Your Faith is a Joke
That was the title of a video piece posted in an atheist forum recently by a well-known new atheist activist, who is viewed by some in the movement (if I may use that term) as a bit of a hero provocateur.
The vitriol, mockery and open scorn aimed at “believers” by this and other new atheist activists are seen as simply an “unapologetic” attitude and have become standard in their discourse, both in published articles and in public and private forums. Yet, in my interactions with unapologetic atheists, I’ve been told repeatedly “We don’t need religion in order to follow the Golden Rule or treat other human beings with respect.”
Cognitive dissonance ensued and I found myself asking (on the atheist forum on which the video was posted): “Okay, if you don’t need religion in order to treat others with respect and compassion, then what do you need?”
One of the regular commentators on the forum responded with, “I think it’s a bit more complicated.” He then invoked Immanuel Kant as giving the definitive word on “respect”, which he said, “means treating people as ends in themselves, not as means. …Respect is something persons deserve, not concepts, organizations, or books of spurious origin…” (italics mine)
He wrapped up his defense of targeted disrespect of irrational beliefs with:
“What distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom is not a special act of creation (remember, evolution), but the ability to think rationally, which makes us to ends in ourselves. Thus respect and rationality are in a close relation.To demand respect for irrationality is denying the foundation of respect. And demanding respect for one irrationality (one’s own) while denying respect for all the other ones and rationalism itself borders pathological egotism. Secondly, P-C. has about the biggest collection of hate mail, all addressed to him. If anyone knows about respectlessness (sic) towards a person, it’s him.”
Setting aside what seem to me leaps in logic (because respect is rational we must, ergo, disrespect irrationality), it disturbed me that this is the same type of argument you get if you ask the members of the Westboro Baptist church why they show their disrespect and hostility by picketing at the funerals of fallen soldiers or why the Golden Rule doesn’t apply to [“out” group here]: “It’s a bit more complicated.” There are special circumstances involved in this display of disrespect.
And therein lies the problem. Whether people are “religious” or “irreligious” they can find excuses as to why treating this or that group with scorn is a virtue in this special case, or why this or that ideology cancels out the Golden Rule.
Let’s take Immanuel Kant—the person my correspondent gave as the definitive voice on the subject of respect. His “out” group was human beings he judged to be inferior to himself and his group. He rationalized a callous treatment of other human beings based on race. He had special scorn for native Americans whom he found lacking in a variety of ways, and was accordingly scathing in his assessment of them.
I must assume that Kant felt his prejudice and dismissal of native Americans was rational. Which begs the question: is there such a thing as a rational prejudice? It also raises the issue of what we mean by “respect”. Can one respect a person without also respecting, not their beliefs, but their feelings, about them? For example, I don’t share some Hindus’ belief in the peculiar sacredness of the cow, but I do respect their feelings about the sacredness of that animal. My respect for the feelings of the individual would prevent me from launching into series of stupid cow jokes or enthusing about barbecued brisket in their presence.
My virtual acquaintance also seemed to be suggesting that the fact that the celebrity atheist who posted “Your Faith is a Joke” receives hate mail from specific individuals entitles him to treat all members of a particular group (one he has himself defined) with scorn. This is not the Golden Rule; it’s devolved into collective retaliation—treat others as you suspect they will treat you, and do it preemptively.
Rationally, what sort of outcome might we expect if everyone followed this model? Is it conducive to enlightenment, unity or even basic understanding between individuals?
Yes, the rational faculty IS what separates us from the other life forms on the planet. There my virtual confrere and I agree, but I see it as the very thing that demonstrates the existence of that Intelligence we call God.
“And now consider this infinite universe. Is it possible that it could have been created without a Creator? Or that the Creator and cause of this infinite congeries of worlds should be without intelligence? Is the idea tenable that the Creator has no comprehension of what is manifested in creation? Man, the creature, has volition and certain virtues. Is it possible that his Creator is deprived of these?” —Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 82
In another connection, Abdu’l-Bahá speaks of humanity’s endowment with the “rational soul”:
“In this perception and in this power all men are sharers, whether they be neglectful or vigilant, believers or deniers. This human rational soul is God’s creation; it encompasses and excels other creatures; as it is more noble and distinguished, it encompasses things. The power of the rational soul can discover the realities of things, comprehend the peculiarities of beings, and penetrate the mysteries of existence. All sciences, knowledge, arts, wonders, institutions, discoveries and enterprises come from the exercised intelligence of the rational soul.” (Some Answered Questions, p 217)
I personally don’t think God endowed us with such a faculty so that we could use it to justify our mistreatment of each other. i.e. “The Golden Rule is true … except, of course, in the case of [non-believers/believers/people who are inferior to me in some way].” Yet, this seems to be what many of us do, whether we label ourselves “believers or deniers”.
So, you see, I agree with my virtual colleague that “demanding respect for one irrationality (one’s own) while denying respect for all the other ones and rationalism itself” is, if not “bordering pathological egotism,” at least a misuse of the rational faculty.
So, how do we treat those with whom we disagree—those who may disconcert us, anger us, even frighten us?
Religious texts deal with that fairly directly, whether we wish to acknowledge it or not. By way of example, using the metaphor of the Shepherd, a Bahá’í text offers this guidance:
“…should there be among these sheep ignorant ones, they must be educated; if there be children, they must be trained until they reach maturity; if there be sick ones, they must be healed. There must be no hatred and enmity, for as by a kind physician these ignorant, sick ones should be treated.” — Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity, p. 29
Let’s consider the implications of the metaphor: what parent or teacher would advocate teaching a child by subjecting her to scorn and verbal abuse? (Of course, there are those who do, but we consider their behavior reprehensible.)
In defense of reason, I must conclude that new atheist scorn is irrational, for it serves no useful purpose (other than making the mocker feel righteous and above the mockee). It will not convince anyone to abandon their irrational beliefs and, in fact, is more likely to cause them to entrench themselves more firmly in response to the attack.
Still, I think I understand the anger. I reacted in similar fashion to fundamentalist beliefs myself once—especially the visceral, blindly hateful, quasi-religious beliefs of groups like the KKK or the Westboro congregation. In the face of that level of irrationality, no rational response seems adequate or effective. It leaves one feeling impotent. But as cleansing and empowering as that anger seems and as good as the exercise of clever mockery feels, it does nothing to address the source of the problem. Worse, it gives the world one more group of people who see their beliefs as uniquely correct and therefore entitling them to suspend the Golden Rule at will.