Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Survival of the Fittest (Faith)

Weak faith is not worth preserving

In a column appearing on the Examiner website, atheist examiner Trina Hoaks addresses the notion that atheism somehow poses a threat to religious faith.

"There does seem to be an awareness that atheism is here to stay and that its numbers seem to be growing," Hoaks writes. "This is in stark contrast to the mood not too long ago. Some religious leaders and writers supposed that atheism would fizzle out, or at least that is what they expressed. Whether they really believe it or not is debatable."

Hoaks goes on to write about an episode of Focus on the Family in which Dr James Dobson and Dr Albert Mohler discussed how to combat the "new atheism".

In the program, Mohler insisted that "the 'New Atheists' are 'dangerous' and a 'threat'."

This, of course, begs an important question: a threat to whom, precisely?

The argument often raised about the "new atheists" is that they're dangerous to religious faith: essentially, that the challenges of these atheists may cause religious believers to question, or even abandon, their faith.

The self-appointed representatives of atheism are a formidable lot. Richard Dawkins is a skillful speaker and writer, as are Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.

But to anyone who does themselves the intellectual service of periodically pondering their faith, they are no threat.

Day to day life should challenge the faith of any believer. One doesn't need to look far to find suffering or injustice. Particularly, the belief in a benevolent, intervening and even retributive God can be difficult to maintain in the face of a clearly imperfect world.

In the face of such a revelation, it's only natural for a rational person to question how deeply they believe in such a being, and why. A thinking person's faith should be flexible enough to be situated within the world as it is. It shouldn't rely on the world being as one wishes it to be.

If one's faith is strong and their reasons for belief well-founded, their faith should survive nearly any challenge. If it isn't, then their faith likely wasn't worth preserving in the first place.

In the world of religious faith, as in the world of nature, survival is largely preserved for the fittest.

The answer to the imaginary "threat" posed by the "new atheism" isn't to censor or silence their messages, as some extreme individuals such as Charles McVety and Britain's Stephen Green seem to have called for.

Rather, the answer is for thinking believers, just as Dawkins has called upon atheists, to speak up and challenge atheism's most aggressive proselytizers on their own intellectual ground.

Sometimes it can certainly be difficult to decide how to best do this.

Religious thinkers haven't always been up to the task. For example some, Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort chiefly among them, have attempted to challenge atheisms' canonization of the Theory of Evolution by attempting to refute it. A wiser strategy would be to challenge the purported right of atheists to canonize it as their version of holy scripture.

They must contend with any intellectual environment that proves hostile to religion. Hoaks writes that Mohler insists 'intellectual intimidation' "is taking place in colleges across the nation and that parents need to arm their children against this kind of 'religious persecution'. He also said that atheists persecute the young and high school students through intellectual intimidation."

There are some who seek to foment an intellectual environment hostile to religious belief. These individuals should be revealed for what they are. Many of them, such as PZ Myers, will do so on their own if ever placed within an academic environment in which they face any faint trace of disagreement.

They, like Dawkins et al, are no threat to religious belief; although they should be challenged nonetheless.

The path religious believers choose to follow isn't an easy one. They must find a way to adapt the concept of God to the real world. They must learn to tell the word of God from the word of man. Most importantly, they must have the courage to live according to their convictions, regardless of whatever the detractors of religion would tell them.

If religious believers cannot do this, then perhaps it really is time for religion to go bravely into the dark night.

But atheism's most vigorous proselytizers may be in for a surprise. There are many religious believers who are prepared to take on this challenge.

All they need to do now is stand up and challenge their detractors.


  1. While Christianity was what I was taught as a child, I've continued to maintain it as my belief system for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that, mathematically, we're almost an anomaly.

    Think of all the different factors that led to the development of life on Earth-the Big Bang, the creation of the sun, the myriad changes to occur before the rise of the dinosaurs, the actual circumstances that led to the dinosaurs' death, the evolutionary factors that all led up to the evolution of humanity.

    What are the mathematical odds of every single one of these things happening in exactly the right place and exactly the right time to bring us about? If we weren't created by a higher entity, does that mean that all our art and our philosophy, our beliefs and our creations, all came about as the result of sheer chance?

    Similarly, in many of the discussions about religion I've seen there have rarely been discussion about Bible passages like Mark 13: 5-6, where Jesus warns of the people who will claim to speak for him, or Mark 12: 28-34, where Jesus discusses the greatest of all commandments, which is simply to love your neighbor as you do yourself? Ann Coulter seems to really hate American liberals...seems like there's something screwy going on there.

