Editor’s Introduction: The Eloquent Atheist has decided to publish comments by Ronald Aronson, (who was interviewed by co-editor Marilyn Westfall about a month ago), which were made in response to a critique of “The New Atheists” by Baptist Center for Ethics Executive Director Robert Parham. In his critique of the New Atheism, Parham labeled atheists in general as “God despisers” and the “faithless” who pluck sympathy from “the liberal media, a significant slice of the hedonistic entertainment culture and angry university professors.” However, Parham also said that ministers and the faithful should engage “the new atheists by first taking back the microphone from the fundamentalists who define faith”; insist on “fair debate” between the two supposed sides; when challenged about the violence committed by religious fundamentalists, point out that atheistic regimes committed violence; acknowledge their own limitations in regards to ultimate answers; and lastly “respond with a vigorous civility and a redundant clarity about the great good religion does to advance social justice, encourage charity, comfort the grieving and provoke a sense of wonder in the mystery of creation.”
Ronald Aronson responds:
As one of the New Atheists, I was fascinated by Robert Parham’s call to action, “Answering the Attack of the New Atheists.” I deeply appreciate his conclusion that “faith leaders should respond with a vigorous civility,” and it is in that spirit that I respond to Dr. Parham.
I have only two quarrels with his article, the first with the statistics he uses. The number of nonbelievers which I describe more inclusively as consisting of atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, freethinkers, and skeptics, is far more than the minuscule 4 percent he cites. Indeed, if the true number of those who live without God were really that few, there would probably be no need for his article. A more accurate count approaches one in four Americans. Indeed, as I have written in my book, a careful tally of all those with no religion, as well as spiritualists, and nominally religious deists those for whom the traditional Jewish, Christian, and Muslim God plays little or no role in their lives may be as many as 40 percent of Americans.
Second, except at the very end of his article, Dr. Parham’s tone does not come up to his own standards of “vigorous civility.” He speaks of us nonbelievers as “God-despisers,” which is a manifestly false description of me and the vast majority of my fellow unbelievers and then of our support by “the hedonistic entertainment culture and angry university professors.” These are terms of combat that verge on insult, and they certainly contradict the analytical tone of much of the article.
I understand why anyone defending religion against Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, might feel uncharitable. As I say in my book, Living Without God, they have written “blunt, no-holds barred attacks on religion.” Why are these so harsh? Above all, each sees himself as breaking a taboo: Thou shalt not criticize religion. For over a generation Americans have been, as Daniel Dennett says, under the “spell” of religion and unable to evaluate it with any amount of rigor. As I said in The Nation, the New Atheists’ sense of shattering this spell explains not only the vigor and urgency of their books, their mainstream character and their publishing success, but also the common refrain in reviews that they have “gone too far.” I for one am grateful for the space for discussion these writers, along with Dennett (certainly no angry professor) have opened up, and forgive them for not being calmer and more measured.
Within that space, my goals are not to do battle with religion. My primary concern is to develop a coherent contemporary secular philosophy, one which answers life’s essential questions for those of us who live without God. I pursue this task with humility and without being able to claim possession of absolute knowledge, but at the same time with considerable confidence in fallible and correctable methods of human understanding, including science and reason. I oppose claims of absolute knowledge, and I also oppose those who would see fit to impose their claims on others. Like Dr. Parham I am not omniscient, I don’t have all the answers. I reject dogmatism.
In other words, I too am opposed to fundamentalists of all stripes (as a Jew, I would add Jewish fundamentalists to the list, especially because in the West Bank they are a major source of conflict with Palestinians). Dr. Parham and I are potential allies in opposing those who assume that their values, norms and practices apply to everyone.
But if we are to genuinely be allies, believers and nonbelievers must respectfully learn where we agree and disagree. As the Pew 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey demonstrates, our sources of values may in some ways be different, but in many ways they are also the same. We should be, or become, secure enough to discuss all of this with “vigorous civility.”
Contrary to the past expectations of nonbelievers, religion is not going away anytime soon. There is no particular reason to do battle with religion as such, but only with fundamentalist religions. And contrary to the suggestions of author Alister McGrath, irreligion is not dying out either. We will live alongside each other for the foreseeable future.
Is it possible that we can talk about our differences openly, honestly, without insult? Is it possible that we might not be antagonists but allies in key ways, especially in the struggle against fundamentalism? Is it possible that the perspectives we share on many of life’s most important issues are far more important than our differences? Is it possible that the Baptist Center for Ethics can communicate with the Secular Coalition for America?
As Barack Obama wrote, in the most important paragraph of The Audacity of Hope, a single sentence: “No one is exempt from the call to find common ground.” I agree.
We need to talk.