Last September, the day I learned I had an especially aggressive form of cancer, I asked myself, “If I only had one message left to communicate to the world, what would it be? The answer that came was: Proclaim this: “The 21st century is humanity’s rite of passage. Whether or not we survive this ordeal, which is our species’ adolescent crisis, only time will tell. But one thing’s for sure: atheists are helping religious people mature, not the other way around. The New Atheists, speaking on behalf of reality, are divine prophets. They are helping all of us wake up, grow up, and come home to reality.” A few hours later, I recorded a 30-minute podcast titled “The New Atheists as God’s Prophets”. Even now, eight months later, with cancer (hopefully) in remission, this is still the core message I’m communicating to widely diverse religious groups. Strangely enough, it seems to be a meme (an idea) that resonates with quite a few people on both sides of the science and religion divide—that is, those who don’t immediately run for the barf bag when they hear it.
Last week, for example, I was interviewed on “The Infidel Guy“, a popular humanist/atheist pocast. The title of the program and the main subject we discussed was “The New Atheists as Divine Prophets“. I also recently submitted something on the subject to Michael Shermer at Skeptic magazine, for possible inclusion in a future issue. (BTW, we interviewed Shermer yesterday for our new Inspiring Naturalism podcast series. We had a great conversation and Connie will be uploading it in a couple of weeks, after she posts the fun conversation we had last week with science blogger and biologist PZ Myers. If you’ve not yet listened to our conversations with David Sloan Wilson, one of the world’s most esteemed evolutionary theorists, and David Christan, the grandaddy of big history, check ‘em out. They’re both awesome!)
Last night around midnight, as I was trying to go to sleep, the following thoughts came to mind. I got up, typed them out, and went back to bed. This morning Connie did some editing and produced a version that fleshes out and clarifies what I was trying to say. What follows is my original version followed by Connie’s edited version. They are quite different, which is why I’m including them both.
VERSION A: MY ORIGINAL (WHAT CAME TO ME AT MIDNIGHT)Religions have traditionally offered people a sense of how things are, which things matter, and how to be in right relationship with reality, personally and socially. However today, reality is radically different than it was millennia ago. But because religions are operating with outdated maps of reality and are wedded to archaic, outmoded ways of speaking about reality, they have become, paradoxically, one of the greatest hindrances to humanity as a whole coming into right relationship with reality. The New Atheists, because they have an evidentially-formed view of the world (as opposed to one given by authority or tradition), and because they are not tied to any particular way of thinking or speaking about reality, are better able to see how things are and which things matter today, and thus facilitate humanity coming into right relationship with reality. They are also calling religion on the absurdity of continuing to take inspirational metaphorical language literally.Few things are more important at this time in history than for religious people to listen to the New Atheists as if these unbelievers were speaking with God’s voice, because they are! The word “God” used to be identified with reality—indeed, ultimate reality. In all cultures and at all times, the divine was no mere person, but was a personification of reality. To have faith in God was to accept or trust in what was undeniably real. Understanding the human mind’s innate tendency to personify makes sense of religious differences around the world. Failing to appreciate this simple fact makes it difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile contradictory religious claims.
With the advent of the mechanistic worldview in Europe 500 years ago, Westerners began thinking of the universe as a gigantic clock and God as a clockmaker, thereby divorcing God from reality. Scientific discoveries were not granted the status of divine revelation—of reality revealing its nature and ways—as was in fact the case. In the intervening centuries, largely because of the printing press and widespread idolatry of the written word, religious people increasingly made an idol of traditional images and language for God, while science helped humanity as a whole learn ever more about the real world, further distancing God and reality. As St. Thomas Aquinas, one of Christianity’s most celebrated theologians warned 750 years ago, “A mistake about creation will result in a mistake about God.” If this is true, what it means (among other things) is that the more we learn about the nature of the Universe, if we’re not also updating what we mean when we use the word “God”, we may have understandings of the divine that are so out of touch with reality as to no longer be lifegiving. And that’s precisely what has happened.
Charles Darwin didn’t kill off God; to the contrary, he and Alfred Russel Wallace gave us the first glimpse of the real creator behind and beyond all the world’s mythic portrayals of the divine. They freed us from the vision of God as an unnatural cosmic terrorist. By mocking traditional mythic understandings of the divine and attacking religious dogma and theology, the New Atheists are thus calling religious people back to reality. In so doing, they are paradoxically functioning as prophets, those who boldly warn the people, “Get right with reality, or else.” So in a strange but very real way, the New Atheists are God’s prophets.
