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Atheism 3.0 Finds a Little More Room for Belief

(RNS) Bruce Sheiman doesn’t believe in God, but he does believe in religion.
Setting aside the question of whether God exists, it’s clear that the benefits of faith far outweigh its costs, he argues in his new book, “An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off With Religion than Without It.”
“I don’t know if anybody is going to be able to convince me that God exists,” Sheiman said in an interview, “but they can convince me that religion has intrinsic value.”
The old atheists said there was no God. The so-called “New Atheists”
said there was no God, and they were vocally vicious about it. Now, the new “New Atheists” — call it Atheism 3.0 — say there’s still no God, but maybe religion isn’t all that bad.
Faith provides meaning and purpose for millions of believers, inspires people to tend to each other and build communities, gives them a sense of union with a transcendent force, and provides numerous health benefits, Sheiman says. Moreover, the galvanizing force behind many achievements in Western civilization has been faith, Sheiman argues, while conceding that he limits his analysis, for the most part, to modern Western religion.
“More than any other institution, religion deserves our appreciation and respect because it has persistently encouraged people to care deeply — for the self, for neighbors, for humanity, and for the natural world — and to strive for the highest ideals humans are able to envision,” Sheiman writes.
Religion has always had its cultured defenders, atheists who speak up for the social benefits of faith. The philosopher Plato, for instance, did not believe in the Greek pantheon, but argued that other people should, for the good of society. He even proposed criminalizing disbelief in the existence of deities and immortality of the soul.
In recent years, the skeptical scene has been dominated by the New Atheists — Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and others — who argue in best-selling books that religious faith is a mental illness, or worse.
But now, a new crew of nonbelievers is taking on the New Atheists, arguing that while they may not have faith themselves, there’s little reason to belittle believers or push religion out of the public square.
The back-and-forth debates over God’s existence have shed a little light, but far more heat, they argue, while the world’s problems loom ever larger.
“The work that we need to do, we atheists, humanists and non-believers, is to build a better world and not try to tear down those with whom we disagree,” said Greg M. Epstein, the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University.
“When our goal is erasing religion, rather than embracing human beings, we all lose.”
Epstein argues in his forthcoming book, “Good without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe,” that morality does not depend on a judgmental deity and that nonbelievers can lead meaningful, even purpose-driven, lives. But they can also learn from people of faith, such as California megachurch pastor and “Purpose Driven Life” author Rick Warren, Epstein says.
Warren’s best-selling book basically says that “you have to have a purpose in life bigger than yourself, and that not everything is all about you,” said Epstein. “And he’s absolutely right about that. But he’s wrong in saying that you have to believe in Jesus Christ and if you don’t you’re going to hell for eternity.”
Atheists who insist that religion be removed from the public square are doing themselves a disservice, argues Austin Dacey, a former United Nations representative for the staunchly secularist Center for Inquiry and author of “The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life.” A godless public square not only shields religion from public criticism, it also circumvents a broader debate on morality, he argues.
“If they privatize faith, they also won’t be able to criticize it,” Dacey said of the New Atheists an interview.
On the flip side, atheists too, can be a “blessing” for believers, said Samir Selmanovic, co-founder and co-leader of New York’s interreligious Faith House Manhattan and author of “It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian.”
Atheists are “God’s whistle-blowers,” who keep believers honest and focused on the here-and-now, Selmanovic said. “Atheism at its best grabs us by the collar and throws us to the ground, demanding to see lives well lived, forcing us to dig deeper and live up to the best of our own religions,” he writes.
While no one expects the God debate to end any time soon, in the meantime, perhaps people can agree to disagree a little more agreeably, the new New Atheists argue.
“There was a moment when atheist books were selling,” Dacey said.
“But people like objectivity, they like the feeling of balance. So after this wave of atheist books and the criticism that they are extremist, people are trying to find a happy medium.”
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of
this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written

  • cknuck

    How refreshing a few atheist around here could learn a thing or two from this. He would never have to change his beliefs and we could talk forever without toxicity.

  • pagansister

    Co-existance…not a bad idea.

  • rmcq

    Atheism 3.0? What happened to 2.0?

  • Henrietta22

    Nnmns is one of Gods “whistle-blowers”, that was mentioned here, I would think you would have recognized that. As a Christian, not an extremist one, I feel I co-exist very well with him most of the time. If I believed as you do Ck I would probably find him hard to take.

  • Mere_Christian

    Atheists that finally want to mimick Christians . . . that sounds like a good start.

  • cknuck

    H22 there is a huge difference in what nnmns does compare to this idea, be for real.

  • cknuck

    H22 if you believe as you do it seems everything except giving Christ authority is okay with you.

  • Bucolic Social Leper

    It’s not religion we need, it’s just compassion. I have that without religion. If we keep compassion and concern for others, we can drop the religion and all of the negative baggage that comes with it. Secular Humanism is an example.

