Saturday Newspaper Roundup July 14, 2007

Saturday Newspaper Roundup

We have a lot of great reading material today!

The Morning Call newspaper (of Pennsylvania) has an article about the not-so-angry atheists from reporter Daniel Patrick Sheehan. The headline is “Area atheists put a friendly face on their convictions, but don’t avoid debate or confrontation.” You don’t see pieces that focus on the up-side to non-religiosity very much, so savor this one. Here’s a sampling of excerpts from the piece:

But, while they may hail [Sam] Harris and company as sorely needed opposing voices in a world beset by the fallout of religious fanaticism, many atheists eschew verbal assaults and online gimmickry, saying they are far more interested in illuminating the nonbeliever’s view than casting aspersions on faith.

”There is still a social taboo against discussing our honest opinions on religion, and that is a shame. It prevents people from truly understanding each other and what we each believe and insulates religion from receiving the criticism it very much deserves and does not receive,” says Brian George, a 27-year-old financial company employee from Collegeville, Montgomery County who, like [atheist mother Dawn] Poulson, abandoned a half-hearted childhood Catholicism in favor of something more pragmatic: We should only believe in what we can prove.

”We should never base our beliefs on faith,” George says. ”We should be scaling our beliefs to where the evidence allows, and admitting that we just do not know things beyond that. Justifying anything on faith is absurd, and allows everything and anything to be believed without being grounded in reason and fact.”

Angelique Jackson, 24, had no instruction in religious faith at all; her first exposure to organized religion was a church day camp she attended out of curiosity at age 10.

”After two weeks, I thought ‘This is silly,”’ she says. ”In college I studied Buddhism and Hinduism. But I finally realized it was OK to say I didn’t believe.”

Physicist Scott Mange manages to get across some of the best lines in the article:

”This is not me crying over my fate or being persecuted,” says Scott Mange, a medical physicist from Roanoke, Va. ”This is me, and us, demanding to be treated as equals. This is us demanding that the special consideration routinely given to the religious be stopped. This is me asking for people to put away their preconceived notions and make decisions based on reality and that we know to be true rather than what we hope or believe or want to be true.

”I think some of us feel like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike,” Mange says. ”If we’re more vocal of late, it’s to call for help and make others aware of the danger we all face.”

While Mange is also an admirer of [Carl] Sagan — whose debunking of superstition and pseudo-science, ”The Demon-Haunted World” helped him form his own outlook — ”You take Sagan’s approach if you want to convince people. You use [Richard] Dawkins and Harris and [Christopher] Hitchens if you want to rally the troops.”

”I am proud to belong to a species that has clawed its way out of the slime, come down from the trees, fought off disease, ignorance, carnivores, heat and cold,” he says. ”I’m proud to be a member of a species that has built hospitals and veterinary clinics, universities, libraries, representative democracies and laws for all men.”

And yours truly also gets a shoutout in the piece:

Hemant Mehta, a suburban Chicago math teacher and author — ”I Sold My Soul on eBay” — was raised in Jainism, an ancient Indian faith that teaches reincarnation and preaches the sanctity and equality of all life.

But so does atheism, says Mehta, 24, who maintains a Web log called ”The Friendly Atheist.” He says one of the main misconceptions about atheists is that they have no respect for life — or, more broadly, the social order — because they have no fear of being called to judgment after death.

”There are evolutionary explanations for why we want to be good — we want to survive as a species,” says Mehta, whose book is a humorous account of how he auctioned the right to send him to church.

The winner, who bid $500, asked him to attend several churches. Mehta ended up visiting 15, recounting the experiences through his atheistic lens.

While he finds much to praise in the faith community, he says that atheism, with its pragmatic focus on living the life at hand in the best possible way, offers brighter prospects for the future.

The reporter’s contact information is at the bottom of the article, so write him and tell him how much you appreciate this piece!

That’s not all we have today.

David Yonke of the Toledo (Ohio) Blade has an article on Nica Lalli and her book Nothing: Something to Believe In.

Unlike the writings of Mr. Hitchens, Mr. Dawkins, and Mr. Harris, which critics have described as “atheist manifestos,” Ms. Lalli’s book is a memoir that reflects an arduous coming to terms with atheism and gaining a sense of comfort despite living in a country where 90 percent of the people profess a belief in God.

She said she has been pleasantly surprised by reactions from some readers.

“People who are like-minded have reacted very well to it, which is not much of a surprise. But what is a huge surprise is that people who are believers love this book,” she said. “A couple of people have told me that’s an important book for people of faith to read because it’s really just all about understanding each other in the end. If believers can understand nonbelievers, maybe we’ll have more productive dialogue.

“Sitting around saying, ‘You’re wrong;’ ‘No, you’re wrong,’ isn’t going to get us anywhere. I wanted to try to add to a productive dialogue and when they have interfaith discussions, I would hope that they start to include people who don’t believe. As a group, atheists are still very unpopular.”

In the Washington Post yesterday, Michael Gerson wrote this:

Proving God’s existence in 750 words or fewer would daunt even Thomas Aquinas. And I suspect that a certain kind of skeptic would remain skeptical even after a squadron of angels landed on his front lawn. So I merely want to pose a question: If the atheists are right, what would be the effect on human morality?

