(Note: These exchanges are now complete. There is a Table of Contents to the discussion now available.)
“I walk outside my house, I look around, and it doesn’t seem apparent to me that there is a God. I just don’t feel it. It doesn’t seem to be the natural conclusion of reality when I live life and look around. I see the world, and the existence of God doesn’t feel like a natural conclusion one could draw.”
I stare down into my coffee, catching the corner of my pastor’s glasses in the dark reflection.
“Well”, he says, “I know it doesn’t fix how you feel, but in the grand scope of human history, and even the global humanity living today, that opinion you just expressed is in the extreme, extreme minority. Most people living in the past and now have found looked at the world and have not been able to come to any conclusion other than their being a God.”
Crap. He was right. What I thought was such an objective engagement with the world around me, was (of course) still the product of the cultural forces from which I drink deeply. History and developmental psychology have shown us that religiousness is the default mode of the human heart.
We are by nature religious. It takes other, external forces to push back against that and move us away from it. And this fact is no apologetic for religion. It’s neither a point “for” or “against” religion. We are also by nature selfish and willing to do whatever it takes to be the fittest and survive. We try not to give into this natural drive and through education and conditioning try to move away from it.
Something extra has to come into play to move someone from religion to Atheism. Something has to be added to the basic religiosity of folks to move them from it. Now this “extra” thing could very well be facts, enlightenment, maturity, therapy, medication, an inner self-honesty, or even understandable experience–it doesn’t have to be negative things, and this is not intended to be a knock on Atheism.
Religion could very well be an evolutionary artifact or a psychological coping mechanism that we have progressed beyond the need for and that we should shake off. That’s not my point, though.
The fact still remains: religion is the launching pad for Atheists. Which means, specifically for Christians, the kind of faith you perpetuate will dictate the kinds of Atheists you find, and their reasonings for thinking that way.
I have a friend named Daniel. We’ve had some “comment discussions” on various social media sites, blogs, and have had the privilege of hanging out for a weekend. He was raised in a more Pentecostal setting and in the past few years has given himself wholly to Atheism and articulating defenses for it and arguing against religion. He is a kind man far more interested in discussion and getting to the bottom of these things than simply yelling his opinions and leaving it at that.
A couple of days ago, he put up a Facebook note that laid out 20 things that would convince him that Atheism was false (it’s really a list of 20 reasons why he thinks Christianity is wrong, but that’s beside the point).
Looking at his critiques of religion, you can figure out the kind of God and Christianity he thinks he is not believing in–the kind of religion from off of which his Atheism is built. He received nearly 30 “likes”, started some comment warring, and received accolades and congratulations for definitively destroying religion, showing how Atheism makes sense, writing articulately, and even one comment praising his “diction” for not sounding “folksy”.
And yet, I couldn’t help thinking, as I read it, how the world it seems he is inhabiting as he writes is one of such utter over-simplicity that didn’t seem to know of any complexity, nuance, or substance in either the world or in religion. Throughout, he oversimplifies or misunderstands scientific and theological terms and ideas.
As I read, I kept thinking that he was speaking against both a Straw-God and a Straw-Bible that I didn’t believe in. And I don’t mean that in the liberal, post-modern “I’m enlightened and read the Bible in a unique way that’s different from everyone else”, which really just means watering down Christianity until there’s nothing distinctive to it all. I mean that he is reacting to a theology, Christianity, and Bible that bears little resemblance to Christianity as it has been known for most of its history.
He seems to be reacting to a very specific brand of Christianity known only in the past 150 years and only in the West, and only in response to the Enlightenment. But this isn’t Daniel (or any other Atheist’s) fault. I blame American Christians.
It’s our fault. We let a flavor of Christianity take hold in our country with no nuance, complexity, or substance. We let an idolatry of the Bible take root that no author of Scripture would have known. We evacuated doubt and humanity from our theology and spoke silly ideas with such unwavering confidence that even the Atheists think that Christianity falls or stands based on such minor theological issues!
And this is not just the previous generation of southern fundamentalists. I’m talking to all of you super cool awesome twenty-something “Neo-Reformed”, “Neo-Calvinist”, and “Emergent” Christians. You have exalted (read: worshiped) a group of people (read: white men) that “have it all figured out” and have every answer to every question and hold up such minor, idiotic things as essentials of the faith and Gospel. You do this while alienating and casting out those that try to offer substance, complexity, awe, mystery, and historical fidelity to our faith. It’s our fault as American Christians for fighting silly fights and clinging to everything but the truest essentials.
It’s because of us that Atheists can read something like Daniel’s post and say things like, “Brilliant piece Daniel, truer words have never been typed.” Never? Really? But back to Daniel.
He doesn’t get get completely off the hook, though. (I say that with a wry smile across my face, by the way.) I don’t know if Daniel knows this or not, but I remember having read this post by him a long time ago. He wrote it a while ago, and simply re-posted it the other day.
And here’s my frustration. When he first wrote this, maybe he had the kind of Christianity in mind that I was just talking about. Maybe he simply had only been offered a simplistic idea of Christianity and so the terms he was laying out against it were also simplistic.
But I know for a fact that he has–since he originally wrote this–read, commented on, and engaged with many of those writers, bloggers, scholars, and theologians that consistently speak directly to the issues he writes about. He interacts frequently with Christians that do not represent the kind of hyper-rational zero-sum truth world within which this post was written.
I do find this pretty consistently among the more ardent, evangelical Atheists out there. They fight with the such rigor to say that modernist Christian fundamentalism has to be the truest articulation of Christianity, no matter what anyone else says. They act as if that is “true” Christianity, and so if that can be dismantled, then all is “won”. They write off dissenting, legitimate voices–or simply disregard them.
So if we’re going to have this discussion, we should at least acknowledge the presence and knowledge of voices that have legitimate responses to the concerns raised in that post and others like it.
In my next post, I’ll try and walk through some of the over-simplicity of the faith and world that I think I observed in the post. I’ll also offer my answers to Daniel’s question: what would lead me away from my faith. Stay tuned. And feel free to comment below.