Atheism and Intellectual Intimidation


I spent a few minutes in a coffee shop this morning reading a short book by atheist author D. Cameron Web called Despicable Meme – The Absurdity and Immorality of Modern Religion. This is Web’s first book so I guess he can be excused for his unusually zealous attack of religion.

He takes a no holds barred approach to his attack on evangelical/fundamentalism, and is equally unapologetic in his critique of religious moderates who try to accommodate their own religious world view with that of other religions and even unbelieving scientists.

Web has no sympathy for the accommodationist position. As far as he is concerned we are at war, the stakes are the credibility of our schools and political institutions, and moderates who try to soothe over the differences between the rational no-supernatural-nonsense world view and the world view of essentially all religions are just giving cover and adding credibility to those irrational views.

As I read this book I couldn’t help but be reminded of a religious panel show I watched last night on ZoomerTV. The question they were discussing was whether moderate religionists should take responsibility for their own fanatics. The range of views was quite astonishing.

The most noteworthy things were for me the naive “feel good” comments of the evangelical Christian, the hard-nosed secular/political position of the (Eastern) Indians on the panel, the Roman Catholic bishop’s ardent but predictable appeal for “dialogue”, the Jewish rabbi’s comments about promoting religion without God, and Conrad Black’s somewhat surprising comment about this last suggestion as though the thought had never occurred to him. All of these participants were in one way or another talking the language of accommodation – getting along with their fellow religionists as though this would be enough to short-circuit fanaticism.

But the message of an atheist like Web is that it is all bunk, and that this sort of goody-goody dialogue just perpetuates medieval and silly – sometimes dangerous – ignorance.

Web’s message for the vast majority of us is that sitting on the fence is no good. There are compelling intellectual and practical reasons why we should come down on one side or the other – either atheism or all-in belief. The luke warm position where you continue to “respect” religious traditions and encourage their perpetuation through things like parochial schools, while not really believing in those teachings is nothing short of hypocritical.

When I hear arguments like this – which I basically agree with – I am always reminded of conversations I had with my mother many years ago. She was a faithful member of her church, but in no way what I would call zealous. She was simply not interested, nor perhaps intellectually equipped to deal with subtle arguments about the existence of God, or the role of religion in our lives. She adhered to the life and teachings of the church because she probably would have considered it presumptuous to come right out and question them.

Whether we skeptics like it or not these are essentially intellectual issues, debated by people with specialized intellectual training and contentious intellectual objectives. So to bring such concerns to the masses like both sides do is maybe just a bit unfair. Yes, I said both sides – the preachers, priests and missionaries on the one side and the scientists and secular atheists on the other.

For both sides this can amount to intellectual intimidation. Preachers and priests ask ordinary people to make decisions and threaten them with eternal damnation if they make the wrong choice. Atheists say “How can you believe that nonsense?” and imply fence sitters are either hypocrites or lacking in intellectual courage. I don’t think intellectual threats and intimidation coming from either side are the answer.

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