One Cheer for Faith

The change winds* are blowing, are blowing – do you feel them? They are bringing to us a new zeitgeist. Suddenly, atheism is almost mainstream.  Look:

  • Militant atheist authors on best-seller lists and talk shows: Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins.
  • Atheist comedians on major network media: Julia Sweeney, George Carlin.
  • Popular atheist TV characters: Lisa Simpson, Dr. Perry Cox on Scrubs.
  • Even atheist politicians: the late California Assemblyman B.T. Collins, Rep. Pete Stark.
  • And now, amazingly, atheist comic book superheroes: Booster Gold, Mr. Terrific, the Midnighter, Quasar!

A few decades ago this would have been near to unthinkable. And it may signal a new openness to religious doubt, a kind of theological glasnost.

But don’t get cocky, kid. We’ve seen it before – for example, in the French Enlightenment, before all that reign-of-terror nastiness, and again in the 1880s when crowds flocked to hear and cheer old Robert Green Ingersoll. Waves of rationalism, only beaten back later by revivals of religious mania.

That’s religious faith for you. It tends to rise from the grave no matter how many ten-penny nails we pound into the coffin lid. Mao tried and Pol Pot tried. The Soviet Union used libraries of propaganda and decades of grinding repression.  When their efforts abated, religion returned as naturally, as easily, as seawater filling a depression in the sand.

If you’re old enough, you’ll remember 1966, when Anthony Towne declared that God is dead, penning a satirical obituary in Time magazine. Just two years later, the Jesus Movement came in like a steamroller.

Our new atheists have a bold, powerful rhetoric, a white-hot laser focus of words, bright as pinwheel sparkles on Independence Day. I enjoy and admire them. But their best zingers seem to be steel-jacketed bullets shot through fog (not my metaphor, but a great one even so).

More than one anthropologist has suggested that a proclivity for faith is wired in our brain, written in our bones and blood. Perhaps. But does it matter? For my part, I long ago surrendered hope of abolishing religion. In fact I am not sure I ever wanted that, really –  this freethinker simply lacks the hubris to think he is right about everything.

What I do want, and want passionately, is mutual respect; a civil dialog; understanding, plurality; a free market of ideas. And above all, a government that stays the hell out of all of it.

If we are wise, we can all get behind that, believers and non. And then emergent history will find its own course.

My gut sentiment is that a balance of power is the best way to get to that place. Variety in faith means many forces in stalemate, naturally compelling an atmosphere of official neutrality, mutual freedom, and détente. After all, what good-old-boy Southern Baptist will call for a faith-based government if he thinks the Mormons or the Muslims might be the ones to define it? Remember, in Jefferson’s day, when Baptists were in the minority, it was they who demanded a strict separation of church and state.

So one cheer, a big one, for religious faith when it takes a natural diversity of flavors. And when some minority religious faction wins a point or makes an inroad somewhere, be it Sufi or Vodoun, Wicca or Scientology or Eckankar, or even the Watchtower Society, outwardly I will roll my eyes, but deep in my heart I will exalt – knowing how it must give pause to the big church-statists, and trickle an ice-drop of fear down their centrist, theocratic spines.

Because the enemy of mine enemy is also my friend.

We are free minds after all. Each new voice, false or true, shakes out a bit more dust, brings a new harmonic into the chorus of human thought. And then ultimately we are all better; yes, even skeptics and freethinkers. Because we are also still singing.

* Lieber, Fritz. When the Change Winds Blow, 1964


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