For the fans of Waal, a small excerpt from his last book that for the most part I disagree with. His thought that there may be some tie between one's religion growing up and one's militant atheism does not ring true; at least for those militant atheists that didn't grow up with religion. He asks the question, "What does atheism have to offer worth fighting for?" The reasons would seem to be mind numbingly simplistic. I didn't know that dogma and reality were so easily interchangeable.
There is danger in dogma, whoever is behind it.
March 30, 2013 |
The following is an excerpt from "The Bonobo and the Atheist", by Frans de Waal (W.W. Norton, 2013).
One quiet Sunday morning, I stroll down the driveway of my home in Stone Mountain, Georgia, to pick up the newspaper. As I arrive at the bottom—we live on a hill—a Cadillac drives up the street and stops right before me. A big man in a suit steps out, sticking out his hand. A firm handshake follows, during which I hear him proclaim in a booming, almost happy voice, “I’m looking for lost souls!” Apart from perhaps being overly trusting, I am rather slow and had no idea what he was talking about. I turned around to look behind me, thinking that perhaps he had lost his dog, then corrected myself and mumbled something like, “I’m not very religious.”
This was of course a lie, because I am not religious at all. The man, a pastor, was taken aback, probably more by my accent than by my answer. He must have realized that converting a European to his brand of religion was going to be a challenge, so he walked back to his car, but not without handing me a business card in case I’d change my mind. A day that had begun so promisingly now left me feeling like I might go straight to hell.
I was raised Catholic. Not just a little bit Catholic, like my wife, Catherine. When she was young, many Catholics in France already barely went to church, except for the big three: baptism, marriage, and funeral. And only the middle one was by choice. By contrast, in the southern Netherlands—known as “below the rivers”—Catholicism was important during my youth. It defined us, setting us apart from the above-the-rivers Protestants. Every Sunday morning, we went to church in our best clothes, we received catechism at school, we sang, prayed, and confessed, and a vicar or bishop was present at every official occasion to dispense holy water (which we children happily imitated at home with a toilet brush). We were Catholic through and through.
But I am not anymore. In my interactions with religious and nonreligious people alike, I now draw a sharp line, based not on what exactly they believe but on their level of dogmatism. I consider dogmatism a far greater threat than religion per se. I am particularly curious why anyone would drop religion while retaining the blinkers sometimes associated with it. Why are the “neo-atheists” of today so obsessed with God’s nonexistence that they go on media rampages, wear T-shirts proclaiming their absence of belief, or call for a militant atheism? What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?
As one philosopher put it, being a militant atheist is like “sleeping furiously.”
Losing My Religion
I was too restless as a boy to sit through an entire mass. It was akin to aversion training. I looked at it like a puppet show with a totally predictable story line. The only aspect I really liked was the music. I still love masses, passions, requiems, and cantatas and don’t really understand why Johann Sebastian Bach ever wrote his secular cantatas, which are so obviously inferior. But other than developing an appreciation of the majestic church music of Bach, Mozart, Haydn and others, for which I remain eternally grateful, I never felt any attraction to religion and never talked to God or felt a special relationship. After I left home for the university, at the age of seventeen, I quickly lost any remnant of religiosity. No more church for me. It was hardly a conscious decision, certainly not one I recall agonizing over. I was surrounded by other ex-Catholics, but we rarely addressed religious topics except to make fun of popes, priests, processions, and the like. It was only when I moved to a northern city that I noticed the tortuous relationship some people develop with religion.
Ronald Dworkin in the NYRB:
The familiar stark divide between people of religion and without religion is too crude. Many millions of people who count themselves atheists have convictions and experiences very like and just as profound as those that believers count as religious. They say that though they do not believe in a “personal” god, they nevertheless believe in a “force” in the universe “greater than we are.” They feel an inescapable responsibility to live their lives well, with due respect for the lives of others; they take pride in a life they think well lived and suffer sometimes inconsolable regret at a life they think, in retrospect, wasted. They find the Grand Canyon not just arresting but breathtakingly and eerily wonderful. They are not simply interested in the latest discoveries about the vast universe but enthralled by them. These are not, for them, just a matter of immediate sensuous and otherwise inexplicable response. They express a conviction that the force and wonder they sense are real, just as real as planets or pain, that moral truth and natural wonder do not simply evoke awe but call for it.
There are famous and poetic expressions of the same set of attitudes. Albert Einstein said that though an atheist he was a deeply religious man:To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.
Percy Bysshe Shelley declared himself an atheist who nevertheless felt that “The awful shadow of some unseen Power/Floats though unseen among us….” Philosophers, historians, and sociologists of religion have insisted on an account of religious experience that finds a place for religious atheism. William James said that one of the two essentials of religion is a sense of fundamentality: that there are “things in the universe,” as he put it, “that throw the last stone.” Theists have a god for that role, but an atheist can think that the importance of living well throws the last stone, that there is nothing more basic on which that responsibility rests or needs to rest.
Posted by Robin Varghese at 12:44 AM | Permalink |
I would describe religion as "sleeping furiously."
Atheism is more like waking up in a room full of people 'furiously' dreaming.
how appropriate. i like the happy goat
Definitely more appropriate. I'm wondering if this little sampling of the book is out of context. Doesn't seem so. Seems pretty damn clear, and I don't agree with his points.
What does atheism have worth fighting for?
Education based on critical thinking instead of magic. Leaders who do something besides hoping that prayer will fix everything. Tolerance of the world and its peoples. I mean, jesus fucking christ, this isn't that hard.
I'm kind of disappointed since this was going to be next on my list of reads.
After reading that quip I wouldn't bother reading the book. He sounds like a religious apologist - this time apologizing for being an atheist because there are other atheists who speak out for their right to not be proselytized to by society at large or their government. Fuck him.
I still might have to read, but I'm agreeing with your assessment. =)
As one philosopher put it, being a militant atheist is like “sleeping furiously.”
I bet that philosopher was religious and who if I may ask is a militant atheist? I want to become one.
What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?
Everything that is worth fighting for; secular laws, freedom of and from religion, secular education, critical thought, a better understanding of our place in the universe and among the animals. How can all this not be worth fighting for?
Another reason is the eradication of the terrible lie of the afterlife. It's like an HPV that won't quit even when when you zap the wart of religion. People remain vaguely hopeful that they will survive their material existence and they will likely adopt some kind of new-agey 'spirituality' or worse, another religion, if exposed to it.