Atheists and theists, the God-despisers and the God-fearers, the faithless and faithful, are locked in combat over public opinion. For a long time, atheists were seen at best as wacky, thanks to Madalyn Murray O’Hair. That is no longer the case due to books and appearances by men like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. The new atheists have a credible attack.
Theists still have the institutional power of congregations, cultural tradition and conservative commentators. Atheists have little institutional power, save the sympathies of the liberal media, a significant slice of the hedonistic entertainment culture and angry university professors. Moreover, atheists are stuck in the low single-digit poll numbers among Americans who identify themselves as members of the party without religion.
The new atheists do have advantages, however. One is that too many people of faith behave badly or refuse to embrace deeply troubling questions with intellectual honesty.
When priests abuse children, clergy fleece congregants and preachers speak hate, then faith gets bruised. When church organizations practice racism and religious groups conduct partisan campaigns, then moral entities forfeit credibility. Consequently, people of faith or no faith want nothing to do with religious institutions.
When people of faith default to dogmatic answers to complex questions or assert certainty that sounds silly, faith surrenders its integrity. The answer of “I don’t know” has more intellectual honesty than flaw or false answers.
The new atheists also have another advantage: the public has grown increasingly weary of fundamentalism ”Christian and Islamic versions of it.
Fundamentalists are seen as the God-believers who soil the public square. They are symbols of intolerance and violence. They are intolerant of those inside and outside their faith traditions, those who prioritize a competing set of values. They reject those who see gradations of gray in what should be a world of absolutes ”black and white, light and darkness. Diversity and ambiguity are not virtues for fundamentalists.
Fundamentalists and the forces of violence cite holy texts and credit the divine to justify carnage, creating the public perception that faith is the singular cause for violence. Yet violence may be rooted in other factors ”xenophobia, racism, tribalism, nationalism, materialism, the lust for power. Nevertheless, faith gets blamed, because some tie religion to bloodshed.
Given these realities, centrist faith leaders should neither underestimate the appeal of the new atheists nor engage in a reptilian attack against them.
Instead, centrist faith leaders should begin engaging the new atheists by first taking back the microphone from the fundamentalists who define faith. Real faith gets fouled by those who distort it and the distorters of faith become easy foils for the new atheists.
The best recent example of this is Sam Harris’ three-page attack on Sarah Palin in Newsweek. Her lack of gravitas, minimal educational credentials and unusual faith practices became a useful brush with which to belittle Christianity, as if she was the best representative of Christian faith.
Second, centrist faith leaders should insist on a fair debate in the public square without playing the victim card. When Newsweek pitted last year the intellectual Harris against the non-intellectual Rick Warren, authentic faith was poorly represented. It sounded defensive and indefensibly tired. Newsweek should be criticized for its matchup without arguing that it was a veiled conspiracy against Christians.
Third, centrists should sharpen their arguments against the charge that faith is the source of violence in the world. The bloodiest regimes in the 20th century were those rooted in communism, an ideology of atheism. They included the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and North Korea.
Fourth, faith leaders should readily acknowledge their limitations. They are not omniscient. They don’t have all the answers. They don’t have definitive proof that faith claims are true.
Fifth, centrist leaders of faith should neither demonize the new atheists, who are made in the image of God, nor allow their charges to go unanswered. Faith leaders should respond with a vigorous civility and a redundant clarity about the great good religion does to advance social justice, encourage charity, comfort the grieving and provoke a sense of wonder in the mystery of creation.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.