Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The 21st century atheist (Guardian)

Here's an article on atheism with a bit of a difference. Dylan Evans believes that fundamentalist atheists like Richard Dawkins have done the cause of religion a lot of good by doing the cause of atheism a lot of harm! He artues that '[n]ot believing in God is no excuse for being virulently anti-religious or naively pro-science'. He suggests that religion is like a piece of artwork and provides this little parable:

once upon a time, a talented artist painted a picture of a beautiful landscape on the wall of his house. People came from all around to see the picture. It was so beautiful that they would spend whole days staring at it.

Led on by wishful thinking, some people even began to forget that they were looking at a painting, and came to believe that the wall was a window. So the artist removed one of the bricks in the wall, allowing the illusory nature of the painting to become clear.

Some of those who had mistaken the painting for reality were upset to have their illusion shattered. But the wise ones thanked the artist profusely. "By revealing the fictitious nature of this landscape," they said, "you have allowed us to appreciate the beauty of your art."

So Evans argues that religion is like a piece of artwork - fictitious but valuable. In some ways, Evans's approach is quite positive -- and certainly values religion in a way that atheists like Richard Dawkins doesn't. This view most certainly makes for better communication between believers and atheists. But, of course, from a Christian point of view, religion is most definitely not just a piece of art. Religion is a way of representing reality. Christianity claims to be based on historical fact. For most Christians, to remove the historical claims would mean the end of Christianity -- at least in its historical form.

Evans thinks 'the best way to think about religion is to see it like the painting in this parable. In other words, religions are beautiful things, but their beauty can only be truly appreciated when they are seen as human creations - as works of art.' For a person who doesn't accept the historical claims of Christianity this may, indeed, be the best way of viewing religion. However, this view doesn't really approach the claims of religion on its own terms. It is unlikely that Evans is going to persuade Christians to view their religion as a piece of art - and I don't believe he has any chance of convincing atheists like Dawkins to see it that way either. Despite the obvious fanaticism of Dawkins, perhaps at least he is being more intellectually honest than someone who wants to reduce religion to artwork. You can read Evans's article here.

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