This is, perhaps, one of the most important questions I have encountered in my personal vocation over the last two years. Religious people, it would seem, by definition have a belief system in place that (generally speaking) professes the belief in the divine and some sort of growth (whether we call this enlightenment, or salvation, or submission)1 through some sort of interaction with the divine. Atheists, by definition, have no such compulsion; it is true that many are united under the banner of humanism, but this is more or less a moral code or ethic that serves as a driving principle for praxis. It would seem, at face value, that these two groups of traditions2 are at odds with one another. The question then arises: “can these two seemingly opposing groups of traditions coexist?” And this is such an important question because as atheism and secularism is on the rise, particularly in the United States, we must know if there is some way to coexist with one another. To be honest with you, I am not sure I have an answer. But I do have some thoughts that may help to clarify the question.
I guess the philosopher in me says that the first thing we should do is define our terms. In this case, what exactly does it mean to “coexist?” On a basic level, coexisting means living in the same general area and not killing each other. Now, as long as we still have a legal system that does not allow for the murder of people based on their belief or lack thereof simply for that fact and without any repercussion, I think that we are OK on this front. However, given many potential laws raised throughout the United States and the particular political climate, this may be a very real issue to address in the future. That said, I think there is more implied in the term “coexist” then simply not killing each other. To coexist as humans, for my part at least, means can we respect each other in spite of our difference of opinion or worldview? Can we come together on particular issues and fronts for the betterment of humankind? Can we live our lives without wounding or hurting or attacking each other (physically and psychologically)? Is there room in religious traditions to accept atheism as a valid and/or respectable world view? Furthermore, and perhaps more to the point, will people actually give up any thought process that leads them to hate or fear and therefore attack or persecute another individual rather than coming together in love and friendship? My only real answer is this, “I truly, from the bottom of my heart, hope that this is the case.”
I think that there is room in most religious traditions for the other3. Whether inherently in the doctrines of the particular tradition or added by philosophers/theologians after the fact, the traditions of the world today have had to deal with the reality of plurality4. Yet I am probably in the minority on this front. Many in any given tradition see only room for them and their own beliefs. They seem to be uninterested in trying to see the world through another’s eyes and only interested in trying to convert or proselytize, even if this is done covertly. Many people believe that in order for “us” to be right, “they” have to be wrong. And perhaps this is the case. Perhaps there is something about us as human beings that we need to create groups of “us” and “them” in order to make ourselves feel better or, more simply, to categorize the world around us so as to have a simple narrative of life. If there is one thing I have learned about human beings, it is that we often take the easy road simply because it is easier. We like the easy answers because the alternative is that we have to really look hard at ourselves and our thoughts/beliefs and at the end of the day that is terrifying. Change is terrifying5.
The trouble with that is that we lose so much. The wonderful, beautiful and, dare I say, sexy thing about the other is that they are different from us. They give us perspective and open our eyes to new and wonderful ways of thinking. Not in a hostile or proselytizing way, but through joy. I really believe that perhaps the best part of life is to experience joy. That looks like so many things to different people, but I think that Aristotle was right when he said that the good (or rather The Good) of human existence is happiness6. I also think that Plato was right when he said that it is the job of those who are acquainted with joy/happiness/The Good to share that experience with others (or in this case the other)7. If we cannot find some way to coexist with those who think differently, then we lose this. For some that is an acceptable loss at the expense of thinking we are right or have life all figured out in a dogmatic sense; keep in mind that I think that this applies to all human beings regardless of belief or lack thereof.
I do not want the reader to misunderstand me here. I do not want you to think that I am a relativist or just promoting what is derogatorily referred to as “hippy” ideology. I think we should have beliefs. I have my own beliefs about God and religion and epistemology. And we should know what we think and why we think it. I am not suggesting we should merely “hold hands, shut up, and all just get along.” I am saying that there is an experiential joy that comes about with being open to the other’s experience of reality as one that is different from one’s own. I am not saying to be wishy-washy in one’s own belief or lack thereof, quite the contrary – think it firmly and talk about that perspective. But at the same time, listen to others and learn, and never keep the other from experiencing joy, so long as that does not directly impede your own pursuit of happiness.
And that’s the rub isn’t it? Most of us can’t help not only to profess what we think, but try to change the minds of others so that they agree with us. Even now, I am attempting to persuade the reader of something: that there is more to life then one’s own thoughts and convincing others of those thoughts. Ironic isn’t it? “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am both wide and contain multitudes.”8 And perhaps there is no way around that impulse.
If you came to this article looking for an answer to the question above then I am afraid I must apologize. I hope, however, that I have not failed you. My answer is this: can we coexist? I know that some of us cannot, but I think that some of us can. I hope that more of us can then not. Can we coexist with the other? I don’t know, but damn it, I am going to try.
~Alex Moreschi, The Profane Parson
1. There are many other vernacular terms that could be used here as well. These terms mean different things and often have very different contexts, but I think that the concept that unifies them is that there is some goal or other, that through practice or belief one is able to obtain. Usually this goal involves the betterment of the self in some way, whether in this life or the next, whatever that does or does not look like.
2. I use the term “traditions” here which some readers might take issue with. I consider Atheism to not be a religion because there are no binding doctrines or dogmas, as well as no ritual practices or profession of belief. Yet, I would consider it to be a tradition (though possible multiple traditions) because it conceptually comes out of a variety of thinkers and authors through the course of history. There are leaders in the atheist communities and have been for quite some time. I feel as though the term “tradition” then is appropriate when attempting to categorize both groups of religions that have deities, atheism, practices which are often considered philosophies such as Buddhism, as well as other schools of philosophical thought. I do this more for the usefulness of having a term or category rather than to make an ontological claim.
3. I like to use the term “the other” to represent an individual or group that is not like the subject or those in one particular group/tradition. I think that it is a catch-all sort of term that concisely outlines that we as human beings often have an “us v. them” mentality and the term recognizes that and is shorthand for that idea. “The other,” quite simply, is them.
4. Plurality is simply a term that points to the existence of many different kinds of traditions that believe, at times radically, different things from one another. It contains no judgment regarding this fact or what one does with it, but merely states that it is the case.
5. I have often had the thought that it would be good to be a tree. No decisions or stress or adulting. Just growth, soaking in the sunshine, and blowing in the breeze. Good to be a tree.
6. This comes from Nichomachean Ethics among other texts. Keep in mind here that happiness and pleasure are not the same thing.
7. See The Allegory of the Cave out of The Republic.
8. Walt Whitman