June 28, 2004
My Atheist Friend: A Follow Up
Martin E. Marty
I usually hesitate to double back and revisit a just-visited theme, especially when there are so many other religion-in-culture events to sight, but last week's column prompted so many good responses that we wanted to note them. (As often mentioned, editor Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez and your Monday columnist are not able to respond to all responses. We learn from them, and thank our many "Reply" button-pushers.)
The column ("Specter of Strife," June 21) referred to a party chat with "my favorite atheist" at a recent conference. I mentioned that after a panel on "religion and science," in which we religionists had spoken positively about faith, etc., he asked, "how can you believe in anything without evidence?" I reported that a University of Chicago graduate microbiology student intervened at my request. Several readers asked: What did she say? To cut to the quick, she mainly did a kind of post-modern critique of his vaunted "the scientific world view," which he assured us was assured. She proceeded to uncover the metaphysical base of his commitments.
My atheist challenger then asked whether, on balance, religion has done more harm than good in human history. Some readers thought my answer implied a too-strong defense of religion, but most others thought it was too weak.
These one-page columns can only touch subjects, not develop them. Typical critiques from readers argued that when "religion" does bad things -- crusading, inquisitioning, heretic-hunting, killing, oppressing, repressing, suppressing freedoms, etc. -- it is not "religion" that is guilty, but only the culture of which religion is a part. I wish it were that easy to sever the two. When "religion" does good, as when it engages in healing or provides meaning in life, as I argued that it does, it also is always webbed with its "culture." Tillich: religion is the substance of culture, culture the form of religion.
Some critics were revisionists: if only religion never relied on the "supernatural" to direct or authorize human behavior, all would be well. Depending on how one defines "supernatural," in generous definitions I would say you could hold a convention of all purely-natural-religionists in a phone booth. I was being a historian talking about the real world.
Someone enlarged on my (un-referenced) quotation of Abraham Lincoln, about "the better angels of our nature," and challenged religious institutions to make way for them. The times when they do, I agree, is when religions or religious people do good and reconcile and heal and promote freedom.
Most thought that I should have reminded the questioner that non- and anti-religious movements also do harm. I always do cite that, emphatically, (it's a trump card in my deck), and said so in the column. Over against the good that religious forces and people can do, I wrote, "secular forces have produced more wars, terrorism, ignorance, and hatred." (Secular forces can also "do good.")
One who took up my tit-for-tat reference to Christians and Muslims killing each other in Nigeria offered a heart-felt defense of the Christians there as being attacked and on the defensive. I share the writer's sympathy and sympathies, but when Muslim partisans write about such events, they state the opposite -- so where does that get us? Both sides kill. And, through their better angels, heal.