The 2009 quintennial session of Parliament of the World's Religions in Melbourne, Australia represented 220 religions and featured 675 programs, 37 movie screenings, and 84 off-site events. For all this colorful diversity, the parliament did not have a meaningful presence of atheists in its program, neither as another religion (in the sense of a "system of meaning") nor as conversation partners. This coming weekend, the atheists of the world are having their own 2010 Global Atheist Convention entitled The Rise of Atheism in the very same convention center in Melbourne, and with a correspondingly apparent absence of anything religious. It is true that religious people and atheists are not historic partners or easy conversationalists and that they both need their identity-building convocations. Yet, this segregation is happening at the time when learning to live interdependently on our fragile planet has moved from being merely a virtue of neighborly love to a matter of survival. Interdependence is no longer a choice to consider; it is a necessity.
Atheists have their own challenges to finding a way to interact with humanity as it is, not as they wish it to be. Those of us who are religious have our own challenge: to involve atheists in our religious debates. In my recent book It's Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian, I have a chapter titled "The Blessing of Atheism." I recount my personal story of how atheism has supported me in becoming a better Christian and why I believe that atheists are a much needed voice in our religious conversations, service, and life. I believe that engagement with atheists is not only inevitable but will prove to be fruitful.
Rabbi Or Rose tells me that rabbis of old have long taught that the highest form of human discourse is Makhloket, or disagreement. First we recognize our own limits, and then we proceed to clarify our positions as best we can. When we sustain the tension between us, each pulling our own way, we create emptiness between us. In this emptiness, Rabbis say, God creates. As it was in the beginning, so it is today. In the presence of one another, in the moment when our positions of clarity are matched with humility, the possibility of a truly new idea emerges, a solution, a way forward. Creation continues, and we all gain.
In the last decade we have seen the resurgence of religious people who are willing to stand their ground with conviction but without the solemn realization of the limits of their knowledge, feelings, actions, and good intentions. They insist that life on earth is a zero-sum game and that to be right, others have to be wrong. They can hold to their formative stories as true only if other stories are proven to be lies. Instead of generating the empty space between, they endeavor to empty the space of all answers other than their own.
It does not have to be this way. In Makhloket, instead of disagreeing against one another, we learn to disagree for one another. There is no need to force others. When there is a sustained life-giving tension between people or communities, we all change, find our way to a place none of us has been before.
The maintenance of this pregnant space is the responsibility of all solution-oriented parties involved. All are welcome to this disagreement, including atheists. Especially atheists. They are not only welcome but desirable and necessary interlocutors in our human conversation about the meaning of our experience and the problems we face in our newly interdependent world. They are our brothers and sisters, partners and teachers, contributing members of our human household. Without those who doubt God, we would have religious people talking to each other in an echo chamber.
As with every other system of meaning, atheism has its history and moments, some constructive and life-giving, and some less so. Admittedly, there are fundamentalist atheists who have abandoned the practice of constructive disagreement and have resorted to mocking the other side, refusing to roll up their sleeves to help fix the world in synergy with others. But if we all were to abandon faith for reason and proclaim all mystery to be fantasy, one day we would all sit in straight chairs of scientism. Some atheists, instead of disagreeing, demand a new and clean public square where those who disagree with them will be no more. And they do it with apocalyptic urgency, without healthy self-doubt, with their zealous priesthood making money on human fear. Instead of promoting secularization, which fosters pluralism, such fundamentalist atheism promotes secularism, getting rid of the processes of exploration of what humans cannot understand, control, or subjugate. This is atheism at its worst, a mirror image of religion at its worst.
But there is such a thing as atheism at its best.
Seeds of such atheism were sown by towering figures of atheist prophets including Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, who called us out of our self-serving use of religion toward better faith and a better world. Arguably, they have done more to improve religion -- and with it, the world -- than some of our most admired religious leaders.
Atheism at its best participates. It refuses to stay isolated until billions of people cease to be religious. Instead of simply dismissing religion, it engages with it constructively so that the world is better for it. Atheism at its best is an expression of faith in humanity, even faith in religious humanity, for however misguided we religious people might be, we are human, too. Atheism at its best asks us to enjoy our faith life, but with the understanding that our religions are "God-management systems," an attempt -- however honorable and perhaps necessary -- to manage a reality that is larger and more complex than our own religions. Atheism at its best is a guardian of secularization, a process of creating a common and safe space where our worldviews -- including religious ones -- can share their treasures and expose themselves to the entire world as their ethical community. Atheism at its best insists that religious people learn to live on Earth. Religion that does not work on Earth, they argue, does not work at all. Good point. To us religious people, atheists are not only precious neighbors but also strangers who see what we cannot see and ask questions that we don't know how to ask -- all the while acknowledging the good that religion brings. Atheists are God's whistleblowers.
Atheism at its best offers ethics, a philosophy of life, and an enriching discussion about virtue. Does God have an ego that can be wounded by our disbelief in God's existence? Would God, if there were such a thing, prefer a world where humans love and care for each other and the planet, even at the expense of acknowledging God, or one where humans believe and worship God at the expense of caring for one another and the world? Their questions, pregnant with possibilities, go on.
Atheism does not have to be the end of the enchantment; it can be a new door towards a better religion. Religion does not have to be the opium of the people; it can be the poetry of the people. Both faith and doubt are the opposite of certainty and therefore part of the same whole. To end either of them would be to end the empty space between us, and with it, the possibility of truly new ideas, solutions, and ways into the future. U2, in their modern hymn "One," sum up these dynamics: "We are one. But we are not the same. We get to carry each other." If all sides can muster enough courage and grace to step out of their own boxes, we might find ourselves in a new open space of life-giving tension.