  • cknuck

    compassion is just a feeling until you put hands and feet to it, it’s meaningless for those who need us.

  • nnmns

    I don’t need religion, it’s just those other people who need religion.”
    I’m sorry, I can’t get my head around that idea though I think it’s pretty common.
    I don’t deny religion has led some people to do some good things. They can’t deny it has led some people to do some bad things. We all surely agree some of those things would have happened without religion.
    I (thanks partly to some thoughtful religious people on Beliefnet) acknowledge there are versions of Christianity, for instance, that are beneficial to society and probably to their members. But the versions of Christianity we hear from most often and most loudly are not beneficial to society and in fact are led by people who want power and/or money and have used their followers to get them. They have used their members against those members’ own best interests.
    I think a decision was made books like this would sell well now, so some were written.

  • nnmns

    Here’s a cheery little AP story about the effects of growing Evangelicalism in Africa.

    The nine-year-old boy lay on a bloodstained hospital sheet crawling with ants, staring blindly at the wall.

    His family pastor had accused him of being a witch, and his father then tried to force acid down his throat as an exorcism. It spilled as he struggled, burning away his face and eyes. The emaciated boy barely had strength left to whisper the name of the church that had denounced him – Mount Zion Lighthouse.

    The idea of witchcraft is hardly new, but it has taken on new life recently partly because of a rapid growth in evangelical Christianity. Campaigners against the practice say around 15,000 children have been accused in two of Nigeria’s 36 states over the past decade and around 1,000 have been murdered. In the past month alone, three Nigerian children accused of witchcraft were killed and another three were set on fire.

    Church signs sprout around every twist of the road snaking through the jungle between Uyo, the capital of the southern Akwa Ibom state where Nwanaokwo lay, and Eket, home to many more rejected “witch children.” Churches outnumber schools, clinics and banks put together. Many promise to solve parishioner’s material worries as well as spiritual ones – eight out of ten Nigerians struggle by on less than $2 a day

    It’s hard for churches to carve out a congregation with so much competition. So some pastors establish their credentials by accusing children of witchcraft.

  • EricM

    Do any of these columnists ever actually read the books from Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, etc?
    Because based on the way they charactarize these books, the columnists either 1) have not read the books, or 2) are purposefully misleading people about the contents of the books.
    I suppose there is a 3rd possibility: The columnists are too dense to understand the books.

  • Joshua B

    I’d imagine that they have read the most recent Dawkins and Hitchens books, which are little more than vicious screeds rehashing arguments that are as old as postmodern atheism itself.
    I challenge anyone to read “God is Not Great” and emerge with a view of Hitchens as anything but a skilled rhetorician and polemicist. “The God Delusion” is more of the same, as Dawkins has become a popular minister of atheist outrage than a legitimate contributor to dialogue between faith and reason.

  • nnmns

    “Dawkins has become a popular minister of atheist outrage than a legitimate contributor to dialogue between faith and reason.”
    I’m guessing a dialogue you would bless would not include pointing out that gods almost surely don’t exist. You’d probably say that crosses a line. But what’s the point of such a dialogue if it doesn’t include the basic point of difference between them. It sounds like Palestinians and Israelis getting together to talk about the weather.

  • cknuck

    nnmns you are relentless, if you have ever been anywhere other than the internet then you would know in Africa, South America, New Guinea and other tribal areas this kind of thing this belief of witches is not new as you suggest. For the culture to blend with Christianity and take form influenced by the culture is something that happens. Your beliefs are inspired by Google searches and your searches inspired by hate.

  • nnmns

    I’m sure it’s not new. But obviously it’s encouraged by these preachers trying to get ahead. And anyway “witch” is a religious idea, whether it be Christian or otherwise. Oh, and Christians brought the idea of witches to New England.
    And if these Christians were good people they’d discourage such beliefs, not encourage them.

  • pagansister

    nnmns, that article proves the “extreme” version of so called “Christian Love”. You’d think that by this time folks would realize that just because someone, child or adult, doesn’t believe what they are preaching, that they aren’t witches. Their killing of those accused of being witches are more representative of their Satan and his evil ways.

  • Mordred08

    “The philosopher Plato, for instance, did not believe in the Greek pantheon, but argued that other people should, for the good of society. He even proposed criminalizing disbelief in the existence of deities and immortality of the soul.”
    Yeah, just so you know, Christians, that’s not gonna happen.

  • John W. Loftus

    As an atheist author myself and founder of a Blog critical of Christianity I see no good reason for thinking or arguing that if believing in fairies makes people happier any atheist should ever consider writing a book encouraging the belief in fairies, unless it pays well. This author’s book makes him an opportunist, plain and simple. He can be bought for a price. If the theological wind changes tomorrow maybe he’ll do a different one contradicting this one.

  • cknuck

    JWL funny it seems to me a true atheist would have no concern, but blogs, books and the like seems to be a effort to proselytize a faith; atheism. Your resentment is telling, as you attempt to gather your disciples you are offended by those who do not meet your atheist purity standards not unlike a second century bishop.

