A kinder, gentler atheism?
April 29, 2010 4:22 PM   Subscribe

After several years of soul searching, I have decided that at best, I'm agnostic, and am borderline atheist. The main reason can be traced to too much skepticism and rational thinking - I simply don't believe that a supernatural god can bend the rules of nature. We as a society are getting too advanced for religion, and science is starting to explain a lot of what we chalked up to a divine being.

That being said, I still have a great respect for religion and the good that churches can do in our communities. I still go to church, help with food drives, and make new friends. But most of the atheist literature I read borders on ridicule and hatred of religion. I thought "Religulous" was interesting, but Maher poked a little too much fun at believers; I still felt myself getting a little defensive.

I'm looking for some authors/bloggers who are skeptical in nature, who see religion as an understandable reaction to uncertainty in this world, but find that the evidence for a creator is just not there. (Bart Ehrman is a religion professor whom I've found to be particularly likeable. John Shelby Spong is on the right track but gets too mushy with his "new Christianity".) I'm not looking for a debate on any of the above assertions; just point me in the right direction for more info. Thanks!
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (34 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 4:29 PM on April 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

"Why I am not a Christian" by Bertrand Russell
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:30 PM on April 29, 2010 [5 favorites]

You can read "Why I am not a Christian" here.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:31 PM on April 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

Dan Dennett's Breaking the Spell and Robert Wright's The Evolution of God both come to mind as good post-religion books that don't take an adversarial approach to faith and religion.
posted by cosmonaught at 4:32 PM on April 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

This isn't a book/blog recommendation, but a way to find like-minded people: as an undergrad (at a secular, very liberal university with many students having a bit of tendency to bash religion), I was involved in interfaith organizations and hung out with a lot of people connected to the religious studies department. Many of them were atheist or agnostic, but (sort of by definition) tended to be interested in considering religions in depth and with a certain amount of respect. Living with a graduate student in a divinity program, I'm finding a similar mix of people among her classmates.

So actually, if you're near any universities, public lectures/seminars out of religious/theological studies departments (especially one that trains scholars as well as future clergy) may take the kind of perspective you're interested in.
posted by heyforfour at 4:36 PM on April 29, 2010

The book View from the Center of the Universe is good reading in intelligently reviewing the idea of God (and gods).
posted by anadem at 4:38 PM on April 29, 2010

If you're interesting in critiquing both the dogma of religion and the dogma of atheism, you might want to start by looking at theologian Paul Tillich. For Tillich, religion is simply our 'ultimate concern.' In your case, you are going to church to do good in your community, not to worship a deity. Tillich would suggest that helping your community is your ultimate concern, it's your religion. Below, you'll see some bits of his argument against both dogmas. Also, have a look at his book "The Courage to Be." Yeah, sounds self-help, but it's not.

"Both the theological and scientific critics of the belief that religion is an aspect of the human spirit define religion as man's relation to divine beings, whose existence the theological critics assert and the scientific critics deny. But it is just this idea of religion which makes any understanding of religion impossible."

"A God about whose existence or non-existence you can argue is a thing beside others within the universe of existing things. And the question is quite justified whether such a thing does exist, and the answer is equally justified that it does not exist. It is regrettable that scientists believe that they have refuted religion when they rightly have shown that there is no evidence whatsoever for the assumption that such a being exists."

"Unfortunately, many theologians make the same mistake. They begin their message with the assertion that there is a highest being called God, whose authoritative revelations they have received."

"Theologians who make of God a highest being who has given some people information about himself, provoke inescapably the resistance of those who are told they must subject themselves to the authority of this information."

(Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, Oxford University Press, 1964)
posted by jardinier at 4:42 PM on April 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

The comments of our member Pater Aletheias.
posted by Toekneesan at 4:46 PM on April 29, 2010

Do not read Why I Am Not a Christian if you dislike "ridicule and hatred of religion." I think it contains some good insights and is worth reading, but Russell is one of the progenitors of today's hard-core anti-religious atheism (Dawkins et al).

I haven't read Breaking the Spell, but Dennett is a friend of Dawkins and not very kind toward religion, though he does take a somewhat more nuanced view of it (he is a philosopher and is genuinely interested in studying religion even though he thinks it's pure nonsense).

I'm trying to think of some positive recommendations, but I can't think of any off the top of my head.
posted by k. at 4:55 PM on April 29, 2010

Karen Armstrong's "A History of God" is not an atheist work, but it's a very good history of monotheism and the way humans vacillate between believing in a personal chummy God and a distant unknowable God. I don't quite understand what Armstrong herself believes (she was a nun), but I think she's someone who doesn't believe in God but does see a value in religion.
posted by acrasis at 5:00 PM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just to make a suggestion - or three - perhaps this religion thing is not what you think it is. I know - yes, know - it isn't what Russel thought it was, though I grant he was smarter than I in most things.

