Monday, April 27, 2009

A friendlier atheism

Today's NYT has a good article about the growing number of atheists in the US:

More than ever, America’s atheists are linking up and speaking out — even here in South Carolina, home to Bob Jones University, blue laws and a legislature that last year unanimously approved a Christian license plate embossed with a cross, a stained glass window and the words “I Believe” (a move blocked by a judge and now headed for trial).

They are connecting on the Internet, holding meet-ups in bars, advertising on billboards and buses, volunteering at food pantries and picking up roadside trash, earning atheist groups recognition on adopt-a-highway signs.

They liken their strategy to that of the gay-rights movement, which lifted off when closeted members of a scorned minority decided to go public.
Now this last point is interesting. Indeed, this is an apt comparison and it has been made before. But that got me thinking about the aggressive New Atheists (Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins). I think the comparison with them breaks down - because they not only talk about bringing atheism to the mainstream but they also go in an all-out against all religions (I guess, equating religious upbringing with child abuse may qualify as an attack). This is as if gay-rights activists not only demanded equal rights for gay couples, but also called all heterosexual marriages immoral. I don't know if such a strategy would have garnered the kind of broad support for equal rights that we see today. That said, I do think that Dawkins and Dennett were essential in bringing atheism to mainstream debates - but I'm not sure about any continuing positive influence of Hitchens or Harris or Dawkins' child-abuse statements. Wisely, the NYT points to a more gentle form of atheism:
At the University of South Carolina, in Columbia, 19 students showed up for a recent evening meeting of the “Pastafarians,” named for the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster — a popular spoof on religion dreamed up by an opponent of intelligent design, the idea that living organisms are so complex that the best explanation is that a higher intelligence designed them.
In keeping with the new generation of atheist evangelists, the Pastafarian leaders say that their goal is not confrontation, or even winning converts, but changing the public’s stereotype of atheists. A favorite Pastafarian activity is to gather at a busy crossroads on campus with a sign offering “Free Hugs” from “Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist.”
Read the full article here. On a similar note, here is a review of Losing my Religion by William Lobdell:
There are many great books about finding God. But there are far fewer books, great or otherwise, about finding and then losing God. So “Losing My Religion,” by William Lobdell, a former religion writer for The Los Angeles Times, feels powerfully fresh. It is the tale of being born again in his adulthood, then almost 20 years later deciding that Christianity is untrue. Today Lobdell prefers the God of Jefferson or Einstein, “a deity that can be seen in the miracles of nature.” While Lobdell never entirely rejects belief in the supernatural, his humane, even-tempered book does more to advance the cause of irreligion than the bilious atheist tracts by Christopher Hitchens and others that have become so common. And Lobdell’s self-deprecating memoir is far more fun to read.
To Lobdell, it began to seem not just that religious institutions were no better than secular ones, but that sometimes they were much worse. After all, school systems and Little Leagues don’t defend molesters as tenaciously as the Catholic Church did, and parents aren’t as reluctant to believe the worst about teachers and coaches. It was precisely the cultivation of religious awe — with its traditions, rituals and ceremonies — that made priests seem holy, and thus allowed so much evil to go unreported or disbelieved. At times, Lobdell’s homely, down-to-earth prose and intellectual modesty obscure the import of what he’s saying. His explication of religion’s capacity for evil is far subtler than the simplistic atheist line that “religions cause wars,” but he doesn’t seem to know it.
And I like the way the review ends:
“I do miss my faith,” he writes, “as I’d miss any longtime love.” But “I like my life on this unexplored shore. It’s new, exciting and full of possibilities.” Lobdell is quite a rarity: an unembittered divorcé, grateful for the marriage and just as grateful for what lies ahead.
Read the full review here.


Atif Khan said...

I doubt I could get this book in Pakistan.

Salman Hameed said...


You may be able to find it. I was surprised to see several copies of "The God Delusion" at Saeed Books in Islamabad last year. You may have to ask one of the bookstores to get "losing my religion" for you. As long as these books are in english, there is no problem.

Atif Khan said...

I checked with Liberty store and hopefully would get that book soon. Thanks for sharing all great stuff.

hedge said...

Salman, would you be unable to get it in Pakistan under a blasphemy law or similar? Do those apply only to texts in Urdu?

Salman Hameed said...

"Salman, would you be unable to get it in Pakistan under a blasphemy law or similar? Do those apply only to texts in Urdu?"

Well - its more because only a small segment of the population read english books - and this group is overall lot more educated and relatively liberal (the educated elites). For the same reason, english language newspapers like Dawn can get away with a lot more than Urdu newspapers. Also note that the literacy rate in Pakistan (meaning one can sign one's name) is (charitably) around 50% - so there is not that much population out there that read and object to a book in English (unless it is politically expedient - as was the case with the whole Rushdie Affair. But even then, the riots only started after its excerpts showed up in Urdu newspapers).

A whole different topic, but much of this is because of a segmented education system (there are 4-types of education systems in Pakistan. Here is a list with decreasing quality and accessibility: a) (British) Cambridge schools b) English-medium schools c) Urdu-medium schools d) Madrassas. Outside of major cities, you will predominantly find urdu-medium schools and madrassas. And if you are wondering where did Pakistan get that kind of segmented education system, then look no further than the British Empire. The British wanted to create an educated elite that can act as a buffer between them and the masses. Here is an excerpt from Lord McCauley's education minute from 1835:

"It is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population."

Charming, isn't it? Read the full document here. The British are gone - but the system is still there - with all the inequalities. Yup - things are all very messy. By the way, I'm also a beneficiary of the system, as I went to an english-medium school.

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