Even though there haven’t been any new arguments against the existence of God since the late 18th century, atheism is hot again.
he Enlightenment—a powerful movement in recent centuries that helped us question superstitious stories told by our grandmother, as well as theology taught by respected university professors—has triumphed. One glance at the Google News page makes it abundantly clear: religion is not in charge of the world anymore.
However, spurred by fear of religious fundamentalism, new atheists want to go further than their forefathers. Instead of arguing about the existence of God, they are fighting against the existence of religion itself, calling humanity to brace for an apocalyptic showdown between faith and reason. Religion does deserve to be challenged.
Here, “deserves” has two meanings.
First, religion deserves the pain of criticism and correction because of its failure to live up to its own ideals.
Second, religion deserves the blessing of criticism and correction because it has often been a precious catalyst for justice, peace and beauty in the world.
Recent challenges to religion should therefore be welcomed by religious people as a chance to see, to grieve, to repent and then to act with renewed wisdom for the common good.
At its best, atheism is crucial in this process of religious renewal. With its own set of beliefs, constructive atheism— often described as humanism— sees God as a human creation, not vice versa. It locates the mystery of life in this world, this matter, this humanity, as the only world we have.
Although Christians reject this worldview, they should welcome its demand that all religion must land on the ground where we humans actually live. Religion must learn to live on earth. If religion is not valuable on earth, it is not valuable at all.
The contribution of constructive humanism to our life together on this planet is its insistence that every religion ought to embrace— not just its adherents but the whole planet as its ethical community. In our newly small planet, this is no longer a matter of humility or virtue but of survival.
In this way, these atheists are like the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, calling people out of their hypocrisy toward better faith and a better world.
However, attacks against all religion, instead of bad religion, are bad atheism.
Such attacks reinforce the suspicion of those who cling to the religious status quo that atheists are simply on a power trip of their own, on a mission to strip the world of mystery, beauty and spirit—anything and everything that humans cannot understand, control or subjugate.
The problem with an atheism that seeks to do away with all religion is not that it questions God’s existence or His character. “Bad atheism” is problematic because it embodies contempt for any faith at all—any belief or practice that creates value and meaning for ourselves.
In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, Lee Siegel wrote, “The leap of faith is really a very ordinary operation. We take it every time we fall in love, expect kindness from someone, impulsively sacrifice some little piece of our self-interest.
After all, you cannot prove the existence of truth, beauty, goodness and decency; you cannot prove the dignity of being human or your obligation to treat people as ends and not just as means. You take a gamble on the existence of these inestimable things.
For that reason, when you lay scientific, logical and empirical siege to the leap of faith at the core of the religious impulse, you are not just attacking faith in God. You are attacking the act of faith itself, faith in anything that can’t be proved. But it just so happens that the qualities that make life rich, joyful and humane cannot be proved.” n Atheistic fundamentalism is a dogmatic expression of a worldview just as capable of destroying humanity with zeal and effectiveness as any fundamentalist religion is. By attempting to shut out the spiritual, mystical, metaphorical and transcendent, atheistic fundamentalism resorts to cleaning up the world of those who disagree with it and creating a naked public square, devoid of any options but its own.
While philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche rightfully observed that “every truth is a tool in the hands of those in power,” atheistic fundamentalists have come to an irrational belief that they are an exception, as they try to sell their ideas to those to whom they so openly condescend. What greater power trip exists than believing everyone is on a power trip except oneself? Instead of promoting a secularisation of society that fosters religious pluralism, these atheists impose secularism— a closed worldview, devoid of the windows and doors of self-doubt and hope.
To the end of his life, Sigmund Freud was an uncompromising atheist; in his book The Future of an Illusion, he describes belief in God as a collective neurosis. But his last book was titled Moses and Monotheism, in which he suggested a surprising view about religion, and recognised the poetry and promise of religion. He argued that Judaism and other expressions of monotheism helped free humanity from bondage to the immediate, empirical world, opening up fresh and renewing possibilities for the human spirit and practice. He argued that people who can worship what is presented in symbolic terms practice the ultimate exploration of the invisible inner life. For Freud, faith in God opened a gift of inwardness and imagination.
Both faith and doubt are opposites of certainty and, therefore, part of the same whole that refuses to see only the obvious and surrender to a life that is out of our control. To end religion would be to end imagination.
On the one hand, the stingy polemics of those religionists who defend religion at all costs, and, on the other hand, the demands of the antireligionists, often seem like arguments being fought in an attempt to justify closing one’s ears to hearing the other and sharing the planet with others. The identities of both groups depend on a divided world. Instead of leading us to generosity and great hope in an unknown future, or of enlightening and inspiring us, both religionists and antireligionists are moving us into a new dark age if they are using God to bring an end to imagination.
People will not stop looking into the past and mining religion for its spiritual treasures and hard-learned historical lessons. And they will not stop organising themselves into new kinds of religious communities. For we have learned from human history that religion does not have to be the opium of the people—it can be the poetry of the people.