We are witnessing another of the fierce assaults on religion and on theism that have recurred in the modern era.
The current bearers of this renewed message of atheism lack the gravitas of people like Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, and the existentialists. But while the dense arguments of the earlier writers tended to trickle slowly into the mainstream via the academy, the “new atheists,” as Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins are referred to collectively, write in a much more accessible style and have attracted a wide popular audience.
For better or for worse, the earlier assaults on religion have left the historic fountainheads of European civilization, or “Christian” civilization, in a state of de facto secularization, where individuals and their governments conduct human affairs in ways not much affected by the question of whether a God exists or not. Even Pope Benedict XVI has recognized this, and has set the re-evangelization of Europe as a goal of the Roman Catholic Church.
Christian religious enthusiasm remains vital in the outlying areas where European culture achieved strong influence— the former colonial areas of Latin America and Africa, and in a few instances in Asia. And alone among its fellow industrialized nations, the United States remains a nation where modernity coexists with a vital religious culture that is politically and socially influential.
Will the new atheists succeed in demolishing the last bastion of religious fervor in the modernized world? And do they have anything in particular to say to Quakers?
There is a dimension of universalism inherent in the perspective of the Religious Society of Friends, a perspective that expects, since there is that of God in everyone, that there will be elements of truth in all religious cultures. This is a mirror image of the view shared by the new atheists—the view that all religion represents a disastrous form of ignorance and backwardness. But if we Friends believe in the universality of the Light, do we need to listen for elements of truth being articulated by the new atheists themselves?
The clear initiating stimuli for the new atheists’ angry diatribe against religion are the excesses of Islamic militants. But they use these as an entry point for a general condemnation of all religion. Offered up as examples of how the human community has suffered and is still groaning under the baleful effects of religion are suicide bombers; witch hunts; the Crusades; the Inquisition; the “troubles” in Northern Ireland; any manifestation of moral absolutism; the partition of India; the Israeli-Palestinian wars; mutual massacres by Serbs, Croats, and Muslims; the persecution of Jews; opposition to the teaching of evolution in public schools; opposition to contraception; the oppression of women; televangelists fleecing the gullible of their money; the public beheading of blasphemers; the Gunpowder Plot; hostility to gays and lesbians; and catalogs of myriad other crimes. With the recent escalation in Islamic militancy, the new atheists see the impact of religion on human welfare as totally alarming.
The religions of East Asia are, for the most part, peripheral to the vision of the new atheists, although the Dalai Lama comes in for some criticism here and there. The new atheists do analyze the influence of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. in order to refute the idea that religion, in these cases Hinduism and Christianity, can generate anything laudable. They approve of the leadership and witness of Gandhi and King, but observe that they were struggling against, and finally overcome by, fanatics of their own faiths while seeking to advance truthful values that were really secular in origin.
Collectively, the new atheists’ assault on religion and on theism has three areas of critique, which each of them shares in to some degree. The first point of focus is the behavior of religious people throughout the ages and today. The second area of critique is the foundational texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And the third area is the very idea of a deity. Associated with these three avenues of criticism of religion is an affirmation that rationality, together with science and empiricism, can provide us with all that we need in order to achieve wisdom and fulfillment. It is useful to consider these three avenues of criticism in turn.
The Misbehavior of Religious People
The litany of crimes and sins perpetrated in the name of religion over the centuries is familiar to most of us, and all of us who consider ourselves to be religious have come to terms with this sad story. Early Friends, of course, considered their movement to represent a radical departure from this unhappy history. George Fox dismissed earlier versions of Christianity and those of his time as “17 centuries of apostasy.” Friends in the past could be as vitriolic in their criticism of the Christian record as are the new atheists of today.
What the new atheists lack, and what perhaps Friends of an earlier era lacked, is a counterbalancing sense of the good that might also have come out of religious experience, past and present. The new atheists, obviously products of a highly secularized society, seem to have no sense that religion can sustain and improve people. Even though communities of faith have upheld for their members a vision of life expressing the best of human possibilities, and have excited spiritual enthusiasm for the nobility and attractiveness of these possibilities, the new atheists fail to see this. Nor can they see how religious traditions have offered an ethical and cultural framework within which life has fl owed along in natural-seeming patterns that most people would regard as appropriate and good. They cannot see how religion has provided a vehicle through which neighbors resonate with each other sacramentally through life’s joys and tragedies. This enduring, day-in, day-out reality of religious culture, less conspicuous than the burning of heretics at the stake or the Hundred Years War, are invisible to the new atheists.
