Doc Searls isn’t the first person one thinks to quote in a discussion on salvation, but he opened a discussion yesterday (scroll down to “Thoughts on salvation”) by engaging an article by Chris Hedges (Wikipedia Entry).

Still, I find myself contemplating the mystery of faith, the “feast of salvation” Pentecost celebrates, and “salvation” itself. Especially after reading Chris Hedges: I Don’t Believe in Atheists, which I found via Ryan Bell’s post by the same title. Ryan quotes Hedges at length, (which I am about to do as well, since most of Hedges’ writing — unlike the straightforward reporting that won him many honors as a war correspondent — is hard not to quote), then adds, I’m realizing more and more that our world (especially the upper and upper-middle class, highly educated portion of the world) is full of (sometimes angry) atheists. I felt so sad about these easy caricatures of religion and religious people. These “caricatures” and other broad characterizations are easy to paint when so much evil has been done for what we call “religious reasons”.

One thing that makes Chris Hedges’ case so interesting for me is that he draws a sharp distinction between the kind of religion that does evil and the kind that does good. In debating the atheist Sam Harris, Hedges goes so far as to suggest that the evil kind of religion is not religion at all:

Sam Harris has conflated faith with tribalism. His book is an attack not on faith but on a system of being and believing that is dangerous and incompatible with the open society. He attacks superstition, a belief in magic and the childish notion of an anthropomorphic God that is characteristic of the tribe, of the closed society. He calls this religion. I do not.

Among many other things I’ll resist quoting, Hedges adds,

This individualism—the belief that we can exist as distinct beings from the tribe, or the crowd, and that we are called on as individuals to make moral decisions that at times defy the clamor of the tribe or the nation—is a gift of the Abrahamic faiths. This sense of individual responsibility is coupled with the constant injunctions in Islam, Judaism and Christianity for a deep altruism. And this laid the foundations for the open society. This individualism is the central doctrine and most important contribution of monotheism. We are enjoined, after all, to love our neighbor, not our tribe. This empowerment of individual conscience is the starting point of the great ethical systems of our civilization. The prophets—and here I would include Jesus—helped institutionalize dissent and criticism. They initiated the separation of powers. They reminded us that culture and society were not the sole rerogative of the powerful, that freedom and indeed the religious life required us to often oppose and defy those in authority. This is a distinctly anti-tribal outlook.

Ed Brenegar has responded; here’s what I said:

Thanks for highlighting this, Doc.

I think you’re right in some of your questions — the Christian faith assures an afterlife, but I think most proponents have historically been just a bit too dogmatic (as in many areas) about what precisely that looks like.

I agree with Hedges on the false definition of religion (“the evil kind”). The Bible goes so far as to tell us what true “religion” is supposed to look like, but in most (I won’t say all!) quarters, judging God by his adherents is typically a bad idea. For the record, it’s worth noting that Landover Baptist (which as a Christian I love, btw) is satire, a parody. The really scary thing is how much of it is not obviously satirical.

With or without the straw man argument, I also don’t get atheism… which essentially asserts the negative certainty of something that cannot be proven because it cannot be proven. A bit circular if you ask me. Agnostic, sure… but I agree it’s hard to believe in atheists. I’m off to chew through the Hedges article more slowly.

You’ll want to read the rest of Doc’s thoughts and determine to block off some additional time to read Chris Hedges article on truthdig. As I think about it, Richard Dawkins has been getting a lot of press lately with The God Delusion, and the atheism debate has been coming up more lately, at least in my field of view. I’m personally not of the opinion that existence-of-God debates or creationism debates, or most other apologetic debates are all that fruitful. Jesus’ model seemed to be simply answering questions, not arguing the veracity of his positions on them. As modernity increasingly gives way to a culture that’s more at ease with uncertainty, I wonder how long dogmatic atheism can flourish? Could it be that the same culture shift that is starting to produce a “softer” church may also produce “softer” atheists? While a significant adjustment must be made by the most dogmatic members of the Christian faith in order to engage with the the new agnostics (i.e., the people formerly known as atheists), I think I might perhaps see the makings of fruitful conversation brewing in the not-too-distant future. But in the spirit of uncertainty, I could be wrong. What do you think?

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