I am a secular humanist, so do I believe in anything? Well, of course I do, and I’ll get to that in a moment. But this question arose with new freshness as I watched a number of atheistic books roll off the presses recently, one of which has even landed on the New York Times bestseller list. Needless to say, I was initially pleased to see fellow non-believers speak openly in the media about their non-beliefs and, most especially, against the scourge of fundamentalism that plagues our times. Being a skeptic, I am naturally drawn to their cause since I, too, have felt marginalized in our highly religious society that continues to view the non-believer as a bit of a pariah. These books gave me hope that a little belated tolerance might be on the horizon.
Unfortunately, visions of impassioned pleas for acceptance and understanding gave way to smarmy screeds of righteous indignation. Their defensive militancy and over-the-top rhetoric put me off; but what I found most troubling was their dismissal of religious moderation on the premise that faith of any kind is an open invitation to extremism. In a rather stunning denial of the profound differences between the courageous faith of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the toxic faith of Mohammed Atta, these writers claim that faith itself “is an evil” that rejects reason, demands obedience, and promotes ignorance.
Obviously the case against radical fundamentalism is easy to make. The history and theology of religion are littered with inconsistency, intolerance, death, and destruction. But to damn even religious moderation is blind in its own way. More importantly, it undermines a belief that we all share in personal fulfillment and communal harmony.
In the current context, I would beseech the atheist to tone down his bitter rhetoric and reach out to the moderate Christian. Having been raised in the home of an angry atheist father and a compassionate Christian mother, I know first hand of the arrogance of close-minded extremism and the power of unconditional love. It seems to me the current crop of angry atheists should use their much-touted rational brains to better understand that everyone in a society will benefit from fighting the common enemies of ignorance, intolerance, and hatred. The forces of compassion and reason should be joined not cleaved since good works are not done in isolation. Not only will this help defuse the incendiary piety of fundamentalism – which is, after all, the true enemy of the atheist – but it will help build a better world, here and now.
I believe that hateful words do not belong in any moral framework, and the problems of the world today demand a recommitment to action not a restatement of position. I believe it is time for all people, atheist and monotheists alike, to roll up their sleeves, pick up a hammer, soup ladle, or basket of toys, and get to work. Like the loaves and fish of lore, those good works will nourish the world.
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