    Or perhaps Matthew 23: 1-36, where Jesus condemns the hypocrisy of the religious leaders who claim to speak for him and make a great show of professing their faith, before lying, cheating and stealing...or launching senseless, bloody wars that bring nothing but poverty and death on both sides of the ocean.

    How about John 8: 1-11, where he challenges the people around him to cast the first stone if they themselves are without sin? Would all those so-called Christians who condemn gays as doomed to go to Hell want to do this? Seems to me Fred Phelps wouldn't have a very nice day.

    How about Luke 6: 1-5 and John 7:22-24, where he criticizes those who put more importance in the letter of the law than its true spirit?

    In Luke 17: 11-19 Jesus heals ten men, nine of whom are religious Jews...and yet the heathen Samaritan is the only one who shows any gratitude!

    In the second half of the Acts of the Apostles, too, even as he preaches to the Gentiles, Paul is hounded by rigid, inflexible religious leaders in Israel who constantly attack him. These jokers are the same ones who insist on the rigid letter of the law, rather than its spirit.

    That, in my mind, is the true importance of Christianity, or indeed any religious faith-the morals, the ethics, actually living with compassion and kindness in life, all of which are more important than attacking homosexuals or trying to kill foreigners and convert them to Christianity, as Fred Phelps and Ann Coulter seem to forget.

    My own belief is in the Christian God, and in Christ as His Son. That doesn't mean I believe that anyone who doesn't share my faith is going to burn in hell, or that gay people should be attacked just because of who they are. Just as people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris tar all atheists as radical nutjobs, so too do people like Fred Phelps and Ann Coulter make people of faith look bad.

    If Jesus were alive today, He'd probably be among Coulter's and Phelps' loudest critics.

  2. I have nothing against religious types or atheists in general. What pisses me off is when both sides start resorting to ad hominem attacks and intellectual dishonesty just to push their points.

    That, and when one side starts claiming some sort of moral "high ground" that makes them think they're superior to all others. While this problem seems more prevalent with organized religion from what I've observed, I've also seen my share of obnoxious pricks among atheists and so-called free thinkers.

    I don't have to agree with my opponent, but I don't see a need to be a douchebag around them either, basically.

    Ebon Musings has an interesting entry on this matter, explaining that it's more a matter of dogmatic ideologies - regardless of the belief system involved - that's the root cause of this sort of conflict.

    I agree with this point, especially since I realize that otakus and hardcore Trekkies share all the symptoms of religious fundamentalists and militant atheists.

  3. Jared,
    wow, some excellent points. I'm new to blogs and commenting but I will say, I learned about Patrick's blog through Muchacho Infermo, whos blog I read often.

    I'm so glad that you chose to incorporate scripture into your comment. I'm a person who grew up in a family who put the mental back in fundamentalist. I've read the Bible 5 times through and studied all the major religions. In my long journey through life I think I've seen more than my 29 years should have shown and I will say that for me religion was a crutch that served to protect those who sought to do wrong and save themselves.
    I am in no way condemning organized religion, only those who practice it.
    I think that's one of the biggest problems with the Church and all major religions these days, including the Muslim and Christian religions: the people who practice those religions and are the face of them are lacking in morale fortitude and decorum.
    I can't even believe that two religions (Judaism and Islam) that have, as a divisional basis only that they spawned of two children of the same man. Moses has two wives and had two children: one a Muslim names Ishmael and one a Jew names Isaac. And what has become of these? Thousands of years of fighting by the "Believers".
    Atheism in it's nature cannot exist. To be an atheist, which by definition means you do not believe in God, means that you must in fact believe in God to deny his existence, thus nullifying it's title.
    I believe in a higher power, God maybe, but not any God people tell me to believe in. I have my own relationship with my maker.

  4. Antonio: You make important comments that I fully agree with. If you've followed my own comments on Patrick's blog, you'll know just how much I hate radicalism and militancy in politics. Even moreso I hate it when people take the stance that if you disagree with them, you're an idiot by default. I find this infects a lot of people on both sides of the political spectrum, although the majority are of course very nice, the kind of people you could just as easily be shooting the breeze with in a place like the Grande Allée in Quebec City, Yonge Street in Toronto or Whyte Avenue in Edmonton.

    You: You hit on one of the most important things here, most notably the crime committed in the name of religion. Even if He wasn't actually divine, Jesus was astonishingly prescient in recognizing the criminals and hatemongers that would claim to speak for Him, from Peter Popoff to Fred Phelps to Ann Coulter.


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