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Who’s More Embarrassing, Ted Haggard or Richard Dawkins?

Over at Goth House Comics you’ll find a “a really long essay about the nature of religion” which I think merits some attention, though I disagree with parts of it. It was, apparently, written in response to this interview with the wonderful, terrible, fascinating Richard Dawkins, whose latest book, The God Delusion, is on my to-read list though, with the number of books I brought back from Canada, it may be quite a while until I actually read it. (And, I should add, Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels is on the very same reading list.)

The post reminded me of another atheist criticism of Dawkins elsewhere, on the excellent site mssv.

My thoughts–and my feelings–on Dawkins are conflicted. I mean, say, 85% of his ideas are sensible enough to be beyond objection. This is no small feat for a mind — I have more objections to the thinking of most people I know than I have to what Dawkins expresses publicly. I also understand why he speaks as he does, why he seems to feel as he does. He’s a complicated figure, but I have to say, I’m surprised at how many atheists I’ve encountered who criticise him without also praising him.

When I watched his documentary on religion, titled–as everyone by now should know, against his wishes–Root of All Evil (to which Wikipedia is offering links to streaming and download versions), one conversation in particular stuck out in my mind, and that was his conversation with Ted Haggard. Haggard was a famous evangelical Christian leader who, stunningly, counseled Dawkins, “… don’t be arrogant.”

Of course, my impression of Haggard was a lot like the mashup/spoof presented elsewhere on YouTube, here. Haggard struck me as the more arrogant of the two, by far, and that he could feel it within his rights to counsel Dawkins to beware of arrogance struck me as, well… symptomatic.

I’m not going to complain that it’s still not okay to be an atheist. It’s not that it is socially acceptable yet–far from it, even today–but reality is still, basically, a parody of good sense. That a man who claims to have a direct line to transcendant beings and wisdom, to know the ultimate truth and what is expected of us by those invisible beings, to know in an absolute way the difference between good and evil, and to appoint himself as the figurehead of a religion, that is utterly laughable. That is why I disagree with my wonderful classmate Julie, when she writes:

Religion encompasses three things: moral philosophy, metaphysics, and tribal identity.

I would like, instead, to note that, as Dawkins himself points out, “In the New World, religion is free enterprise.” With the emphasis on enterprise. Religion is not just about moral philosophy, metaphysics, and tribal identity; it is also, very often, about power, profit, and claims to authority.

I’ve been blown away by the way so many Korean Christians I know don’t really know the history of Christianity in Europe. Wariness of Taoists, doubt in the powers of shamans, and disgust with the corruptions they’ve seen in a long familiarity with Buddhism abound, but decontextualized, Christianity appears to many to be pure, unsullied by all of the historical baggage that educated Westerners at least are familiar with and, at least, grapple with. (Even the Western Christians who seek to criticize what they see as the “unfair” criticisms of the Inquisition, have to grapple with it.) Religion, you see, invented the original marketing agency–as George Carlin points out in this clip, where he presents a pretty strong criticism of the Ten Commandments, including pointing out the reality of whether religions actually have a problem with killing, or whether all parents in fact deserve respect. Religion is the original authoritarian regime–it sought to define reality and to blot out all competitors. If you disagree, tell me: what happened to the Manicheans? to the Cathars? to the Lollards? to anyone trying to publish religiously “seditious” texts in the Middle Ages? Did you know that the fellow upon whose translation work the King James Bible was based, one Mr. Tyndale, got burned for his troubles? I don’t mean burned politically, or financially screwed over. I mean they held a bullshit trial, convicted him, tied him to a pole, and set him on fire, because he was trying to translate what everyone believed was the Word of God into the language of the people.

Nice folks, those clerics.

The reason why Dawkins looks arrogant to us isn’t because he’s very extreme. To me, he’s not any more extreme than any mainstream religious person who, say, mentions God in passing in conversation, or who assumes that someone who is mourning the death of a loved one will, or ought to, find consolation in their supernaturalist blather. It’s not more arrogant than the people who imply, as knowingly as they can, that someday you might discover you were wrong about God. It’s no more arrogant than someone like Haggard who, if you think about it, makes some pretty drastic claims about the extent of his knowledge of reality–about the metaphysics of the universe and how they intertwine with moral philosophy, and who takes full advantage of the human tribal instinct to promulgate messages that ensure repeat attendance, personal dedication, and maximum profits.

And if Mr. Haggard knows so much about sin, about evil, and is such a great moral leader, and if, as he claims, he knows how much God hates homosexuality–because “It’s written in the Bible!”–why in the hell did he lie outright when the gay male prostitute with whom he’d been having (paid-for) sexual relations for several years disclosed this fact to the media? And why in the name of all that’s holy was he having that relationship at all, given the kind of claims he was making about ethics, morality, and metaphysics?

