Wednesday, November 22, 2006

View from the Dark Side

Growing up in an Italian Catholic family I never knew an atheist. The most exotic kids I met were Protestants, but they went to PS43 or John Marshall High while my friends went to Sacred Heart Cathedral School and McQuaid Jesuit (boys) or Our Lady of Mercy (girls) high schools. We played sports against the publics, but never got to know any of the kids. We felt a bit superior, but didn’t understand why; never gave it a thought.

Yet the first time I heard the word atheist is imprinted on my mind. It was sixth grade and we were studying the Crusades. One homework assignment was to draw and color a crusader’s shield. My father had been in Germany with the tank corps and had several German weapons including a military dagger with a cool symbol on it. I copied the symbol prominently on the shield and proudly brought my masterpiece to class. Sister took one look at it, her face turned red, and she said, sternly: “Mr. Lama, take this to the Principal’s office.”

I sat outside the office for several days, or so it seemed, before Sister Mary Joseph, the Principal, called me inside. She took a long look at the shield and turned toward me with a sad look on her face. “Mr. Lama,” she said, “don’t you know that this is a Nazi symbol? The Nazis were atheists!!”

At that point I didn't know about Nazis or atheists, but concluded that both were really bad.

Anyway, aside from the nightmares from that one incident, I did not think a whit about atheists for a very long time. In college I learned that Karl Marx was an atheist and so was Joseph Stalin, but that their real sins were the murders of millions of innocent Europeans and Russians. I knew that “under God” was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance in order to distinguish us from the Godless Commies. I heard that Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and John Dewey were atheists but never made any connections. I read some of the Beat Generation authors and knew they were Buddhists, but that’s not exactly atheism, I thought.

Then I went to work and forgot all about it for over 30 years. In retirement I joined the Omnilore study group and met a large number of interesting people, including some actual atheists.

I joined an email DL and began receiving articles and commentary on science and religion. I was amazed!!

It started with a review in the latimes by Robert Lee Hotz of three new books on science vs. religion: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris and The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth by E.O. Wilson. Hotz begins: “What a problem religious faith poses for learned men of empirical mind. How it baffles, angers, frightens them, prompts them to domesticate it or uproot it, leaf and bough.”

He described Dawkins’ “artful jeremiad” as designed not to persuade by means of reason and rationality but “rather to enrage believers of any sort, in order to bolster atheist pride.” Sam Harris, “also takes dead aim at the Christian right” in order to “demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms.”

Only Wilson is able to gracefully bridge the divide between secular science and revealed religion. “For you, the glory of an unseen divinity,” Wilson writes, addressing a Southern Baptist pastor. “For me, the glory of the universe revealed at last. For you, the belief in God made flesh to save mankind; for me, the belief in Promethean fire seized to set men free. You have found your final truth; I am still searching. I may be wrong, you may be wrong. We may both be partly right.”

Summing up, I found hatred (Dawkins), arrogance (Harris) and tolerance (Wilson).

But an Omnilorian writes of Dawkins and Harris: “Their anti-religious bent is simply explained: Either you accept the existence of supernatural forces, or you don't. If you accept supernaturalism, then the discussion is ended -- everything can be explained by ‘the will of God’ or a similar agency. If you don't accept it, then let science proceed. In these debates over science vs. religion, I am inclined to deny the religionists a place at the table.”

I responded: The “anti-religious bent” displayed by Dawkins and Harris is outright hatred, as the quotes in the review show so well: “I am attacking God”; “Faith is evil”; “Jesus is a milksop”; religious upbringing of any sort is a “ludicrous obscenity” -- These guys have no concept of religious tolerance. Their beliefs are fundamentally anti-American.

He continues the argument: “You want the atheists to concede the possibility of a god, but you do not allow that the religious should admit the possibility of no god. This un-level playing field is fundamentally anti-American.”

I respond again: Atheists don't need to admit the possibility of God any more than believers need to admit the possibility of no God. Where did that enter the Constitution? But intolerance of religion or no religion is anti-American. Dawkins is a hateful Brit and Harris is an un-American Yank. Shame on both of them.

Another member of the atheist’s club then speaks up: “The last thing we need is for true believers to put more Faith in science. They'll soon give us a periodic table of the elements with enough asterisked alternative values to explain the chemistry of changing water into wine by means of nothing more than left over spiritual waves that were propagated when the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes no longer violates a similarly asterisked new Law of the Conservation of Mass and Energy.”

