Do You Believe in Atheists?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 30, 2008
It is a prayer that might not warm the cockles of some of our hearts, I know. It lacks some of the warmth and soaring lyricism of, say, the prayer it is patterned on. But on the other hand, there are some things that some of us—maybe many of us—can agree with in there.
We Unitarian Universalists are, after all, children (well, maybe grandchildren by now) of the Enlightenment of the 18th century. We might not worship at the altar of the Goddess of Reason, but we do affirm the use of reason as an important element in our search for truth, and in the way we do religion.
So, when this little prayer talks about the need not to deny logic, and to use our brains to gain new insights “to help us resolve conflicts and ease pain”, then many—if not all—of us might be inclined to nod our heads in agreement, and go along.
But such attributes and aspirations certainly can’t be confined simply to “atheists”. They’re part of the psychological (perhaps even biological) makeup of who some of us are. They’re just part of the way some of us apprehend and deal with the world—whatever our personal theologies, or philosophies, or worldviews might happen to be. Perhaps this is an insight that we Unitarian Universalists can offer to the current battle of “atheists versus believers” currently raging in some circles. It is, after all, something of an old conversation for us—this wondering about how people of different viewpoints on matters of faith and belief can exist together under one roof. We’ve been doing it for some time now; and while ours may not be everyone’s ideal of an optimal household of faith, many of us have continued to find it satisfying, and comforting, and even inspiring at times. “You have your beliefs and I have mine,” we Unitarian Universalists says. “I believe in God, and you don’t. You call yourself an atheist or an agnostic, and I don’t. So, what’s the big deal? Come, let us reason together. Let us listen to one another. Let us do what we can to build a better world.”
That, in a nutshell, is the way we generally approach matters of theological disagreement. We sort of shrug our shoulders and say, “So what? That’s just the way the world is.”
Now, of course, there are some people who don’t approve of our approach. Whenever they speak of the Unitarian Universalist “church” or “religion” or “faith”, they always put those nouns in quotation marks, and utter them with more than a touch of irony in their voices—as in “the so-called Unitarian Universalist ‘church’—the so-called ‘religion’—the so-called ‘faith’…” You get the idea.
They say we’re so open-minded as to be empty-headed. Or that we’re so “accepting” as to be “theologically incomprehensible”. (They also say, sometimes, that we’re also a “cult”—which seems like something completely different to me—but that’s next week’s sermon). Over the years, we’ve become use to this kind of criticism, and to people who just don’t get the way Unitarian Universalists do religion.
But now, apparently, people from the diametrically opposite perspective don’t seem to “get it” either. Not only do some people of more traditional or conservative faith perspectives question our “live and let live” form of tolerance; but now, it seems, people of no faith whatsoever—open and avowed atheists, in fact—would also question whether it is even possible for believers and non-believers to coexist together, work together, and share together the same spot of earth.
There has arisen, in recent days, what’s been called “The Atheist Revival”, or the rise of the “New Atheism”. For the past few years, there has arisen within the ranks of non-believers a new militancy, a not very civil stridency, as some of us see it.
The first volley in the current debate was, perhaps, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Religion by Sam Harris, published by W.W. Norton in 2004. This was followed by The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, a professor of evolutionary biology at Oxford; then by the book, God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, a British-American author and journalist who had formerly made a name for himself for an unsympathetic biography of Mother Teresa titled The Missionary Position. Hitchens was also one of the few left-wing political writers to come out in favor of the British-American invasion of Iraq, so in the views of some of us, at least, his religious perspective seems as skewed as his political one. There were other entries on the neo-atheism book list, as well, by authors like Daniel Dennet and Michel Onfrey and Victor Stenger, and all of them did quite well commercially, with the ones by Dawkins and Hitchens heading to the top of the New York Times best-sellers list (Dawkins actually toppled Harry Potter from that exalted perch).
Now, atheism is nothing new, certainly; and this is not the first time that it has actually gained a good deal of public popularity. The British historian Paul Johnson identifies several similar “atheist revivals” in (more or less) recent history:
“Waves of atheism have swept the West before,” Johnson writes. “One was in the mid-18th century when the devastating Lisbon earthquake, killing some 60,000 people, shook the belief of many in the benevolence of God. Another was in the mid-19th century, when advances in geology destroyed the traditional chronology of the Old Testament, proving that the Earth was much older that the 6,000-odd years the Bible allowed. A third spasm followed the First World War, when the combination of Freud’s writings and Einstein’s theory of relativity upset established views of the human psyche and the universe.”
But why has there been, apparently, another such upsurge in atheist thinking right now? Why does it now seem that atheists are no longer willing to suffer in silence, off alone by themselves? I think it’s because many people fear—not just atheists, but some of us who would call ourselves “people of faith”, too—that there has been, in recent days, an incursion of a certain form of narrow “faith” into the political realm, with an ongoing erosion of the separation of church and state. Many people are alarmed at what they see as grave threats currently facing the integrity of science and the maintenance of liberty. These threats, it seems, have arisen in three main places:
These are, as I’ve said, matters of concern to many of us. But the difference with Dawkins, Hitchens and their ilk is that they want to paint all religion—all faith—all spirituality even-- with the same dark brush. They want to blame all of these problems (and a whole lot more) not just on religious extremists, but on religion itself. Religion isn’t part of the solution to the problems of our world, these neo-atheists say; religion is, rather, a part of the problem. Indeed, they even go further, and declare that, often, religion itself is the problem.
In The God Delusion, Dawkins characterizes the God of the Old Testament as “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it… petty… unjust, [an] unforgiving control freak… misogynist, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, [and] genocidal.” (He makes even Dick Cheney look good.)
