Tuesday, July 28, 2015

When One Kerkuffle Reveals a Larger Force

So, there's a blog I like (one of many), and it's called The Friendly Atheist.

What?  Pastor Eric is defending something called The Friendly Atheist?

Yep.  I've followed Hemant Mehta's blog, The Friendly Atheist, on and off for months.  Why?  We'll get to that later, I promise.

Mehta's blog, as the title would indicate, is indeed friendly, and it certainly tends to take a kinder tone to my Christian brethren than the banshee-like fundamentalists of atheism like Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and especially Richard Dawkins.

Let it be said that I come from a place of already distrusting Dawkins--not just because he refers to my religious affiliation as a disease in need of a cure (check out the picture of him in The Friendly Atheist Post I link you to after this paragraph), and not just because he actually tried to trivialize and minimize date rape on Twitter, and not just because he implied that the heroic Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai is still immature and childish for her lifelong practice of Islam.  No, I'm leery of Dawkins for all of those things, because they paint the overall picture of a person who is painfully and ironically a mirror image of the Christian fundies he so despises: a bitter, grumpy, pissed off old white man who calls a woman malicious for correcting him when he thinks he knows a thing or two about something and in fact doesn't.

Lauren Nelson, one of the contributors to the Friendly Atheist, wrote a post taking Dawkins to task for this tweet:
Full disclosure: Lauren and I are friends from our days on the collegiate parliamentary debate circuit when she competed for Western Kentucky University and I for Lewis & Clark College.  She also emphatically does not need me to defend her, which is why I'm about to pivot in a couple of paragraphs to the larger point and purpose of this post.

Now, on the surface, I actually agree with everything Dawkins is saying, more or less: Islam needs feminism in its life, and it will be hard for the two to coexist, just like it is still nigh-impossible to get lots of Christian denominations to see the value of female pastors and leaders (of course, Dawkins would prefer that they didn't coexist, that Islam would go the way of the dinosaurs, but unfortunately for him, wishing ain't gonna make it so).  And we absolutely should be asking what we can do to help rather than dictating the terms.

But Lauren does a fantastic job of pointing out where Dawkins missed the boat entirely: it's not what he said, but the assumptions implied in what he said, namely, that Islam doesn't already have a feminist presence revolutionizing it.  It does, and Lauren does a great job of summarizing some of the wide breadth of pro-women movements within Islam around the world.

Rather than responding to Lauren on any substantive level, Dawkins simply tweeted this instead, mounting an online call-to-arms to his legions of followers that they had a new public enemy number one:
Now, first of all, "sheer gratuitous malice" isn't really Lauren's thing.  She doesn't suffer fools, but that should hardly be confused with sheer gratuitous malice.  And Dawkins accusing someone of sheer gratuitous malice?  Pot, meet kettle.

But all of that is largely beside the point.  Criticizing Dawkins for his heartlessness is like criticizing Comcast for its legendarily awful customer service: you're just confirming what the rest of us in our bones all know to be true.

No, what this is would be the luxury that celebrity status affords you: why bother with the intellectual heavy lifting of engaging and rebutting your critics when you can just sic your 1.2 million Twitter followers like digital attack dogs onto said critics instead?

Because truthfully, Dawkins cannot authentically engage what Lauren has said.  What she has said--while limited in scope to Dawkins's perspective on Islam and feminism--is in fact applicable to Dawkins's entire critiques of religion: he critiques religiosity under the assumption that there is only one way to be Christian, or to be Muslim, or to be a devotee of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Does Dawkins actually care that there is a Christian pastor--many, Christian pastors, in point of fact--out there like me who believes in evolutionary science, the Big Bang theory (the scientific hypothesis, not the television show), and the carbon dating of geologic artifacts?  Of course he doesn't, because my existence doesn't help him prove his narrative that there isn't (originally a typo that said 'is' ~E.A.) a strong Christian tradition and presence that upholds science, just as Malala's existence doesn't help him prove his narrative that Islam needs a feminist revolution that hadn't previously existed, but is in fact already alive and kicking.

There's a larger force at play here, then, beyond Islam and feminism or Christianity and science: this is fundamentally about how we view people who are not like us.  By and large, we tend to view them uniformly, which is how we in turn often end up alienating one another: we see the other as a block of people rather than as a sea of individuals, each replete with a combination of characteristics and values as unique as their very own fingerprints.

We then see each other not as who we are and as God made us to be, but as caricatures, with particular features exaggerated and drawing extra attention with other features receding into the background.

Dawkins himself is a pretty good example of this phenomenon: the militant and fundamentalist nature of his atheism makes him a caricature of atheism, rather than necessarily a true representation of atheism as a whole, any more than a similarly perennially pissed off crank like Pat Robertson or Franklin Graham is a true representation of Christianity.

And this, dear reader, is why I take a moment every once in a while to scan The Friendly Atheist page: because it forces me to engage a worldview not my own on terms and that does not give me the lazy out of dismissing its proponents as a part of some hysterical fringe group, camping out on the extremes of our religious spectrum.  It demands that I actually wrestle with why I make certain assumptions, just as Jacob wrestled with God in Genesis 32.

Believe me, it is right that I should wrestle with my beliefs and assumptions.  It is absolutely necessary for us to do.  An untested principle is no more useful to any one of us than wood that has not yet been sanded down, removing the roughness to reveal a smoothness that makes the wood useful for any number of things beyond the fire.

Part of the unconditional regard God calls us to hold one another in is, well, the unconditional part.  We cannot condition our recognition for and of one another on them holding the same worldview or set of beliefs as we do.  But we do, and with as lengthy as the statements of belief some churches demand their members ascribe to (like this one that is six pages long, with 18 sections and weighs in at over 3,200 words), who we proffer mutual appreciation and respect to becomes an exceptionally small circle.

To put it in Jesus's terms from Luke 6:32-36: if you only take seriously the people whose opinions you already agree with, what good is that to you?  Do not sinners even do that?

Rather than constructively and respectfully engage a critic, Richard Dawkins took the easy way out of inciting his followers to attack her.  That's not moral from either a Christian perspective or, I have to think, an atheist or agnostic perspective either.  But it is also symptomatic of a much larger disease, a much larger inner force that leads us away from seeking truth and towards confirming our own biases and prejudices, regardless of truth.

And, after all, do not sinners even do that as well?

Longview & Vancouver, Washington
July 28, 2015

Lauren has also written a postmortem analysis of this episode on her own website, which I highly encourage you to read as well.

Image: Rembrandt's Jacob Wrestling with the Angel.

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