The Pitfalls of Pluralism and the New Atheism

“While popular religion writers such as [Huston] Smith see in all religions the same truth and the same virtue, new atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins see in all religions the same idiocy and the same poison. In both cases, Godthink is ideological rather than analytical. It gestates in the dense clouds of desire rather than with a clear-eyed vision of how things are in the ground. In the case of the new atheists, it springs from the understandable desire to denounce the evil in religion. In the case of the perennialists, it begins with the equally understandable desire to praise the good in religion.”

-Stephen Prothero

Literally, I was about to come and post some thoughts about how postmodern pluralism and atheism are doing essentially the same thing in different ways when I stopped by the Twitter-verse to see what people were sharing with the world  in 140 characters.

I happened upon Sprothero’s Tweet about his recent article/excerpt in the Wall Street Journal.

Stephen Prothero is a religion professor at the University of Boston and is well known for his Religions 101 Twitter class where he described each major religion in 140 characters or less. If that isn’t impressive enough, he just released a book that goes against the vast majority of enlightened  theological thinking.

In his new book, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World – and Why  Their Differences Matter, Prothero goes after the prevailing religious perspectives that say one of two things: 1) all religions are essentially good, just different in expression or 2) all religions are essentially evil, just different in expression.

Cheers to Prof. Prothero for, what sounds like, a reasoned exposition about why this leads to religious ignorance and is dangerous for today’s society wherein religion plays such a key role. Cheers indeed.

Both postmodern religious pluralists and semi-modern New Atheists do us a large disservice by touting their a-religious or tota-religious gospels. Whereas one pronounces that “all paths lead to God” with varying expressions of the divine the other pronounces that “no paths lead to ‘god'” because there isn’t one, and the only difference is what myth you happen to put false faith in.

These opinions are tacitly equal to one another. Take for example the diagram below:

This rudimentary illustration displays both the religio-pluralist’s point of view and the New Atheist’s vision of religion. However, the thrust is in opposite directions. Whereas pluralists see Wotan, the Tao, Jesus, Krishna et. al., Allah, the Dharma and Yahweh all pointing to what we may call “God” or the “Divine” the New Atheists see the non-existent “God” or “Divine” being falsely expressed in the likes of Wotan, the Tao, Jesus etc.

Do you see what I mean?

The two seemingly rival philosophies are both tantamount to “crying wolf.” If a pluralist is to be believed then we have nothing to worry about, religions are all basically the same. The question, why do we need to investigate the claims of religious adherents, study their rituals and understand the sociological ramifications of their beliefs and practices, naturally follows. On the other hand, if a New Atheist is right then all religious are equally worthless and all deserve nothing but extinction. The same question birthed from a pluralist point of view also finds its genesis in a New Atheist’s conclusions.

And that’s a dangerous question to answer; because both the pluralist and the New Atheist would have us to believe that we don’t need to study the religions, at least not in depth or with any real conviction, because they are all either priceless or useless, depending upon your perspective.

Prothero and I both concur that religions not only should be studied, but need to be studied in order for us to best understand how to interact with one another on both a global and local scale (a “glocal” scale…maybe). The perspectives of pluralists and New Atheists may seem harmless in the classroom, but they are poison in the real world of human interaction.
With that said, the likes of Prothero and I must also be careful. We too run the risk of understating the situation when we draw quick comparisons between New Atheists and religious relativists. To automatically lump them together into one category is slippery, because to do so would mean to miss the significant subtleties of each standpoint.

The conclusion I’ve come to is that all of us (Prothero and I included) must endeavor to be diligent in our understanding of others from various religious (or a-religious) backgrounds. This means reading, listening and exploring the faith positions of other people – including New Atheists and pluralists. Effective religious teachers and those who share their faith in positive dialogue are vastly important for our various cultures to move forward on the “glocal” stage.

I try to do this to the best of my limited ability. I take joy in teaching world religions in my various “Sacred Duty” classes (in Southern California with Mt. Hope, in Palmerston North, New Zealand with St. Luke’s and now in Apache Junction, AZ with Mountain View) and kindly interacting with, listening to and sharing with people of other backgrounds (currently I converse with a Buddhist, a couple Muslims, plenty of Jews and  a few Atheists on a regular basis).

By taking steps like these I think we can all take a positive step forward in religious dialogue. Views that either discount, or effectively discard, religious faith based on their similarity (whether it be a positive or negative similitude) do not help the situation. In fact, they only make it worse.

I encourage us all to hold our positions, but hold them in such a way that we can also see, and seek to understand, the perspectives of others for what they are – as distinct and as different religious expressions that are not trying to think, say or do the same thing.

Personally, this enables me to not only believe, teach and confess my Christian faith but also to research and respond in a positive light to other religions (as with my book A Sacred Duty: A Christian’s Friendly Study of World Religions).

I encourage you to keep up the dialogue. Listen first, then respond and do so with conviction!




Filed under Atheism, New Age, Non-Religion, Worldview

5 responses to “The Pitfalls of Pluralism and the New Atheism

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Pitfalls of Pluralism and the New Atheism « Ubuntu Blog – umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu --

  2. recreative

    Check out some of the dialogue on this post at the comment board for the Prothero article I quoted:

  3. Pingback: “And the Award Goes To…” Ubuntu Religion Awards 2010 « Ubuntu Blog – umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu

  4. Pingback: Atheism is Not the Opposite of Religion « The Key of Atheist

  5. Pingback: Religion Matters – A Review of Stephen Prothero’s “God is Not One” « Ubuntu Blog – umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu

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