No contest. As you may remember, a while back the “theologian” Karen Armstrong wrote an article in Foreign Policy defending God, or at least her apophatic, may-or-may-not-exist God. She stopped along the way to take the obligatory swipe at “new atheists”:
So-called new atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have denounced religious belief as not only retrograde but evil; they regard themselves as the vanguard of a campaign to expunge it from human consciousness. Religion, they claim, creates divisions, strife, and warfare; it imprisons women and brainwashes children; its doctrines are primitive, unscientific, and irrational, essentially the preserve of the unsophisticated and gullible.
These writers are wrong — not only about religion, but also about politics — because they are wrong about human nature. Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus. As soon as we became recognizably human, men and women started to create religions. We are meaning-seeking creatures. While dogs, as far as we know, do not worry about the canine condition or agonize about their mortality, humans fall very easily into despair if we don’t find some significance in our lives. Theological ideas come and go, but the quest for meaning continues. So God isn’t going anywhere. And when we treat religion as something to be derided, dismissed, or destroyed, we risk amplifying its worst faults. Whether we like it or not, God is here to stay, and it’s time we found a way to live with him in a balanced, compassionate manner.
In his inimitable style, Sam Harris responds today, also in Foreign Policy. A sample:
I can’t quite remember how we got it into our heads that jihad was linked to violence. (Might it have had something to do with the actual history and teachings of Islam?) And how could we have been so foolish as to connect the apparently inexhaustible supply of martyrs in the Muslim world to the Islamic doctrine of martyrdom? In my own defense, let me say that I do get spooked whenever Western Muslims advocate the murder of apostates (as 36 percent of Muslim young adults do in Britain). But I now know that these freedom-loving people just “want to see God reflected more clearly in public life.”
I will call my friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali at once and encourage her to come out of hiding: Come on out, dear. Karen says the coast is clear. As it turns out, those people who have been calling for your murder don’t understand Islam any better than we do.
And how does Armstrong respond to the accusations that she’s put the kindest possible face on faith? What do apologists always do when backed into a corner? She plays the why-can’t-we-be-civil card! (Her response is on the same page):
It is clear that we need a debate about the role of religion in public life and the relationship between science and religion. I just wish this debate could be conducted in a more Socratic manner. Socrates, founder of the Western rationalist tradition, always insisted that any dialogue must be conducted with gentleness and courtesy, and without malice. In our highly polarized world, we really do not need yet another deliberately contentious and divisive discourse.
Armstrong goes on to deplore the “desecration” of religion represented by the Crusades, inquisitions, and persecutions conducted by the faithful, but asserts they are “distortions” of true faith. But who is she to tell millions of Muslims that their understanding of the Qur’an is simply wrong? What she doesn’t see is that religion by its very nature lends itself to this kind of persecution. It’s an autocracy not amenable to reason — which is a sure recipe for immorality.
And that’s the point of the new atheists. Most of us would be content to leave religion alone if it simply represented a private activity whose adherents left us alone. But, for obvious reasons, many of them can’t, and that’s why a lot of us, including Harris, see the more moderate faithful as enablers of extremists. Recently, a liberally religious friend told me that practitioners of all faiths were equally moral: he saw no difference between Muslims and Quakers. Such blindness to the palpable facts of the world characterizes the enablers, leading directly to Robert Wright’s indictment of America for Major Hasan’s murder spree, to Nancy Graham Holme’s claim that the Danish cartoonists brought violence on themselves, and Karen Armstrong’s refusal to face the bad side of faith. In the end, she holds us nasty atheists responsible for those “abuses of faith”:
In the past, theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann, Karl Rahner, and Paul Tillich enjoyed fruitful conversations with atheists and found their theology enriched by the encounters. We desperately need such interchange today. A truly Socratic dialogue with atheists could help to counter many of the abuses of faith that Harris so rightly deplores.