A third member sent us an article called “A Free-for-All on Science and Religion.” In it, Nobel physics laureate Steven Weinberg warns that “the world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief.” Carolyn Porco of the Space Science Institute called for the establishment of an alternative church: “Let’s teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome — and even comforting — than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know.”

Richard Dawkins was exasperated: “I am utterly fed up with the respect that we are brainwashed into bestowing on religion.”

Sam Harris felt atheists needed to speak out: “By shying away from questioning people’s deeply felt beliefs, even the skeptics are providing safe harbor for ideas that are at best mistaken and at worst dangerous.”

Writing in the November 13 issue of Newsweek about the “untold damage to our politics” done by religion, Harris railed against a religious straw man: “Those with the power to elect presidents and congressmen — and many who themselves get elected — believe that dinosaurs lived two by two upon Noah’s Ark, that light from distant galaxies was created en route to the Earth and that the first members of our species were fashioned out of dirt and divine breath, in a garden with a talking snake, by the hand of an invisible God.”

David Klinghoffer (“Beyond the Grasp of Arrogant Atheism”) describes it as “a pathetic simplification of a grand tradition possessing depths far beyond anything in Harris’s telling,… much like Shakespeare has been picked apart savagely by critics who deny anything that exceeds their grasp.”

My first extended experience with atheism and atheists has not been entirely rewarding.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Atheism=Anti-Americanism....interesting. You fault the atheists with oversimplifying your faith, and then you turn around and do the same exact thing! At least we're not talking about global warming anymore!

9:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nazi's were atheist. Talk about revising history.

The following photos provide a pictorial glimpse of Hitler, how his Nazis mixed religion with government, and the support for Hitler by the Protestant and Catholic Churches in Germany. In, no way, does this gallery of photos intend to support Nazism or anti-Semitism, but instead, intends to warn against them.

Hitler Oath:

I swear by God,
this holy oath,
to the Führer of the German Reich and people.
Adolf Hitler...

I think it is easier for people to believe that a person as disgusting as Hitler had no "moral" center, however -
One must not forget that Germany represented the most Christianized country in the world in the 1930s and 40s.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Ludwig Mueller, a Nazi sympathizer, was elected to the position of Reich Bishop in 1933 as Hitler attempted to unite regional Protestant churches under Nazi control. Berlin, Germany, November 17, 1933.

It's rather ironic that a religion which so publicly proclaims Absolute Love as its basis should, over the course of history, spawn so much unmitigated hatred and violence

Lack of belief in a supernatural being has never been the problem. How many people have died fighting for a lack of belief in a higher power? How many have died fighting for their version of a higher power?


12:49 PM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

Hitler was a monster, a phony in regard to religion, and a heretic who claimed that Jesus fought against the Jews. He was also a social Darwinist who used the pretense of denying natural law to convince himself and the Nazi leaders that one of the world's greatest attrocities was morally praiseworthy. Many Nazi leaders were occultists or neo-pagans.

Ok, maybe Sister was being simplistic calling them atheists, but the shoe fits not so badly.

3:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good work, Bill.... keep at it!!!

Ya know.... I can't see the air that I breathe, but that doesn't stop me from inhaling.


3:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Remind these atheists that when they look at a newborn baby they must accept that this is not the
creation of random atoms coming together. What a great mind and benevolent creator made us, and the other living creatures we share our planet with.

I go along with the sentimental, and touching lyrics of the song "I believe" because I do.

By the way, I went to PS 246 in Brooklyn and we actually were allowed to pray during quiet times of silent prayer, each person, whatever his or her faith, to honor our fighting men during WWII, or to bless others when special holidays were forthcoming, or other such times. We sang "Now Thank We All Our God" at Thanksgiving, and Christmas carols in December, and learned some Hebrew songs such as "Zum Galli Galli". We were taught that it was OK to be who you were:; RC, Protestant, or Jewish, and we were to respect each other's right to be of their own faith.

If there were any atheists in our midst then, I did not know it. We just accepted that we each were followers of one of the religious groups. I feel sorry for atheists, no matter how erudite they are and how much they feel superior to us pathetic believers in God. They don't know what they are missing. We should pray for them to be able to find the peace of God that passes all understanding. That is the comfort of those who do believe.

Didn't mean to write a sermon.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.


3:43 PM  

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