The Religion/Atheism Debate
Posted Jan 21, 2010

The Religion/Atheism Debate

by Sheila Musaji

Recently Karen Armstrong published an article Think again, God in Foreign Policy in which she discussed a series of claims about God (or belief in God) made by atheists and gave her reasons for disagreeing with these claims.  The seven most often raised claims and her brief answer are as follows:

“God Is Dead.” - No.  “While many still question the relevance of God in our private lives, there’s a different debate on the global stage today: Is God a force for good in the world?”
“God and Politics Shouldn’t Mix.” - Not necessarily.  “Theologically illiterate politicians have long given religion a bad name. An inadequate understanding of God that reduces “him” to an idol in our own image who gives our likes and dislikes sacred sanction is the worst form of spiritual tyranny.”
“God Breeds Violence and Intolerance. - No, humans do.
“God Is for the Poor and Ignorant.” - No.
“God Is Bad for Women.” - Yes.
“God Is the Enemy of Science.” - He doesn’t have to be.
“God Is Incompatible with Democracy.” - No.

The article closes with a section called Want to Know More? which includes useful background on this ongoing debate:

Karen Armstrong has spent the past 25 years writing about the centrality of religion to the human experience. Before her most recent book, The Case for God (New York: Knopf, 2009), she wrote The Bible: A Biography (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007), an account of the not entirely orthodox way that the Bible came into being.

Over the last few years, the so-called New Atheists have become increasingly vocal about the dangerous shortcomings of religion in such books as Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), and Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2007).

Recently, some books have sought out a middle ground between atheism and fundamentalism. These include Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009), which incorporates evolutionary psychology to explain shifts in belief over time, and Economist editors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s God is Back (New York: Penguin, 2009), examining the curiously vital relationship between modernity and religion.

Religion scholar John Esposito and polling expert Dalia Mogahed argue in Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think (New York: Gallup Press, 2007), a book based on more than 50,000 interviews in Muslim countries, that Westerners have been getting Islam wrong for decades.

David Shasha has reviewed The Case for God on The American Muslim site.  In that article he discusses this ongoing debate about God and science “Western culture has unfortunately broken off into competing groups marked by binary extremes; politically, intellectually and socially.  These groups line up in fierce opposition to one another and do battle in ways that have corroded our ability to sort out the truth in a reasonable and reasoned manner.  Polemical voices are raised to a screeching fever pitch where calm and reason often lose out to sheer volume and aggression.”  ...  “On the one hand, we have a militant form of science whose roots are in the Enlightenment but whose current valence reflects the malaise of our time; the penchant for absolutist ideologies that close off discussion and leave individuals trapped in a vise of a singular, unquestioned Truth.  On the other hand, we have a religious fundamentalism that has gone toe to toe with the scientific absolutists.  Just as the so-called “New Atheists,” people like Richard Dawkins, Jay Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, are locked into their belief that there is only Darwin and nothing else, so too do contemporary religious fundamentalists assert the absolute literal truth of the Bible with no compromise.” 

In Karen Armstrong’s opening to the first claim/response she made the statement:  “So-called new atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have denounced religious belief as not only retrograde but evil; they regard themselves as the vanguard of a campaign to expunge it from human consciousness. Religion, they claim, creates divisions, strife, and warfare; it imprisons women and brainwashes children; its doctrines are primitive, unscientific, and irrational, essentially the preserve of the unsophisticated and gullible.”

This may be what caused Sam Harris to respond to Karen Armstrong’s article.  His response was also published in Foreign Policy as was Karen Armstrong’s response to Sam Harris response.

It is well worthwhile reading these articles as well as the books mentioned in the “want to know more” section above in order to clearly understand the debate which is one of the important discussions of our time.  I find it disheartening that what could be a very productive and even healing discussion so often brings out the extremist position that denies the possibility of discussion and demands instead an either/or understanding.  This is as true for the extremist proponents of the scientific position as of the extremist proponents of any particular religious worldview.  Why must it be religion or science, faith or reason, etc.?  Why must you be wrong in order for me to be right?  Readers of The American Muslim know that we have published hundreds of articles on inter and intra-faith dialogue and its importance.  It seems that we also need to look at how to open up a dialogue with those that are anti-faith.

I agree with Hasan Zillur Rahim who wrote about Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion effort that compassion is the important focus that may allow us to find common ground rather than staking out mutually exclusive territories.  In that article he quoted Karen Armstrong from her TED talks speech “We need to create,” Armstrong elaborated, “a movement among people who want to join up and reclaim their faith which has been hijacked … We need to empower people to remember the compassionate ethos … Jews, Christians and Muslims, who so often are at loggerheads, have to work together to create a document which we hope will be signed by people from all the traditions of the world … I would like to see it in every college, every church, every mosque, every synagogue in the world, so that people can look at their tradition, reclaim it, and make religion a source of peace in the world.”

SEE ALSO on the religion/atheism debate:

A Tale of Three Bigoted Ads, Sheila Musaji

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Hitchens, Boris Katchka
The case for mocking religion,  Christopher Hitchens 

Atheism, Islamophobia and US Militarism, Glenn Greenwald

Atheist Islamophobia… Again, Kate Blanchard

Atheists Dawkins, Hitchins, and Harris face Islamophobia backlash, Jerome Taylor

Atheists Ignore Islamophobia at their Peril, Chris Stedman

BOOK REVIEW:  The Case for God (Karen Armstrong), David Shasha

Richard Dawkins and the ascent of madness, Sam Kriss

Richard Dawkins’ anti-Islam/anti-Muslim propaganda exposed: The facts, Jai Singh

Richard Dawkins: “Islam” is an “Unmitigated Evil”, Garibaldi

Richard Dawkins, ‘Islamophobia’ and the atheist movement, Martin Robbins

Richard Dawkins defends Enlightenment values, Bob Pitt

Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens: New Atheists flirt with Islamophobia, Nathan Lean

Richard Dawkins’ latest anti-Muslim Twitter spat lays bare his hypocrisy (The celebrity atheist’s Twitter rant against journalist Mehdi Hasan shows he’s a believer too – in his own mythology), Andrew Brown

Richard Dawkins rants on Twitter against Mehdi Hasan, Sunny Hundal

Don’t let the Islamophobes take over atheism, Richard Congress

Sam Harris: Moral Clarity or Islamophobia?, Daniel J. Schultz

Sam Harris, the New Atheists, and anti-Muslim animus (A long overdue debate breaks out about whether rational atheism is being used as a cover for Islamophobia and US militarism), Glenn Greenwald

Peter Higgs criticises Richard Dawkins over anti-religious ‘fundamentalism’ (Higgs boson theorist says he agrees with those who find Dawkins’ approach to dealing with believers ‘embarrassing’)m Alok Jha

Christopher Hitchens and ethics without God, Andrew Hamilton

Christopher Hitchens’ illogical atheism, Neil Ormerod

Islamophobia and Sam Harris’ tyranny of ‘reason’, Mandy De Waal

On Richard Dawkins and How Atheism has Become a Warmongering Religion, Martin Iqbal

Problems with Christopher Hitchens and Islam, Herman Roborgh, S.J.

The Religion/Atheism Debate, Sheila Musaji

Scientific racism, militarism, and the new atheists (Leading figures in the new atheist movement are heirs to the disreputable scientific racists of the past), Murtaza Hussain

Think Again: God, Karen Armstrong,0

US atheist group targets Muslims and Jews with ads

Video:  Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan on Tim Russert Sept. 25, 2004 discuss religion including Islam

What Does Christopher Hitchens Know About Islam?, Richard Silverstein

When Hitchens met Brennan, Peter Kirkwood