Reflecting on religion: growing up with today’s media

John Barrett

Challenging one’s ideas about the nature of reality and long-held belief system is healthy.

But this is only healthy provided that the arguments being grappled with are ones of good faith and truthfulness.

YouTube is a place where videos on the subject of religion can be either incredibly useful or profoundly misinformative.

The “New Atheist” movement has found a prosperous home on YouTube with thousands of videos containing so-called atheist intellectual heavyweights “destroying” their religious counterparts.

These public intellectuals include Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Bill Maher and the late Christopher Hitchens.

The problem with the rhetoric of these men isn’t atheism, but lazy, ahistorical generalizations about religions that lead young people down a path of bigotry. 

As ashamed as it makes me, I am speaking from experience.

I was 15 years old when I stumbled upon Bill Maher for the first time on YouTube.

I had been confirmed in the First United Methodist Church when I was in eighth grade.

I wore a cross around my neck and my Christian faith was massively important to me.

But my world was shattered with a short Bill Maher clip: “When I was a kid I believed in Santa Claus and the Fairy Godmother so of course I believed in things like a virgin birth and a guy who lived in a whale and women came from a rib. But then something very important happened to me that made me doubt all of it — I graduated sixth grade.” 

Soon to follow were discoveries about logical inconsistencies in religious texts, how ridiculous it is to believe there is an “all-powerful bearded man living in the sky,” and how much of a societal poison religion is.

It took no longer than a month for me to become a radical atheist.

I made this viscerally confrontational atheism part of my identity.

My teenage ego inflated rapidly as I began angering my parents and my religious peers alike with my newfound “logic and reason.” 

Then in my senior year of high school, a clip from Bill Maher’s show went viral.

Maher and Sam Harris, two of the atheists whose content I devoured most regularly, debated with Ben Affleck on Islam.

Harris and Maher took the position that Islam is not only an illogical doctrine, but one uniquely dangerous compared to other religions.

They argued radical-Islamist terror and authoritarianism in the Middle-East were logical conclusions of the “motherload of bad ideas” that constitutes Islam.

Ben Affleck countered by calling their points “gross and racist,” and painting Muslims with a hatefully broad brush. 

Of course, Affleck was right.

But because I had been conditioned to believe religious apologists would always respond emotionally to hearing the “truth,” I believed what Maher and Harris were saying.

I began to make this harmfully ignorant argument publicly — which I deeply regret.

The Muslim community is diverse and it is clear the recent rise of violent religious extremism in Middle-Eastern nations is a result of decades of disastrous foreign policy by the United States and other western European nations.

A conversation of history, policy and economics is never central to the discussion of Islam among famous New Atheist figures as they masquerade as “intellectuals.”

This is the kind of pseudo-scholarly rhetoric to which young men are particularly susceptible, and this is how tragedies like the New Zealand mosque shooting are inspired.

I am lucky that I had the right voices around me (and a growing sense of maturity) to direct me away from this disturbing path. 

I want to make it clear that I don’t believe most atheists and secularists hold reactionary views, so this is not an accusation of atheism at large.

That being said, those who choose the path of the non-believer should make a concerted effort to vocally coexist with the religious and seek to understand each faith’s rich and dynamic history.

I really don’t know what my current religious identity is — but I now understand the importance of building inclusive multicultural coalitions in the interest of peace, empathy and truth.