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Thursday, October 27, 2005

Tell your atheist friends

At the Values Conference, David Hollinger spoke brilliantly about how mainstream Protestants have always been willing to learn from and work with the ethical arguments of secularists. Which is to say, we're okay with them. We've always been okay with them. But are they okay with us?

Giles Fraser argues in this week's Guardian that secular fundamentalists are in a time warp:

Part of the problem is that many born-again atheists remain trapped in a 19th-century time warp, reheating the standard refutations of religious belief based on a form of rationalism that harks back to an era of fob-watches and long sideburns.

I think he packs the punch exactly where it belongs. There *is* a lot of resentment out there among secularists in America. How many folks here have been lumped in with the Religious Right by their own fellow-progressive secularist friends? How many liberal friends do we know who roll their eyes at us, say, "Oh, my friend, you're so intelligent, how do you believe this God crap?"

Fraser goes straight for the real problem here: who's more liable to succumb to institutional group-think in any form, the Christian or the atheist; Fraser wants to deny atheists the claim to being necessarily less encumbered of tradition.

"Of course spiritualism is important, but organized religion? It breeds hierarchy, and they tell you *how* to believe, and they allow for corruption." As indeed do universities, and do all governments, and all human organizations in general. Some religions are capable of imagining change and creating dialogue. But the spiritualist acting as a single agent barely employs his spiritual life to political and social reality at all: only when discussing how our beliefs inform our view of society -- of what is precious, what worth protecting, and at what cost -- do we get at a motive and a means for real social change.

Arguments against Christianity as necessarily about group-think insist that we shouldn't take our beliefs into public. Many of my secularist friends conceive of any public discussion of faith as a slippery slope leading directly into mandatory school prayer, forced creationist curricula, restricted freedoms for Jews and Catholics, arbitrary wars on foreign countries, and federally-mandated skirt-lengths. I suppose redneck religion, the so-called religion of Ashcrofts and Robertsons, would reshape the public sphere in its own image. Enlightened Protestantism has a far higher calling: it means engaging the human rights and social justice ideals we share with secular humanism.

But secular humanism isn't enough to promote social change, at least in my own personal experience. Secular humanism leads me to think that I should be amassing power and money, cashing in my education in the most utilitarian fashion. For me, at least, only my religious calling tells me that the face of injustice and poverty is so bleak, that riches and powerful are so damaging to the soul, that I personally must make a choice to pursue social change, right now, instead, because I can't bear to live in a world where the divide between rich and poor grows monthly, where healthcare is prohibitively expensive for the majority of people in the most developed nation in the world, where unjust wars and unspeakable torture proliferate with federal consent. That's real faith translated into politics: it comes of a religious and political dialogue with intelligence, faith, and the deepest values I have. It's a far cry from the same thing as telling other people that they can't hold hands in public.

Fraser is downright amused by the secularists who think that theirs is the radical and rebellious position:

The joke is that many who were converted at university via Richard Dawkin's The Selfish Gene think of themselves as agents of some subversive counterculturalism. This is ridiculous to Da Vinci Code proportions. Contemporary atheism is mainstream stuff. As John Updike put it: "Among the repulsions of atheism for me has been its drastic uninterestingness as an intellectual position."

In our day, the true revolutionaries and visionaries are those who are willing to imagine a better future, even in the midst of this bleak, polluted, corrupt, power-driven world. It's not hard to complain, but it's hard to imagine how to get out.

A task of such proportions requires us to imagine such a thing as a human soul, worthy of recognition and protection; it also requires imagining a kind of institution, which whatever its frailties, is capable of driving political and social change. To be a progressive Christian is to be truly countercultural, truly prophetic, truly political, and truly involved.

The secularist can wait -- he can look for the utilitarian path to change, he can work through official channels or protest with his friends, waving signs and hoping someone will pay attention. The progressive Christian has a divine mandate to accomplish social and political change *now* -- to reach out to individuals, to argue with the media, to work through the vote, to lecture, to write, to do everything in his power to accomplish justice and social responsibility. The life of the soul is too precious to wait.