There’s a bizarre trend that I think needs some comment. Over and over various people who defend faith in some form keep attributing to the faithful things that almost no one believes. I’ve talked on here about various “accommodationists,” that is, atheists who defend believers from other atheists, doing this. But this also comes from apologists for faith who count themselves as believers. However, when they begin describing their beliefs, the faith that they are defending, it turns out to be a strain of belief that is wildly different from that of any mainstream religion. Even stranger, it is typically some “New Atheist” that is highlighting the fact that the defender of faith is not defending anything that is recognizable to most believers.
A recent example of the issue at hand comes from ABC’s Nightline program. It was entitled “Does God Have a Future?” (The full program can be viewed at the link.) The participants were, for the non-believers, Sam Harris and Michael Shermer, and Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston represented the believers. Early in the debate Harris made explicit the concern that the “believers” would talk about a kind of god in which almost no one believes. He said, “…there are two very different kinds of conversations you could have, here. We can talk about religion as it is for most people most of the time, and we can talk about what religion could be or should be or perhaps what it is for the tiniest minority of people. And I just want you to be aware of the difference there, because it could get lost.” He continues with a list of the distinctions between the description of God that Chopra gives and that of mainstream believers. Of course, unsurprisingly for people familiar with this kind of debate, this warning about the differences between mainstream notions of God and “sophisticated” ideas of the kind held by Chopra and Houston do nothing to prevent the persistent conflation of these ideas by these two defenders of faith.
Throughout the debate, this issue came up again and again. Putting aside the sheer absurdity of the nonsense that Chopra dribbled out, at one point he was asked point-blank what he meant by “God,” since he explicitly did not mean anything like the god of any mainstream religion, especially that of the three big monotheisms. His response was that the world ‘God’ is an acronym that stands for “Generation, Organization, and Delivery,” whatever the hell that means. He also said that all the mainstream religions at issue are “religions of the past,” that they’re dead. Of course, Houston was no better. She suggested that all holy books are, rather than revealed Truth, some sort of dialogue that can be rewritten as need be. Forgetting about what the use of a book of truth, wisdom, or whatever that could be changed at will to something else, thereby demonstrating that no genuine truth or wisdom was contained therein, could even be, it is just not the case that mainstream believers think their holy books are anything like what Houston describes. Whatever faith she holds, it bears no resemblance at all to the faith described by mainstream believers.
All of the above is just to bring out the dramatic irony of this situation. There actually is a group of people who are not condescending to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. There is a group of people who take the articles of faith proclaimed by the billions of believers on this planet entirely seriously. The mentioned irony, here, is that this group is not who you would expect. It is not those people who have taken on the title of “defender of faith,” nor is it those people who claim to be accommodating the believers while telling them that they don’t really believe what they believe in an attempt to dismiss the very real tensions between those beliefs and the positions of those doing the “accommodating.” Rather, the group taking the beliefs of the vast majority of people of faith seriously, even defending those ideas to the degree that they maintain that those beliefs should be considered as they genuinely are rather than mischaracterized as something potentially more palatable, is that of the New Atheists. Time and time again these “strident” and “offensive” individuals are the ones we find standing up for the actual beliefs of the “true believers.”
When I hear anyone attacking atheists for being unwilling to keep quiet, allowing theists to believe whatever they want, I am always puzzled. I genuinely don’t get it. Ideas should be taken seriously. Or, even if you have so little respect for someone that you want to pat them on the head as if they are a child scared of the boogeyman, as if you are superior in some significant way that precludes any genuine dialogue with those “foolish” theists, you should not attack others who do not share your pretension and condescension and, as such, have enough respect for believers to engage in genuine discussion instead of patronizing them.