Exodus 32:714; Psalm 14:17; Luke 15:110
I wonder if you happened to detect that little ticking time bomb buried in the Psalm we sang this morning. You may have missed it as we glided from the Old Testament lesson into a rousing round of “Amazing Grace.” But there it is in the first verse: “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’”
Jesus has just been saying in our gospel lesson that God is like a shepherd who leaves his hundred sheep to find the one who is lost, and like a woman who, even though she has ten coins, searches endlessly for the one she can’t find. We live in a world of grace, he is saying. God is seeking out the lost to bring them home. But just as we’re immersing ourselves in this central conviction of Christian faith, this little verse explodes with its provocative reminder, ‘Don’t be so sure!’
It’s hard to find even a trace of atheism in the Bible. Jesus never talked about the existence of God, and nowhere in the Bible is there an argument for God’s reality; God is simply assumed, although there is a great deal about how we are to live in relation to God. Even in this verse the fools are those who act as if there is no God rather than angry atheists denouncing our religious beliefs.
But we’re living now in a time of a rising chorus declaring that God doesn’t exist at all, that faith is a delusion, and the sooner we are rid of God the better.
According to the front page of yesterday’s Washington Post, interest in atheism seems to be growing significantly in both Europe and the U.S. More people are disenchanted with religion, and they are finding each other on the internet and beginning to organize themselves. The articles suggest that the events of 9/11 seem to have been major initiators of this new period of disbelief.
We are hearing a great deal these days from a number of writers being called the “new atheists,” who have no interest in a world of grace. They are articulate, aggressive, angry critics of religion intent on convincing the world that “There is no God.” In the last twelve months the champions of this “new atheism” have sold nearly a million books, which makes them a cultural phenomenon.
And these are not ordinary atheists. Through the last two hundred years voices have emerged to question or deny God’s existence, but often they regarded the absence of God as something tragic that had to be faced. This new group represents atheism with an attitude. They regard religion as a disaster, a reflection of an infantile stage of human development, and the most serious threat to the well-being of the world we face. Let me give you a taste of what they have to say.
Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, refers to God as a “psychotic delinquent” invented by mad, deluded people. He calls religion “the root of all evil.” Believing in God, he tells us, is like believing in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus. This may have been understandable in an earlier stage of human development when we understood so little of the world around us, but thanks to the advances of science, humanity should now leave what he calls “the crybaby phase and finally come of age.” Dawkins characterizes God as “petty, unjust, an unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, blood thirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, …racist, …genocidal … bully.”
Christopher Hitchens, a provocative British critic, has written God Is Not Great, which declares that all religions are stupid and dangerous. “Religion poisons everything,” he says; it is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry.” It educates children to hate nonbelievers, he claims, and encourages grown-ups to engage in slaughter and conquest for God’s glory. Hitchens holds out the hope that one day all religion will be eradicated.
What is striking in these books, and those of another angry atheist Sam Harris, is their certitude, as intense as any fundamentalist could have, that they have arrived at a truth that renders the vast majority of the human race utterly ignorant. From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, and thanks to the moral progress of mankind and achievements of natural science, they can declare confidently that now they know with utter finality that God does not exist and organized religion is a fraud.
We’ve been here before. Not long ago I was digging through a box of things packed away from my youth and I found a Time magazine from the 1960s with a black cover and stark red letters declaring “The Death of God.” It was time for the world to grow up, a number of writers were claiming, and learn to get along without God. Harvey Cox, then a young Harvard religion professor, produced a bestseller called The Secular City, suggesting that we sophisticated humans are outgrowing our need for the sacred.
But then I uncovered another issue of Time from only a few years later reporting “The Rebirth of God,” pointing to an increasing exploration of spirituality and mysticism in our culture. And sure enough, in the 1990s, 30 years after his famous book on secularism, Harvey Cox published a book called Fire from Heaven reporting that the secular world he predicted never happened, and that religion was back and stronger than ever in the form of a fiery Pentecostal Christianity sweeping through the urban sprawls of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and in the U.S. too.
In fact, religion seems to be booming everywhere around the globe, except in Western Europe and parts of North America, and even in those places there seems to be a renewed interest in spirituality, if not in organized religion.
But at the same time, many Americans today are frightened by the religion they see on the evening news. Radical Islamic terrorists wreak havoc around the globe. Americans find themselves mired in an agonizing war that was cheered on from the start by some on the Religious Right as a way of spreading Christianity in the Middle East. By one poll 53% of Americans accept creationism over evolution, and in fact I read recently of the opening of a natural history theme park based on creationism, with Adam and Eve wandering around with the dinosaurs. Add to all this the tragedy of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, the Anglicans arguing endlessly over sexuality, and the constant stream of flamboyant preachers on Christian television channels. No wonder people are turning from religion.
Historian George Marsden once wrote that fundamentalists are evangelicals who are mad about something. My guess is that these fire-breathing atheists, fundamentalists in their own way, are mad too. They have had enough of the religion they see around them and are ready to throw it all out the window.
There are many things wrong with the new atheists’ claims. For one thing, they stack the deck in their argument from the beginning. They pile up all the absurdities and cruelties that have been inflicted in the name of religion through the years and call that pile “religion,” with little analysis or nuance. And anything that has been good or noble they throw in a separate pile as irrelevant or accidental.