The new atheists present clear and persuasive challenges regarding contemporary religious crimes. What are we to make of the fact that it is only marginalized groups, and not the central leadership and the main body of believers, who oppose the many forms of misogyny carried out in the name of religion even today? What are we to make of Christian opposition to contraception and the stymieing of the work of international health organizations in human reproduction in a world where a child dies of starvation every five seconds? Where was the mainstream Christian opposition to a cruel and devastating preemptive war over oil waged by a United States President who claimed divine guidance for his actions? There were Islamic spokespersons available to denounce the injudicious remarks of the Pope, to complain about Danish cartoons, and to issue a death fatwa against novelist Salman Rushdie; yet when a hapless prisoner was beheaded by a self-appointed cell of Islamic militants chanting the praises of Allah while videotaping the proceeding, surely one of the most egregious lapses into barbarism of modern times, the silence of Islamic spokespersons—and of the leaders of other religious bodies—was deafening.
These lapses in religious leadership arise in part out of decent impulses. The history of bickering among religious groups is unedifying, and in many instances absolutely horrifying. The desire of religious people to keep the peace among themselves and not to revert even verbally to the interdenominational strife of past eras is understandable. It seems sensible to try to advance the religious vision of one’s own community in positive terms, rather than to use up spiritual energy decrying the lapses of other denominational groups. Even within one’s own spiritual community, “clean-up” efforts can be infelicitous, as when some Friends tried, and failed, to get East Whittier Friends Church to disown Richard M. Nixon.
The new atheists focus most of their criticisms of religious behavior on fundamentalists and conservatives of the various religious movements they have in view. But they heap scorn as well on the moderates and liberals, whom they accuse of serving as enablers of fanaticism. Religious moderates accomplish this enabling by providing a facade of respectability to the religious enterprise, by maintaining silence in the face of religious extremists, and by supporting the social attitude that religious belief and behavior ought to be kept immune from criticism. Why, the new atheists ask, is a person who offers a lunatic political idea, a bizarre philosophical idea, or an unsound scientific theory taken vigorously to task in the marketplace of ideas, but someone who expresses a fanatical religious precept is treated only with respectful silence while the idea fl oats around doing its destructive work? The new atheists accuse religious moderates and liberals of supporting and cultivating this culture of the mindless acceptance of religious extremism.
It is true, as Jesus said, that one can know something by its fruits. Yet something in the new atheists’ critique of religious behavior misses an important point. It has been said of Christianity not that it has been tried and been found wanting, but rather that it has been found difficult and has never been tried. To what extent can we dismiss an idea because of the failures of the people who claim to be guided by it? Do we need to distinguish between a philosophy’s essence and the shortcomings of its followers? Let us look at the United States. It waged a genocidal war against indigenous peoples. It went to war with its neighboring nation, Mexico, on the flimsiest of pretexts, and annexed 40 percent of Mexico’s territory at the war’s end. Its earliest economic development depended upon a cruel “cotton-is- king” slavery system. It abused children by making them work long hours in mines and sweatshops. Ought all this to undermine our belief in democracy? Is it reasonable to discredit socialism because of the deeds of Stalin and Lenin?
While launching their critique of the behavior of religious people, the new atheists give themselves something of a free pass, failing seriously to consider the behavior of atheists and scientific materialists. In the long sweep of history atheists have tended to be marginalized, and it is only in modern times that they have achieved any large-scale influence. The new atheists express no apologies for the dismal history of the “science” of eugenics, or for the many justifications of economic oppression and war offered in the name of “the survival of the fittest,” or for the unprecedented criminality of the Stalinist and Maoist regimes, the most prominent, officially atheist political movements on the historical stage.
In truth it is impossible to reach a summary judgment about any large-scale and enduring religious or cultural tradition. All are full of diversity and contradiction. Not to recognize this is to indulge in blanket prejudice, either for or against. What we can usefully derive from the new atheists’ criticisms is that this mixed record of various religious cultures persists in the current day, and that the work of identifying and advancing what is good and true, and of overcoming what is narrow and hateful, is an important ongoing responsibility that all religious people face. The need for the exercise of the prophetic office is never ended.
Deciding how prophecy should function in the modern age is a major task. Mimicking our favorite examples from the past might not suit the current situation. Condemnation and threats of divine retribution would hardly be wise or effective today. Interreligious dialogue of a sort unknown in biblical times is a necessary part of a modern search for truth, but there is more need for boldness in this endeavor, a need to move beyond polite caution while also avoiding the antagonisms of the past. There is a need as well for prophetic public witness. Silent vigils, which make a point without escalating rhetorical debate, pioneered by Friends with respect to political conflict, might be applied when religious culture indulges in backward and untruthful practice.
Pope John Paul II undertook several acts of public repentance for past Christian moral failures. Perhaps there is some way that movements of silence and repentance can begin to purify religious witness in today’s world. Could Christians offer a silent prophetic witness of repentance when a prominent U.S. Christian spokesperson publicly advocates the assassination of a foreign head of state? Might such a witness incorporate Jews and Muslims? This is clearly difficult territory. Perhaps the example of Christian witness against Christian excess would inspire similar movements in other religious communities. Perhaps it does not matter whether it does or not; truth will have been served in any case.
