05 October 2023

The atheist's gift (partly a repost)

In an excerpt from her book We of Little Faith: Why I Stopped Pretending to Believe (And Maybe You Should Too), adapted for publication in the Washington Post a couple of days ago, Kate Cohen explains crisply why she calls herself an atheist:

It’s not complicated. My (non)belief derives naturally from a few basic observations:

  1. The Greek myths are obviously stories. The Norse myths are obviously stories. L. Ron Hubbard obviously made that stuff up. Extrapolate.
  2. The holy books underpinning some of the bigger theistic religions are riddled with “facts” now disproved by science and “morality” now disavowed by modern adherents. Extrapolate.
  3. Life is confusing and death is scary. Naturally, humans want to believe that someone capable is in charge and that we continue to live after we die. But wanting doesn’t make it so.
  4. Child rape. War. Etc.

Cohen goes on to point out some reasons why, in the USA, atheists might choose not to be very public about their (non)beliefs, leading to her suggestion that surveys may significantly undercount atheists.

Judging by this excerpt, she's not the strongest possible advocate for atheism, but that may not be her main mission. (I've not read the book, just the Washington Post excerpt. If you can't access her article behind their paywall, let me know.) One of her main points is that if atheism can have its public stigma removed, the coercive power of religion in public life can be reduced. This is most likely to happen if atheists come out from undercover: "... the more I say to people that I’m an atheist—me, the mom who taught the kindergarten class about baking with yeast and brought the killer cupcakes to the bake sale—the more people will stop assuming that being an atheist means being … a serial killer."

Her theological critique of faith may be weak in this excerpt, but her political indictments of religion are strong and important—namely the many ways religious people (particularly the Christian right wing) throw their political weight around at the expensive of LGBTQ people, women facing reproductive dilemmas, truth-tellers about racism and its history, and, in general, the constitutional separation of church and state.

The enmeshment of religion and politics is an old story, and by now our defense that "those Christian nationalists are misrepresenting the Gospel" might be wearing thin. To the secular or atheist observer, it's all the same self-delusion under more or less attractive sheepskins.

What responses are we left with?

First, within religious circles, we have every right to confront the misrepresentations, heresies, and counterfeits that threaten the reputation of our faith by all methods consistent with love.

Second, wherever we can make common cause with atheists and others outside organized religion, based on a common commitment to justice and the welfare of the community, we should do so. "Apathy in the face of preventable human suffering is radical evil." (Father Emmanuel Charles McCarthy.)

Third, as individuals, we don't have to cover all of this ourselves. Some of us in the Christian commmunity are more gifted to confront sick theology and biblical malpractice, while others are more gifted to participate in secular alliances.

Finally, instead of marginalizing atheists and contributing to the anti-atheist stigma that Cohen refers to in her excerpt, we should engage with them with respect and gratitude. It's not just that we owe them a coherent and positive explanation of what we really believe. We also owe them a hearing, so they can explain their own position in their own words. As I argue in the following post from 2008, their honest and direct challenge to our beliefs is not an attack, not an insult, not "persecution"; it's a gift.

The atheist's gift. (Slightly edited from the April 2008 original post with time references brought up to date. Includes some rambling at the end that was fun to revisit, but wasn't directly related to the topic!)

Most believers I know don't spend much time hanging out with atheists, but maybe that's too bad.

Michael Ireland of ASSIST News Service recently interviewed Michael Shermer, founder of Skeptic magazine. It's a fascinating, revealing, troubling interview on several levels, which charity prevents me from enumerating. Anyway, I began asking myself the old questions about whether our evangelism is genuinely communicating with unbelievers, or is more an exercise we go through to reassure ourselves. If there's anything that atheists do for us, it is (at least!) to provide that much-needed reality check, providing we don't go out of our way to avoid them!

The whole interview reminded me of a quotation from Nikolai Berdyaev that I've spent a good part of the evening trying to track down. (I read it about 45 years ago.) Berdyaev said something like this: atheism is the dialectical purification of the church's collusion with oppression. (Can anyone help me find the actual quotation?) Thanks to Yakov Krotov's online library, I did find two other relevant quotations from Berdyaev:

