Members of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths seek spiritual instruction from a variety of sources, such as religious texts, religious authorities, and even other believers.
But the challenge that Patrick Ryan, S.J., recently posed to believers was to examine a more unusual source.
What, he asked, can atheists teach believers about their faith?
“The Atheistic Imagination: A Challenge for Jews, Christians, and Muslims” examined this unusual stance for the annual Spring McGinley Lecture, held April 24 at the Lincoln Center campus and April 25 at Rose Hill.
As a starting point, said Father Ryan, the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society, the atheistic perspective can offer members of the three Abrahamic religions just that: another perspective.
“Men and women of faith—Jewish, Christian, and Muslim—sometimes need to see ourselves as others see us,” he said.
He drew on the works of three contemporary authors to illustrate common critiques of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The first, the American Jewish author, Philip Roth, cites a struggle that both believers and nonbelievers face: how to reconcile the presence of evil in the world despite an allegedly benevolent God.
“The great novelist intends to expose the cruelty of God, the capriciousness of the world in which we live,” Father Ryan said. “Roth’s is a dark vision, imaginatively and superbly conveyed in [his]two recent novels. Glibly expressed faith needs to pause in the presence of this darkness—pause and reflect.”
The second author, Colm Tóibín, voices concern about his Irish Catholic faith. Through his writing, it is clear that Tóibín, who is gay, feels a deep dissatisfaction with the Church’s teachings on sexual morality. He also criticizes the institution’s austere nature.
“Tóibín has been criticized by some Catholics for the aestheticism of his attachment to Catholicism, combined with his distaste for the Church’s teaching on sexuality,” Father Ryan said.
Through his creation of secularized Muslim characters in his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, author Salman Rushdie contended that religion, at best, comforts believers and, at worst, “infantilizes” them.
The book provoked an Islamic fatwa, or legal pronouncement calling for his death, from Imam Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s Supreme Guide at the time.
“He admitted that, ‘I can see it being valuable to other people, like a consolation in difficulty,’” Father Ryan quoted Rushdie. “ ‘For myself, I don’t feel the urge. There’s no hole in me that it needs to fill.’ There is not much room for dialogue with an atheist who says things like that, and, alas, it must be admitted that Rushdie is not alone in this absolute rejection of God.”
Responding to Father Ryan’s talk were Rabbi Daniel Polish, Ph.D., spiritual leader of Congregation Shir Chadash in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Amir Hussain, Ph.D., professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University.
According to Polish, atheistic remarks from Jews come within a wider context, because being Jewish encompasses more than holding certain religious beliefs.
“Jews are a people,” Polish said. “The religion of that people is Judaism, but the identity is conferred by being part of that people, or participating in that civilization.”
Consequently, the atheistic imagination expressed by writers such as Roth does not necessarily contravene Jewish identity.
“It includes the freedom to abandon God altogether, or, at least to be deeply disappointed with God, to argue with God, to call God to the docket as the accused,” he said.
Hussain echoed Polish’s contention by pointing out that atheism and secularism are not synonymous—a nuance that Rushdie does not recognize in his absolute atheism.
“When we say that [for instance]North America is secular, that does not mean it is a society of atheists,” he said. “What we mean by secular is that there is no official state religion.”
Even the most rigorous of atheisms have something to offer believers, Polish said, for, if God is absent, humans are left with certain “moral imperatives.”
“Atheism teaches that when you see someone in need, you cannot just walk by and say that God will take care of him,” he said. “If there is no God, then how much is expected of us.
“If we cannot depend on God to prevent another Auschwitz, then we have to take that responsibility on ourselves. If we cannot depend on God to feed the hungry, it is we who must rise to the challenge.”