By Rev. Roger Butts
It is ironic that your diatribe against atheists and the causes they organize around appeared during the same week that Glenn Beck of Fox News equated social justice-teaching Christian churches with WWII’s National Socialism, and Fred Phelps went to D.C. to throw hate in the name of Jesus Christ at gays and lesbians who were being married.
Your piece equates atheism with a small student group in Texas and one foundation. You made no mention of the Ethical Cultural Society or the Humanist Institute. You made no mention of Buddhist atheists, Unitarian Universalist atheists, the American Humanist Association. I don’t think the editorial board would ever say organized Christianity is represented as a whole by Beck and Phelps.
I agree that emotional maturity and integrity and ethical depth demand that all treat each other with civility, respect, appreciation for difference. I would never give money to an outfit that tried to stop a stamp depicting Mother Teresa. There are bigger fish to fry.
You seem to suggest that atheists — or religious humanists and religious naturalists — are not involved in acts of service, compassion and justice and that they act out of spite, anger and fear. Well, you paint a picture with a broad stroke. The agnostics and atheists I know contribute plenty of money to organizations involved in making the world more just and act in community organizing and groups like the Sierra Club, the ACLU, the Red Cross and other aid groups. And you seem to paint a picture of spiteful atheists acting out of malice. There are those, certainly. And when they act out of ignorance or intolerance, it is as pathetic and pitiful as when anyone else does. Atheists are not as monolithic as you claim.
However, there are others who point to constructive, positive views of the world, in which one needn’t believe in a deity or deities to pursue the common good, love the planet, fellow humans, all critters and life forms, and cultivate compassion, awe, reverence, generosity and solidarity. I believe the constructive agenda of humanists will lead to great strides in our thinking:
Attention should be focused to provide whatever explanation and meaning are possible to this life.
Since humans are products of nature, there is a great emphasis on claiming humanities’ role within the interdependent web. That means embracing science — biological evolution, global warming — and trying to be a part of solutions that enhance human and planetary life, together. Some of the religious traditions you point to with pride have been quick to resist new understandings and scientific breakthroughs in a variety of fields — from gay and lesbian rights to caring for the planet.
Education, democracy, religious freedom and racial, social and economic justice have long been dominant concerns of humanists.
Karen Armstrong, in “The Spiral Staircase,” writes: In the course of my studies, I have discovered that the religious quest is not about discovering “the truth” or “the meaning of life,” but about living as intensely as possible here and now. The idea is not to latch onto some superhuman personality or “get to heaven,” but to discover how to be fully human.
The humanist believes the goal is to be fully human, moving heart and mind away from self-centeredness to a sense of one’s self as a part of a larger world and to move to a deep commitment to the human and natural world. It is about moving away from a life of fear, greed, hedonism, hubris and materialism to a life of love, caring, gratitude, fairness, equality, joy and hope.
Your piece, “Our View,” attempts to cynically pick a few emotionally charged examples of atheists acting out of spite and pettiness. You could have picked an equal number of inspiring pieces about atheists attempting to craft a world more just, fair and wondrous, for all people and all critters.
I agree with you that a constructive agenda for the humanist, the agnostic, the atheist, the liberal theist and all people of good will should be the focus of all our efforts. I attempt in my ministry to never mock another religious tradition. You, on the other hand, have attempted to pit virtuous Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Christians against bad, lazy, emotionally immature atheists.
In my experience, most folks know that any cynical attempt to portray a group as one thing, one mind or one collective is off-base and shallow. Your dualistic thinking is unfortunate and lacks intellectual rigor and integrity.
I don’t think Christianity should be judged by men like Ted Haggard, Fred Phelps and Glen Beck, and I don’t think atheists should be judged by a group of college kids in San Antonio trying to get a little publicity. In the short run, you might sell some papers, but it leaves a very bad taste in one’s mouth to see The Gazette editorial board paint with a broad stroke a diverse and complicated group as atheists in America.
And I urge all religious leaders to reject any attempt to pit atheists against the faithful. It simply will not do in a pluralistic democracy, and it was not the way of the Buddha, Jesus or Muhammad. Religious leaders can heal divisions and participate in efforts to appreciate and value diversity of thought and multiculturalism.
Because it is important for humanists to focus on the constructive, I plan to teach a course in June with an atheist congregant titled “Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the 21st Century” at High Plains Church, Unitarian Universalist. I want to be part of bringing more awe, reverence, compassion, civility and unity to the quest for being fully human and making our way toward peace and reconciliation.
Rev. Roger Butts is pastor of High Plains Church, Unitarian Universalist in Colorado Springs