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Should I Quit My Religion? Some Questions for the New Atheists

The new atheists negate the contributions of religious people in the reforming of religion and the resisting of injustice.
 
 
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I want your opinion about something. I’m a liberal religious person who doesn’t believe in doctrines, dogma or a supernatural God. 19% of members in my tradition identify as atheist, 30% as agnostic and the rest Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Pagan or otherwise. Many of us have been wounded by the bigotry, homophobia and dogma in the religions we grew up in and find refuge, support and community in my tradition. We come together on Sunday mornings to enjoy music and hear sermons about social justice, the power of community and how to live inspiring and meaningful lives. Some ministers may use the word God in an all-inclusive way but most choose to avoid the term because of its troubled history. Here’s my question for you: Should I abandon my tradition because liberal and moderate religion serves to justify the extremes? Is my participation in this religious institution providing legitimacy and credibility for fundamentalism, violence, oppression and bigotry done in the name of religion? I’m studying to be a minister in this tradition. It’s called Unitarian Universalism. Am I guilty by association? Should I jump ship? What do you think?

I know what Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins would tell me. They are two of the new atheists most responsible for spreading this idea about liberal and moderate religion justifying the extremes. Liberals are “aiding and abetting” the most dangerous religions because they give them credibility by participating in the institution of religion itself. Sam Harris states that moderates are “in large part responsible for the religious conflict in our world” and “Religious tolerance-born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God-is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.” And Richard Dawkins states, “The teachings of “moderate” religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism.” And when asked about why he lumps liberal religions like Unitarianism in with fundamentalism Hitchens responded a reference to Camus stating that he believes all religion is comparable to rats and vermin.

Believe it or not I’m open to their ideas. As someone who is committed to ending oppression against marginalized groups including atheists (see my post ”We’re All Born Atheists”. I listen very carefully to what they have to say. While I don’t have any plans to drop out of my graduate school and abandon my career path anytime soon I want to consider this question they raise very carefully. Maybe you can convince me otherwise.

The first question I have for Harris and Dawkins is this, do other liberal and moderate things justify their extreme forms? For example if Harris drinks liberally or moderately shall we conclude that he lends credibility or legitimacy to alcoholism? Does his liberal behavior justify the tens of thousands of deaths each year which are attributable to alcohol abuse? Why? Why not? Does the pot smoker give credence to the heroin addict? How about politics? Does the liberal congressman Dennis Kucinich lend credibility to the Bush administration era policies that led to torture, war and occupation? Is Kucinich guilty for associating with the political system despite his fierce criticism of U.S. Imperialism? Was it enough for congressmen to speak out against the Vietnam War? Or should they have rid themselves of all government? Following Harris’ logic one could also say that the child building a baking soda volcano for her science fair legitimizes the most dangerous nuclear weapons that we have ever known because they both employ science. Can you think of any other real world examples that the logic of Dawkins or Harris would actually apply to? Or is this only true when it comes to religion? If so, what is unique about religion that makes this principle valid?