A friend of mine, formerly a devout Christian who is now an atheist (and, unfortunately, a rather bitter and cynical one at that), wrote this to me recently:
I got into religion as a literal believer, and I became disappointed when I discovered that I was repeatedly lied to (the earth is not 6000 years old, for instance, and now I suspect that Jesus is not God in the flesh, any more than anyone else is anyway).
I understand his feeling of being lied to. But I am reminded of Meister Eckhart, who defended himself against charges of heresy by saying, “I am able to be in error, but I cannot be a heretic, for the first belongs to the intellect, the second to the will.” So, did my friend’s teachers lie to him in the sense of willfully deceiving him, or did they merely pass on the contours of their own limited and erroneous beliefs, which eventually led him to concluding that he had been deceived, once he had amassed enough data that challenged their religious worldview?
I think the latter is the more likely scenario, but either way, the result is the same: a man, disillusioned and angry, when he considers alternative ideas and decides that those who had taught him must have been unethical because they themselves had not sufficiently considered — let alone presented to their students — these conflicting worldviews.
I suspect this righteous anger at “having been lied to” might be fueling many of the militant atheists in our society. I think it represents an interesting inversion of the fundamentalist mind: fundamentalists often anchor their theology in a strong demonology that not only asserts the literal existence of a Satan, but argues that Satan is in the business of deceiving human beings — and that souls will be lost merely for being deceived (don’t believe me? Pick up a Chick tract and read it. That’s a common theme of Jack Chick’s). In the scary-clown funhouse of ultra-conservative Christianity, gullibility is a mortal sin.
Somebody once quipped that the god of an old religion becomes the devil of a new religion, and perhaps this is the dynamic at work here. Having been taught that evil is particularly bound up with deception, the person who leaves literal religion might conclude that, because he was deceived by his religion, that it is in fact evil — and so my friend does not say he was “misled” but that he was “lied to.” Bamboozled by the Bible-thumpers; conned by the Christians.
Twenty years ago I thought that goddess religion was the archetypal spirituality of our times. These days, however, I think that distinction goes rather to militant atheism. Jim Marion, following the ideas of Ken Wilber, writes about ” the death of the mythic God,” which of course is an echo of the radical “God is dead” theology that emerged in the 1960s, following the writings of Nietzche. We are all called to surrender God-as-Santa Claus, or, for that matter, God-as-enraged-father-figure. Those of us who insist on holding on to our childish images of God collapse into fundamentalism. Many others will let go of these immature God-images, but only by rejecting the Divine Mystery altogether, retreating into a kind of anti-religious scientific positivism that has its own internal logical coherency but, as far as I can tell, seems to be consumed with bitterness and anger. When it comes to emotional tonality, Richard Dawkins has more in common with Jack Chick than he’d like to admit.
But what lies beyond mythical-literal religion and ideological atheism? Ignoring for now the rapidly-shrinking and theologically timid varieties of liberal Christianity, as well as the various consumer spiritualities that have emerged over the last fifty years (buy this crystal to enhance your aura), I believe that ultimately, the heart of any kind of sustainable post-fundamentalist religion can only be in what I call holy agnosis: the landscape of the Divine Mystery, where mythical religion need not be entirely dismissed but rather can be rehabilitated into a narrative of personal and collective transfiguration, even if its old truth claims must be re-evaluated in the light of science. But holy agnosis is not merely an arena where the truths of science finally triumph over the myths of faith; for this is likewise a forum where science must be evaluated not only in terms of its claim to truth, but also in terms of its efficacy in promoting what is good (nuclear bombs?) and what is beautiful (toxic waste?). In short, I believe holy agnosis requires science, and religion, and for that matter art. Knowledge in search of truth does not lead us to solid “things” to be grasped or an unchanging reality “out there” to be mapped, but rather functions as a tool for exploring the realm of unknowing, always with an eye to balancing truth with goodness and beauty. Fundamentalist religion will not long survive in this environment, any more than will ideologically dogmatic atheistic science. A more humble religion and a more humble science will find that they need each other, with art (which includes storytelling) functioning as the uniting element which will allow them to come together.
I called this post “The Epistemology of Post-Fundamentalism” not because I have any words of wisdom on such a topic, but mainly because I’m not sure how to promote a world where theists and atheists, both of whom know that they know “the truth,” can transcend their limited/partial perspectives and embrace the profound mystery that lies beyond the limits of their knowing. I wish I did, though: for the sake of everyone I know who is bitter and cynical because they’re tired of being “lied to.”