Ceasefire in the 'Faith Versus Reason' Debate

Fourteen minutes into the new film Collision, my fingers started to itch for the fast-forward button. I desperately scanned the movie's press materials: "How long can this go on?" I wondered. (Answer: 90 minutes.) The documentary, which opens this week, shows the public intellectual Christopher Hitchens and an Idaho pastor named Douglas Wilson arguing in one drab venue after another over whether Christianity is "good for the world." So uncinematic is this picture—two middle-aged white men talking—that my attention insistently wandered toward anything humanizing and finally dwelled, for too long perhaps, on a fleck of something on Hitchens's eyelash. All the while Hitchens and Wilson went on and on and on and on, always well mannered, never conceding a thing. (Click here to follow Lisa Miller. Article continued below...)

Really, what's the point of all this?

For five years, since the publication of Sam Harris's The End of Faith, the so-called faith-versus-reason debate has been a favorite pastime of certain secularists and intellectuals, the subject of innumerable books and lecture series. Three charismatic men—Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Hitchens (who is a NEWSWEEK contributor)—have not just dominated the conversation, they've crushed it. And so they've become celebrities. Together they've sold more than 3 million books worldwide, which suggests they may be in this for more than just our edification.

Their polemics were exciting at first. They gave voice—and, better, status—to the 12 percent of Americans who say they don't believe in God. As advocates for those whose lack of belief has historically made them suspect, Harris et al. have been extremely important.

But this version of the conversation has gone on too long. We have allowed three people to frame it; its terms—submitting God to rational proofs and watching God fail—are theirs. We in the media have to bear some of that responsibility. Just as we covered Jerry Falwell when he said the Teletubby Tinky Winky was gay, we cover the "new atheists" because following controversy is part of what we do. As religion editor of NEWSWEEK, I have done my share of enabling these battles, most recently in a September interview with Dawkins. But we can't shoulder all the blame. The atheists are, more than other interest groups, joyous cannibals and regurgitators of their own ideas. They thrive online, where like adolescent boys they rehash their rhetorical victories to their own delight.

The whole thing has started to feel like being trapped in a seminar room with the three smartest guys in school, each showing off to impress … whom? Let's move on.

There are other voices out there, and other, possibly more productive ways to frame a conversation about the benefits and potential dangers of religious faith. In 2003 the historian and poet Jennifer Hecht wrote Doubt: A History, an exhaustive survey of atheism. She advises readers to investigate questions of belief like a poet, rather than like a scientist. "It is easier to force yourself to be clear," she writes, "if you avoid using believer, agnostic, and atheist and just try to say what you think about what we are and what's out there." Hecht is as much of an atheist as Hitchens and Harris, she says, but she approaches questions about the usefulness of religion with an appreciation of what she calls "paradox and mystery and cosmic crunch." "The more I learn, the more complicated things get, the more sympathy I have with religion," she told me one recent morning by phone. "I don't think it's so bad if religion survives, if it's getting together once a week and singing a song in a beautiful building, to commemorate life's most important moments."

This week Harvard's humanist chaplain Greg Epstein comes out with Good Without God, a book arguing that people can have everything religion offers—community, transcendence, and, above all, morality—without the supernatural. This seems to me self-evident, yet the larger point is important. We need urgently to talk about these things: ethics, progress, education, science, democracy, tolerance, and justice—and to understand the reasons why religion can (but does not always) hamper their flourishing. This new conversation won't be sexy, but let's face it: neither is two white men in a pub sparring over God.