I recently met a retired teacher, an intelligent man who, in the course of a conversation, mentioned that he was an atheist. I said nothing, respecting his beliefs (or lack thereof). I wondered at first if he mean "agnostic," then, reflecting on the confidence with which he spoke--and the fact that he was not a listener--I decided, No, he knows the difference, and he has made his choice.
Sam Harris, one of the prominent New Atheists who have published books in the past decade criticizing religion, is a neuroscientist who values reason above all and, while dismissing any notion of God, prefers not to call himself an atheist.
Yet in his latest book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, excerpts of which I have read, he seems to have found that reason is not enough to explain the meaning of life and reality. It seems that emotion--that often suspect, "effeminate" entity foreign to the scientific mind--has its place, though Harris would not put it this way. The self-transcendence that he finds in art or nature is not, he insists, irrational. Reason for him is still the dominant player.
Like the Romantic poets of England and the Transcendentalists of the American nineteenth century, and many since, Harris has found satisfaction (happiness?) in some form of transcendence of material reality, independent of religion. Yet he insists on the primacy of reason, and it is reason, divorced from feeling, that keeps him safely among the "atheists," free from what he sees as the corruptions of religion.
At least, Harris is more open and positive than Richard Dawkins, the British author who has become rich and famous attacking God and belief and who is the subject of a recent New Republic article ("The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins"), which suggests that his atheism has become its own type of narrow religion. For Dawkins, et al, science is unquestionably right and has all the answers there are to understanding man and his world. He would agree with the behaviorist B. F. Skinner, who once said that the goal of science is the destruction of mystery.
To me, as a theist, the loss of mystery--that sense of awe found in the mystical tradition as well as in art that evokes the unknowable and unknown, is tragic. The great poets and writers, following Aristotle, always connect head and heart, always write or create with feeling as well as ideas. And at their best, they evoke the unknowable mysteries of humanity in a way that neuroscience will never rival.
Yet thinkers like Dawkins and Harris find reason and science to be supreme and thus cut themselves off from an essential part of the human experience--the emotional need to be connected to something beyond themselves. As such, they cheat themselves, hoping to find a glimmer of something vaguely "out there" while fearful of believing in God. Their rational arrogance blinds them.
In thinking of Harris, Dawkins, and the atheist I recently talked with, I wonder, What God do they not believe in? The simplistic God "up in the sky" that children learn about? Why don't they read more widely in philosophy (even medieval thought) and see that God is being itself, the "ground of our being," the inescapable presence that's all around and in us? If they would read Teilhard de Chardin and other scientists who have explored the connection between faith and science, maybe they would be more open to a fuller understanding of the Mystery.
In the meantime, some of the new atheists, like a few in California, feeling the need for some community on Sunday mornings, have established "churches" of sorts, where positive thinking is practiced. It may sound absurd for atheists to meet in "churches," but does it not indicate the human need to go beyond the isolated, rational mind and reach out to others? And in reaching out to others, and caring about them, are we not embracing love and thereby affirming that life has purpose and meaning? If so, we can talk about, even believe in God.
That organized religion, included Catholicism, has often failed to articulate an understanding of a loving God is clear from a recently influential book by Walter Kasper on mercy, which is influencing the deliberations among the bishops in Rome this week. Cardinal Kasper writes: Theologians have too often had difficulty making sense of God's compassion: "The proclamation of God who is insensitive to suffering is a reason that God has become alien and finally irrelevant to many."
So it is up to believers to articulate a fuller understanding of the mystery of God as the source of existence and compassion in a way that makes sense to a skeptical world: no easy task!