The story about my spiritual beliefs, the North Carolina Constitution and one man’s threat to unseat me has gone viral, both in print and on the Web. I’m fielding e-mails from dozens of people around the country—so far all supportive—and the writers include Christians as well as atheists and Quakers and Muslims and pagans and more.
I’ve read some of the thousands of comments posted on blogs and the vast majority of folks support the separation of church and state that has figured so prominently in the history of this country. It is reassuring to me that there is such a broad understanding that freedom OF religion necessarily includes freedom FROM religion, else such a guarantee has no real meaning. Our country was founded by people who had suffered first-hand the demagoguery of state-religion and religious persecution, and we see today the dangers inherent in such systems where they persist.
While many ideologues continue to advance the idea that our Founders’ language concerning rights “endowed by our creator” is the core tenet of this country, and that finding favor with God is the root of our success, I’m more inclined to think that it is the legacy of adherence to science that is the most important contribution of Jefferson, Franklin, Washington and their peers.
Science. not God, is the real source of America’s power—science unencumbered by dogma and empowered by vast resource wealth. Other societies have surely included as high a percentage of the religious faithful as ours, but the difference here was the institutionalized effort to liberate experimental results from the grip of received wisdom. Whether or not we remain the freest society on earth today can be debated, but we were unarguably the first to fully embrace the enlightenment and to institutionalize equality before the law (however imperfectly it has been enforced).
Among my many new correspondents, I’ve found atheist critics who suggest that my stated positions are too temperate and that I’m being less than forthright by labeling myself as “post-theist” rather than atheist. For example one blogger said, “he offers some language that avoids full ownership of the position at times.”
By way of explanation I offer this: It seems to me that theism emerged in human thinking over thousands of years during which we had scant explanation for many of the phenomena in our world. We didn’t understand our origins, whether in utero or in the ancient past. We didn’t understand disease or the vagaries of weather that brought so much suffering to our lives. We didn’t know what the lights in the night sky were or what forces controlled them. And so we handed all the unknowns over to a deity or deities and looked for their favor since they seemed to run the show.
Atheism, a rejection of theism, was an obvious outgrowth of the Enlightenment as science began to provide explanations for ancient mysteries. As a word it perfectly expresses what it means—not theist. Unfortunately, atheism has been draped with a strong sense of the negative, principally by its opponents, in the same way that the word “liberal” was poisoned by conservative pundits over the past few decades. I’m not averse to being called what I am, but I don’t accept the baggage that others attach to their use of that word.
I view my own position has having been shaped in an era during which virtually all of the day-to-day phenomena we experience are explainable by science. While it’s true that there remain unknowns and even unknown unknowns, those blank spaces have been pushed to the margins. Even the well known evangelist Billy Graham, subject of my 2007 biography, has pushed his interpretation of the creation story back 5 billion years. Theism has become marginal. We are living in a post-theist era.
When it is combined with government, theism remains dangerous. The current wars in the mid-east were first cast as a “crusade” by George Bush and continue to have a strong religious component, with the evangelical-led Blackwater a poster-child for all that can go wrong. To the extent that we delude ourselves into believing that “God is on our side,” we leave ourselves open to despotism. We ignore what the Bush administration disparaged as “the reality-based community” at our peril.
Blind belief in the righteousness of our current wars is bankrupting this country while our economy has gone into a tailspin. And while our leaders often cloak their actions with prayer and religious posturing, it is the oil companies and defense contractors who reap profits while our young women and men sacrifice their lives.
And, in regard to death, it is my conclusion that those of us who believe that this is our one and only life are much more likely to value and protect the lives of our brave soldiers and our citizens than those who believe that they will live again in heaven.