An atheist defends religion
A Christian might have a difficult time trying to convince an atheist of the existence of God. Likewise, an atheist might find it equally difficult to convince a Christian of the non-existence of God. However, if an atheist were to suddenly go on record as highlighting the value of religion, perhaps it would be wise for the rest of us to sit up and pay heed to what he says.
Well, an atheist has done just that. Bruce Sheiman maintains the Atheist Nexus website, which he describes as “a community of non-theists.” (Theism is the belief in one God as the creator and ruler of the universe.) He has also written a book, “An Atheist Defends Religion,” in which he takes the position that humanity is better off with religion than without it.
Sheiman is candid about what he personally believes and does not believe. He writes: “I must disclose that I am not a person of faith: I do not feel the majesty or mystery of God.” He accepts that “my here-and-now existence is all there is … Being an atheist is not something that I rationally or deliberately chose. I did not think through all the competing belief systems and choose unbelief. It’s just something that I am.”
At the same time, he says he does not “stridently repudiate God. Indeed,” he adds, “there is a part of me that wants to believe in God.” That makes him an atheist who is also an “aspiring theist,” someone who desperately desires to believe in the existence of God, and a very personal one at that. He wants to “believe that our universal spiritual longing for wholeness and perfection is suggestive of the divine (and) that our timeless quest for goodness and transcendence has its Omega Point in God.”
In other words, though he claims he cannot believe in God, Sheiman still feels the need for God. The burden of his book is that, “on balance, religion provides a combination of psychological, emotional, moral, communal, existential, and even physical-health benefits that no other institutions can replicate.”
The author’s approach is radically different from books written by other atheists, especially in recent years. Witness, for example, Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion,” which has often been criticized because of its militancy.
Sheiman devotes individual chapters to the various functions of religion.
First, religion is about finding the meaning of life, linking us to the transcendent dimensions that make up our lives — humanity, nature and the universe. He speaks about “the connection to something larger than ourselves — finding purpose in a framework that is broader than our daily lives.”
Second, religion is about car- ing for humanity. “An integral part of religion pertains to morality: how we interact with our fellow human beings and, increasingly, with all of nature.”
Third, religion is union with the divine. “All religious traditions express the universal human concern with Absolute Value.”
Fourth, religion is deepening the soul. “Researchers the world over have documented in hundreds of research studies reporting a direct positive relationship between religious involvement and improved mental health, extended longevity, and even enhanced social health.”
Finally, religion is a force for progress, including human rights, science and universal ethics. “While we do not know anything about how history would have proceeded without religion, the most likely proposition is that we arrived at this historical juncture in large part because of religion, not in spite of religion.”
Sheiman does not shy away from thorny issues, one of which is the oft-made claim that religion is the foremost source of the world’s violence. By way of response, he posits three realities: most religious organizations do not foster violence, many nonreligious groups do engage in violence, and many religious moral precepts encourage non-violence.
He concludes: “we are members of a universe of ceaseless creativity in which life, agency, meaning, value, consciousness and the richness of human experience have a place. Maybe we are special after all, but not in the way religion intended. Even without God, I think it is possible to understand the universe in a way that acknowledges human existence, and, by extension, our own existence.”
Does Sheiman answer all the tough questions related to religion’s role in society? Far from it. For those readers who are looking for either proof or disproof of God, this book is not the one for you. Instead, the author defends religion as a cultural institution. What he has to say about the role of religion in society is a departure from other mainstream books dealing with similar topics. He makes a modest proposal which is incisive and engaging and worthy of consideration.
Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org