I was Mormon before it was cool.

New Atheism: Now With More Zealotry!

I’m currently reading a memoir by my favourite comedian, David Mitchell. He’s agnostic, and while he has little time for religion, he also expresses his distaste for the somewhat recent trend towards assertive atheism:

“Atheism also requires a leap of faith, albeit a nihilistic one. It might as well be a religion – many of its adherents evangelize about their philosophy and beliefs as much as the religious do. They claim their opinions to be certainties. They viciously criticize those who believe otherwise. They are, in some cases, emotionally attached to the idea that there’s no God and dislike being gainsaid as much as a Pope or an Ayatollah does. They then wrap up this annoyance as anger at the terrible suffering religion has brought to the world – as if they truly think it’s the religious beliefs themselves, rather than humanity’s built-in urges to kill, persecute and suppress, that led to the Crusades, or the Troubles or the failure to address the AIDS Pandemic.

"Don’t they get it? Humans will always find an excuse. The avowedly atheist communist states of the twentieth century killed greater numbers than any regimes before or since and needed no religious justification. A politically ideological one served just as well… Atheists are being incredibly naïve if they think that, in the absence of religion, other reasons won’t be found for disguising violence as virtue – or indeed that atheist belief systems aren’t just as potentially susceptible to murderous extremism as any of the religions they oppose.” (David Mitchell: Back Story, p. 175)

Now, don’t get me wrong. I thought Christopher Hitchens was often a brilliant and erudite writer. Richard Dawkins, too, is undoubtedly very clever, as are the multi-talented Penn Jillette and Ricky Gervais. I have always enjoyed the work of Stephen Fry, and Douglas Adams was, for most of my adolescent life, hands-down my favourite author. (Since I’m naming prominent atheists, I might add that I do have some trouble with Bill Maher, not because he’s an atheist, but because I find his “ain’t I a stinker” schtick insufferably smug, bizarrely hostile, and not-that-amusing. But then again, I suspect I am not his target audience.)

A brief aside: I’ve loved Penn and Teller since I was very little, buying their books, watching VHS tapes of their appearances on Letterman and SNL. It was a bit of a dream come true when I was able to see their live show in Vegas a few years ago, and I was thrilled to meet them after the show and get their autographs. They are consummate professionals, and extraordinarily talented and dedicated magicians. Penn Jillette is, I think, quite a thoughtful, introspective man, and he is proudly militant (if occasionally a bit shrill) about his atheistic beliefs. He also has a shockingly low regard for Mormons. But I think Penn is absolutely wrong, and he of course believes I am wrong, but we both would defend our mutual right to say that, which is at least something.

I don’t believe for a moment that most atheists’ aim in asserting their atheism is malicious; I am convinced that most of these strident neo-atheists/secular humanists are sincerely well meaning, though obviously, from my point of view, misled. I do not believe, as many contend, that the irreligious cannot be moral or ethical people — that assertion is demonstrably untrue, and disbelief in God clearly does not preclude one from caring about one’s fellow man, or humanity at large.

To be fair, the most vocal religionists don’t always represent the rest of us God-fearers exactly how we might prefer, and therefore many religions (and religious people) tend get painted with the same enormous brush, which is convenient for atheists, but hardly equitable. Not everyone who believes in God also denies evolution, for instance. We’re not all self-deluded bumpkins. Proponents of biblical infallibility, for example, are swept up together with everyone else, and the result is that a lot of straw men are built up and destroyed on both sides of this Sisyphean debate over the existence of God. On the whole, I am proud to count among our Mormon Articles of Faith this declaration from Joseph Smith:

“We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”

I believe that privilege of religious freedom likewise extends to those who do not worship or believe in Almighty God at all, and I think Joseph Smith would agree.

There are some things to which I object, when it comes to atheists of the ilk I named earlier. Their flippancy, for instance, is annoying, and their self-righteous arrogance is often insufferable. They begin, it seems to me, from a position of presumed moral and intellectual superiority, as though they’re speaking to children, and that air of condescension is obnoxious. It’s the idea that they alone have left Plato’s cave and are now looking back at us pitiful fools as we watch the pretty shadows dance on the cave wall. The problem is that I’m fairly certain atheists feel exactly the same way about the religious apologists, who can be every ounce as arrogant and condescending. Does the fight always have to be over moral superiority? With all the virtues being annexed by all factions, it seems unlikely that anyone on either side is willing to claim humility.

I get that they disagree with the tenets of our faith (at least, our tenets as they understand them; I consistently hear these vocal atheists authoritatively speak about some aspect of Mormon belief that does not resemble anything I believe; I will leave the specific apologetics to people smarter than myself), but what happened to respect? The kind of respect Joseph Smith wrote about in the eleventh Article of Faith? Even our Church Handbook includes the lines:

Much that is inspiring, noble, and worthy of the highest respect is found in many other faiths. Missionaries and other members must be sensitive and respectful toward the beliefs of others and avoid giving offense.

Perhaps respect is the wrong word - maybe civility is the concept I’m looking for. But most of the atheists I mentioned seem to delight in giving offence. They seem to obtain a gleeful kind of rush from being outrageous; from saying things that no one else would – and I’m sure they feel like they’re a minority standing up to a bully when they do this; like they’re speaking truth to power. There’s an argument to be made there, but I still think there’s a civil and respectful way to have these discussions.

I respect atheists’ position as per the eleventh Article of Faith, inasmuch as they have every right to believe as they choose, but it does not seem to me as though that respect is very often reciprocated. (I think Mormons may be in a minority among the religious regarding our position on those who do not share our beliefs. For example, I suspect many atheists would be surprised, and I think a little disappointed, to learn that we do not, in fact, believe they will be going to hell.)

I’ve heard atheists talk about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints specifically, (when they aren’t simply taking cheap pot-shots, or mocking for humour’s sake things that we consider sacred), and they tend to repeat things that have fairly obviously been gleaned exclusively from various anti-Mormon sources, rather than from independent research, thought, or consideration. (I get it, they’re busy, and there are a lot of confusing religions to denounce. Who has the time for genuine inquiry?) It is interesting that a group who purport to value truth and rigorous scholarly inquiry, would neglect to consult, say,, or even, to find out what we actually believe, and then make their recriminations and counterarguments accordingly. It is easier, I suppose, to visit sources already predisposed to angry renunciation, and pick up pre-packaged tidbits about an obscure piece of doctrine or scurrilous nuggets from Mormon history, but it’s craven, transparent, more than a little disingenuous, and hardly fair.

I’d move on to discuss the troublingly intolerant and often viciously and virulently prejudicial nature of some people’s commentary on my religion, but I’m afraid of violating Godwin’s law

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