Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The dogma of smugness

This article at Slate urges atheists to stop ridiculing religion, a la Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins. 

If I've learned anything in the past 15 years, it's that being smug, confrontational and condescending won't convince anyone of even the clearest truth. That goes double with a concept as fluid as religion, where ultimately no one knows for sure.

Years ago, I caught part of a sitcom my little sister was watching on the Disney Channel. One of the main characters, a schoolboy, had decided to renounce religion. His reasons made sense, but he became more and more insufferable until everyone started to avoid him. Finally, he ran into a girl to whom he was close, and this approximate snippet of dialogue transpired:

Boy: "People who believe in that stuff are stupid."
Girl: "Do you think I'm stupid?"

That exchange gets to the heart of what's often so wrong with religious debate these days. Just as most atheists aren't nihilists looking for an excuse for their behavior and a chance to irritate churchgoers, neither are most religious people uneducated, pigheaded fanatics. Most genuinely believe in what they do as a way of making sense of a harsh world. It drives their love as surely as extremists use it to drive their hate. It's all too easy to judge a sect until you meet someone of that sect who bears none of those characteristics.

No street preacher who browbeats strangers with the Bible is going to foster much other than ridicule and perhaps a counterprotest. Similarly, a smug, know-it-all atheist can be equally detrimental to the philosophy they purport to espouse.

Atheism shouldn't really lend itself to the trappings of ideology. At its core, it's the absence of spiritual belief. It's like not believing in UFOs — there's no cult devoted to not sighting them. But unfortunately many atheist figures, like Maher and Dawkins, define atheism negatively, by what it isn't. That it is better, smarter and almost a religion unto itself. This is as bad as defining American pride by which countries we fight. It's destructive and serves only to make the adherents feel superior.

What we need to do is talk to each other. Some things are inexcusable — such as using dogma to justify abuse, bigotry, control and murder — but trashing someone who engages in none of those things as if they do is itself a form of fanaticism. The best thing atheists can do to gain acceptance in an increasingly agnostic nation is to reconsider their approach.

In general, we're more alike than different. Let's find similarities, not differences.

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