As some of you may have noticed, I delight in pointing out the dogmatism and dishonesty of contemporary atheism. But I hope it's equally clear that I don't do so in the name of any particular faith. Rather, what provokes me in the writings of such atheists as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Jerry Coyne is their style of thinking, which often resembles a counter-fundamentalism more than it does a genuinely open-minded mode of reflection on the enduring mysteries of human life and existence.
For an example of dueling fundamentalisms in action, one need go no further than the much-discussed recent debate between creationist Ken Ham and "science guy" Bill Nye. Watching that debate — or more accurately, that tedious exercise in dueling one-sided pronouncements — I found little to admire on either side. Which isn't to say I'm undecided about creationism. I believe that the scientific account of the origins of the universe and evolution of life on Earth is much closer to the truth than what creationists naïvely and simplistically derive from a literalistic reading of the Book of Genesis.
What I found intellectually off-putting about the debate was the self-satisfied certainty displayed by both participants. How one thinks can matter nearly as much as what one thinks.
Don't believe me? Then I urge you to check out an enlightening essay by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. (H/t Rod Dreher.) Haidt analyzes the language used by a series of public figures (including atheists Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins, as well as right-wing firebrands Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Ann Coulter) and concludes that the atheists hold their views more dogmatically than conservative ideologues.
That has inspired Haidt to respond amusingly to a challenge Harris recently posed to his admirers and critics. Harris offered to pay $10,000 to anyone who could write a 1,000-word essay that successfully reasoned him out of his atheism. Haidt's response? He offered to cover Harris's $10,000 expense if he does in fact change his views — knowing full well, of course, that that would never happen.
Note that Haidt hasn't made this bet because he thinks Harris's views of God or the science of morality are true. Haidt has made the bet because of how Harris thinks — which is to say: dogmatically.
Haidt prefers a different way of thinking: "I am not anti-reason. I am also not anti-religion. I am opposed to dogmatism. I am skeptical of each person's individual powers of reasoning, and I'm even more skeptical of the reasoning of groups of activists, hyper-partisans, and other righteous reformers who would remake society according to their own reasoned (or revealed) vision."
Skepticism, intellectual humility, self-criticism, doubt. These are the virtues of a mind attuned to its own limits and biases — and also aware that reason is often, if not always, a slave to the passions, more inclined to argue like a lawyer trying to reach a predetermined end than to seek the truth dispassionately.
If more people were willing to think skeptically, we might be subjected to fewer displays of dogmatic certainty. What we need is a humbler faith and a more open-minded atheism.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why we can't educate racism away
- Diagnosing the Home Alone burglars' injuries: A professional weighs in
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Oil prices have nosedived — why aren't airfares doing the same?
- China's leader is telling the People's Liberation Army to prepare for war
- The dangerous message of The Hunger Games
When Americans banned Christmas
- 'Tis the season for archaic English
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- How I lost all my money
Subscribe to the Week