How Atheist Values Help Correct Religion's Mistakes

Spiritual teacher Rob Bell believes that atheism is eroding certain religious teachings, and it's a good thing.

Rob Bell:  The beautiful things about a thinking atheist which I think most atheists are thinking – I should say that again. The beautiful thing about atheism is just the refusal to believe in something that’s destructive or misguided or bad for the world. And some gods should be rejected. What I find so fascinating is how many people I know or how many of my friends who are atheists when we talk about the god that they don’t believe in, I don’t believe in that god either. And some people who when you will ask them so you’re an atheist. Tell me about the god you don’t believe it. And they tell you about the image of god they were handed perhaps growing up. You think the only healthy response to that image of the divine would be atheism. Rejection of that.

So religion has done horrible things in the world. A lot of violence has been done in the name of god. And the atheist says I refuse to participate in something that brings destruction and chaos to the world. Now the really interesting thing to me is what do you do with wonder, mystery and awe? What do you do with all of the fascinating cosmology, quantum physics? What do you do with all of the fascinating things where we keep learning new things or human consciousness? Who is the me that stands of observation of me? What does it mean to be a self? Where is personhood located? So I begin with our great mysteries and the idea of a divine being who is somehow guiding the whole thing takes a leap. Of course it takes a leap. But what I find fascinating is none of us have slaves. And a generation ago we did. So a couple of generations ago in America people did. So what is it about something that was a standard cultural practice that we now say that is wrong and unjust. Or you think about women’s rights or the rights of our LGBT brothers and sisters. How many people do you know offer their children as sacrifice? None. And yet that was a normative practice in the ancient world. So what is it about the human story – we’ve been here what – 13.8 billion years?

What is it about the human story that things that people used to consider normal standard cultural practices we now look back on and say how primitive, how barbaric, how wrong, how unjust, how violent. And so the moment we say that look how far we’ve come. We all go yeah, but we also have a long way to go. We also have a care for the environment. We also have all sorts of things where we still have a long, long way to go. So when I affirm both movement from the past forward but the need to keep going what is that arc? Like that trajectory? Why do we all have a sense that the whole thing is being pulled forward not quickly enough we probably would also agree. Where does that come from? Where does an expanding universe in which we keep moving forward in our understanding of what it means for human beings to live in proper relationship with each other? What do you call that? And that’s the really interesting thing. I’m fine if somebody doesn’t want to use the word god because that word can be all loaded down but you at least have to acknowledge something’s going on here. And when somebody says nothing’s happening here. We’re all just a collection of ourselves and synapses and biology. Really? Really? I think there’s something going on here.

There is a huge difference between the modern god of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, and the old gods of the Ancient Greek and Roman ideologies. In the ancient religions, gods were known to have pretty tangible personalities. There was this idea that the Greeks made gods out of their heroes, and humans out of their gods. In sculptures, men like Hercules are depicted standing strong and proud, but when it comes to the goddess Nike, they show her trying to fix her shoe, so human that she has trouble keeping her laces tied.

This was because the ancient peoples believed that gods were vengeful. They could be cruel, selfish, and vain. They could be competitive, leading to the wars, earthquakes, and plagues. In the modern idea of god, especially in the three aforementioned religions, god is kind, all-knowing, and all-loving (although admittedly with some elements of heavy wrath in the early days).

Atheists and agnostics then have a question. If god is kind, why is there sickness? Why do things like eye-worms exist? Why are there hurricanes and earthquakes? It is easy to understand why when there is a vain goddess like Aphrodite, who wants to knock a few women off their pedestals, but when god is kind, it makes less sense. Rob Bell, author of How to be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living has a very good point. Atheists have done a lot to move society forward, and one can even think of their refusal to believe as a gift.

Many people have gone to war for their god. People have died over their personal beliefs, and it is quite heartbreaking, to think of every person who has died in the name of god, whichever god that may be. But the common atheist looks at that, looks at all the death, and all the people who have had rights refused to them in the name of religion, and says, ‘No. I think there may be another way. I have too many questions to go with that.’ This ‘no’ speaks to a certain tenderness in their heart, and Rob Bell says that religion listens. Atheists push religion to refine itself and become better, to adapt to modern times.

Rob Bell's newest book is How to Be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living.

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