NightlineLast night a group of diverse, young Chicagoans were having the first planning meeting for a Chicago Secular Humanist meet-up. It was so inspiring to hear each individual talk about why they were in the room, and it left me feeling so excited about the possibilities of this group. But I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed that our meeting coincided with a debate on ABC Nightline called “The Future of God.” I was curious to see what new ground might be covered in this well-worn debate.

Then I watched it. I was not impressed; it was just the same argument we always hear between anti-theists and theists about the legitimacy of people’s images of God — an interesting conversation to have if done respectfully with a concern for significance and intention (and I know this is possible: I just spent all morning discussing it with a room full of Christians in my Psychology of Religion class), surely, but one that needs to be transcended in the public forum. As The Atlantic pointed out in their post on the program, the program was “cliché,” introducing nothing new and sticking to “trodden ground.”

It’s time to change the conversation. Whether or not God exists is not the most pressing point for dialogue — instead, we ought to be wrestling with finding ways to do good work in the world with others who disagree with us on this idea. We’ll never come to a public consensus about God, but I believe a shared ethic of responsibility to others, with or without God, is achievable.

If you’re interested, you can read about the program — and watch video clips from it — on ABC’s website.

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christopher hitchensReligion Dispatches has a great piece up on Christopher Hitchens (who is, along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, one of the “New Atheists” — or, as I like to say, something of a Horseman of Anti-Theism, decrying religion left and right). For anyone interested in issues of religion and non-theism, this article is a must-read, especially in its breakdown of the nuances between what Hitchens calls “religious” and what he calls “numinous.” For people like me who believe that Hitchens’ critical brush is far too wide and imprecise, this conversation is very revealing. The story picks apart an interview between Hitchens and a liberal Christian minister, concluding that “when it comes right down to it, the biggest difference between Christopher Hitchens and Marylin Sewell is not in their substantive views but in the emotive sense they attach to the word ‘religion.’ They both dig through the complex phenomenon that is religion—one searching for the jewels amidst the junk, the other lifting up the garbage and yelling out ‘See!’ But if Sewell should unearth a treasure, Hitchens may be the first of the New Atheists to acknowledge its worth. He’ll just refuse to call it ‘religion.'” A beautiful image, to be sure, and one that suggests that maybe Hitchens is beginning to realize that religion isn’t as black and white as he’s cast it. One can hope, anyway. Because c’mon, man: you’re giving the rest of us non-religious — and Christopher’s, for that matter — a bad name! Read the rest of the story here.

bookI recently had the opportunity to speak with Bruce Sheiman, the author of An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off with Religion Than Without It. His book, which came out last year, has raised eyebrows in both religious and non-religious circles for proposing that religion plays an important and perhaps even necessary role as a cultural institution — even for so-called “rational Atheists.” This is a point with which I obviously sympathize, and I’ve enjoyed his book a great deal. Bruce recently agreed to sit down with me and answer a few questions about his book and other things, including Pat Robertson, Unitarian Universalism, hipsters, and what music he’s listening to.

NonProphet Status: Bruce, thanks again for agreeing to speak with me. Let’s start large: Why did you decide to write this book? Why is it important?

Bruce Sheiman: The debate about the existence of God is never-ending. What is not in dispute is that God exists in people’s hearts, minds and spirits. What is not in dispute is that religion is adaptive, constructive and healthful – and thereby makes a positive difference in people’s lives. Reflecting James’ pragmatic conception of belief: When we act as if religion is true, we act with greater optimism, hope and benevolence. In the end, An Atheist Defends Religion cogently explains that the most rational and definitive argument for dismissing atheism is not found in the interminable debate over the existence of God, but in elucidating the enduring value of religion itself.

NonProphet Status: That’s a great summary of your work, which I find to be very important and totally in line with my own. In other words: you’re preaching to the choir here. So since you and I are in agreement, who do you think will benefit most from reading this book?

Bruce Sheiman: This book affirms both sides of the religion debate: on the one hand I am an unbeliever; on the other I am affirming the value of religion. Thus the book appeals to moderate believers and moderate unbelievers. The book does not appeal to extremists on either side of the debate. Indeed, the book makes an explicit case against extremist fundamentalism, and asserts that fundamentalism applies to religion as well as atheism.

NonProphet Status: You say you are both an Atheist and an “aspiring theist.” Tell me more about what you mean when you say this. What makes you want to be a theist?

Bruce Sheiman: The argument I make is that religion offers many benefits (emotional, communal, psychological, moral, existential, and even physical health) that are not offered by any other cultural institution.  I view religion in the economics context of expenditures and rewards; and if we could equate these minuses and pluses, religion would offer greater “profits” than any other cultural institution, even any secular ideology.  However, I can only justify that qualitatively, not quantitatively; so maybe the issue is unanswerable.

NonProphet Status: What has the response been to this book, both by the religious and by non-religious / Atheist folks?

bruce sheimanBruce Sheiman: It should surprise no one that believers have generally reacted very favorably; they see me as on their team (except for literalists). Unbelievers surprised me in being overtly hateful; they have called me everything from “fraud” (that I am not really an atheist) to “traitor” (I am inauthentic). What became apparent in writing this book is that there are at least two distinct kinds of atheists, what Daniel Burke of Religion News Service distinguished between “Atheism 2.0” (the so-called New Atheism of Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and other extremists) and “Atheism 3.0” (those given explicit recognition for the first time as expressed in my book: a more accommodating, tolerant and kinder, gentler atheism). For more, you can see the second blog dated December 8, 2009 at my blog.

NonProphet Status: You mentioned that some Atheists see you as a traitor. I can relate to the “traitor” tag; per a comment on my WaPo op/ed: “…maybe then our young Atheist Pastoral Student will find a society waging peace in a secular society. He’s in hell and making friends with the fire fuelers. He’s complaining of all us [fire] fighters squirting water on all the theocrats and heaven bribers.” Charming, no? Why do you think our positions — which I think are pretty politically correct and inoffensive — inspire such outrage among some folks?

Bruce Sheiman: Remember, believers generally like me (except for a contingent that does not take me seriously: I am still “wrong” in the minds of these literalists because they think it is misguided to look upon religion or God in a purely utilitarian sense; and besides, “God does so exist and how dare you say otherwise.”), so it is not all “outrage.”  The reason for such expressions is that many people are only comfortable with belief systems so long as other people embrace their version of the divine truth in a totalist, literalist sense. Deviating at all generates cognitive dissonance and a backlash.

NonProphet Status: Exactly. So why do you think it is that this literalist, militant Atheism has been more successful in capturing the public’s attention than our “kinder, gentler” non-religiosity? How does your perspective explicitly differ from those being advocated by the big-name Atheist / Agnostic voices out there right now (Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, etc)?

Bruce Sheiman: It is quite simple: the more vehement are more vociferous. They command more attention by virtue of being louder and more outrageous.

NonProphet Status: Alright, let’s move on to some possibly lighter subjects. Have you seen Bill Maher’s documentary film “Religulous”? If so, what was your response to it?

Bruce Sheiman: No, I have not seen it. Do you recommend it? Read the rest of this entry »

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