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No God doesn't mean no beliefs

Posted: Wednesday, November 18, 2009

For some people, the violent acts of Nidal Malik Hasan, the sole suspect in the Fort Hood, Texas, shootings, is a mark against every believer.

That's believers of every faith, and not just Islam, Hasan's professed religion. The Nov. 5 rampage on that Army base could be considered fuel to the fire for nonbelievers who insist that religion - any and all religion - is too often the conduit for anguish and pain.

Earlier this year, Trinity College of Connecticut released its American Religious Identification Survey, which said 34 million Americans - including atheists and agnostics - are not affiliated with any faith group. Their numbers are growing. Since the secular boom of the '90s, the ranks have been swelling by hundreds of thousands each year.

Their rejection of religion is met with mistrust from their religious brothers and sisters anchoring the pews. A 2006 University of Minnesota study found that Americans put atheists last on a list of people who "share their vision of American society."

Into such an overheated tank steps Greg M. Epstein, Harvard University's humanist chaplain. Epstein's new book, "Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligous People Do Believe," explains the moral code of people neither frightened by the threat of hellfire nor blissed out by the promise of heaven. Nonbelievers, writes Epstein, can live ethical lives without the framework of religion because it is the practical and right thing to do.

But sharing that idea is slow going. Humanists don't have a hierarchy, a need to evangelize or a governing board to spread their message, but they do have vocal supporters. Epstein credits public people such as President Barack Obama with bringing a new understanding to the issue; beginning with his Inauguration speech, Obama has made a point to include nonbelievers.

"We are all disbelievers in something, but he's also very much aware that humanism is a positive life stance, potentially an extremely inspiring one," Epstein said. "He talks about his mother as the great moral shaping influence in his life, and he talks about her as a lonely song for secular humanism. We have a president who is a Christian, who was raised by a humanist."

This is not a new topic for America, although one would hope the discussion would have grown more nuanced over time. In his book, Epstein explores the 1800 presidential election, in which incumbent John Adams attacked the humanism of candidate Thomas Jefferson. One of Adams' campaign ads asked voters if they would "continue in allegiance to God - and a religious president; or impiously declare for Jefferson - and no god!!!"

Jefferson responded, writes Epstein, by "portraying his opponents as reactionary Presbyterians" - the Christian right of the 1800s. And he won the election.

Epstein maintains we're stronger when we work together, despite our religious (or non-) differences. His voice is considerably more moderate than some of the so-called New Atheists, those in-your-face nonbelievers who are every bit as combative as the most rabid members of the Christian right.

But then, how should one respond when faced with demonization?

"Does one turn the other cheek?" Epstein asked. "Or does one lash back with a rhetorical sword? Or is there another way entirely? I believe very strongly there is a better way, and that is to affirm who we are and to be willing to be very public in our promotion of what is good and right, and to work hard in promoting what is good and right, and then to recognize the good people out there with whom we disagree about theology, and offer our friendship and respect - and simply ask for theirs in return.

"I'm trying as hard as I can to be that radical moderate."

• Susan Campbell is a columnist for The Courant. E-mail her at scampbell@courant.com



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