In 1961-62, Samuel H. Miller delivered a series of talks as part of the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School (published in 1963 as The Dilemma of Modern Belief). One of these lectures, titled “The Point of Religious Atheism,” argues that atheism exists merely because humankind can no longer “see” God in our modern times. Nearly 50 years later, I reject such an apologist view of religious atheism.
Miller begins his lecture quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote in his Letters from Prison, “our coming of age forces us to a true recognition of our situation vis-a-vis God, in the God is teaching us that we must live as men [sic] who can get along very well without him.” Adding to the list the names of Buber, Nietzsche, and Dostoyevski, Miller lays the groundwork for an era of godforsakeness, in which God has simply vacated the premises, or in which the modern lenses of human vision are too sophisticated to view the subtle presence of the divine.
Miller cites Joseph Wood Krutch, who in the Preface to his 1929 book The Modern Temper wrote of that age, “one of its most distinguishing features is just its inability to achieve either religious belief on the one hand, or exultant atheism, on the other.” Miller builds upon this and other writers to conclude that modern religious atheism as practiced by skeptics, unbelievers, and others indifferent to sacred presences means merely the religious experience of the death of God.
In the next section of his lecture, Miller begins with the assertion moving to its potential requires that modern religious atheism move beyond “staring blinding at the shocking idea of rejecting God” and merely criticizing predominant opinions about God. I could not agree more. The New Atheist authors, such as Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris do masterful jobs of shocking their readers with a preponderance of evidence why a belief in God is unfounded and why organized religion threatens human society. Perhaps such scare tactics fit the era of the Holocaust and nuclear nightmares. But, I believe that many of today’s seekers wants more than non-belief and validation for the rejection of the faith of their childhood or of the dominant social paradigm.
For me, the simple paradigm is this. Every child is born an atheist. We are taught to believe in God; we are taught to believe that morality derives from faith in a deity who prescribes rules for our behavior; we are taught that our natural human imperfections somehow require us to fill the gaps in our understanding of and experiencing of the universe with some sacred spirit or presence whose existence is unproven and unprovable.
We are taught, at least in Western traditions, that theism and religion are inseparable. Therein lies the future of religious atheism for me. I believe in the value of living in religious covenant with my fellow humans and with the world about me. I believe in courageously using the force of our human reason toward compassionate purpose. I believe in religion without god.