It so happened that I live much of my time at intersections of theistic faiths—but especially in that mine field that is the space between people of religion and people without one.
My regular readers know that I grew up atheist, in an atheist state, in a secular Jewish family, that I spent my professional life studying and teaching religions of the world—still being an atheist—and that I had a moment of personal conversion relatively late in life, only a few years ago, then becoming a Christian. As a result of this winding path, I now find myself often offering apologetics for various religious traditions and for faith in general to skeptical, resentful, or jaded students. On the other hand, before my more aggressively judgmental religious students, I defend the materialism and the spirituality of those who relate to the world just fine without using the word “God.” As a professional, I read articles and watch interviews concerning the relationship of religion and the state, the decline or growth of religion in the modern world, the definition of values. And as a person… Well, I live with my atheist family.
It’s a little bit funny: I spent years as an atheist benevolent to religion, and now I am, so to speak, a religious benevolent to atheism.
Of course, it seems a pattern in my life: to stand between two warring factions and to love both. Paradoxically, I am one with and I love: Russia and America, pacifists and soldiers, communists and post-modern individualists, Christians and Jews… And now we’re talking “faith” and “atheism.” It’s a prickly vocation, to straddle the borders of binaries, but I hope it’s a useful one because, as much as I strive for peace-making, I know I won’t make peace in my lifetime. What I can have and maybe share is a bit of insight that will help somebody else identify the problems that create the binaries themselves. And when it comes to the never-ending bloody match “Religion v. Materialism,” an obvious problem suggests itself.
“All thinking men are atheists.”
“Atheism is a disease of the mind caused by eating underdone philosophy.”
Now, before I plunge into it, let me get one thing straight: my terminology throughout this essay is pretty loose, and it’s very hard to find precise wording. Even President Barack Obama in his initial inauguration speech, trying to be all-inclusive of the American population, named some most-practiced religious traditions and then called the non-religious “non-believers.” I remember gasping when I heard it.
So let’s just agree at the outset that an atheist is not a non-believer. Nearly all people on Earth believe in many noble things bigger than themselves: love, justice, community, family, happy future for humanity, truth, science, beauty, exploration, the proud human spirit, the universal spirit, nation, land, life—you name it. For those ideals people work, live, and die. Sacrifice themselves. Make peace and go to war. Religion or not. That’s one.
Two: As much as “atheist” is not the opposite of “believer” or “faithful,” it is not even the opposite of “religious” exactly. Buddhism, for example, is an atheistic religion that rejects the very premise of existence of substantive reality. No divinity there, no foundation to the universe, and any practices that make it look like god-worship are less profound than that and reflect but the universal human need for imagery and exploration of this world’s complexity—the same features you’ll find in any culture, religion or not.
So these are my disclaimers: Most true atheists are materialists, but not all (though all materialists are atheists). An atheist doesn’t have to lack spirituality. A religious person doesn’t have to be practicing. Everyone has faith and beliefs. But we do need words to delineate this particular conflict, so I will use the words we most often hear, and I will trust you, my readers, to know what I mean.
And now, back to my point, to what seems to me the fulcrum of the two camps’ inability to get along. To what I keep hearing, again and again, from strangers and friends, from personalities on my screen, and—in a variety of softened expressions—from my family members.
It appears that the religious and the atheists, in surprisingly large numbers, doubt each other in two very specific ways, both of which are astonishing to me, mutually offensive to both parties, and absolutely murderous to any sort of dialogue. In surprisingly large numbers, the religious wonder if atheists can be moral, and the atheists wonder if the religious can be intelligent. And some don’t even wonder.
“They that deny a God destroy man’s nobility, for certainly man is of kin to the beasts by his body; and if he be not of
kin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature.”
“Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence.”
I’m sure you too have heard this presumption of lack—of morality in atheists, of intelligence in theists—from pulpits, talk shows, book pages, and acquaintances. Maybe, you even share one of them. It’s not exactly a mystery where we get these assumptions. There’s a certain logic to how they arise.
Religious traditions since the dawn of self-organizing humanity have been producers, preservers, and enforcers of moral code. It is one of key features of religion under most scholarly definitions of the term. Moral codes—the definition of what’s good and evil, what’s right and wrong—reflect our cosmological beliefs and preserve our communal order. We believe they help us live in harmony with the Reality Which Is. With God.
So when adherents of religious traditions argue about moral law, they tend to argue about interpretation: how do we understand the Good, how do we achieve the Good, how do we enforce the law if at all? Very few will disagree about the source of Good, doubt the existence of Good altogether or, worse yet, reject it. Because, by definition, God is Good.
Modern cultures largely inherited their moral codes, traditional values, and ethical discourse from their religions. Of course, Enlightenment hit and exploded through boundaries of tradition and spilled ethics all over newly minted sciences, politics, diversity, and technology, and our moral codes became a lot more secular, but the roots of our values are still there, in the past millennia, in our scriptures and myths. And those who carry those scriptures in their hands, for whom the source of morality is very much the living breath of the Good, as much or as little as it may be mediated—they find it hard to imagine what can show the right path to those who reject the existence of the guiding light. If God is Good, then Good is God. And if you say there is no God, what can you know of Good?
“The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.”
“I cannot but pity the man who recognizes nothing godlike in his own nature.”
William E. Channing
It can sound a little simplistic from those who bang on the drum a bit loudly, to those who hear no half-tones. It can sound as if only a reward of Heaven or a threat of Hell drove Abrahamic believers to “righteous behavior,” as if in the absence of God-Father’s carrot and stick, humans wouldn’t know moral compass from mass murder. And the way it can sound only inflames the hostility—because in the “other camp,” the other side’s fighters are expecting to hear simplistic arguments. After all, they think the defenders of “God’s moral high ground” are either brain-washed or irrational.
