I think I need to understand atheists better. I bear them no ill will. I don't think they need to be religious to be good, kind and charitable people, and I have no desire to debate or convert them. I do think they are wrong about the biggest question, “Are we alone?” and I will admit to occasionally viewing atheists with the kind of patient sympathy often shown to me by Christians who can't quite understand why the Good News of Jesus' death and resurrection has not reached me or my people. However, there is something I am missing about atheists: what I simply do not understand is why they are often so angry.
So we disagree about God. I'm sometimes at odds with Yankee fans, people who like rap music and people who don't like animals, but I try to be civil. I don't know many religious folk who wake up thinking of new ways to aggravate atheists, but many people who do not believe in God seem to find the religion of their neighbors terribly offensive or oppressive, particularly if the folks next door are evangelical Christians. I just don't get it. This must sound condescending and a large generalization, and I don't mean it that way, but I am tempted to believe that behind atheist anger there are oftentimes uncomfortable personal histories. Perhaps their atheism was the result of the tragic death of a loved one, or an angry degrading sermon, or an insensitive eulogy, or an unfeeling castigation of lifestyle choices or perhaps something even worse. I would ask for forgiveness from the angry atheists who write to me if I thought it would help. Religion must remain an audacious, daring and, yes, uncomfortable assault on our desires to do what we want when we want to do it. All religions must teach a way to discipline our animal urges, to overcome racism and materialism, selfishness and arrogance and the sinful oppression of the most vulnerable and the most innocent among us. Some religious leaders obviously betray the teachings of the faith they claim to represent, but their sacred scriptures remain a critique of them and also of every thing we do to betray the better angels of our nature. But our world is better and kinder and more hopeful because of the daily sacrifice and witness of millions of pious people over thousands of years. To be called to a level of goodness and sacrifice so constantly and so patiently by a loving but demanding God may seem like a naive demand to achieve what is only a remote human possibility. However, such a vision need not be seen as a red flag to those who believe nothing. I can humbly ask whether my atheist brothers and sisters really believe that their lives are better, richer and more hopeful by clinging to Camus's existential despair: “The purpose of life is that it ends." I can agree to make peace with atheists whom I believe ask too little of life here on planet earth if they will agree to make peace with me and with other religious folk who perhaps have asked too much. I believe that the philosopher-rabbi Mordecai Kaplan was right when he said, “It is hell to live without hope, and religion saves people from hell.” I urge my atheist brothers and sisters to see things as Spinoza urged, sub specie aeternitatis —“under the perspective of eternity.” And to try a little positivity. Last Sunday I took two high-school girls to Cold Spring Labs to meet Dr. James Watson. One of the girls wants to be a research scientist, and the other has no idea yet, but I think she will be a great writer. I think they also both want boyfriends. I want them to stay smart and not dumb down to get a boy. Watson spoke and listened to the girls, and they left, I hope, proud about being smart. I know that Jim believes way more in Darwin than in Deuteronomy, but he also believes that at Cold Spring Labs the most important thing is not whether you are a man or a woman, not whether you believe in God. The most important thing, as he says, is “to get something done.” Now there's an atheist I can believe in.