Atheist Interview: Bruce Sheiman

February 12, 2010

God is not great.

That’s what Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and other loud, militant atheists think.  They’re kind of the atheist equivalent of Pat Robertson.  They’re all busy writing books with titles like God is Not Great and The God Delusion.  They’re on a quest of love and compassion to free you, me and the rest of society from the bondage that is religion, so that we can live “enlightened,” “scientific” lives.  Lucky us!

Then, there’s Bruce Sheiman. 

Bruce Sheiman is an atheist.  But he thinks religion is great.  In fact, he thinks it’s better than great.  He thinks people have produced their greatest civilizations and achieved their greatest humanity through religion.  And he thinks his fellow atheists who say religion is poison are being intellectually dishonest charlatans.  And, best of all, he’s got the guts to say so.

He wants you to know that the very loud atheists writing books don’t speak for the rest of them.  So he wrote a book.  It’s aptly titled An Atheist Defends Religion.

This book is awesome.  It’s probably the most unique take on history you’ll read anytime soon.  It’s not goofy like most evangelical “historians.”  It’s not poisonous like most atheist historians.  It’s honest.  And coupled with that honest look at history, Bruce rebukes atheists for their abuse of science and their dishonest motives.  Bruce rides a fine line – he’s an atheist, but he calls himself an aspiring theist.  He’s sympathetic to religious aspirations.  He just hasn’t experienced God himself.  He’s also a really smart guy, but his book is brief and light on its feet.

I was pretty excited when Bruce’s publicity team contacted me, asking me to review the book.  I got really excited when it turned out to be a good book, so I agreed.  But knowing that interviews are more fun than book reports, I told them I also had to ask Bruce some questions too.  You are not going to want to miss this.  Here’s Bruce Sheiman.

While angry militant atheism seems to be on the rise with leaders like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, you say they don’t really speak for normal atheists like yourself.  Many Christians have been uncomfortable for years with their spokesmen being guys like Pat Robertson and James Dobson.  Do you think the rise of loud militant atheism is a reaction to loud political Christianity?

Let’s be clear, it is questionable whether there has actually been a rise in militant atheism. More likely, there has been an increase in the vociferousness of existing militant atheism. And the writings of Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett and all the others who have followed their lead have been able to bring existing angry, militant atheists together when previously they had been much more scattered around the country.

It’s like a particular illness where the question is: Has there been an increase in the incidence or rather has there just been an increase in diagnosis? It is the same with militant atheism. As to why there is a rise in the loudness of these atheists, much is certainly the result of the fundamentalist wing of Christianity. But that increase in vocal atheism is just as much the result of the rise of political Islam.

America is positively saturated with Jesus.  Can there be too much of a good thing when it comes to religion? If everyone practiced the same religion, would mankind finally be at peace?

I doubt it would produce a universal peaceful state, let alone the most prosperous state.  I would say that there also is no way such a state of uniformity could exist.  All ideological belief systems have extremist elements. And such tension is necessary for the growth of all societies as well as humanity itself. However, when such extremist elements dominate a particular ideology (religious or secular – e.g., Nazism, Communism) that it becomes dangerous.

If everyone practiced the same religion, I dare say that people would seek out differentiation that could translate into messy ideological conflict – such as Shi’ite Muslims vs. Suni Muslims, Catholics vs. Protestants, Sephardi vs. Ashkenazi, or conservatives vs. liberal in our country. It is almost like there is a need for some form of differentiation and opposition.

I thought so.  People don’t really like peace and harmony.  We just like to sing about it.  As you see it, are all faiths created equal when it comes to their ability to foster peace?

I lump religions together in my effort to understand “religion” that is generic and universal. So I describe it as belief in a Transcendent Spiritual Reality, which I believe applies equally to Eastern and Western religions; ancient and modern religions.

But the book singles out Christianity as the one “good” religion, along with Judaism. I am biased with a focus on the West. I acknowledge that Buddhism can certainly be a religion of peace and compassion like western religion; and I admit not to know enough about Hinduism to draw any definite conclusion. Perhaps the only religion that I cite as being negative is Islam.

Many Christians have never been atheists, don’t know any atheists, or are scared and suspiscious of them.  How do you assure Christians that you are not some scary, amoral person as they may assume?

My girlfriend was shocked when she discovered I am an atheist. 

In my book, I describe how at the same time that it is possible for atheists to be ethical people, yet religion makes for a more moral individual and society.  As a moderate atheist, I envision my role as correcting the extremist pronouncements of the “militant” minority of atheists.  I’m dedicated to conveying a kinder, gentler atheism. 

How do Christians react when they find you are actually defending religion? Why are you defending religion anyway?

Christians are largely grateful that an atheist actually takes their side of the debate. A few more literalist Christians, however, found me risible in that I was not truly capable of experiencing God, which is a legitimate criticism. And I never claimed that I could.

Why do I defend religion? Remember, I am defending religion not God. That is something plausible just as it is possible to defend the scientific method or the capitalist system.  I am defending the belief in God, but not the existence of God. And since I believe that religion is a net-positive in society, I wanted to make that argument to the militant atheists who offend me and many other tolerant, open-mined atheists.

That’s funny.  A lot of Christians are tired of being accused of not being tolerant or “open-minded.”

A lot of militant atheists seem to be driven by a desire to “free” the world from the cruel bonds of religion. What do you believe drives this desire? Are these atheists full of compassion for their fellow, misinformed man?  They seem to be too much in “attack” mode to really be full of love.

Gosh! I make your exact argument in my first blog entry. The reason it was not in the book is that one of the editors, who is an atheist, objected to my claims that militant atheists do not want to see humanity improve.

My definition of a militant atheist is someone who denies the beliefs held by people who are happier than he is.  To aggressive atheists, the only legitimate response to religious faith is an unremitting assault on its credence using the tools of reason and science. But by arguing for the elimination of all religion, they are essentially a mirror image of their fundamentalist enemy.

I don’t think militant atheists are unhappy merely because they deny God; I also think they deny God because they’re unhappy. As proof, one need look no further than Christopher Hitchens [left] to find a correlation between atheism and a cranky, crotchety, crabby personality.

It should be clear that these atheists are not motivated by a love for their fellow human beings.  Their strident, arrogant and belligerent posture reveals a palpable contempt for humanity.

Seriously, what do you think of that?  Pow, right in the kisser, huh?  For more from Bruce, buy the book for a low price on Amazon.  You won’t regret it.