I read this morning about the upcoming "Reason Rally" being held tomorrow on the National Mall in Washington.
To be honest, I think this is a great event. I really do - if, as David Silverman reports, atheism is the fastest growing 'religion' in the country, then it should feel comfortable coming together to celebrate common values. It should gather as a body - a secular ecclesiastical body - and profess its reasons for being together.
I should like to make, however, two requests of them:
First, as the theologian Denys Turner reminds us, eadem est scientia oppositorum - one and the same is the knowledge of opposites. That is to say, when we are in an argument we must be sure that we are affirming, and denying, the same point. An example: if I say the weight of the watermelon is "three pounds" and you respond, "no, it weighs green" we have a problem. "Three pounds" and "Green" are not comparable predicates; we are not, that is, talking about the same thing.
As "Reason Rally" assembles, I should like to hear from them just what God it is in whom they do not believe. They may say, "All of them!" but, nevertheless, it'd be nice to have some clarity on just what it is they are denying. Being interested in the relationship between faith and doubt, belief and unbelief, such a gathering might bring about some type of confessional anti-creed, saying just what it is that is not believed.
Why do I ask for this? Because, very often, it's hard to have a discussion with facile atheism (or moronic theism, for that matter). When students/friends dismiss the notion of a god who created the world in six days, I am in agreement with them. When ideas of a god who sends tsunamis and hurricanes to punish humans, I also agree. Yet I believe in God. It just happens that when I say the word "God" and others say the word "God" it seems that we're seldom talking about the same thing.
Summary of Point One: We need to get clear - all of us - on the meaning of the word "God" so that we can have a genuine discussion about what we believe or do not.
Second, and this builds off of the First point, this gathering needs to avoid becoming what Turner would call "an inverted image of a certain kind of narrowed-down theism." The temptation Turner warns against is allowing one's atheism to devolve into an aping of bizzarre theism.
When the likes of Richard Dawkins takes aim at silly notions of theism, I cheer him onward. When Bill Maher points out silliness, I think it a good thing. Yet, it seems, they are merely picking the low-lying fruit and are failing to grapple with more sophisticated believers or to address the questions that they ask. The recent Dawkins/Williams conversation certainly moves in a salutary direction and, it would be my hope, more such conversations will take place.
Summary of Point Two: rather than allowing one's atheism to be parasitic or a mirror-image of an odd sort of theism, atheists need to put forth a positive doctrine that accounts for the question "why is there anything at all."
One last irony: one of the speakers at this rally is Nate Phelps, the atheist son of anti-gay pastor Fred Phelps. The Westboro Baptist Church is infamous for picketing soldiers' funerals, holding hateful signs aloft, shouting out their epithets. I should hope that tomorrow's rally does not ape this sort of behavior, trading ignorant tit for ignorant tat. This could be a watershed moment for the atheist movement and I hope they don't squander it by trying to mirror groups most serious theists do not take seriously.