Is Atheism as impotent as Stephen Prothero thinks?

June 8, 2010

Stephen Prothero likes telling people, like the Dalai Lama, when they are wrong about religion . The Dalai Lama is just wrong that different religions could be talking about the same supreme reality. The Dalai Lama is just wrong that religions have similar perspectives on one ultimate mystery. Religious pluralism, the idea that all religions have some valid perspective on the ultimate reality, is a fraud. Forget world peace, since different religions will always sharply disagree about something.

Able to clearly see what makes different religions so different , Prothero just thinks that it must be false that religions could be trying to refer to the same reality. 

Prothero's sharp logic can't be argued with -- if person A attributes some property X to God, and person B can't find X in God but only Y, then these two people must not be talking about the same God, and their religions cannot overlap. Prothero thinks that its VERY important that religions perpetually disagree about what God is like. It would be a pity if such beautiful diversity were to fade, he thinks [ see an interview with Prothero ]. Wrong, Dr. Prothero -- religious intolerance and bigotry is not beautiful.

What about atheism? Prothero says,

"Atheists account for roughly two percent of the U.S. population."

Way wrong again. According to the ARIS 2008 survey , "roughly 12% of Americans are atheist (no God) or agnostic (unknowable or unsure)."

Prothero adds,

"We live on a religious planet, and arguments from atheists—are at least at this point—are proving impotent to change that."

Still wrong. Skeptical criticism towards religion over the last century is precisely why many people in many countries are no longer confident that their religion has the exclusive truth about God. And this skepticism is growing among younger generations , even in America.  Anyone see a trend?

Why can't Prothero take atheism seriously? His disdain probably is linked to his demand that every religion stay so rigidly different, without overlap or merging. Reminds one of the way that species just had to be so different, before Darwin revised the concept of "species". Even atheists can realize why religions really aren't so rigidly distinct. Since no God really exists, but we are all confronted with deep mysteries about ultimate reality, different religious people project different images and symbols of God upon what little of reality they can experience. A wide, continuous spectrum of faiths is the result, not a collection of a few religions neatly segregated like the crayon colors in a box.

As for atheism, it prefers to say nothing definite about God, because it is skeptical about God's existence. Atheism is skeptical precisely because no human is endowed with transcendent powers to know with certainty what ultimate reality exactly is. No scientist, no saint, no seer, no prophet -- no one. That's too bad for atheism, according to Prothero, since each of the religions seem to have knowledge of God. God forbid that a religious person might admit that their religion only catches a perspective or aspect of the ultimate reality, reduced to human wavelengths of comprehension. According to Prothero, real religious people (unlike speculative theologians like the Dalai Lama or Joseph Campbell) just KNOW their God just fine, and you just can't tell people differently.

So atheism is told to go sit in a corner with its impotent skepticism. But atheism has been far more powerful than Prothero could realize. Skepticism and perspectivism and pluralism are all close cousins, born of the same realization that knowledge is fallible and relative to the human condition. Atheism is a manifestation of the rational force which has been helping to create religious perspectivalism and syncretism, and sometimes even skepticism. Atheism represents the hope that religions could moderate their absolute certainties into fallible attitudes, and then into tolerant lifestances.

But Prothero would tell atheists that we are just wrong.

Yes, religions disagree on many things, and they agree on many other things. Can Prothero explain why? Does he have any historical sense of how religious ideas and symbols have been traveling and mutating across the globe for centuries, and they are now going at the speed of light around the globe? Does he realize that the power of communication and comparison and debate of religious ideas will only accelerate the process of religious overlap and synthesis?

Atheism should respect any religious leader who stands up for humble fallibility and religious pluralism. The terrible enemy is religious certainty and fanaticism and hatred. There is such a thing as religious evolution, and it can be intelligently directed if we try.

[Edit 7/21/10: corrected spelling of "Stephen"—Eds.]