This is a response to an opinion piece by Tom Arcano in the Greensboro News & Record that I just fired off to the editor of the paper.
As a fan of all things Hitchens, I recently came across the op-ed tribute piece written about him in the News & Record, and as an atheist myself would like to respond. First, I too was devastated by the unexpected news of his death (though we were bracing ourselves for its inevitability, hopeful though that that day would be a long way off). He was a beacon and a role model for me and others in the rigorous pursuit of truth and the defeat of ignorance, fear and superstition in the world. Few champions of reason have walked the earth, and we were privileged to have had him.
Second, I do feel the need to address the statement posed in the headline of the article: “Hitchens as a role model for atheists today.” I will confess that in the hours after learning of his death, I found myself pondering the legacy that he left behind. Like many others, in the weeks that have followed I’ve watched countless YouTube videos and marveled in his ability to turn a phrase on the spot, or come back with a devastating coup de grâce to an opponent. I am also a huge fan of the works of Richard Dawkins (who helped crack open the door in my own journey of coming out as an atheist) and Sam Harris; but not as familiar with Daniel Dennett or Victor Stenger, the other two prominent “horsemen” of the New Atheism.
However, as I ponder these examples and the attitudes toward people of faith, I’m left wondering if the aggressive anti-religious stance of neo-atheism is a sustainable one. Nor is neo-atheism (or anti-theism) the only variant. There is agnosticism, skepticism, deism, agnostic atheism, agnostic Christianity, secular humanism, and even simply ambivalence to gods and religion. Personally I consider myself a post-theist, not so much rejecting god as considering him obsolete. Like the neo-atheists, I abhor religious fundamentalism and extremism wherever I encounter it. I’m concerned for children raised in such homes, who, like myself, are often inculcated before having a chance to choose what (or if) they believe. We should war against that, and against the exploitation of the poor and the undereducated, who are often unwitting targets of religious proselytization.
But the reality is that religion is not likely to disappear any time soon, and in its proper form I don’t think that it needs to. As Douglas Adams pointed out once in a speech, religion and the belief in god can serve its purpose. And it’s extremism and fundamentalism that has led to the problems in our world. So the question I am pondering is: Are we setting the right tone for discussion? We are just entering a global phase of civilization, with hundreds (even thousands) of beliefs and worldviews literally living next door to each other, sharing a garden wall. Some of these belief systems—such as the one I hail from—claim to be the One True Religion, with the corner market on Absolute Truth and the sole key to Life Everlasting. It was these that Hitchens reveled in going up against, picking holes in logic and pointing out inconsistencies and outright crimes.
However, is this the legacy that we ought to pick up? Yes, relentlessly pursue truth and evidence; and doggedly go after charlatans and oppressors. But just as non-theists tire of evangelicals relentlessly trying to save their souls, theists are just as put off by the caustic and often contemptuous tone of atheists. Take, for what you will, Dane Cook’s story about the man who huffily barks back, “I’m an atheist!” when Cook says, “god bless you” after the man sneezes. Or a more recent anecdote related to me by a friend who took a group caroling at an airport this year and had barely got through the first song when a store employee came over and asked them to “please stop with the religious music.”
Not that we have to hold hands and sing (insert your own feel-good campfire song here), but is it possible to discuss religion without having to poke holes in each other’s beliefs? The conversation seems to have devolved into ideological trench warfare, with an arms race of new and ever devastating ammunition to annihilate the opposition. Certainly there will be those who are converted by such tactics, but the majority will dig themselves deeper into what they already believe and only become more resentful of the other side. A worldview ought to be defined by what you stand for, rather than defining yourself by what you’re not.
I fear that what we are losing sight of is the distinctly human element in faith and belief. Why do people believe what they do? What benefit do they derive from it? Obliterate a person’s faith if you can—but what will you replace it with? Instead of thought warriors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, what we need are diplomats like Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord or Jimmy Carter to initiate negotiations and address the needs and fears on the part of both theists and non-theists in order to find ways that we can live together while retaining our ideological integrity, and collectively declaring extremism unacceptable.
For non-theists, atheism is about the freedom of a mind unfettered by belief in god or gods. But where Hitchens and the neo-atheists have been (and can be) belligerent, I should like to see us strive for a more generous approach where we are able to get to the root of and address serious questions while always affirming the humanity of those who believe differently than us. After all, we’ve only one planet and we have to live on it together.