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What the Angry Atheists Get Wrong

Recent polemics by proud and angry atheists have gotten many of us—faithful and skeptical alike—thinking better of belief in God. Books like Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and most recently, Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great argue that it is simply unreasonable to believe. Science can debunk the historical or biological claims of any sacred text, they say, and religious morality contradicts the modern zeitgeist. Even when the scriptures do present us with a moral innovator, faith alone rarely compels believers to live accordingly. These angry atheists reserve some of their sharpest criticism for religious moderates, arguing that a reasoned and critical respect for religion simply provides comfort to the enemy. The slope between Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell—or, for that matter, between Reza Aslan and Osama bin Laden—is simply too slippery. Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens are not wrong. Religion is often ugly and irrational, and the sins of religious people are often a function of what they believe. But we part ways with Dawkins and his fellow atheists when they argue that the root of the problem isn’t extremism, but belief itself. In this, fundamentalists and atheists are not much different. Historically, those religious extremists who make unyielding truth claims for their own specific beliefs—say, that God is One, or that God is Triune, or that there is no God but God—respond to threats to those claims by trying to destroy other faiths. Equally dogmatic atheists, who believe that religion demands, even of its most liberal adherents, at least a basic belief in God, respond by demanding the end of faith itself.

We see it all differently. Religion need not start with belief, but rather with an understanding that encounters with holiness in the world demand—and have always demanded—a metaphorical structure to contain them and give them meaning. In other words, religion should take its myths seriously, but not literally, with the self-conscious awareness that behind these stories are actual worldly encounters with something amazing and often terrifying. In making meaning of what we perceive, religious myths bring us together. And when belief takes the back seat, moral innovation, the best that religion has to offer the world, can become the final measure of the virtue of faith. We begin with the premise that actual belief in God is not necessary to the religious imagination. It is within the religious imagination, in fact, that the very idea of God arises. Whether or not God actually exists, what makes God even possible is that through our encounters with others and the world, we are called upon to imagine something entirely beyond ourselves. We shape an idea of the holy. In his somewhat dated but still enlightening book, The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto describes the irrational moment that precedes belief. He finds that moment in our encounters with what he would call holiness, or the mysterium tremendum. For the ancients, holiness could be found in a thunderclap or a herd of bison just as often as in a moment of birth or death. So too for us moderns: From the deepest reaches of the cosmos to the twisting depths of a strand of DNA, creation still blows us away. (And no doubt, faced with a herd of charging bison, we’d still be scared to death.) Abraham Joshua Heschel agrees. In God in Search of Man, Heschel writes: “Faith is preceded by awe, by acts of amazement at things that we apprehend but cannot comprehend….We must learn how to see ‘the miracles which are daily with us’; we must learn how to live in awe, in order to attain the insights of faith.” The primal notion of the holy is not about ethics and morals, or even miracles, but more simply, terror and awe. Such encounters may generate the emotions of supreme empathy, compassion or love, but even these, in and of themselves, contain no moral instruction. Only as religious thought evolves further—through myths or religious laws—does the moral condition famously known as “fear and trembling” become associated with God.
Religion begins when people share these ideas of holiness, usually through the telling and retelling of myths. Assuming others encounter the world as we do—that is, they occasionally find it awesome, too—and that they possess the same imagination, it makes sense that we might begin considering whether there is some social value to our encounter with the holy. Beyond any individual experience that inspires thoughts of holiness, “we need myths,” writes religion scholar Karen Armstrong, “that help us to create a spiritual attitude, to see beyond our immediate requirements, and enable us to experience a transcendent value that challenges our solipsistic selfishness.” Religious faith, then, depends on the decisions any of us make—or, as children, the decision we have made for us—to align ourselves with particular set of metaphors and perhaps one greater myth.

