Belief Watch: Arguing Against the Atheists

Sometimes I argue in my mind against the new generation of professional atheists, and the arguments go something like this. First, if 90-odd percent of Americans say they believe in God, it's unhelpful to dismiss them as silly. Second, when they check that "believe in God" box, a great many people are not talking about the God the atheists rail against—a supernatural being who intervenes in human affairs, who lays down inexplicable laws about sex and diet, punishes violators with the stinking fires of hell and raises the fleshly bodies of the dead. It is impossible to measure what people do mean when they talk about God—to tease their individual experiences of transcendence apart from what culture and catechism teaches them—but according to a new survey by Baylor University, just about half of Americans believe that God intervenes in worldly affairs. Less than half characterize God as "punishing." What's more, even some of those who do envisage the God described above also believe all kinds of other stuff. They chant mantras in yoga class. They believe in eternal salvation for people from faith traditions other than theirs. The problem with religion is not belief itself, which even in the most orthodox believers is inconsistent, but the (violent or oppressive) enforcing of one truth over another.

My arguments against the atheists have been (until now) imaginary, but especially since the publication of Christopher Hitchens's book "God Is Not Great," many, many others have been moved to make their arguments in print. These new volumes take a temperate approach—note the "Hows" and "Whys" in their titles, as if a skeptical reader, in the midst of one of these volumes, might suddenly exclaim, "Thanks to this rational and sympathetic argument, I'm convinced!" In the past week, I've received three such new books: "What God Can Do for You Now" by Robert N. Levine, a rabbi in New York; "Why Faith Matters" by David J. Wolpe, a rabbi in Los Angeles; and "A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists" by David G. Myers, a psychologist in Seattle. This brief list does not include books about to be published—"Is God a Delusion?" and "How to Believe in God"—nor the legions of apologies recently in stores. The value of these books lies in their unique and demanding arguments and the way those arguments resonate with the faithful. They may provoke in believers a better, or deeper faith, but the number of converts they—or the atheists—can claim is undoubtedly small.

It struck me the other day, while watching Hitchens attempt to eviscerate yet another believer at a Templeton Foundation luncheon (moderated, in part, by NEWSWEEK), that the battle between faith and reason can make enemies out of friends.

Submitting faith to proof is absurd. Reason defines one kind of reality (what we know); faith defines another (what we don't know). Reasonable believers can live with both at once. Watching representatives of the two camps duke it out has become an intellectual blood sport with no winner. Hitchens's latest opponent was Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, a Roman Catholic priest and physicist who spoke movingly of the importance of both science and faith in his life and declined to say much beyond that. "Faith," he said, "is like trying to explain to your uncomprehending family why you have fallen in love with so-and-so. They have all the arguments, and you can understand what they're saying, but you can't help it, you're in love." Hitchens, cruising for a fight, evoked barbaric religious practices, evil done in the name of God, immorality disguised as theology. Over and over, the priest expressed his sympathy and agreement. He reminded me a little bit of Ferdinand the bull, the children's book character who refuses to gore the matador, in spite of all provocation. Albacete's God is not the one Hitchens objects to, and that, he seemed to say, is that.

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