Much has been written about the decline of religion and rise of secularism in America and the rest of the developed world. Prospects for a turnaround reside, paradoxically, with the New Atheists.
Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and colleagues ridicule scriptural passages that depict a vengeful, terrorist God and that sanction misogyny, homophobia, and child abuse. In so doing, they goad religious people and institutions to update our maps of reality.
The New Atheists may not be reaching literalists. Moderates and liberals, however, and those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” cannot so easily ignore their attacks. I certainly couldn’t.
The End of Faith by Sam Harris and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins made me squirm. I am, after all, a preacher. My wife and I have addressed more than a thousand audiences as we’ve crisscrossed North America these past eight years evangelizing evolution. We initially steered clear of questioning the widespread practice of seeking guidance and inspiration in ancient texts. Now, however, we see the absurdity of revering unchanging holy books while modern discoveries take a backseat or have no seat at all.
And so my Sunday sermons now begin, “Today’s scripture reading is from cosmologist Carl Sagan.” (Pause for laughter.) “Science is, at least in part, informed worship.”
Lately, I’ve been getting even bolder. “The New Atheists are God’s prophets,” I proclaim in pulpits, podcasts, and blogposts. It took a diagnosis of cancer last September to propel me to this point. Graced with remission, this is still my core message.
The New Atheists, I suggest, are not enemies of religion; they are modern-day prophets. Prophets traditionally were those who chastised their people for having fallen out of sync with their time, with ‘God’s ways.’ “Come into right relationship with Reality,” they warned, “or perish!”
Today’s science-oriented atheists call us into right relationship with our time, and that means using all of our best information and cross-cultural experience.
Ours is a time of space telescopes, electron microscopes, supercomputers, and the worldwide web. It is also a time of smart bombs, collapsing economies, and exploding oil platforms. This is not a time for parsing the lessons given to a few goatherds, tentmakers, and camel drivers.
So let today’s collective intelligence revitalize our faith traditions! Let us rejoice in the discovery that the atoms of our bodies were forged inside supernovas, and let us celebrate this natural process as divine.
Let the story of evolution be told in ways that engender familial love and gratitude that we are related to everything—not just monkeys, but jellyfish and zucchini too. Let us marvel at how rapidly our species has learned to care and cooperate in ever-widening circles: from family groups and tribes all the way to nation-states, and now globally.
An evolutionary God can be as vast, as real, and as all embracing as our creative Cosmos and no more inclined than the Universe to take sides in matters of war, weather, or geological upheaval.
There will come a time when religious leaders derive guidance and inspiration from our common creation story and teach and preach the discoveries of science as ‘God’s word’. When that day arrives, our faith traditions will thrive and perhaps a few of us will look back and exclaim, “Thank God for the New Atheists!”