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The new atheism

'Tis the season to disbelieve

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It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Everywhere you go, you can feel Baby Jesus wrapping his fingers around your throat and squeezing harder and harder, until you empty your wallet. It's a jungle out there.

Strangely, though, we haven't thus far heard the usual gibberish from the right-wingers at Fox News about the War on Christmas. It's particularly surprising since a tsunami of atheism has swept the country in the last year. Authors such as Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) and Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation) have written best sellers that don't merely question the existence of God, but basically dismiss all believers as knuckle-dragging, anti-science Neanderthals.

It's likewise hard to pick up a magazine and not find an essay about the "new atheism." Most of the essays, whether on the left or right, dispute the unilateral condemnation of religion by these authors. Still, nobody's surprised that atheism has become trendy.

But why? Many view it as backlash to the huge influence of religion in politics. Right-wing evangelicals have been the biggest supporters of George Bush, who actually claims to be acting, disastrously, on direct orders from God Almighty. It's also surely backlash to Islam and its jihad-happy suicide bombers. Even the most liberal of Muslim leaders are loathe to condemn practices – stoning of women, hanging of homosexuals – that are as barbaric as those of the Inquisition centuries ago.

While atheists are more open than ever, it's unlikely that they are going to gain many converts to disbelief. As Katha Pollitt, herself an atheist, observed in a recent Nation column, religion forms the community, identity and support system of many people. Merely exposing the irrationality of religion isn't going to cause people to give it up if doing so means giving up the main structure that shapes their social, familial and psychological lives.

I'm conflicted on the subject. Like many people, I've never had any interest in so-called organized religion and have found the notion of a "supreme being" absurd. But, almost as if to dispute my own conclusion, I've had numerous experiences that suggest a transpersonal (or "transrational") aspect to existence.

I had a classic near-death experience in my late 20s that I wouldn't even talk about for years, until I got to graduate school and one of my teachers turned out to be Raymond Moody, whose book Life After Life is an account of such experiences. Even still, I thought it could be a neurological phenomenon and, in fact, it has since been learned such experiences can be duplicated by stimulating a certain area of the brain.

My enrollment in grad school to study psychology was largely inspired by watching countless friends die of AIDS. Time after time, I heard them describe transpersonal phenomena during their protracted dying. It struck me, in those early days of the epidemic, that while many of my friends were abandoned by doctors and family members and other terrified friends, they seemed involved in another world. I saw the same thing with my mother toward the end of her life. Doctors said her apparent engagement with an invisible world was a hallucinatory result of medications. Perhaps, but it seemed very much like what I observed with my dying friends, who often talked about their experiences as they occurred.

Do such experiences, of which I've had many more, prove the existence of God? No, I don't think so – not even remotely – but they do to my mind indicate that the psyche naturally craves a sense of the sacred. It makes little difference to me if the psyche creates the sacred or if the sacred, as a separate reality, reveals itself to the psyche. What seems important is that we need a sense of the transcendent, whether we are scientists or mystics.

Even Sam Harris, probably the most rabid of the new atheists, departs from his colleagues in recognizing the value of contemplative practices, which are part of most spiritual traditions. The difference in these practices is that they stress individual experience of the sacred rather than theological dogma. Indeed, if you read the work of mystics such as St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila or the Buddha, you're struck by the way they stress the importance of doubt and questioning.

So, again, I direct you to do yourself a holiday favor by enrolling in the Atlanta Shambhala Center's meditation workshop this weekend, offered annually at half-price ($75). Log onto AtlantaShambhalaCenter.org or call 404-370-9650.

Believe me, it's a lot more rewarding than running from cash register to cash register in the mall to get Baby Jesus to relax his grip on your throat.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.

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