While browsing Richard Dawkins' site, I came across an article by Gary Wolf titled "Battle of the New Atheism," which had originally appeared in Wired magazine under the title "The Crusade Against Religion," and which I'd been meaning to read but had not yet got round to. One passage which raised my eyebrows (among other things) in particular was the following:
I return from Oxford enthusiastic for argument. I immediately begin trying out Dawkins' appeal in polite company. At dinner parties or over drinks, I ask people to declare themselves. "Who here is an atheist?" I ask.
Usually, the first response is silence, accompanied by glances all around in the hope that somebody else will speak first. Then, after a moment, somebody does, almost always a man, almost always with a defiant smile and a tone of enthusiasm. He says happily, "I am!"
But it is the next comment that is telling. Somebody turns to him and says: "You would be."
"Because you enjoy pissing people off."
"Well, that's true."
This type of conversation takes place not in central Ohio, where I was born, or in Utah, where I was a teenager, but on the West Coast, among technical and scientific people, possibly the social group that is least likely among all Americans to be religious. Most of these people call themselves agnostic, but they don't harbor much suspicion that God is real. They tell me they reject atheism not out of piety but out of politeness. As one said, "Atheism is like telling somebody, 'The very thing you hinge your life on, I totally dismiss.'" This is the type of statement she would never want to make.
My first reaction was "Is that what atheism is like?" Upon giving it a certain measure of thought, I had to acknowledge that, given that particular wording and at least where my own convictions are concerned, the answer is yes. My next thought, however, was that this applies to some extent to every declared position with regards to religious matters. By declaring oneself a Christian, for example, one implicitly states that one "totally dismisses" the notion that the contents of the Koran were dictated to Muhammed by God (the cornerstone of Islam), that the gods of the Hindu (or any other) pantheon exist, that the Dalai Lama is the nth reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara, etc. etc. Sure, many (though by no means all) Christian denominations have, in the spirit of ecumenism, toned down their doctrine over the past few centuries to the extent that they no longer hold that infidels and heretics (i.e. adherents of other denominations) are ipso facto damned to eternity in Hell, but will instead be reconciled with God in the hereafter. That's jolly nice of them, I suppose, but a doctrine that boils down to "God won't punish you for being wrong about Him" still takes as its starting point that those of other religious persuasions (or lack thereof, in the case of atheists) are wrong.
Much the same applies to any other religion. Islamic doctrine may acknowledge Christians (as well as Jews) to be "People of the Book," it nevertheless rejects the core tenet of the Christian faith, namely that Jesus was the son of God, died on the cross and was resurrected. And while the more tolerant religions may hold that, at worst, you'll look slightly sheepish after you die and discover the Truth™, atheists hold that even that won't happen, as your consciousness will simply have ceased to exist. Thus, atheism is no more impolite than any religion, and a good deal more polite than many.
Why is it then that in Wolf's fellow diners—themselves non-religious types—not only consider the mere action of openly declaring oneself an atheist to be a deliberate act of rudeness, but are also willing to say so to the atheists' faces, when in a likelihood, they do not feel the same way about professions of religious belief, and certainly wouldn't tell a religious person to his face that it figures that he's openly religious "because he enjoys pissing people off"? I can only attribute this to "the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith" (to use Dawkins' description). This principle, as it exists in Western society, is a curious hybrid of religious doctrine with Enlightenment thought, and bears a closer look.
The notion that faith is a virtue, of course, stems from religious doctrine itself. In Christianity, it's one of the three "theological virtues," along with hope and either love or charity, depending on whose version you read. Of course, historically, "faith" in this context refers only to the One True Faith™, not the "false" versions peddled by the aforementioned infidels and heretics. Frankly, I think it's more than a little transparent that an organized religion would claim that adhering to its doctrine makes you a better person, but maybe I'm just being cynical. Be that as it may, this tenet was mellowed somewhat by the notion of mutual religious tolerance, which was a necessary product of the concept of freedom of conscience (including freedom of religion) which gained popularity in the wake of the Enlightenment. The result is a widely held, if somewhat inchoate idea that religious faith is, if not a virtue in itself, the expression of a pursuit of virtue, and therefore deserving of respect.
