Hard-line atheists and religious fundamentalists are not really so far apart as either side would like to believe.
I thought about this as I listened to astrophysicist Adam Frank on a recent episode of the public radio show, “To The Best of Our Knowledge”. Frank is an unapologetic atheist. He is also the author of Constant Fire: Beyond the Science and Religion Debate. He does not believe in God—but unlike more strident and simplistic non-believers, he refuses to reduce religion to an atavistic and irrelevant body of fanatical doctrines and practices. Adam Frank told the interviewer: “When you say science and religion to people, the first thing they think of is Richard Dawkins arguing with a southern evangelist about evolution, and that (argument) has gone on for so long and it just sucks all the air out of the room. You know there is absolutely nothing interesting that is going to happen in that debate.”
Why, exactly, is that old debate so stale and boring? Because each side comes across as a kind of parody of itself. On the one hand, there is an arrogant and fanatically-materialistic scientist, and on the other, an arrogant and fanatically-pious preacher. The two think that they represent polar opposites—but in fact, on the critical issue of how to read Scripture, they completely agree. Both are simplistic literalists. The fundamentalist takes the Bible as God’s word, dictated letter by letter, and concludes (to quote a bumper sticker): “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” The atheist reads it exactly the same way—and on this reading, dismisses it as utter nonsense.
But progressive people of faith—and open-minded scientists—will acknowledge that there is another way, which is to interpret our religious texts non-literally. We see our traditions as full of irony, paradox, humor, and, above all, metaphor. We read God-language as poetry rather than as (bad) science. The truth of our sacred texts is not literal or historical; it is spiritual and psychological. I, for one, do not know if Moses ever actually lived. Nor do I care. His physical existence is irrelevant to my faith. Moses is my teacher because, as the foremost character in my tradition’s great story, he informs me how to live and lead. Or, as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner puts it: “Torah is not true because it happened. Torah is true because it happens—to us.”
The philosopher Paul Ricoeur suggests that there are three stages in a progressive approach to faith and holy texts. First we believe on a literal level. Then, as we learn more about science and history, our sacred “myths” are broken. But later still, as we reach maturity, we can once again embrace our traditions’ stories—precisely as myths, which define and bring beauty to our world. As Ricoeur puts it, “Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again.”
Neither the fire and brimstone fundamentalists nor the strident atheists believe in my God, who is the Source of both science and the spirit. She is a lot more complicated and ambiguous than many would like. She does not speak in one voice or language. What She asks of me is not always clear. My calling, as a person of progressive faith, is to learn and live this.