Friday, March 17, 2006

Atheism in the New York Times

I generally read the Sunday New York Times on Sunday evenings, often next to the grill and always with a glass of wine (or, I must admit, two). This week was too hectic for that, so I'm catching up.

However belated, I can't help but comment on an incredibly wrong-headed op-ed by Slavoj Zizek.

The piece, commented on locally by Ragnar (whose perspective is different than mine)makes the argument that atheism is some kind of unique force for tolerance and peace.

Incredibly, Zizek argues that Dostoyevsky's famous argument that if God doesn't exist, everything is permitted "couldn't have been more wrong" because factions of certain religions have engaged in terrorism and persecution. (Although he lumps Christian "fundamentalists" in with the Hindu and Islamic variety, I guess I missed the suicide Pentecostalist bombers that he apparently thinks exist.)

Atheism for Zizek is somehow immune from this because it bows to "human constraints and considerations" which he apparently assumes must be civilizing.

Bad assumption. Religiously inspired terrorism is awful, but it pales in comparison with the great atheist genocides of the twentieth century. For Hitler, Stalin and Mao, those human constraints and considerations were the reason for, not a barrier against, unprecedented and still unmatched bloodshed.

As is typical with pieces of this genre, Zizek draws a kindergartener's picture of religion. The overwhelming majority of the world's faithful do not believe that God commands them to kill and disregard the value and interests of others. Their sense of moral obligation is more nuanced and sophisticated than a simple desire to avoid punishment and achieve reward. (Indeed, much of the Christian world regards the notion of salvation through works as futile and even idolatrous.) Although Zizek seems to think that religious liberty was an innovation of atheism, it actually evolved from the thinking of Christian thinkers such as Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Locke.

Atheism, he claims, "creates a safe public space for believers." What it is far more likely to seek to do is drive belief from public spaces as our own establishment clause wars illustrate.

Zizek claims that he does what is right because, if he did not, he could not look at himself in the mirror. What he fails to mention is that, without God, what is, in fact, right is pretty much dependent on whatever that beguiling image in the mirror says it is. That fellow may not be as wise as Zizek apparently thinks he is.

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