Be Scofield - Crossposted from Tikkun Daily
The idea “to be religious is to be a theist” as Christopher Hitchens stated in his debate with Lorenzo Albacete is a quite ethnocentric claim. It is true that in the West we have often associated a theistic God with religion, but this neglects Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Jainism and numerous religious traditions which have adopted a deistic, pantheistic, panentheistic or other understanding of God. And as I pointed out in my critique of Hitchens last week, Unitarian Universalism contains 19% of people who identify as atheist/agnostic.
In the over 140 comments I received from my post “Christopher Hitchens: The Orthodox Protestant Atheist” both on the Tikkun site and in the version crossposted on Alternet.org there was both surprise and disbelief that atheists could be religious leaders. I described how I am in seminary at Starr King School for the Minstry studying alongside atheists and agnostics who are in training to become religious leaders and ministers. This seemed to be an oxymoron as for some of the respondents all religion is evil and always associated with God. So I thought it would be helpful to include a few statements from atheist students in seminary studying to be religious leaders.
From a fellow atheist seminarian at Starr King:
First, I think there is a difference between being an atheist and being anti-religious. They are orthogonal. There is also a difference between being anti-religious and being opposed to the effects of particular religious traditions. These terms should not be conflated. Since when did not believing in God mean that you are opposed to other people believing in God and or practicing religion regardless of whether they believe? I am an atheist. Just to be clear, by that I mean I don’t believe that there is a god, a higher consciousness, or a spirit. I am also opposed to the effects of certain religious traditions. But I am not by any means anti-religious. I don’t deny the value that religion or religious practice, (whether actual belief in god and the afterlife, or simply liking the pretty candles at mass and multiple opportunities for community) brings to people including myself. Religion has a lot to offer and to deny that is to deny the complexity of the human condition.
From Ricky, also at Starr King:
I am an atheist not because I hate God, but because I cannot abide an understanding of God who merely lurks in the shadows waiting for science or another form of reason to cast light; a light which almost without fail shows greater beauty and complexity than we could ever imagine.
I am a religious humanist because I believe in miracles even if I believe they obey all the laws of physics. You see, just because I understand everything that happens biologically to make a baby, it doesn’t mean that there’s not still a place for a miracle there. There was not life, and now there is: that is a miracle however you slice it.
We can know all of the political forces which led to war, or all the conditions which led to a car accident, but not why our brother had to die. That’s what religion is to me, and why I am a religious leader. All the facts in the world may fail to answer why, for good or for ill. I do not feel a need for God to help me struggle with the Why, but I do need a community of seekers to support me.
And perhaps most of all, I do not need a concept of God to be in awe of the world, if one opens one’s eyes, one can hardly help it.
These statements trouble the either/or dichotomy of people like Hitchens and others who believe that religion and atheism are incompatible. Atheists serve as religious leaders in diverse traditions, ranging from Buddhism to Unitarian Universalism. And many religious people, both believers and atheists are just as concerned about the deleterious effects that religion can have on society.
Religion can provide meaning, support, community and purpose. And as my seminarian friend noted religious practice has a lot to offer, specifically its renewing and transformative aspects. And of course it can also oppress, dehumanize and encourage violence. This is true with any association. I view religion as one of these associations, not unlike a corporation, government or other system. I reject a binary that labels an entire group or association as poisonous, whether it is in relation to religion or atheism. In the aftermath of 20th century genocide, holocaust and nationalism we know the tragic effects of this sort of discourse.
Some people in the comments claimed as Sam Harris does that liberal religion justifies or sanctions the more extreme elements found within religion. I wholeheartedly reject this. It is like saying Dennis Kucinich is responsible for or justifies the Bush era torture program merely because he participates in a political association which contains extremists. Shouldn’t Hitchens’ next book be called “Politics is Not Great: Why Government Poisons Everything.” Certainly governments as one form of association have produced an equal amount of violence and oppression if not more than has any religious association. And governments have also been fused with religious ideology about their leaders or the state. And yet both religion and governments have contributed to the common good of society as well. It seems that Hitchens and others can separate government and the particular oppressive aspects of government but cannot do the same with religion. Why the double standard?