What happens when atheists take religion seriously?

In the grip of such a fundamental disagreement — the existence (or not) of God — we’re likely to witness outrage, derision, and irrational arguments, if an exchange occurs at all. So given an hour, and some goodwill, this question is a good one to explore. And if we can handle this one, maybe we can counter the current tendency toward insult and polarization.

A lot, in fact — and most of it's good.

A billboard erected by atheists in Oklahoma City reads: 'Don't believe in God? Join the club.' (Sue Ogrocki/The Associated Press)

Is there any disagreement more fundamental than the question of God's existence? 

Both believers and non-believers have dug themselves into long-established positions. And these days, the conversation often plays out in bite-sized, lightning-fast reactions. Little wars. After all, who has time for a thoughtful debate between atheists and believers? 

The perennial debate on God or not-God was re-invigorated nearly 20 years ago, with figures who became known as the new atheists: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens. They came from different fields: evolutionary biology, neuroscience, journalism, philosophy. Their shared modus operandi: to wake humans up to the foolishness and dangers of religious belief.

Believers themselves have engaged in dismissals and condemnations of the new atheists. For many, perhaps the only thing they're more obsessed with is trolling within their own ranks (just check out 'Catholic Twitter' sometime). 

But take a look just above the fray, and you'll find that atheism is engaging religion in less adversarial ways. 

Martin Hägglund and Michael Ruse are authors and teachers who blend an atheistic worldview with a sincere approach to Christian thought. 

I want to show ...that we don't need to appeal to anything beyond that to make sense of our obligations, our responsibility, to make sense of what matters to us, and to make sense of who we are."-Martin Hägglund

In his latest book, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, Martin Hägglund questions the usefulness of religion, with its fixation on the infinite.  To bolster his argument, he doesn't look to atheist philosophers and firebrands, but to Christian heavyweights: St. Augustine, C.S. Lewis, Søren Kierkegaard, and Martin Luther King Jr. 

Hägglund argues that even these religious thinkers and leaders are engaging what he calls secular faith when they acknowledge the finitude and fragility of life. He argues that what we need is a true appreciation of our fragility, not some reference to a God, or a heavenly 'insurance policy'. He sees his book as a resource for both secular and religious people to consider what they truly value, and to work from there to establish a cohesive social order.

"It's not about our individual desires and inclinations — we are dependent on a larger context of meaning and significance," says Hägglund. "But I want to show [that] those larger causes that we care about — that those themselves are dependent on us and our practices, and that we don't need to appeal to anything beyond that to make sense of our obligations, our responsibility, to make sense of what matters to us, and to make sense of who we are." 

For his part, Darwinian philosopher Michael Ruse has collaborated with priests and people of faith. He was raised a Quaker in England. He's encountered creationists in court in the American south. And he helped establish the Department of Philosophy at the University of Guelph. He's nearly 80 years old, and feels more comfortable than ever in his position of non-belief. 

Sunday Assembly began in London and soared in popularity among atheists looking for a place to air their views with other like-minded people. And now the concept has taken hold across the pond. (Jae C. Hong/AP Photo)

Ruse says he's more likely to be at odds with some of his fellow non-believers. He once wrote that he was "indignant at the poor quality of the argumentation in Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and all of the others in that group," and that Richard Dawkins's bestselling book The God Delusion made him "ashamed to be an atheist".

In his latest book, A Meaning to Life, Ruse examines the philosophical attractions and shortcomings of religion. He examines the Darwinian attempt to establish objective moral positions, and (respectfully) calls this a kind of secular, scientific 'religion'. 

He's more sympathetic to existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre, but wants to take things further than Sartre did. Ruse is in pursuit of a subjective morality based on evolution. He's convinced that the way we've evolved has given us an authentic human nature, one that we have to take in hand as we try to make meaning of our lives and determine our responsibilities to others. 

But as evolved as we are, how does he account for the fact that we're still capable of atrocities toward fellow humans? 

...Whilst I'm fully prepared to accept we humans have this dark side -- we really do -- I'm not an original sinner. I'm not convinced that it's a necessary part of our being.-Michael Ruse

"God Almighty, I'm a philosopher!" says Ruse. "I believe in reason. I believe in rationality. I believe in education. I'm an optimist. So whilst I'm fully prepared to accept we humans have this dark side — we really do — I'm not an 'original sinner'. I'm not convinced that it's a necessary part of our being. And as an educator, I'm completely committed to the idea that we can make for a better world because we can make for better people, and that means making for better young people." 

Producer's note: I've approached this episode as a practising Catholic. In Ruse and Hägglund, I've found two people who are established in their convictions, but who are interested in engaging with believers. As I've edited this episode, I've thought of new ways I'd like to respond to their points of view, if we get the chance to talk again. Perhaps the same thing has happened to them as they recall the encounter. I call this a good start to fruitful dialogue — that increasingly rare phenomenon — and I look forward to where it goes next.

Guests in this episode:

Martin Hägglund is Professor of Comparative Literature and Humanities at Yale University. His latest book is This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom

Michael Ruse is Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, and Professor Emeritus at the University of Guelph. He's the author of several books, including A Meaning to Life (2019).

++ This episode was produced by Sean Foley.