Why are atheists so passionate about disbelief?

Margaret Somerville
The Globe and Mail
November 16, 1996, D2
Reproduced with Permission

Wendy Kaminer (Globe and Mail, Saturday, November 2, 1996, p.D5, reprinted from The New Republic) is wrong that "God is still not dead". At least for some of us, the God she describes, "the [t]yrannical and invincible, irrational, supernatural brute" is dead. But rejecting the type of religious beliefs that she outlines does not mean that we need to be atheists.

To begin with, just as Ms. Kaminer questions the sources of religious beliefs, we need to do the same for atheistic beliefs. For instance, militant atheists' powerful need to reject religion can indicate that they are still attached to religion to a degree that is highly uncomfortable for them. Lack of attachment is more likely to be manifested as indifference or neutrality towards religion and those who practice it, than hostility. Or, atheists criticize bringing religious beliefs into the public forum on the grounds that, unlike atheism, these are not based on reason. But is there a false rationality to atheism? Atheists disbelief in religion, in particular God, is provable, because they need only show their disbelief. But the content of their belief that there is no God is no more provable than the content of the belief of those who are religious that there is a God.

Ms. Kaminer raises the concept of soul and seems to equate loss of this with loss of belief in it. The two are not the same, and we may have lost the former but not the latter. It is difficult to talk about soul, and most of us are not at all certain what we mean if we do so. To the contrary, we usually do have a good idea of what we want to communicate in speaking of the loss of soul. We mean the space or void that we sense has opened up in our individual and collective or community lives as a result of the immense changes that we have encountered in the second half of the twentieth century. These changes include the decline in the practice of institutionalized religion (even if, as Ms. Kaminer notes, we still describe ourselves as religious) and the more recent failure of faith in our religion substitute, medical science and technology.

Ms. Kaminer focuses her objections to religion on allowing it to have influence in the public sphere, especially with respect to decisions relating to public policy. But the overall tone of her article leads one to feel that her objections are broader and deeper than this, and that public policy is a seemingly neutral focus through which to voice these wider objections. In any case, issues currently being decided in the context of public policy, such as euthanasia, go to the very heart of some people's religious beliefs. It would be to ask them to deny their religion to require them to keep their views based on religion strictly in the private sphere. It can also be seen as politically incorrect to be anti-euthanasia. This is especially likely to be the case, if one's objection to euthanasia is perceived as being connected with religious beliefs, when it is likely to be characterized as religion seeking yet again to restrict individuals' rights to autonomy and self-determination.

The New York Times "carefully cleansed" her op-ed piece on popular spirituality "of any irreverence toward established religion...because [her remarks]...were deemed 'offensive'", laments Ms. Kaminer. She cites the openness of past societies to satirizing religion and engaging in caustic secularism, and the freedom of their commentators, in particular Mark Twain, to do so. But, those societies also denigrated physically or mentally handicapped persons and persons of certain ethnic or racial origins in ways that are considered serious ethical and legal wrongs today. The same was and is true, respectively, in relation to religious beliefs.

In veering away from mocking religious belief and ritual, we may also be instinctively trying to protect a sense of the sacred, which has been under serious threat in Western, secular democracies. Such a sense is intimately connected to respect, and need not be connected to a belief in the supernatural. It can be a sense of the "secular sacred". As an example, witnessing environmental degradation has caused us to realize that we must establish respectful human-earth relationships if we and our planet, as we know it, are to survive. This process could be described as a revival of a sense of the Earth's sacredness.

It is important to protect and nurture this fragile sense of the sacred. For many people, their main experience of sacredness is through their religious beliefs, traditions and rituals. Therefore, we have responsibilities not to wilfully destroy this experience, as Ms. Kaminer seems to claim she should be entitled to do in commenting on religion, even if we personally do not share in the particular experience of sacredness. At base, this is the essence of religious tolerance, which is crucial to the world of the future.

I hasten to add, however, that this is not intended in anyway to justify extreme reactions to perceived blasphemy, such as that taken against Salman Rushdie. Much is being done in the name of religion that is appalling and evil, and we all should abhor and work to prevent this. There are also many who act in the name of religion on the basis of what others would regard as superstitious or childish beliefs. But that does not prove that religion, itself, is seriously harmful or valueless as Ms. Kaminer implies.

