Commentary: Can atheism coexist with tolerance?

The Middle Eastern chaos driven by ISIS’s claim to speak for Islam seems tailor made for atheist claims that the world would be better off without religion. At the very least one must admire the determination necessary to believe the eradication of faith possible given the monumental task. In addition to the fact that Earth’s so-called big three religions — Christianity, Islam and Judaism — claim almost five of the Earth’s 7 billion inhabitants as followers, other significant factors do not bode well for John Lennon’s imagined religion-less society.

First, faith has proven impervious to threat. Whether speaking of pogroms against Jews, the persecution of Christians, or Muslim oppression under colonialism, religion’s refusal to die in the face of force is evident. Often, with the exception of ethnic-centered Judaism, opposition fuels the flame of revival.

A second factor is the failure of scientific advances to disprove God. Evolution, long thought to be the death knell of religious convictions, is proving inadequate in current articulations to fully explain human origins. As a result, many in mainstream science, including “Language of God” author Francis Collins, current director of the National Institutes of Health, embrace evolution as God’s method for creating the world. Evolution is increasingly viewed as a God/and, rather than a God/or, proposition by noteworthy biologists and astronomers.

Third, Hollywood, a recent, but important ally in perpetuating negative religious stereotypes so necessary to the atheist mission, seems to be wavering in its anti-God rhetoric. Biblical epics like “Exodus,” “Noah,” and “The Son of God,” coupled with the “Bible” and “A.D.” television series, are evidence of that change. Though the doctrinal elements and historic accuracy of these projects are challenged, the fact remains the entertainment world no longer seems as biased as it once was.

Professions of faith by athletes, entertainers, or politicians, and God’s name invoked with each and every national crises suggests the end of faith is nowhere in sight. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, in their book “God is Back,” summarize these thoughts. “The very things that were supposed to destroy religion — democracy and markets, technology and reason — are combining to make it stronger.”

But perhaps atheism’s principal obstacle is the influence of pluralism, best personified by the “Coexist” bumper sticker. Although logically inconsistent in understanding varying belief systems, Coexist is admirable in its call for peaceful religious expression. It at least recognizes and offers the First Amendment tolerance of religious views. Does atheism boast the same tolerance? It doesn’t seem to consistently do so.

For example, when faced with ISIS-like atrocities, pluralists note the practitioner’s inconsistency to the faith they profess; the faith is not at fault, people within it are. Outspoken atheists seem incapable of this allowance and cry for religion’s abolition. Not satisfied with wrongdoer’s being labeled and punished accordingly, nor with a particular fringe group being scrutinized for dangerous errors, religion itself is proclaimed the culprit. All faith, even that which has demonstrated far more good than harm, must be done away with.

What a contrast to the vision of the Founding Fathers regarding religious freedoms. Persuasion based on dialogue rather than force through the free exchange of ideas. Quoting “God is Back” again (incidentally co-authored by an atheist); “Secularists need to recognize the enemy is not religion and believers need to recognize religion flourishes best in a world of free choice.” Atheists are granted that choice; it is unclear whether they consistently extend it to others.

While pluralism has its own obstacles, atheism’s greatest challenge may come from its own desolate point of view. Nothing behind us but raw evolutionary chance; nothing beyond us but cold, dark, lonely space, (unless we embrace star seed theories that provide more beings, but no more answers). And nothing before us as individuals except a slow slide to our eventual demise and the loss of all we know or have done.

Little wonder that despite Bertrand Russell, Voltaire, and hundreds of other atheistic luminaries, religious belief in something, or someone, beyond ourselves lives on.

William Shifflett is an Edinburg resident.