03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Changing the Conversation on Religion (Before it Kills Us All)

The media-labeled "New Atheists" such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have put forward what they regard as the answer to religion: grow up, human race, and abandon your myths!

Most Americans, and maybe even most people around the world, have another answer to the extremes of religion that infect people like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who (allegedly) tried to blow up an airplane over Detroit: hunt down and kill the extremists.

I think just about everyone has missed the real point: religion won't go away because -- like it or not -- people are spiritual beings.

Telling religious people to be moderate is not going to solve anything once they are convinced everyone not like them is the enemy of "truth." Killing more people just makes martyrs. That being the case, the way to confront religious poison is to change religion, not try to win by eliminating it. And that change means we have to try and get to the next generation before the fundamentalists do.

The only real solution to religious extremism is to change the conversation about religion altogether.

We urgently need to make that conversation center on embracing paradox rather than seeking -- then trying to impose by force and or "reason" -- our pet certainties on others.

How do we change the conversation about religion, roll back the violence done in the name of God (be that by gay-hating American "Christian" fundamentalists or world-fearing "Islamic" radicals -- and while we're at it end the culture war here at home that divides us on everything from the existence of God to abortion and gay rights?

How do we live together in a world where some people fervently believe that the earth is 6000 years old, that gay men and women choose to be gay and can "change" if they want to, that Jesus will soon return (and thus that war in the Middle East is a good thing because it is a "sign" of the much-hoped-for "End Times") while other people just as fervently believe that people who hold such views are dumb, evil and dangerous?

Do the New Atheist really believe that "Reason" (whatever that is) will win the day after people are indoctrinated? Good luck with that! Do they see signs of that happening? Or do the evangelicals like Pastor Rick Warren really believe that they will convince the world to sign on for a dose of Jesus-induced American middle class-style "values" by following Warren's trademark narrow minded "purpose driven" model of fundamentalist Christianity?

Does raising the volume help as we shout at each other, mock one another and ramp up our own self-fulfilling "prophecies" of doom? Or is there an alternative?

Put it this way: what might have helped the misguided and inept young man -- Abdulmutallab -- who allegedly tried to blow up that plane? Say he'd run into you or me in London when he was living there and studying, how could we have talked him into another frame of mind other than that of absolutism and aggrieved confrontation with the "other"?

Would he have changed his views if Rick Warren had handed him a copy of The Purpose Driven Life? And had he converted to Warren's brand of Christianity would Abdulmutallab have also signed on -- as did many of Warren's followers in Africa -- to Warren's homophobic campaign that (in Uganda) allegedly contributed to proposed legislation to impose the death penalty on gays? (Something that very belatedly Warren spoke out against when pressed by the media). What would have been the use of converting Abdulmutallab to the American moral equivalent of the Taliban's brand of "Islam" -- a version of Christianity that excludes gays, Jews, atheists, and anyone else regarded as the "lost"?

Would Bill Maher have been able to mock the would-be bomber into a change of heart by making fun of his belief in "imaginary friends?"

Or could Christopher Hitchens have convinced Abdulmutallab to abandon religious belief based on a one-sided list of all of the evils in history ascribed to religion?

What if our radicalized and hate-filled American gun-loving, Obama-hating evangelicals with their gay bashing rhetoric could also have once been reached? If so, how?

Evangelical/fundamentalists, Islamic fundamentalists, and for that matter, atheist fundamentalists who stick with their program are forced to try to reconcile the irreconcilable. That tends to piss them off! That tends to make them look for simple solutions from one line Maher-style punch lines to suicide bombs that will once and for all "answer" people with another point of view and shut them up!

Evangelical/fundamentalists and fundamentalist atheists have bought into an idea that my evangelical missionary mother used to phrase as a dire warning: "If you pick and choose between verses in the Bible, the whole thing will unravel! If it's not all true, none of it is!"

Because picking and choosing is what thinking is, thinking becomes a threat to people who are certain they are right. Who knows where asking questions might lead?

