Blessing of Atheism, By Samir Selmanovic

Posted on January 18th, 2010 | Filed under Best Practices/Non-Profit, Faith and Politics, InterViews


Excerpt from It's Really All About God taken with the permission of the author.

My wife and I married on June 30, 1990. We also married the next day, on July 1, 1990. My largely secular atheistic family could not fathom the idea of going to a church wedding, talking to my church friends, hearing church talk. They considered themselves so open-minded that they could not conceive of associating with the pious crowd of my wife’s family and my new friends. My wife’s family, on the other side, did not complain. Actually, they were relieved. It meant they did not have to worry about what they considered twin evils of the world: alcohol and dancing….

Both [families] assumed that atheists and believers must be enemies. It was obvious to both sides that one of them must be terribly wrong. ….Somehow, the separation of human life into two camps made sense to people. This was not simply a fear born of social awkwardness. Things went much deeper. History, philosophy, science, and architecture had been erecting the walls of separation for centuries.…

We religious people tend to avoid, ridicule, or threaten atheists in a number of ways. We say, most readily, that atheism is just another religion. Since one must believe something in order to doubt something else, all atheists are believers. “Therefore,” my Christian peers argue, “atheism has its own objects and ways of worship, its own dogma to teach, and its own priests trying to evangelize others into their either-or choices and—like any other religious fundamentalists—with the same tone of certainty and contempt for others.” Atheism, as they see it, insists on forcing a choice between rational and emotional knowing, between the science of life and the mystery of life, calling humanity to an apocalyptic showdown between faith and reason. It wants to clean up the world of those who disagree and create a public square devoid of any options but its own…..

Atheism at its best participates. It does not simply dismiss religion but engages with it constructively so that the world is better for it. It is an expression of faith in humanity, even faith in religious humanity—however misguided they might be, religious people are human too!—asking the difficult but legitimate questions that religious people dismiss, about scientific evidence ignored by religion, about historical facts forgotten by religion, and about suffering produced by religion. Atheism at its best questions religion while acknowledging the good it brings…..

Atheism at its best is a guardian of secularization, a process of creating a common and safe space where worldviews—including religious ones—can share their treasures and expose themselves to correction by others. It demands that every religion should have the whole of humanity, not just religious insiders, as its ethical community.

Atheists are God’s whistle-blowers.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam need atheists, both those who are constructive and those who are less so. Religion deserves to be challenged. This deserving is of two types. First, religion deserves the pain of criticism and correction because of its failures to live up to its own ideals. Second, religion deserves the blessing of criticism and correction because it has often been a precious catalyst for justice, peace, and beauty in the world.….

God does not have an ego that can be wounded by our disbelief about God’s existence. God, I suggest, would prefer a world where humans love and care for each other and this planet even at the expense of acknowledging God, rather than believing in and worshiping God at the expense of caring for one another and the world....

In the name of all the clergy, theologians, and believers who have ever said such a thing, I profusely apologize to my atheist friends, family, and readers. Please forgive. Quite the contrary, you bless our world.

Does religion own virtue?

Are religious people more likely to be the protectors of the earth’s resources, more likely to believe in nonviolent solutions to world problems, and more likely to care for the poor and the oppressed?

The obvious answer to these questions is no. To which many religious people respond, “Yes, but this is just because the sense of right and wrong of atheists is feeding off of centuries of the development of morality and ethics nurtured by religion. Once that storehouse of tradition is used up, secular societies are going to fall victim to their inherent vacuum of values. If we don’t do something, it will all blow up in our faces.”

Maybe.

Or maybe the world would be better off with less religion. Or maybe religion needs to transform itself in order to contribute anew to the storehouses of virtue. Or maybe humanism has its own way to supply virtue to our life together. We don’t know. But we do know this: atheists have been blessing the earth and its people. This is an empirical truth. And we religious people should look more deeply into our own ethical responsibility to acknowledge what is true....

We organized our two weddings without the conviction and courage to stand up together against forces that thrive on dividing human life.

Yet, there were exceptions at our two wedding parties. My uncle Franc and his wife, Gordana, who came from Germany for the occasion, stepped over the line and attended our religious wedding. ….Also, I smuggled several of my Christian friends into our first wedding, … including Tihomir Žestić, a friend who cared for me and taught me about God….

At this party, he crossed the line and danced with the atheist crowd, risking his entrance to Paradise. Since Seventh-day Adventists are seriously dance-challenged, he found great difficulty translating music into body movements....

