Atheism is wasted on the nonbeliever.
That thought occurred to me recently as I watched Christopher Hitchens push his book God Is Not Great on a cable television show hosted by Bill Maher. Mr. Hitchens proposed to Mr. Maher that the human race would be better off trusting science instead of religion. Mr. Maher agreed. Neither Mr. Hitchens nor Mr. Maher mentioned Hiroshima — or that the problem with religion or science might be the human race.
I remember, some years back, writing about Christopher Hitchens on the occasion of his sleazy exposé of Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position. Mr. Hitchens revealed that the woman popularly regarded as a saint had extended her begging bowl under the noses of corrupt men and women; she laundered money to serve the unwashed.
I had always assumed saints are tainted, as most of us are tainted. Graham Greene taught me that holiness must dwell in a tarnished temple. (There is no other kind.)
I do not, in any case, need this latest book by Mr. Hitchens, or any of the books by the other best-selling “New Atheists,” to persuade me to disbelief. Atheism seems to me a deeply persuasive response to the night. But then again, faith seems to me a deeply persuasive response to the night.
A few days after Mr. Hitchens conferred with Mr. Maher, the Democratic Party presidential front-runners took turns professing religious belief. (Democrats are unwilling to cede heaven to the Republicans and their politically active supporters in the Protestant right.) The curtain of secular discretion that has made religion nobody’s business in America was cast aside for political advantage.
Listening to Hillary Clinton describe her faith in Jesus Christ from a political dais was a disheartening experience. There was not a hint of spontaneity in her confession. Doubtless, her every adjective had been tested by handlers.
In American lore, the village atheist is an eccentric soul at odds with conventional propriety. But in truth, atheism has governed American intellectual life for most of the twentieth century. Atheism has long been the orthodoxy of the university faculty club, the New York journals, and most fiction. (For every Flannery O’Connor, I can name ten Mary McCarthys.)
Now, thanks in no small part to the political ambitions of Low-Church Protestants and to the deceptively distant cry of the muezzin, religion looms, as never before, over American public life.
Americans who have never known religious war now routinely hear U.S. armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan identified as “crusaders” by angry Muslims. And as Islam gathers force in Europe, American Protestants gather equal public confidence in Colorado Springs and Washington, D.C.
It occurred last year to some faculty members at Harvard that the overwhelming importance of theism throughout the shrinking world might suggest that a religion course be required of their undergraduates. The atheists on the faculty quickly disapproved, and the proposal was tabled at a faculty senate meeting. In the name of veritas.
I am enough of an atheist to be horrified by examples of religious extremism on the evening news from the Middle East: honor killings, Shiah murdering Sunni today in revenge for yesterday’s Sunni murder of Shiah, exploding mosques, Moqtada al Sadr addressing his piratical band at Friday prayers, and on and on.
Any Christian — Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic; especially Catholic — should be embarrassed, in the face of Islamic extremism, by the memory of the violence within our own history: the holy wars, the torture and murder of the heretic, the attack on the Jew, the Muslim, and the pagan — all in the name of a loving God.
What is that line of Anne Sexton’s? God is only mocked by believers.
The great temptation for the believers, it seems to me, is not atheism; it is the arrogance of claiming to know God’s will. It is therefore with some measure of irony and necessary caution that I say I believe in God.
I believe in Jesus Christ, the Christ who was a loser in human history — destroyed by this world — whose life reveals in its generosity and tragedy the most complete and challenging version of theism I know. What the New Atheists do not comprehend is that the crucifix cannot be mocked. It is itself mockery.
As a Christian, I worship the same God as the Jew and the Muslim, a revealed God. I share with the atheist and the agnostic a sense of God who is hidden. (I say hidden; the atheist would say never there in the first place.)
And more: I believe the monotheistic religions would be healthier, less inclined to extremism and violence, if those of us who profess belief in God were able also to admit our disbelief.
It seems to me not inappropriate that I take my inner atheist with me to church every Sunday. The atheist within me is as noisy as my stomach, even when I am standing in the Communion line. But never is the atheist within me so quarrelsome as during the homily.
While I am blessed by belonging to a welcoming and consoling parish community, I have not heard from the pulpit what I desperate needed to hear in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 — the implication for faith posed by terrorists who prayed to Allah even as they aimed Boeing jets into the World Trade Center.
The sound of the chanting within those planes has haunted my prayers, overwhelmed my own prayers like an engine’s roar.
This is my prayer: Dear God, I believe in you. Please strengthen my disbelief.