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Onward, secularist soldiers

SO A MUSLIM feminist, a pro-choice Baptist, a Catholic biologist, and a proselytizing atheist were all in an airplane about to crash. . .

Well, actually they were in a law school auditorium in Manhattan last weekend -- along with 20 other high-profile intellectuals and a packed crowd of onlookers -- discussing the American culture of belief, and how best to bridge the gulf between religious folk and their secular-minded brethren.

The event, hosted by the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University, bore the title "Us v. Them: the State of the Divide between Believers and Secularists in 2004 and Beyond." Its secularist-heavy lineup -- which included Michael Newdow, plaintiff in the case challenging the "Under God" phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance; arch-Darwinian biologist Richard Dawkins; and playwright Tony Kushner -- raised the question of just who "us" and "them" are. But running through the seven sessions was a paradoxical idea: In order to gain traction, does secularism need to present itself as more of a cohesive movement or belief system -- in other words, something more like a religion?

The basic challenge seemed clear enough. "Huge swaths of this country can't talk to each other," lamented conference organizer and New Yorker writer Lawrence Weschler during a lunchtime conversation with Kushner and essayist Sarah Vowell. He suggested that the conference's marked tilt toward the secular could be a symptom of this problem.

Vowell was raised as a "good little Christian" in the small town of Muskogee, Okla., which had five churches and one gas station, an environment she said she considers racist and backward but still finds herself defending in public. In the piercing monotone familiar to fans of her monologues on "This American Life," Vowell suggested that her own brand of coastal secularism ought to start to consider itself a civil religion and send "missionaries to go out to Kansas and spread the blue-state word."

Tony Kushner, however, wasn't on board for the missionary effort. "Nothing could convince me to go back down south," said Kushner, who was raised in a reform Jewish family in Lake Charles, La. While he has invoked the supernatural in "Angels in America," he claimed to have been so disillusioned by politicized religion that he now has no tolerance for theology in any form. Nevertheless, Kushner admitted to being occasionally "haunted by the possibility of something sacred."

With the skeptics professing a modicum of faith, one could be forgiven for concluding, along with James Miller, editor of Daedalus, the journal of the Cambridge-based American Academy of Arts and Sciences, that the belief gap had gotten narrow enough for many to straddle. The best way to make the world safe for secularism, Miller proposed, was to start talking about tolerance. He made a distinction between hardened absolutists -- a category that he drew to include both unyielding atheists and narrow-minded creationists -- and pluralists who were willing to tolerate the beliefs of others.

But not everybody seemed ready to give tolerance a chance. At a panel on science and religion, Richard Dawkins -- a hard-nosed materialist and author of "The Selfish Gene" -- grilled Brown biologist Kenneth R. Miller, a practicing Catholic, on his belief in the Virgin Birth. "Why should we respect scientists who believe in a god who listens to our prayers, forgives our sins, and performs cheap miracles?" Dawkins asked.

Applause erupted at the back of the auditorium, but onstage the mood was uneasy. Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson, who worships with Presbyterians in New Jersey but with Catholics in his native England (and has said that "atoms and humans and God may have minds that differ in degree but not in kind"), did not see the conflict. "Science and religion are two windows on the same universe, but you can't see through both at the same time," he said. "There is no incompatibility there, and you don't see the whole thing unless you use both."In the end, despite the occasional calls for secularist evangelism, a gentler strain of agnosticism held the day. At one point, Weschler made the case by citing a poem by Czeslaw Milosz: "If there is no God,/Not everything is permitted to man./He is still his brother's keeper/And he is not permitted to sadden his brother,/By saying that there is no God."

On exiting the auditorium, however, conference goers were met by a lone representative of "New York City Atheists Inc.," who handed out pamphlets claiming that nonbelievers outnumbered fundamentalists nationwide by a factor of two to one.

Jascha Hoffman is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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