Monday, May 14, 2007

A Christian Salute To The Village Atheist

Certainly quite a spate of atheist tracts being published lately, of which Christopher Hitchens's book is just the latest. I've only read excerpts and reviews of these books so far, none of which make the books sound particularly compelling, innovative, or insightful. Pointing out the hypocrisies of most religious people, the political, social, and ethical failings of the world's great religions, and the tendrils of superstition and tribalism that still cling to religious dogma and practice is very easy and doesn't really engage the serious adult case to be made for faith.

I was very impressed by the traditional arguments for atheism when I was fourteen years old but since then I have developed what I consider a more complex and nuanced view of human existence.

Despite this--and despite the fact that I am a committed and (badly) practicing Christian--I must say I am delighted by the existence and popularity of these books. I think they serve our society and the cultural discourse admirably in several ways:

* They happily violate the unspoken assumption--especially in politics--that atheism is somehow beyond the pale, and that all serious people must accept faith or else be marginalized or demonized. It's certainly unhealthy for our society to seek to extirpate any significant body of thought, and it's good for religious people to be forced to defend their beliefs rather than skate by with the support of mindless social pressure.

* They restore a bit of balance to the public debate in the US, creating an aggressive "anti-God" party to offset the arrogant theocrats of the far right. If this creates the impression that people like me--religious moderates who believe in God while standing for individual freedom and a secular state--represent the "sensible middle," then so much the better, since I believe that, in this case, it just so happens that the middle does contain quite a bit of wisdom. (Which of course is not to say that I endorse the lazy and often inaccurate assumption. commonly made in the mainstream media, that the middle is always the sensible place to be.)

* Finally, if our newly-assertive atheists (and their perhaps more numerous kissin' cousins, the agnostics) can help reestablish the important doctrine of separation of church and state, there's a chance that one day the Christian faith can return to the place it ought to occupy in our society--as a challenger of mainstream values and a defender of the poor and the oppressed rather than the tame, pampered lapdog of the political and economic powers-that-be.

So have at it, Chris Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Victor Stenger, and all the rest! I'm cheering your efforts to knock the church off its pedestal--because that's not where Jesus lives, anyway.

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