MY BROTHER, Pat, once a priest, now an atheist, came to Madison, Wisconsin, recently to speak at a Freedom from Religion Conference. I attended and found myself in the unusual role of a stodgy conservative who still took God-talk seriously. At first I felt removed from the other attenders, who were devoutly anti-religious, right down to their jokes. These are the people who picket and sue when a creche or a Star of David makes its way onto public property.
During the course of a long evening, however, I began to feel more at home with them than with many of my religious peers. On issues of racism, sexism, heterosexism, violence, and the political abuse of power, their passions and commitments were biblical. Their concern for the poor, for the environment, for justice and for peace was fervid and intelligent. Two of them, brothers who were collaborating on a book tracing the historic evils of religion, were caring for their aged mother at home. They could well afford to put her in a care facility, but she abhorred the idea and they honored her preference. Indeed, they were structuring their lives around her needs.
So there I was, morally and cordially at home with people who hated my religious language. But language was the main thing that separated us. They rejected the symbols, the dogmas and the theology of religion, but not religion itself. My faith and their faith were sibling-close. I was at that time writing my now-published book The Moral Core of Judaism and Christianity (Fortress, 1993), and I was planning to include a diagram which at that point had seven spokes representing the seven major world religions. I realized this evening that I was one spoke short. I went back and added "Atheistic or Agnostic Humanism" as the eighth world religion. My dinner companions would not have appreciated being included in such a diagram. Why would I put them there?
Because religion is a response to the sacred, it is ubiquitous; there is no one who finds nothing sacred. (Not all call the right things holy: theology helps by locating the misplaced sacred.) We are homo sacralis, inveterate seekers of the transcendent. There is hope in this for our future and for the political and economic pacification of humankind. Civilization rests upon shared perceptions of the sacred. Without religion thus understood, we will all perish, atheists and theists alike.
We do not all express the experience of the sacred in the same way. It need not be translated into "religious language" or even into a belief in God. In Theravada Buddhism, for example, one of the major world religions, we look in vain for our concept of a personal deity. Nevertheless, the perception of the sacred is the pulsing heart of all moral sensibility. As Reinhold Niebuhr said, "Every genuine passion for social justice will always contain a religious element within it." The group known as "atheists for Niebuhr" proved him right. In my terms, they rejected his theology, his symbol system, his dogmatic language, but not his religion.
As the eight world religions take their historical and symbol-making journeys through time, they become further and further apart. This trajectory seems to provide little hope for human unity. But hope lies at the point of their beginning, at their common moral starting point.
Religion is born when human consciousness sees the wonder of our being, the smiles of infants, the beauty of the mallard, the gentle budding of the rose, the generous fecundity of the earth, the fire of heroism, the ecstatic promise of intelligence--when it sees all this and says, "Wow!" Do not let the informality of the expression undermine the point. This is the birth zone of awe-full respect and reverent gratitude for the mystery that marks our terrestrial genesis. From this primal awe moral claims are born; from this primal reverence religion emanates. The moral response names the gift good; the religious response goes on to proclaim it holy. …