Hitting a religious nerve

In a recent column written for the Washington Post, I commented on religious displays in public spaces.  As is the case with articles of that kind, the Post went for a title that would match other contributions to the symposium that they were featuring.  Their title for the article was “The Scandal of Atheist Campaigns against Christmas” and, predictably, it attracted a different audience.

The change in title was a bit unfortunate, because I’m not sure that there is a campaign against Christmas.  That’s not what I argued.  And, even if there is a campaign of sorts, I am not the least bit worried about it.  The bigger challenge facing the church is not atheism or agnosticism, it’s the church’s own failure to believe deeply what it teaches at Christmas — and a fair bit of sloppy thinking about what that teaching even is.

But the visceral, vicious, and — at times — vulgar remarks made by some (not all) of the people who identified themselves as atheists did surprise me.  So, I learned a few things about the American spiritual landscape.

One, conversations about atheism hits a religious nerve with some atheists and agnostics.

Two, some atheists and agnostics are just as religious about being agnostic or atheist as religious people can be.

Three, for all their protests that religion is a purveyor of animosity, evidently, atheists and agnostics can be just as rude and dismissive as religious people can be.

A colleague of mine noted that it reminded him of a bumper sticker he saw once: “Militant Agnostic on Board: I don’t know AND YOU DON’T KNOW EITHER!”)

So, what’s going on in the American spiritual landscape that includes militant atheists and agnostics?

A few observations:

One, there is a religious narrative of sorts imbedded in the atheist and agnostic position:  There is no God.  Science will eventually not only describe what goes on around us, but will explain it all.  This journey will yield a rational world free of the violence and prejudice that plague our planet thanks to religious superstition.  Christianity is the most evil religion that ever existed.  And, although we are here by accident, we can live a meaningful, moral existence before we expire and our consciousness evaporates.

Two, people do not necessarily become atheists or agnostics for entirely rational reasons.  Some do, perhaps, but as the word “atheist” implies — some arrive at their position in large part out of a reaction against religion.  So, you can hit a religious nerve trying to talk to an atheist or agnostic — because they are evangelists for a point of view.  In fact, one of the things that I discovered is that at least a few of them consider themselves the vanguard of a loose coalition devoted to the destruction of religion.

So here are questions to consider:

Can we really believe that violence and prejudice are traceable almost solely to religious belief?

Can we really believe that atheism and agnosticism are positions that are singularly more rational than the positions taken by people who are religious?  Isn’t the assertion that we will know that there isn’t anything beyond our descriptive powers — in other words, proof of a negative — as much a faith-statement as is the assertion that there is a god?

Can we really believe that atheists and agnostics are less prone to narrow-mindedness, bigotry, arrogance, or the violence than are religious people?

Can science really free us?  Is it free of ideology, agendas, and the potential for abuse?  Can science really be explanatory as well as descriptive?

What is a meaningful existence?  If we are here by accident and we are all bound for extinction, what are the limits to a meaningful existence in a world without God?  What’s more, why should anyone feel bound by those limits?

Can we really be as confident (as some atheists and agnostics seem to be) that we would be better off in a world without Jesus, St. Francis, Buddha, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Elie Wiesel, Confucius, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rumi, The Right Reverend Oscar Romero, Krishna, Moses, Ghandi, and countless others who have attributed the shape of their lives and the contributions they have made to a belief in God?

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