The Rise of Fundamentalism, Part II

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 14 March 2007 0 Comments
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My name is James Jensen. I read of you through UU World and recently read
"Sins of Scripture" (excellent book, by the way).

Today, I ran across this article on Wired, entitled, "The Church of
. The
author talks about a so-called "New Atheism," pioneered by Richard Dawkins,
Sam Harris and Daniel Dennet that is quite militant about their non-belief.
They accuse moderate and liberal believers of being essentially accessories
in the harm done by the fundamentalists and radicals.

They make a few good arguments, essentially mentioning the fact that no
politician in this country has declared himself or herself an atheist
because it wouldn't be politically safe to do so. I can also sympathize with
the idea that moderate and liberal believers aren't doing enough to oppose
the fundamentalists, who strike me as not unlike the "Nation of Islam" in
their approach to freedom and justice.

It seems likely to me that this means there is going to be a new
consciousness (as you term it) breaking through soon enough but I am left
wondering whether this will be more of a breakthrough in Christian thinking
or in atheist thinking. In other words, is this the end of religion or
atheism? What's your opinion on the matter?

Personally, I am no longer sure what to believe and while I sympathize with
atheism, it seems to me that without "some" basis in faith for proclaiming
that life is not only good but right, crackpots are going to start thinking
they can "fix" human nature, just like people have thought nature needs to
be "fixed" and made more orderly, resulting, of course, in environmental
destruction. After all both the experience-affirming Carl Rogers and the
utopian-behaviorist B. F. Skinner were chosen Humanist of the Year by the
American Humanist Association.


Thank you for your letter. Religion is for many a vital and
confusing subject and it justifies most of the criticism it receives. If
religion were really about what the Religious Right proclaims, I would want
no part of it. If my only choice was to be a Christian like the Falwells or
the Robertsons, I would find atheism a compelling alternative. I believe
that Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are expressing exactly that.

I met Richard Dawkins when I did some lectures at New College,
Oxford University, several years ago. Just that day I had been reading
Dawkins' book, "The Selfish Gene" at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. I
found it fascinating. It was even more fascinating to discover that we were
seated that night side by side at the High Table. I found the man
personable and charming. Every theologian in England wants to debate him.
Few come out unscathed. There is much irrationality in our God thinking and
Dawkins loves to point it out. Does that mean that there is no reality in
the human search for God? I do not think so. Does it mean that human
definitions of God are always doomed to die? Because they are human
creation I am convinced that they will. The God Richard Dawkins rejects is
the one I also reject. What is in doubt is whether the God to whom I am
drawn is real, whether the human yeaning for the 'Transcendent,' the 'Other'
is real and whether Richard Dawkins' search for truth and my search for God
are in fact the same search, but by different names. That is not so easy to

I have never met Sam Harris. I have read him, read reviews
about him and watched him at great length talk about his book and answer
questions on C-Span. I think his work has articulated what many people
feel. It is difficult for religious people to admit they might be wrong so
when Sam Harris points out the flaws he finds in religious understanding, he
elicits great hostility. Religious threat always produces religious anger.
I found him to be dead set against the abuses he observes in Christianity.
He sees no alternative to those abuses than to attack and rid the world of
Christianity. I think a better alternative is to attack and to rid the
world of that abusive Christianity, which suggests that ultimate truth has
been captured in creedal forms, that God is an angry parent figure in the
sky who wants to punish us but relents and punishes the Divine Son instead,
and that followers of Jesus have the right to hate anyone who disagrees with
them. I have no need or respect for such a religious system or for that
abusive deity. That is also not the God that I believe I engage as a
Christian when I worship.

So I welcome the Dawkins, the Harrises and the Dennets of the
world and believe the Christian Church must be willing to listen to them, to
hear their criticisms and to respond to them with the respect that their
criticisms deserve. When we do that, I believe we will discover that
Christianity can still be a vital and alive force in the 21st century.

My best,

John Shelby Spong




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