Monday, 10 April 2017

Atheism and Empathy

I've noticed an interesting trend among some atheists. Not all, perhaps not even most or even many, but certainly some. That trend is an incapacity for empathy. This comes out in their thinking about religion. Again and again I see an incapacity, either willful or constitutional, to understand religious persons or groups from their own perspective. Instead, what you find is an insistence upon articulating those persons' beliefs from the atheists' perspective, and then critiquing that articulation. This almost inevitably distorts what is being critiqued. Usually the critique is well and good, but the problem is that what is being critiqued bears little actual relationship to what real, living religious persons or groups hold to be the case.

A classic and recurrent example of this is the notion that the only difference between monotheism and polytheism is numerical, i.e. monotheism is just polytheism with fewer gods. On a strictly etymological basis this might be true, but a reliance upon strict etymology to understand actual, human realities is an indisputable symptom of a grossly inferior mind. This notion of monotheism as simply reduced polytheism in fact reveals a deep unfamiliarity with monotheistic and polytheistic religions. It ignores the fact that in traditions like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, the divine one and the divine many are in fact different orders of reality. In the Abrahamic faiths, those orders tend towards the antagonistic: the one-ness of the God of Abraham obviates the very existence of other gods. Where other superhuman intellects are allowed to exist, they are not gods at all but rather angels or other servants of the One. In Hinduism, the gods are all manifestations of Brahman; the one-ness of all is expressed through the multiplicity of the many. What I just articulated are themselves horribly imprecise descriptions of the relationship between the one and the many in world religions, and they miss a great deal of nuance and diversity, but they have the advantage of being horribly imprecise descriptions that aim to describe the actual things under discussion, rather than an ideologically-motivated pastiche of those things. And what we can state with reasonable confidence is that few if any monotheists understand the one as simply a numerical reduction of the many. The one is virtually always understood as qualitatively different. To articulate monotheism otherwise simply indicates that one has not yet grasped a basic fact about human religiosity, and that because in one's rush to critique one has not listened to what others are saying. This is, again, quite simply a lack of empathy.

Now, such lack of empathy is hardly unique to atheism. Indeed, one could define fundamentalism--whether in Christianity or Islam or elsewhere--precisely as the substitution of ideology for empathy. And that is why atheism, in its most dogmatic and anti-rationalistic mode, takes on an intellectual form remarkably similar to Christianity or Islam in their most dogmatic and anti-rationalistic mode. That is because they are all suffering from a similar intellectual deformation. In the human sciences, where the aim is to grasp human realities, empathy is more than a moral value. It is an intellectual one, without which failure is inevitable.

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