I seem to be getting into arguments with militant atheists* recently, for reasons I don’t really understand. I should know better. It’s just that I get a little annoyed when people lump me in with religious fundamentalists.
See, I get into arguments with religious fundamentalists all the time, and that isn’t any mystery.
Still, here are two groups that all but define themselves in opposition to one another, particularly the atheist side, and they become so obsessed with their conflict at times that they can’t see anything outside its boundaries. The position of militant atheists goes something like, “THAT is what religion is! And that’s why we hate it! It’s a plague upon the universe, a fountain of intolerance and an authoritarian mess of superstitious ignorance!”
All of which is quite true about fundamentalism. But the first sentence is false.
It’s remarkable how complete this tunnel vision can be among people who pride themselves on their ostensible rationality. Recently, I even had one MA respond to evidence that atheists and agnostics don’t constitute 20% of the American population, they constitute about 5% of it — one quarter of the religiously unaffiliated (that’s the 20% demographic) — by saying, “Come on, America isn’t 95% Christian!” In his mind, evidently, there were only two categories, atheist and Christian, and so if the country isn’t 95% Christian (which it’s not — more like 79%), then it must be more than 5% atheist, because, you know, there’s no other category with respect to religion. Is there?
Most MAs aren’t quite that obvious about it, and have some awareness that non-Christian religious people exist, but this awareness isn’t convenient to their facile dismissal of religion, and so they suppress the knowledge one way or another. The too-obviously-untrue “all religious people are fundamentalist Christians” is replaced by claims like, “all religious people are authoritarian,” “all religious people believe what they do because a book tells them it’s true,” or “all religious people are opposed to science.” These three things are characteristics of religious fundamentalists, particularly fundamentalist Christians: they are authoritarian, they believe in the literal infallibility of the Bible, and they are averse to at least large portions of science and certainly to the scientific method as an approach to knowledge.
None of these statements is true about religion in general, of course, any more than it’s true that all religious people are fundamentalist Christians. (I am a religious person. I am anti-authoritarian. I reject the concept of scripture altogether. And I adore science. Therefore these claims are factual errors. Q.E.D.)
In fact, the militant atheist misunderstanding of religion reminds me of nothing quite so much as the creationist misunderstanding and misrepresentation of evolution theory. In both cases, the errors are driven by a desire to believe something in conflict with reality.
The root error in militant atheism is the other side of fundamentalism’s coin. To my perspective, MAs and fundamentalist look like conjoined twins. Neither can exist without the other, and both are making the same basic mistake, but going in opposite directions as a result.
The mistake both are making is to define God.
God (or substitute whatever other metaphor you prefer — the Goddess, the All, the Void, the Infinite, the Ultimate, the Cosmos) is ultimately unknowable. We may experience God in various ways, but we cannot encompass and know God, and that means we cannot define God. God is in this respect like the ocean. We can swim in it, but it’s an exercise in futility to try to drink it dry, or to put it in a bottle.
With respect to fundamentalism or to doctrinaire religion of any kind, this means that any theological claims about what God is — particularly when they imply something God is not — are mistakes. It is impossible to have one religion be true, and others false. At best, any religious statement is a metaphor, and there is no such thing as a true or false metaphor. Fundamentalism is a confusion of the map with the territory, the poem with the feeling, the cup with the wine. (If they drink wine. Some of them don’t.) To define God is to create an idol. It is idolatry. Fundamentalism is idol-worship.
And militant atheists? They stand up proudly, and with icy, unassailable rationality declaim that there is no evidence the fundamentalists’ idol exists. And that would be fine (because they’re right as far as that goes) if they had sufficient awareness that that was all they were doing. But instead, they claim that there is no evidence God exists, as if they had any idea what God was or what would constitute evidence for his/her/its existence.
Which they don’t. Nor does anyone else, really — not a clear, definable idea anyway, because that’s impossible. God is and will always remain a mystery. God can be experienced, but not known; God can be understood, but not defined; God can be loved, but not analyzed.
Both fundamentalists and militant atheists have a very crude, simplistic idea in their minds that they mean when they say “God,” and it’s the same idea. Fundamentalists insist that this crude idea is real; they point to spiritual experience and answered prayer as proof. Atheists insist that there is no good evidence the same crude idea is real; they point to problems with scripture and lack of any concrete proof, while dismissing or explaining away spiritual experience and answered prayer. Both are partly right. The fundamentalists are right in that there IS something real underlying their idols — but they’re wrong in defining it as they do. The atheists are right that the idol is something made up and imaginary and there is no good evidence that it exists — but they’re wrong in thinking there is nothing there, even if it’s not what the fundamentalists claim it is.
From my own point of view, these are two sides of the same coin. The fundamentalists are heads. The atheists are tails. Flip the coin and see which one comes up. But whichever one does, it remains counterfeit.
* “Atheist” is a broad term. In some respects, I’m an atheist myself. The Buddha was an atheist. Anyone who does not believe that a personal deity is the ultimate reality is an atheist in some sense. By no means all atheists fit the description in this post. However, there is a certain sub-set of the set of atheists that does, and that sub-set includes almost all of those who go around making a point of being an atheist and picking arguments with religious people. Hence the “militant” qualifier.