Thursday, August 4, 2011

Atheists, Fundamentalists, and the Rest of Us

I wonder if anyone else has noticed that the vast majority of people who debate on religious issues tend to sit at the extreme ends -- the militant atheist who snidely dismisses all religion, and the devout fundamentalist who likewise regards liberals and modernists as warmed-over secular humanists.

And the rest of us? Perhaps it's the thought of being caught in their crossfire which makes us shy away from engaging them. Or perhaps the extremes are so fixated on one another, emotionally as well as intellectually, that we just fade from view.

But I'd like to propose that these two ends of the continuum are in fact more alike than they realize -- not merely in their zeal, or their sense of being outsiders, or their all-or-nothing dismissal of anything moderate, but in their logic.

Yes, logic. Fundamentalism has its own appealing logic, albeit a closed and empirically starved variety. For all their talk of faith, they take great pains to demonstrate in debate the superiority of their position.

Then they run headlong into the logic of the equally unwavering infidel. Where fundamentalists distort or ignore evidence (or the lack thereof) to uphold their belief system, atheists value evidence with equal vigor. Atheists accuse fundamentalists of ignoring obvious facts, and fundamentalists respond that atheists are ignoring the biggest truth of all.

Having read and heard all the arguments from each side, here's my conclusion: They're both right, and they're both wrong. Both are so caught up in their own logical presuppositions, nothing else matters or makes sense. At times, they each appear so focused on defining what they are against that it's hard to tell what they are for. And when someone else steps in with a different perspective ... well, you get the idea.

Allow me to dare suggest that the problem is not merely their respective systems of belief, but the common manner in which they reach those conclusions. Logic has its role in life, but even the most valuable tools have their limits. Logic may be essential as the foundation for science and mathematics -- but what of art, beauty, love? When someone entralls us with a story, where is the point of ranting about imperfections in grammar? This seems the tragedy of atheist and fundamentalist alike -- the failure to fully appreciate the poetic narrative of spirituality, because they persist in reading it with mathematician's eyes.

Take, for example, the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Fundamentalist logic starts with the presumption that the Bible must be literally true, and so the story is also true, as a sign of Jesus' power over nature. The logic of the skeptic begins with the presupposition that natural law cannot be broken, and so the story itself must be dismissed as fantasy. But there is another way to read the tale, where its factuality is not as important as how it resonates within the reader. Think of the image of this impoverished, itinerant preacher willing to share what little he and his companions had with a multitude of strangers. What would motivate him to do so? And what, by this example, are we called to do?

There is more to belief than mere precepts. There is what we value in the world, and in ourselves. And if all we value is being right and righteous, what then?