The problem is one of acute narrow-mindedness. Not narrow-mindedness as a character flaw, but as a conscious decision how to view the subject. For so many, to be atheist is to nail down as immovable this thesis:
- God is supernatural, religion is orthodoxy, and to be religious is to be irrational.
That's it. From there, judgment is a simple matter of applying that to every attitude toward spiritual living. And, voilà, The First Church of Atheism: "The one thing binding every FCA minister is his or her belief in science, reason, and reality." Any other view is unrealistic, irrational, and unscientific. At least, that's the implication.
The mistake made by many atheists is to identify religion with orthodoxy. This, to me, is fatal to an understanding of religion. Orthodoxy has a shelf life of about 30 seconds. Orthodoxy is not exclusive to a belief in the divine, however you consider it. For example, our two political parties are hopelessly orthodox. The science of climate change has its fossilized orthodoxy.
Orthodoxy is when bad things happen to good ideas. Perhaps 30 seconds is a bit unkind, but it doesn't take long before orthodoxy becomes group think. And this is how atheism views religion. A proper atheist (like my friend Mark) isn't even prepared to abandon the term "agnostic." He deals with the actual problem of Divine Being and is totally tolerant of my world view. Disagreement is never conflict between us.
Then there is the "orthodox atheist," who believes that the only view of God is as a supernatural being, that the oldest, fossilized form of institutionalized church is the essence of religion, and that adherents are mentally challenged. If you don't believe this, you aren't a true atheist. It's like global warming orthodoxy in which the science is totally settled. I have no problem with the science of global warming, but I have a big problem with the orthodoxy that is trying really hard to govern my life. Just like the orthodox atheist, who wants to keep me from speaking of God in the public square. Just like the orthodox Leftist, who wants me to think of myself as part of one or more demographics, or races, or whatever. Just like the orthodox Conservative, who wants the Constitution to expressly forbid what he finds abhorrent. And just like the orthodox Libertarian, for whom the approval of gay marriage is a litmus test.
And, yes, just like the orthodox Christian, who tells me that, unless I believe Jesus is God Himself, I am not Christian. Now, as a Christian Scientist, I am a friend to everyone. My understanding of Jesus is not orthodox, but it's hard to find an orthodox Christian who understands what my view really is. It's not that I have never explained it; it's the nature of the blinders that orthodoxy puts on one. It's like an orthodox atheist, who is a deer caught in the headlights of my view of God as divine but not supernatural. There is an immediate impasse when orthodoxy confronts its unlikeness. One who is orthodox tends to try to govern the behavior of others, because apostasy is inconceivable.
Orthodoxy isn't a bad thing in itself; it never did anything wrong to me. It is just a shared teaching. Tradition is how things have been done; orthodoxy is how things should be done. An orthodox baseball pitcher is one who adheres to certain teachings about how to pitch. Nothing wrong with it, as the teachings are usually based on time-tested fundamentals. The problem is when the pitcher's attitude becomes orthodox; when only adherence to these teachings are acceptable; when only those who are orthodox are acceptable pitchers.
This is how orthodoxy works: in politics, sports, religion, cooking, or playing the piano. It has a short shelf-life because the teachings change. The fundamentals on which they are built are examined, some found to be wrong, others in need of refinement, so few (if any) perfect.
There is precious little time after which an established teaching comes up for review and is found wanting in one or more ways. The orthodox view of God, Jesus, man, and the world from centuries ago is held by some, but when push comes to shove, the individual treats these shared teachings more as a buffet than a set menu ("You can't leave the table until you eat your beans!"). The orthodox atheist, however, lumps all religious people as a collective into that old orthodoxy and finds it difficult, at best, to understand an individual's reasoned, rational practice of understanding the Divine.