It is in their criticisms of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sacred texts that the new atheists strike powerfully at a vulnerable point in all three monotheistic traditions. For it is a fact that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and the Qur’an are sprawling, inconsistent, and ancient texts, and even liberals in the various faith communities afford them a sort of blanket reverence they do not merit.
Some of the texts that have been assembled and canonized into scripture are indeed illuminating and inspiring, and deserve deep pondering and prayerful internalization. The new atheists fail to acknowledge this. Some of the value of these texts may not be immediately apparent, and indeed it is a useful spiritual discipline, a method of spiritual growth, to struggle with them to discern their meaning. But many other scriptural texts, as the new atheists argue persuasively, are a great embarrassment. They merit study as an object lesson, perhaps, but a lesson of a sort entirely different from what was intended by their writers. If Yahweh and the people claiming to be his earthly surrogates behaved in modern times as the Bible describes them as having behaved in the past, they would be hauled off to The Hague and tried for crimes against humanity.
Religious enthusiasts in diverse traditions have offered various theories intended to affirm that their scriptures, taken as a whole in spite of their many obvious flaws, are sacred in a sense apart from any other writings. But in my judgment these theories all fail. If one studies with close attention the way religious people use Scripture, one will discover that everyone acts as if there is a “canon within the canon.” That is, everyone reveres some scriptural texts and neglects others, and they do this based on their human judgment. While they themselves practice a de facto selectivity regarding scriptural texts, they insist also that all of Scripture is the word of God—a contradictory practice that elicits derision from a modern secularized perspective.
At this juncture of human history it is clearly time to “open” the canon. Many devotional and spiritual writings have been produced in recent centuries that are far more valuable than large segments of the material canonized as Scripture. Many passages of Scripture produced outside of the religious tradition into which one may have been born are insightful and deserving of respectful study. I am not suggesting that it is a good idea that we become religious dabblers, borrowing aphorisms from here and there as a basis for our spiritual life. It is valuable to be rooted in a particular tradition and to explore its path to the sacred in depth. But one’s effort in this regard, and the wholesomeness of one’s perspective, can be enhanced by the judicious exploration of the experiences of other faith communities. The main point is that we should abandon an exaggerated reverence for writings of questionable value canonized in an ancient time, and open ourselves more readily to the global treasury of spiritual texts generated both long ago and in recent centuries.
The Idea of God
In dealing with the idea of God, a central concern in the new atheists’ arguments, atheists first must confront a complex reality: that the religious people and cultures they are taking issue with advance different conceptions of God, and some of these ideas are easier to refute than others.
In general, the new atheists regard it as harder to refute the more “limited” conceptions of God that religionists advance. There are many such limited conceptions. For example, some Christians posit a God who is wise and good but not omnipotent, a God who must accommodate the outcomes of an evolving reality that result from the exercise of the free will of its elements (process theology). Others may define God vaguely as “the ground of being” (Paul Tillich). The new atheists are more circumspect regarding these ideas. But they stridently refute the more mainstream belief in an omniscient creator God who prolongs our mother’s life because we pray for her and who allows other mothers not prayed for to expire sooner.
Even most liberal religious people tend to advance what the atheists regard as an extravagant and refutable conception of God. Paul Tillich and the process theologians have gained respect in philosophical circles, but their ideas scarcely animate the spiritual life of local churches. At one point Sam Harris, with some justification, refers to Paul Tillich’s “blameless parish of one.”
Interestingly, there are probably substantial areas of agreement between many conventionally religious people and the new atheists on questions pertaining to God. For example, the new atheists assert that the question of the bare existence of God does not, in and of itself, shed light on the credibility of many other claims made by some religionists in the name of God, such as the idea of the immortality of the soul, the illegitimacy of contraception, or the validity of suicide bombing in certain circumstances. Although religious people are inclined to assert that God sees eye to eye with themselves on all important matters, the question of the existence of God in and of itself does not establish the legitimacy of these claims, even if the existence of God were to be proven. I assume most religious people would have to agree with this, since it is an obvious fact that both atheists and theists can be found on every side of every important question.
A second area of general agreement between religious people and the new atheists would be that the so-called “classical proofs” of the existence of God are not very convincing. Few people go to church because they have pondered the observable chain of causes and effects and have somehow concluded that there must be a First Cause, rather than an infinite regression of causes and effects. Nor could people recapitulate the argument from beauty, nor could they reconstruct the complex wordplay derived from Avicenna and Saint Anselm known as the ontological proof of the existence of God. All these theories are interesting, but they are not what sustains faith, so the new atheists’ demolition of them would scarcely disarm churchgoers.
