It’s true, the argument about whether a God exists is one of the most fruitless of the fundamental philosophical debates alive in our society. It is so intrenched, and so tied up in politics, that both sides tend to sound like fundamentalists, even as they try to argue that it is just those very traits that they despise in the other side. Almost everyone has a very strong belief on this issue, and it helps us to make sense of the world around us. However, what I do not see much of is an honest ability on any side of this issue to learn from people whose fundamental beliefs differ from theirs. I am not expecting a group of atheists and theists to sit down at a table and hammer out their differences to the satisfaction of all. I am hopeful, though, that there might come a time when those same individuals could sit down at a table and talk about the different ways their fundamental beliefs affect their day-to-day lives, and learn from each other a more nuanced way of interacting both within their respective communities and across them. Here is a simple starting point: three lessons that could be arrived at from such a discussion.
The world is not hopeless and devoid of meaning without God. It is not essential that a benevolent God created the universe in order for it, and with it our lives, to be endowed with meaning. Even without a Creator — or with an ambivalent one — we find ourselves on a planet bursting with life, most notably with over seven billion creatures with amazing potential to love, learn, and grow. That fact alone could prompt one to see the meaning in the world amounting to the (enormous) task of insuring that those lives are as fruitful and pain-free as possible. When push comes to shove, I do not see the major world religions arguing for a radically different end.
Religious rituals have a purpose besides invoking ‘spooky metaphysics’. Many atheists can come to a blanket state of disregard for religion — and potentially theists generally — from seeing rituals performed that seem to have no bearing on the scientific world atheists believe we all live in. However, bridging the divide on this issue requires the admission that not all religious adherents believe that all the rituals they are engaged in necessarily invoke supernatural forces in the ways they may have classically been construed to. There are many other reasons to perform a communal ritual —chief among them being that it is communal. Strengthening the bonds of one’s (religious) community is no mean feat, and there is something about ritual that strikes at the core of each of us as people that is hard to replicate in any other way.
In dialogue, remember to translate cultural language. This is a lesson for theists, atheists, and really all of us who aim to be in dialogue with Others. Many times I hear persuasive messages from theists and atheists, framed in their own cultural language for their own, distinct intended audiences. Many of those messages are fundamentally the same — but the language used by one group is so foreign to the other that this fact is rarely conveyed. To give a couple examples: if I were to say that I can never believe in a God that condones putting a person to death for being homosexual, then what I am saying is that I believe so strongly in the fundamental equality of all people that I will not point to a being (God) that I strive to emulate in everything I do that does not share that belief. And if I were to say that I cannot tolerate how women are oppressed in religious systems, what I am saying is that I struggle to understand how tradition — however ancient and full of wisdom — could be valued more than equal access to religious positions of authority (or simply being recognized in a community) in the 21st century, when those same women have (nearer to) equal access to top jobs.
I have yet to find a system of belief, never mind one that has existed for over a thousand years, that does not have a treasure trove of wisdom to share with the world. I believe that it is incumbent upon us all to first of all strive to share that wisdom from the traditions we are familiar with, and then to strive to open ourselves and our traditions up to learning from others. Just as we all have much wisdom to share, we have much still to learn.