“Sleeping Furiously”

Good stuff here and funny too.
In my interactions with religious and nonreligious people alike, I now draw a sharp line, based not on what exactly they believe but on their level of dogmatism. I consider dogmatism a far greater threat than religion per se. I am particularly curious why anyone would drop religion while retaining the blinkers sometimes associated with it. Why are the “neo-atheists” of today so obsessed with God’s nonexistence that they go on media rampages, wear T-shirts proclaiming their absence of belief, or call for a militant atheism? What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?
As one philosopher put it, being a militant atheist is like “sleeping furiously.”
I agree the issue is really dogmatism.  And we might boil that down further to fundamentalism.  Whether it is found among the religious or the secular, it is the same mind-set, sensibility, and threat.
Egbert Ribberink and Dick Houtman, two Dutch sociologists, who classify themselves, respectively, as “too much of a believer to be an atheist” and “too much of a nonbeliever to be an atheist,” distinguish two kinds of atheists. Those in one group are uninterested in exploring their outlook and even less in defending it. These atheists think that both faith and its absence are private matters. They respect everyone’s choice, and feel no need to bother others with theirs. Those in the other group are vehemently opposed to religion and resent its privileges in society. These atheists don’t think that disbelief should be kept locked up in the closet. They speak of “coming out,” a terminology borrowed from the gay movement, as if their nonreligiousness was a forbidden secret that they now want to share with the world. The difference between the two kinds boils down to the privacy of their outlook.

I like this analysis better than the usual approach to secularization, which just counts how many people believe and how many don’t. It may one day help to test my thesis that activist atheism reflects trauma. The stricter one’s religious background, the greater the need to go against it and to replace old securities with new ones.
It would be interesting to hear from atheists and agnostics if they find this to be the case in their own journey.  I wouldn’t imagine this blog to be read by very many, but it would be great to hear any serious responses to the suggestion here.
Then there is the persistent myth that science trumps religion in every possible way, and that science distracts from religion, and vice versa, as in a zero-sum game. This approach goes back to nineteenth-century American polemists, who famously declared that if it were up to religion, we’d still believe in a flat earth. This was pure propaganda, however. Speculation about our planet’s roundness began with Aristotle and other ancient Greeks, and every major scholar during the so-called Dark Ages was fully aware of it. Dante’s “Divine Comedy” portrays the earth as a sphere, and the exterior panel of Bosch’s Garden triptych takes an in-between approach by showing a flat earth floating in a transparent ball surrounded by a black cosmos. When it comes to evolution, too, there is a tendency to point at religion as a solid opponent while ignoring that the Roman Catholic Church never formally condemned Darwin’s theory or put his works on the Index (the list of forbidden books). The Vatican has endorsed evolution as a valid theory compatible with the Christian faith. Admittedly, its endorsement came a bit late, but it is good to realize that resistance to evolution is almost entirely restricted to evangelical Protestants in the American South and Midwest.
The connection between science and religion has always been complex, including both conflict, mutual respect, and the church’s patronage of the sciences. The first copiers of books on which science came to rely were rabbis and monks, and the first universities grew out of cathedral and monastic schools. The papacy actively promoted the establishment and proliferation of universities. At one of the first ones, in Paris, students cut their hair in tonsure to show allegiance to the church, and the oldest document in the archives of Oxford University is its Award of the Papal Legate of 1214. Given this intertwinement, most historians stress dialogue or even integration between science and religion.

Neo-atheists keep pitting the two against each other, however. Their audiences pee in their pants with delight when the flat-earth canard gets trotted out.
One can only hope that if enough moderate voices also put to rest this secular myth (science v. religion), we can one day move on and not see it trotted out anymore.  I know, yeah, right.
The writer also turns his guns against the believing side and while his arguments may miss the point a little, I completely agree with his larger aim, which is to take issue with the stridency and dogmatism displayed.  I will be the first one to agree that dogmatism and stridency have hurt the Church immeasurably.  One has to wonder then why atheists would mimic the same failed approach.  
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2 Responses to “Sleeping Furiously”

  1. Burk Braun says:


    Yes, dogmatism is bad, but really, the equation should be: Dogmatism X Wrongness = Bad. At this juncture, dogmatism about a carbon tax, climate heating, improving health care, etc. are not such terrible things.

    In my case, I had zero religious upbringing. The trauma was creation “science” in biology, and 9/11. And to add to your post, much of the Islamic world is fervently creationist, for religious reasons. The fact of the matter is that all religions can't help but to make grand proclamations about how reality works, which are always wrong. Because they come from an artistic sensibility, (at best), not an analytical one. And they care about individual and collective power/comfort, not about truth in any analytical sense.

    But you know all about that.. it is just beating a dead horse.

    About atheism, you seem to think that anyone who disagrees with you is “dogmatic” and probably beyond the pale. Or “arrogant”. Well, if you survey the contemporary world, you will find that it is the churches who sponsor the anti-gay legislation, who are cranking out actual terrorists in the Islamic world, not just sharp-penned polemicists, and who are in the vanguard of patriarchy and oppression of women.

    So if you had any sense of proportion, you would realize that, while you may see some sparks in the trenches of religious philosophy and cultural discussion about religion, the real dogmatism that is damaging the world as we speak comes from one end of the spectrum, whose mitigation is the whole point of atheist activism. If there were no religion doing hurtful as well as ridiculous things, you would never hear of an atheist. The reverse, sadly, is not true- in the absence of atheism, religion thrives all the better in all its pomposity and absurdity.


  2. Burk Braun says:

    Let me also note my perplexity at the final bit in this article. Firstly, the author says religion is something humans do naturally and must have some evolutionary purpose. No argument here. But that purpose, as he notes, is not evidently that it is true. It is that it expresses communalism that, as we read in the scriptures, empowers us (with dogmatism) in both our light altruistic and dark genocidal sides. This is no surprise. But wouldn't it be nice if we could run our social and personal lives without that primitive rigamarole? Do we all have to wear beards and threaten each other with hell? Isn't it about time we grew up?

    Secondly, his treacly story about the handicapped Mozu takes place in a non-religious species, obviously. So how is this an argument for religion? The logic here boggles the mind. Or, more precisely, it is wrong, showing exactly the opposite- that we and macaques do not need religion after all to do those supposedly great things that religions claim to do for us.


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