A recent CNN internet op-ed by Rachel Held Evans (“Hey Atheists, let’s make a deal,” Sept. 14) criticized atheists for quoting “the most extreme, vitriolic voices within Christianity and proclaim[ing] that they are representative of the whole.” To be fair, she admitted that her fellow Christians do pretty much the same thing in order to “rail against the evils of atheism.” Evans’s plea is that “we resist the urge to use the latest celebrity [meaning highly visible atheist or religionist] gaffe as an excuse to paint one another with broad brushes.”
All in all, not a bad point, especially since she points out “it’s important for both believers and atheists to decry irresponsible views and hateful rhetoric, especially from within our own communities.” My interest was further piqued by her version of Rodney King’s plaintive appeal, “Why can’t we all just get along?”
I agree that an entire community of belief or disbelief should not be held responsible for its most bizarre members. I should not paint all Christians with the same brush because a few Christians say inane things. There are atheists whose statements embarrass me and whom I can’t support. I certainly don’t want to be grouped with Pol Pot or Joseph Stalin any more than Ms. Evans wants to be grouped with Pat Robertson or—I can only imagine—Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
On the other hand, while wacky positions voiced by Pat Robertson or Rick Santorum don’t represent all Christendom, they do in fact represent millions in the US alone. That makes their views fair game in criticizing at least part of Christianity. All views of Catholic prelates with regard to birth control and even abortion are not embraced by all Catholics, but to argue that they don’t represent a large part of Christianity falls flat. Please note that I am not making a case against all religious people. Certainly some Christians are more of good will and exemplary ethics than many atheists. In other words, on most counts religionists and atheists are mixed bags.
So a little self-examination is due on my part. My antipathy toward religion is no secret. (My reasons are in some cases intellectual—e.g., massive claims with no evidence—and in other cases pragmatic—e.g., impairment of reasoned thinking—but need not be argued here.) The antipathy, however, is against religions, not whole classes of religious persons. But since I regularly indict religion by citing the words of individual religious persons (see my August 31 posting, “Religions’ effects on non-religious issues”), is it possible I fall into the trap Ms. Evans wrote of?
I hope not. To the extent I transgress from time to time, I offer no defense. My intended target of attack is what I’m convinced is a flawed, pervasive, pampered (treated with kid gloves) method of thinking, not individuals caught up in it except as they are in a position to represent that method. I have positive relationships with many religious persons, quite a few of them family and close friends. (I hope you’ll pardon the “some of my best friends are……” sound of that sentence!) While they know my views, I feel sure none of them think I disrespect them or hold them in contempt due to their religiousness. They believe they can hate the sin, but love the sinner (inaccurately attributed to Jesus; St. Augustine and Gandhi are better sources), and seem instinctively to accept that I live by an atheist’s equivalent.
It’s as important to me to be fair about spokespersons’ representativeness as it is to expose the wackiness that so often arises out of religion. I am committed to the demonstration of what unreasonable, even bizarre, conclusions are possible when reason is diluted or warped by religious thinking. Yet I wish to be cognizant of the inaccuracy and unfairness that accompanies painting with too broad a brush.
Here is how I’ve tried to balance those concerns and to create criteria on which I’m willing to be judged: I claim the right to quote as a religious absurdity or stupidity (1) any statement by a person with significant religious following or religious “credentials” such that he or she can be considered a voice of some meaningful population of religious people, (2) when that statement is instigated by or based on religion (religious people say things out of any number of beliefs, not just religious ones; an opinion on global warming by a religious figure would not pass my test unless his or her statement is obviously based in religion rather than, say, an economics position), and (3) when that statement (in my honest opinion) would be found unwarranted or insufficiently reasoned by people not of his or her religious persuasion.
I consider those conditions to justify considering a single religious individual’s statement to be a fair demonstration of the unreasonable or detrimental thinking religion is capable of causing or accommodating. Religionists should feel free to exercise the same latitude. May we all struggle to find paint brushes’ golden mean.
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