In this, the season of giving, I propose we give novelty a chance – novelty, that is, in the debate between atheists and people of faith. Let’s move beyond the stale polemics that insult everybody’s intelligence.
I’m riveted by a new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who famously opposed the Nazi regime – and was hanged for his role in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer grew up in a household that valued science, logic and independent thinking. A habit of asking questions helped him pierce Nazi orthodoxy early on, and his vascular faith motivated him to do something about it. Bottom line: His moral courage came from a combination of reason and religion.
So it’s shallow to suggest we must choose between God and progress. Two weeks ago, Toronto played host to a “smackdown,” as one of my friends giddily called it, between the atheist Christopher Hitchens and the believer Tony Blair. “When you assume a creator and a plan,” Mr. Hitchens declared in the debate, “it makes us objects in a cruel experiment whereby we are created sick and commanded to be well.” And supervising this is a “celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea.” The audience roared in approval.
But wit doesn’t always make for wisdom. It would have been more revelatory for Mr. Hitchens to follow up his punchline with this acknowledgment: The North Korean regime, according to its official website, “embraces science and rationalism.” The point is, whether in the name of God or godlessness, dogmatists commit barking mad atrocities.
I realize that any such confession would undermine Mr. Hitchens’s polemics – and make him much less entertaining. But if it’s entertainment value we’re after, we should know that the “new” atheists are only rehashing what’s already been said umpteen times. In the late 1700s, historian Edward Gibbons – a luminary of the British Enlightenment and a consummate skeptic – observed that the “bigotry” of the anti-God squad mimics the fanaticism of churchmen.
Today’s conversation can be different. In January of 2009, novelist Salman Rushdie and I had a public discussion in New York to mark the 20th anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomaini’s death warrant against him. Mr. Rushdie and I thoroughly agreed on the need to defend freedom of thought, conscience and expression.
Toward the end of our exchange, he took a jab at my belief in God. I chuckled and retorted that the existence of successful atheists like him is proof positive that a merciful God exists. Mr. Rushdie laughed affectionately. Clearly, this debate can be had with deep appreciation of the other.
Beyond a more humane tone, the debate could use fresh substance, too. The arguments of the new atheists remind me of a passage from the Bible in which it’s said that “there is nothing new under the sun.” But thinking people are capable of presenting old ideas in new ways, and that’s what the God discussion needs if it’s going to generate novel insights.
Here’s my humble contribution: It may be that atheists themselves are inadvertently affirming the existence of a loving God. Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese sage, noted that a great leader makes his followers believe they’ve led themselves. In that sense, a scientist, humanist or atheist who chalks up all progress to the human mind could be showing what an empowering and effective leader God actually is.
No doubt, this idea will come off as insane to some. But if so, why is it crazy? As a person of faith, I’m used to being challenged by atheists – among them, Richard Dawkins, who heckled me from the audience when I spoke at Oxford University. My (less cantankerous) challenge to atheists is nothing more than par for the course.
At a lecture in Toronto some years ago, philosopher George Steiner announced that “the way you honour a person is, you ask of him an effort.” Atheists, I thank you for honouring me. Now, in the spirit of the season, allow me to reciprocate. I look forward to a robust and respectful conversation.