THE BLOG

Atheism: The New Fundamentalism?

02/12/2014 09:09 am ET | Updated Apr 14, 2014

"I don't believe in God," he said looking up from the menu. Was he challenging me because he knows I'm a Christian minister, I wondered?

Peter was the husband of a close friend, who had kindly done me a favor. To show my appreciation I was taking him to lunch. Was he intentionally being aggressive? I didn't want to argue. I smiled. "Well, I'm not in the business of conversion," I said, "but for the record, I probably don't believe in the same God you don't believe in," I was hoping to avert hostility and maybe open a dialogue about our understanding of the divine, since he brought it up. He wasn't having it.

"No," he said leaning forward, "I mean I don't believe in any God!" His words pierced the atmosphere. I conciliated. "I'm not attached to the word. 'God' is just a placeholder for the ineffable, call it what you will," I said, trying to find common ground.

"I don't believe in any of that!" He was becoming openly belligerent. I wasn't sure how to proceed. His wife also called herself an atheist, but we'd had a great discussion about theology as well as sex, love, and our life stories on a bus trip all the way from Budapest to Prague. Before I could respond he threw down the gauntlet, "I'm a scientist. I believe in science."

Should I tell him I believed in science, too, just like I didn't believe in the tooth fairy? That I have a healthy respect for scientific method and discoveries, including the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which infers a more fluid universe than ever we imagined? That I detest Biblical literalism and recognize evolution as going back billions of years, but also see it as the embodiment of a God immanent in and not separate from creation? It seemed he was more interested in shooting me down like some sort of straw man. I wondered if he had ever met a minister up close and personal. I took a breath and began.

"You know," I sighed, "There have been so many developments in theology in the past fifty years, it's unfortunate they haven't reached the informed general public. It's like we're still talking about an outmoded version of God who requires checking your brain at the door, which few intelligent people are willing to do--a God who is like a puppet master pulling strings, controlling life, saying, 'A billion dollars for you, Mr. Romney, but nothing for this guy in Africa. That's nutty. That's not God, at least not the God I worship."

He broke in. "I told you--I don't believe in ANY God!"

"Yes," I persisted, assuming him to be an interested and open-minded conversation partner, "but you must have some version of what you don't believe in. Everyone does, and most people have the same version or understanding of God that they had in approximately the third grade-I call it the third grade catechism version-and it never gets upgraded. God as a thing. It remains their definition of God, never questioned or amended, and then when they're older, maybe in college, they decide to either 'believe" or 'not believe' in that God. Imagine what it would be like if you never changed your understanding of sex or reproduction from when you first learned about it!" I laughed, having gotten it on the QT that he was pretty sophisticated in that realm. I thought the analogy would appeal, if only to make him curious. It didn't.

"Nothing," he repeated. "I believe in none of that shit. I told you: I believe in Science!" He mentioned St. Christopher Hitchens. He was getting very intense. He started to itemize the many evils in the world. I listened. He raised the holocaust as well as his voice, along with some horrors of which I was unaware as proof of the nonexistence of God.

I nodded. "I agree there is great evil in the world."

"It's not evil, it's just the way life is. But with such a world, how can there be a God?" he asked. It was a rhetorical question.

I still assumed I was talking to a liberal thinker, open to discussion. After all, I knew this to be true in other realms, like politics and sex. So I took a sip of my mineral water and plunged in, "Hmm, I might have something useful to say about this," I offered. "I wrote a whole chapter in my dissertation on it called 'The Changing of the God,' about how serious theologians had to address those questions in the wake of the holocaust. Beginning with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who attempted to assassinate Hitler, these questions gave rise to new theologies and a new understanding of God." He had not heard of any of this, of course, but I didn't expect him to have. I told him about Bonhoeffer's letters from prison disavowing the "God of Religion" and calling people to a more adult relationship with the divine, a challenge that theologians would grapple with for the next half-century. "You see, the question of how God can allow evil presupposes that old version of God--the puppet master God--the one pulling strings and 'allowing' some things and not others. That's what I meant about... "

"I already told you, I believe in science, not God," he interrupted. In his mind they were mutually exclusive. I stopped. I wanted to ask what he thought about science and spirituality, the new physics, Einstein and Bohm, who operated with a sense of order and wonder at the universe itself as a great mystery of divine proportions. I wanted to, but I didn't because I realized he didn't want to engage with the questions; he already knew the answers. He wasn't interested in a discussion. That's when I got it.

I was talking to a fundamentalist. What I was saying threatened his very identity and construct of life. My lunch companion knew who God was, and he didn't believe in "him." It was a Santa sort of God, the kind that a small child believes in and then is disappointed by when he doesn't get a pony in his stocking. I remembered being told he was abused as a child. Clearly that God had failed him.

It wasn't my first experience of trying to discuss religion a fundamentalist, but in the past they were of the Christian variety. The experience was eerily similar. I was talking to someone who claimed to know exactly how 'it' is, who believed in a fixed, finite, and disinterested universe made of mere matter (despite quantum physics calling into question matter itself and some pretty weird discoveries about waves and particles shape-shifting) and believed in it with a kind of scientific literalism as dogmatic as Biblical literalism.

A fundamentalist is unwilling to consider the unsettling possibility that the universe is more complex, mysterious, and multi-dimensional than anything our symbol systems, descriptions and analyses can apprehend. A fundamentalist systematically disregards anything that might contradict his worldview, be it carbon dating or mystical experience. A fundamentalist is unwilling to examine definitions and presuppositions, or hear about developments, scientific or otherwise, that might cast doubt or suggest seeing them in a new light---like the bumper sticker popular a decade or so ago with Biblical literalists, "God said it, I believe it, and that's that."

When did atheists become the new fundamentalists? I have known many atheists beginning with my wonderful dad, who insisted I not use the word "God" or pray at his funeral. But this new breed is different: closed-minded, entrenched, and bellicose, shouting and proselytizing their disbelief in the God of their fathers as determinedly and humorlessly as their forebears proselytized with such certainty for a definite, iron-clad system of punishments and rewards in a pie-in-the-sky afterlife. Why do these new atheists allow the Christian fundamentalists to define their reality? And why are they so angry?