“Religion has convinced people that there’s an invisible man … living in the sky. Who watches everything you do every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten specific things he doesn’t want you to do. And if you do any of these things, he will send you to a special place, of burning and fire and smoke and torture and anguish for you to live forever, and suffer, and suffer, and burn, and scream, until the end of time. But he loves you. He loves you. He loves you and he needs money.”
As deeply at the root of his very identity as the religious locates morality, a materialist locates reason. The modernity’s surge in secularism did, after all, grow from the time when scientific approach to the world made it seem less mysterious and more understandable, from the era of evidence and reasonable doubt, when fact started taking over truth, and the unexplained, over the unexplainable. Modernity does not hold unique claim to rationality, but between biology and archeology it elevated verifiability (some argue, falsifiability) to the highest—maybe the only—measure of a statement’s value.
The very language of myth and metaphor, the very paradigm of religion, in which falsifiable proof is an invalid operator, are staggeringly out-of-bounds from a scientific viewpoint. It’s an entirely different discourse, where historical accuracy lives only in service to meaning and myth reigns victorious over fact, where psychology and philosophy conspire as much to explain as they do to defy observation—all for the sake of grand, eternal questions that no one really can answer. No formal reasoning, no amount of experimentation can help this debate. And listening to all this “God talk” from the outside, severed from the soul-feeding flow of its poetry and the deeper understanding of its non-literal truth that connects to Reality rather than proves or explains it, one can easily dismiss the whole lot of us as more than irrational but deficient, too.
“I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.”
“If children understand that beliefs should be substantiated with evidence, as opposed to tradition, authority, revelation or faith, they will automatically work out for themselves that they are atheists.”
“That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”
And so, here we are, left with a problem. With enough people having the problem to create a mutual stereotype. Obviously, both stereotypes are wrong. I needn’t tell you that the near-billion atheists in this world are as moral as anyone else. They are saints and criminals, stronger and weaker, mostly just basically good people trying to do their best from day to day. They have their vices and biases. They want to work, to have peace, and to love their children. Some of them even love me.
I’d like to bring to your attention a thought I’d had recurring for years and then encountered in some quote, now don’t remember from whom: God, I think, must like atheists who live a good life tremendously more than, all things equal, His worshippers. Because an atheist is doing it without hoping for an eternal life. Just for the sake of the good itself.
“If you are right to believe that religious faith offers the only real basis for morality, then atheists should be less moral than believers. In fact, they should be utterly immoral. Are they? Do members of atheist organizations in the United States commit more than their fair share of violent crimes? Do the members of the National Academy of Sciences, 93 percent of whom do not accept the idea of God, lie and cheat and steal with abandon? We can be reasonably confident that these groups are at least as well behaved as the general population. And yet, athiests are the most reviled minority in the United States.”
Now, conversely, of course, any barely educated atheist must admit that the rich history of the theistic world is full of believers who could give the greatest human minds a run for their money. Religious believers are, in fact, some of the greatest human minds, and some of them are scientists. Others are philosophers, artists, theologians, jurists—fill in the blank. I really don’t think you need a list. Why a thinker who argues that religion is irrational would dismiss the fact that really smart people have been able to reconcile religious faith with reason is beyond me. Richard Dawkins seems to think that we compartmentalize somehow or that we run away from analysis because the Church commands us so—the many-centuried tradition of Catholic theology that’s been harping on compatibility of faith and reason notwithstanding.
We shout at each other, we discriminate, and we call each other names. In America, there are still states where by law a person who denies the existence of Supreme Being cannot hold public office. But all of this is useless because the problem we are having is paradigmatic. The religious who assume in the atheists a lack of morality and the atheists who assume in the religious a lack of intelligence both operate on logic internal to their paradigms. Each conviction lives and dies within the closed systems of each side’s worldview, where it arises from axioms and is proven by evidence endemic to the worldview itself. These systems do not interact—cannot interact—because they don’t use the same terms, and when they do, the same terms mean different things.
You see the problem? Two ships in the night, except these two shoot at each other.
Neither side has its assumptions really addressed because, from inside, the arguments come in agreement, and from outside, the arguments are met with suspicion. If I assume that anything my opponent says is evil, and he assumes that anything I say is stupid, we will never take each other seriously, and there can be between us no dialogue.
“…the guardians of morality… have drawn the line, beyond which human reason shall not pass — above which human virtue shall not aspire! All that is without their faith or above their rule, is immorality, is atheism, is — I know not what.”
“It is hard to see how a great man can be an atheist. Without the sustaining influence of faith in a divine power we could have little faith in ourselves. We need to feel that behind us is intelligence and love.”
“If Jesus Christ were to come today, people would not even crucify him. They would ask him to dinner, and hear what he had to say, and make fun of it.”
What shall we do?
I don’t know.
I know that religion and atheism cannot sit at a table together and convince each other in some formal debate—their standards of statement support are incompatible. I know that religion and atheism cannot outshout each other or sweep each other up or hide or kill each other—one thing faith and reason have in common in all incarnations is that they are ideas, convictions, pursuits of the Truth, and as such cannot be killed.
Peaceful coexistence is still a hope of mine, and we’ve made some good progress already. I know that simply having neighbors who are not like us is a tremendous thing. All over the United States and beyond, it is proving to be the best dialogue.
But if religion and atheism ever want to have hope of talking to or about each other without being dismissive, they have to face this challenge to come: straddling a binary. We are having a paradigmatic problem, a problem of a closed system, so to get any better, we must step outside of our own paradigms. Listen. And, even when it’s weird, stupid, hateful, or counter-intuitive, take each other seriously.
“The danger is that in reaction to abuses and distortions of an idea, we’ll reject it completely. And in the process miss out on the good of it, the worth of it, the truth of it.”