Monday, February 12, 2007

Does America Need Quotable Atheists?

In "The Quotable Atheist", Jack Huberman tries to provide ammunition with which atheists and other secularly minded people can go about attacking the faithful in America. Part of this is a political strategy to counter to rise of Christo-fascism and the power of the religious right within the Republican party.

However, cathartic it might be to criticize religious people as medieval holdovers and fascists, one has to wonder whether this kind of discourse contributes to a better understanding of the problems in our public life. Mark Taylor writes, in this thoughtful piece, that teaching religious studies has never been as important to do--or as hard to do, either. He mentions a phenomenon that I find in philosophy classes all the time: to raise critical questions about a person's beliefs is sometimes taken by students as a personal attack. I've heard students say they feel "unsafe" if a professor questions the support (or lack of) for their opinions.

Of course, raising critical questions about public life has made the lives of many philosophers uncomfortable. Just ask Socrates! But is a political strategy to paint some people as religious buffoons really a way to encourage progressive action toward justice and democracy? Socrates certainly didn't set off to paint Euthyphro as a buffoon (he did this to himself). Is there room for a Socratic dialogue on the nature of religioin in contemporary America?

1 Comments:

At 8:38 AM , Anonymous Parisa said...

As the minister of a church which has many atheist members, it seems to me that the question that ought to be raised is about the very notions of God that are at work in our American conversation. Because several people might use that particular three-letter word does not mean they are talking about the same thing. Not even close. It's always important to delve more deeply into what is contained in the G-word. The rift even in mainline denominations over political issues begs the question of the nature of God even among people who share a pew on Sunday morning.

Most atheists I know, who embrace spiritual seeking as something important to their humanity, take on the label because they feel a need to reject the God-concepts that predominate in certain kinds of religious life.

Theologian James Luther Adams writes:
"Whoever with seriousness rejects belief in God (as that word is understood) expresses loyalty to a standard of truth or of goodness on which the judgment is made. The rejection implies that this truth or goodness is valid and reliable. For that person this truth or goodness is sacred; it may not be violated. The atheist rejects what appears to be sacred and sovereign for the theist; but in doing so recognizes something else that is sovereign and even holy for him or her."

I wish for the sake of these conversations, for the sake of exploration of religious truth and human meaning, that the public conversation about atheism would turn from the shock value (for conservative religionists) of the mere utterance of the word "atheist" toward an affirmation of those ideals that are "sovereign and reliable" for them. If the conversation begins with everyone able to state what they affirm and rely on as the basis of their beliefs, the conversation might go a lot further.

 

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