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Why Atheists Should Be Allowed To Cherry Pick From Religion

Ever since Darwin published Origins, Nietzsche declared the death of God and Hitchens argued that religion poisons everything, atheists have struggled with atheism. Some deny the supernatural but are “spiritual;” some deny the historical credibility of the scripture, Torah or Quran but value their principles; some don’t believe in anything that cannot be explained by science yet maintain that humans possess an intangible essence or that there is an afterlife. I’ve even met folks who call themselves “atheists who believe in God.”

It’s easy to understanding said beliefs as inconsistent or incompatible; how can someone both believe and not believe in God? Be scientific and religious? This attitude ignores a truth that doesn’t get said enough: atheism is diverse.

The repetitive and attention grabbing debates between fundamentalists and non-believers are one reason this is forgotten. It’s easy to assume that only two opinions exist when searching “atheism” on YouTube or Google returns talks and articles from only William Lane Craig or Christopher Hitchens.

But most atheists know that the worldview of the fundamentalist and staunch non-believer inaccurately portrays religious belief as black and white. These more mainstream atheists know that there is a fairly large middle ground where religion and atheism can exist simultaneously to promote human flourishing. Religious people can believe in natural selection and be pro-choice even though many texts suggest otherwise while atheists have no problem being moral and giving to charity even though they never went to Sunday school.

When it comes to scientific claims, Hitchens and Dawkins are right: the world wasn’t created in a few days; natural selection is an observable phenomenon; God probably doesn’t exist; one can be moral without religion. But when it comes to how we ought to behave and what we ought to value the great religious texts got a few things correct. The problem is that hardcore atheists don’t let the mainstream cherry pick the good parts of religion without criticizing them for being inconsistent or intellectually lazy. We have to allow atheism to incorporate those religious practices and principles that we know contribute to human flourishing.

My conviction is not only a reminder that atheism is more diverse than some make it out to be, but also that atheism can be improved if it considers the right religious themes.

In a recent TED lecture Alain de Botton assumes a similar position. He explains:

I am interested in a kind of constituency that thinks something along these lines… I can’t believe in any of this stuff. I can’t believe in the doctrines… but – and this is a very important but – I love Christmas carols! I really like the art of Mantegna, I really like looking at old churches and I really like learning the pages of the Old Testament. Whatever it may be you know the kind of thing I am talking about: people who are attracted to the ritualistic side, the moralistic communal side of religion but can’t bear the doctrine. Until now these people have faced an unpleasant choice: either accept the doctrine and have all the nice stuff or reject the doctrine and live in a spiritual wasteland…  I don’t think we have to make that choice… there’s nothing wrong with picking and mixing, with taking out the best sides of religion. To me atheism 2.0 is about a respectful and impious way going through religions and saying what could we use. The secular world is full of holes… a thorough study of religion can give us all sorts of insights into areas of life that are not going too well.

The good news is, I think, most people agree. The problem is that they don’t get the coverage.

At the risk of stating the obvious, let’s remember that knowing how to live the best possible life requires both humanistic ideals as well as ideals from many of the great religions. As Jonathan Haidt concludes his enjoyable book The Happiness Hypothesis, “by drawing on wisdom that is balanced – ancient and new, Eastern and Western, even liberal and conservative – we can choose directions in life that will lead to satisfaction, happiness, and a sense of meaning.”

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