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PODCAST: Cornel West, Mary Gordon, and Harvey Cox on the answer to atheism


Click to play video, or download the mp3 after the jump

This week in the Phoenix, Adam Reilly profiles  "atheist superstar" Greg Epstein, Harvard's Humanist chaplain and the author of Good Without God: What A Million Nonreligious People Do Believe. What separates Epstein from the best-selling crop of "new atheists" -- The Atlantic's James Parker profiled the Hitchens/Dawkins/Harris crowd for us in 2007 -- is his insistence on defining atheism as a denominational entity with a spiritual, if not holy, mission: "He dreams not of decisively crushing faith," Reilly writes, "but of a future in which the godless and godly cozily co-exist, respecting each other's convictions and even making common cause on issues of mutual concern."

For a semi-lapsed, second-generation atheist like me, the age-old bickering between the devoutly faithful and the fundamentally faithless can get boring fast. Far more fasctinating, and something I think too many of us godless types miss entirely, is what an enlightened discussion of faith really sounds like. The 2009 Boston Book Festival brought together three of the great contemporary, progressive voices on religion -- including Harvard Divinity School's legendary Harvey Cox, author of The Secular City and most recently of The Future of Faith; Mary Gordon, a novelist who took a detour back to the Gospels and brings a fresh eye to her non-fiction book Reading Jesus; and Cornel West, whose memoir Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud was released in September, and whose oratory on the deep connectivities of faith, death, tragedy, God, music, America, humanity, and righteousness are among the most powerful intellectual sermons I've ever had the pleasure to blast at top volume on my iPod.

With light moderation by Christopher Lydon, these three spent an all-too-brief hour talking explicitly about the challenges to faith in the 21st century, reminding us that non-believers have never held a monopoly on doubt, skepticism, and dissent. Their candor may surprise you. At one juncture, Mary Gordon offers a rigorous defense of atheists, if not atheism. Cox talks about how modern theology confronts the historical -- and contemporary -- abuses perpetuated by the Church. And West eloquently synthesizes a powerful, panoramic, and elegiac vision of religious conviction that is rooted in anguish: what he calls the "blues moment" of Jesus on the cross, asking why his father has forsaken him. West once told an audience that the answer to existential despair is to "love your way through the darkness." Which is just the kind of bumper-sticker proclamation that atheists love to poke holes in. But the reason West can get away with saying it is that he preaches how he gets there: down a path, winding through Leviticus, Shakespeare, Chekov, King, and Coltrane, that delivers true faith as the joy at the end of a long, perilous, thoughtful, painful, and ultimately lethal journey. Watch the entire panel in the video player above; click on the file below to listen; or right-click and save-as to download the file to your mp3 player of choice.

DOWNLOAD: Harvey Cox, Mary Gordon, Cornel West, and Christopher Lydon, "Matters of Faith" [mp3]

Recorded live at Boston Public Library during the 2009 Boston Book Festival. To subscribe to this podcast, paste this RSS feed into your feed-reader of choice, or bookmark http://thephoenix.com/podcast.

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