012: And Now, A Word from the Skeptics

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    H
ow far does our circle of religious diversity extend?
    Already at ReadTheSpirit, we’ve talked about an enormous spectrum of religious traditions and we’re just getting to know each other. So, this is a good time to point out that our circle also welcomes skeptics, as long as they’re comfortable with our guidelines of “curious and respectful” conversation.
    I know that this issue of enlarging our circle is important, because of a nationwide online forum that I hosted this spring for Wired Magazine and the New York University School of Journalism, underwritten by the MacArthur Foundation among other groups.
    The dozens of men and women who volunteered to spend six weeks talking with me about spirituality included a couple of atheists and their input was vital. They kept us honest about our assumptions. And they’re a part of our American family with moral and ethical values that run as deep as anyone else.
    There were a couple of moments, during the six weeks, when atheists and evangelicals expressed anxiety to me that our circle would not hold together. I assured them that it would with “curiosity and respect.” It turned out that our circle not only held together, but the resulting report from our group was widely praised.

    Here at ReadTheSpirit, we know that most of our readers are people of faith, but let’s devote today’s story to saluting the skeptics among us.
    Now, we’re all familiar with the take-no-prisoners, baseball-bat-to-the-forehead voices of neo-atheists like Sam Harris, who is popping up everywhere in media these days. Christopher Hitchens is another writer who brings sophisticated scholarship to the discussion, but also prefers to slam faith in the forehead with a Louisville Slugger.
    Both are popular writers and I admire much of Hitchens’ other work, but frankly their atheist books just don’t interest me. They’re not entirely accurate and they’re so strident in their tone that it’s clear neither writer is really interested in a discussion with us.

    Today, I want to salute three recent books about skepticism that I consider models on this theme and I heartily recommend all three to you, because they’re not books you’re likely to stumble across in your stroll through Borders or Barnes and Noble. (I know; I check their display tables regularly to see what they think is hot.)

    First is a book destined to become a classic.
    That’s a strong phrase and I don’t use lightly. I’m talking about evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson’s “The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth.” I’ve read this book twice myself and urge church discussion groups who are looking for a good book on eco-theology to buy copies of Wilson’s book.
    (Note to readers: Please, if you click on titles or covers in our articles, you’ll jump to our Amazon-related store. There, you’ll find additional reviews. Plus, if you purchase through our site, a small portion of what you buy supports our work here. Among the projects on our agenda is a free study guide to Wilson’s book that I’m writing and that we’ll post later this fall. So, please -– support our work.)
    “The Creation” is not only a model of persuasive writing about the transcendent values related to Nature – but it’s also a model of bridge-building literature.
     Wilson is one of the leading scientific voices of this era and, when he contemplates faith, he is not exactly an atheist. He has described himself as a “deist” or a “humanist,” but clearly he’s a skeptic when it comes to faith.
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    Nevertheless, in “The Creation” he writes an eloquent series of arguments about how humans – whatever our religious beliefs may be – share a timeless concern for the planet.
    When it comes to the debate over caring for the natural world, Wilson says, the current ecological threats are far too grave to continue debating the religious beliefs behind our values. There’s no time left for such debates, Wilson argues. Rather, he says, let’s fly white flags over our religious arguments and get to work on preserving our world.
    “You and I are both humanists in the broadest sense: human welfare is at the center of our thought,” Wilson writes in the book, directly addressing us as people of faith. “What are we to do? Forget the differences, I say. Meet on common ground. … My guess is that you and I are about equally ethical, patriotic and altruistic.”
    We agree with Wilson, here at ReadTheSpirit. We need to build community around this issue more than we need to sort out every conflicting issue in our ecotheology.

    Second is a book that’s not likely to hang around stores as long as Wilson’s book, but it’s a bright spark in religious publishing at the moment, “I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith Through an Atheist’s Eyes.”
    This is a memoir by Hemant Mehta, the young atheist who made front-page headlines in 2006 by sort of putting his soul up for auction on eBay. Actually, he put his time on the auction block. As an atheist, he offered to let a high bidder send him to church. An evangelist finally paid about $500, which Mehta donated to a nonprofit group. His assignment from the high bidder was to tour a number of churches and report his findings.
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     This year, his findings turned into a must-read memoir. In fact, if you doubt my recommendation, the red-hot young evangelist Rob Bell wrote the Foreward for Mehta’s book, urging Christians to read it. “Prophets can come from the most unexpected places, can’t they?” Bell writes.
    For instance, one of the places Mehta visits is the Vatican of evangelical megachurches: Willow Creek. Rather than convincing this skeptic to drop to his knees, Mehta explains to readers quite thoughtfully why the Willow Creek sermon on “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” completely misfired with a newcomer like himself.
    This is another book that is great for groups, but, be careful with this one! If you assign a couple of dozen committed members of your congregation to read this book, they’re likely to turn into a committee to make some long-overdue changes.

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    Finally, there’s a book about “Doubting Thomas” that I have enjoyed and many people of faith may enjoy as well, although it’s challenging enough in its dense style of biblical analysis that it may not appeal to most parish discussion groups.
    Glenn W. Most, an internationally respected scholar in Greek literature and social thought at the University of Chicago, wrote this book as a gift to his students, he tells us. He wanted to demonstrate how a scholar can unfold layers of an ancient text and compare it with other texts to discern new meanings for our lives today.
    Dr. Most is not a skeptic himself. He describes himself as a Christian, but his basic argument about Thomas and his famous request to actually touch the risen Christ is a timeless story about the nature of skepticism and faith.
    Here’s a sample of how Dr. Most plays with the text in the midst of his book, teasing out of the text some intriguing new ways to think about Thomas – and our own lives.
    Thomas “doubts so that he may come to believe and … believes so that he may make us believe too. Thomas is like us, because he doubts but is then convinced; but he is unlike us, because he was able to see Jesus whereas we can only hear about him. Hence Thomas is greater than we are, for he was one of Jesus’ disciples, was particularly attached to him, and was important enough for Jesus to return only in order to convince him; but we are potentially greater than Thomas, for he was only capable of believing what he saw, whereas we shall be able to believe even without seeing.”
    There’s a lot more to this exploration of the most famous biblical skeptic, makng Dr. Most’s book a good choice for personal Bible study as well as fresh reflection on faith – and disbelief.

COME BACK TOMORROW for a Test-Yourself Quiz on The Songs Our Spirits Sing!
See how you fare with our 10 questions and then share the quiz with a friend.
AND — come back WEDNESDAY for our Conversation With Marcus Borg, all about Christmas!
And THURSDAY? We’ll delve into our religious affection for … Murder Mysteries!

Share your viewpoint with us, please, in this same curious-respectful way. Click Here to email me, David Crumm, or leave a Comment for all of our readers on our site.

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