You don’t have to be an atheist to be a secularist; you don’t have to be an idiot to be a Christian. Feel free to mix and match. This is one of the main ideas I hope to get across.
Unfortunately, a short survey of the literature available on the topic of secularism might not lead you to that conclusion. I’m thinking specifically about the recent best-selling books authored by the “New Atheists”, a group of writers who, since the events of 9-11, have been increasingly critical of and hostile towards the ideas of Islam and Christianity alike. I’m sure you’ve heard of one or more of them – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris are the most famous, but there are others writing along the same lines. All are secularists. If you’ve read anything they’ve written or seen any of their lectures, you already love them or hate them – and therein lies the problem.
The late Mr. Hitchen’s followers loved his trademark condescending patter, his snarky retorts, his ability to decimate his debate opponents; I have to admit that -while I disagree with many of his views on politics, religion, the wars in Iraq and Iran, to name a few – I too miss him. But it was exactly those qualities that put off most Christian Americans; you can’t start a debate by calling someone a blithering idiot, and then expect them to come over to your point of view. Mr. Dawkins also seems to have the attitude that no one with an IQ over 70 could possibly believe in a Creator.
This more-intellectual-than-thou demeanor allows the local pastor and the big-time television evangelist alike to write off everything that secular humanists have to say – if Christians are idiots, secularists are the Antichrist. It discourages discussion and makes it nearly impossible to find areas in government or society as a whole that we can agree on. As a result, the goal of encouraging a rational approach to society and government is not achieved.
Fortunately, there are some Christians out there who are willing to embrace America’s Enlightenment heritage as eagerly as its Christian one. Writers like Karl Giberson are beginning to explore how Christians might believe in science without losing their faith. Robert Wright, a Southern Baptist, has written an amazing book, The Evolution of God, which looks at our religious beliefs in the light of evolutionary psychology – all the while maintaining his faith.
Furthermore, some secularists are also beginning to concede that rationalism doesn’t soothe all of the many ills of our society, and that religion may have a place after all. Alain de Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, delves into some of the positives of religious faith in his lecture, Religion for Atheists. Take the time to listen to what he has to say – he’s as eloquent and entertaining a speaker as he is a writer.
Perhaps the in-your-face approach of Hitchens and Dawkins works in Europe, but I think de Botton’s approach is much more likely to work in America. If we can convince the faithful first off that we respect them – that we don’t think they’re idiots – then we might have some place to start.
What do you think? Do you love both Virgil and the Virgin? Camus as well as Christmas carols? Share your ideas by leaving a comment.