I’ve been reading I Don’t Believe in Atheists by Chris Hedges. I wanted to find out if his premise, the current generation of atheists like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens is no better than the most extreme religious fundamentalists, is correct. So, I listened to freethoughtradio.com. They played a show that gushed praise on Thomas Jefferson for his rational thinking and Enlightenment values. This was followed by an interview with a leader of the “National Socialist Workers’ Party of America” on how he wants to “defend our proud Aryan race.” You win, Chris.
In my essay, 45 Things I Learned in 45 Years, I wrote, “Religion is a reflection of a person. If a person is filled with love, his faith will inspire him to acts of compassion. If a person is filled with hate, he will use his faith to justify and intensify his hatred. This is true for all creeds, and it’s also true about atheists.” Hedges’ book reinforced that view for me. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in Christ or quantum physics if your heart is full of hate.
Hedges makes another important link between fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist atheism: An unrealistic view that humans can be perfected so that we can produce a paradise on earth. But it’s a paradise only for the saved/enlightened. Those who are unsaved/unenlightened must either be converted from their sinful/irrational ways, or they must be eliminated. This view has produced both the Christian inquisitions and the atheist genocides in the Soviet Union and Cambodia. The Holocaust combined both: psuedo-scientific eugenics coupled with neo-paganism and deeply rooted anti-Semitism.
True religion, art, and philosophy clearly see the flaws in human nature and the uncertainties of life. It recognizes our innate dysfunctions, lusts, and insecurites. It offers us hope for redemption, even though we’ll fail to achieve perfection. The Bible tells of Abraham, David, and Solomon — men who were holy and did good deeds, but also committed horrible acts.
We see a recent example with Michael Jackson — a man who had incredible talent, but whose deep personal wounds led to his self-destruction. Fundamentalists were quick to condemn him — focusing on his off-beat behavior and (unconvicted) charges of pedophilia while dismissing his contributions as a performer. He was either a sinner or a saint — there is no in-between as this Mike Luckovich cartoon parodies. The truth is that Jackson was somewhere in between, as are all of us. This is why his story resonates with us so much. Extremists in religion and atheism fail to understand this.
I believe in God because I believe there is a divinity to life and to our universe. There are mysteries in existence that science and rationalism can’t answer. Love can’t be proven with a mathematical equation. Mercy cannot be broken into subatomic particles. I also believe that the universal God isn’t the sole possession of one faith, one country, or even of one species. All of us are part of this divinity — the sperm whale in the North Pacific, the old woman hanging up laundry in Bogota, the aurora borealis undulating in the northern sky. We are all connected, and no one is unworthy or cast off. To view God and our world this way offers us beauty, gives us the chance for love and deep human connections, and opens our hearts to joy. This, rather than rigidity and prejudice, enables our brief and imperfect life to be a paradise on earth.