As a devout agnostic who’s as turned off by the proselytizing atheism of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, et al. as by my mother’s blaming and weirdly self-congratulatory brand of Evangelical Christianity (think Jesus Camp), I was interested in much of what Peter Bebergal and Scott Korb had to say last summer at Jewcy in “What the Angry Atheists Get Wrong.”
Below Korb, a self-proclaimed Catholic atheist, talks about his Christian-inflected faith in the things of this world. He and Bebergal are touring in support of their new book, The Faith Between Us: A Jew and a Catholic Search for the Meaning of God. You can catch them tomorrow night at Madison’s University Pres House at 7:30, and on Thursday night at Chicago’s Fixx Coffee Bar, also at 7:30 p.m.
Since the release of the book last November, though, some family and some Catholic friends — to say nothing of readers confused by what I could possibly mean, then, by Catholic atheism — have responded with misgivings. “I hope you’re wrong,” is what my mother said when she first read the book. An editor-friend said exactly the same thing when we met at his office after Faith came out for what he smilingly called a “pastoral visit.” (Neither of us are pastors, though he’s probably closer.)
At first I took “I hope you’re wrong” the wrong way. It meant they hadn’t read closely enough. It meant they didn’t take my point: There’s no reason to hope for, much less believe in, the afterlife. (I agree with religion scholar Karen Armstrong that there are some very bad reasons for believing in the afterlife. The afterlife, she argues, is about preserving your ego “eternally in optimum conditions.” And for that matter, she notes, “A lot of people see God as a sacred seal of approval on some of their worst fantasies about other people.” I’ve seen this — who hasn’t? — and it’s ugly.)
But now, now that my mother’s repeated herself (more than once), I realize that by hoping, she and my friend, too, are doing something as Christian as it gets. (Something I insisted I was doing, too, during that recent pastoral visit: namely, that my Catholic atheism is just as Christian as his Catholic theism. We’ll argue about this for years, we agreed.)
Another favorite moment from the New Testament comes in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Like the parable of the prodigal son, this section is very famous. Regardless, it goes: “But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
And those people who hope I’m wrong are worrying for my sake and for their own, and in hope that we’ll meet our dead loved ones again when we die. (They’re hoping, in a sense, that when we die we won’t really die.) Yet, in their way and through their hope, they’re expressing the greatest Christian virtue, and arguably the greatest religious virtue, there is — which, it is profoundly important to note, is not belief itself, but love.
They don’t know I’m wrong any more than I know they’re wrong. But in good faith they hope I am because they love me.