The Manifesto for Secular Scriptural Scholarship and Religious Studies is a breath of fresh air to those non-believers who wished for a more scholarly approach to religion by atheism. When Richard Dawkins published the popular The God Delusion people on social media were signing up by the droves and were justifiably angry, as the backlash to religious fundamentalism and the terrorist attacks of 911 set off a fire storm of “New Atheism” . As a YouTube content creator it was an amazing time observing such a social movement, after leaving evangelical fundamentalism myself, I almost became an anti-fundamentalist fundamentalist. And nothing said this louder then Dawkins’s description of God in his book The God Delusion. on page 51:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
But the movement lacked serious scholarship. The only people who were translating religion to these “New Atheists” were folks who left belief systems and knew the texts, history, theology, and symbols. I can remember cringing each time I would watch a Thunderfoot video, or see the Brian Sapient of the Rational Response Squad debate. They did very well showing their own audience how they could stomp religious apologists, but their own audience were mostly uneducated about religious history and belief. Even Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris simplified religious metaphors, texts, and interpretations into extremely simplistic terms without even considering their symbolic or cultural value. They had websites devoted to science; but I often wondered why they did not take the time to educate on religious texts, belief, and history. This would put them on the same playing field as the apologists, putting questions to them on theology, morality, and history, and being competent enough that even believers would question the established religious ideas. There was even a backlash for a time against even agnostics, who seen religion as an expression such as art, dance, and music. And even more extreme ideas came from The Amazing Atheist and his failed Atheist Scum United group, that had plans to run believers off social media through trolling.
Instead of educating, New Atheist leaders decided to fan the flames and large portions of non-believers had a fun time giving back to religious fundamentalism what they dealt out to others. But now it seems the play time is over and they appear willing to crack open the books. In order to change fundamentalism you first have to study it and know what it is. One need to dissect it and see what makes it tick. Then work to combat the mechanism you find with less destructive parts, reinterpreting the metaphors and giving new meanings to texts to reclaim them for good. This is how fundamentalism was able to build it’s self , and this is the very way it can be taken down. How did religious literature become kidnapped and held hostage by religious extremists? How are the theological ideas and the interpretation of the metaphors radicalized? How is public opinion, and opinions of believers, forcing the changes being made to religious?
I do not think minds can be changed by name calling and trolling. Nor can it be changed by following some group or atheist rock star. It changes by cracking open the books, reading what the words say and then understanding how the texts are seen by the believers. Then asking intelligent questions in their own language on why they think the way they do and how they came to believe it.
That is what makes the Manifesto for Secular Scriptural Scholarship and Religious Studies a move in the right direction. Reading it’s goals seem to show that finally there could be an effort made to educate followers on religion and belief and have conversations in a more productive way rather then being the bully. Here are a few goals from the Manifesto out of the eighteen listed:
“Insofar as we believe that religious belief has the potential to incite actions that could ultimately lead to the destruction of our planet, we identify ourselves with what is called “the New Atheism.” We affirm that a Second Wave of the New Atheism exists insofar as that descriptor encompasses self-identified atheist scriptural scholars or scholars of religion who:
- Are academically trained experts in the study of religion and sacred scriptures (e.g., the Bible, Quran, and any other text deemed sacred on religious grounds);
- Regard activism as a fundamental orientation of all scholarship insofar they agree with Noam Chomsky’s view that “[i]t is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies”;
- Uphold and defend freedom of expression;
- Question the notion that religious thinking is itself good or ethical;
- Acknowledge that human ethics need not depend on religion;
- Welcome as wide a diversity of scholars as possible in terms of ethnic self- identification, gender, or sexual orientation;”
The full manifesto can be read here.
Such goals in my opinion are an excellent start and will go far in educating both believers and non-believers about each other. It also works to dampen the radicalization tendencies on each side. It is also encouraging to note that non-believers are hitting the streets and talking about their views, giving contrast to the street preachers and religious proselytizers. One excellent example of these new forms of outreach is the work of Anthony Magnabosco, who visits university campuses and asks questions on belief, and has videos to train others using a more philosophical approach. It is my hope that many more will come forward with this kind of mind set and maybe make atheism appear more intelligent when it comes to religious topics.
“We have not even to risk the adventure alone
for the heroes of all time have gone before us.
The labyrinth is thoroughly known …
we have only to follow the thread of the hero path.
And where we had thought to find an abomination
we shall find a God.
And where we had thought to slay another
we shall slay ourselves.
Where we had thought to travel outwards
we shall come to the center of our own existence.
And where we had thought to be alone
we shall be with all the world.” ― Joseph Campbell
Written by A.D. Wayman