Wise Men Say: Time For A Truce Between Atheists And Believers (And More Toys)

Jan 6, 2014

The Magi hand out toys at a Three Kings Day event in Miami's Little Havana.
Credit C.M. Guerrero / El Nuevo Herald

As a boy, I always envied Hispanics at Christmas. That’s because they got a bonus Santa Claus.

Three, actually: Los Reyes Magos, a.k.a. the Three Kings, the Wise Men, the Magi – the fellows who each Jan. 6 lavished an extra round of toys on every kid I knew who had a Spanish surname.

As an adult, I’m still a big fan of los Reyes. And I think Jan. 6 – Epiphany, the day that Christians, especially in Spain and Latin America, celebrate the Magis’ visit to the newborn Jesus – offers another potential bonus:

It can mark an annual truce between believers and non-believers. A moment for theists and atheists to realize they share more common ground than they thought.

Why Three Kings day? Because the wise guys themselves occupy that common ground. Although the Magi are among religion’s most famous icons, their legend indicates they were also accomplished astronomers whose impulses were scientific as well as spiritual.

Granted, given what passed for science two millennia ago, they hardly would have been a trio of Stephen Hawkings. And their origins are so obscure that the humorist Garrison Keillor once quipped that Minnesota Lutherans hope the Magi might have been Norwegian.


Still, the Magi are at least a useful symbol for a positive trend we’re seeing in both believer and atheist circles lately – a little less culture war and a little more blessed tolerance.

The believer-atheist dispute was once a half-way civil argument about God's existence. (Memo to both sides: even that seems a pointless debate since said existence can't be proven or disproven.) But in recent decades it has degenerated into a caustic cacophony dominated by:

Religious fundamentalists like the American Family Association, which recently declared that atheists are aligned with the Taliban. (Last month the AFA also got serial homophobe Phil Robertson returned to the A&E series “Duck Dynasty,” proving that life really is just about Faith. Family. Ducks.)

And atheist fundamentalists like American Atheists, who revel in campaigns like the electronic billboard the group had in New York’s Times Square last month that read: “Who needs Christ during Christmas? Nobody.” (The word “Christ” was crossed out just in case you found the message too subtle.)

Now, fortunately, more moderate and enlightened voices are emerging. On the faith side you can point to Roger C. Schriner, a retired Unitarian minister and author of Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics. Among the secularists there’s Chris Stedman, a humanist chaplain at Harvard and author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground With the Religious.

A New York Times article last month found a growing number of atheists who gather to celebrate the winter solstice and the rebirth of the sun. One of them, Raymond Arnold, said they were seeking “a sense of transcendence.”

What a coincidence. That’s what believers are looking for. It's no news flash that humans, be they Plato or the Pope, crave connection with a transcendent ideal of goodness and light. You can call it God or Allah or nirvana; you can find it via Jesus or Buddha or a sublime solstice; you can celebrate it with others inside a synagogue or by yourself inside a kayak. But while you can certainly ruin it, as so many religious dogmatics do, you can’t eradicate it, as so many atheist dogmatics exhort us to do.

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So, believers, meet Raymond Arnold: a transcendence-seeker like you. At the same time, Raymond, I’d urge you and other “agnostic-atheist-humanists,” as you called yourself in the Times, to meet most believers:

We’re not creationists or obscurantists. We endorse evolution – in the U.S., that includes the vast majority of mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics and Jews, according to surveys like a new Pew Center poll – as well as stem-cell research and church-state separation. Most of us are believers and humanists. And, like the Magi, we find the two instincts compatible and even complementary.

Are there still too many irrational fanatics among believers? Yep. Are there still too many irrational fanatics among atheists? Yep. They’ll keep wallowing on their common ground: their insistence that you’re wicked (as extremist believers define any atheist) or whack-job (as extremist atheists define any believer) if you don’t think precisely as they do.

But they’re the old story. What's trending was captured in another recent Pew poll. Its double-edged finding: a whopping fifth of Americans today are not affiliated with any religion – and yet a whopping two-thirds of those unaffiliated say they still believe in God.

That’s a repudiation of both religious and atheist fundamentalists. And, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a validation of the Magi – and those bonus toys.

Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.