Celebrating the Hindu Feast of Diwali, as Atheists Soul-Search

Cambridge, MA. I had intended not to blog on another topic until after Mr. Manohar and I finish our first round of exchanges in Hindu-Christian understanding, but can’t help making this brief entry today — in light of the just passed feast of Diwali, and NPR’s report this morning on the schism in atheist circles. In the light of Diwali, Atheism seems a bit dated.
     I was remiss in not mentioning Diwali earlier. It is one of the most joyous festivals in the Hindu calendar, a feast of light and hope, the triumph of light over darkness, a time when families gather together and rejoice in their blessings: something like Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or both. See the Vatican greeting for Diwali (Deepavali) and, indeed, President Obama’s greeting for the same occasion.
     As for the atheist schism, you can check out the story at Morning Edition for October 21, but the gist of it is that Atheists are now more clearly disagreeing with one another on how to relate to believers. The Old Atheists aimed to work together with religious believers in a rational and calm way, even while questioning the plausibility of belief and the need for it. By contrast, the New Atheists are aggressive, confrontational, and want to make it clear that they do not respect religious belief at all, and indeed are committed to undercutting it, since a world without religion will be a much better world. So today’s Atheists seem to be arguing among themselves over the very soul of Atheism.
     What strikes me — reflecting on this Atheist schism in the light of Diwali — is that we — all of us — are now in a new situation, beyond the neat divisions of the 20th century. Those of us who are believers with commitments in specific religious traditions, who still adhere to the Truth of our Faith, are increasingly able to respect and even celebrate God’s presence in other religious traditions. Truth opens doors, not only closes them. While our commitment to Truth entails hard questions and issues not easily resolved, it no longer entails polemic or abuse toward our religious neighbors. Even a deep-rooted monotheistic faith, such as that of my Roman Catholicism, need no longer be taken as ambitioning a radical exclusion of the Other, and not even a smug and mindless condescension toward other religions. The Vatican can send to Hindus everywhere best wishes and blessings on Diwali, and mean every word of the congratulations, without embracing relativism.
     So in this better light, it seems that the Old Atheism is more relevant than the New Atheism, but that Atheists of all kinds need to be adapting to today’s new religious situation. Theism isn't quite what it used to be, so Atheism will have to adjust. Like any of us who belong to (overly) rationalized traditions, the Old Atheists need to stretch their ways of thinking about human experience and the spiritual dimension of our lives; but if NPR is right, these Old Atheists have the advantage of remaining committed to conversation in the 21st century, and we all can dialogue about theism and atheism in this new situation. Ironically, it is the New Atheists who in writing, speeches, and simple human interaction, seem to wish to cling to the worst polemical and exclusivist tendencies of the 20th century and before. The least we can ask of the New Atheists, if they remain zealous in their mission, is first to study in depth the religions they wish to attack, to listen before speaking, and then to take into account the new and diverse world of religious interrelatedness that is primary today. That is, simply to pay attention to the world we actually live in, where interreligious exchange is far more dominant than interreligious violence. Those New Atheists who attack religion harshly and by way of caricature, as if we believers have not moved on to new ways of understanding and sharing our beliefs, end up themselves exposed as holdovers from the 20th century.
     And, belatedly, Happy Diwali to all!

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James Lindsay
9 years ago
Don't be so hard on the New Atheists.  They are militant because they see religion as corrupt, so they write out of love for their fellow beings.  Anyone who acts out of love is, even unconciously, doing God's work - sometimes in the spirit of prophesy in the traditional sense.  The people I worry about are the unbelievers who don't care at all.  They can be dangerous.
MaryMargaret Flynn
9 years ago
As a Caholic Christian I celebrate the Holy Spirit in each of us-i.e. the Hindu Namaste greetng.  People professing Atheism also experience and have the Holy Spirit with them. As do all religions since the beginning millions of years ago even before monotheism some 3000 years ago.  We all see through a glass darkly.  What really makes the glass so opaque is fundamentalism. In our 21st century where we have an increasing awarness of horizens of time, space, being, I think fundamentalism is "original sin".    I wonder what a theologican would think of this anology. Also a wonderful Jesuit I know once said: "God is God, and Man is Not"
Marie Rehbein
9 years ago
You mean the new atheists are worse than Madalyn Murray O'Hair?


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