samedi, juin 16, 2007

My column from the IJ

I had a revelation a few days ago.
Scratch that image — it's way too religious for a column about the contemporary scourge of institutional religion, Christopher Hitchens and his confraternity of anti-theists rail.
Let's just say I had an epiphany. Darn it — there are moments when the English language, with its huge debt to the Judeo-Christian tradition, just works against you.
I realized that, according to Hitchens and some very cultured scientists, I am essentially a troglodyte.
Many of the world's ills, he argues, can be laid at the door of "proud," "stupid" and possibly "arrogant" people like me — those who believe in God.
"Religion comes from the terrified infancy of our species. … (It) is innately coercive as well as innately incoherent. Because it's man-made, there's an infinite variety for them all, and these sects proceed to quarrel among themselves, religious warfare being one of the great retardances [sic] of civilization of the time we've been alive and very much to this day," said the author of "God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," in an interview broadcast on Boston public radio station WBUR.
The British-born Hitchens and his spiritual (oops, there I go again) compatriot, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, seem to be everywhere — fodder not only for their own skilled publicists, but for countless profiles, news shows and, inevitably, responses from theists irritated at being belabored as ignorant bigots.
If one were to judge by the attention garnered by learned and glib critics like Hitchens, one would think the tally in the current game of "gotcha" being waged against conventional belief is "Atheists 6-Theists 0."
One example: In this week's edition of the New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list, Hitchens' book is third, admittedly behind the equally exasperated Al Gore's tome on the Bush administration, "The Assault on Reason," but five spots ahead of Pope Benedict XVI's book, "Jesus of Nazareth."
If the sometimes-testy Hitchens is a tough nut for the faithful to swallow, Dawkins has got to be even more of a royal pain.
The Oxford University Charles Symonyi professor of the public understanding of science, and perhaps the world's most photogenic atheist, Dawkins has continued not only to defend evolution as a fact, but also to argue evolution by natural selection is a satisfactory and evidence-based explanation for the world the way it is, while the idea of God is not.
When asked a few years ago in an interview in the online magazine Salon why humans continue to insist on believing in God, Dawkins responded: "One suggestion is that the child mind, is, for very good Darwinian reasons, susceptible to infection the same way a computer is. … Once a viral program gets started, there is nothing to stop it."
Dawkins and Hitchens aren't alone — they have friends just as mad as they are.
So what do you do if you are a theist in the cross hairs of highly articulate atheists?
One suggestion: Put on the thinking cap they don't think you have and consider whether they might have a point.
I can't help but wonder if part of the answer to why anti-theists are getting so much attention now is the Bush administration's stubborn rejection of any scientific discoveries that did not jibe with its conservative world view.
The president's sometimes unholy alliances of convenience with the most polarizing elements of the religious right, his attempt to stifle dissent on scientific matters in government agencies, and his almost gleeful anti-intellectualism has fueled an inevitable backlash.
Although this imbalance has recently provoked a healthy reaction among Christian conservative intellectuals, it also has annoyed moderate members of the scientific community who believe in evidence-based science (as in the generally recognized facts around climate change).
In addition, people of faith in this still largely Christian country remain easy marks because, to put it bluntly, they are often sloppy and sometimes ignorant about the faith fundamentals.
In a recent New Yorker article on Hitchens and his ilk titled "Atheists with Attitude," reviewer Anthony Gottlieb gives examples of idiosyncrasies in belief among Americans alternately amusing and scary.
Gottlieb refers to a 2001 survey in which more than half of American Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians believed Jesus sinned — in direct contradiction to church tradition. Gottlieb also refers to a Barna Research Group survey that found most Christians don't know who preached the Sermon on the Mount.
There's more, but I don't want to embarrass anyone.
At the moment, the radical fringe of the anti-religious crowd can claim the edge in intellectual consistency.
Too bad, because a few anti-theist assumptions bear some intense scrutiny and charitable questions.
Why does an atheist like Dawkins believe "the broad direction of history is towards enlightenment," when there is so much evidence to the contrary? How does one explain our human tendency to seek a moral compass? Can one blithely dismiss the possibility that good and evil are realities, not merely constructs?
Faced with a withering barrage of criticism from this group of hot-blooded anti-theists, thoughtful people of faith have some choices to make.
We can barricade ourselves behind unexamined dogma and tribalism, or, openly and undefensively, we can seek to appreciate the anti-theist position.
Forced to ask ourselves some tough questions about what we believe, we will deepen and better appreciate our own faith.
After all, if they can evolve, why can't we?

jeudi, juin 14, 2007

The Revolution of Species: Should Theists Take Atheists Seriously?

I think the answer is yes, when they are as brilliant as the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins-and as good-looking. If he's an example of natural selection, I'm going to give that evolution idea a second look.

What seems a little odd is how little sense of humor these gentlemen have. Perhaps, as in Christian and Jewish circles, there are inner sanctum in which anti-theists make fun of their own idiosyncrasies and creeds.

Although it gets irritating to be continually patronized as an ignorant bigot, perhaps we should turn the other cheek. We believers need to tend to our own flock.

I am particularly amused, and appalled, by the stats mentioned in the New Yorker by Anthony Gottlieb in his article on Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, that merry band of brothers.

It may be worrisome to atheists that 44 percent of Christians believe Jesus will return within 50 years. But it should be more worrisome to Christians that 1/5 of non-Christians in another poll also think Jesus will return.

Jesus who?

mardi, juin 12, 2007

I came back from an overnight trip to NYC to see my dad just in time to catch the last inning and a half of GEYA baseball. Colin's team, the Tigers, played the Red Sox. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, the Red Sox were the better team-just underneath the first place Yankees. I'm not quite sure whether that was an accident, careful ranking pre-season...or the fix was in. Whatever the case, the Red Sox were, last night, better hitters and fielders. My Colin, who had not played last spring, has improved greatly. His two hits were very effectively fielded, though, and the Sox beat the Tigers...ouch, by a score of 10-4.

Across the street from Dad's house in Park Slope, the private school that has taken over one of the mansions on the Park is constructing a building where the playground had been for decades-the workmen have no shame about starting at 7:00 a.m. Sian managed to sleep through the racket. In this once genteel neighborhood of limestone and brownstone Victorians, the thin sheen of civilization fast disappears when it's time to jockey for a spot for the SUV or Mercedes sedan.

Survival of the fittest-it is the law of the jungle New Yorkers live by. There's something endearing about the insanity of the city, even in the swank Slope-but I was happy to return to the green ball fields, my frighteningly healthy squash plants-and the bliss of crickets in the spring grass.