Journal Entry

Thursday, March 6, 2008

From where I'm sitting...

  Traditional Christianity Fundamentalist Christianity
Number of adherents confident that they are saved ~10% ~90%
Primary focus of teachings Ethical behavior, social stability Sexual and other ritual regulations, political change
Basic emotional orientation Awe, humility, & reverence Certainty and contempt
Apparent epistemological motivation Earnest attempt to understand the universe Fear of the other, agenda of political change
(Updated for clarity: This is not a chart of religious liberals vs. religious conservatives; it is a chart of two kinds of religious conservatives, or two attitudes towards religious conservatism -- one, prevalent before modernity (but still extant), the other a response to modernity. Fundamentalists tend not to believe in evolution; traditional Christians, however, trump them there, as they not only didn't traditionally believe in evolution, they also held that the Sun orbited the Earth.)

  the old atheism "The New Atheism"
Atheism seen as Daring and original hypothesis Obvious; mere sanity
Religion regarded as Conventional, uninspired, faulty thinking Pernicious insanity
Religious tolerance considered Vital Foolhardy and toxic
Basic emotional orientation Enthusiasm, rigor and curiosity Certainty and contempt
Apparent epistemological motivation Earnest attempt to understand the universe Fear of the other, agenda of political change

I'm just sayin'.

(On a personal note: if the shoe does not fit, do not attempt to squeeze it onto your foot. I would put my favorite atheists and evangelicals in the left hand column; it's the Dawkinsite smugness that gets to me, not any particular metaphysical contention.)

(Update: My case is probably weakest for putting G. B. Shaw in the left hand column... but his comments suggest at least a bit of, I don't know, decorum...) Posted by benrosen at March 6, 2008 08:03 PM | Up to blog

Where's H.L. Mencken? What about Mark Twain? Both were pretty good with the contempt, although not so much with the certainty.


Posted by: Vardibidian at March 6, 2008 08:51 PM

This shows a phenomenal misunderstanding of fundamentalist Christianity, starting with the fallacy that they all share the same outlook on anything, including politics. (The political thing reminds me of the old union vote which was supposed to be a rock solid foundation of the Democratic Party.....until Reagan came along and the union members, much to the horror of the union bosses, voted mostly for him.)

Fundamentalist Christians have always seemed to me to be less certain of most things than orthodox Jews or Muslims. I find them far more likely to be rational, committed to good actions and tolerant than what you characterize as traditional Christians which I assume include such fading away groups as Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians. People are leaving Catholicism and and these Protestant groups by the millions every year to join fundamentalist groups which concentrate less on elaborate buildings and trappings and more on an immediate sense of interaction with God, which seems to me to be most of what religion is about.

Posted by: David at March 7, 2008 01:05 AM

Ben, is your experience of traditional Christianity and the old atheism primarily based on personal contact, while your experience of fundamentalist Christianity and the new atheism primarily based on things you've read? I think people often seem more reasonable when you know them personally than when you judge them on their writings and interviews.

Posted by: Ted at March 7, 2008 08:20 AM

An interesting point, Ted, but no, not entirely. Of course these are messy and arbitrary categories; maybe even somewhat circular categories, in the sense that if I find someone I read or argue with infuriatingly self-righteous I'm likely to put them in the right-hand column and not the left.

But I know several New Atheists; some people who I treasure greatly and find generally sensible and compassionate do seem to believe that it would be sensible public policy to ban the teaching of religious beliefs. And most of what I mean by traditional christianity is based on reading; most Christians in pre-Enlightenment Europe seem to fall in the left column.

Some new atheists, like Sam Harris in this debate seem to be well-meaning, courteous, and in good faith. So do some fundamentalists, I imagine. Even then, though, their fundamental attitude to the world seems characterized not by awe and wonder at the mysteries of the universe, but rather by a mix of irritation that other people can't grasp the obvious, and suspicion that really the other people are simply refusing to get with the program due to moral cowardice.

What I'm calling "new" atheism isn't really a new phenomenon, but it seems to have experienced a massive surge in popularity after 9/11. I haven't read enough Mencken to slot him; Twain (like his latterday lookalike and kindred spirit, Vonnegut), feels like an old atheist to me. It's hard to imagine Twain taking science seriously as an answer to all human problems, one that renders religion obviously irrelevant. Twain mocks everyone, and, while he may not think religion a terribly good idea, he is most interested in attacking the vices and abuses of its practitioners, in the classic Chaucerian style, rather than arguing that its truth claims constitute a pernicious mental virus.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at March 7, 2008 09:04 AM

Oh, and it's worth noting that I'm not saying the good guys are in the left column and the bad guys are on the right. The murderous, genocidal Crusaders were largely traditional Christians, and there are undoubtedly saintly, altruistic New Atheists. I'm pointing at a particular failing, not making an argument based on total character.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at March 7, 2008 09:07 AM

Oops, missed Dad's comment. I think you're looking at a different axis. I am not comparing moderate, sedate "high churches" to evangelical/charismatic, radical "low churches". That would be a different chart. :-)

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at March 7, 2008 09:16 AM

I think you should have kept the "Number of adherents confident that they are saved" row in both tables.

Posted by: David Moles at March 7, 2008 10:28 AM

It's interesting you mention Sam Harris as an example of a well-meaning atheist; based on a quick perusal, he does come across as pretty reasonable in that debate you linked to. I read his book The End of Faith at the recommendation of a friend, and didn't find it constructive; in it he concludes that it may be ethical to kill people for their beliefs, and that a preemptive nuclear strike against Islamic nations should not be ruled out.

Posted by: Ted at March 7, 2008 10:41 AM

Wow. Okay, that doesn't sound too well-meaning.

It's easy to confuse urbanity with goodwill; Torquemada was probably a nice guy at a party, too.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at March 7, 2008 10:44 AM

I question the "old" vs. "new" labels! My experiences with pre-Dawkins atheism were really not too dissimilar from your description of the "new", post-Dawkins atheism; Dawkins appears to have merely increased the visibility of what was already the most vocal component of the movement.

Posted by: Jackie M. at March 19, 2008 08:06 PM

I suppose that is the way it would look if you assume that the religious mythos is entitled to deference and respect. But that would be a strange foundational assumption indeed.

Luke Jackson

Posted by: Luke Jackson at March 27, 2008 12:44 PM

Oh, Ben I love these charts.

And I feel the same way about modern atheists. They make me tired and itchy.

Posted by: Haddayr at April 7, 2008 03:18 AM

I like mosts atheists I know just fine, it's just the New Atheists who make me tired and itchy. Which is what I think you meant.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at April 7, 2008 10:01 AM

Luke, I wouldn't call it a foundational assumption that the religious mythos is entitled to respect; more a conclusion, based both on assumptions about human dignity and limitations, and on the empirical experience of history, which teaches that every era has its own mythos, and the most destructive ones are the ones that claim to be Finally At Last The Truth Because This Time Things Are Different So Now Everyone Else Can Shut Up.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at April 7, 2008 10:04 AM

Jackie, you well be right about old vs new -- "New Atheism" seems to be the popular label, but it may be about as accurate as "Contemporary Art".

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at April 7, 2008 10:09 AM

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