June 12, 2008
Agnostic about atheism
It's long been said that religion is a racket. Sales figures of other anti-God rants -- much longer than Einstein's letter to Eric Gutkind -- suggest that atheism may be catching up. But is it good for the atheists?
As we know, it helps to have a book in circulation. Dawkins' recent work, "The God Delusion," is nowhere near as big as the Bible, but shifting 1.5 million copies is more than respectable. Book sales have a legitimizing effect. It's not just the growing number of readers who may be converted by a polemic. Monetary success confers an impressive, almost magical, aura.
If atheism's a commercial success, associated with a certain kind of high-flying, worldly proselytizer, we may yet see the advent of an atheist sect -- reclusive ascetics who wish to distance themselves from the more ostentatious nonbelievers. Atheist sects? Not as crazy a concept as you might think. In New York, there has even been talk of a "church" -- a physical house of nonworship -- for atheists. Start a church and, even if you remove all mention of God, a schism seems inevitable.
What would Einstein do? His views on religion can't be summed up in one letter. They were, in some respects, inconsistent. Religion being what it is -- huge, ancient, diverse -- only the fanatical or the very dim can have a consistent response to its existence. Einstein found religion "childish" but described atheists as creatures who, harboring a grudge, were resistant to "the music of the spheres." In other words, resentful puritans.
For it is not only Einstein's "music of the spheres" but music in general that must be tossed out when you refuse to appreciate religion. If you champion the splendors and benefits of Western culture, while claiming to oppose religion entirely, you are, metaphorically speaking, tone deaf.
Whether your preference is Bach, Britten, Palestrina, Kanye West or Earth, Wind and Fire, you'll find some aspect of Christianity in the details. But reggae -- such as The Melodians doing Rivers of Babylon, based on a psalm of the exiled Jews -- can't easily be separated from religion, either. Run from religion, if you must, but you can't hide from song, sculpture, poetry, architecture, painting, tourism or food.
Given that the influence of religion over the centuries has made them what they are, I can't help seeing something crude in the impulse for some to bash it. As a "cafeteria" atheist and secular Catholic, I don't share that impulse. Religion has given us some rather fabulous architecture, a lot of excellent paintings, a variety of head coverings -- from yarmulkes through wimples, veils and turbans -- which I, for one, find fascinating.
Religion has often been the engine of tourism from which the laity could benefit. All sorts of people made a good living from pilgrims traipsing through Europe to check out the relics of the latest hot saint. Today, some of these pilgrim routes attract eager non-believers, as do many cathedrals and churches. For many tourists, the Way of St James pilgrimage route across the Pyrenees is an exercise in self-improvement through education, a recreational history lesson rather than a form of piety. Religion has staying power because it can adapt.
I enjoy pilgrimage sites as much as I enjoy sampling the obsessive-compulsive cuisine born of a strict religious diet. (I might be wrong, but something tells me Dawkins is not a world-class foodie.) When food is part of learning about the world (and how other people live), almost anything is worth trying once.
Take a look around New York and you'll realize that halal is the new kosher. In Manhattan, the Jewish restaurants on West 72nd Street (one for meat, one for dairy) have disappeared -- while halal pushcarts, dotting the midtown sidewalks, service the city's office workers.
Some of my fellow atheists are to non-belief what being nouveau riche is to the traditionally rich. It's as though they've just discovered God doesn't exist, and they can't wait to tell you all about it. I cringe each time one of these noisy nonbelievers gets on his or her soapbox. Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have helped me to understand how a genteel Anglican must feel about some of those "other" Protestants. As athiests become more strident, a new snobbery arises -- or a schism, so sects aren't out of the question.
Some of us are too delicate for evangelical excess. Whether it's atheistic or religious, we find it embarrassing. Yes, religion can be abusive, and we're often told that religion causes war. When people kill each other in the name of religious identity, it's sickening. If I thought evangelical atheism could end violence, I would be happy to tolerate the embarrassment factor. But I'm not convinced it can.
Hitchens, declaring that "god [sic] is not great," seems to have designed this phrase expressly to piss off the worshipful. Religion might be childish but so is a show of disrespect. If we're so comfortable in our nonbelief, do we need to go around nettling the believers?
While finishing my third novel, I faced a dilemma: whether to capitalize the G in God when referring to the Christian deity. God is more of a concept than a being to me, but the lowercase "god" suggested by Hitchens just didn't look right. If Nancy, Allison and Jasmine (fictional prostitutes in my novel) require the uppercase treatment, it seems democratic to do likewise for God, who is also a product of the imagination.
As a central character in so many other stories, God has legs, but I am not here to defend God's greatness. Or legs. I prefer to say that God ... is just OK.
Tracy Quan's latest novel is "Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl." Her first, "Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl," is being developed into a television series for HBO. She has also written for Cosmopolitan, Financial Times, Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe.