10/12/2005 01:01 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Evangelical Atheists

I’ve concluded from recent exchanges (1, 2, 3) in these pages that there are two kinds of atheists: those who don’t believe in God for personal reasons, and Evangelicals. The latter group thinks that if everyone believed as they do, war would end and we'd have peace on Earth. And why else do they reject religion? It’s too naïve. Attention, irony-seekers.

Their beliefs are as worthy of respect as anyone else’s, their worldview encourages scientific thought, and their goals are humane and kind. Still, no group with its own set of beliefs has the right to judge another based on misconceptions or generalizations. 'Tolerance' may be a musty-sounding word these days, but it's still a creed we should all share.

Has religion caused war ? Sure. So has nationalism, economics, language, xenophobia, and the personal greed of leaders. Let’s tackle all those problems, but without forgetting that some institutions are better reformed than eradicated. Don’t eliminate religion, change it. I’d like to end war as much as the next guy, so why don’t I jump on board with Sam Harris and his defenders as they argue for the eradication of religion?

For one thing, because it’s too naïve - even for my 1960's-bred “what’s-so-funny-about-peace-love-and-understanding” heart. Eliminate religion as a dividing factor between peoples and others will take its place. Hungary didn't need religion to break away from the USSR, and the Soviets didn’t need religion to retaliate with tanks.

For another, I’ve seen religion transform people’s lives for the better. It can inspire people to become more generous, more selfless, and yes – more peace-loving. Do I believe in an anthropomorphic God or a physical place called Heaven? Not personally, but I can respect the beliefs of those who do, especially when they’re creating positive change in their lives and in the world. Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day presumably believed in those things, and I’m grateful they walked among us.

Finally, it seems to me that campaigning against religion is like campaigning against music. It’s in the human heart, like it or not. It has the power to soothe and comfort as well as summon the tribe to war. The world of music may have brought us “The Horst Wessel Song” and the racist rock music of Skrewdriver, but it also reflects the crystalline fragility and overarching beauty of the human soul. Don’t condemn music: change the tune.

I didn’t realize at first that I was debating with people for whom (and I say this without sarcasm) atheism is a higher calling. I’d like to say to you: If I have been overly dismissive or casual in tone toward what I now realize is a cherished belief system, I sincerely apologize. I would not be so cavalier with a religious person about their faith, and should not have been with you. I hope that despite my shortcomings you can understand my point, even if you don’t agree with it.

The Muslim poet Rumi wrote, “If in the darkness of ignorance you don’t recognize a person’s true nature, look to see whom he has chosen for his leader.” If we want to change the world’s direction, let’s change its leaders – starting here at home. And rather than changing people’s “religions” – which in the end are only abstract beliefs - let’s change their hearts and their natures. Maybe then we’ll build a world where everyone can believe, or disbelieve, as their conscience dictates.

A Night Light