In a commentary in USA Today called “Secularists, What Happened to the Open Mind?” Tom Krattenmaker takes secularists to task for “leaving their critical thinking at the door” regarding religion. In trying to strike a middle ground, Krattenmaker commits numerous fallacies of equivocation (previous post) and fails utterly to engage his own critical thought. The primary focus of his column, like so many other journalists who wish to avoid taking sides, is the idea of NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria):
Discussing the relationship between science and religion, I had expressed my view that religion should leave scientific research to the scientists and devote itself, along with the fields of ethics and philosophy, to the mighty issues of the human condition: good and evil, the meaning of life, the nature of love and so forth. To which my correspondent replied: Why would something as inherently foolish as religion deserve a place at the table for discussions of that magnitude?
As someone who has studied religion and attended progressive churches, I was aghast. I had expected an articulate and intelligent advocate for the non-religious worldview to display a more nuanced understanding of that which she stood against.
The philosophical position of secularists is one of monism. There is no divide between the how and the why, spirit and matter, or mind and body. Rather, we should approach all questions, both evidentiary and those of meaning, with a scientific orientation. This includes ethics, love, and the origins of life. A sonnet may tell us how love feels, but explains nothing about what it is. A creation myth may provide an archetypal analogy, but adds nothing to knowledge about how we actually got here. Notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ tell us nothing about why the human brain sometimes comes up with a cure for polio, and other times produces a sociopathic personality.
We can dig and dig, we can get a doctor of divinity degree. But nowhere in religion will we find any knowledge of real substance. We get less epistemology than we would in a first year philosophy course. We get less science than we learned in grade school. Above all, we find no evidence. This is what closes our minds. No matter how complex a theology, it is built in some fashion on either ancient scriptures or some kind of modern unaccountable ‘revelation.’ When a humanist responds that religion has “no place at the table,” it is not out of bigotry, but rather a desire for epistemic clarity. We would not ask history professors to weigh in on the latest advances in medicine. As such, rejecting religion is not an insult, but a choice to leave behind investigative methods which have proven to yield little consensus or correspondence with observable reality.
Krattenmaker continues by wheezing out the time-worn theistic accusations laying the blame for the atrocities of murderous 20th century regimes at the feet of atheism. His clumsy invocations of the names of genocidal maniacs prove nothing:
Yes, many religious people behave in foolish and obnoxious ways, and some do cause harm in the name of their belief system. Yet the same could be said of non-believers. When a Stalin, Pol Pot, or Hitler commits monstrous deeds in connection with an ideology opposed to religion, does that somehow prove the inherent delusion and danger of non-belief?
No, what it proves is the dangers of following demagogues, whether secular or religious. And it also proves that powerful personalities backed by mobs can be a powerful inducement to abandon reason. A more accurate view of the history of the 20th century would see its bloody dictatorships as state religions or as the penultimate evolution of of the “divine right of kings.” State atheism dovetailed nicely with the desire of tyrants to make their cult of personality supersede all ideological rivals. Of these, traditional religion had been the most potent. Thus under communism or fascism, huge portraits and statues combined with incessant propaganda and even new scripture (Mao’s little red book, for example) to inculcate the masses with the image of the leader as god. The tendency of totalitarian regimes to deify their leaders continues to this day with North Korea’s Juche. Krattenmaker’s bankrupt critique of secularism fails spectacularly on this count. As god-like figures demanding unquestioned obedience, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao and Hitler have far more in common with Moses, Abraham, Jesus or Muhammad than with Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Bertrand Russell, or Voltaire.