12/28/2012 02:09 am ET | Updated Feb 26, 2013

John Figdor Appoined as Atheist Chaplain at Stanford

There's an atheist chaplain at Stanford. This is good news. John Figdor has a degree from Harvard Divinity School and he does what chaplains do. He counsels those in need and visits the sick. And what's more, he's welcomed as part of the Office of Religious Life. I found this news very encouraging, if a bit confusing. His appointment not only broadens the conversation about "belief" and "unbelief" but also exposes the confusion at the heart of that conversation. We are often talking at cross-purposes. As Figdor points out, "Atheist, agnostic and humanist students suffer the same problems as religious students - deaths or illnesses in the family, questions about the meaning of life, etc. - and would like a sympathetic nontheist to talk to." Evidently he's part of a growing number of "faith-free" chaplains at universities. All the benefits of religion without the god bit. And here's where the conversation, with all its risk of confusion, gets interesting. For me, faith is all about freedom. For others, faith is a form of closed-mindedness. The early Christians were called atheists and the tradition in which I was trained taught me that one of the reasons to believe in God is that it saves you from having to believe in anything else! Everyone, as Paul Tillich taught us decades ago, owes an allegiance to some "Ultimate Concern" and freedom relies on that concern to be incapable of being manipulated. It is both unknowable and inexhaustible. Undomesticated. And you can get as attached to unbelief as to belief. "Don't you dare question my unbelief!"

The trouble with those on the religious side of the conversation is that we utter pieties and make assertions about ultimate reality without either humor or humility. Surely the connecting tissue for all of us - believers and unbelievers alike - is our shared concern, anxiety and hope for the human prospect? If Christianity is about anything, it's about the adventure of being human. I resist the atheist exclusive claim to the word "humanist". We're all humanists, I hope. In fact that's where things get interesting. What does it mean to be human? How are we going to survive and flourish on the planet? My quarrel with my atheist friends is that they tend to underestimate the undertow of nihilism in their position, as they make valiant efforts to fashion personal meaning in a meaningless world. The believers, on the other hand, all too often switch off the mind and make religion into a bromide, which answers every question and banishes doubt. I'm grateful to those atheists who are asking deep questions. What binds us all together is, surely, the questions which, as far as my experience goes, get deeper and deeper as I get older.

Where to look for signs of a new kind of conversation about religion? On Christmas Eve The New York Times had two articles on the op ed page. One by Jonathan Sacks, the other by Simon Critchley. Sacks's piece "The Moral Animal" was about how the neo-Darwinists help us understand the importance of religion. It isn't about to fade away. Critchley's was a brilliant sermon on "The Freedom of Faith" using Dostoievsky as a guide. They were two great pieces contributing to the conversation. But there are those who see no point in the conversation.

Edward A. Wilson (The Social Conquest of the Earth) insists that life is a riddle to be solved, not a mystery to be lived. We're in such trouble that only rationalism will save us. Religion and science are locked in an Armageddon struggle. Why? Because religion essentially involves submission and enslavement. He asks, almost wistfully, "surely there exist ways to find spiritual fulfillment without surrender and enslavement? Humankind deserves better." Mind you, religious beliefs were once "useful" -- giving courage and comfort and the source of the creative arts -- but now "they are stultifying and divisive . . . they encourage ignorance, distract people from recognizing problems in the real world . . . Commitment to a particular faith is by definition religious bigotry." The only sane strategy is to repudiate all those who claim to speak for God. I agree we should repudiate purveyors of theological narcissism. Thank God, there's no trace of such narcissism among the atheists. Besides, the great thing about science is that it "belongs to everybody . . . It is not just 'another way of knowing' as often claimed, making it coequal with religious faith. The conflict between scientific knowledge and the teachings of organized religions is irreconcilable." One can appreciate his disgust with contemporary religion with its anti-intellectualism, authoritarianism, and irrationality but there's a lot more to religion than that. Bigotry and closed-mindedness aren't the sole province of religion. Carl Jung pointed out that we need stories and myths to give shape and purpose to our lives. Anyone "who thinks he can live without myth, or outside it, like one uprooted, has no true link either with the past, or with the ancestral life which continues within him, or yet of contemporary human society. This plaything of his reason never grips his vitals."

Wilson ends his book with his own confession of "blind faith. Earth, by the twenty-second century, can be turned, if we so wish, into a permanent paradise for human beings . . . We will do a lot more damage to ourselves and the rest of life along the way, but out of an ethic of simple decency to one another, the unrelenting application of reason, and acceptance of what we truly are, our dreams will finally come home to stay." Does he really believe that? Has he read any history and seen the cruelty and slaughter "the unrelenting application of reason" has wrought? "Reason" along with "Religion" has a lot to answer for.

We need a new conversation and it looks as if it has a chance at places like Stanford. Things at the heart of reality are not easily defined or dismissed. So, instead of clobbering each other with "beliefs" or "unbeliefs" we might simply exchange stories to help up understand the meaning of our longing. Poet, Philip Larkin asked what shall we do when "unbelief has gone"? Nicholas Humphrey in his book, Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness, quotes (and disagrees with) Colin McGinn. Trying to explain the phenomenon of consciousness as a product of the brain is like trying to explain how you get "numbers from biscuits and ethics from rhubarb." I think this assertion has a wider application. The daunting task of our trying to give an account of our life together on this planet might provide the humor and humility we need not only to get the conversation going but also for us to find solutions to the messes we get ourselves into.

Happy New Year!