WASHINGTON—This weekend, many of the world’s estimated 2 billion Christians will remember and celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
While some Christians harbor doubts about Christ’s actual physical resurrection, hundreds of millions believe devoutly that Jesus died and rose, thereby redeeming a fallen world from sin.
Are these people a threat to reason and even freedom?
It’s a question that arises from a new vogue for what you might call neo-atheism. The new atheists—the best known are writers Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins—insist, as Harris puts it, that “certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one.” That’s why they think a belief in salvation through faith in God, no matter the religious tradition, is dangerous to an open society.
The neo-atheists, like their predecessors from a century ago, are given to a sometimes charming ferociousness in their polemics against those they see as too weak-minded to give up faith in God.
What makes them new is the moment in history in which they are rejoining the old arguments: an era of religiously motivated Islamic suicide bombers. They also protest against the apparent power of traditionalist and fundamentalist versions of Christianity.
As a general proposition, I welcome the challenge of the neo-atheists. The most serious believers, understanding that they need to ask themselves searching questions, have always engaged in dialogue with atheists. The Catholic writer Michael Novak’s book “Belief and Unbelief” is a classic in self-interrogation. “How does one know that one’s belief is truly in God,” he asks at one point, “not merely in some habitual emotion or pattern of response?”
The problem with the neo-atheists is that they seem as dogmatic as the dogmatists they condemn. They are especially frustrated with religious “moderates” who don’t fit their stereotypes.
In his bracing polemic “The End of Faith,” Harris is candid in asserting that “religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each one of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others.”
Harris goes on: “I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss. We have been slow to recognize the degree to which religious faith perpetuates man’s inhumanity to man.”
Argument about faith should not hang on whether religion is socially “useful” or instead promotes “inhumanity.” But since the idea that religion is primarily destructive lies at the heart of the neo-atheist argument, its critics have rightly insisted on detailing the sublime acts of humanity and generosity that religion has promoted through the centuries.
It’s true that religious Christians were among those who persecuted Jews. It is also true that religious Christians were among those who rescued Jews from these most un-Christian acts. And it is a sad fact that secular forms of dogmatism have been at least as murderous as the religious kind.
But what’s really bothersome is the suggestion that believers rarely question themselves while atheists ask all the hard questions. As Novak argued in one of the best critiques of neo-atheism, in the March 19 issue of National Review, “Questions have been the heart and soul of Judaism and Christianity for millennia.” (These questions get a fair reading in another powerful commentary on neo-atheism, by James Wood, himself an atheist, in the Dec. 18 issue of The New Republic.)
“Christianity is not about moral arrogance,” Novak insists. “It is about moral realism, and moral humility.” Of course Christians in practice often fail to live up to this elevated definition of their creed. But atheists are capable of their own forms of arrogance. Indeed, if arrogance were the only criterion, the contest could well come out a tie.
As for me, Christianity is more a call to rebellion than an insistence on narrow conformity, more a challenge than a set of certainties.
In “The Last Week,” their book about Christ’s final days on Earth, Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, the distinguished liberal scriptural scholars, write: “He attracted a following and took his movement to Jerusalem at the season of Passover. There he challenged the authorities with public acts and public debates. All this was his passion, what he was passionate about: God and the Kingdom of God, God and God’s passion for justice. Jesus’ passion got him killed.”
That’s why I celebrate Easter and why, despite many questions of my own, I can’t join the neo-atheists.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at symbol)aol.com.
© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group