In the last decade, atheism has returned as a best-selling and controversial book subject, spearheaded by three authors writer Robert Weitzel dubbed “The Unholy Trinity.” Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith” (2004) and “Letter to a Christian Nation” (2006) were the opening volleys, and Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” (2006) and Christopher Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great” (2007) stormed the gates, with both authors receiving much face time and angry arguments on mainstream media.
Not only should religion be passively tolerated, they say, but it should be critiqued and exposed by rational argument. They see religion’s effects on society as superstitious and harmful, and that fundamentalism has gone mainstream.
Bill Garlington, 63, a self-proclaimed Universalist and instructor at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Cal State Channel Islands, examines this “new” atheism at 2:30 p.m. today in a public discussion hosted by the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara. In this talk, Mr. Garlington, of Camarillo, will discuss where the new atheists are right, and where they misstep. The News-Press caught up with him by phone to talk about his thoughts on atheism, and if there is a third way.
Q: What makes this generation of atheist authors different from the rest?
A:I think what makes (these writers) different is that they popularized it. They have taken it to a modern market. If you mentioned the greatest atheists of the 19th century, primarily that would be within the intellectual community. Therefore, it tended to be a little more elitist. You had to be able to read some pretty heavy philosophy. What these gentlemen have done is to get the message out to the popular level. It’s tied in largely with evolutionary science. Hitchens’ book is really toned down for the moderately educated individual. Atheism has been around for a long time mdash; even Marx was an atheist. But it’s been popularized and its focal point has been fundamentalist Islam and the events since 9/11.
Q: They are saying, essentially, this is what religion leads to?
A:Yes, and that’s part of my critique. It’s a bit of a simplistic reductionism that wants to just paint religion in one shade with its irrational fundamentalist side. I am going to try and look at religion from the point of view of (cultural anthropologist) Ernest Becker, which he called an anthropological position of the nature of the human condition, and how religion fits into the general idea that man is an anxious animal who needs meaning. As a result, religion isn’t something that’s going to go away, and that’s where I think the atheist critique is a little bit simplistic. So the question then becomes what kind of religion can we live with rather than trying to get rid of religion at all. To me, it’s like going into Afghanistan and thinking you can create a democracy mdash; it’s on that same sort of playing field.
Q: So you agree with these writers that a lot of religion is unfortunately filled with and led by superstition?
A:That’s a valid position. What I don’t agree with is that’s all religion ever has been, is, and ever will be. To me, that’s like saying that because of fascism we shouldn’t have politics.
Q: How would one work toward a world where you had religion but not superstition?
A:These writers say that the liberal religionists are just as much an enemy as the fundamentalists because they allow fundamentalism to exist. And I think there’s a role for a liberalized religious position. It goes back to the mystical traditions of the great religions where creed and dogma and superstition are not the core. Maybe my critique is overly idealistic and I would accept that’s a possibility. But if that doesn’t happen, religion will go back to the poisonous, dark side of itself.
Q: Do you also critique the atheists’ use of Hitler as an example? That if there is a God, why did the Holocaust happen?
A:That’s a view of religion that only understands it to be anthropomorphic, that there’s a God who is a big being, and I don’t believe that. I look at it more in a Buddhist or Hindu sense, that there is something that transcends the individual, the community and any concept itself. Let’s call it Being, with a capital B, rather “a” being. It’s not something up there that’s making choices. There’s a structure to reality mdash; that’s materialistic science mdash; but that’s only one level. I think religion sees that there’s another level and it can be often expressed in anthropomorphic terms. But the great thinkers and all the traditions realize that’s idolatry.
Q: So the way forward is toward mysticism?
A:There’s great history of Christian mysticism. All the religions have their mystical traditions, but they tend to get pushed down by the orthodoxy because orthodoxy wants to see things in clear way, like “Do this, do that, here is the creed, you say the creed.” But the mystics know that doesn’t get anywhere close to the idea of the sacred. The best way to describe God mdash; if that’s the term you can use mdash; is that it’s the ultimate unknown mystery of all things.
Q: Doesn’t that butt up against human nature mdash; that fundamentalism is easy? You get told what to do. Mysticism takes a lot of time and thinking. How could you get people to go along with that?
A:Maybe we’re entering a phase where it’s going to get worse from here. But fundamentalists’ positions mdash; whether they’re political or religious mdash; in the end it’s a practical matter that results in more and more conflict. So although it seems easy on one level, in the long run, it’s disruptive. I’m not an idealist in that sense, and maybe human beings will destroy themselves over these things. Maybe they’re not capable. Becker raises that issue in his work, that maybe we’re just too anxious, too needy, too psychologically weak and this is an evolutionary situation which will eliminate itself. That’s a possibility.