This, however, is an illusion, tenable only in societies where the principle of freedom of religion is commonly accepted; where the adherents of all religions have agreed to play nice with each other, and ignore any bits of their respective doctrines which require them to persecute infidels and heretics. When that compact is broken by any party behaving in (what is perceived by others to be) a non-virtuous manner for religious reasons, the house of cards collapses. To expand the words of Richard Dawkins which I quoted earlier, "As long as we accept the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith, it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers." Or, indeed, the faith of Fred "God Hates Fags" Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church. Certainly, a person may be motivated by his faith to do good works, and such a person should be accorded respect, but it should be for his actions, not for his faith.
Okay, so I've established why I don't think religious faith is ipso facto deserving of respect. But lest I be justly accused of hypocrisy, the same must apply to lack of religious faith. So why do Gary Wolf's fellow diners have my nose so out of joint? Just because I believe that religious beliefs are not ipso facto deserving of respect does not mean that I believe they are by definition not deserving of respect; to my mind, religious beliefs are opinions like any other, and deserve to be judged on their merits. Should there be compelling arguments to support an opinion, it is capable of earning respect. (A problem is that faith is all too often invoked as special pleading why an opinion should be accepted despite lacking any rational argument to back it up; this is often seen in the debates concerning such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage.) I have my reasons for labelling myself an "atheist," rather than using more anodyne terms like "agnostic" or "non-religious," but Wolf's fellow diners aren't interested in hearing them: they've already made up their minds that the only reason for openly self-identifying as an atheist is to deliberately annoy the religious. It's a quite spectacular display of self-righteousness: they would never call themselves "atheists" because they couldn't bring themselves to be that rude... except to people who do call themselves "atheists." One commenter on Pharyngula put it rather well, I thought:
[...] if you believe everything an atheist believes, but reject the label, you have false beliefs about atheists. Most likely you see atheists through the caricature religious discrimination of nonbelievers has built; the zealous, unfeeling, hyper-rationalist who's unmoved by awe and incapable of appreciating beauty. That, in turn, makes you a bigot. None of this is the least bit sophisticated.
The "sophisticated" bit refers to some discussion stemming from an observation made by P.Z. Myers in that same post, which concerns Deepak Chopra's shoddy excuse for a critique of Dawkins' The God Delusion, namely that:
[Chopra's] final point is the same old excuse of theistic apologists everywhere: that Dawkins is dealing with a crude and stupid version of religion, not the sophisticated, clever, wonderfully enlightened kind of religion he practices. Someday, someone is going to have to tell me about this brilliant version of religion, because I've never found it (I've looked) [...]
There appears to be a widespread notion that self-identified atheists are unfamiliar with "actual" religious doctrines, are unwilling or unable to learn about them, and can only argue with a flawed conception of religion of their own making. This is undoubtedly a comforting thought to theists everywhere, but it is wishful thinking. Attending an English primary school, I had Anglicanism shoved down my throat five morning assemblies a week for four years. When I stayed at my maternal grandparents as a child, they would occasionally drag me to church (of a Dutch mildly Calvinist variety) on Sunday mornings. If I hold misconceptions about what Christianity is really like—that God answers prayers, and gets angry but "is never angry for long"—it's because I was deliberately misinformed as a child. I have no patience with arguments that my view of a religion is incorrect because it does not jibe with the views put forward by certain theologians, for those views are not what is being mass-marketed to the parishioners.
A good example of this may be found in Terry Eagleton's review of Dawkins' God Delusion:
Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don't believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. [...]
For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or "existent": in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves.
I'm sorry, but the claim that the Judeo-Christian God is a non-"existent" non-entity is a major departure from scripture, and certainly not a view one will find propagated from any pulpit. As Sean Carroll points out in his thorough dismantling of Eagleton's review:
If ["condition of possibility"] were really what people meant by "God," nobody would much care. It doesn't really mean anything — like Spinoza's pantheism, identifying God with the natural world, it's just a set of words designed to give people a warm and fuzzy feeling.
Well, quite. "In the Condition of Possibility we Trust," "La Condition de Possibilité et mon Droit,""Condicio potestatis vult"? Doesn't sound very compelling, does it? Eagleton is using a tactic employed by many theistic apologists when confronted with arguments against the existence of God to which they have no answer, which is to redefine "God" as a concept which cannot be disproven simply because it so utterly vague. Of course, any concept that vague bears zero relation to the term "God" as it is actually used in everyday life, so not only are the apologists moving the goalposts, they are hiding them to boot. Needless to say, this is an act of blatant intellectual dishonesty, but God forbid atheists should be anything but respectful to such people, because even if they are obvious liars, they have faith.