A newly fashionable atheism has emerged in public discourse. Religious faith, in this account, is not only quaint; it is dangerous. In a recent conference titled Science, Religion, Reason and Survival, sponsored by the Templeton Foundation, religion took a beating. Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, opined, Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization. Richard Dawkins was utterly fed up with the respect that weall of us, including the secular among usare brainwashed into bestowing on religion.
Dawkins has recently elaborated his absurdity-of-religion theme at book length in The God Delusion. He has been joined by other best-selling anti-theists, Sam Harris (The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Religion) and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon). For these writers (especially Harris), more than just being foolish, religion is a threat to humanity. What is more, they are joined by the celebrity voice of Elton John, who in a recent interview offered this pearl: I would ban religion completely.... It turns people into really hateful lemmings, and it’s not really compassionate.
There is much argument to engage here in its proper time. For the time being, however, I want to look at the association between violence and faith.
The history of religions is marked by war and atrocity, often committed in the name of God. True, but this may be a problem with humanity itself rather than with the religions that have been used to justify war. Let us not forget the devotion of Pol Pot and the French-educated atheists who devastated Cambodia. Or Stalin and Mao, their hands bloodied by the slaughter of millions. And what might be said of the atheistic glories that accompanied the enthronement of Goddess Reason on Notre Dame’s high altar during the Reign of Terror and its beheaded thousands?
I think the alarmed and anxious atheists are onto something, even though they have little concept or experience of what we are about. They do understand ideology, since they cling to their own. But they are innocent of any belief in a person like Jesus Christ. And this is where the atheist angst is misplaced. The threat from certain Christians is not that they are Christian, but that they are not Christian enough. They pay lip service to the Gospels and offer everything else to American capitalist nationalism.
Some Christian believers, having a faith more notional than real, are increasingly identified with nationalism, American exceptionalism and global supremacy. This is the party of what I would call the Americanist Christian illusion. Maybe these are the folks, at least in the United States, that the atheists are really worried about. Some of them, expecting the end-times and the Second Coming, seem to think that the United States is the chosen terrible swift sword. But the more pragmatic of them are just apologists for America. They justify pre-emptive war, torture, the right to carry arms, the supreme right to spend one’s own money, all libertarian taxation policies and capital punishment. Among Catholics you can see their trump card when any voice from Rome calls into question American exceptionalism. All of a sudden, the pope has no legitimacy in matters economic, political or military. For Christians in general, this is the same tactic employed with the hard Gospel sayings that challenge wealth, violence and worldly power: Surely Jesus can’t mean that! Many of his utterances would be considered so un-American that if a preacher did no more than quote him, he would be run out of town.
Thus, there is a strange confluence of theoretical atheists and practical atheists who are Christian Americanists. It is only to the extent that such Christians fail to follow the Gospels that they are dangerous in matters of war and violence. It is the fact that they are not religious enough that makes them a threat to peace on earth.
Peace on earth is an interesting way to put it, especially in these days of war and these days approaching Christmas. The sacred writings of other faiths may have passages condoning violence in the name of God, but in the Gospels, any allusions to violence are invariably in parables and metaphors. An authentic belief in Advent and Christmas is something else.
As opposed to atheists and Americanists, maybe there should be a new categorythe Christmas-ists. These would be people, across all Christian denominations, who take the Gospels seriously. What would be some of their beliefs? What would it be to believe that Christmas really happened?
We humans, we sinners, including Americans, stand in need of redemption. Thus we call out, O come, Emmanuel.
We believe, moreover, that God came to us, became one of us, even in our lowliness as a dependent baby and a broken man.
We believe this fact changes everything, including how we treat each other, even the least of us made in the likeness of God.
We believe that we are saved not by arms, money, class or nation but by the kind mercies of God.
If Christians believed in Christmas, they would indeed be dangerous, but for reasons quite different from those the atheists fear. They would have finally courageously embraced the revolution started not by human effort, but by divine love.