April 01, 2015

Atheist provocative, but unconvincing

As published in The Erin Advocate

Professor Douglas Cowan came to Erin last week to speak about atheism, preaching to a congregation much larger than any church in town could attract.

The former United Church minister, who teaches religion at the University of Waterloo, was invited to the popular Extended Learning Opportunities lecture series at the Legion Hall.

Why Atheism Matters was entertaining and thought provoking, but ultimately unconvincing. Regarding the big question, he argues that the burden of proof lies with believers.

“If you want me to believe in your invisible friends, the onus is on you to prove it,” he said.

Of course, no one is obliged to prove anything. The fact that something cannot be scientifically proven with available data does not mean it is untrue. In earlier times, we couldn’t understand how blood kept our bodies functioning, but we knew it did.

Progress is possible in both religion and science. Religion is an easy target for critics, since it is riddled with elements of violence, arrogance, greed, coercion and genocide.

Same with the bible, criticized for being contradictory and unbelievable on a literal level, not appreciated as a diverse collection of literature that attempts to make sense of the relationship between God and humans.

With glee, Cowan quotes Steven Weinberg: “For good people to do bad things, that takes religion.” That’s not entirely true, just as religion is not a necessity for doing good. But even the criticism that religion rightly deserves is a condemnation only of the evil or misguided humans that have abused it, not of a God who does not step into make everything right.

Cowan conveniently ignores all the good done in the name of God, and the substantial joy and consolation that spiritual practices provide. To characterize billions of people as delusional based on the extreme views of radical religious leaders is unfair, deliberately ignoring evidence that spirituality is a basic need for many people.

As a minister and professor, of course, Cowan would know all this. He chose to give a provocative presentation rather than a balanced one. He claimed his right to be offensive, which is probably better for book sales.

About a quarter of all Canadians profess no religion, but relatively few care enough to be atheists. Most of this group are either disillusioned with organized religion, totally private with their beliefs or just don’t feel the need. That is their right, but it does not diminish the creator.

This Friday, my parish will pray for atheists. Of course, they might find this amusing or condescending, but I mention it to make a point, which Cowan ignored – that many Christian churches no longer claim that their way is the only pathway to salvation. The prayer says:

“Let us pray also for those who do not acknowledge God, that, following what is right in sincerity of heart, they may find the way to God himself.”

So, is my need to praise God a weakness, a genetic flaw dating back to cave-dwelling days? If so, I’m willing to accept it along with all my other weaknesses, in order to remain open to the healing power of divine grace. It is a way of thinking that I impose upon no one, and harms no one.

People are truly different. Everyone deserves a home in terms of their way of thinking, where they can share with people of like mind. The fact that I have embraced a faith passed on from previous generations of my family does not mean I have done so blindly.

No one is in a position to control or pass judgment on another person’s thoughts, but society does need to guard against harmful actions that can emanate from beliefs. Cowan said matters of faith should not be considered off-limits for public discussion, and on that we agree.

Fortunately, we live in a country where freedom of belief is balanced with protection of the rights of others. Open debate and criticism are accepted, helping protect against abuses of power and making sure that people have choices. I see atheists in that context and I am glad to live with them in mutual respect.