In last week’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof touted the books of Karen Armstrong and Robert Wright (as well as that of his colleague Nicholas Wade) as a welcome relief, “less combative and more throughtful”, from books by the “new atheists”:
I’m hoping that the latest crop of books marks an armistice in the religious wars, a move away from both religious intolerance and irreligious intolerance. That would be a sign that perhaps we, along with God, are evolving toward a higher moral order.
In the letters section of today’s Times, Lawrence Krauss disagrees with Kristof’s mealymouthed call for some nonexistent “middle ground”:
. . .“God” has gotten more moral over time because even organized religions have been dragged forward, often kicking and screaming, by human reason, which itself has been pushed forward by our discoveries about nature — discoveries that belied obviously false notions about superiority of one race over another or the need to impose divine vengeance to respond to simple, explicable acts of nature.
While it is surely true that faith itself may exist beyond the bounds of rationality, what Mr. Kristof should be praising is reason and not faith.
If one wants to find transcendent examples of pushing reasoning to its limit and stretching language to the end of its tether, one could do worse than to read the books of my colleagues Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.
Of course the Times has to palliate such an atheistic letter, and so they’ve published another criticizing both “the fervently faithful” and the “militant atheistic” for their lack of humility — humility that the author finds necessary for serious engagement.
I may be mistaken, but I think we’re already doing serious engagement. It’s fatuous to think that if only both sides became more “humble,” we’d arrive at some welcome compromise. And what would that be? Presumably, atheists would stop their vociferous criticism of religion, while religion could continue business as usual. In other words, the status quo.
Atheists have been “humble” for centuries (who was more humble than Spinoza?) and it hasn’t gotten us anywhere. It’s that crop of new atheist books that have finally created a climate in which atheists need not feel like pariahs. Like my confrères so maligned by Kristof, I think it’s time to try Mencken’s way:
The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous. Is it, perchance, cherished by persons who should know better? Then their folly should be brought out into the light of day, and exhibited there in all its hideousness until they flee from it, hiding their heads in shame.
True enough, even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. He has no right to preach them without challenge.