An athe­ist de­fends re­li­gion

The Compass - - OPINION -

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 bur­

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