The Religious Faith of Atheist Extremists
So let me be clear about a few things up front:
1. I do not believe that people who do not believe in my notion of God–or any other notion, for that matter–are going to hell.
2. This conviction translates into really, honestly, having no drive to convert anyone to Christianity away from some other framework of belief.
It should also be said that I like being a Christian, I think that there is much to be said for Christianity, and I am not afraid to talk about what I think Christianity is about and what it can offer to the table.
But I have no compulsion whatsoever to “save souls for Jesus.”
I don’t even understand the notion, and frankly it makes me start to hyperventilate.
Suffice it to say that I’ve never been asked to serve on an evangelism committee.
Engage in mutual conversation? Yes.
Engage in conversion for the sake of conversion?
I trust in grace entirely.
And I trust that I may have it wrong.
3. I do not believe that there is such a thing as an atheist.
The word, in Greek, breaks down to mean no-God: a-theist. Someone who is an atheist is someone who believes that there is no God. (An agnostic, then, breaks down to mean “someone who doesn’t know: a-gnosis).
I am in line with Luther and Tillich who believe that a person’s god is that in which or in whom you place your ultimate trust.
That can change, from moment to moment, but generally we all have some guiding principles, the most central belief(s) that shape and inform who we are. It could even be that our god is ourselves, or our trust in reason, or science, or, to take it a different way, my children, or in yet down another path, an addiction, a relationship for which we’ll sacrifice all things, a pursuit after money or fame, and so forth.
That is: there is nothing innate about the word “God” that necessarily implies something “supernatural.” In fact, strictly speaking, the notion of a supernatural god is decidedly not Jewish, and therefore not Christian. It is Greek, however, and that influence undoubtedly shaped the early Church…and everything that came after.
That said, I know that the word has a commonly understood meaning, namely one who does not believe in a specific “supernatural” god who is worshiped through rituals and actions.
I’ll work with that, then.
4. The question is less whether god exists, and more which god is it in which you believe?
This is not a minor point.
Often, when I hear people tell me that they don’t believe in God, I ask them what they understand God to be, and it turns out that I don’t believe in that God either.
So before conversation begins about God, in any way, shape, or form, the conversation partners have to have a common working definition about what they are talking about!
Pat Robertson, Fred Phelps, the Pope, and I…we all have very different notions of God. That shapes what we think about following God.
Often, I’m discovering, those who argue against Christianity argue against a notion of God that many don’t hold anymore: a God who looks awfully Zeusian. I’m all for indignation, but before I get my undies and innards in a knot, I’d rather make sure that we’re in agreement that we ought to be arguing in the first place, and in the second, that we’re in agreement about what we’re arguing.
Again, even self-identified Christians can’t agree what God means.
5. This is all to say that a Christian is not a Christian is not a Christian.
Regardless of the group being considered (women, blacks, gays, Muslims….Christians) we run into problems when we speak of the “them” as a monolithic group. Not least of all, en masse-speak furthers stereotypes and misrepresentations, and reveals more about the teller’s lack of knowledge and nuance than it reveals about the subject of the teller’s telling.
The same, of course, is true of atheists: i.e., an atheist is not an atheist is not an atheist.
6. I like atheists.
Not all atheists. I don’t like all Christians or all Democrats either, for that matter (I do tend to like all my family, thankfully, but you get my point).
But often, atheists pose valid questions, and keep people of other faiths engaged in their claims.
And remember, my husband was killed and my son suffered a traumatic brain injury, a trauma that affected more than just his beautiful brain.
There is reason to raise questions about God.
I get that.
I respect that.
7. Yes, I did say “of other faiths.”
Atheists have faith in their belief system, as do Christians and Muslims and Jews and so on and so forth.
Faith is trust in something that is not provable. One cannot prove that there is a supernatural God. One cannot prove that there is not. One might be able to prove that there was a big bang (though there are different “denominations” of beliefs about that within the scientific community) but one cannot prove what happened immediately prior to it, or how whatever happened was there to have something happen to it in the first place.
They have faith.
That’s the background for the intent of this blog, which is really about the rising angry rhetoric from atheist fundamentalists.
Religious Fundamentalism is not just for Christians or Muslims anymore.
Atheists got game here too.
Let me throw a couple of links your way, an increasing array of articles written with such vehemence, such vitriol and misunderstanding that I am moved to put a few thoughts to the blog.
Note the title, here: “The Second Oldest Profession–Lying for Christ.”
It’s an interesting piece, a glowing review of Bart Ehrman’s recent book Forged.
It’s true that Ehrman is a well-trained biblical scholar. His M.Div. and Ph.D. are from Princeton, he studied under a premier scholar of Greek, Bruce Metzger, and now he teaches at the University of Chapel Hill in North Carolina. He has served in the leadership of the Society of Biblical Literature, the reigning professional association for biblical theologians.
All of these facts make it all the stranger that he writes what he does.