Q: Author Karen Armstrong suggests that we’re in another Axial Age for religion, a historic, transformational state. Do you agree?
A:I would agree but not like there’s some sort design behind it all. But we have to change and adapt to some degree, and if we don’t, it’s just continual conflict. What we are experiencing is one of the problems of modernity and post-colonialism. Nietzsche would recognize this idea, that the modern world no longer really believed in God. And what happens then is you get those who move forward and those who are going back to tradition to try and deal with modernity. That’s what’s going on in fundamentalist Islam. These are reactionary movements trying to stem modernity.
Q: Talk some more about the effects of post-colonialism on religion.
A:If you look at someone like Osama bin Laden, he always speaks about the universal caliphate. That goes back to the notion that one time there was an Islamic civilization with the core theology and a community that had legitimization and that the West destroyed that. And so all the various nation states that now exist in the Middle East are seen as results of the Western colonial process and that’s why they have to go as well. So there’s a reaction to what went on for a number of centuries in terms of Western colonial practices in Asia and in the Middle East, and since we tend to not have a very good historical perspective, at least at the popular level, nobody knows this. Nobody knows the history of this area, especially the Middle East. What I hear on TV almost drives me crazy.
Q: Do you think modernity eventually, because of its nature, will change fundamentalism, or lead to another fundamentalism?
A:There’s a sort of historiography in the West of the progress (of modernity), that some things will always somehow get better. I don’t necessarily believe that. I think it’s up in the air. Things don’t always have to get better. Things can get worse. In this country, I don’t think fundamentalists will eventually get to some dominant position, but you never know. No one ever expected that a great classical German culture could produce Nazism. Becker says that we tend to be herd animals, where our lives are filled with anxiety. We have mechanisms to try and deal with that, and that’s both the positive side of religion and the negative side.
Q: What are the benefits of reading some of these atheist authors?
A:Well, I think we definitely need to have thinking people who look at religion with open eyes, see what it has done, and see the negative things that it’s capable of doing. These are all there in the books like Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” or Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great.” I think everyone needs to read those and see that critique. I think they go a little too far when they think that religion as a category can somehow be eliminated. The Enlightenment believed that, by the way, and it didn’t happen.
Q: What did you take away from Dawkins’ book, for example?
A:That evolutionary biology is a truth. If you look at many fundamentalist groups, that’s the big idea that they just can’t come to terms with, creation verses evolution. I think I can quite accept that notion, I have no trouble with that.
Q: Europe has low church attendance, according to many news reports. Does that mean they have a high amount of atheism?
A:In the broad sense of the word, yes. But atheism is not necessarily a nonreligious position. Buddhism is essentially atheistic, meaning nontheistic. That’s an another thing I think that some of the atheistic books don’t delve into. They use the term atheism in a very particular way. All it means is you don’t believe in a personal god, that anthropomorphic projection. My contacts with people in Europe say they’ve seen the downfall of organized religion and its superstition. But they are still longing at some level for some sense of connection with the whole. That’s what Becker says is the core of any religious position.
Q: You say you don’t like the word “spiritual.” Why?
A:It seems very vague so I tend not to use it. I don’t want to be seen in the same camp as New Age spiritualist types. I think a lot of that stuff is kind of wafflely. The thing I find difficult with fundamentals is the essential dishonesty. The way they read their text is very selective. They are very uneducated in terms of the history of their own religion.
Q: On the other hand, those kind of readings of the text seem particularly modern, like a holy book is a newspaper.
A:In some ways, fundamentalist religion has a commonality with science. If you pick up a science textbook, you want to say, “This is true, this is a fact.” That’s how they now use their religious text, though that text was never meant to be read that way. There are so many contradictions in the gospels mdash; that’s why fundamentalism is dishonest. If you’re really a literalist, then you’re stuck.
Q: So is your suggestion that we all should take comparative religion classes as soon as possible?
A:Yes, and try and live somewhere where you’re not the dominate culture. All American kids should be sent to live somewhere for a year. I was born in India. My mother’s side of the family is British and so I was British. I’ve been to India a number of times and I remember when we took our kids to India when they were 10 and 8 for about six months. They always looked back and that is one of the best experiences of their lives, because they were forced to look at the world differently.
Q: So maybe we have gotten close in this conversation to talking about the future of religion …
A:Religion can no longer be seen as a scientific creed. That’s not what religion is all about. You may need religious symbols and that’s fine, but when your symbols become idols, all the traditions get rid of them.