I spent a year studying theology at Oxford. I focused on the relationship between religion and science (lots of Galileo and Darwin and William James), but couldn’t help learning a lot about the Bible along the way. I went in pretty unimpressed by Jesus (I’m a Jew who doesn’t believe in God), but left the program convinced that Bush is essentially right*: Jesus is a fantastic philosopher, like Buddha if the Buddha had been influenced by Neo-Platonism. (In other words, worldly wealth is vanity and the secret to life is compassion.)
So I tend to ignore those atheist voices who bemoan the obvious flaws with religion, especially at the extremes, while neglecting the essential wisdom contained within our religious texts. This eloquent letter to Andrew Sullivan pretty much captured my feelings on the subject:
I would describe my own embrace of science and secular humanism as being motivated by a form of faith that is deeper than Christian faith. I believe that if Jesus lived today, he would be a secular humanist and would reject Christianity, just as he “rejected” Judaism and inspired Christianity. Christianity was once the vehicle for the boldest and most honest thinking about reality, the brotherhood of man, and the human condition. I think in light of the advances in science and our exposure to other religious traditions, it is time again to humanize further our understanding of “God” (or the source of all truth, goodness, and beauty) and come to a more universal understanding of religion.
I feel that I have lost nothing by rejecting the doctrines of Christianity. Rather, I have rediscovered what it means to have true faith and true understanding by embracing humanism and science. Humanism then does not reject Christianity, it completes it. Paul was wrong. Our faith is not foolish if Jesus is not literally and physically risen from the dead. We know our faith is true, because we know that death has not defeated him. As a humanist, I do not discard the rich legacy and richness of the Christian tradition, rather I claim to be the true heir to the Christian patrimony. Christians embrace a shallower version of Jesus. I know this because I continue to be transformed by Jesus’s love and he continues to inspire my humanist faith – faith that there is yet some good in this earth, that we can all be redeemed by love, and that we should all choose life and should try to live it fully in a spirit of peace and brotherhood with all mankind. It makes no difference to me whether Jesus was born of virgin or rose bodily from his grave after three days. These are signs that the wicked demand because they do not have the heart to see the divine in Jesus and in all of us without such signs. Blessed are those who follow Jesus not having seen and without any need for signs and wonders.
Read the whole thing, and then come back here and discuss. I’m pretty convinced that you can replace “Jesus” with “Yahweh,” “Allah,” “Buddha,” etc. and end up with a similar idea. Certainly, such a secular religiosity requires selective interpretation. I don’t endorse stoning adulterers, or banishing homosexuals. I also like bacon and lobster. But all things considered, I believe that our religious texts are essential historical documents that can teach us much about how to live the good life.
In a related vein, one of my favorite science books from last year was The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt. He basically reinterprets the wisdom of various religious and ancient philosophical texts in terms of modern psychology and neuroscience. Turns out that the Buddha, the Stoics and Jesus were pretty accurate armchair psychologists.
*I should note that, unlike Bush, Jesus isn’t my favorite philosopher.