Ehrman provides an example from these early days, the New Testament’s letter to the Ephesians:
- “Fasten the belt of truth around your waist (6:14);
- The gospel as “the word of truth” (1:13);
- The “truth is in Jesus” (4:21);
- “Speak the truth” to your neighbors (4:24-25); and,
- The “fruit of the light” is found in “truth” (5:9);
The problem, after all this truth-talking, is that the author of Ephesians is as dishonest as the day is long. As Ehrman says, it’s ironic that the author of Ephesians is lying about who he is, pretending to be Paul of Tarsus. That he is, in fact, a forger. A liar.
That’s quite a way to begin a conversation.
The author of the review explicitly calls Christians liars (not to mention the implication that we are prostituting ourselves, following on the heels of the fabled “oldest” profession in the world), and the author of the book, Ehrman, calls the author of Ephesians a forger and a liar.
There are a number of ways to go about responding. I’m not interested in doing a point-by-point refutation, but I do think it’s worth noting that not all biblical scholars believe that Ephesians is pseudographical (namely written by one person in the name of another) and in noting that many believe that what to us, now, smacks as plagiarism was then a form of honoring a teacher. You can read a bit more about both claims here:
These are but two online links (volumes about this matter have been written, not that one would know that to read Ehrman) to discover information that points out that it’s hardly as simply as forgery and lying…and scholar Ehrman ought to know better than to suggest that it is. Ironically, his blithe dismissal of an extended conversation in the world of biblical scholarship suggests his own proclivity to telling untruths.
(I’m not the only one who is concerned about Ehrman’s approach. Here’s just one person who has similar objections: http://www.americanthinker.com/2007/03/review_of_bart_d_ehrmans_misqu.html)
But Christians are not only called liars amongst atheist extremists, but hypocrites who “cherry pick” our own beliefs.
Take a look here:
This author directs her attention not only to the conservatives, but rather to the progressives, who, although well-intentioned, still miss the fact that they arbitrarily pick and choose what parts of the Bible they like. Listen:
See, that’s the thing about “looking into your heart” to decide which of your religion’s cherries are the good, tasty ones that you should gobble right up, and which are the nasty, rotten, poisoned ones you should avoid at all costs. Believers tend to conveniently overlook the fact that other believers are looking just as deeply into their hearts… and are coming up with the exact opposite answers to these questions. Some people sincerely believe that God intends marriage to be strictly between one man and one woman — others sincerely believe that God intends marriage to be between any two people who love each other and want to make a lifetime commitment. Some people sincerely believe that God created women and men as equals, to live their lives as they best see fit — others sincerely believe that God created women and men with radically different roles in life, and that women’s divinely ordained role is to be subordinate to men. Etc. Etc. Etc.
And there’s no way to find out which of them is right.
Trouble, is, it’s not like that–or at least not consistently.
The Bible is also known as the Canon. It comes from a word meaning “yardstick.” It’s the check to make sure that something is “measuring up.”
But there is indeed another phrase called “The canon within the canon.” Lutherans, for example, we’re all over Paul. We love Paul. And we tend to read more Pauline inspired texts than, say, James.
The author is right, that there is a danger of cherry-picking. Three things, however:
1. This is why I love being a systematic theologian.
We get to consider the texts, recognize that there are inconsistencies to them, and then say, “What is an appropriate framework for interpreting what this says and what this means?”
It’s like a constitutional lawyer. Or a parent. “I know I said you could stay up late last Sunday night, but not tonight! This Sunday night Mama is watching Masterpiece Mystery! Now Go To Bed!”
It’s called thinking. Not hypocrisy. Not cherry-picking. Thinking.
2. One “cherry-picker test” is to note what cherries is a person going after.
A cherry picker is going to find the best of the offerings. But generally, Jesus offers instead some bitter crabapples. “Take up your cross.” “Sell what you have.” “Those who lose their lives will save them.”
At least among a fair portion of Christians, we follow the idea that we are to act on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, the hungry…even if that means that we give up something that would benefit us. We believe we might just be called to, how did the author put it? Oh yes: pick “the nasty, rotten, poisoned ones” that others might “avoid at all costs.”
3. Atheists have the same quandary and quagmire.
An atheist is not an atheist is not an atheist. At the end of the day, an atheist makes a choice. What is the rule of thumb? Is it consistently applied? Why or why not? Are there allowable exceptions to rules? Who choses when that might be?
It behooves all of us, Christians and atheists alike, to be aware of our moral code and how we have come to it and whether we apply it uniformly or, well, cherry pick it.
Then we have gleeful Ding-Dong-The-Witch-Is-Deady articles, like this one:
Most large Christian sects, both Catholic and Protestant, have made fighting against gay rights and women’s rights their all-consuming crusade. And young people have gotten this message loud and clear: polls find that the most common impressions of Christianity are that it’s hostile, judgmental and hypocritical. In particular, an incredible 91% of young non-Christians say that Christianity is “anti-homosexual“, and significant majorities say that Christianity treats being gay as a bigger sin than anything else. (When right-wing politicians thunder that same-sex marriage is worse than terrorism, it’s not hard to see where people have gotten this impression.)
