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God is a red herring. The question of God’s existence, God’s nature, the issues that bring religions into war with each other or that bring believers and unbelievers into conflict–these all obscure the deeper currents in our philosophical or religious lives. Like the fans of opposing baseball teams, we can get so wrapped up in our rivalries that we lose sight of what we share.
The personality of a sports fan is infinitely more significant and interesting than the team he roots for: is he a hooligan who sees team rivalries as an opportunity for declaring allegiances and brawling? A stats geek who studies the sports pages like a Talmudic scholar? A casual fan who enjoys rooting for the home team but knows it’s all in good fun? An epicure who experiences a display of transcendent athleticism as a vision of the divine manifesting in human form?
You can immediately tell by the hat someone wears or by the moments she cheers at a baseball game what team she roots for; discerning her personality as a sports fan is not so easy. It is increasingly clear that pluralists or moderates of all religions or secular persuasions find more in common with each other than they do with the zealots in their own ostensible camp. But I am not making an argument for moderation and tolerance here. Because as much as the reasonable among us would like to place ourselves at the admirable end of the continuum between open-mindedness and ideational rigidity, there is something strange about the domain of religion, and the zealots may turn out to be more open-minded, in a way, than the moderates.
I know that atheists get offended when people claim that atheism is another religion. I’d like to make a claim like that, but not for the offensive reason that atheists have faith that God doesn’t exist in the same way believers have faith that he does. That’s a misuse of the word faith and a misrepresentation of the ways most atheists reject the idea of God. My claim, rather, is based on my wanting to see religion (which by my understanding might also be called philosophical engagement) as having much less to do with the contents of any specific belief than with the way people interact with those beliefs. What religion is really about, by this view, is the phenomenon of having one’s conceptions of self, others and “the good” reshaped by an encounter with a community, person, book or body of teachings espousing some particular set of these conceptions. Becoming an atheist, especially from a position very different from atheism, can be a cataclysmic shift in a person’s self-conception and conceptions of morality and the world; similar in many ways to a religious conversion.
Seeing moderates and zealots as falling onto a continuum between open-mindedness and ideational rigidity makes sense until you reflect that zealots, fanatics, fundamentalists generally reach their fanaticism through a kind of extreme open-mindedness. Whether the destination is fanaticism or something milder, coming to a new set of beliefs in the domain of religion or philosophy is a process of self-transformation. When potential atheists read Richard Dawkins or potential evangelicals hear a rousing sermon, they take in new ideas, they see the world in a new way, they reshape their view of who they are, their sense of their responsibilities in the world. The affiliation proclaimed by the letter emblazoned on a person’s baseball cap is only the superficial, temporary manifestation of this fluid and mysterious process.
One reason that people can seem or actually be fanatical and unwilling to consider alternatives to their beliefs is exactly because it is so difficult to change in this way. In order to let an idea change you, you have to be willing to let go of certain previous ways of thinking, you have to step into a frightening unknown, and you may have to reject or become blind to alternative ideas, at least for a time. A person in the midst of a personality change is neither fish nor fowl, but if fowl is the direction he’s heading, there’s bound to be a lot of squawking. This process, I claim, is the central concern of human life. But it is painful, frightening, and exhausting, and it all too commonly peters out into an unproductive rigidity: the fanaticism of a person experimenting with new ideas dies down into a static affiliation.
This barely scratches the surface of the dialectic between rigidity and openness to change, but this dialectic is one of the places we should be looking when we think about religious or philosophical engagement, not just at the content of beliefs. The content is not irrelevant, but if that is all we focus on, we convince ourselves that a brawling hooligan in a Nationals cap has more in common with someone who just likes wearing a red hat than with a brawling hooligan in a Yankees cap. We miss the real drama of religious engagement: what stirs us, how it stirs us, how it confuses us, how it may fill us with righteous indignation at one time and boredom at another, and how it may fill us with hope as long as we continue transforming ourselves through engagement with some set of religious or philosophical ideas.
Sigfried Gold writes at Tailored Beliefs and designs interactive data visualization software. Follow him on Twitter: @godforatheists.