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Crowd gathers for panel on atheism

Donald Clegg

Dear Diary: Well, the “conversation” is in just a couple of days. Two professors from Whitworth, one from SFCC, one from Gonzaga, and little old me, talking about “The New Atheism and Religious Belief.” Hmmm, not sure what the new atheism is, but I guess I’m representing it. Good thing I’ve read the books they mention. I wonder… do I get a lifeline?

I recently participated in a panel discussion titled “The New Atheism and Religious Belief: An Open Conversation,” held at Auntie’s Bookstore. My initial response, upon seeing the list of panelists (the Gonzaga professor was ill and didn’t attend), was that I was going into the lion’s den.

But I needn’t have worried. It was a respectful, cordial engagement, and the views expressed were a mixed bag – hardly a theological piling on.

Here’s part of the introduction from the flier:

“Recently, a number of books have appeared on national bestseller lists that not only question whether religious belief, and particularly Christian belief, is reasonable, but whether religious belief should be challenged, criticized, and even opposed.

“Indeed, figures like Richard Dawkins (‘The God Delusion’), Sam Harris (‘Letter to a Christian Nation’) and Christopher Hitchens (‘God is Not Great’) all argue that religious beliefs are not only irrational, but detrimental to humanity and the world.”

It went on to mention the wars, etc., carried out in the name of religion, and whether it is time to rid ourselves of these beliefs in order to “embrace the modern tenets of humanism, science and progress.”

Auntie’s unfortunately listed the event as a “Forum on the New Atheism: a Christian Response,” and perhaps that, in part, accounted for the crowd. (If so, they were certainly in for a surprise.)

When I arrived, there were perhaps 30 or so already upstairs, and my thought was that we might get 50. Not bad for a weeknight and one of the first nice spring days of the season. But people continued to pour in, and my rough estimate was 175 or so.

After introductions, and the moderator’s brief overview of the mentioned books, I led off the discussion. I’d been wondering how to approach the topic, and my desk was littered with Post-its, little random thoughts that I’d been writing down in the days prior to the event.

This led me to think that a kind of scattershot approach might be fun, just throwing out random humanistic musings. So I put ’em in a brown bag to draw from.

Since the event was so well attended, and I hope has generated a fair amount of subsequent conversation, I’m just going to select a few, to give you the flavor of my contribution to the topic. I had more – probably too many – but here are some of my favorites:

“Humanism is self-derived, and, to the degree that it is a belief system, it is provisional and incomplete, always subject to change as new views of the world provide new ways of seeing.”

Bertrand Russell, paraphrased: “All believers are atheists. I am just atheistic about one more religion than them.”

“To know that one doesn’t know, yet to continually seek to decrease the range of one’s ignorance, is to accept that one will know less and less about more and more.”

“If there is a god, and that god is merciful and just – or at least merciful – no one will receive eternal life, whether in heaven or hell. Eternal life is a fate so far worse than death it is literally unspeakable.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein: “Death is not an event in life; we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.”

“As we make a God, or gods, it/they show us what we are. Hence, we eventually need to replace them, when that image no longer reflects our current state of being. As long as we are evolving, gods will always become obsolete. Question: Will we always feel the need to create new ones?”

H. Richard Niebuhr: “Religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people.”

My addendum: “Humanism is a good thing for good people and a good thing for bad people.”

And, yes, some humanists, agnostics, and atheists no doubt also do bad things. But they sure don’t do them in the name of God.

Donald Clegg, of Spokane, is an author and professional watercolor artist. Contact him via e-mail at
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