I struggle to see through the rampant commercialism, the over-consumption and the glazed-eyed happiness of the holiday season. But maybe I’ve had a break-through. It keeps recurring to me this month that kind and thoughtful atheists/agnostics have an immense amount in common with millions of kind and thoughtful people who believe in God.
Too many of us have too much in common, in fact, for me to stand by silently while the “new atheists” (led by Richard Dawkins) repeatedly belittle Believers. Most of these new atheists claim that religious moderates, by their silence, are enabling the social destruction wrought by fundamentalists. I think that is often true. By the same token, moderate atheists/agnostics are adding unnecessary fuel to the belief/non-belief wars when they fail to speak up during the new atheist hyper-scoldings of believers.
I suspect that many of the new atheist criticisms of religion underestimate the function served by the type of religion practiced by most religious moderates (I think that David Sloan Wilson has it right on this point) and that they over-estimate the ability of science to provide substitutes for whatever it is that religious moderates get out of their practice of religion (on this point, see this Salon.com interview of theologian John Haught).
In fact, many of the new atheist scoldings smell of schadenfreude and vengeance. I agree that much of criticism is warranted on an intellectual level, but it seems like we really need to sit down and figure out how to get along with each other, for the common good. Is that possible? Absolutely. We’ve got a country to turn around and we need the help of the many smart and good-hearted believers who line up with us well on so many issues. It always has been possible for us to work with each other and it always will be, as long as we limit membership in our “club” to people who are kind and thoughtful.
Before I continue, I need to define who I’m not including by use of the phrase “kind and thoughtful.” I’m leaving out fundamentalists. Yes, the fundies often show common courtesies—they hold doors open for others and they say “please and thank you.” The social, political and intellectual damage that they have brought, however, means that they don’t qualify as either kind or thoughtful. Who are these people I’m scolding? I’ll refer to Jimmy Carter’s definition of “fundamentalist”:
A fundamentalist believes, say, in religious circles, that I am close to God. Everything that I believe is absolutely right. Anyone who disagrees with me, in any case, is inherently wrong and therefore, inferior. And it violates my basic principles if I negotiate with anyone else or listen to their point of view or modify my own positions at all. So that is what has permeated this administration.
One more explanatory note before moving on: There are religious organizations that are entirely fundamentalist and there are other organizations that are not, but that include sub-groups of fundamentalists. To really get it right, each person should be judged individually. My quick test is whether a person is strongly motivated to impose his or her own image and likeness upon the rest of us. If so, we’ve got ourselves a fundamentalist (of one flavor or another).
Setting aside those fundamentalists, then, what do the rest of us have in common? What do kind and thoughtful believers have in common with kind and thoughtful atheists and agnostics? The list is almost endless. Every day is a good day for all kind and thoughtful people to remember this.
We recognize a rampant dysfunctional sense of community.
We notice moral incontinence abounding—too many people who are all-too-willing to unquestioningly submit to their immediate materialist and biological urges.
We recognize conspicuous consumption that is so dramatic that it keeps many of us from participating in the community building we desperately need.
We recognize the critical importance of raising thoughtful and sensitive children in safe neighborhoods.
We all believe in redemption; We know that lending desperate people a helping hand is something we should
We believe strongly in the value of cultural institutions such as libraries, museums, and universities, especially when they challenge us.
We believe in elementary schools that teach our children to think critically and to continuously reevaluate who they are and who they should be as individuals and as a society.
We support strong science guided by a wide-open sense of wonder.
For every agnostic or atheist I know who ascribes to these sorts of principles, I can name a person who is “spiritual but not religious” who agrees and two additional supporters who regularly attend some sort of church.
If the above principles aren’t enough, consider the hundreds of important and basic things that all atheists/agnostics have in common with all Believers. Reading this list compiled by Donald Brown, should dampen the enthusiasm of anyone who claims that the odd religious assertions of moderates should always be front and center when we atheists/agnostics are trying to figure out who these folks are.
I’ve certainly heard objections to getting too cozy with believers. I am well aware of the strange things that kind and thoughtful Believers say, especially on Sunday. Yes, these things are unsubstantiated and often creepy. But guess what? Kindhearted and thoughtful religious moderates don’t usually say such things outside of their Sunday services and they really (really) do see eye to eye with many of us skeptics on many of the things that really count.
If saying strange things disqualifies us from respecting other people, also consider the many bone-headed things that other atheists/agnostics say and do. There are many atheist/agnostic Neocons out there, for example. Also consider the atheists/agnostics who believe in astrology, nihilism, the free market as an all-purpose Savior to human ineptitude, or that science somehow provides all the answers to those who ponder the human condition (I’m not suggesting that anyone has all the answers).
Let’s make sure that we atheists/agnostics are not making it too much of a priority to bond and work mainly with those who happen to be atheists/agnostics when we might have a whole lot more in common with those people who like to give a weekly nod to Jesus-the-hippie-philosopher.