Sunday, December 14, 2008

Does the Clash of Islam and Christianity Threaten Civilization?

Some people think that the mechanism by which religion will once again send us into the stone age or even wipe out the species is a nuclear confrontation between Christian and Islamic powers. Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher both say as much (you can find them in the link list on the right).

The point is well-taken and in fact it's one of the underlying reasons why I'm what some call an evangelical atheist: secular government is needed now like never before precisely because fundamentalists today have more than just swords to do their bidding. But as an optimist I see an opportunity here: the collision of Islam and Christianity is taking place primarily in the infosphere - in the media, on talk shows, on blogs - and that's a win for atheism. Why?

For one thing, the West is ahead of the Islamic world in terms of accepting and expecting criticism and free debate. While there are plenty of fundies left in the Christian world, we have them desensitized to the point that no one riots when blasphemous cartoons, or music, or artwork is published; on their best days, a Slayer-Robert Mapplethorpe collaboration could never produce the furor of Salman Rushdie going out to Starbucks. The idea that the Qu'ran can be openly questioned is taking some getting used to in the Middle East, and the desensitization process will only be accelerated by the continued contact.

But beyond that, tolerance is in the end fatal to fundamentalism, because it puts people of different faith traditions in contact with one another, and it's hard for them to hide from the fact that those other people across the street believe in different things, and yet their lives seem to be proceeding just as well. In the same vein, Muslims and Christians, as they learn more about each other (and they will, and it will be very hard to hide from the rain of information) will start seeing in the foreign doctrines they decry for their obvious silliness an fearful similarity to their own. This is the backdoor approach Sam Harris advocates: atheists can find common ground with Christian fundamentalists by discussing the clear shortcomings of Islam, point by parallel point. Pointing out the creationist claims that Muslims make often confuses the bejeezus out of Christian fundamentalistis. Then later, when the Christian comes back to the same claims about his or her own faith, even the usual religious doublethink reflexes will not be fast enough to circumvent the same questions about Christianity.

It's not an argument that can (successfully) be made explicitly, but rather a set of contradictions that get slipped under the door for the theist to mull over when they least expect it. As a rather dark reminder, in the meantime, we should support efforts to secularize theocracies and limit the spread of nuclear weapons.

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