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COMMENTARY

Atheists, let the mystery be

Why do the writers of recent popular books on atheism fume over others' beliefs? Why not shake your head and move on?

January 02, 2008|Julia Keller | Chicago Tribune

Sometimes, you just need a cathedral.

That's not a statement about religion, or at least it needn't be. It's a statement about space. When you have spent an inordinate amount of time in confined places, in corners and cubbyholes, you find yourself yearning for the soaring altitudes and ambitious parameters of ancient, breathtaking structures. You find yourself needing a cathedral.

During the first two weeks of December, I embarked on a reporting assignment that took me to Geneva. My time was spent in interviews in close quarters, and when I emerged at the end of each day, the winter dusk had already draped the nearby Jura mountain range in a fuzzy blanket of fog and mist. Steady rain intensified the feeling of gloom, of pinched-off horizons and boxed-in hopes.

For reading material on this trip, I'd gone with a sure thing: Ken Follett's "The Pillars of the Earth," first published in 1989 but reprinted this year, whereupon it promptly became an Oprah Book Club selection. Follett is a crackerjack storyteller, and this 983-page novel about medieval monks and masons and stonecutters who embark upon the building of a great cathedral is a big, sloppy, rollicking yarn, just the thing for a traveler's book bag. I didn't know just how appropriate my book choice would turn out to be.

On my only free afternoon, I took a train ride from Geneva to Lausanne. I struggled up the stone streets to the Cathedral of Lausanne, first opened for business in 1275 but constantly altered ever since. It's not a showy edifice, lacking polished archways and grand flying buttresses; instead, it has a kind of quiet, solemn power. Its stained glass is muted, not bright.

Beliefs are personal, right?

I walked around the cathedral, clutching my copy of "Pillars" and reflecting on a recent publishing phenomenon: the increasing number of books extolling atheism, from Christopher Hitchens' "God Is Not Great" (2007) to Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion" (2006) to Sam Harris' "The End of Faith" (2004). Hitchens recently edited yet another one, the just-published "The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever" (Da Capo Press), a showcase for the anti-religious grumblings of the likes of George Eliot, Carl Sagan, George Orwell and Ian McEwan.

Here's the part I don't understand. Why do Hitchens and those who share his views -- intelligent, talented individuals, all -- spend so much time fuming and sputtering over other people's beliefs? Why not simply shake your head, smile ruefully and move on? If religion indeed is "evil nonsense," as Hitchens terms it in his angrily eloquent introduction to "The Portable Atheist," why grant it the favor of making it the centerpiece of all these books? Why dignify it with constant rebuttals?

I don't have to believe what the builders of the Cathedral of Lausanne believed in order to wander through their souls' home, appreciating the craftsmanship. What's the harm in their faith, if it results in this lovely handiwork?

The harm, Hitchens would quickly say, is obvious: Look at all the bloodshed caused by religiosity. Look at Sept. 11. Look at Madrid. Look at the Crusades.

Well, many things spur war and hatred. Money and property have instigated more wars than religion ever has. Should we rail against cash and borders? The misappropriation of religious belief by Islamic fundamentalists needn't be a reason to reject religion; rather, it could be a reason to rescue religious belief from the bloody clutches of homicidal terrorists. Faith provides solace and hope and consolation to a great many people -- but why does that fact continue to get under Hitchens' skin? No one is demanding that he visit any cathedrals or sing any hymns.

Without question, the "new atheism" sells. Even with what seems to me to be a smug, hip, self-congratulatory tone, these books do quite well. Hitchens' "God Is Not Great" is a bestseller. I don't understand that, but it's not the first trend I've failed to understand. ("Dancing With the Stars," anyone?) And unlike Hitchens and his fellow nonbelievers, I'm willing -- to employ the phrase of the great singer and songwriter Iris DeMent -- to let the mystery be.

Mystery. That's really the point, isn't it? The mystery at the heart of religious faith isn't about syllogisms or axioms. It's not about logic. It's not about what I think about your beliefs; it's about what you believe.

Faith baffles. It's supposed to. It's as puzzling and inscrutable as the emotion one feels when strolling through a Swiss cathedral on a cold afternoon in mid-December, holding a book, minding one's footsteps on the chipped and craggy stone floor but dreaming, all the while, of sky.

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Julia Keller is cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune.

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