  • Henrietta22

    I read this top story on MSNBC before coming into beliefnet, about the Nigerian Witch Children. Very shocking and disgusting. The Church you mentioned was connected to a Church of the same name in CA. When questioned about these horrors they said they had stopped connections with them three yrs. ago because of them not following what they should do. The little boy nnmns mentioned had his eyes burned out from the acid and he died sometime later. Two girls, young teenagers were terribly attacked by their families, too. One mother tried to saw her daughters top of her head off, her witch crime was sleeping outside at night, they accused her of taking off with evil spirts as she slept. The other girl was splashed with acid on her face, and it left bad scars, and worries that no man will ever love her now. Evangelism started this mess and they need to clean it up. The article said they are to believe the Bible and everyword it says and it says to kill witches. Here’s a new one, just hit the papers in MO. Amish father has been having sex with his daughters for years, now teens. Two yrs. ago he confessed before his Minister and the entire congregation. He was told to stay away from the girls, and the entire church shunned him. Someone reported it because he and his wife are in jail, and the leaders of the Church may be facing charges, too. Their excuse is their law is above our laws in MO. Sound familiar? The entire congregation knew for two years. Mind boggeling.

  • Nate W

    It’s atheists like you who give atheists a bad name, Loftus: those of you who aren’t content attacking religious believers but also have to go on the prowl against any fellow atheist who doesn’t share your fanatical hatred of all things religious. That’s one of many reasons that those of us who long for honest, civil, fruitful dialogue about religion don’t take your kind very seriously.

  • +++

    If there was no God, there would be no atheists.

  • nnmns

    “If there was no God, there would be no atheists.”
    That makes absolutely no sense. I also don’t believe in a 10 foot tall man with three heads. Does that mean there is a 10 foot tall man with three heads?
    Nate I’m not sure what you’ve got against Loftus; I almost feel left out. Maybe you perused his website, I didn’t. But a lot of atheists don’t have “a fanatical hatred of all things religious”, but rather perhaps a hatred of wrong-headed religious attitudes that impact on us and ours, and perhaps the people who push them. And I think you have to admit there are some wrong-headed religious attitudes and some of them do impact on innocent people.

  • cknuck

    Today at church a man shared about his 20 years as a atheist and how angry, hateful and miserable he was. He celebrated the fact that 10 years ago he gave his life to Christ and what joy he has experienced since. He shared about a principle in Christian living, “you have to lose your life in order to find it. He has been a positive impact in so many lives since he came to Christ. I would love to have him work for me but he has his own thing going on. The rest of the worship time was wonderful as my pastor talked about speaking life into people’s lives.

  • pagansister

    Am glad you had a rewarding time in church today, cknuck. If the fellow is happy having left his atheism behind that is good for him. Many folks are just as happy without giving themselves to Christ. Personally, I have so much many good things happening in my family right now…I couldn’t be happier!

  • cknuck

    It’s good to be happy pagan, I’m having the best week I got caught by a surprise birthday party the whole organization was in on it with my wife.

  • pagansister

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY! cknuck. Cool when a surprise party can actually be pulled off without the person suspecting that it is coming.

  • Heretic_for_Christ

    The angry atheist who became a happy Christian is one person’s experience. Another person might be a chronically angry Christian (or Jew or Muslim or Hindu or…). Another might be a serene and joyful atheist. Or someone happy in his or her faith. This is exactly why a one-size-fits-all approach to faith is intrinsically silly; we are different people, and the only way to try to create uniformity of belief is through coercion–real threats of torture and death for the crimes of non-belief or wrong belief, and indoctrination of children.
    So, on the topic of this board, I applaud the efforts of atheists to seek some rapprochement with believers–agreement not about whether God exists, but about the pointlessness of mutual demonization. That effort is a recognition of the fact that people can and do have different beliefs, and their beliefs do not necessarily imply anything about their moral character.
    And Happy Birthday! (I stopped having them years ago, when I realized that I just don’t have enough energy to get any older.)

  • jestrfyl

    Happy Birthday, ck!! No matter what, no matter who – a joy shared is great indeed!!! I’m gad they were able to surprise you and make it all the more fun.

  • Henrietta22

    Happy belated birthday Cknuck! If your birthday was Oct. 11-18, you are a Libra III. Your season is early fall. Your Strengths: Worldly, Hard-Driving, Knowledgeable. Weaknesses: Unheeding, Blaming, Overconfident. Enjoy your new year, you will never be this young again!

  • cknuck

    H4C thanks for the happy b-day. I agree with most of your statement there agree angry mean people who say they are Christians I personally don’t see how someone can say they know Christ and be that angry. But I do think that Christianity is in fact one side fit all. Of course I realize everybody won’t but I believe everybody can.

  • jestrfyl

    My take on the article is that there is great a range within atheism as there is within religious communities. No surprise there.

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