On other social issues as well, the gap between Gen Nexters and the church looms increasingly wide. Younger folks favor full access to the morning-after pill by a larger margin than older generations (59% vs. 46%). They reject the notion that women should return to “traditional roles” — already a minority position, but they disagree with it even more strongly than others. And they’re by far the least likely of all age groups to say that they have “old-fashioned” values about family and marriage (67% say this, as compared to 85% of other age groups).
While it is true that the Roman Catholic tradition has not welcomed gays and lesbians into their pulpits, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has, as have the Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ members, some Mennonites, the Metropolitan Community Church….
And while it is true that some Christian traditions encourage “traditional roles,” Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, UCCers, Presbyterians, and on and on would scratch their heads at this claim.
The author would be advised to read Diana Butler Bass’ recent book entitled Christianity for the Rest of Us, or to learn about the Emerging Church movement, and get caught up to speed on the dynamism and progressivism that is becoming the norm; is and has been the norm for many years.
Interestingly, one can make the case that there is a strand of atheism that is positively evangelical. Take a look at this:
Note the euphoric emphasis on material success (not a hallmark of progressive Christianity, which instead emphasizes the call to give up for the sake of the other), and more interestingly this line:
These people are the low-hanging fruit whom atheists can reach. We need to deliver a strong, effective message that belief in God is not necessary for the things human beings care about – that nonbelievers can justify morality with reason and conscience, and build a secular community without reference to faith. And given that our audience’s sympathies are already leaning in that direction, we should continue to make the case that religious belief is archaic superstition, contains many immoral rules, and has no solutions for the ethical problems humanity faces today. Let the theologians and mystics continue to carp and complain that atheists are being disrespectful, that we’re not acknowledging the magnificence of the emperor’s new clothes. We don’t require their consent, and they’re not our target audience anyway. The continuing growth of atheism throughout the world is all the encouragement we need to speak out.
“Low-hanging fruit whom atheists can reach?” “Build a secular community?” “The continuing growth of atheism throughout the world is all the encouragement we need to speak out?”
All they’re missing is “Go out to all the world, and don’t baptize in atheism’s name!”
If one really is an atheist, then I’d expect one to have the kind of conversionist’s bent that I do.
Rod Liddle, a British BBC journalist, recently produced a documentary entitled “The Trouble with Atheism.” You can see it here: http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/trouble-with-atheism/.
It’s worth the 47 minutes to watch it.
He makes an awfully persuasive case for the religious extremism of some pockets of atheism, and is concerned that it is picking up steam.
Additionally, he interviews leading atheists and leading scientists and even a theologian, John Polkinghorne, who is both a scientist and a theologian.
He’s interested neither in saying that there is a God, nor that there isn’t.
He is interested in saying that Dawkins (note here some assumptions about Christians and the uniformity of belief) and others who assert with no hesitation that Christianity is “stupid” or “wrong” and that atheists are “right” and “they have no doubt” are, well, arrogant.
I like the questions that many atheists raise.
I appreciate entertainer Penn, to a degree, who in this article writes with articulate humility that he doesn’t know…although later he states, “I’m not going to use faith to fill in the gaps.”
But if he doesn’t know (and who does, really?) that’s exactly what he is doing. Using faith to fill in the gaps.
It’s what we’re all doing.
These sites below show how atheists can raise really good questions, and do it in a way that doesn’t demean Christians, or any other faith group.
And if you’re into longer literary interludes, check out this book called The Divinity of Doubt: An Agnostic Probes the God Question.
My problem isn’t with atheism per se. If it were, I wouldn’t be the advocate for ecumenical conversation and cooperation that I am. I recognize that I might be wrong, and others (atheists included) might be right.
And that’s o.k.
I trust in grace entirely.
My problem is with the haughty atheist contingent which demonstrates the very vim and vigor and contempt and arrogance and ignorance of the Christian extremism they ostensibly detest.
And so when I read the articles like I do above, I think of the quote that I have read to Christians with the same purpose, a quote from Czeslaw Milosz from his book The Captive Mind. It is from “an Old Jew of Galacia,” who said:
When someone is honestly 55% right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling. And if someone is 60% right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck, and let him thank God. But what’s to be said about 75% right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100% right? Whoever say he’s 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.
Regardless of one’s faith, I believe that this old Jew might not be wrong.
I find it helpful to make the distinction between atheist and antitheist. I have no truck with the former, and I can’t see where any God worthy of the job description would either. But I have little use for the latter, into which category it seems most of the “famous atheists” fall. Almost invariably, they appear to have some sort of axe to grind, or even a cartload of them. Perhaps because I too was born without the gene that compels some people to proselytize, I think that someone who doesn’t believe should simply not believe and be done with it. Come to think of it, I think the same of those who do believe. I don’t want members of either group ringing my doorbell.
On the whole, agnostics are much easier to respect, and to relate to. A true agnostic, as you indicate, merely admits that he or she does not know. Given that we are pondering the unknowable, it’s a sensible position.
“I don’t want members of either group ringing my doorbell.”
I cackled in my OMG study just now over that one.