Oh yes, brothers and sisters. The light shines hard, and it shines unflinchingly. The behaviour of this Mr. Haggard would suggest, to anyone who is not fully brainwashed to favour him, that he didn’t believe what he was saying at all. That he didn’t believe in good or evil, or that gay sex was wicked, or that it was sinful and constituted a turning away from God. Doesn’t that make sense, when you hear reports like this, or an interview like this one? (It seems pretty unbelievable that he’d admit to being gay all his life, and maintain that he only had massages from a male prostitute… or that he would claim to have bought, but not used, crystal meth. These don’t sound like believable claims, given how some others in the religion business, and the local gay community, claimed to have already been aware of his same-sex behaviours. I don’t believe that Haggard actually truly believes the rhetoric he spewed originally, the hate of gays. I’m not even sure it was fully closeted-homophobia, as much as that gay-hate is simply the kind of talk that pays very well in America–or, at least, in Colorado Springs.

Hate is big business, and atheists know it. They are a group of people who for most of recorded history have, in essence, spoken in code, in whispers, and only after the secret handshake ensured safety. When they came for the gays, the atheists were silent. When they came for the Muslims, the atheists were silent. Then they came for the atheists. This is pretty much how it feels to be an atheist. Theists feel they can blame war and mass murder on atheists; they feel fully within their rights to imply atheists are arrogant.

But isn’t preaching that an all-powerful deity hates homosexuality, and paying for gay sex on the side with the money earned teaching that very notion, the supreme summit of arrogance? (Albeit, a peak that many preachers never scale, but, anyone who claims to know the real, hidden truth of the world as revealed in this or that scripture is still somewhere on the slopes of Arrogance Mountain.)

Here’s the thing, and as I say, I’m not whining, I’m just speaking from experience, is this: in North American culture, which includes Canada, one of the most unacceptable things to be is an atheist. (It may not be the most unacceptable thing, but it is one of the most unacceptable. I’d put it on par with being a Muslim fundamentalist.) It causes rifts in families, it can get you fired or run out of town, it most certainly would prevent serious political office from being attainable, were it admitted publicly… there are politicians who are openly gay, but I haven’t heard of one who is openly, vocally atheist, even though there surely are some who do not have any religion.

Dawkins, therefore, is a rarity. Yes, he’s harsh, but then, he perceives himself as fighting for education, and for the separation of religion from government. He is fighting for the right things, and part of the reason he alienates people who are religious is simply because they, and all of us, are not used to criticism of religion that is as pointed and open as his. Most atheists I know, including myself, instinctively adopt a very neutral, polite position in many situations, out of what we think is social necessity. It’s not necessity, of course–it’s expedience. If atheists all walked around making the same kinds of accusations toward religion that religionists routinely make, and imply, towards atheism–claiming that religion makes people moral (and thus atheism encourages amorality or immorality), claiming that religion civilizes people (and thus atheism is uncivilized or an enemy of civilization), or that religion is about truth (and thus atheism is patently false)–then things would be much harder for atheists in general. Steven Darksyde describes eloquently what it’s like to be an atheist in a world full of theists. The fact that anyone could criticize this explanation as disrespectful or arrogant–and some people have, it’s an absolute certainty–reveals that Dawkins is right: there is a deep, long-ingrained expectation of us that, buy it or not, we pay undue respect to religion, the kind of respect we don’t pay to, say, economic theories, or scientific claims, or artistic movements, or political systems.

Dawkins is not a fundamentalist, but I think part of his struggle is that he is trying to tap into the tribalism-drive in atheists. C.S. Lewis once described Christians as being stranded in enemy-occupied territory, in what finally became the book Mere Christianity. One of the reasons that metaphor struck me so powerfully, and stayed with me so long, is because to me, it describes the experience of atheists in our world today… the way rationalists feel surrounded by religionists of all stripes on every side. They all disagree with one another fundamentally on most of their claims, both metaphysical and moral, and tribally they often exclude one another without remorse, but it is atheists, those who don’t even have an analogous system to fit themselves into, that they all can hate together with impunity. And atheists are scattered, individual, atomized by the pressures of this all-encompassing denigration of the heretics… and after all, most of us have people we care about who are less than open to these ideas of ours, but who matter to us all the same. (However, if we really cannot express ourselves openly to them, what does this say about how much we as people matter to them?) Anyway, it’s understandable how a little silence on the subject can lubricate the wheels of life a little. It’s not like atheists need to be on the offensive all the time, anymore than we appreciate religionists who are on the offensive all the time.

But while I sometimes wince at specific things Dawkins says, I think that one thing he might be doing that’s useful is saying the unsayable. He might go too far, and thus may not be helping “defuse” things between atheists and religionists, but, then, the alternative form of defusing things–putting up and shutting up–has long been tried by freethinkers, and done little to aid us in gaining social acceptance. It seems that respect can only be gained when it is, in no uncertain terms, demanded. Why the things Dawkins says are so very objectionable, even–or perhaps especially–among us atheists, deserves to be scrutinized. I’m certain that comparable criticisms of political, economic, and philosophical ideas would provoke responses, arguments, but nothing like the shame, shock, and embarrassment that seemingly surrounds Dawkins everywhere he goes, and seems to make so many other atheists want to disassociate themselves from him. He’s not perfect, but he is one of us, and maybe engaging with his ideas publicly is what he’s trying to get us to do? If he draws us out, maybe we’ll band together instead of just tiptoeing politely through this demon-haunted world?

It’s worth thinking about, anyway.

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