by: Mariann Devlin
A few weeks ago I wrote about how Christians ought to wrest Christianity’s image from the icy cold grip of conservative fundamentalists.
I still believe that, but the same duty applies to atheists who — because of a choice few hardliners — are now suspected as fundamentalists in their own right.
Truth be told, I appreciate it when atheists passionately discredit the idea of an Almighty Sky Daddy. An anthropomorphic God who grants wishes and (despite his alleged compassion) still curiously operates under the “eye-for-an-eye” retributive system of justice. There’s a strong need to dismantle that conception of God, which is what Richard Dawkins and his cohorts do best.
However, here’s the catch: atheists aren’t the only ones doing it. That kind of God-critique is also prevalent amongst liberal believers, deeply spiritual agnostics, and contemporary theologians too, and so whatever appreciation I have for my fellow atheists I also have for certain believers.
It doesn’t mean, however, that atheists in this country can’t do better. Paradoxically, once mainstream atheism starts mellowing out on our lack of belief (and by mellowing out I mean expanding our skeptical inquiries) and respecting the views of the devout, it will not only be seen as a highly-respected worldview — but it will also start to demand more rigorous arguments from believers.
My fellow atheists: Put down God Is Not Great and The God Delusion. It’s time to bring out the big guns, the guys who aren’t just atheists — but who I’d like to call the Four Horsemen of “What’s-Old-Is-New Atheism”: Nietzsche, Sartre, Marx, and Freud.
It wasn’t in the interest of these guys to merely convince people that God as a Zeus-like deity doesn’t exist. A more profound task, for them, was finding out why people have faith in lots of stuff- whether its nationalism, scientific progress, or the immutability of the self, depending on which atheist thinker we’re talking about. Dawkins and Hitchens, while they serve a purpose in introducing the rejection of God, just don’t go far enough.
The New Atheists have done nothing but convince non-believers that Reason and scientific knowledge are superior replacements for God and faith. But they’re just that, replacements — and hollow ones at that. The criticism launched against popular atheism for being just as dogmatic as Biblical literalists is a fair one.
But why would an enlarged atheistic skepticism, to include skepticism of faith in all forms, make us more respectable? First of all, it doesn’t make us look like flaming hypocrites. It’s harder to accuse us of not taking other types of faith into account, including our own. Secondly, it makes us appear more accepting and tolerant. To express a skepticism toward empiricism and logic, we’re not picking on anyone in particular — and we can acknowledge that faith comes in many forms, and as members of humanity we’re not “above” it at all. Thirdly, we look like we’ve actually done our homework, instead of picking up the latest Dawkins’ bestseller and claiming we know all there is to know about God’s non-existence.
I want to reclaim the word “atheist” from atheist fundamentalists who now have me feeling kind of defensive when I call myself that. Because right now, I have to explain that although I’m an atheist, I don’t think religion is the root of all evil (funny atheists choose that word). I also think Jesus was a pretty exemplar dude and that faith is a psychologically complex phenomena that crops up just about everywhere.
Just like Christians will find it hard to strike a balance between spreading Christian faith, the truth of God, and remaining open-minded to the choices of others, it will be hard for atheists to balance religious critique, self-critique and an understanding of the existential underpinings of faith. But imagine if both parties could have the temperance to do just that — then maybe we’ll finally find common ground.
Mariann Devlin is a journalism school graduate from Loyola University. She’s a reporter for Patch.com, and a volunteer contributor to Streetwise magazine, a publication dedicated to ending homelessness. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Mariann moved to Chicago four years ago and still complains incessantly about the cold winters.