I finished my first reading of The Portable Atheist last week and decided that I should start sharing, on occasion, some tidbits from the great writers Hitchens showcased in this anthology. You’ll note that I said this was my first reading. That’s because this lengthy tome (at 499 pages, it bends the meaning of the term, “portable,” way out of shape!) is so full of great writings that I’ll need to devour it a few more times in order to feel like I have some idea of what it contains.
This post is based on the book’s penultimate selection, an excerpt from A.C. Grayling’s book, Against All Gods (which I’ve added to my wish list). The chapter is entitled, “Can an Atheist Be a Fundamentalist?” You won’t be at all surprised to learn that Grayling objects to the application of the term, fundamentalist, to atheists. He asks whether a non-fundamentalist atheist would be “someone who believed only somewhat that there are no supernatural entities in the world,” or “that gods exist only some of the time – say, Wednesdays and Saturdays” (p. 473). He goes on to say,
“Or might it be that a non-fundamentalist atheist is one who does not mind that other people hold profoundly false and primitive beliefs about the universe, on the basis of which they have spent centuries mass-murdering other people who do not hold exactly the same false and primitive beliefs as themselves…? (p. 473)”
Moving on from this question, Grayling says,
Christians among other things mean by “fundamentalist atheists” those who would deny people the comforts of faith…and the companionship of a benign invisible protector in the dark night of the soul” (p. 473).
Phew! We’ve already got quite a lot to think about. With regard to the question of whether atheists mind that religious believers hold false beliefs, I’ll mention that this question arose in the course of our most recent discussion at Another Goddamned Podcast. My position is this: yes, I do mind that people hold mistaken beliefs and are content to cling to them in the face of a lost of evidence and reason that should dissuade them from doing so. Having said that, however, I respect their rights to believe whatever they want to believe; my opinion is that they’d benefit immensely by discarding their religious beliefs, but I will not impose my ideas upon them. All I ask is that they extend the same courtesy to me.
This brings us to Grayling’s next statement, regarding the denial of comfort and so on. I would not dream of forcibly denying believers of any comforts they may derive from religion. If they ask for my opinion, however, I will share it freely.
A little bit later in the piece, Grayling states that “all the faiths currently jostling for our tax money to run their “faith-based” schools know that if they do not proselytize intellectually defenseless three- and four-year-olds, their grip will eventually loosen” (p. 474).
I will note that he is writing about the British education system, which differs substantially from that in the USA. Rather than addressing religion in public education, I want to address the issue of child evangelism. Readers who have followed this blog know that I have objections to inculcating children with religious beliefs before they are intellectually ready to consider the dogmas rationally. My objections are based on my own experience of having been indoctrinated as a child, and on my experience of having done the same to my children (which I deeply regret now).
Not all Christians believe in child evangelism. Some Mennonites, for example, believe that
all children prior to the age of accountability, being covered by the atonement of Christ, are spiritually safe, and stand in need neither of any ceremony, such as baptism, nor of conversion. Prior to the age of accountability, children are not lost, they are not responsible before God, and they are not able to make the response necessary for being converted in the New Testament sense. The New Testament calls for the Christian nurture and teaching of children.
I first became aware of this belief when I became close friends with a Mennonite college professor in Canada. I don’t know how Mennonites “nurture and teach” children anything religious without evangelizing and indoctrinating them, but I do know that my friend was very committed to the idea that children should not be compelled to convert at a young age. There also have been many views about what constitutes “the age of accountability.” These ideas differ vastly from the tradition in which I was raised, and in which I raised my sons. Frankly, I respect the Mennonite views much more than I respect the ones that have affected (or infected?) my family.
The last bit of Grayling’s piece that I’ll look at tonight is this:
“As it happens, no atheist should call himself or herself one. The term already sells a pass to theists, because it invites debate on their ground. A more appropriate term is “naturalist,” denoting one who takes it that the universe is a natural realm, governed by nature’s laws” (p. 475).
This idea has been discussed quite a lot in the atheosphere, and it is one that I agree with, for the most part. I dislike that notion that atheists lack something (theism), when the reality is that theists have tried to add something to a nature that was not lacking anything in the first place. And yet, having been steeped in theism for so much of my life, I embrace a term that sets myself in stark contrast to what I once was. I also wonder if using a less oppositional term (naturalist seems much less in-your-face than atheist) is not a denial of who we are as atheists. On the other hand, since “naturalist” may be a softer, much less objectionable term, perhaps it would be politically astute to use it more often. Will Phillychief call me out for “end-justifies-the-means” thinking here? Is being pragmatic and diplomatic in situations that require pragmatism and diplomacy an example of such thinking? I don’t think so.
The best way to conclude this post is with Grayling’s own characterization of the only way in which atheism/naturalism is fundamentalist; according to Grayling, atheism is “fundamentally sensible” (p. 476).
And all the nonbelievers said, Ramen!
– the chaplain