The Personalist Project

Accessed on February 21, 2020 - 6:36:00

A newer, more dangerous kind of atheism

Katie van Schaijik, Jul 18, 2015

A decade or so ago arose "the new atheism"—a movement of prominent public intellectuals attacking religion on rational grounds, especially scientific grounds. It got a lot of media attention, and many people apparently found it convincing.

Personally, I had a hard time taking it seriously. It seemed to me so dumb. (Hello, Harris and Dawkins? You can't address metaphysical claims with empirical methods. Empirical methods only apply to the physical realm. And for their validity they rely utterly on philosophical, i.e., non-empirical, assumptions.) Its proponents came across to me as willfully obtuse and full of animus—their arguments not just intellectually weak, but juvenile. You wondered whether they'd ever met any actual religious people. They were furiously attacking straw men and caricatures, while completely ignoring all the real evidence and arguments in favor of faith. I thought no one would be convinced who wasn't already looking for justification for unbelief (and the moral license that goes with it.)

Lately, though, I've noticed the rise of a new form of anti-religion that I fear is much more potent. It attacks faith not on scientific, but on experiential and therapeutic grounds. Religion is bad for your mental health. It's abusive. It causes depression and eating disorders and all manner of misery and violence. If you want to thrive and be happy, get it out of your psyche.

It's more potent because:

1) There's a lot of truth in it.  (I'll come back to this point.)

2) It's much harder to overcome. Personal experience can't be rationally refuted; nor is it effectively answered by counter-experiences.

Long before Marcel Maciel's double life was publicly known, we had piles of evidence in the form of personal testimony that something was seriously wrong with the Legion of Christ. Countless ex-members had recorded disturbing stories of extreme control, emotional and spiritual abuse, financial impropriety, etc. 

Legion defenders initially dismissed all of it. It was coming from bitter people with "issues" and axes to grind; they were lying or deluded. As the evidence mounted and that line of defense grew less credible, though, the defenders down-shifted: "I'm sorry you had bad experiences. That wasn't my experience. I've had wonderful experiences in the Legion."

For those who were sure that Maciel was a saint and his Legion a great work of God, this seemed to do the trick. It acknowledged that some people (maybe) had had bad experiences. (The defender thus presents herself as open-minded and sympathetic.) It discretely suggested that such experiences were anomalous, and that it's unreasonable to tar the whole organization just because you personally had had a bad experience. (No organization is perfect, and one bad apple doesn't spoil the whole bunch.) It even subtly insinuated that the one telling the story might be exaggerating or imbalanced or otherwise not to be trusted. (When dealing with a wounded, hysterical person, be kind, speak gently, but don't really engage; don't absorb the negativity.)

To anyone who more-than-suspected the truth, though, this response to damning testimony sounded like insanity. Complete denial. Also egotistical dismissiveness. "I like my group and what I get from it, so I don't care what happened to you at its hands."

One of the problems we're facing today—I begin to realize—is that this is how religious people often sound to the new non-believers: like we're in denial. Like we don't care about the damage done by religion. Like it's more important to us to protect our group and the consolations we get from belonging to it—no matter what it does or who gets hurt—than to face reality. We sound like we're not yet in recovery.

The reason we sound that way, I'll say again, is because there's a lot of truth in the "religion is abusive" charge. I of course don't mean that religion as such is abusive. What's abusive rather is (are?) 1) some doctrines, and 2) some modes and methods of practicing religion and promoting religion.

It's always been true. Only think of the primitive religions that demanded the blood sacrifice of children or the sale of temple virgins. Think of the moral precepts that allow middle aged men to marry children and have multiple wives—wives kept (by religious prescription) in social isolation and practical servitude to their husbands. Think of abuses surrounding the medieval sale of indulgences, or religious practices that incited violence against Jews. Think of teachings that condemn an entire segment of society as "untouchable." And then consider the closer-to-home cases of the emotional and financial manipulation rife in the world of big tent revivals and televangelism.

Religion (involving, as it does, post-Eden human relations) has always contained abusive elements. But those seem somehow more prominently present in it today than ever before. I want to propose two reasons for this:

1) "No-religion" is now a viable and widespread option in our society. (At least it appears to be viable.) Increasing numbers of both ordinary people and social elites openly identify as non-religious and unbelieving. Many used to be religious or were raised in religious homes, but abandoned faith and practice in later life as unnecessary and unconvincing or worse. So, on a practical and experiential level, the question facing individuals today isn't which religion is true?, but why religion at all?

2) More positively, we—as a society and as individuals— have become more aware of and sensitive to the problem of abuse across the board. Our introductory essay explains it this way:

The men and women of our time are ever more aware of themselves as persons.  We experience as never before the incomparable worth of each person.  We are alive to our inviolability, that is, we know in a new way that none of us is ever rightly used and destroyed for the good of others. We are more sensitive than our ancestors to all the forms of coercion that threaten our personhood.

The musical Fiddler on the Roof brilliantly captures this gigantically consequential historical and cultural development. However meaningful and beautiful, however serviceable for shaping a people and maintaining a way of life, longstanding tradition has to give way in front of the dawning awareness of personal selfhood. If it doesn't, it quickly becomes abusive. Once a daughter becomes conscious of her right to choose her husband for herself, for instance, her father's option is to respect her freedom or apply force.

Note that a vicious cycle has been set in motion. The more the daughter resists, the more the father feels provoked and aggrieved, and righteous in applying force. The more he applies force, the more the daughter feels (and is) abused.

I propose that we are witnessing this basic dynamic on a giant scale. In broad terms, it has to do with the problem of authority vs. the rights and dignity of individuals. Everything is being questioned and realigned. And—here is the really crucial point—to the extent that the new resistance to authority is valid, the reasserting of authority is abusive.

Religion is inseparable from the moral problems associated with authority. Religious people, then, are prone in a special way to abuses of authority. 

If we want religion to remain credible and convincing under these historical and cultural circumstances, the answer isn't and can't be to crack down authoritatively. That only makes matters worse. So what do we do? I'll make a start at answering that question in a subsequent post.