VERSION B: CONNIE’S EDITED AND FLESHED OUT VERSION
Religions have traditionally offered their adherents a sense of how things are and what things matter, which in turn shape the ways individuals and cultures envision wholesome and honorable paths of living—that is, of living in right relationship with reality. Today, of course, how reality impinges on the human adventure (and vice versa) is radically different from how it showed up for our ancestors millennia ago. Yes, there are still terrifying floods and storms, but now individual actions amplified by sheer numbers and technological prowess have ramped up the power of elemental forces, leaving multitudes even more vulnerable than in days of yore. And there are altogether new catastrophes looming on the horizon, too—the specter of cascading worldwide financial and economic chaos, the possibility that human rage festering in a small group of people anywhere in the world might access weapons of mass destruction, or the storm of information meltdown if solar upheaval, space trash, or our own psychotic tendencies wreak havoc with satellite communications. What this means is that worldviews and systems of guidance that individuals and cultures continue to promote and propagate precisely because of their antiquity and resistance to change have become, paradoxically, enormous impediments to human persistence and progress.
In a way, the New Atheists have come to our rescue. They are shouting at us to collectively awaken to the dangers of revering that which is revered unthinkingly on no sounder basis than tradition and authority. Because Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Susan Jacoby, Jennifer Hecht, and other outspoken atheists put their faith, their confidence, in an evidentially formed and continuously tested view of the world, and because they are not tied to any particular way of thinking or speaking about reality, these critics of religion are better positioned to see how things are and which things ought to matter so that our species can collectively discern paths toward right relationship with one another and the larger body of life. It is thus time for religious people to listen to the New Atheists—and to listen to the New Atheists as if they were speaking with God’s voice, because they are!
Consider: God or gods acquired ultimacy precisely because our ancestors did not regard them as mere persons, as beings divorced from and in some way outside of and lording over the manifest world. To let go of a personage at the helm and to understand our metaphors as personification is not to demote the divine but to elevate it. Thus, to have faith in God today, as always, is to trust in what is undeniably real. To honor God today, as always, is to forge right relationships with reality—at all levels—and with the best tools of understanding and action available in our time.
The New Atheists are to be commended for demanding that humanity update our maps of reality and that we begin to value and actually use our modern and much enhanced capacities to discern right relationship and to devise age-appropriate ways for psychologically and materially moving in those directions.
The New Atheists as God’s prophets: What a twist! How could we have arrived at such an absurd reversal of who speaks for God?
To appreciate, rather than denigrate, our species’ missteps in this regard, we must time travel to the advent of the mechanistic worldview in Europe, some 500 years ago. The most amazing new tool of the time would have been the timekeeper, the clock in all its permutations. Soon, the entire universe (the “world”) was envisioned as a very complex clock, with God having served as clockmaker. From this point forward, God, for the intelligentsia, was divorced from reality. There was the Creator and there was the Creation. Thanks to the invention of the printing press, and exacerbated by widespread idolatry of the written word (how could it have been any other way?), the pattern was set for an expanding mismatch between humanity’s most accurate picture of our inner and outer world and where we should seek guidance and inspiration.
What this means for us today is that it is time to acknowledge that Charles Darwin did not threaten our view of God. To the contrary, he and Alfred Russel Wallace gave us the first glimpse of the real creator behind and beyond all the world’s mythic portrayals of the divine. Darwin and the lineage of contributing naturalists and scientists before and after him have made it possible for us today to finally redeem the notion of God—a God that otherwise will remain trivialized as an occasional tinkerer in otherwise natural processes. This is a God who has been slacking off of late, no longer blessing and punishing people with one unnatural act after another. Truly, the God of the Hebrew and early Christian Bible has been reduced in the 21st century to a god of the gaps, lurking only in the chinks of causation that are not yet fully understood scientifically.
By mocking traditional understandings of God and by attacking religious dogma and theology, the New Atheists are thus calling religious people back to reality. In so doing, they are paradoxically functioning as prophets, those who boldly warn the people, “Get right with reality, or else.” In a strange but very real way, the New Atheists are prophets of God—not prophets as predictors of the future, and not God as a trivial clockmaker or intervenor occasionally moved by petitionary prayer—but prophets who speak boldly and unflinchingly on behalf of reality. These are prophets who speak on behalf of a God no less grand than our most awesome and expanding view of the Universe and its astonishing big history of achievement and transcendence, achievement and transcendence.