They conveniently leave out of their picture any recognition of the vital role that Christianity has played through the centuries—in carrying on civilization through the centuries of the Dark Ages, in inspiring such geniuses as Bach, Michelangelo, and the other creators of the great art and music of Western civilization, in establishing most of the early hospitals and universities in Europe, in calling out crusaders for justice such as William Wilberforce, who was largely responsible for ending slavery in Britain, Martin Luther King, and Desmond Tutu.
The new atheists play fast and loose with their evidence, citing, for example, troubling passages from the Hebrew scriptures written 3,000 years ago about treatment of women or holy war, as though the average person in the pew would defend them now. Religion, like science, politics, and every other endeavor, has a history, and contains in its legacy ample instances of folly and failure. But these enterprises deserve to be engaged at their best as well. Strikingly, it is hard to recall an encounter with a respected contemporary theologian or practitioner of Christian faith in these books.
And given the atrocities committed by godless nations in the twentieth century—Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia—can these critics not see the obvious? It is not religion that causes the world’s problems, but human beings with their greed, envy, lust, pride, and wrath—all destructive motivations that infect atheists and believers alike and will use any convenient belief system for their purposes.
And above all there is the arrogance of assuming that science can answer all human questions. Such distinguished scientists as Stephen Jay Gould, an unbeliever himself, maintained that science and religion are parallel pursuits of knowledge. Science speaks with authority in the realm of how the universe actually works. And religion holds sway over the questions of meaning and value. Religion and science are complementary. Or, as Albert Einstein put it, “Religion without science is blind. Science without religion is lame.”
Is reality defined only by what we can rationally analyze, observe, and measure in a laboratory? Or is there a reality vastly bigger, so big that human reason is not an adequate net for containing it? Can a thoughtful, rational person believe in a god who transcends human reason?
These atheists say no. If you can’t measure it, weigh it, or see it in a microscope it doesn’t exist. Physicist Niels Bohr, the founder of quantum mechanics, had a broader view. He said once that his own more expansive view of the universe began when he was a child gazing into the fish pond at his family farm. For hours he would lie beside the pool and watch the fish swimming in the water, until one day he realized that the fish he was watching didn’t know they were being watched. They were unaware of any reality outside the pond. When it rained, the fish saw this not as an event from the outside, but only as ripples and splashes enclosed in their environment. Bohr found himself wondering if humans were like the fish in this regard, being acted on by multiple dimensions of reality, but aware of only their own limited frame of reference (cited in Testimony, by Thomas Long).
It has to be said, though, that as dismissive as these antagonists often are, they are saying things we Christians need to hear. They are right, for example, that God’s name has been used through the centuries in destructive ways, from the crusades of the Middle Ages to the persecutions of the Jews. Christians can be violent and power hungry.
The atheists are right, too, that our spiritual forebears and their scriptures contributed to the unjust practices of slavery, women’s inequality, and holy war. And for all the intellectual brilliance of the Christian tradition, a fierce strain of anti-intellectualism has persistently raised its head.
All of this suggests some immediate responsibilities for people of faith. First, we have to be willing to face the shadow side of our own faith tradition—our blindnesses to injustice past and present, and the propensity of believers to use their religion for their own selfish ends. Second, starting here at this Cathedral, we Christians need to embody an intellectually alive, scientifically engaged, self-critical, compassionate faith. Our world needs to see more instances of Christianity at its best. Third, we can make our church a vigorous force for peace and reconciliation in a divided world. And fourth, we can seek to model a way of civility as we deal with conflicts within our church and between the faiths.
I have to say that what strikes me in reading the vicious attacks of these atheists is how distant their account of religion is from what I experience. When Richard Dawkins describes the cruel God he doesn’t believe in, I agree. I don’t believe in that God either. In the morning I come into this vast cathedral to gather with colleagues to be silent, to listen, and to pray. When I do that I have no sense that I am dealing with an angry, destructive deity, but with the God I see in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. And every week we gather at this altar to be fed by a Love that sends us out to serve our world. We come here to encounter a dimension of reality the atheists are missing.
As the great philosopher Blaise Pascal, a committed rationalist, said three centuries ago, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing…. We know the truth not only through reason but through our heart.” We come here because there is an unshakable spiritual dimension to our lives, a longing for God, a yearning for peace, an instinct that we are seeking and being sought.
Take away religion, as these atheists passionately wish, leave us with science and rationality as our guideposts, and what would become of the spiritual yearnings that stir our spirits? What would happen to the millions of gestures of care that occur every day as Christians live their faith? Where would we look for a vision of a world where our divisions are reconciled and healed? Where would we encounter an amazing grace that can save wretches like you and me? Would we really want to live in a world without grace?
For all their distortions, oversimplifications, and unwarranted conclusions, the new atheists are right that Christians do make an extraordinary claim, a claim that one of them describes as the height of arrogance: That the God of the universe loves extravagantly the creatures on this small speck of a planet drifting through space, and will stop at nothing to bring them home.
Yes, that could sound like arrogance. The catch is that love is not only for Christians, but for everyone, the new atheists included, and for the entire universe, for that matter. It’s that truth we can’t shake. And it’s that truth that will keep us on this journey all our days.