The case is similar with respect to the internal contradictions in the conception of God found in most mainstream churches—the absolutely benevolent God who permits evil; the omniscient God whose foreknowledge somehow does not circumscribe human free will; the eternally unchangeable God who is nevertheless identical to the God of Scripture who is surprised by the results of his own actions and who comes to regret them. While the new atheists might regard their demonstration of the logical impossibility of this bundle of contradictions as devastating, many religious people are quite well aware of these contradictions and simply consider them as resulting from the inadequacy of human consciousness for assimilating the profound mystery of divine reality.
The hottest topic regarding the idea of a deity from the point of view of both religionists and new atheists is the conflict over creationism versus evolution. Perhaps this might be thought of as a modern slant on the old argument from causality, from cause and effect, yet it seems to me to have a difference. When observing the chain of causes and effects we observe that a spear never creates a spear-maker, nor does a pot make a potter. Nor have we ever observed one species turning into another, although breeding for desirable characteristics within species has been practiced since the dawn of animal husbandry. Nor have we yet observed inanimate matter turning into life, even very primitive life. Scientists hypothesize that such a transformation of non-living matter into a form of primitive life might have been possible under conditions prevailing on the planet eons ago. These conditions no longer exist and have not as yet been reproduced in a laboratory.
Since we have never seen a pot making a potter, nor have we seen a tornado sweeping through a junkyard leaving behind an assembled Boeing 747, does it follow that there has to be a big, smart Something to make so grand a thing as a universe?
I am a child of the modern age with an educational background in physics, although I have never practiced physics professionally. Since it appears irrefutable that many species were created and became extinct before many other species appeared on the scene, I am inclined to view it as more likely that material complexity has been built up incrementally by many, many small, slightly improbable events than that a supernatural agent repeatedly intervened in the natural order over periods of millennia to create one species and then another, thousands of times over and over, and that all these species could not have existed otherwise.
At the same time, it has always seemed to me that there is something different about the theory of evolution than, say, the observable structure of the solar system. Evolution is a theory, plausible enough, but with many gaps and unknowns, lacunae that may eventually be filled in. But if eventually living things are produced in a laboratory from inanimate matter, will life therefore become any less miraculous? The truth is that although much can be known with some certainty, there is also an element of profound and awesome mystery. Unlocking more secrets about the big bang, or creating life from inanimate matter in the laboratory, will not dispel this mystery, any more than does hypothesizing about a Supreme Being that perforce must have characteristics that appear inscrutable to the human mind. In the meantime, to the extent that Darwinism has provided a foundation for philosophizing about morality and the human condition, the results have usually been every bit as alarming as are the dogmas of religious fanatics.
Both science and religion rest ultimately on our contemplation of the natural world. Jesus often began his teaching conversations by drawing attention to natural things—a fig tree, the germination of seeds, the birds of the air and lilies of the fields. Mohammed, too, made frequent references to the natural order and observed, when challenged to perform miracles, that the stars in the heavens, the ships at sea, and the oases of the desert were miracles enough. To survey any beautiful scene without distraction is to become aware of an incredible creative process that has raised all things up from the formless dust, that infuses everything with vitality and energy, that maintains balance and lawfulness, and that illuminates each order of living things with a degree of wisdom suitable to its estate. We become aware that human existence is a part of this great web, we are humbled, and we ask what response is called for from us so that we might play our role properly in this great unfolding drama.
Some religionists disparage what they call nature mysticism as a counterfeit spirituality. In truth, it is not a counterfeit spirituality but the foundation, the essence, and the core of the religious sensibility. However, extrapolating from this primordial sense of wonder and reverence to a developed religious system is full of many pitfalls. To claim to know and to say too much about the Divine; to forget humility; to domesticate what is awesome with conventional notions, mental cliches, and religious dogmas is to lose the delicate grace of which our conscience is capable.
Richard Dawkins, one of the “new atheists,” quotes with approval Albert Einstein’s statement:
To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious.
Yet Dawkins adds a caveat. He does not want the phrase “cannot grasp” to imply “forever ungraspable.” He assumes it is within human capacity to solve all mysteries eventually.
Several years ago, under the leadership of a President who wore his Christianity on his sleeve, the United States proceeded to convert farm production from food to gasohol. We are continuing this misuse of farmland while a child dies of starvation every five seconds, simply because automobile drivers have more money than do starving children. We are enmeshed in an economic system from which human caring and subjectivity have been systematically excised, and which proceeds according to an ineluctable logic. This is Social Darwinism pure and simple, no matter how many Christian fundamentalists may vote to support it.
If we ever manage to refrain from converting farmland to gasohol production, it will not be because evolutionary theory or rationalism have helped us to know what is right and wrong. A sense of the sacred is as essential to our grasp of what is real as is the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, or the declamations of a thousand religious canonists. To lose our sense of awe and our respect for mystery is to deprave ourselves.