In my last blog post, I indicated that I believed that the religious extremes that dominate public discussion of religion are dangerous. Here I will briefly give reasons for thinking that is true. To begin, I consider atheism and agnosticism to both be religious perspectives simply because they concern religion or religious issues. So one can be an atheist and still be a religious extremist. In my last post I wrote:
“On the one hand, there are those who openly, inwardly, or both, mock or simply dismiss the very ideas of God, religion, and man’s need and yearning for the two. What I call the radical atheists, e.g., Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, are typified but such dismissiveness, though it is not just the radical atheists who mock and deride God and religion. On the other hand, there are those devotees of religion who are overly and non-critically zealous and accepting of religious dogma, while at the same time seemingly ignorant of the inherent fallibility of all humans.”
I take it that both poles, both sides, are dangerous for the same kinds of reasons. Nothing I say here is meant to apply without exception, but here they are:
1) Both sides are closed to the possibility that the other might have something important to contribute to the discussion of what it is to live well (which, I believe, requires contemplation of, and engagement with, God and/or spiritual issues). That is, the mocking atheist identifies the religious life with the extreme forms of religion, e.g., versions of Christianity and Islam, that one finds in the news and thereby dismisses the possibility that there are more sophisticated forms of not only Christianity, Islam, and other religions, but also non-denominational theisms. The religious fundamentalist, on the other hand, is often unwilling and unable to consider the possibility that some of the tenants and dogma of his/her religion may be flawed such that they should be reexamined, possibly altered or discarded.
2) The above is due, in part, to a failure of those involved to fully acknowledge and embrace their own fallibility as humans. Each side is convinced that they have accurately apprehended the true nature of the other side and the Truth in general about religion. And each side reinforces the other: the vitriolic and, at times, unreasonable proclamations from each side cause the other to hunker down more deeply into dogma and closed-mindedness.
3) The first two points are further problematic because they remove the possibility of affirming a reflectively religious life that minimizes dogma as far as possible. I take such a life to involve an appreciation of the value of a religious/spiritual life, while acknowledging all of the difficulties of comprehending what such a life should be, and whether there even is a God or what the role of God is in a religious/spiritual life.
The mocking atheist denies the value of a religious or spiritual life, whether of the reflective kind that I am advocating or the unreflective, dogmatic kind I have mentioned. The dogmatic believer denies that the dogma that rules his/her life may be flawed and refuses to take seriously the possibility that God does not exist or does not exist in the way he/she imagines. And again, I take it that many on both sides are operating with overly simplistic ideas about God and religion.
Thus, the two religious extremes I have canvassed are dangerous because they lesson the likelihood of finding the truth, and they foster an environment hostile to the kind of reflective theology that I see as being vital to living a fully good life. Note that a “reflective theology” need not come with a god, but requires simply an openness to, and appreciation for, the possibility and value of a spiritual/religious life in a reflectively sophisticated form.