This is not the time for atheists and religious believers to quarrel

I was puzzled by Arthur Milner’s article complaining that atheism is not sufficiently respected in present-day society (“The Offence of Atheism,” Inroads, Winter/Spring 2010, pp. 10–13). It seems to me that since the late 18th century atheism has been an important dimension of intellectual life in the West. You cannot study philosophy or the social sciences at the university without becoming acquainted with atheism and the various arguments that defend it. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, defining the limits of reason and rejecting all metaphysics, had an enormous effect on the Western scientific culture, promoting the taken-for-granted positivism that prevails at most universities.

There are classical atheist texts that theologians have read with great attention: Feuerbach, Marx and Nietzsche in philosophy and Comte and Durkheim in sociology. Dialogue with the Enlightenment has affected believing Jewish and Christian thinkers, and is now having an effect on believing Muslim intellectuals.

I have not read the contemporary authors advocating the so-called “new atheism.” From the reviews of their books I gather that they add nothing new to the classical texts. In my opinion, in the present situation of the world, marked by a set of serious crises, the important debate is not about religious faith or atheism, but about how we relate ourselves to these crises: the maldistribution of wealth and power in the world, the conditions that force people of the South to emigrate massively, the limits of natural resources, the threat to the environment, the ongoing violation of human rights and the military interventions to ensure access to oil and gas.

The socioethical debates about these issues do not situate believers on one side and atheists on the other. Because the division in society today cuts across the difference between faith and atheism, believers and unbelievers should not quarrel; rather, they should engage in dialogue to explore common values and lay the foundation for common action. This has happened in the peace movement, the environmental movement and the alter-globalization movement. I feel very strongly that this is not the time to debate faith and atheism: what is needed is dialogue about the foundation for action.