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Beyond the Theism/Atheism Divide: A Plea for Humility

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Too many atheists display the same aggression and smug self-satisfaction that they detest in their fundamentalist rivals. The tragedy is that the crossfire between these groups prevents robust alliances between modest liberal religious communities and humble non-dogmatic atheists on matters of real urgency.

What binds many atheists together is an unshakable conviction that they know everything there is to know about religion, namely that it is irrational bondage to immutable doctrine. No amount of counterevidence can convince such atheists otherwise. What irony! But where do they come by this knowledge about religion? Their expertise seems to be derived by virtue of sheer sentience alone.

By contrast, if a theologian were to broadcast her convictions about molecular or evolutionary biology without some years of careful reading and study, she would be met with jeering laughter and summarily dismissed. Why then are uninformed atheists who have never read in theology exempt from similar derision? Sadly, every pedant believes himself entitled to his unearned convictions about religion.

It should go without saying that tremendous expertise in biology does not entitle one to claims of expertise on religion. Dawkins is a fine biologist, but he knows precious little about religion. Terry Eagleton has made this point brilliantly: "Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology." To Eagelton's quip, I can only say Amen.

In interreligious dialogue circles, participants operate under a fundamental ethical constraint: never compare the best in your tradition with the worst in another's. A Christian who compares liberation theology with caste in Hinduism is making an invidious comparison. A similar constraint should apply in conversations between atheists and the religious. Atheists who tar the whole of religion by contrasting the insight of Einstein with the fulminations of fundamentalists are engaged in egregious dialogical malpractice.

But most atheists are ill equipped to abide by this rule because they know nothing about Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, medieval women mystics like Julian of Norwich or major thinkers from other traditions like Śaṅkara or Nāgārjuna. Absent such knowledge, caricature becomes inevitable.

There are many reasons to favor modesty and even rapprochement between persons on both sides of the theism/atheism divide. First and most obviously, neither theists nor atheists can know whether God exists. When questions about ultimate reality are raised, we have left the field of secure knowledge for the terrain of searching intuition. All are engaged in the hard labor of interpreting experience. We may have a high degree of confidence that our reading of experience is well grounded, but no one is afforded the luxury of proof. Adopting a measure of confidence that correlates well with the degree of certainty possible within a given discipline is a pragmatic mark of prudence. Theology is not Euclidean geometry!

Second, a great many Christian theologians who are influenced by mystical theologies believe with Paul Tillich that it is truer to say that God does not exist than to say that God does. God is the ground of being or being itself and not a Supreme Being. God does not exist; God is the source of all that exists. This conception of divinity far exceeds the simplistic theism that most atheists reject. Atheists are right to say that many conventional accounts of God are implausible, but this is hardly news to reflective theologians. Neither conventional theism nor ordinary atheism is a compelling option.

Third, not all atheists and agnostics are irreligious. Religious naturalists also experience life as imbued with wonder and mystery and so offer a compelling nontheistic option that is deeply resonant with mystical theologies. Even Dawkins is open to some modes of naturalistic religiosity. On the other side, progressive theologians, especially those involved in interreligious dialogue, are well prepared to recognize the force of nontheistic options because of their engagements with East and South Asian religious traditions (Daoism, Buddhism, Advaita Vedānta) that are not interested in positing a supreme being. Sadly, the possibility of finding such fertile common ground is lost in the midst of mean-spirited apologetics.

The squabbles between fundamentalists and the New Atheists are especially tragic because left-leaning religious communities and progressive atheists cannot find each other in the midst of all the sound and fury. Cut off from a deeper dialogue that moves beyond antagonism, they fail to make common cause on behalf of a shared vision of ecological and social justice.

But strong alliances are possible not only between Christians and persons from other religious traditions but also between religious communities and curious, open-minded atheists, especially those graced with genuine wonder at the mystery of existence. Deepening their shared appreciation for mystery should drive theists and atheists alike toward a disposition of humility.

Claimed by such humility, liberal theists and atheists can come to see that they have a great deal in common: curiosity, willingness to interrogate and revise fundamental convictions, reverence for life, and a deep sense of sorrow about the damage inflicted upon the body politic by militant fundamentalists, whether they be theistic or atheistic.