On September 30, 2007, a gathering took place in Washington D.C. between four very prominent and controversial thinkers: Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. These four men have been referred to as the “Four Horsemen of the New Atheist Apocalypse,” each an outspoken advocate of atheist and secular thinking. A bit dramatic, that. I found them to be four of the most level-headed, intelligent, sensible individuals I have ever had the opportunity to listen to in a single sitting. This gathering was filmed, and is available on You Tube for all to see, chiming in at just under two hours.
During the second hour of the discussion, Hitchens raised the question about what the ultimate atheist goal should be. Should it be that religion and faith be eradicated altogether? Hitchens described such situation to be a very unlikely one, as faith, he said, no matter how much one managed to undermine it, managed to replicate itself relentlessly for what he described as “Freudian” reasons. He did not expect, or wish, to see a world without faith. Hitchens claimed that almost any argument of philosophical, epistemological, or biological focus would eventually come around in some way to include religion as part of it. He explained that he did not wish to see the demise of faith because he enjoyed debating about it too much. The dialectic, the learning that comes from arguing with others, would suffer or be lost should faith disappear. When asked if he would hope that on that coming Sunday no one would go to church, Hitchens responded by saying, “People would be much better off without false consolation, and I don’t want them forcing their beliefs on me. I wish they would stop it, but then I’d be left with no one to argue with.” He wanted to debate with religious believers in order to keep his wits sharp.
Dawkins was flabbergasted by his fellow atheist’s position. “Extraordinary,” Dawkins said. “I can understand why you would feel it (the demise of faith) wouldn’t work, but I can’t understand why you wouldn’t wish it.” Dawkins went on to explain the kind of world he wanted to live in: one where people would think skeptically, seek evidence out for themselves, and take simple joy in examining the beauty and complexity of the universe in an attempt to discover how it works. He believed it was “an impoverishing thing to be reduced to the pettiness of religion.” In his view, people of faith are just missing out on too much when they surrender the search for real, scientifically supported meaning and surrender to superstition and myth. The real wonder and beauty of the universe is overlooked by such people in favor of supernatural explanations.
I found this conversation to be exceptionally thought-provoking on many levels, and have wrestled with many of the ideas these men raised as I continue along on my own spiritual journey. I agree with Professor Dawkins that a world occupied by skeptical people who seek evidence to guide their beliefs is one to be desired. In such a world, there is still a place for joy and wonder in the contemplation of the mysteries of the universe, whereas superstition can be consigned to past history. I would not, however, wish to see the eradication of the sacred texts and traditions that have formed the foundations of the world’s major religions. Literal belief in the “truth” of these texts must be confronted with reason and evidence so as to free those of blind faith from the ignorance that blinds them, but the texts themselves must be preserved for what they best are: invaluable mythological and allegorical stories that have helped craft our literatures and philosophies. They are a part of our collective human heritage. Knowledge of these texts and their deeper meanings, treated as myths and metaphors written to illustrate human truths, constitutes a cultural literacy we should all seek to cultivate.
This realization was a bitter pill for me to swallow. Having devoured books such as God is Not Great, The God Delusion, and The End of Faith (by Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris, respectively), I long viewed “sacred” books such as the Bible as being anathema to common sense—and a waste of my time to even contemplate reading and studying. How could anyone possibly take such a book seriously? I still feel that literal acceptance of what the Bible would have us believe is not only ignorant but even dangerous. However, as a literature teacher, I see the value in studying the book for what it is: a story, or group of them, from the ancient world that offer some worthwhile lessons for us. There are too few of these texts left to us to allow it to be lost. We simply have to view it, and other texts like it, through the proper lenses and from the proper secular perspectives.
Professor Jordan Peterson has a series of You Tube video lectures called the “Biblical Series” which I plan on listening to very soon, for they sound intriguing and look as though they could offer some insight into the deeper lessons the Bible has to offer, seen through a perspective which I hope appeals to a “non-believer” who just wants to further his own understanding of the value and craftsmanship of the Bible. One need not “believe” in what the Bible says (which I do and will not) to appreciate its contribution to human history and cultural evolution. Biblical allusions are made throughout the works of great authors such as Shakespeare, and a knowledge of the Bible and its stories would enhance the understanding and enjoyment of the works of those authors immeasurably. I would welcome any other suggestions as to where to turn for an analysis of what the Bible has to offer, without assuming that its reader is going to “accept Jesus Christ as his lord and savior.” No thanks. I just want to continue to learn all I can about where we have come from, and appreciate wisdom wherever I can find it. I’ll take Marcus Aurelius, Socrates, or Seneca over Jesus of Nazareth right now, but, going into a study of the Bible with an open mind and some mentors who know more than I do, I hope to walk away at the very least with an appreciation of the text’s undeniable resonance and the impact it has had on the human imagination. I remain a Spiritual Naturalist with a strong atheist leaning, but I’m always up for reducing my ignorance of something I know very little about. As I tell my students, we should always work to go to bed at night a little less ignorant about something than we were the day before.
Christopher Hitchens said that without people of faith, he would have no one to “sharpen his wits against,” his primary reason for disagreeing with Professor Dawkins on the desire for faith’s eradication. Hitchens presents yet another reason as to why it is a good idea to possess an understanding of the Bible’s stories. Though filled with many archetypal stories that resonate with us, it also has its share of hypocrisy and outdated moral codes no longer applicable in modern civilization. No person of “faith” is going to approach the sacred text of his or her religion from the same angle. For those who would argue that the text is literally true and should be adhered to in all circumstances exactly as written, we must be prepared to illustrate, through references to the text itself, what is demonstrably untrue and what no longer holds up in modern times. Only with knowledge of the text itself can we do this effectively. They may not listen, but we cannot let their arguments go unchallenged, especially if those who craft our policies and laws are unduly swayed by them.
Many no doubt view the stories of their sacred texts as metaphorical or allegorical guides to navigating life, as they should be viewed. Many others may not have read the text at all, simply professing belief while enjoying the sense of community their church provides. A knowledge of a particular religion’s central text can be useful when engaging “believers” in conversation about the wisdom that can be applied from the text to anyone’s life. Here common ground can be established. I would ultimately be tempted to engage such believers in a specific discussion technique known as “street epistemology,” a technique designed by Professor Peter Boghossian, with the ultimate intent of talking the believer out of his or her beliefs. However, I would always remain respectful of the individual, only calling the blatantly illogical or unreasonable aspects of the faith into question. Most religious believers in my experience are not in any way lacking in intelligence, but have been conditioned for so long to believe what they believe that the thought of surrendering those beliefs creates a rather painful degree of cognitive dissonance, a situation they are not keen to face. Who knows, perhaps one day I might encounter a strong enough argument from a religious believer that my own perceptions may need re-examination (I haven’t heard it yet, but I am open to the conversation). To quote Sam Harris, “I don’t want to be wrong about something for any longer than I have to be.”
So that is the world I want to live in; a world of skeptical, critical thinkers who make decisions based on evidence. These thinkers know wisdom when they see it, despite its source, and honor that which preserves our collective human heritage. They examine the universe with a sense of wonder, and are more than comfortable when asked why some things are the way they are in saying “I don’t know—yet.” Inhabitants of this world respect one another and the wisdom traditions from around the world, but engage in reasoned, good-faith dialogue in search of the truth, trimming away irrelevancies with the edge of Occam’s razor. How about you? What kind of world to you want to live in?
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.