Part of the problem of the public discourse on religion is that, like so many other issues, the discussion gets framed by the radical fringes. On one side, you have the fundamentalist theists (mostly Christians in the US) who have a literal interpretation of the Bible and a narrow vision of God and religion. On the other side, you have the fundamentalist atheists (led by Dawkins, Harris, et. al.) who likewise adhere to a literal interpretation of the Bible and a narrow vision of God and religion. While these extreme positions sell most of the books and soak up most of the media oxygen, the vast majority of people (both believers and non-believers) view this discussion in much the same way as they would view a food fight between two-year olds: there is some nominal entertainment value but the level of intellectual discourse is nonexistent and there is a huge mess that needs to be cleaned up.
Fortunately, the silent majority on both sides is starting to make their voices heard. Thanks to Debilis of Fide Dubitandum for pointing to an interesting article at National Review by Nicholas Frankovich. The title of the article is “Do Atheists Exist?”.
The backdrop of the article is the atheistic “church” of the Sunday Assembly. Per the website, their Public Charter is as follows:
“The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrate life. Our motto: live better, help often, wonder more.”
While the Sunday Assembly professes to be “godless” their website portrays a vision very different than the fundamentalist New Atheists. They speak of wonder, purpose, connection, service and community; the same things that most religions emphasize. While the Sunday Assembly may not believe in an Abrahamic God, as Frankovich points out, they certainly do believe in a higher power, even if they avoid that term. While Christians and other theists may disagree with the Sunday Assembly on ultimate reality, we have much in common through the elements of wonder and service that unite us and distancing ourselves from the fundamentalists, whether they be theists or atheists.
I encourage you to read Frankovich’s entire article here, but set forth below is an extended summary:
In embracing altruism, the Assembly touches on moral theology, as do Habermas and Pera, but unlike them it does so from a position it has staked out on the near outskirts of metaphysics, which lends the godless church much of its warmth. The third part of the Assembly’s motto, “Live better, help often, wonder more,” reflects a value attractive to souls seeking relief from the cool, or chill, as they experience it, of the secular climate in which they live. “Our modern culture is restless at the barriers of the human sphere,” Charles Taylor writes in A Secular Age. “The sense that there is something more presses in.”
Wonder more: No one disputes that atheism is compatible with wonder at the physical universe and how it works. Wonder at how it came to be just so, however, soon leads to wonder at how it came to be at all, a question that atheists typically sidestep. The pleasure of contemplating it is forbidden fruit to which the Sunday Assembly approaches nearer than a good atheist ought.
Philosophically if not historically, the theism of Judaism and Christianity, as well as of Islam and major religious currents outside the Western tradition, begins with the observation that the mystery of being is irreducibly mysterious, absolutely immune to attempts at demystifying it. The articulation of thought about what that mystery is — “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is,” in Wittgenstein’s succinct rendition of the matter — has been so honed by succeeding generations of thinkers descended from the union of Greek philosophy and Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theology that it’s now difficult for anyone, whether theist or atheist, to improve on their exact formulations. So the atheist seeking to communicate an accurate answer to the question “Why is there not nothing?” will find himself borrowing theologically inflected terminology. Inescapably, he affirms the most fundamental of theological precepts. He agrees with it implicitly. He asserts that he doesn’t. His disagreement is first of all with himself.
A dramatic declaration of atheism is usually an assertion of disbelief in a god no one else believes in either. Judging the shadowy masculine presence at the center of the Hebrew Bible to be a tyrannical father figure and a lie — Richard Dawkins calls him “the most unpleasant character in all fiction” — atheists who cross over into militant antitheism make quite the show of manfully defying the Lord’s authority to command them. They plant their flag in the ground. There they stand, they can do no other.
They lose their footing when they recoil as they do, reflexively, from classical theism as well. They don’t trust it. If it’s related to Him, they’re not interested; they won’t be seduced. They plug their ears to keep from hearing too distinctly the siren song of sweet reason, which they dodge, rather than confront. Either they see plainly or they intuit that God in his aspect as God of the philosophers is ground on which reason offers no apparent means of escape or resistance. We might as well try to refute the multiplication tables. They are what they are.
* * *
So now we know that something of what Moses experienced when God visited him on Mount Horeb is available to anyone who will only take enough thought. The mystery of being induces wonder, or awe, commensurate with our willingness to engage it. It’s astonishing, when you think about it, that anything exists.
Q: Why is there something rather than nothing?
A: God, although maybe we need a new name for him
* * *
To define “nothing” is to say what it is, when what it’s intended to convey is an absence of being. You can’t talk about nothing without treating it as something. And so, on close inspection, the question “Why is there not nothing?” turns out to be paradoxical — as we should expect, given that “when the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question,” as Wittgenstein observed. Still, it’s hard to let the question go; we intuit the intended meaning even as it eludes our ability to capture it in precise language. While the word “nothing” is self-contradictory and irrational when strictly interpreted, it does, like the number zero in mathematics, serve a purpose when used gingerly or with enough qualification.
* * *
It’s become too familiar, this ordinary English word for what we tend to talk around rather than talk about. So forget “God.” Call him “Nothing,” if you prefer:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with Nothing, and the Word was Nothing.” The key to understanding John 1:1 turns on the verbs, not the nouns. Dawkins in his awe before the Nothing sounds like Heidegger but without Heidegger’s awareness of the unfathomable profundity of what it means “to be.”
Notice how “nothing” can function for the atheist as “God” does for the theist. Are the two only using different linguistic tokens in parallel efforts to express the same ineffable thought? Their fear and trembling at the prospect of the “eternal nada,” Jones and Evans explain, moves them to cultivate their appreciation for the physical world (Christians call it “Creation”) that tickles our sense organs in the here and now: “Transcendence can be found in a breath of wind on your face or in a mouthful of custard tart,” they write. They pronounce nature “awesome,” a word whose recently acquired colloquial sense still shades into its older, literal sense. Open the door to just that much transcendence, however, and all of it comes rushing in, like a strong wind. Atheists instinctively try to resist it, while those of us who have been blown away by it recommend the experience.
“Wonder more,” the Sunday Assembly urges, and adherents of monotheistic religions echo the advice back to them. No, following wonder to its logical conclusion does not by itself make an atheist suddenly Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. It only means he’s not an atheist. Someone should tell him.