What Islamic, Christian and/or atheist fundamentalists won't admit is that all fundamentalists do pick and choose, by necessity, when interpreting their beliefs.

Seen any adulterers stoned to death in a church lately? Somewhat less dramatically, but just as tellingly, if you are an evangelical/ fundamentalist churchgoer, have you recently heard that Bible verse in Genesis about how "the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives" preached on? And if you are a Hitchens/Dawkins/Maher follower have you read any good essays by them on the weirdly symbiotic relationship between some bloodthirsty secular regimes (China anyone?) and atheist beliefs?

As I point out in my book Patience With God -- Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism) Christian fundamentalists having elevated the Bible (or at least the nicer bits that they like) to the status of a magic book in which God is trapped and kept somewhat like a tame pet, can't admit that the Bible has flaws and is just plain crazy in places. And try criticizing Dawkins on his website and see how the word "infidel" can be resurrected in spirit if not literally by "open-minded" atheists!

Is there another way to look at "truth" issues that might not lead to hate? Yes. It's called apophatic theology and can be applied to both secular and religious ideas.

Evagrius Ponticus (a fourth century monk) summed up this view, saying "Do not define the Deity: for it is only of things which are made or are composite that there can be definitions." In fact, a whole anti-theology came to be called apophatic theology, or the theology of not knowing, or negative theology. It speaks only about what may not be said about God. And this way of perceiving God is found not just in Christianity but in other religions too.

This theology takes a mystical approach related to individual ex­periences of the Divine beyond ordinary perception. It teaches that the Divine is ineffable, something that can be recognized only when it is felt, then remembered. And therefore all descriptions of this sense will be false, because by definition the experience of God eludes description.

Apophatic descriptions of God acknowledge (1) that neither the existence of God nor nonexistence, as we understand these words in the material world, applies to God, (2) that God is divinely simple and that one should never claim God is "one" or "three" or any "type" of being, (3) that we can't say that God is "wise," because that implies knowledge of what wisdom is on a divine scale, and (4) that to say that God is "good" also limits God to what that word means in the context of human behavior.

If we want to change the religion debate the same could and should be applied to all philosophy and even to science. There is a difference between opinion and changing/evolving information and absolute and changeless fact. If we'd divide the practical everyday "facts" from making huge and out-sized cosmological "conclusions" we'd all be better off.

We'd also be closer to the truth that we can't know anything conclusively because we are evolving and not "there" yet (wherever there is!) and also we are part of the paradox we're seeking to unravel. In other words rather than strapping bombs on ourselves to eliminate the other, we might instead "strap" on a bit of humility be that atheist humility in the face of tenacious spirituality or religious humility in the face of the very apparent contradiction of some of religion's fondest beliefs by science.

Recognizing that paradox is the way things are is about more than theological conflicts.

Science (grudgingly) embraces paradox too. Take, for example, what seems to be the contradiction between Ein­stein's proven Theory of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. The first theory holds that if you know the initial conditions of a physical system with absolute certainty, then you can know the future outcome of the system you are modeling. Theoretically, then, everything in the universe is as predictable as the speed of light -- if you have enough information.

The second theory (Quantum Mechanics) says that you can never know the initial conditions exactly and also that you can't know what will happen in the future of any physical system. You can only know, to a greater or lesser extent, the probability of something happening because, for instance, some particles can be in two places at once. Quantum Mechanics might be described as the apophatic science of uncertainty.

The point is to agree on a better vision of where we want to evolve to, not just physically but also ethically.

That is a project that believers and agnostics and atheists can and should agree on. We don't have to "fit" our ideas about how we perceive things together in order to work together. We can be the same "particle" but exist in two places at once.

If the Umar Farouk Abdulmutallabs of this world (of whatever religion or no religion at all) could be reached with an "evangelism" of paradox and blessed uncertainty before the people so certain that they are right get to them, we could change our world dramatically for the better.

Uncertainty is not to be "solved" it is to be embraced. That has to be our message as we press into the next decade of this so-far violent and disastrous century.

Frank Schaeffer is a writer and author of PATIENCE WITH GOD: Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism)