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I’m reminded of humanity’s talent for squaring circles by the fact that some atheists are celebrating Christmas. This reflects the secularization of the holiday; might it also suggest a way to bridge the divide in our religious wars?
We certainly could use some good will toward all. On the one hand, while the ranks of nonbelievers are growing, they feel rejected by the faithful (many Americans, for example, say they wouldn’t support an atheist for president). Such extreme religious action has generated an equal and opposite atheist reaction: British scientist Richard Dawkins refuses to concede any historical benefit from religion. And, of course, he considers the notion of a deity pure nonsense.
This season of conciliation offers a model for conciliating the sides, one involving another supernatural being. In a famous 1897 editorial, responding to 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon’s query about whether Santa Claus was real, The New York Sun’s Francis P. Church used metaphor to thread the needle between skepticism (he certainly didn’t believe literally in the jolly old elf) and faith. So, with obvious debts and apologies to O’Hanlon and Church, permit me to invent the following correspondence, inspired by a holiday that both Dawkins and I celebrate:
I am 74-years-old. Some of my little books say there is no God. The comment threads say, “If you see it on Cognoscenti, it’s so.” Please tell me the truth: Is there a God? Richard Dawkins
Richard, your little books are wrong. They have been affected by the angry atheism and religious fanaticism of an angry, fanatical age. Their readers do not believe except what they see. They can’t see a God, and sadly, they do see too many believers who say God demands the blood of innocents or hates those who are different.
Yes, Richard, there is a God. He exists if love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound — whether or not a supernatural creator exists, doubts about which even religion, properly understood, accommodates — and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no God! It would be as dreary as if there were no atheists. There would be no Messiah, no Sistine Chapel, no noble sacrifices by believers like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jesus (be he God or an inspiringly holy human) to make tolerable this existence, marred by intolerable acts among believers (see above) and atheists (see Stalin, Mao).
Not believe in God! You might get your books’ readers to watch in all the houses of worship on Christmas Eve to catch God, but even if you did not see God there, what would that prove? Nobody sees God, except by beholding the humble heads in those worship places lowered in prayer. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are, unseen and unseeable, in the universe. You look at the universe and see it expanding, but there is a veil covering the unseen dark energy driving that expansion that not the united vision of all the keenest-sighted people who ever lived can pierce. For now, anyway, only faith and mathematical imagination can push aside that veil and view the beauty and glory beyond. Like love, Richard, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
No God! Thank God He lives (forgive the redundancy), and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Richard, nay, ten times 10,000 years from now, He will continue to pour hope into the heart of fallen humanity.
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