In their attacks on religion, the so-called New Atheists—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens (RIP), and Sam Harris—go after low-hanging fruit. They pretend that the most primitive, science-denying fundamentalists are representative of religious believers. But not all religious people believe the Earth is 6,000 years old, or that global warming doesn’t matter because Jesus will be coming back soon, or that gays and lesbians are going to Hell.
Many religious people are sophisticated and scientifically literate. They accept the scientific evidence for evolution, the scientific consensus on global warming (not so much the one on the safety of GMOs), and they accept gays and lesbians into their congregations. Sophisticated religious people often reject all traditional notions of God. They still pray, but not because they think God can be persuaded by prayer to, say, cure cancer, but because they believe that prayer sends out a mysterious healing energy. They may not believe in the immortal soul, but they do believe that with proper breathing, qigong will provide access to higher realms of awareness. These sophisticated religious believers don’t pray to saints, but they do try to get in touch with their spirit guides.
My wife is entirely secular with no religious impulse beyond a semi-serious superstition about the Evil Eye. Her version of the Evil Eye is a force that swiftly punishes any feeling of self-satisfaction or hubris. If the Evil Eye superstition were a religion, it would have only one commandment: Keep your mouth shut about the good stuff. Has your Honda been running smoothly for several years? Unless you want a mechanical breakdown, keep it to yourself.
I have to say that the evidence for the Evil Eye seems somewhat greater than the evidence for the mysterious healing energy of prayer. I’m not talking about evidence provided by double blind studies, of course, but the evidence that life experience provides, the sort of anecdotal evidence that the New Atheists would laugh at. Once we were on the last leg of a long auto trip and getting close to home. I said to my wife, “It’s amazing that we had beautiful weather for the whole trip.” Within minutes, the sky opened up, and the most violent flash flood I have ever seen forced us to pull over to the side of the road. My wife gave me a knowing look.
Recently I drove to a supermarket far from our neighborhood to buy turkey patties that aren’t available anywhere else. The parking lot at this supermarket is a nightmare, and I usually have to drive around it several times before I find a parking space. This time I immediately got one close to the supermarket entrance. The supermarket was crowded with shoppers, but once I had the turkey patties, I saw that there was no line at all at the express counter. I put the patties on the counter and muttered to myself “There is a God!” as I reached for my wallet and realized that I had left it at home. I heard the Evil Eye whisper in my ear: “No there fucking isn’t.”