scientific disciplines shed any light on questions such as whether people have rights, if there is an ultimate purpose for existence or if there is anything beyond the world of our senses. Like it or not, these issues are the province of artists, philosophers and theologians, and the answers they provide are at best well thought out leaps of faith. On these matters science is mute.

After spending much time reading their words and listening to their vitriolic diatribes, I've concluded that it isn't love of truth that drives the Four Stooges and their fans. It's something much more crass: a hatred of those with different opinions mixed with the urge to feel superior to those same people. To nurture these desires they have embarked on a campaign supported by a mountain of rhetoric, half-truths and outright lies.

They are as ignorant and intolerant as the most narrow-minded religious bigot. In their case, though, it's a willful ignorance, which they hold to in spite of their intellectual gifts and access to knowledge. Thus in the final analysis they are the worst fundamentalists of all.