Weiner presents lucid, intelligent, well thought-out critiques on God and atheism. But I was reminded of a quote by Paul Johnson while reading his article and listening to the interview:
The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.It strikes me as a bit unaware of the larger world to assume that because some organized versions of a religion present an unyielding absolute version of God that all of the disciples are equally as puritan. Just as many atheists may wonder if something other than physics and evolution are behind the world that we see, most who believe in God are, as he stated, "a combination of conflicting, competing emotions and thoughts." Even Mother Theresa had doubts about her motives, behaviors and faith. It is inconceivable that most of those attending religious services cartoonishly march in lock-step with every edict or precept.
Since our past informs our current opinions, it appears that Weiner has seen a particularly stern strain of religion. Although Weiner has encountered many adherents that are apparently awful advertisements for a loving, caring God, I wonder how much of Weiner's antipathy for religion is a function of his dislike of standards. Many religions are necessarily collections of standards that are enforced by a judging God.
Judgment in and of itself is not a bad thing. Anybody who believes that maintaining laws and law enforcement concedes as much. And some sects are more focused on a system of standards and judgment by a God that is interested in such things. Maybe Weiner has only been proselytized by the fire and brimstone crowd. But let's not therefore do away with proselytizing. As Penn Jillette has noted,
I am a huge fan of proselytizing. I am a huge fan of speaking your mind. The only way we can share the universe...is by talking very strongly about what we believe.In spite of Weiner's experience that suggests a God that is "constantly judging and smiting, and so are his followers," what would he prefer? (Apparently he hasn't spent time with people who appreciate such things as Jesus Laughing.) That they remain quiet on the issue? That they keep it personal and solitary? If they really believe that there is a God that has standards and that not following those standards will result in bad outcomes in the afterlife, is it not the height of love, compassion and caring to at least inform those with whom they have contact?
Again, it seems somewhat myopic for Weiner to act as though the world has only now begun to wrestle with issues of doubt. Certainly he may be wondering how he fits into the larger picture, but the vast majority of those who call themselves believers question their beliefs, faith, commitment and understanding of their chosen sect or denomination. In this he is not alone.
This is true for professing atheists as well. Just as with politics, the vast majority occupy the mushy middle. Acolytes tend to become the leaders precisely because they are passionate about the purity of the institution (e.g., ministers, scientists, politicians...)1. The rest of us muddle around on the continuum that defines the distance between the absolutism of True Believers and Angry Atheists, to use Weiner's terms. Just as there are few hair-shirted religious fanatics, there are very few actual atheists.
Weiner concludes that "I think you can be a man of reason and you can be a man of faith." I wonder if Weiner's inability to consider this previously is a function of the insularity of the American university ghetto. To note that "Its good to know that I am not the only one out there who sort of falls into this category without a name, where you consider yourself rational and reasonable but you also believe intuitively that there is more to the world than meets the eye," suggests that heretofore he has not encountered such people. However, my experience is that most "believers" fall squarely in this category. His comment probably says more about his journey than it does about the existence of rational, reasonable believers.
Getting beyond Weiner's apparent 'glib assumption' that this is a somehow a new phenomenon, it is refreshing to hear an intelligent defense of 'seeking' by a self-identified secular intellectual. He notes that the current ethos in "secular, east coast, elite liberal American tribe" is to think that it is not cool to believe in God and that the religious are narrow-minded and not as bright as the secularist.2
Weiner questions the smugness of secularism by noting that "saying now that we have science there is no need for religion, is like saying that now that we have the microwave oven we have no need for Shakespeare." This gets to the notion that many secularists are quite dogmatic and see the two concepts, science and religion, as mutually exclusive. Again, to follow Johnson's admonition, history does not bear this out. Many religious thinkers, from Newton to Einstein to Copernicus, did not share the idea that science and religion are not compatible. And it is equally as unlikely that the current perceived exclusivity is anything other than the current generation's awareness of the issues. When viewed in light of history, the science-in-place-of-religion non-sequitur has been around as long as science and religion. It is a fairly arrogant idea to think that it is only now, in this generation, that we are smart enough to contemplate the coexistence of science and religion.
Weiner went on to note that "reason makes a wonderful servant, but a poor master." He concedes that science has little to say about how to live our lives in morally significant ways. "Science doesn't help us live our life. It doesn't help us get through a nasty divorce. It doesn't help us get through an illness." Ultimately, as Prager noted, "It doesn't help us know right from wrong." "Science doesn't say 'Do not murder.' Science says survival of the fittest." Hitler may have been the ultimate example of what science may have to say about treatment of others. So one might easily conclude that science is necessary, but not sufficient.
1 This is not intended to suggest that all of those who move toward leadership of the identified groups are unyielding zealots. Again, as with the rank and file of religions or politics, the vast majority enter those pursuits for other reasons.
2 It is always easier to dismiss the worth, humanity or intellect of the opposition. It allows the accuser to dismissively look down his nose and not deal with the arguments. One does not argue with the morally or intellectually inferior. And neither side has a monopoly on this behavior. The religious and the secular left are just as likely to dismiss others out of hand.