I RETURN FROM OXFORD enthusiastic for argument. I immediately begin trying out Dawkins’ appeal in polite company. At dinner parties or over drinks, I ask people to declare themselves. “Who here is an atheist?” I ask.
Usually, the first response is silence, accompanied by glances all around in the hope that somebody else will speak first. Then, after a moment, somebody does, almost always a man, almost always with a defiant smile and a tone of enthusiasm. He says happily, “I am!”
But it is the next comment that is telling. Somebody turns to him and says: “You would be.”
“Because you enjoy pissing people off.”
“Well, that’s true.”
This type of conversation takes place not in central Ohio, where I was born, or in Utah, where I was a teenager, but on the West Coast, among technical and scientific people, possibly the social group that is least likely among all Americans to be religious. Most of these people call themselves agnostic, but they don’t harbor much suspicion that God is real. They tell me they reject atheism not out of piety but out of politeness. As one said, “Atheism is like telling somebody, ‘The very thing you hinge your life on, I totally dismiss.'” This is the type of statement she would never want to make.
This is the statement the New Atheists believe must be made – loudly, clearly, and before it’s too late. I continue to invite my friends for a nice, invigorating stroll down Logic Lane. For the most part, they just laugh and wave me on.
If we, as a society, don’t offer respect to those who believe in a real Easter Bunny, or laugh at the followers of Marshall Applewhite (nervously, because they’re all dead now), why is belief in the God of Abraham accorded more respect?
Since the central tenet of Christianity is that only by accepting Jesus Christ as one’s “personal savior” can one enter Heaven, it’s apparent that Christianity is unable to co-exist with religious beliefs that counter that idea. People who claim belief in Christianity but pretend to tolerance are, in the view of the New Atheists, and in my own view, fence-sitters. Toss in the other things that Christianity requires one to believe, like the Virgin Birth, or global floods, or multiple forms of immortality and resurrection, ideas incompatible with the evidence that surrounds us today, and the practice, let alone the idea, of tolerance is pushed to its limit.
Post-9/11 (and 3/11, and 7/7, not to mention the Iraq Occupation and the rude introduction of the various Islamic sects like the Sunni and Shia), Americans can no longer ignore the fact that there are other religions than Christianity in the world, and that those religions are just as fundamentalist as Christianity can be.
The irony is that making a case for the natural world view, one that rejects supernaturalism, is seen as evangelical. It creates embarrassment, not only for those listening to the arguments but those making the arguments, also. When I, myself, bring up the topic I chuckle nervously and call it “evangelical atheism”.
But I think that the embarrassment stems from the deep, irrational taboo we have against contradicting others’ god-belief, unless we are promoting an alternative god-belief. I think that this taboo is no more rational than the belief that someone with chocolate-colored skin is somehow a “lesser” human than one with pinkish skin.
And I believe that this taboo can be overcome. What bothers me is that it may not be overcome – and I fear the consequences of that.
And it bothers me not a bit that I now borrow a phrase from a radical religious leader to draw my intellectual line:
“Here I stand. I can do no other.” – Martin Luther