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Reframing the Conversation After 'Anatomy of an Angry Atheist'

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My last post, "Anatomy of an Angry Atheist," was atypical for me. My book, writings, and teachings try to focus on spiritual, practical insights that can help others to lead happier, more effective and passionate lives. They spring from my personal experiences and struggles, and although I often use historical information, my approach is not "scholarly" but comes from the heart as much as possible. I am not by nature a fighter and, for a variety of personal reasons, am uncomfortable with conflict. Instead, I try to find common ground, with the assumption that all human beings essentially desire the same things: a feeling of purpose, a loving community, health, and growth.

"Anatomy of an Angry Atheist," though, strayed from this into the combat arena and was my response to recent, often brutal attacks on much that I deeply love and know is essentially good: God, faith, and religion. I was responding to books that call for an end of faith; label God a delusion; claim that religion poisons everything; and tell parents that teaching religion to children is akin to child abuse, that faith is an evolutionary aberration, and that the world would be better off if billions of people dropped the crutch of religion.

In my experience as one who came to faith later in life -- and is now a rabbi -- I know that many of these positions are based on stereotyped generalities that simply raise the level of anger and intolerance on both sides. I was attempting to call out the errors and inaccuracies, and to set the stage for presenting some thoughts about this phenomenon, based on my own experience. I had tried to be clear that I was addressing specific books and positions by several prominent spokesmen, not all atheists by any means.

This blog brought many responses (many not posted on HuffPo), and I soon realized that there seems to be some essential misunderstandings and assumptions about what I was getting at, which, I'm sure, is largely due to my lack of clarity, and to my unfamiliarity and discomfort with such positional writing. I was stopped in my tracks, though, by the response from a rabbi whom I deeply respect (but who does not know me personally). He picked up on an ugly implication in my blog and wrote, "I think you've identified some important lapses -- always the case when people think psychology accounts for the other guy's argument but not their own."

Ouch!!

If this is the perception from such a perceptive person, then it's time to take a big step back and try to re-frame the conversation. Moreover, this is the beginning of the Jewish month of Elul, a time for introspection and forgiveness, so I apologize for personal insult to any of you. Please let me begin by attempting to clearly state my positions on atheism, religion, and science:

Atheism

  • Atheism comprises a very diverse group of human beings with very different ideas; therefore, very few accurate general statements can be made about anyone who identifies with this label.
  • I don't in any way hate or fear atheists, and I don't think atheism is in itself dangerous.
  • I support the separation of church and state, and I have no issues whatsoever with a proclaimed atheist in public office (and would generally prefer such a person to a religious fundamentalist).

Religion:

  • I don't in any way want to convert anyone to my religion, I don't think that my religion has the only way, and I vocally oppose any religion's attempt to claim sole ownership of truth, or to coerce others.
  • I don't read the Bible literally, and, like many co-religionists, have a very complex relationship to its content and history.
  • I don't think that one needs religion to be moral, spiritual, or a good human being, and for some, religion can actually be an impediment.
  • I love Judaism and the light that it has sought to bring to the world, but I also have a deep appreciation and love for the theologies and mystical teachings of other religions.
  • I know that religion is a man-made institution, a collection of humanity's attempt to understand its place, responsibilities, and purpose, and to help others to live more fully.
  • I have a direct, loving, and often contentious relationship with God, who is not a physical being, and who is not found in books or doctrines, but who is a living experience.

Science:

  • I certainly accept evolution as the mechanism by which species change and grow.
  • I know that the scientific method is the best way we have to investigate the mechanisms of nature, but I also know that it cannot address much that we hold dear and that defines us as human beings.
  • I believe, based on evidence and experience, that sexual orientation is innate, and I am in favor of gay marriage.

Although some of these positions fly in the face of the generalized vision of a religious person, these are held by many other people of faith. Perhaps this angers some who are mainly interested in taking a loud, oppositional position. As another rabbi wrote to me, "The only thing that a non-conformist hates more than a conformist is another nonconformist who does not conform to their standard of non-conformity."

I have no interest of being a "non-conformist," and this is not about me but about the fact that religion, faith, and God can not be so easily categorized. The moderate, progressive religious position is not a "cover" for extremists, but is in fact the true religious stance, beginning with the Prophets who railed against the abuses in their own religion and whose call for justice and compassion radically changed Judaism, and later informed early Christianity.

As I mentioned, I was an atheist for the first four decades of my life (which upset some readers, some of whom claimed that I am lying, judging, or trying to convert others), until I had a direct experience of spirit. This has brought me to a different understanding of God and religion, and I realized that my prior notion of religion and God (I could not imagine how any intelligent person could possibly believe in some kind of "all-powerful being" in the sky or accept the archaic restrictions and limitations of religious doctrine, which, I had thought, only led to prejudice, persecution, and closed-mindedness) needed to be rejected.

Faith and religion exist on many levels. The first level is blind adherence to dogma and rules, and the belief that one holds absolute truth about the workings of a mind-boggling universe. This leads any thoughtful person to the next level: rejection of such beliefs and institutions. If one is willing, this state can create an opening for a real experience of transcendence, which may or may not lead back to religion, and which understands religion not at the "rules" level but in a way that truly expands, transforms, and leads to reconciliation. This is not arrogance; it is simply a description of the way this works. (I recommend James Fowler's Stages of Faith for an in-depth investigation of this dynamic.)

As stated earlier, religion is a repository of humanity's struggles to understand itself, with the knowledge that there is more to our lives than mere survival. Religion has often gotten it very wrong and has been hijacked by men who have sought to use it to control and dominate others. But the very essence of religion is an experience of the mystery of being and the determination to incorporate practices in order to become a better human being. Religion points inward. As soon as religion is used to point to and condemn others, it has been distorted and dangerous. And for forcefully making this point, I am grateful to the so-called New Atheists.

Let's see if we can have a respectful dialogue of true inquiry. The next post will continue this thread.