Many atheists I know would be certain of a high place in heaven


Religious people and atheists have much in common – their beliefs require a leap of faith, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

EVEN THOUGH the President has decided not to refer it to the Supreme Court, the blasphemy provision in the Defamation Act remains unpopular with religious believers and atheists alike.

I know no religious person who is wildly enthusiastic about it, and most think it a bad idea. Certainly, some religious people believe that every culture has ideas that it considers too offensive to express. Secular culture is no different, and social disapproval and exclusion follow just as swiftly for anyone who offends against new dogmas.

Today, the unspeakable usually concerns anything considered to offend against the principle of equality. However, even those who believe that the taboo has merely been transferred to a sort of secular blasphemy, are not particularly in favour of criminalising religious blasphemy.

So the newly formed Atheist Ireland should not feel isolated in their dislike of the blasphemy provision. I would like to offer a welcome to Atheist Ireland. After all, we people of faith should stick together.

Atheists often appeal to science to underwrite their disbelief, but the decision not to believe in God lies ultimately in the arena of gut feeling, or hunch, or intuition. That decision is something that the scientific method cannot arbitrate on.

Some atheists speak about the impossibility of proving a negative. Polemicists like Richard Dawkins like to talk about the impossibility of proving that there isn’t a teapot flying around the sun. It would be hard to imagine anyone, after serious weighing of and struggling with the possibilities, coming to believe in a flying solar teapot, but many, including prominent scientists, have come to believe in God.

Indeed, many believers see in science, particularly quantum physics, increasing evidence for, though not proof of, the existence of a god.

The decision to live as if there isn’t a god requires a leap of faith, as does the decision to live as if there is. Religious people and atheists have a great deal in common. And now that Irish atheists are banding together, planning good works and hoping to influence Irish society, it looks more and more like a religion.

Okay, enough teasing. Being serious for a while, I welcome Atheist Ireland because the growing numbers need representation in Irish society. I realise with a certain degree of mild surprise that I know rather a lot of atheists, certainly far more than I should, given the overall representation of atheists in the population. The ones I know best are principled, highly moral people, and are extraordinarily tolerant of this columnist’s well-known religious biases. In fact, they are the kind of people that my mother would have declared, without a trace of irony or any wish to offend, to be certain of a high place in heaven.

However, I believe that the average atheist, if such exists, is not well served by atheism’s most vocal public representatives, such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Their target is religious fundamentalism. Their problem is their failure to see that there is any other kind of religion.

Author Karen Armstrong has travelled an interesting path – from being a Roman Catholic nun to wanting nothing whatsoever to do with religion to now being an authority on world religions and an activist for religious liberty.

In her latest book, The Case for God, she is sharply critical of the “new atheists” such as Hitchens and Dawkins, for an interesting reason, not because of their atheism, but because of their lack of sophistication.

She describes a long tradition of dialogue between theologians and atheists, which both sides found stimulating and valuable. She does not think such a dialogue can happen with new atheists, because unlike Feuerbach, Marx and Freud, they are not theologically literate. For example, she says that Dawkins takes the Bible as literally as any Protestant fundamentalist. The only point of disagreement is that Dawkins finds it unreliable about science, whereas fundamentalists do not.

She also says that unlike earlier atheists, the new atheists lack a passion to create a better world. Their desire to ascribe all evil to religion means that they show little concern for the poverty, injustice and humiliation that are underlying causes of many of the atrocities they label as religious.

Human beings are the great symbol-users, which has probably spurred much of human progress. Some evolutionary theorists believe that the desire to seek meaning, most often expressed as religious meaning, has also been central to human development.

At its best, religious belief enables people to transcend suffering, inspires acts of altruism and builds community.

Of course, religion that is distorted can lead to appalling acts. But every age has its dark side. As people abandon practice of their faith (in the sense of daily engagement with compassionate service and openness to mystery), some have substituted either the pursuit of wealth or selfish individualism. This can hardly be termed progress.

Many atheists would also be appalled by lack of social solidarity. Neither atheism nor religion has a monopoly on truth and morality. Ireland is facing enormous challenges in the years ahead. Perhaps the real division is not between atheists and religious people, but between those who would wish to see a culture of social justice, concern for the vulnerable and weak and a sustainable future, and those who are just out to grab everything they can for themselves.

With apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, the atheist and religious person can be friends.

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