Permit me an amusing juxtaposition.
Here’s Mira Sucharov, a political scientist at Carleton University in Canada, explaining why atheists and religious folks often talk past each other:
Put simply, believers are asking the question, “Can a commitment to contemplating the sacred help us better appreciate the everyday?” (They reply yes.) And atheists are asking the question, “Is the existence of God plausible from the standpoint of reason?” (They reply no.)
And here’s what happened to a pastor in North Carolina for suggesting that hell was not a place of eternal torment:
When Chad Holtz lost his old belief in hell, he also lost his job.
The pastor of a rural United Methodist church in North Carolina wrote a note on his Facebook page supporting a new book by Rob Bell, a prominent young evangelical pastor and critic of the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal torment for billions of damned souls.
Two days later, Holtz was told complaints from church members prompted his dismissal from Marrow’s Chapel in Henderson.
“I think justice comes and judgment will happen, but I don’t think that means an eternity of torment,” Holtz said. “But I can understand why people in my church aren’t ready to leave that behind. It’s something I’m still grappling with myself.”
Fundamentalists are rightly excoriated for pretending that theirs is the only acceptable form of religion. But it is hardly an improvement when academics suggest that real religion is high-minded and metaphorical and intellectually deep, with the more commonplace version being a distracting side show. I have no doubt that some believers are asking Sucharov’s question. But a great many others are more concerned with policing the boundaries of acceptable belief and coming down with such power as they have against those who demur.
Sucharov’s essay is about strengthening communities. She writes:
However well-intentioned and well-executed, debating whether the world is solely material, social and psychological, or whether it is also imbued with divine force, is ultimately a dialogue of the deaf. Instead, what we all should be asking is: How can we improve the experience of membership within our various communities and across them — whether religious or secular?
At their core, communities are collections of individuals looking for meaning and connection. Both types of communities try to make sense of the world. But secular communities are held together by the glue of reason and intellect, while religious communities add symbols and practices that attempt to transmit a sense of awe.
I am all in favor of strengthening communities and embracing those of different views. But Sucharov’s rather generous description of religion simply ignores a rather important fact. In large swaths of the United States religion is a huge source of strife and division. It looks far more like that community in North Carolina than it does anything of interest to academic theologians or philosophers of religion.
How can we improve the experience of membership within our various communities? We can start by recognizing that religion is a big part of the reason so many people’s experiences need improving in the first place.