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Fundamentalists: Christian & Atheists
by pstrjo on March 1, 2010Frank Schaeffer writes a detailed, well-argued book addressing the issues atheists have with matters of faith and religion. He points out the fundamentalist nature of the practice of “New Atheism” in our day. He uses the media label “New Atheist” to refer to the current atheistic practitioners, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and others. This distinguishes them from earlier self-described atheists such as Bertrand Russell (a 20th century atheist) who were not “especially aggressive, political and evangelistic” in their philosophical stance. His is a side by side look at the similarity, and in some cases almost identical way in which fundamentalist practitioners of the Christian faith and New Atheists engage in their beliefs. What Schaeffer doesn’t do is denigrate those holding either set of beliefs but describes why the extreme practice of any belief or non-belief system ultimately breaks down leaving followers, observers and those directly affected by such practices confused or missing an essential part of life if not overtly injured. What he does is dismantle the systemic way in which both parties approach the world from their respective view points and at the same time showing how evangelical today’s atheists are.
Schaeffer writes from personal experience having grown up in a home with parents who understood the bible to the literal word of God. He describes in a previously written memoir the impact this had on him but uses that experience in this book as a point of comparison between the religious believers and those who believe religion is nothing but a fairy tale. Their take is that religion was created and used to help people function in a world that they believe would be better off if only everyone believed in Science and Reason. What has happened however with Team Science and Reason is that the very things they criticize in believers and faith practices, they engage in themselves. Schaeffer also rightly points out that the New Atheists do not distinguish among the different ways that believers express their faith. In Schaeffer’s writing the reader comes to see that there is no recognition or acceptance of nuances in either camp, no distinguishing levels of interpretation and an insistence on black and white thinking in a world filled with different shades of gray.
Believers acknowledge a world of mystery and something “greater than ourselves” while not dismissing the reality of scientific explanation for that which we encounter in our lives. The fundamentalist/literal believer however dismisses generations of scientific work by claiming that the words of scripture are not meant to be read as allegory, poetry, literature or metaphor. Atheists and agnostics in past times also acknowledge mystery and symbolism as being part of the created reality, however the creation came into being. Uncompromising atheists insist that there is nothing that can’t be explained and if you don’t believe what I’m saying, you are just ignorant.
Schaeffer divides his book into two parts. In the first part the chapters are a critique of both the New Atheists and the fundamentalist religious believers. In part two, he writes about his experiences as they relate to faith or lack of faith in God and the evolution of this experience. In his telling of why he wrote the book, he notes that he was tired of being “forced to chose between lousy alternatives.” I find this to be particularly appealing in my own appreciation of paradox. The notion that we can hold opposing thoughts in mind is a guiding principle of my life. I also appreciate his attention to the fact that doubt plays a significant part in the life of the believer but does not negate belief or faith. The discovery of Mother Theresa’s doubts as she described them in her private writings caused some people to dismiss her as a hypocrite or lessened their opinion of her. That disclosure allowed me to hold her in higher esteem. Similarly but in a more public way, Schaeffer share’s his doubts about the order of things and the life that Christian believers live out but those doubts have not removed the element of a life of faith from him.
I recommend this book to anyone who wrestles with matters of meaning, faith, and Christian living to read. I have recommended it to friends in various stages of faith, non-faith, proclaimed atheists and scientists (a believer). All who have read the reviews state that they plan to purchase the book.
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