I’m currently reading Allah Is Dead: Why Islam is Not a Religion by Rebecca Bynum. This is a Christian critique of Islam. Since this is a member of one religion criticizing another religion, it is not as straightforward as, say, Sam Harris’ criticism of Islam in The End of Faith. She frequently claims that Christianity is superior to Islam, and to do this, she often tries to lump Islam and Atheism together, as if they are both more alike than they are like Christianity. So there is lots of backpeddling, in which she will criticize Islam, then try to show that Christianity is not the same. To her credit, she is a liberal Christian, not a fundamentalist or a young Earth creationist. Her own Christianity is so far removed from the Bible that she admits the difficulty in recognizing Jesus as a sacrifice for our sins, and she even denies outright that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. But despite the superiority of her own beliefs to fundamentalist Christianity and Islam, there is a lot of atheist-bashing in this book. That’s what I want to comment on here.
In chapter 10, “The Progressive Diminishment of Man,” she writes
In the space of a few short generations, man has descended from seeing himself as little less than the angels to king of the beasts to nothing more than a complex machine. The effect this has had on culture, on art and literature, has been devastating.
I think the polite term for this is hyperbole. If it turns out that I’m a complex machine, that just gives me more appreciation for machines. Whether or not we are something just short of angels or the most intelligent of animals, being human is a great thing to be.
She goes on
For as the essential importance of man has decreased, so has his ability to portray life in anything other than absurd terms. In literature the concept of tragedy, for example, a character flaw often compelled the central character to follow a predictable, tragic fate. But even in Shakespeare the idea of the hero, so prominent in Greek tragedy, was already diminished. Satire remained, of course, and continued from Pope through Byron. Then, in the 19th Century, we witnessed the rise of the psychological novel which then waned as the anti-hero rose to dominance. Today, literature has been reduced to a prolonged and tedious exploration of the aberrant. The hero has long been vanquished, with the exception of children’s comic books, because man no longer sees himself in a great spiritual struggle with eternal stakes.
It’s true that we have satire, comedy, and other literature that focuses on the aberrant and the non-heroic. But it’s not as though that’s all there is. Heroism is amply present in modern literature and drama. Not only do we have heroes, but we have superheroes. Bynum dismisses comic books as something for children, as though mature, sophisticated adults don’t read them. I continue to read comic books, and it is mainly for the heroism of the superheroes. I also watch superhero television shows and movies. In recent years, Smallville gave what was both the most human and the most heroic portrayal of Superman to yet appear on television. Also, in recent years, superhero movies have been doing very well in the box office. The recent Batman movies have shown the epitome of heroism and have been the best Batman movies yet. I watch plenty of Korean dramas, and several of these are historical dramas about heroic Kings and Queens. If these dramas are to be believed, every kingdom of ancient Korea had the equivalent of King Arthur on the throne at one time. Some of them have even been tragic, such as The Great Queen Seondeok or Ja Myung Go. As for complex machines, one of my favorite novels, The Positronic Man by Asimov and Silverberg, is about a robot who becomes more and more human. Instead of diminishing man as nothing more than a robot, it presents humanity as something for a robot to aspire to. In general, I don’t see the diminishment of man that Bynum is complaining about and attributing to Darwin and atheism. Despite what may be present in the media, my own interests still favor portrayals of heroism.
But I do watch satire and comedy too, and it is less about the portrayal of heroism. After all, it is not heroes who get the most laughs. But laughter and comedy are good things. It is good to see that normal humans have their foibles. This isn’t the diminishment of man. It is about recognizing that we not all gods or full-time heroes, that there is more to being human than heroism and tragedy. As I think about shows like South Park, The Simpsons, and Family Guy, there is a lot more absurdity in them than heroism. But even they have their moments of heroism. And although these shows portray lots of stupid and unworthy people, they also show the possibility of being a hero. It’s not all black and white. Despite Bynum’s hyperbole and rhetoric, Darwin and atheism are not bringing about the diminishment of man she is complaining about. What she is spouting here is nothing more than anti-atheist propaganda.