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PBS Show Highlights the “New Atheists”6 min read

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One of my favorite shows, PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, had a nice piece on the New Atheists, who seem to be getting a lot of press these days.  You can listen to the show or read the transcript.  Interesting quotes excerpted below.

From the interview with Harvey Cox

  • Atheism grows when religious hubris rises: Atheism comes and goes in human history. It always makes a comeback, I think, when religious people get too arrogant, when they begin to look as though or speak as though they know it all, when they begin to impose themselves in ways that are unwelcome to other people in the society. Then atheism is a kind of, for me, welcome critique of this arrogance. Religion has always had a terrible temptation to become arrogant, to claim to know more than it knows, and I think atheism is kind of a purging, cleansing necessity for religion. It comes and goes. Now, given the fact that we have so much overstatement and hyperbole by many religious figures, and religion is riding high in some places, naturally you are going to have this kind of response. I think it’s a healthy thing. I think the dialectic that works here is an excellent one, so I don’t decry it. I think it’s a welcome development.
  • Dawkins, the Falwell of Atheism: I met [Richard Dawkins] when he spoke at Harvard last year. I think of Richard Dawkins as the kind of Jerry Falwell of the atheists. In a way, he’s a kind of fundamentalist. I will explain why. He takes the most narrow and the most legalistic side of religion and makes that religion, and then he’s against it, whereas Jerry Falwell takes the most legal and literalistic side, and he supports it. But in a way curiously they agree with each other.
  • Dawkins an Embarrassment to Harvard and Atheists: The fact is that when [Dawkins] was here [at Harvard] he was a bit of
    an embarrassment. I think it was the secular humanist students who brought him here. He was so unsophisticated in a way, so wooden and, yes, literalistic. Let me say it this way, and all due respect to him: I wish we had a higher quality of atheistic writing.
  • Student Trends Towards Faith, Not Atheism: I haven’t noticed [a trend toward atheism.] Students now are enormously more interested in religion, in studying religion, asking religious questions, taking courses, participating in religious institutions [than when I first came to Harvard]. The only trend I see is the other way. But obviously there are people out there buying these books, so I don’t know.
  • Arrogance in Atheism and Religion: An atheist seems to me a person who has searched out and thought about all the options and insists there isn’t any God or anything like God, and I know that and no further evidence is going to change my mind. That seems to be leaning toward the same kind of arrogance that some religious people have, and I’m troubled by that.
  • Let’s not forget history – arrogant atheism and totalitarianism: We do have to remember that within the memory of some of us there was a whole country, an empire, built on an atheist premise, namely the Soviet Union, which was really trying to get rid of all religion, and they were certainly as capable of cruelty and oppression as any religious regime. I’m afraid that kind of capacity in human beings is equal-opportunity depravity, which atheists and religious people and others have demonstrated that they can share as well. I wouldn’t want my kids taught by a radical fundamentalist either, but also not by an arrogant atheist.
  • Healthy doubt in faith:
    An element of doubt has to be part of any healthy faith. Otherwise, it’s credulity, it’s not faith. Throughout the Bible there are people who question. Think about Job, but other people as well, throughout the Old and New Testament who are questioning and doubting and pondering things. I think it’s a necessary element in any healthy faith.

From the interview with Sam Harris:

  • The Myth of Private Faith:  I think there’s a myth in our society that belief is private. Belief is only private if it’s not really believed and it’s not making a point of contact with the world. But if your beliefs are about the world on any level, they are engines of behavior and emotion, so then it really matters what people believe is going on. If they believe the creator of the universe wants all human beings to live in a certain way, their beliefs are going to find a way into the public sphere, and no amendment to our Constitution is good enough to keep it out.

I didn’t include any more from Harris’ interview, but he is well spoken, maddeningly patronizing in spots, and blissfully ignorant of the experience of regeneration and Christian transformation and sanctification – he can’t see beyond the limits of science, and as with most atheists, has no desire to differentiate between faiths with supernatural claims, because he rejects them all.

However, his involvement in Buddhist meditation sounds very much like what I have done, though he views it as an entirely non-religious tool.

I’ve spent a lot of time practicing meditation, mostly in an Eastern context, a Buddhist context. I’ve probably spent two years on silent meditation retreats where you don’t read, you don’t write, you don’t talk to people. You just practice meditation. The one thing that has come out of that is I have no doubt about the fact that you can use your attention in various ways that really transforms your experience very much for the better.