Friday, July 15, 2011

God Bless the Atheists

On facebook today, someone cited an article about the moronic islamophobic writings of christopher hitchens and martin amis.  i've seen some of hitchens' work; amis is new to me so i googled and read about him.  what strikes me about the caliber of their attacks on islam is the fact that they are both very intelligent people.  they must be quite capable of reasoned critiques of islam as a religion and/or a social force.  but that's not what they seem to be doing.  their intelligence, in this context, is both disturbing and enlightening.  they have chosen to put aside reason and logic, and do a pretty good job of sounding similar to the politician-dimwits like michelle bachmann or the media dimwits like glenn beck and bill o'reilly.  i don't mean to underestimate the right-wing bigots; many of them are very shrewd.  but they express no interest in ideas, no curiosity about the backgrounds of subjects they elect to preach on, no awareness of complexity.  what they believe or purport to believe is holy truth, not ideas subject to analysis and dispute.

by contrast people like hitchens and amis have minds they are capable of using.  they don't seem unacquainted with the idea of ideas.  they might have things to say about specific religious ideologies that are worth thinking about.  instead they make up tales of demonic muslims as though the woman walking down the street wearing a hijab is precisely the same as a terrorist throwing bombs in a crowded square; as though no two muslims disagree about allah's will.  it's small minded and, like i said, stupid.

however, on one level it makes sense.  like the predominantly christian far right, amis and hitchens are fundamentalists.  they are firm, all knowing athiests.   amis has claimed he's an agnostic, not an atheist, because he thinks it's possible that some larger force may exist.  but he is utterly positive that this force is not a personal God.  this certainty isn't consistent with agnosticism, which inherently admits that there might be a God, that one or another religion might be true, though they don't see any proof of it. atheism can be like that: firmer in its rejection of God or an afterlife, but still not overbearingly convinced that it's the only possible truth.  there are, as H.L. mencken once observed, as many degrees of dogma among atheists as among christians.  i remember years ago, watching the late david brudnoy's tv show, whose guests were a scientist who beleived that 'near-death experiences' were caused by specific brain chemicals, and a woman who had had such an experience, during which she had seen and spoken to jesus. the scientist listened politely to her explanation.  brudnoy guffawed.  'are you really asking us to believe, on faith, that jesus spoke to you?' he sneered.  she was great.  she ignored his rudeness, and very calmly answered. 'oh, no. I'm not asking you to believe anything. You asked me to come on your show and talk about my experience.'

what struck me was that, while she was indeed not asking anyone to believe her, brudnoy was: he was asking us to believe, on faith, that her experience wasn't true.  and he hadn't even been there!

a few years after this, when brudnoy was diagnosed with AIDS, he wrote a column about it and asked people not to pray for him, since he didn't believe in prayer.  yet later, when he knew he would soon die, he wrote a farewell column in which he thanked all who sent him good wishes and who prayed for him--and asked them to continue their prayers.  it was immensely moving to me.  i read later that when he was dying one of the few people he spent time with in his last days was the hospital chaplain.  what had changed in the nature of his belief, i don't know.  possibly it was simply the step from sheer conviction to the realization that he didn't know everything, and that people who prayed might be doing something helpful.

much later, i saw a similar attitude in two of my own friends, each of whom was experiencing a life-threatening illness.  they didn't know each other, so were not affecting each other's thinking.  one of them told me her religious friends had said that they were praying for her, and she had told them to stop. she was offended by it.  i smiled and told her i never prayed; i sent people white light, since i didn't believe in a personal god but did believe that evoking a larger power  might help. she was very upset and angrily told me not to send her any more light.  i said i hoped it was okay to wish her luck, and when she said that was fine, i took her at her word and still send her good luck wishes every day. if prayers or white light do anything, good wishes should do it too.

meanwhile my other friend had also gotten annoyed at all the people who prayed for him. he sent an email to us all,  thanking us for our good wishes and asking us to please not pray for him. then he added, 'if you feel you have to pray, or if it helps you, go ahead and pray for me.  just don't tell me about it!'  it was a more realistic approach, a degree of difference in dogma that i thought telling. he didn't feel threatened by prayer, he just didn't want to hear about it. this left his friends with the ability to guiltlessly pray, and himself with the ability not to engage with the idea of their prayers.  [since he said nothing about white light, i assumed he would feel the same way, and have never mentioned it to him.]

i don't have any problems with atheism itself, and i would probably qualify as the sort of agnostic martin amis purports to be: i do believe in something that is larger than we are and of which we are all parts, composing an immortal combinations of selves-in-one.  i too find figures like god-the-father and his uniquely divine handsome young spinoff jesus unlikely.  but i do realize i could be wrong.  i find atheism as unsatisfactory an answer as any  single religion.  i grew up catholic, and thus for the first 20 years of my life learned about at least bits of the bible, in both testaments.  after 9/11 i read, though i did not study, the koran, to get an idea of what muslims were expected to believe.  i didn't much like it, but i certainly didn't find any 'off the christians!' in it, and a fair amount of 'help everyone, whatever they believe.'  there's material there that can be used to justify killing religious or political enemies, if you want to use it that way, though not nearly as much as there is in the bible. i've known a lot of christians, a lot of jews, a lot of agnostics, fewer atheists and even fewer muslims.  their religious beliefs usually influence their attitudes toward the world, for better or worse. most of them take for granted that there are other beliefs out there they may be partly or wholly true; even when they find a particular belief repugnant they don't automatically attribute any evil  exclusively to the evildoers ' professed faith.

when they do, when they are so invested in their own faith that there is no room for exploration or ambiguity, they are fundamentalists, and very similar to each other.  eventually, they are bores.  and when they use their own faith to attack others, they are dangerous. all of them.

1 comment:

Baysage said...

It's late and this subject deserves much more exploration than I can give it here. Let me just say this. I cannot stand what I call "militant atheism." It's as obnoxious as Xtian or Muslim fundamentalism. So to hell with these selfish people who spurn the prayers of others when they are sick or at any other time. What right do they have to rudeness and hurtfulness just because they disagree with somebody on religion? They have no right. Period.