Tillich is popular in this thread, and a start. Just do not think you know religion or, its companion spirituality, from a book or two. Try Merton and Teilhard de Chardin (a scientist of high caliber and a mystic). Yeah, they were Catholics, maybe that doesn't mean what you thought either. Try Jung. Kierkegaard. Read Buddhist writings (I'm not the one to tell you were to start with those). There is much in the Religion section of the boodstore that is simple tripe to reinforce the convinced, or that argues pilpul, the same is true in all sections though, avoid that stuff

It isn't what you think. It isn't what the religious right thinks. It isn't what the easy road atheist think. Go and find what it is with an open mind. I want say anything against skepticism, it is an asset to growth and knowledge, rational thinking is good too. But is it really 'rational' to dismiss the subjective experience of so may? Of yourself? Or is that just another kind of dogma, drivel and cant?

Oh, it is so easy to say. "Fie on that, I'm rational.
posted by Some1 at 5:20 PM on April 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

I wouldn't write-off Breaking the Spell because Dennett runs with Dawkins and Sam Harris.

The book has its flaws (including Dennett's old trick of asserting vague philosophical theories in such a clear and certain way that they sound like established fact), but it doesn't spend a lot of time poking religion or the faithful in the eye, or set-out on a Dawkins-esque mission to destroy religion.

I caught this in a Boston Globe interview with him a couple of weeks ago:

"IDEAS: You’re a high-profile critic of religion. Do you think that’s going to make this study seem like a tactic to try to weaken people’s religious belief?

DENNETT: In a way it’s better that I have that reputation, because if I didn’t, people would be suspicious that I was secretly pushing some atheist agenda. I’m quite outspoken about my atheism, but I’m also outspoken about my belief that we don’t want to encourage the extinction of religion. We want to encourage its evolution into more benign forms.

IDEAS: And what would those more benign forms look like?

DENNETT: Simply an opportunity to join with people in a morally meaningful activity. I think that we can take a lot of lessons from religions, which are brilliantly designed to bring people together in just that way, with art and music and ritual, a beautiful building, induction ceremonies.

We should do with secular organizations what Bach did, he took these great old chorale melodies, that were deeply ingrained into bones of audiences, then he built on them.

IDEAS: Though Bach was a church organist composing for actual church services.

DENNETT: Right, this is a sort of meta-Bach move here. I know and love the Unitarians, but I don’t like the words to their hymns. The words are so insipid I can’t stand them. I’d rather sing the good old ripsnortin’ words and then put a little flashing light over the pulpit that says “metaphor.”"

posted by cosmonaught at 5:25 PM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

To follow up on what some1 said, have a look around, build your religious plate like you're at a salad bar.

You like something from atheism, take it - add something from Jung, William James, John Dewey, anyone you read or any teaching or practice you like - they call it cafeteria style religion - and it give you the choice to construct your own religion.

And if that doesn't do it for you, go with Leary's model and just Start Your Own Religion.
posted by jardinier at 5:30 PM on April 29, 2010

Seconding Sagan. Dennett, though he's brilliant, will probably raise anon's hackles. Oh, and Pater Aletheias, while a great commenter, is most certainly a theist and not really appropriate. Maybe Camus?
posted by phrontist at 5:31 PM on April 29, 2010

True Pater Aletheias is a theist, but he is also everything else you're looking for. Balanced, gentle, very skeptical, and he has clearly thought a great deal about the purpose and function of religion. I guess I'd consider myself agnostic, yet I still find much to think about from what Pater Aletheias writes here.
posted by Toekneesan at 5:46 PM on April 29, 2010

k.: "Do not read Why I Am Not a Christian if you dislike "ridicule and hatred of religion." I think it contains some good insights and is worth reading, but Russell is one of the progenitors of today's hard-core anti-religious atheism (Dawkins et al)."

I disagree. Russell's harshest criticism was leveled at the *institutions* of religion, rather than the concepts therein.
posted by dejah420 at 5:47 PM on April 29, 2010

Felicitas Goodman's Ecstasy, Ritual and Alternate Reality looks at religion from a cross-cultural anthropological perspective. Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of Religious Life is of course a classic here.

It's an approach that asks what religion is and what it does, rather than are the theological claims of a religion true or not.
posted by nangar at 5:53 PM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

have a look around, build your religious plate like you're at a salad bar.

Born into and raised in a Jewish household. I questioned the faith from an early age, and for a year or so during high school I annoyed my mother thoroughly by joining a friend at his Unitarian church's youth group. For their talent show, I wrote a skit about this very idea, which I called "Fuddruckerism".

