Rabbi Steinsaltz was asked: Atheism is enjoying a certain vogue right now. Why do you think that is? Can there be a productive conversation between believers and atheists, and if so over what kinds of issues?
While atheism is now enjoying a certain vogue in the U.S., it is not a new phenomenon.
In Europe it has been popular for over 100 years, perhaps as early as the French Revolution.
Until recently, it was not very common in the U.S. because the United States was, and is, an extremely religious country – different, in that sense, from almost all of Europe.
What happened in more recent years is that the growth of religious fundamentalism created a counter-reaction in the U.S., a strengthening of trends and ideas – many of them quite old ideas – that have become, in certain groups, a la mode.
In essence, nothing has changed, neither the problem nor the arguments; rather, the difference lies in the publicity.
Can there be a productive conversation between believers and atheists?
It depends on what level.
Any deep conversation is not very helpful because there is, in a certain way, a clash between two faiths, two forms of belief.
The atheists belong to an unorganized but very defined Church of the Atheists, while the believers belong not to the same church, but to a different one.
Whether one is an atheist or a believer, one’s underlying emotional stance is something that cannot really be changed, and therefore there cannot be a really productive, fruitful dialogue.
However, what sometimes happens is that people of different belief systems meet each other and somehow come to appreciate that the other is also a person.
And that is a great achievement.
From “On Faith: A Conversation about Religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn” http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/