I recently spoke to the Humanist Community in Silicon Valley, a group that meets on Sundays in Palo Alto. My theme was “Bridging the God Gap: How to Find Common Ground with Theistic Friends and Family Members.” Part of my presentation involved communication between atheists and unorthodox theists – deists, naturalistic theists, and those who believe in an impersonal god. Many (though not all) of these individuals are “functionally atheistic.” They do not expect deity to help them in any specific ways.
Even when their beliefs about the nature of reality are quite similar, there may be considerable tension between non-believers and orthodox theists. I think of Albert Einstein, for example. Einstein said some very negative things about atheists, and yet his own beliefs about the universe were similar to the world-view of scientifically oriented atheists such as Richard Dawkins.
Einstein used personal-god language to metaphorically speak of the universe and/or its laws. Sometimes he sounds like he might be speaking literally, as when he said, “That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible Universe, forms my idea of God.” But his statements rejecting a literal personal deity are numerous and emphatic. At one point he wrote, “It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but expressed it clearly” (cited by Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great, p. 271). Those who quote Einstein to support traditional religion are way off base.
Here’s a glaring example: In The Purpose-Driven Life, Rick Warren used Einstein’s famous statement that “God doesn’t play dice” to support the idea that God carefully plans each of our lives (p. 22). This is as blatant a distortion of Einstein’s intent as if an anti-gambling group had used this quote to show that Albert wanted to ban crap games.
Since Einstein sharply criticizes personal theism, one might think he would affirm atheism, but sometimes he condemns this lifestance. In Jesus Was a Liberal, Scotty McLennan quotes him as saying, “In view of such harmony in the cosmos, which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for support of such views” (p. 51).
I like to imagine Albert and Richard Dawkins having a beer together and sorting out their differences. Surely they could have looked beyond labels such as theist and atheist, realizing that what they had in common was much more important than that which divided them.
Roger Christan Schriner
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