There are no atheists in foxholes, or so the old saying goes. The original understanding of the maxim was that, in times of danger, everyone resorts to religion. But it might mean the opposite as well, that, absent religion, people are less likely to fight. If that were the case, it would be a good argument for atheism. Even God would prefer an empty foxhole to full church.
I believe the question of religion is not so simple as believing in God or not. Everyone of us, regardless of our beliefs, is in the grip of primal forces, animal, elemental and communal, to which we must make peace if we are to grow out of our true soil. If we ignore the affects of these tectonic forces in our lives we are living largely in our imagination whether we are guided by scripture or the periodic chart.
Getting back to the subject of atheists and foxholes, I would say all religion, theist or not, contains seeds, which if allowed to blossom, will lead us to violence. The seven deadly sins of religion are: literalism, sectarianism, magical thinking,”concretizing,” appeals to fear, hierarchy and scapegoating. We do not automatically leave these problems behind when we say we have rejected organized religion.
Appeals to fear- Our human brains react very differently to fear and to hope. Among primates, it is very easy to become a leader if one is good at pointing out the enemies of a group. Unfortunately, for humans, the fear factor works almost as well with invented threats. It is easy to spot the scapegoating of the major world religions, but it has been interesting to witness how many of the new atheists have used fear of religion as effectively and skillfully as any televangelist has used fear of atheism.
Sectarianism- It seems harmless to be proud of one’s group, but unless that group is consecrated to the common good, it becomes a cancer cell in the one body of our common humanity. Obviously, when Christians claim Jesus is the only way to salvation, they are appealing to this human frailty, but when some atheists call themselves “brights” and assume that all religious people are taking their symbols literally, they may have fallen into this same “us against them” trap.
Literalism- Again, it seems harmless to take a text literally, but if believers lose a sense of their own subjectivity and think they are looking objectively at what God really means in the Bible, intolerance is not far away. But how is that different than a rationalist who tries to reduce an ambiguouis universe to the catagories of human language? Is not the universe, at a certain depth, a mystery to us all? As Paul said, when it comes to reality, we humans are looking through a glass darkly. Science is a wonderful corrective lens, but we are still looking through our telescopes through primate eyes.
Magical Thinking- When we see the world not as it is, but as we would have it be, we have left the one world we can share. If we do not test our every belief there will be trouble. But if materialists ever think they have left behind this human weakness, the same troubles will enter through a different door. An unthinking trust in technology, or in economic markets, can be every bit as magical as a rabbit’s foot.
Concretizing- “Concretizing” is a word I made up to describe what happens when we try to reduce all input to what we can sense. For a child, it may be clutching to a teddy bear. To an adult religionist, it might be prayer beads or wanting to believe the symbols of religion are physically and historically real. To the non-theist it might be holding to a clinical empiricism to avoid the agonies of being fully human. One does not have to become superstitious to realize there is more to human experience than we can reduce to our senses.
Hierarchy- A pecking order is formed when we make heroes, or codify social roles for different kinds of people. We easily see this sin when a Pope puts on a big hat or a clergy tells women to stay home and make babies. It can be harder to spot this trait when an academician dons the gown of an academic hierarchy or a brilliant philosopher puts a believer in his or her “place.”
Scapegoating- “Scapegoating” is perhaps the deadliest of the deadly sins. When a clergy blames atheism for the ills of the country, or when an atheist uses religion as a synonym for “stupid” instead of specifying the actual words and actions they have in mind, this religious trait is alive and well.
I believe religion to be the art of putting our worldview together. Lots of religions are non-theist, some of them are scientific, but all of them speak from a depth of living that we cannot put fully into words. Good religion should be scientific, artful and ethical at the same time. Science is a wonderful tool for seeking truth, but it cannot tell us what is beautiful or good.
Healthy religion is a balance between belief and doubt, but it is possible to make a religion out of either of those half answers. If I had to choose between the two, I would chose the religion of doubt because an open mind is less likely to fight. And, as I said before, even God would prefer an empty foxhole to a full church. Still, why not strive to have it all? Why not embrace the truth of science and the art of living we sometimes call “religion?”