The offence of atheism.

Author:Milner, Arthur
Position:OPINION - Viewpoint essay

I believed in God for a few months when I was 14 years old. When discussions of religion came up, as it did from time to time in my teenage years, I would say that I believed in God, having a kind of vague Jewish God in mind. But it made me uncomfortable and I soon gave it up. Over the years, my disbelief strengthened and for many years I would jokingly describe myself as an evangelical atheist, going door-to-door preaching atheism. Still, I have always enjoyed discussing and reading about religion, and Jack Miles's God: a Biography remains one of my favourite books. None of this has shaken my lack of faith.

A few years ago, when three new books proselytizing atheism hit the stalls, I thought "finally, a little support." I read Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens's books, and parts of Sam Harris's. (1) They make arguments I'd been making for years, and--Dawkins especially--some new ones I enjoyed. For example, he's unwilling to let believers, or scientists, off the hook by conceding the existence of different realms of knowledge, one for the spirit and another for, say, baking pies.

There are not many churchgoers in my crowd of mostly theatre people. But my experience is that there aren't many proper atheists either. One evening a few years back, at the Caravan Theatre in the British Columbia interior, a discussion of God came up among perhaps 20 people. There were two atheists, including me. I don't think there was anyone who regularly attended religious services, but all the others claimed to believe in God "as a kind of power that's in everything."


I do spend time with a few people I consider religious, which for me means they actually enter a religious institution. But these religious friends and acquaintances are as moderate as you can get. I won't try to articulate what religion means to them (public service is a big part of it), but ! will say what it doesn't mean: none believes in a God who acts in the world, and none will ever say that something is true because The Bible says it is. In that, they are like the progressive priests I met years ago in Nicaragua, who never spoke of God but only the example of Jesus.

Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris pay comparatively little attention to such moderates. Their big guns are aimed at religious extremists of the various faiths, those who bring us war, hatred, "young world creationism" and the certainty that comes from knowing the eternal truth. But the moderates don't...

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