In describing encounters with holiness and the transformation of such encounters into something of transcendent value, Heschel, Otto, and Armstrong are primarily concerned with moments before belief. So even after communities form and specific beliefs begin to drive the way we see the world, actual belief itself does not come until we’ve already formed religious social contracts, or ethics. After all, religion is only sustained in society. God may (or may not) actually exist without people. Religion cannot. Once myths are written down and compiled, and begin to shape morality—when awe becomes aligned with guilt or our conscience booms from the clouds as the voice of God—religions start to form around the scriptural charge: do good and fear God. This is when a system of myths turns into the kind of religion to which Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens are so fervently opposed. Again, the atheists aren’t wrong. Unquestioning faith in God—the yardstick by which both atheists and blinkered fundamentalists seem to measure religious commitment—is not the best true sign of religiosity. After all, once belief becomes the supreme virtue for religious communities, the absolute notions of what is “good” and how literally we fear God start causing problems. Just as an encounter with holiness can never mean “feed the poor” or “love your neighbor,” Otto would argue it also never means “kill the infidels.” Humanity is responsible for feeding, loving, and killing. Religion expresses our own desires, not the desires of God.
Belief can separate individuals from the rest of the world—from the heretics and the infidels. But communities cannot possibly depend on any of their members believing in precisely the same way. Such control would be impossible. So belief matters less for organized religion than the common recognition that a set of rituals, liturgy, and community actions invoke holiness in a meaningful and generally cohesive way. Central to faith communities’ cohesion around worship and broader practice is religious language. And unlike the language of science and politics, the purpose of religious language is to mythologize, to offer those who speak it a connection, at the most basic level, to the “eternal” cycle of new beginnings. This is where both the fundamentalist and the atheist get it wrong. A Christian fundamentalist reads the book of Genesis and says, “It says here the world was created in six days, so it must be true.” The fundamentalist, attempting to speak scientifically, commits the grave intellectual error of proof-texting inside the selfsame text. The atheist reads the book of Genesis and says “It says here the world was created in six days. Only a fool would believe this nonsense.” Refusing to admit that the scripture may hold some greater metaphorical truth, like the fundamentalist, the atheist can only read Genesis one way—as a misguided historical account of the beginning of time. But fundamentalist believers and non-believers alike would do well to remember that Genesis is not about belief at all. It’s a mythic vision that relates an encounter with the majesty and wonder of the world. It also has to deal with human suffering and temptation, and like any good myth, uses a foil, a trickster by way of a serpent, to explain the sins of humanity. Modern religious adherents have no one but their ancestors to blame for this confusion. Torah began a process that the Gospels and Epistles, the Koran, and most recently, the Book of Mormon continued, demythologizing our encounters with holiness by firmly placing them in history. For example, although Pesach attempts to eternalize the Israelites’ Exodus through ritual, the liberation of the slaves feels firmly situated in history. Today, at least on the surface, most religious celebrations commemorate historical events—Christmas the most notable in America. And as such, it is very seductive to read the myths behind these commemorations literally.
Myth can be understood, then, as the religions imagination sans belief. Judaism understands this more intuitively than Christianity, because its development was closer—historically and culturally—to classical understandings of mythology. Certain pieces of the Jewish scriptures, especially Genesis, maintain that classical mythic quality, with its focus on the eternal. “In the beginning…” is perfectly ahistorical. Christianity, though, firmly divorces itself from the classical world by grounding its story absolutely in history. “In the time of Caesar Augustus,” which opens Jesus’ birth narrative, is perfectly historical.

Moreover, beyond simply focusing on one historical life, the Christian story abandons the mythic by prioritizing myth’s enemy, eschatology. Eschatology looks to an end of time within history—for Christian millennialists, often within their own lifetimes. Myth implies eternity. Persephone is kidnapped by Hades, and to save her Demeter stops the rains and creates the seasons. This cycle becomes eternal because the deal Demeter makes with Hades to rescue her daughter is forever binding. Likewise, Osiris continues, over and over and over again, to die and be reborn. Search though they might, religious seekers are never going to find God. Proving God’s existence is a worthless and truly unholy enterprise. We need to redirect our efforts away from believing so much in God, and toward understanding what God can mean. We must recognize that religious stories maintain their greatest potential in assigning, through metaphor, eternal meaning both to natural events and our encounters with the world—birth and death and all that comes between. (Of course, it’s crucial to remember that no matter the truth claims myths seem to make, they exist as expressions of our religious imagination—what Dawkins might describe as an evolutionary by-product—and have no necessary relationship to scientific truth.) Remythologizing these stories—in a sense, consciously reimagining myth as myth—would attach them again to the eternal. Ritual would regain its force as our tie to the endlessly recurring cycles of life. And never again would we hear that deathly and banal phrase, That’s just a myth. Myths are not lies. They are, to borrow a phrase from Joan Didion, the stories we tell ourselves in order to live. Even the bible tells us so. Heschel’s idea that awe comes before faith is found appropriately with the first commandment, which requires that we love God, not believe in Him. The religious claim that belief is irrelevant—and the assertion that such a claim is actually biblical—depends on the further and equally biblical claim that ethical behavior is necessary to the religious life.
Grounded at the outset in the irrelevance of belief, which may itself have been the authors’ way of honoring the metaphoric nature of myth, the Torah did not simply leave the Jews to fend for themselves, but offered a collection of 613 mitzvot, or commandments, that established Judaism—and it follows, both Christianity and Islam—as a religion of action. Whether or not you agree that these commandments are actually helpful, or even entirely proper—homosexuality, for example, is proscribed by commandments 157-159—to be a Jew, the Torah says, you are not required to believe in the holy, but you must live holiness. While we surely should stand in judgment over evils once considered proper—slavery, for example, is and always has been a sin—it stands to reason that ethics would change over time. And if what makes us religious is not our belief in the holy but living holiness itself, it also stands to reason that religious life would involve developing ethical positions to allow us to deal with modern problems. While it might make good sense, as commandment 501 states, “not to insult or harm anybody with words,” and we still do not require defendants or their relatives to testify in court (575), we may rightly take issue with courts killing sorcerers (552) or the commandment to wipe out the descendants of Amalek (598). To be religious is to take on the responsibility of not just claiming and living by a set of ethics but also allowing those ethics to adapt to the world and its circumstances—in fact, demanding they do. As religious moderates, we find nothing more troubling than the belief that “faith alone” is what ties us to God and makes us believers. In this scenario, God seems needy and jealous, not at all a model for ethical living. This is not to say that we can’t believe—only that it doesn’t really matter. Emphasizing belief threatens to make religious action irrelevant. Atheists and religious people alike would do well to remember that it’s ethics and not belief that has, from the earliest moments of religious life, bound faithful people together. And it’s here still today—in stories of faithful friendships, the births of the children, the cycles of life and death, and the moral innovation necessary to make our synagogues and churches more inclusive—that the meaning of God is found.

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