He begins to answer his own question while posing another one:

If God were dethroned as the arbiter of moral truth, it would not, of course, mean that everyone joins the Crips or reports to the Playboy mansion. On evidence found in every culture, human beings can be good without God. And Hitchens is himself part of the proof. I know him to be intellectually courageous and unfailingly kind, when not ruthlessly flaying opponents for taking minor exception to his arguments. There is something innate about morality that is distinct from theological conviction. This instinct may result from evolutionary biology, early childhood socialization or the chemistry of the brain, but human nature is somehow constructed for sympathy and cooperative purpose.

But there is a problem. Human nature, in other circumstances, is also clearly constructed for cruel exploitation, uncontrollable rage, icy selfishness and a range of other less desirable traits.

So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts?

Gerson says atheists have no answer to that question.

Today, Christoper Hitchens sounded off on him:

However, it is his own supposedly kindly religion that prevents him from seeing how insulting is the latent suggestion of his position: the appalling insinuation that I would not know right from wrong if I was not supernaturally guided by a celestial dictatorship, which could read and condemn my thoughts and which could also consign me to eternal worshipful bliss (a somewhat hellish idea) or to an actual hell.

Here is my challenge. Let Gerson name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever. And here is my second challenge. Can any reader of this column think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith? The second question is easy to answer, is it not? The first — I have been asking it for some time — awaits a convincing reply. By what right, then, do the faithful assume this irritating mantle of righteousness? They have as much to apologize for as to explain.

Finally, a front page story in The Wall Street Journal by Andrew Higgins tells us “In Europe, God Is (Not) Dead”:

After decades of secularization, religion in Europe has slowed its slide toward what had seemed inevitable oblivion. There are even nascent signs of a modest comeback. Most church pews are still empty. But belief in heaven, hell and concepts such as the soul has risen in parts of Europe, especially among the young, according to surveys. Religion, once a dead issue, now figures prominently in public discourse.

God’s tentative return to Europe has scholars and theologians debating a hot question: Why?

Some scholars and Christian activists, however, are pushing a more controversial explanation: the laws of economics. As centuries-old churches long favored by the state lose their monopoly grip, Europe’s highly regulated market for religion is opening up to leaner, more-aggressive religious “firms.” The result, they say, is a supply-side stimulus to faith.

Now even Europe, the heartland of secularization, is raising questions about whether God really is dead. The enemy of faith, say the supply-siders, is not modernity but state-regulated markets that shield big, established churches from competition. In America, where church and state stand apart, more than 50% of the population worships at least once a month. In Europe, where the state has often supported — but also controlled — the church with money and favors, the rate in many countries is 20% or less.

The Church of Sweden is also skeptical of the supply-side view. “We don’t sell a product,” says archbishop Anders Wejryd. With 1,800 congregations, he says, his church must cater to a spectrum of views. He says the Church of Sweden’s more dynamic parishes, some of which mimic evangelicals’ methods, are thriving.

There are also some interesting anecdotes in the story, including one of a guy whose complaints removed the Bibles from the rooms of Scandinavia’s largest hotel chain. The hotels placed them back in the rooms after an outpouring of complaints.

Also, the article discusses a Swedish church that seems modeled after American megachurches. Church should be “the most kick-ass place in the world,” says one guy.

[tags]atheist, atheism, The Morning Call, Daniel Patrick Sheehan, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Carl Sagan, Brian George, Angelique Jackson, Dawn Poulson, Scott Mange, Hinduism, Buddhism, Hemant Mehta, Jainism, David Yonke, Nica Lalli, Nothing: Something to Believe In, God, Michael Gerson, Thomas Aquinas, Playboy, The Wall Street Journal, Christian, Church of Sweden, Anders Wejryd[/tags]

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Woo! The Morning Call is one of my hometown papers!

  • How much of the resurgence in belief in Europe is due to immigration? I would think that would account for a good deal of it…

  • globalizati, are you implying that immigrants are a lesser order of humanity than native Europeans? Stupider? More ignorant and superstitious? And what information do you base your suspicion that the reported resurgence of religion is an imported phenomenon on in the first place?

    I’ve always suspected that the death of religion in Europe was a lot less true than the reports of it. I know that in godless England that alternative religious beliefs and practice are quite common even as the C of E pews remained vacant. Maybe they’re just reverting to their cultural paganism.

  • Jen

    Couldn’t globalizati just be implying that most of the people immigrating into Europe are more religious than the Europeans? Couldn’t (s)he just be speculating that this could be why there are more religious people there? I am really not getting “Non-Europeans are stupid, and that’s why they are religious” from “How much of the resurgence in belief in Europe is due to immigration? I would think that would account for a good deal of it…”

  • Wow. I thought my remarks were clear.. but you win the award for reading way too much into things.

    From a statistical standpoint, an influx of immigrants who are more religious will make a population look like it’s having a religious revival unless the statistics carry more details with them. Likewise, I bet you would see at least a slight rise in the percentage of the US population that is Catholic as a result of the influx of immigrants to the US from Latin America. Religious convictions happen to be higher in several of the populations attempting to come into Europe (Turks, North Africans, etc.) than in the population already there. I was merely expressing a desire for more information to see if the “resurgence” in religion can be partially or completely explained by this phenomenon. That’s why I posed my question as, well, a question.

    I never mentioned the concepts of stupidity, ignorance, superstition, or a “lesser order of humanity.” Thanks for throwing those accusations in there instead of asking me for clarification first.

  • Maria

    Have you noticed that the “younger generation” always seems to head in the opposite direction of their parents?

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