Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Death of Civility

Husband and I have a long list of topics we don't agree upon--some political, but most concerning Scripture. In the early years of our marriage, we hashed them all out, bringing to the metaphorical table our best arguments. Those were the days when we would sit in front of the computer to more rapidly find our evidence as the debate proceeded, the flipping of Bible-thin pages much too slow in finding the verses our minds knew in part but not in whole or context.

There was no name calling, but sometimes, the debates were heated, blood pressure spiking and cheeks flushing with heat; other times, tense frustration reigned when the other couldn't seem to even consider a different stance. Yet, in the end? I'm not sure he changed his mind on much of anything...or that I did, either.

Most every debate ended with heart rates back to normal, an acknowledgement that we could each see the other's sub-points, agreeing that there was no way to know for sure who was correct yet disagreeing about which side of the argument we fell. More importantly, we agreed that these were rib issues, not make-or-break spine issues.

But, this isn't the normal reaction I see around me.

Over the past decade, I've noticed a shift toward anger, hatred, hostility directed at any idea, group, or person who thinks differently than ourselves. In mainstream America, it seems everything is a spine issue. Any disagreement and you'll find yourself de-friended on Facebook, labelled a cult, a hater, stupid, racist, narrow-minded, homophobe.

A few years ago, our church even split over disagreements concerning some of these rib issues husband and I live quite contentedly in disagreement with each day. The breaking--it's something I'm still not over. But the breaking wasn't as bad as the after, a year later having my Grandmother draw me in close to whisper in my ear, telling me her Sunday School class had been told my church was actually a cult.

When did we lose the ability to agree to disagree? When did intellectual debate become uncivilized, focusing more on emotion, inflammatory language and slander than on the issues?

Allister McGrath's newest book, Why God Won't Go Away: Is the New Atheism Running on Empty, shows one group in a long line that is taking this path of hostility. His text seeks to define who the major players in New Atheism are; what they believe; how those beliefs stack up in the face of reason, science, and Christianity; and why this movement has, at best, stagnated.

McGrath presents New Atheism as a radical off-shoot of the culturally respectful atheism of indifference. Unlike their predecessors, New Atheists seem to rely on shock value in their emotional outbursts of hatred against religion more so than on serious, intellectual argument that would contribute to the debate.

According to McGrath's concise summary of three major New Atheist texts, this sect's primary tenet conflates religion and belief in God, claiming both are irrational and necessarily evil. In short, New Atheists believe that since religion cannot prove itself with reason, it seeks to impose its beliefs on others, is oppressive, and serves as the root of all violence. The solution to all evil, oppression and violence in the world? Eradicate religion and belief in God.

McGrath offers rebuttal to each line of thought, concluding at one point that "Maybe it's not that religion corrupts humanity but that a corrupt humanity creates a look-alike religion" (92).

Where I grew interested were in his critiques of these New Atheists. In one part, he says, "Believing that the rest of humanity is deluded does, I fear, generate a certain unpleasant smugness on the part of these 'true believers'" (97). In another, he explored how followers of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins don't know much about what their hallowed leader believes.

I know I was reading a text about New Atheism, but I could just as easily have been reading a book about Christians or Mormons or Muslims who demonstrate the same smugness, believing they have God all nailed-down, who demonstrate the same ignorance when it comes to knowing what their religion really believes and why. Not much difference here.

What surprised me most was how accessible the book was. With the words "historian, theologian, and scholar" before his name, I anticipated a tough, high-brow read. Instead, I found McGrath to give serious, intellectual argument in an easy-to-follow and understand style, quite unusual and refreshing in a sea of theological texts that talk above the heads of most readers.

It should be easy to see how the New Atheist line of thinking is dangerous and regressive in terms of human tolerance. But, I'd go further and say that society's thinking in general is regressing. Differences untolerated are just holocausts waiting to happen.

*I receive no compensation for my review other than a complementary copy of the book from Thomas Nelson.

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