I am a truth-seeker. My beliefs are altered as I encounter new facts. Though I do not consider myself an atheist, I can respect the ideas and arguments of public intellectuals who claim to be. Evaluating arguments of those we may disagree with is what keeps our wits sharp. We can’t just read and listen to those with whom we agree—then we never get to have our minds expanded, and we can’t grow.
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.
These thinkers are quite confident in what they believe. They make many strong points deserving of contemplation; we must always be willing to listen to public intellectuals who have intriguing ideas to offer. I agree that as we advance as a civilization and continue to learn about how our universe came to be and how it functions that we must be willing to adjust our beliefs in favor of new facts that arise. I do not, however, believe that we should discard our religious and spiritual texts, religions, and the traditions that accompany them. They are a part of our human story, provide context for much of the world’s greatest literature, and are central to the lives of billions of people on this planet. They provide meaning for so many, and to take that away from them would be not only foolhardy, but arrogant. One should not impose one’s beliefs, or lack of belief, on another who is engaged in their own individualized spiritual quest. I for one wish to read every text from every tradition so that I can understand as much as I can about them. That will help me to then understand what motivates those of specific traditions and help me to engage with them in mutually respectful conversations about how we can work together to genuinely improve the world.
I would welcome other suggestions as to where to turn for analysis of what the Bible has to offer, as I find many of its stories fascinating and brilliantly constructed. We as a people need to study and preserve such sacred texts, as they are a part of our collective heritage. As always, I believe that everyone’s journey is a sacrosanct quest, and wherever one finds meaning and inspiration, their beliefs must be preserved and honored. If anyone changes what they believe in the light of new facts or changes in perspective, that is for them to decide, and only them.
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. Many believe that certain texts should be taken as literally true. I cannot emphasize it enough: one’s beliefs are one’s own. Though we must be willing to engage one another in respectful conversation and debate and be willing to compromise, to attempt to change a person’s beliefs seems quite arrogant to me. We may hold our own, but we must respect those of others, as we would have them do for us.”
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.