Well now. The small stick I swung connected with a big hornets' nest.
In my previous column, on June 12, I expressed annoyance with an aggressive subset of atheists exemplified by, to cite two examples, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Some in this camp refer to themselves as "new atheists" or, if you prefer, "New Atheists."
There's nothing new about their beliefs.
Back in my own former days as a budding atheist (or at least an agnostic), I enjoyed the writings of 19th-century skeptic Robert Ingersoll, who said many of the same things the new atheists say, although without so much bile. Ingersoll did allow that religious souls, even if misguided, occasionally had managed to perform worthwhile deeds of charity.
Still, as Solomon observed, there's nothing new under the sun.
I thought I made it clear that my objection today is not with atheists per se, this being a free country, but with a branch of atheists whose main approach to discussing religion is to browbeat and demean in the broadest terms anyone who doesn't see things precisely their way.
This is exactly what some Christian fundamentalists do, too.
I don't like it when either side takes that approach.
Whew. All totaled — in my e-mail and on Kentucky.com, Fark.com and Digg.com — that column drew 3,500 comments.
I had time to read only a fraction of the responses. Based on what I saw, it appeared that about 90 percent came from atheists. About three-fourths of that 90 percent was from atheists who described me and other people of faith generally by using every cliché, epithet and half-truth they could muster.
I asked Liz, my fiancée, who read some of the flak, "So, what do you make of that?"
"A hit dog howls," she said. "I'd thank them for making your point better than you did."
But having outraged that many people, I feel compelled to try again to explain myself.
I probably know as many atheists as most atheists do, having spent much of my life in, variously, academia, the arts and journalism, all of which draw their share of iconoclasts and naysayers. Most atheists I've met aren't intolerant, arrogant blowhards. They're reasonable. Good citizens. Good neighbors. Nice folks.
I would say the same about most religious people I know, whether they're Presbyterians or Eastern Orthodox, liberals or, yes, even fundamentalists. The majority of fundamentalists worship as they see fit on Sundays, go to work on Mondays and don't mistreat anybody.
And personally, I don't care much what you believe. As I've written often, you can worship the fiery God of the Old Testament, Allah, the cheek-turning Jesus of the Gospels, peat moss, pet rocks, science or nothing at all. It doesn't faze me.
I might not agree with you, but I don't expect you to agree with me, either. I'm OK with you publishing books or taking to the airwaves to express your faith or lack thereof.
What I do expect is that anyone who ventures into the public square to state his or her views on religion will exhibit two traits: civility and humility.
When it comes to religion, the stakes are as grave as stakes get: our eternal fates. Yet there's always the chance that even the most sincere believer or non-believer is sincerely wrong.
Fervent atheists can't prove there is no God. They respond to that proposition by arguing that it isn't their duty to prove a negative. To an extent, they're right, but this begs the question. The point is, they have no proof.
Neither can the most pious believer prove God does exist. Nor can believers prove that, even if there is a God, he favors their particular sect.
We're all shooting in the dark, more or less. Therefore, it behooves us all to approach any discussion of religion with modesty, and to show one another courtesy.
My objection is not with fundamentalist Christians. My objection is not with atheists. I know and like members of both groups.
My objection is with bloviators, whatever their belief system.
It's one thing to say, in effect, "I don't believe in God. I don't see any scientific evidence that God exists. I don't understand why other people would believe."
It's entirely another to say, in effect, "I don't believe in God. Therefore, anybody who does believe is a violent, irrational follower of fairy tales who is beneath contempt." (Or to say, as does the subtitle to Hitchens' book God Is Not Great, that "religion poisons everything.")
When you cross that line, you've gone from being merely an atheist, which is your right, to being a royal jerk — which also is your right, but which means you're going to get on everyone's last nerve. Or at least you're going to get on my last nerve.
I don't have a problem with your worldview. I have a problem with your manners.