I don't know many religious folk who wake up thinking of new ways to aggravate atheists, but many people who do not believe in God seem to find the religion of their neighbors terribly offensive or oppressive, particularly if the folks next door are evangelical Christians. I just don't get it.No, you don't get it, even as you stumble close to the truth.
He is dimly aware that it is evangelical Christianity that mostly upsets people, but he doesn't know why any religion, anywhere, would offend anyone.
Herein comes the paradox of pluralism. I first enccounted Gellman, and his "God Squad" partner Thomas Hartman (a Catholic priest), through their book How Do You Spell God?, a fairly representative bit of religious pluralism. It explains the basics of the major world religions, constantly repeating that all are equally valid. He conceeds that some people do bad things in the name of religion, but that's them corrupting the religion, not the other way around.
Such sentiments are superficially noble. As I learn more and more about the history of ideas, I hesitate to give one source for any single idea, but I think it would be safe to say that much of the appeal of this one is a matter of history. For centuries, the dominant mode of religion was an intollerant one that did hideous things to dissenters. The results were particularly horrific post-reformation. We recoiled from "one way to heaven," rightly detesting the thought that "Plato and Cicero, Tacitus Quintilian Plyny and even Diderot, are sweltering under the scalding drops of divine Vengeance, for all Eternity." This, unfortunately, led us to reject "one truth" as well.
Never mind the incoherence of allowing that it is both true that there is one god, and true that there are many. Such a pluralism, worse still, has left us defenseless against the very ideologies it was supposed to oppose. It forces to grant equal validity to ideologies which proclaim that dissenters are "condemned" under an "awful doom."
Need it be explained why this is a bad thing? The absurdity should be self-evident. I cannot conceive of how any rational person could endorse the spending habits of our current administration, but should those who do suffer infinite punishment for it? No!
The doctrine, furthermore, is the mother of a hundred other monsters. It bears a large part of the responsibility for the frequent persecution of unbelievers in Muslim and Christian countries. Who can find fault Thomas Aquinas' reasoning that, if unbelief leads to damnation, spreading it is worse than any other crime and should be punished more harshly? It seems many find no fault with it. In the Left Behind series, which has sold tens of millions of copies, unbelievers are killed in graphic detail with a single word from Jesus' mouth. That is the mindset which this doctrine breeds. What will happen should men who think this way amass more power than they already have?
Many evangelicals, admittedly, recoil from the medieval sadism of Timmothy LaHaye. Here, the damage remains real, though more subtle. When the doctrine of hell is softened but tightly hung on to, what are we to make of it? I think the way to understand it is as a complete subordination of everything in the believers live to orthodoxy.
When it is orthodoxy uber alles, the damage is great indeed. critical inquiry is condemned. Alternatively, hollow declarations are made that God wants us to think for ourselves, but it is made clear that thinking for ourselves must never mean reaching unorthodox conclusions. We get the position of William Lane Craig, that reasoned rejection of Christianity is forbidden and that reason is largely a tool for gaining converts. Then there is Michael Behe, who recently declared that "The danger to Christians from osmosing alien, materialistic presumptions, I think, far outweighs the danger of being wrong about any particular scientific point."
In fact, even basic honesty can be subordinated to orthodoxy. That is a truly perverse effect: subordination of truth to Truth! Yet it is unavoidable. John 3:16-18 says only that believers live forever and unbelievers are condemned. The means by which belief and unbelief is achieved is irrelevant. The conclusion is inevitable: creationists who dedicate their lives to spreading lies have led many to heaven, while Stephen Jay Gould is rotting in hell.
This is a hard idea to swallow, leading another monster. It is insisted that all unbelievers must be being dishonest. They fail to become Christians because they love darkness rather than light.
This isn't even the whole story. The doctrine of damnation for unbelievers is only one daughter of the monster of orthodoxy, which I got such a clear expression of yesterday when reading the philosopher Steven Davies: "I would be greatly heartened if univeralism were true... The fact is that separationism is taught in the Bible and that the so-called 'universalistic passages' do not teach universalism. That is enough for me; that is why I am a separationist" (Risen Indeed 154).
So yes, many atheists are angry, with good reason. And the salt in the wound is that, for all their cries of "persecution," evangelicals do better in America today than atheists. One survey said that while just about every group has a favorable/unfavorable ratting on the favorable side, with evangelicals at 57/19, atheists come in at 35/50. It seems that most Americans, like Rabi Gellman, don't get it.