The Blindspots of the Antitheist
What is the purpose of Reza Aslan’s new show “Believer” on CNN? An episode on Hindu mendicants has drawn the ire of many critics who believe that he is sensationalisng the more extreme aspects of Hinduism while ignoring its normative form. At the same time, the ending was maudlin attempting to portray the unity and compassion of believers towards mankind. Indubitably, the saccharine ending was a desire to counter the negativity heaped against religions.
The show is by no means a painstaking and profound examination of religion unravelling the metaphysics, ontology and eschatology of religions. It cannot be due to the medium upon which it is broadcast. Religion, while of perennial interest, cannot be reduced into 30 minute edited experiences. As much as religion is a cultural edifice, and therefore of anthropological interest, it is also intended to be a lens through which the world is understood. To truly come to grips with a religious worldview, the adherent has to undertake a personal, spiritual struggle to find truth.
In an age of distraction, that is largely forgotten. Instead, religion is explained in bitesize and provocative ways to draw listeners in. The result is sensationalism and exaggeration, rather than insight and consideration.
Aslan’s approach is apologetic, but in reviewing his career, “Believer” is a riposte against the more vitriolic diatribes on religion by antitheists such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Aslan has already engaged in a tete a tete against the former, resulting in bitterness couched in grudging respect. While anti-theists endeavor to reveal the anachronistic irrationality and aggressiveness of religions, Aslan pushes back promoting a more compassionate outlook towards religion.
To be on a mainstream broadcasting channel, Aslan’s “Believer” provides a public counterpoint to the antitheism that has enthroned itself in the media and on the debate circuit. Religious leaders have largely failed to intellectually challenge antitheists, in part due to the narrowness of the media, but also because defending religion requires more considered discussions, which is not possible if the interlocutor is an expert in producing quick-witted responses, exaggerating tropes, and providing pithy analogies and thought experiments to justify ones point of view.
It is no surprise then that many of the antitheists are so entertaining in their arguments. The late Christopher Hitchens was perhaps the most versatile, charismatic, erudite and astute of the antitheists. He, like other antitheists, enjoyed the polemic and contentious nature of the challenge, but his approach was largely to dumb down religion and relativize.
Indeed, relativizing religion to expose its anachronism to contemporary enlightened, rational values is the single most important tool in the armory of the antitheist. Their argument as follows is that religion is inherently backward and has hindered mankind from progressing. When the grip of the religious elite weakened over the consciousness of the polity, mankind progressed in exceptional ways. Today we live in the age of the scientific method, where no hypothesis is accepted unless verified, and no certainty is possible unless empirical.
Religion is considered the providence of all that is bad according to the antitheist, and is usually associated with inequality and violence. By arguing its iniquitous tendencies along with its ability to promote violence, the antitheist can then show how the world, particularly the Western world, has overcome backward proclivities by throwing off the shackles of religious thought.
Yet in championing the achievements of West, antitheists reveal shocking blindspots. One cannot doubt that in terms of material progress, the last 300 years surpasses the accomplishments of all previous empires. And it is evident that through pushing against the boundaries of Christian religious thinking , Western man thought broader and further.
However, this is simply material progress, something that is not within the remit of religious concern. Indeed, Islamic intellectual thought is a testament that the world is to be explored and understood, and that all phenomena has its mechanisms, ignited and overseen by God. Enquiry in the Islamic world was not hindered by religious contempt in the same way it was Christian Europe. Ibn Khaldun could hypothesize evolution without being considered a heretic. There was no Copernicus in Islamdom.
The most pernicious and willfully ignorant assertion is to claim that since the rule of law and human rights are Western creations, mankind have become better feel after the rise of the Western hegemony. The West has evolved into societies of respect, something religious societies could not hope to achieve due its exclusivist nature.
What is troubling about this belief is its short sightedness. It is true Western Europe and America have not suffered internal wars recently, and it is also true that liberalism has pushed the boundaries of what is considered acceptability behaviour. However, Western Europe can only boast of 70 years of peace. Prior to that there were two world wars, unrelated to religion, resulting in massive death and destruction that threatened to destroy the fabric of European society.
Worse, the material growth of Western Europe and the US in the last 300 years was achievable by the oppression, conquest and killing of native peoples. Throughout the world, indigenous traditional societies, present on the land for centuries, can all express a tale of woe when colonialists came onto the land and over a period of time sought power over it. Algeria, Libya, the Congo, South Africa, Kenya, India, Australia, the USA, Chile, Peru, Mexico, and others all have bloody histories due to colonialist aggression.
The US, boasting of its support for “life, liberty and justice for all”, is the same country that more or less exterminated an aboriginal people. Moreover, according to the historian Edward Baptist, its growth over the last century and a half owes a lot to the oppression of the black people. In the 20th century, the American military behemoth created a trail of destruction. Iraq, Afghanistan, Japan, Vietnam, Panama, Cuba, are all nations that owe something of its troubles to American intervention. Even as nations rebuild over a period of years, does that justify the bellicosity of the American juggernaut and the countless deaths that resulted?
One could argue that an enlightened person is better than an ignorant one. But at what cost? The White man’s burden to enlighten has often become the lightening rod for a non-white man’s suffering .
In the greater scheme of human history, 70 years of peace is hardly something to be proud of. We cannot be sure that around the corner a fuse awaits to be lit rattling Western society. Already, the growing anger at immigrants and divisive politics in the corridors of power is planting the seeds for a conflict. To then boast of Western achievements in humanity on account of a lack of conflict within the society itself is parochial and arrogant.
Even as antitheists hold the West as a beacon of enlightenment, within society members prognosticate that our material achievements could lead to our destruction. Climate change, largely a result of human greed, has the potential to destroy nations, submerging them due to rising sea levels. Technological progress is drawing in more worry, many fearing that artificial progress will be catastrophic to our very sense of being human.
Writers such as Aldous Huxley, Don Delilo, J.G. Ballard and others have considered the pitfalls of a technologically advanced world on man, and expressed through fiction their worries. We are rapidly creating a highly efficient, technologically reliant world, the consequences of which remain unclear. Indeed, there is an emerging conflict between material progress and spiritual comfort.
To consider religion as the motherlode of bade ideas, as Harris described Islam, is to strip it of its spiritual core. To assume religion causes bad behavior distracts from the fact that bad behavior stems from the very qualities of man religion seeks to treat. Antitheists persist in associating religion with badness, and largely ignore the goodness it promotes and has promoted for centuries.
This is not to say that there are no disconcerting things in religion. But to lump and reject is to conclude one’s own approach is superior. Even as antitheists expose the worst aspects of religion, they ignore the worst aspects of secularism with curious confidence. In attempting to portray religion as more palatable to the modern mind, Aslan’s brisk and superficial approach also strips it of its power. At the same time, he reveals the lofty values that made religion so enduring. It is not the most appropriate approach, but for the time we live in, it is the most necessary.