THE BLOG
09/20/2013 01:10 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2013

Theism, Deism, Atheism, Poetry and Divine Comedy: Not Black and White

I just read a story in The Guardian about a group of atheists who have decided to meet on Sundays, in the way church groups meet, in order to--I might hazard to say at the peril of over-simplifying--enjoy fellowship, and community, and to discuss, perhaps, ethics and morality. A week or two earlier, a friend turned me on to the work of the smart comedian W. Kamau Bell, who's lampooned atheists in the manner his philosopher colleagues in comedy favor when taking shots at religious "believers." (Good comedians are philosophers of a sort; hence, the fascination with metaphysics.) A case in which the plaintiffs ought to have prevailed, a suit to get "In God We Trust" removed from U.S. currency, got tossed this week, and the so-called "Judeo-Christian" (a god-awful term) jingoists who read the Bible selectively are jawboning louder than usual about God being on their side, as if the Creator of the world were sitting at the end of the bar in His local gin-mill wagering on his favorite gridiron team. (Check out the "Book of Jonah," dudes; If an omnipotent, omniscient God does exist, that God is probably on God's side.) The truth is that many devoutly religious people spend a good deal of time being atheists.

It's quite impossible to read Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross (more anon, on him and where poetry fits in) and not see the stretches of, if not atheism, then high-pitched doubt; and hard to imagine that John the poet, priest and Catholic saint was not floating the possibility that faith tested is the strongest faith.

When dogma and doctrine are not challenged vigorously, faith becomes chauvinism.

One of the reasons I enjoy being Roman Catholic is that we question. I pray in another faith, sometimes too--I've tried to raise my children as (Reform) Jews -- and the tradition in Jewish thought, whereby one questions, as always appealed to me. Rabbis often remind me of Jesuits: smart, wise, all over the place and busily refulgent.

Among the "faithful" (so to speak) are found traditional Roman Catholics -- scripture chimps who act as if Our Lord and Savior himself inscribed the Canon Code on a couple of tablets, and fundamentalist Islamists, Jews and Christians, but most sentient, learned, educated people of religious faith experience long periods of questioning and doubt. For them doubt is part and parcel of belief. The strongest faith is that which can make both hash and sense out of doubt through faith and reason.

Maybe Pope Francis is one of those. Maybe he was speaking to atheists from some "Doubting Thomas" sweet spot, the part of his psyche (as in the Greek word) wherein doubt calls, and wants an answer when he recently reached out to atheists, and certainly any papal admission that atheists are not consigned to an eternity spent packed in Dante's Judas ice--but I found the presumption that atheists might relish the pope's religious messages disrespectful.

Where does the pontiff get off advising atheists on conscience? Why would atheists, who have only conscience itself and not a sin-tallying Creator in the heavens to keep them in line care in the least, about advice from the rich and powerful Oz in a mitre?

Like many of my fellow Roman Catholics, I like some of what this new pope, Francis, has to say, but I'm guarded, because I am waiting and worrying; waiting to know who Pope Francis really is; waiting to know whether this new pope is fronting for his still-living predecessor, and worrying that Francis may be wolf in Christ's lamb clothing: a "good cop" strategically appointed to counterbalance Ratzinger's "bad cop." Pope Francis often strikes me as something out of Central Casting--Central Casting, say, for Nanni Moretti's 2010 Habemus Papam a film about a humble, devout pope who takes the city bus through Rome.

One hears much in all religious circles about the "godlessness" of atheists, But there's something god-awful about the pope's presumption in addressing atheists. As a Catholic, I find this idea deeply offensive. Sure, some atheists need moral guidance, just as some religious people do. It seems to me, however, that it's the Catholic bishops who are more in need of moral instruction from the pope than the world's atheists, the notion that people who practice religions have some kind of monopoly on morality and ethics is entirely erroneous. It's hard not to wonder how the pope might presume to preach to atheists when his own operation is in such atrocious condition?

One possibility is that the pope may not really talking to atheists. Maybe he is preaching to his own choir. Maybe he's addressing the so-called "believers" who equate "piety" with morality. To see a pope fully acknowledge that atheists have consciences is good news -- the Catholic redacting began immediately. This does constitute progress.

When it comes to religion, however, there are always questions inside the questions.

W. Kamau Bell, whose work I have just discovered, is a young, hip, politically stoked comedian who not only cops to believing in God, but who takes it a step further by lampooning atheists:

For some white people atheism is like a black belt in privilege...I don't need anybody.

I'm not politically correct. I find this and him funny. Bell, who mocks Mormons and Catholics in the same bit, goes on to swipe at a (one presumes) theoretical white guy who claims that "atheists are part of an oppressed group."

I must throw down with Bell in this. Somewhat.

Before I do, a disclaimer: Some of my best friends are atheists. Actually nearly all of my best friends are atheists. I happen to believe in God, but I live and have raised my children in a sociologically and ethnically diverse part of New York City which is fast becoming one of America's "Whitelandias" where I can now catch a lot of white, pseudo-intellectual, atheist preaching and whinging.

My kids are atheists. I'm fine with that, in part because I was a teacher for 15 years and know that most kids are atheists, in part because I recognize that believing in God is a push.

I know atheists have a better argument than I have.

But often atheists often are as hateful and arrogant in their preaching as the toothless bring-your-gun-to-church fundamentalist Christians are when they train their little minds on LBGT people. Some of my activist atheist friends report that there's a surprising quotient of sexism in academic atheist circles.

Atheists have a right to be really angry about having to say, "No, I don't want to swear on the damned fictional before I testify in court!" I don't want a creche or a Chanuka menora outside my courthouse. I don't want my kids to pray in school. I think "Intelligent Design" is for the unintelligent, and that the plaintiffs in the recently dismissed 'get God off my currency' case are in the right.

Nonetheless, I believe atheists should derive some--I want to say-- "grace" from knowing that they, not we who worship in church and shul, have the better argument.

Atheists argue from a place of power because the facts--and Science itself--are on their side.
This is why I believe some struggling old person living on the street, whose only hope is Jesus, does not always need to hear from some amateur philosopher hipster that God is a unicorn.

Are atheists oppressed? No.

Are they discriminated against in a government? Yes. In schools? Yes. In a political system that presumes religious faith? Absolutely. Is this minor? No.

Are atheists, as W. Kamau Bell says somewhere between people with peanut allergies and really tall good-looking guys on the discrimination spectrum?

No. It's a joke. And it's not black and white. In religion, things are never black and white. Scratch that. With religion things in the United States are, actually, often, black and white.

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