For his part, in God is Not Great, Hitchens blasts all monotheistic religion—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam alike—as “a plagiarism of a plagiarism of a hearsay of a hearsay, of an illusion of an illusion, extending all the way back to a fabrication of a few non-events.”
Not only do these extreme atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins want to throw out the old mucky, mired bathwater of patriarchal, triumphalist, tribalist, traditional religion (which many of us would help them do actually, and say “good riddance” to the lot of it)—they have no problem with throwing out the baby of the Western religious tradition, as well: All of Judaism and all of Christianity, to boot, is a sham and delusion to them, a Great Lie—a hoax of monumental proportions which has poisoned the world’s mind for millennia, and given rise to a long litany of war, sexual oppression and repression, torture, execution, slaughter, clergy abuse, economic injustice, and so on and on… All these sins have arise because of religion.
Well, some of us find this full-cloth condemnation of religion in general, and belief in God in particular, as just a “little bit” too broad.
It’s always nice, in difficult times like those we’re living in now, to have a scapegoat, someone to blame. Practitioners of various religions have been doing this for centuries, right down to our own day. Remember those two great [irony warning] “men of faith”, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson on the air discussing the 9/11 attacks, right after they happened. “Who was to blame?” they asked. Why, the homosexuals, of course. And the feminists. And the pagans—and, of course, the atheists. That’s why God had let down His protection of America—because of all these people (whom Falwell and Robertson didn’t happen to like).
If I thought God was really like that—if God was as narrow-minded and myopic as those two theological and political morons-- then I’d want to kill off God, too.
But now, the other side seems intent on playing a similar card. Looking back at the pages of history which human hands have stained with blood time and again, they want to blame God—or rather, the belief in God. It’s religion’s fault that all these things have happened. We always seem to want a scapegoat to explain away all the evil our world has seen. So, the hue and cry arises: "Blame Theology! Blame Theology! It seems that everything's gone wrong, since Theology came along!"
In the face of the crimes of the 20th century’s Holocaust, which plunged the world into war and left millions of innocent men, women, and children slaughtered, don’t blame the madman, Hitler, who spurned religion, who hated the Church, and who desired more than anything to be worshipped as a god himself. No, blame those who believed in the faith of Abraham, the faith of Moses, the faith for which they were slaughtered. Hitler didn’t kill millions because he had once been baptized a Catholic. He killed millions because his demented, diseased, disordered mind spawned an evil which counted other human beings as nothing.
In the face of the economic holocaust now facing our world, don’t blame human greed and an economic system which devalues and marginalizes vast numbers of men and women, and renders them redundant. Blame those who believe in the simple carpenter’s son who taught: “Blessed are the poor,” and “For as you have done it to one of these, the least of my brothers and sisters, so you have done unto me.”
In the face of a world which needs healing, don’t look toward role models who acknowledged a power greater than their own as source of their hope and strength and power. Don’t look toward people of faith like Martin Luther King, or Dorothy Day, or Mother Theresa of Calcutta, or Daniel and Philip Berrigan. No, seek out role models who sing a human song alone, who believe that human reason, human ability, human insight in the pinnacle of the creation. Like whom? Like whom? Stalin? Pol Pot? Make no mistake about it: Millions more were killed during the century just ended in the name of godless regimes, than in the name of God-fearing ones.
But let’s go back farther than that. Both Aristotle and Plato, those highly-esteemed exemplars of the earlier order, the so-called “golden age” of humanism before monotheism (supposedly) ruined everything held that most human beings are by nature docile and slavish, and suitable only for slavery. Athens, the humanist holy land, was a slave state! "Dignitas" was only for the few, the elite, in the Classical humanist viewpoint.
Judaism and Christianity, on the other hand, say that inherent worth and dignity are universal-- dignity exists in all human beings, for all human beings are loved by their Creator, made in their Creator's image, and destined for eternal bliss and happiness with their Creator. For Jew, Christian, and Muslim alike, human liberty to choose one’s path is the absolutely fundamental fact of God's revelation to us human ones.
Sometimes—oftentimes-- people choose the wrong path; people of faith, no less than those without it. There have been, throughout history, evil holy men (and women, too, I guess) of every persuasion—blood-thirsty imams, mad monks, conniving bishops, evil popes, misanthropic ministers and priests and even rabbis. You’d have to blind not to notice them.
But let us place the blame for their evil where it belongs, as well: not in the practice of their faiths, but in its absence; not in the heart of God, but in the cold and tortured hearts of men and women who have turned their backs on their God, and have exalted their own small human abilities as the hope of the world.
In his book I Don’t Believe in Atheists, journalist (and Harvard Divinity School graduate Chris Hedges) writes:
Even for those who are most faithful, there are those times of unbelief. For most of us mere mortals, perhaps, that is a good thing—because doubt, even in the realm of our search for faith, keeps us humble: it keeps us open to new insights; it keeps us listening to one another. “Doubt is the handmaiden of truth,” a poet once said. It is also the harbinger of a deeper, more genuinely internalized and actualized faith. Belief without humility is a dangerous thing: for people of faith and non-believers alike.
“I would rather have a committed atheist than a lukewarm Christian any day,” Martin Luther King, Jr. once said. For on this earthly coil, we can believe a whole host of different things about God, and faith, and the worlds that may or may not lie beyond (and within) this one.
What matters most—right now—is that we are here, together, on this tortured planet, on this good earth. Let us leave Infinity to the Infinite, and let us join hands—in humility, in mutual respect, in love—with men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit everywhere, calling upon whatever powers we need, to bind up the broken and heal this world’s deep wounds.