What's Being Lost in the Eternal God Debate

The ongoing debate between the so-called "new atheists" and men and women of faith is fascinating and entertaining, stimulating and touching, and funny and serious. But it is time to move on. The atheism-vs.-religion industry is distracting us from the issues we should really be thinking about, issues related to the health and vibrancy of community. And it's not simply a temporary distraction, it's an eternal one. Because by its very nature, the debate cannot be settled.

A recent incarnation of the exchange came in the form of a four-way conversation between authors and atheists Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris on one side, and Rabbis David J. Wolpe and Bradley Shavit Artson on the other. Hosted by the American Jewish University, the
on the question of the afterlife makes for riveting viewing. But a little reflection reveals a fundamental problem with the conversation: While all four thinkers do an admirable job in engaging with the ideas of the others -- with wit and humanity to boot -- each side is ultimately asking different questions.

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.)

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.

Watching effective religious leaders galvanize congregants or Facebook followers or readers, one thing is clear. People are craving human recognition and authentic connection. Houses of worship are one locus for potentially meaningful connection. But there are many others. Neighborhoods anchored by vibrant community centers, well-funded public libraries, public schools with committed parent bodies, recreational heritage sites with enthusiastic staff and volunteers, well-tended public parks -- even the local cafe where people gather to eat, drink, talk and work -- can be important sites for forging relationships, sites that don't rely on the notion of the divine.

When debating Hitchens in the Munk Debates last fall, Tony Blair may well have thought to acknowledge this point and saved himself a lashing from one of the best debaters on the planet. Instead of asking "is religion a force for good?" as the Munk Debates asked, Blair and Hitchens could have poured each other a drink and talked about how to build more effective communities: Blair as a statesman and Hitchens as a man of letters. Democratic politicians need voters; writers need readers. How can we improve a sense of civic obligation? How can we improve broad public literacy? Neither men are clergy, but both are intimately engaged in a form of civic and communal dialogue, a dialogue that when it works, can seem as sublime as any sacred rite.

Religious communities need to ask whether their adherents are treated universally with respect and dignity. Are women treated as equals? Do gay and lesbians have a place where they can express both their faith and their sexual identity? Secular communities, for their part, need to inculcate a sufficient spirit of civic engagement to motivate people to give of their time and resources, and of their hearts, so that those who seek connection are not left to go bowling alone. And all communities need to reach across their constructed boundaries and embrace the stranger in their midst.

In a recent (public) Facebook posting, Rabbi Wolpe seemed to declare that perhaps the time has indeed come to respectfully move on from this debate. "When debating about God or with one another," Wolpe wrote, "analysis carries us only so far. There are things not subject to argument; hearts have the final say. In Shakespeare's King Lear, the King, standing on the heath, asks Gloucester who is blind, 'How do you see the world?' He answers, 'I see it feelingly.'"

So debating whether God exists may ultimately be beside the point. Whether through thought or feeling, reason or emotion, or science or scripture, there is a common cause that binds us. Ultimately it is through collective action that we realize our best selves, and through social identity that we understand who we are. The question is whether our communities are sufficiently nourishing our social selves with dignity and recognition.