Rise of the Magi: On Three Kings Day, Believers and Atheists Should Call a Truce

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Jose Cabezas / AFP / Getty Images

Men dressed as the Wise Men attend Epiphany celebrations in a church in San Salvador on January 6, 2011.

On Jan. 6, kids all over the Spanish-speaking world will get Christmas toys. Not from Santa Claus but from Los Reyes Magos — the Magi, a.k.a. the Wise Men or Three Kings, who according to Biblical tradition followed a star to worship the newborn Jesus and offer him commodities that today would provide a good start for a college fund.

Traditionalists fear the popularity of Santa threatens to dethrone the Magi in Spain and Latin America. But what’s certain is that Jan. 6 — Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, as Christians call it — is no longer the Christmas finale it used to be. That’s a shame, because we could use more examples of broad-minded menschen like the Magi in this dismally dogmatic age of ours. One of the best gifts they bear is some common ground between believers and atheists — which, judging from the reaction to a Christmas article I wrote last month, seems as rare today as presents of frankincense and myrrh.

We’ve long imagined the Magi as intellectually and spiritually enlightened astronomer-philosophers. They were conversant in both science (at least what passed for it then) and religion, and they considered the two compatible. Some scholars suggest the Magi were Zoroastrians, but their faith background is vague, if they had any at all, and that ambiguity is actually fortunate. If they did believe in God, they were also devotees of the rational and empirical; if they didn’t, they could also engage the mystical and transcendent. Either way, what matters is that they were led on their camelback trek by a light of peace, love, hope and redemption.

Atheists of course are just as committed to that peace-on-earth ideal as Christians are, as are Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and pagans. My Christmas essay simply pointed out that both religious fundamentalists and atheist fundamentalists (whom I clearly distinguished from most believers and atheists) can cop pretty intolerant attitudes toward those who don’t believe or disbelieve as they do. Most believers know the fanatics in their midst: this past Christmas season, as I wrote, Christians had to apologize for a Florida fundamentalist group’s bigoted crusade against Muslim-Americans. And I think atheists should be as willing to acknowledge zealots in their own ranks, including the late author Christopher Hitchens.

A lot of atheists cried “false equivalence!” after I characterized Hitchens, who died last month at age 62, as a fundamentalist. But here’s why I did:

If atheists rightly get tired of religious fundamentalists telling them they’ve lost their souls, believers get weary of atheist fundamentalists telling us we’ve lost our minds — and that was all too often the facile gospel according to Hitchens, an otherwise brilliant polemicist. His best seller, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, is a masterful study of how religion gets perverted. But as an indictment of religion per se, it’s unconvincing if not specious, especially when it argues that faith almost ruined causes like the abolitionist movement. Hitchens announces that “virtuous behavior by a believer is no proof at all of — indeed is not even an argument for — the truth of his belief.” O.K. Yet he insists on the righteousness of his nonbelief by boasting of how virtuously atheists “distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason,” as if atheists are always reasonable by default, and as if believers outrage reason for breakfast.

Some took issue with my Christmas article’s assertion that “making the here and now better would be difficult without religion,” because they took it to mean “atheism is bad.” I wrote no such thing. I said that humanely practiced religion has improved the world – and I would say the same thing about humanely practiced atheism. (I’m a Roman Catholic, but my articles on Catholicism always separate the humane Catholic religion from the sometimes inhumane doctrine of the Catholic church.) Atrocities have certainly been committed in the name of religion, from the autos-da-fé of the Inquisition to last month’s Islamist bombings of churches in Nigeria. Ogres have also butchered in the name of atheism, from Stalin to Pol Pot. But I would never hold atheism itself accountable for their evil, as Hitchens so often did with religion.

In his later years, Hitchens had to answer for his vocal backing of the U.S.’s morally questionable war in Iraq, a stand bred in no small part by his flawed conviction that Saddam Hussein’s fall was a blow for secularism against Islamism. Saddam was a monster, but his regime was in fact one of the Arab world’s most secular, and what the U.S. did there instead was open an Islamist hornet’s nest.

The Magi may have crossed ancient Iraq en route to Bethlehem. Granted, their origins are obscure — so obscure, author Garrison Keillor once quipped, that Minnesota Lutherans hold out hope that one of the Magi was Norwegian — but that allows us, as my friend and Episcopal rector the Rev. John Ohmer says, “to use them as a blank canvas on which to paint our best colors.” Especially the hues of tolerance, not just between different races and faiths but between faith and atheism.

Science and religion weren’t always at odds. Copernicus’ views were theocentric as well as heliocentric; Muslim caliphs like Harun al-Rashid were among history’s greatest science boosters. Most believers aren’t the obscurantists that Hitchens would have had us be; Genesis is not our biology text. In fact, belief in God often makes us more ardent defenders of science because it enhances our awareness of nature’s sublime mysteries. Likewise, atheists aren’t the nihilists that religious fundamentalists call them; their sense of wonder is as rich as anyone else’s. Many atheists tell me they see what I call God in a majestic sunset, an inspiring piece of art or an elevating philosophy like Plato’s theory of perfect forms.

Like Plato, we’re all wired to contemplate a more perfect ideal of ourselves. One of the best Christmas stories relates how that urge launched a camel caravan looking for peace, love, hope and redemption.