Attacking Fundamentalism is not the only Atheist Agenda

September 14, 2010

In the marketplace of ideas, atheism offers plenty of criticism against scripture, dogmatism, and blind faith. Fundamentalism tends to be close-minded and fanatical, and it deserves all the censure and rebuke that atheists can provide. Liberal-minded religious people should join in.

However, believers are joining forces against atheism. We don’t see many attacks on fundamentalist religion arriving from mainline church leaders and liberal theologians. Rather, the bookstore shelves are full of books by all sorts of preachers and theologians saying that atheists don’t know what they are talking about. When atheists declare that religion has no intellectual value at all, religious leaders only have an easier time reassuring the faithful that they aren’t crazy.

There are larger cultural forces besides the public square’s intellectual arena. Why should non-fundamentalists band together with atheists, since few atheists are trying to understand liberal religion’s merits? Intellectual weapons against conservative religions miss liberal targets badly; it is quite possible to believe in a God that didn’t dictate the Bible or demand government take-overs. When some atheists condemn religious liberals and moderates as strongly as fundamentalists for irrationality, moral blindness, or barbaric conduct, only resentment against atheism follows. If atheism is supposed to be smarter, it could use brighter methods of public debate.

Atheists need more comprehensive approaches to dealing with religious belief than just a lot of boasting that reason only sides with atheism. Theological defenses of religion can be intelligently designed, too. Under stress from science and Enlightenment philosophy, modern theology has explored cosmological, ethical, emotional, and existential dimensions of religious life. Many kinds of theology have emerged, replacing a handful of traditional arguments for God with robust methods of defending religious viewpoints. There are philosophical atheists who have quietly and successfully kept pace. The discipline of atheology is quite capable of matching these theologies with its skeptical replies, so atheists can have pride in their reasoning skills. Taking theology seriously enough to competently debate God should not be beneath atheism.

I expand on these observations from the front lines of the God debates in my new book, The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists, Believers, and Everyone in Between . All of the major traditional and contemporary arguments for God are reorganized by these five categories: Theology From The Scripture (can we trust its accounts of Jesus?); Theology From The World (should we supplement science with acts of God?); Theology Beyond The World (does cosmology need supernaturalism to explain the universe?); Theology In The Know (placing religious certainties before any other knowledge); and Theology Into The Myst (letting religious experiences of God take priority over creeds). The final chapter on Faith and Reason evaluates the competition among Western worldviews struggling to balance reason and faith, including fundamentalism, liberal Christianity, panentheism, mysticism, religious humanism, and secular humanism.

My book is written as a non-technical guide for successfully debating almost any argument that a typical believer would raise. If you are stuck in an elevator with a theologian, or just chatting with a religious co-worker over lunch, you can be completely prepared. The God debates are for everyone.