Atheist organizations are now unleashing a barrage of ads in various media, escalating their struggle against their faith-based enemies. According to Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times, the campaign is both an attempt to neutralize the perceived stigma attached to atheism and an effort to recruit allies to the side of reason.
I’m all for denouncing religious fanaticism and debunking biblical literalism, but I have two problems with the plan. First, the more acerbic ads will only be taken as proof that atheists can be just as irrational, unreasonable and obnoxious as the true believers they mock. Second, and more important, it perpetuates the false proposition that there are only two sides in the religious debate: conservative Bible-thumpers and radical anti-religionists. What about the rest of us?
The predominance of religious zealots in the media says more about their volume than their actual numbers. And, given the profiles of Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris et al, it’s not as if radical atheism is being left out of the conversation. The real voiceless ones belong to neither of those two camps. I’m referring to the enormous number of people who actively engage in some form of what my colleagues in the Forge Institute call “sane spirituality.” These are people who recognize that we’re part of a transcendent something — a no-thing, really — and that connecting to, or uniting with, that infinite ineffable wholeness is natural and beneficial.
This diverse, unorganized mish-mash of open-minded seekers tends to approach spirituality in a reasonable, rational and pragmatic manner. A large percentage of them are in the fastest-growing religious category in America: spiritual but not religious (SBNR). Many practice methodologies derived from ancient traditions born in India, which we’ve come to call Hinduism and Buddhism, although very few Western practitioners call themselves Hindus or Buddhists. Also in the group are people whose world views are secular and who view practices such as meditation as the applied components of a science of consciousness, or simply as ways to enhance well-being. Finally, the voiceless include many people who appear to be conventionally religious, in that they attend worship services, celebrate religious holidays and teach their children about their religious heritage. But they participate on their own terms: They don’t believe everything that staunch atheists assume they believe; they don’t accept all religious dogma as revealed truth; and if they value scripture at all they do so selectively and read it metaphorically, not as history or as an infallible guide to morality.
The sanely spiritual do not suppress their doubts; they think logically and accept the testimony of science. Their likely answer to the query “Do you believe in God?” is, “It depends on what you mean by that term.” They’re wary of the G-word because it’s come to be associated with belief in an anthropomorphic father figure in the sky, whereas they’re more inclined to postulate a formless, creative power that would not seem out of place in a physics seminar. In short, they are rational, reasonable individuals who regard the spiritual dimension of life as a central feature of human development and pursue it in the spirit of good old American pragmatism. They do what works, placing direct experience and observation over ideology or doctrine. To the degree that they have faith in something, it is the kind of faith that proceeds from evidence and reason, like a scientist’s faith in the outcome of an experiment.
This practical, autonomous, experience-driven spirituality recognizes that there are many ways to define the sacred and many pathways to it (as sages have told us for millennia, ever since the Rig Veda was first formulated). It is a down-to-earth antidote to the screaming ideologues and fanatics who falsely polarize religious discussions. And, judging from the survey data I came across when researching American Veda, it clearly represents the future.
And guess who can be counted among the sanely spiritual: Sam Harris. The lead singer in the American atheist choir ever since his bestseller The End of Faith, Harris was outed, if that’s the right word, in a recent Newsweek article by Lisa Miller. It turns out that he acknowledges the distinction between unthinking religious belief and sensible spirituality. In fact, he’s a long-time meditation practitioner himself, having spent time in India and Nepal as a youthful seeker. “I see nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many religions,” he says.
Precisely. Those states of mind have been shown, scientifically, to be beneficial to health, happiness and the cultivation of qualities we hold to desirable, like compassion. Why didn’t you tell us sooner, Sam? Actually, if you read him carefully, he said it all along. But the media evidently can’t handle nuance. Maybe Harris can now help us move beyond the clamorous tag-team matches that place faith and religion in one corner and reason and atheism in the other, relegating the sanely spiritual to the bleachers.
The fanatics who believe that their way — their God, their prophet, their book — is the one true way are on the wrong end of history. They’re bound to wreak a lot of havoc on their way out, but mockery is not the antidote and logic alone won’t change many minds. The urge to transcend, to connect deeply, to penetrate the great cosmic mysteries and elevate mundane life to the level of the sacred has always been with us and it always will be. That impulse, sensibly pursued, is the heartbeat of healthy religion, and it’s the best remedy for the madness of extremism.