Y'know, after the hamburger place.
posted by ymendel at 6:22 PM on April 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

I strongly second Karen Armstrong.

Also... "The main reason can be traced to too much skepticism and rational thinking - I simply don't believe that a supernatural god can bend the rules of nature" is a non sequitur. If you pursue this interest of yours in good faith you'll probably find a good number of religious intellectuals and other public figures who are skeptical of a-man-in-the-sky theology, Einstein, Mother Theresa, and Karen Armstrong among them.
posted by thesmophoron at 6:45 PM on April 29, 2010

I don't really know of a lot of religion-friendly atheist writings (my ignorance doesn't mean they don't exist, though), however, I can point you toward more extremely liberal, skeptical Christian writers, along the lines of Spong or Ehrman, but trying to construct a rational kind of Christian theology. The most popular are Marcus Borg, whose The Heart of Christianity and Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary will lay out the liberal vision of Christianity in a useful way that I think you'll find less mushy than Spong. Borg considers himself, I think, a sort of pantheist. Definitely not your typical Christian.

Along those lines, and a frequent collaboration with Borg, you could read John Dominic Crossan. His classic, accessible book is Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. Crossan is big into the historical Jesus movement, taking a skeptical approach to the Bible, rejecting literal miracles, resurrection, etc., and trying to determine who Jesus really was underneath the legends.

If you are wanting to stay connected to Christian community because of the good that you see in it, but have moved past a "magic book" view of the Bible, those guys could be right up your alley.

But really, all you need to do is read my past comments.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:47 PM on April 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Julian Barnes' nonfiction book Nothing to be Scared of is excellent. While he doesn't believe in God, he's respectful of and intrigued by his friends' religious beliefs.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:48 PM on April 29, 2010

Whoops -- Nothing to be Frightened of, that is. And I can't figure out how to capitalize it, either.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:51 PM on April 29, 2010

Pater, you kill me. But seriously, the point doesn't seem bona fides in atheism, the better reading is in the how and why. There's not a lot I find on that. Sure, Crossan, Spong, Armstrong (all probably also theists). Belief.net does some great work, but if I shouldn't be recommending a theist member then Belief.net would probably also raise some flags.

I guess I'd say you first need to decide if you want to read about this from a sociological perspective or from a political one. If you want political, go with an out atheist. If you want more of a study on the mechanics, include theists.
posted by Toekneesan at 7:08 PM on April 29, 2010

Do not read Why I Am Not a Christian if you dislike "ridicule and hatred of religion."

I disagree. Russell's harshest criticism was leveled at the *institutions* of religion, rather than the concepts therein

It's been a while since I read it, but I believe he cites the tremendous destruction caused by Christians in the name of Christianity as evidence that Christianity overall is bad (no matter how much he may like some of the teachings attributed to Jesus). In other words, he judges religion by its effects.

Speaking of which...how about The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James?
posted by k. at 8:37 PM on April 29, 2010

I think you might find a lot of interesting stuff in the work of Joseph Campbell, actually. One book suggestion might be "Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor." Or if you can find a copy of his video series with Bill Moyers, "The Power of Myth." (It appears to be out of print - there's a book of it, but I sometimes find the "interview" format annoying to read compared to Campbell's own books.)

Why I suggest this: Campbell himself was basically an "atheist" in the sense that he followed no religion and specifically did not believe in a "personal God" the way Christianity teaches it. But for certain he was a "believer" in the kinds of deep meaningful experiences that in other people give rise to religious belief, and he relished all the varied forms these take in terms of myths and rituals. His whole central idea that any myth and any religion is just a set of metphors for the kinds of common life experiences we otherwise have few words to adequately describe - I think this is a very important insight. It's the kind of thing that lets me despise the particulars of the Roman Catholic Church, and yet I would passionately fight to preserve the art and buildings of the Vatican, and it would pain me to see them desecrated just as it pained me when the Taliban destroyed the ancient Buddha sculptures of Bamiyan. I think this kind of perspective might enrich your choice to continue attending church despite your atheist/agnostic leanings - because from a broader, more world-inclusive perspective, any myth or religion is just our way of grasping for some sort of meaning or understanding of the universe and our place in it - and really, for most of them if you boil down their essential teachings it tends to come to the same sort of teachings of compassion and respect.

