Moderates Storm The Religious Battlefield

You might think of 2007 as the year the atheists won. They didn't succeed in converting the 86 percent of Americans who say they believe in God into nonbelievers—but they probably weren't looking to do so anyway. With a steady stream of best sellers, starting in 2002 and culminating this year with Christopher Hitchens's "God Is Not Great," though, vociferous atheists did bring nonbelief into the public sphere. The number of people who felt comfortable enough to tell Gallup pollsters that they didn't believe in God inched up to 6 percent this year from 2 percent in 2001.

Most recently, these champions of godlessness emphatically (and correctly) argued that nonbelievers have the same rights under the Constitution as believers do. The strength of their arguments forced Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney to concede the point. "Obviously in this nation our religious liberty includes the right to believe or not believe," Romney told NEWSWEEK in December, after a speech he made on religion lit up the Internet like a pinball machine. In a solid tactical maneuver, Romney had allied himself with believers of all faiths against the creep of secularism. It's a testament to the power of the atheists that he had to answer to them at all.

This victory, if you want to call it that (an overwhelming number of Americans still say they would not vote for an atheist presidential candidate), was hard won. It owed much to the loud and intransigent rhetoric of its main proponents—a reaction, perhaps, against the loud and intransigent rhetoric of the right-wing evangelical Christians who have dominated discussions of faith for so long. Instead of fire and brimstone, you had the hyperrational insistence of Sam Harris, the high-minded bomb throwing of Hitchens and the wacky relentlessness of Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford who spends so much time on his own Web site that it's hard to imagine he has time to do his job.

As with all social movements in their infancy—feminism, fundamentalism, rock and roll—passionate outbursts and entrenched positions were necessary. But now, on both sides of the theism debate, a mellowing is taking place—and with it, the welcome possibility of irreverence and humor. A number of recent and upcoming books showcase voices from Christians and nonbelievers that are intelligent but less strident than the old guard. Both sides seek to elevate the thing they have in common: doubt. In a fragile world, a confession of uncertainty is especially grave.

The Rev. Timothy Keller is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, a 5,000-member megachurch in New York City that attracts an urbane, affluent, single crowd—the people who would be most likely to call themselves "seekers" or "skeptics." It also draws many immigrants, who come from places like Africa where Christianity is thriving. The vibrancy of the Redeemer congregation has made it a model for many other similar churches, both in New York and in big European cities. With his book "The Reason for God," due out in February, Keller positions himself as a C. S. Lewis for the 21st century, a defender of orthodox Christianity. "I urge skeptics to wrestle with the unexamined 'blind faith' on which skepticism is based, and to see how hard it is to justify those beliefs to those who do not share them," he writes. "I also urge believers to wrestle with their personal and culture's objections to the faith. At the end of each process, even if you remain the skeptic or believer you have been, you will hold your own position with both greater clarity and greater humility." Doubt, says Keller, is the cornerstone of faith.

Also condemning closed-mindedness from a Christian point of view is the Rev. Peter Gomes, whose recent book "The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus" has been too overlooked. Gomes is an iconoclast—a conservative Christian who is also African-American and gay—and his book is an alternately eloquent and folksy attack on everybody who's sure of the right answer. The public conversation about religion is conducted "at too high a decibel level," says Gomes, a professor at Harvard Divinity School. What's "scandalous" about the Christian Gospel is its uncompromising call for compassion, he says. The solution to divisiveness is "a certain amount of modesty."

Finally, coming in March, a surprising confession: the prolific Bible scholar Bart Ehrman, who is known mostly for his work on the historical Jesus, concedes that in spite of his Christian credentials—which include four years at Bible college and a divinity degree from the Princeton Theological Seminary—he can no longer believe in the Christian God. An all-loving and all-powerful God, he concluded after years of struggle, would not cause so much suffering.

This is an old problem in theology called theodicy, but Ehrman's book, "God's Problem," contains so much earnest humility that he will find sympathetic readers even among believers. "Some people think they know the answers," he writes. "Or they aren't bothered by the questions. I'm not one of those people." Ehrman's clarity—and, as Gomes would say, modesty—is something to emulate. What's dangerous about the world today is not belief in God—or secularism or unbelief—but ruthless certainty. If 2008 is the year when we can begin, in private and in public, to concede that we don't know all the answers, then let us say amen.

Join the Discussion