The Universe Between Atheism and Fundamentalism

01/16/2012 06:42 pm ET | Updated Mar 17, 2012

In jest I call myself "a recovering Unitarian." I was raised believing that all religions are the same, so we valued none of them, equally. While it is unfair to ascribe this view to Unitarian Universalists in general, it was true of my congregation in that time and place. In church we sang traditional hymns, but the verses had been rewritten to conform to the secular ethos of the members. The G-word would never be spoken. When I became seriously interested in religion in college, the UU church did not seem to me like a serious choice.

Some kind of religious universalism, however, remained the only serious option for this rational, empirically minded seeker. As I see religion, there are three logical alternatives. One possibility is that all religions are simply wrong--childish fantasies that should be discarded. This is the position that has been voraciously argued by the so-called New Atheists and vocalized by the anti-religious choir, but it doesn't penetrate much further. Though I agree: A lot of religious beliefs can be understood only as mythological fancies--profound perhaps, but not true in the way that science and history are true.

Another possibility is that one religion is true and all others are mistaken. This is the position taken by religious fundamentalists. Missionaries around the world, of whom evangelical Christians are the most prominent example, seek to convert others to the "one true" path. Others look down with pity upon those unfortunate enough not to be part of their tribe. Orthodox Jewish men, for instance, thank God every morning for not making them gentiles (or women)! Some kind of religious exclusivism is generally held up as the orthodox understanding of each tradition.

It is possible that divine revelation was received by one true faith at a specific historical moment in a particular human language, but it hardly seems probable. Religious exclusivism is easy to understand as a marketing strategy in a competitive religious environment, but it undermines the intellectual plausibility of all religions and throws us back to the atheist option.

Between these two extremes, there is a third possibility: that all religions are partly true, depending on how they are interpreted. The truths of these diverse traditions are shaped by specific historical and cultural factors, embedded in profound mythologies, rich symbol systems, and metaphysical intuitions winnowed through centuries of human experimentation and experience. This third view is a more fruitful point of departure in considering the rich variety of religious choice that people have in our global civilization.

In the late 1970s, I spent a year abroad at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, not an obvious choice for a secular WASP from Hockessin, Delaware. I was studying international relations at Middlebury College at the time and Israel-Palestine was certainly an interesting place to further those studies. Having taken a number of courses on the philosophy of religion, I was especially curious about religious life in the Holy City. I made a point of attending services--Jewish, all-manner of Christian, and Muslim worship, festivals, and pilgrimages. In anthropology, this is called being a "participant observer," but I was more a fearless and naive seeker.

What made these exposures to religion in Jerusalem so wonderful was that I couldn't understand what was being spoken, chanted, read, or sung. The services were conducted in languages that I didn't know--Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Syriac, Latin, Armenian, German, and French. This meant that I could imbibe in the ethos and the pathos without having to analyze the logos of each tradition and sect. In every case, I experienced power, beauty, and profundity. On more than one occasion, I contemplated conversion, until which time as I considered the logos of each faith and the often crazy and competing truth claims. Exploring the range of possibilities between fundamentalism and atheism turns out to be complicated work.

For me this meant eventually pursuing a doctorate in comparative religion and founding the Metanexus Institute. It means studying religion scientifically and also considering religious interpretations of contemporary science. It means mining ancient scriptures for profundities and setting aside preconceptions about God and special revelation. It means never knowing enough about science, history, languages, and cultures. It means paying attention to my own life and subjective experiences, for these too are data points, perhaps the most important. It also means always being in dialogue with not only my fellow seekers, but also atheists and fundamentalists. Some kind of religious universalism may be the only logical alternative to these extremes, but for the serious seeker, it is not an easy path to choose.

I look forward to exploring with you the new sciences of religion and the new religious interpretations of science in the weeks ahead and welcome your comments and reflections along the way. I invite you to also visit and join our conversation on Facebook and Twitter .