Campbell was fond of quoting one of his mentors, Heinrich Zimmer, as saying "The best things cannot be spoken, as they are beyond words. The second best are misunderstood." (That's a bit of a paraphrase really.) The point is that the "second best things" are the metaphors we use to describe the "best" things, and because the words and images alone can never fully encompass the true experience, they end up argued over. It's why you can find a lot of educated religious people who will ultimately agree that "all religions point toward the same thing in the end" - but then so very many people who passionately and even violently argue the mundane details of "which path" is better than others.
posted by dnash at 9:03 PM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Long time favorite of mine -- Letters From The Earth by Mark Twain. It in fact does lampoon religion and the foolishnesses in religious beliefs but it's done so well, he was still on fire with creativity though it was in the last two years of his life when he wrote it; he'd lost so much and was stung and just seemed to want to set some things straight. Very, very funny, lampoons the whole of human foolishnesses when it comes to all of this. Brilliant writing.
posted by dancestoblue at 9:27 PM on April 29, 2010

Your soul searching isn't over and your views will change again. Perhaps to less interest in the whole affair, perhaps you will become the kind of atheist you don't care for now. Keep exposing yourself to many views as some will make sense later.
posted by eccnineten at 9:29 PM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I quite liked this podcast on doubt: A History of Doubt, from Speaking of Faith. Check out some of their other shows too, even as an atheist, I find them very interesting.
posted by stray at 10:45 PM on April 29, 2010

Would it be helpful to look at Eastern religions and philosophies - Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto? They tend to get lumped with other religions by the anti-theists simply because they are religions by category, but their approach tends to be more non-theistic and pretty close to the "ultimate concern" mentioned above.
posted by divabat at 10:51 PM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

You might be interested in the work of David Sloan Wilson, particularly his book Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society. Wilson is a sociobiologist who sees religion as an adaptive trait, but unlike Dawkins, Hitchins et al., he sees it as a beneficial adaptation. He describes himself as 'an atheist, but a nice atheist', which may appeal to you.

Freeman Dyson describes himself as 'a practising Christian but not a believing Christian', and I like his respectful attitude to Christian believers:

We are in the position of anthropologists observing the rituals and liturgy of an alien culture. As anthropologists, we try to understand the alien way of thinking and we try to enter into the alien culture as far as we can. We make friends with individual members of the alien culture and listen to their stories. We respect them as human beings, struggling in their own way to deal with the mysteries of life and death, sharing with us our common weaknesses, fears, passions, and bewilderments. We respect their faith in the love of God, whether or not we share it. We observe them with a sympathetic eye, but from a distance. We do not for a moment imagine that their detailed vision of a world to come, with heaven and hell and eschatological verification, the vision that they find emotionally satisfying or intellectually compelling, is actually true.

Bruce Ledewitz's blog Hallowed Secularism might be of interest, and I also recommend The Revealer, if you don't already know it, as a good source of links and commentary from the liberal, sceptical end of the religious spectrum.
posted by verstegan at 4:43 AM on April 30, 2010

I would highly reccomend Bishop John Shelby Spong.
posted by General Tonic at 7:24 AM on April 30, 2010

Second Paul Tillich and Karen Armstrong. You will find no evidence or 'proof' of a creator. But fortunately, that's not the point.

I also recommend reading (at least commentaries on) Thomas Aquinas.

Part of the problem with this kind of atheist/religious dialogue is that the various sides are coming from different metaphysical and epistemological worldviews. The words "is," "exists," "proof," "truth," "real," and "knowledge" have different meanings depending on your worldview. The loose use of those terms when discussing religion is the source of much unnecesary conflict. Philosophy can help clarify those terms so you can evaluate more effectively.

Go back and examine the philosophical and theological foundations of faith for an adult perspective. Beyond bible stories. See what is actually said by the great theologians and critically examine their assumptions. Western Christian theology is largely based on the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. He started with specific positions on metaphysics and epistemology, largely based on those of Arisotle.

Aquinas' five "proofs" of God's existence are not proofs in the scientific sense. They are more like 'reasons to believe' based on experience and reason. He knows they involve assumptions, but they are assumptions that many people embrace and they fit with observed experience.

So if you read these foundational theologians, uncover their assumptions about "God," "existence," "knowledge," "truth," etc. and still do not agree, at least you are rejecting the actual foundations of faith and not the caricature of faith that most people argue about.
posted by cross_impact at 9:36 AM on April 30, 2010

On the Dennett debate i personally found the book "Breaking the spell" to be pretty non-confrontational. The basic premise of the book is "People believe that rationality and religion don't mix. You can't have a rational discussion about religion, it's not possible as they are two different worlds. I want to break that opinion/spell and assert that everything is subject to rational discussion, including religion".

Caveat: I haven't read his other stuff.
posted by escher at 9:54 AM on May 1, 2010

I quite liked this podcast on doubt: A History of Doubt, from Speaking of Faith.
The book is even better. I think Jennifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: A History is exactly what you're looking for - a respectful but determined look at the history of disbelief and doubt throughout history, and the role that doubt has played in our past.
posted by micketymoc at 10:46 PM on May 4, 2010

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