Thursday, October 02, 2008

Religion & Politics: When Atheists Attack

Hey, it's not my title - that's what the editors at Newsweek chose for Sam Harris' op-ed piece on Sarah Palin... and, by extension, what a bunch of loons people of faith are. (This is not a complete surprise - Sam Harris is one of the poster boys for New Atheism.)

Here's a quote from the piece (emphasis & italics mine)
Every detail that has emerged about Palin's life in Alaska suggests that she is devout & literal-minded in her Christian dogmatism as any man or woman in the land. Given her long affiliation with the Assemblies of God church, Palin very likely believes that Biblical prophecy is an infallible guide to future events & that we are living in the 'end times.' Which is to say she very likely thinks that human history will soon unravel in a foreordained cataclysm of war & bad weather. Undoubtedly (?!) Palin believes that this will be a good thing - as all true Christians will be lifted bodily into the sky to make merry with Jesus, while all nonbelievers, Jews, Methodists & other rabble will be punished for eternity in a lake of fire. Like many Pentecostals, Palin may even imagine that she & her fellow parishioners enjoy the power of prophecy themselves."
OK, how do you get away with that in a major news magazine? He's very careful (or at least an editor is) to use phrases like "very likely" and "may even" in order to escape the complete lack of documented facts about what she does or does not believe about eschatology, prophecy & justification. (Yes, there are actually theological words to describe these beliefs - and some of us can actually discuss them in civil tones, even when we don't agree. Sam Harris evidently missed the memo on this one.)

And yet, tucked into that bevy of qualifiers is the word "undoubtedly"... which undercuts the all that hard work of being fuzzy about who believes what. It's like me saying: "It seems very likely that Jeff Probst has some inside information about the players when they appear at Survivor's Tribal Council. Undoubtedly, he uses this information to influence the game." Look at that! I've accused Jeff Probst of "fixing" Survivor while looking like I'm trying to be impartial.

Sam also uses some "hand grenade" words in the discussion of religious faith - again, without being able to prove that they apply directly to the candidate in question.
  • "literal-minded" - a favorite accusation of Christians in general... it's code for "you yokels are too stupid to figure out that there are different literary genres in the Bible" or "since you guys don't agree with the current scientific/philosophical underpinnings - which can be quite fluid, btw - you're a bunch of redneck crackers who shouldn't be listened to"
  • "dogmatism" - yeah, dogma isn't a negative term at all... nope, calling someone dogmatic is a COMPLIMENT in our tolerance-obsessed society. That's the reason Kevin Smith called his anti-Catholic film "Dogma." (Sorry - my sarcasm is showing.)
  • "imagine" - OK, so you don't believe, Sam - we get that. (You've even written some books about it.) However, you might as well imply that she thinks Santa & Harry Potter are real, too, with your tone here.
Finally, I got a perverse kick out of him "crossing the streams" of a variety of Christian traditions - Pentecostalism is not the same as Assemblies of God (though they share common roots)... and much of the theology he outlined is not specific to charismatic churches/denominations. (BTW, if you don't remember your Ghostbusters, "Crossing the streams is bad." "All right. Important safety tip. Thanks, Egon.")

Look, Sam Harris has the legal right to write (almost) anything he wants to - and especially under the heading of "Op-Ed" (which, in this case, means "fact-checking optional" as long as you use the right words.) But I think we've reached a point in our discourse about religion & politics where we can get a bit more nuanced than "Look at the stupid people who don't believe what I believe - doesn't that scare you?" followed by "I think she's just like 'em!"

Alternately, he could try a line like "You can learn something about a person by the company she keeps. ." Wait a minute! That's exactly what Sam Harris wrote in the next paragraph. (I'm guessing that the Obama campaign would prefer he steer around the
minefield of Rev. Wright... this rhetoric isn't doing them any favors.)

People who don't like religion are welcome to express their beliefs and argue vigorously for them. But Sam Harris' piece manages to demean the quality of the discussion while painting Gov. Palin with an unsubstantiated broad strokes brush - a nice Daily Double if you don't care much about truth or raising the level of discourse or winning people to your side. OTOH, it works wonders if you're looking for pats on the back from people who already agree with you.

I'm not arguing for or against any particular candidate/campaign here - just aghast at what gets a 4 page spread in Newsweek.


Mark (aka pastor guy) said...

Keep it ON TOPIC here - the discussion is about Sam Harris & discussing religious/atheistic belief w/respect. It is NOT the 2008 campaign.

I'll be more than happy to delete posts that don't stay on topic.

Latria said...

Nothing constructive to add from me. I agree with you on the tone of the article.

Anonymous said...

I'm an atheist and non-supporter of the McCain/Palin ticket, and even I found the article obnoxious, snarky, and full of insulting assumptions.

This is the first I've heard of Sam Harris, and the last time I'll knowingly waste time reading something he wrote. (Unless it's an apology for this article.)

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mark (aka pastor guy) said...

The above post was deleted from an anonymous poster... it was election-specific.

The poster clearly indicated that he agreed with Sam Harris - but in very unspecific & partisan terms.