But the beauty of the sight of him energetically celebrating life with unbelievers with such abandonment brought me to tears. My atheist friends loved it. It was the best dancing I have ever seen!

514668279_1000Samir Selmanovic, Ph.D., grew up in an intellectual urban atheist milieu in the capital of Croatia in a European Muslim family. In his youth, he was immersed in existential literature and has produced modern theater projects with system-subversive overtones such as the works of Bertolt Brecht and George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

3 Responses to “Blessing of Atheism, By Samir Selmanovic”

  1. Nancy Kaufmann says:

    I’ve just come back from Pakistan where the Christian American, as I was, finds himself enveloped in Islam. There’s no question in my mind: we’d all be better off if we separated religion and culture. The basic ideas of Islam such as equality, charity, and reconciliation are so close to Christian ideals of love for one’s enemy, humility, and consideration for others that I realized how unfortunate it is that there are cultural trappings lopped on both God-systems (I’ll call it that.) so that we end up mistrustful of one another.

    Letting go of “God” would be a good step in letting us see our common Humanistic beliefs. Maybe more inter-religious marriages like yours would be a step in the right direction.

  2. Samir Selmanovic says:

    Thanks Nancy,

    Separating religion and culture seems quite daunting, I don’t know where would one even start.

    Cheers,

    Samir

  3. Jane D. says:

    Since Atheists, by definition, flatly don’t believe in ‘God’ surely they must find it ironic when you call them “God’s Whistle-blowers.” I would have thought that title more aptly suited to the questioning doubting Agnostics. But if you’re seeking to change the definition of Atheism because you think they’re being persecuted, it’s no big deal to me.

    However, as a person of Faith, when you start talking about what God wants or expects from mankind, I think you are talking off the top of your head when you don’t back it up from a theological point of view. When you make an argument give it some foundation from somewhere other than your own or your friends’ opinions.
    You state: “God does not have an ego that can be wounded by our disbelief about God’s existence.” I don’t know what your particular religion is but God DOES have an ego as expressed in The Christian Bible. In both the Old and the New Testament God DOES want us to believe in Him, heart and soul. Further, Islam also holds its followers to a belief in Allah, the Bible, and the words of the Prophet Mohammed. Jews also believe in God, (Father of Abraham who entered into a covenant with his chosen people.) Again, in these religions, followers are cautioned to believe in a ONE true God, and there are consequences for not believing or for worshiping idols. Yet you state something about God’s sense of self that billions around the world don’t know.

    Further, when you suggest “A world where humans love and care for each other and this planet even at the expense of acknowledging God, rather than believing in and worshiping God at the expense of caring for one another and the world” you are essentially espousing a humanist viewpoint. Such thinking is hardly novel, yet I feel sure there will be those who think your take is fresh and new. You should, at least, be honest with your readers about which philosophers have influenced your thinking.

    On a personal note from my own religious studies, your longed-for world of love and caring minus God is not a possibility to believers—whether they be Christian, Hindu, Buddist, Muslim, Jew or Jainists, believers know mankind is seriously flawed. That is why, in every religion there is a mandate for the believer to correct his/her human nature so his/her soul can achieve a better goodness.

    To put it another way, the very foundation of all religions is the sincere belief that man can’t achieve a better nature without help and guidance from a higher power. That’s the similarity of religions.

    But, it is not the similarity of religions that is ultimately most important. No, it’s the DIFFERENCE that is important. Indeed, if not for difference why wouldn’t we all just worship and follow ONE religion? Only Atheists, Agnostics, or shallow members of a religion would recognize no distinctions. Serious followers of a faith know those distinctions; they know WHAT they believe, WHY they believe and how it’s DIFFERENT from what others believe (or don’t believe in the case of Atheists) To NOT KNOW is to be simple minded or lazy about your spirituality.

    So, real and meaningful religious faith boils down to this: We can’t believe all religions are right because to believe in everything is to believe in nothing. We must have faith that our particular religion is the right path, otherwise we might as well spin a wheel or reach into a hat and pick one at random.

    While we can and should treat all people kindly, there’s just no sense in blurring the obvious; each religion has specific precepts based on long traditions of study and enunciation of doctrine. And just as surely, each religion impacts the cultures surrounding it. Based on your excerpt, what you would like to see is a watering down of all religions so the impact on all cultures is minimal. Of course, as you know, you aren’t the first to that world.