Perhaps we could compare religion to music. Music, as I believe is also true of religion, is a universal language, one that is needed by our hearts, minds and souls. Some of us may regard some forms of music and religion as unsophisticated and simplistic, but there are others who need, like and respond to such forms. Moreover, the degree of appreciation, knowledge, involvement, and emotional experience elicited in relation to any given type of music, varies greatly from listener to listener. The same is true for the human spirit in responding to religion.

Religion provides a space in which to experience and express the human spirit and need not, but for some people can, involve a supernatural component. The word religion - re ligio - simply means to bind together. Most fundamentally we could think of this as involving the internal binding together of the component parts each of us - our heart, mind, body, soul and imagination - and through this, external binding to others. Atheism or secularism could also function as a religion - or more accurately a "religion substitute", when we use the word religion in its usual sense - in that it binds together those who adopt a certain belief about the meaning of human life.

The people whom Ms. Kaminer cites as believing in ESP, UFO's, psychic powers, spirit world contact, reincarnation, are people who, in various ways, are seeking to fill the space left when the human spirit is not nurtured, a need in each of us that religion has traditionally fulfilled. This same void can also be filled in highly destructive ways, for instance, by membership in extremist cults or neo-Nazi movements. The point is that this space must be filled. In decrying the concept of religion as a whole, and not just harmful, cynical or malicious uses of it, we are likely to inflict serious harm, especially on society, by opening up this space to evil.

My father was strongly anti-religion and at one time identified himself as an atheist and later an agnostic. I once told him that he was one of the most deeply spiritual persons I had ever met and explained why I thought this - his profound sense of mystery and calm, and connection to the natural world and love and understanding of it. He laughed and said, "That's not religion, that's living with the universe". But that is the fundamental essence of religion.

Ms. Kaminer warns that the "advocates of religiosity extol the virtues of moral habits that religion is supposed to instill in us. But we should be equally concerned with the intellectual habits it discourages." This statement seems to reflect the knee-jerk belief that religion and science are antithetical. Are they?

Science can enable us to develop a deep sense of awe, wonder, and respect in relation to each other and our world, and in doing so it is not antithetical to religion. Indeed, the contrary is true. We can view our new science as being like a laser beam that shoots out into the darkness to illuminate certain knowledge that we have not seen before. We can envision this beam as the radius of a circle. In doing so we can see the truth of the Japanese saying, that as the radius of knowledge expands, the circumference of ignorance increases, or, in colloquial terms, the more that we know, the more we know that we don't know. It is this great, exciting, and not-necessarily-frightening darkness of unknowing - the mystery of the unknown - which for many of us constitutes the connection to (human) spirit, and through this, for some of us, to religion. Such a view would powerfully reject Ms. Kaminer's statement that "religion punishes questioning and rewards gullibility. Faith is not a function of stupidity but a frequent cause of it." Rather, the opposite would be true.

There is something deeply old-fashioned about Ms. Kaminer's approach to religion. It feeds into the prejudices that many people have developed in the twentieth century about religion, but which many others have moved away from as they realize the complexity of the issue of religious belief or disbelief as their human spirit matures. Ms. Kaminer is certain that God does not exist, just as those religious people she criticizes are certain that He (or She) does exist. They are similar in their certainty, but opposite in the content of their certain belief. It takes courage to grow to live in the middle, to recognize the concurrent presence of belief and doubt.

I have suggested elsewhere that in imagining this spectrum we should change the colour of the poles, from white at one end and black at the other, for two reasons. First, those who see themselves as the "good side" in the debate, identify themselves as white and their opponents as black or evil, that is, we do not even agree which colour we each are, and we have already made a negative value judgement about our opponents and therefore are unlikely to be sufficiently open to their thoughts and opinions. And, second, the middle is grey, the colour of depression. If we change the poles to red and blue, most of us do not mind whether we are red or blue (political symbolism aside) and the combination gives rise to the purple-pink middle, the colour of the imagination.

We need a great deal more imagination than one finds in Ms. Kaminer's article and to use as well "other ways of knowing" - especially, intuition, memory and ethics - if we are to see how religion can help us as individuals and societies to move with trust, hope and caring for each other (which I hesitate to label faith, hope and charity) into the next millennium.