“Beyond The Atheism-Religion Divide”

I have long believed that people of religious faith have more in common with each other than with much of the culture at large. Further, the deepening and broadening of religious traditions and commitments, not to mention the grim facts of religiously-fueled violence, have led some to what is being termed “the new atheism.” This anti-religious stand, articulated by such best-selling writers as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, proclaims itself to be the rational alternative to religious faith.

I was intrigued, then, by an interview with Dr. Harvey Cox of Harvard University and one of the early champions of the secularization of modern culture. His book, The Secular City was published in 1965, and envisioned a world in which religion would play a lesser and lesser role as the forces of modernization and secularization. He has watched with interest as a much different scene has unfolded.

Two comments in particular struck me from the interview:

What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? What does secularization have to do with religious proliferation and pluralism? The answer to both questions is the same. Athens and Jerusalem have created a whole history through their interaction with each other, and so have religion and secularization. In both cases, as soon as one achieves a kind of dominance, the other swoops back from exile to challenge it. When reason and intellect begin to ride high, they invariably make unrealistic claims. And faith and intuition awaken to question their hegemony. Then, just as the sacral begins to feel its oats and reach out for civilizational supremacy, reason and cognition question its pretentiousness. In past eras, this seesaw battle often took centuries. Today, events move more swiftly. [Harvey Cox, from the foreword to Religion in the Secular City.]

And this challenging thought, referring to a letter that Cox wrote to the editor of the New York Times magazine this year

Ms. Tippett: You know, you posed this question, you know, you said, “The real challenge of Islam to Western intellectual discourse is for us to ask ourselves whether our unprecedented modern experiment of conducting political life with no transcendent values is really working out as well as we once hoped.”

Mr. Cox: Right, right.

Ms. Tippett: I think that’s a pretty provocative question. I don’t think it’s the kind of question that’s being posed very loudly in all of this public dialogue.

Mr. Cox: No, it isn’t. I don’t think so. And I think it’s got to be posed very, very, very pointedly. For the first time this summer, just a few weeks ago I was in Europe and I visited Auschwitz. I’ve never been to Auschwitz before. And for the next days after that I thought, I’ll never really be the same after having actually set foot in this place. This happened in Western Christian society, remember? This happened in the civilization that we think, in some ways, is superior to other civilizations and that they ought to be learning from us, whereas there are many, very thoughtful Muslim scholars. And we had, we had one here a year or two ago that I talked about this with at length, who said, ‘Look, when we look at what the 20th century history of the West was, with the Gulag, and Hiroshima, and Auschwitz, it really isn’t the path we want to tread into modernity. And maybe you people,’ he was talking about us, ‘ought to think more deeply about where it all went wrong.’

The interview is well worth listening to (or reading the transcript). Speaking of Faith is a weekly program featuring Krista Tippett’s interviews with a wide spectrum of religious leaders and thinkers. You can subscribe to their podcast, download individual programs, listen online, or read the transcripts.

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