Grace has nothing in common with our worldly understandings of obligation, strength, power, causality. Therefore grace is not only compatible with freedom—it is in unity with freedom. But theological doctrines rationalized grace and communicated a sociomorphized grace. For this reason, atheism ('high' atheism, not 'low' atheism) could be a dialetical cleansing of human ideas of God. Those who rebelled against God, because of the world's evil and unrighteousness, were assuming the existence of a higher truth—that is, in the final analysis, God. In the name of God they rose up against God; in the name of a purified understanding of God, they rose up against an understanding of God that had been contaminated by this world. [source]
We must liberate the idea of God from sociomorphism that distorts, degrades, and blasphemes that idea. Human beings can be horribly dehumanized; just so, God too has humanness and demands humanity. Humanity is the image of God in humans. Theology must be freed from sociology, which reflects the fallenness of the world and of humanity. Apophatic theology must go hand in hand with an apophatic sociology. This means purifying our perception of God from any hint of worldly theocracy. The absolutist-monarchist understanding of God has spawned atheism as a justifiable revolt. Atheism (not the vulgar, malicious kind but a higher atheism, acquainted with suffering) was a dialectical turning point in understanding God; it had a positive mission. In this atheism, a cleansing of the idea of God from false sociomorphism was accomplished—cleansing from human inhumanity that had been objectified and carried over into the realm of transcendence. [source]

Once again, a century later, atheists are reminding us that our faith cannot depend on self-contained systems of ideas—the "the self-contained, internally-coherent belief system that is Christianity"... and that ultimately proved unsustainable for Shermer.

We are right to want to base our most intimate communities on a shared faith, but if those communities seal themselves off from any intellectual challenge, they will become micro-tyrannies, substituting group-think for actual knowledge of God, and unable to discern their drift away from the living God.

As Shermer points out from his own experience, "The study of comparative world religions and mythologies from around the world showed me that other people believed just as passionately as I did that they were right and everyone else was wrong about religious beliefs that are mutually exclusive...." We are followers of Jesus not because the church has somehow patched together a religion that's superior to all those other religions—better art, architecture, ethics, miracles, divine beings; nor did we commit ourselves to Christ because someone held a winning hand of dazzling argumentation. (Well, I guess I'm speaking for myself!) We are followers because we are called and we are in relationship to the One who called.

This is why discipleship is far more important for the future of genuine Christianity than any vain attempt to maintain a higher social status or privileged position in society. Grace and relationship are the closest we can come in this life to "proof" of God's promises in Jesus. I can't blame anyone or any group for not taking us seriously if our relationship with that person or group has no grace in it.

It was a lot of fun going through some of my old books in search of that Berdyaev quotation. I found a dusty copy of his Slavery and Freedom that I bought at the Book Exchange on Charles St., Boston, nearly 45 years ago. Next to it, equally dusty, was Nicolas Zernov's The Russian Religious Renaissance of the Twentieth Century, that I bought 46 years ago with my employee's discount at Canterbury House Bookstore in Ottawa.

I had made notes in both books, mostly on notecards, and I had that odd sensation (described beautifully in Milan Kundera's Ignorance) that someone else had written those notes in my handwriting. I found a Berdyaev quotation in my handwriting with the annotation "page 180"—but page 180 of what book? Not one I own. And more intriguing references with page numbers to some book somewhere: "Freedom as burden (Dost.) 28-9." "Moral action—bridge from necessity to freedom (Kant) 41." And I can see that I was already interested in the theme of objectification, which is still important to me.

And here are three cards with a whole sermon in my own handwriting, but I cannot remember writing or delivering that sermon, even though it's not bad. (It's hard to take credit for something I have no memory of composing!)

Looking through an issue of Charisma magazine, I saw a reference to Barack Obama as "just another pawn in Satan's kingdom who adheres to destructive liberal ideas." How those Christians love one another!

As I thought about that Obama reference, a caution just hit me: to relate with grace and courtesy to atheists does not mean to run down other Christians. There's plenty of stupidity in churchianity, and we're right to point it out, but to tear down actual people—those (fill in the blank with the category of your choice)—neither demonstrates graciousness nor builds credibility. With all my heart, I believe that President Bush and the neocons made terrible choices in response to 9/11, and their methods verged on the demonic (employing deception to unleash a lethal conflict that continued to bleed us dry humanly, morally, financially, while not hesitating to use Christian celebrities to puff their case). But I will not call them pawns of Satan or any other name that implies I know more about their spiritual situations than I actually do.

Related posts: 

Worship and offense.

Faith and certainty.

William Barr, Max Boot, and "the vapor trails of Christianity."

(Last week) Hostility "to the Christian faith."

The 2023 Nobel Peace Prize announcement will be streamed here tomorrow morning.

Greg Morgan reflects on the first anniversary of his Elder Chaplain blog.

Speaking of confronting bad theology, once again Beth Felker Jones shows how it can be done.

Is it legitimate to draw connections between contemporary white Christian nationalism and Nazi Germany? (Thanks to Faith on View for the link.)

Matt Rosen on convincement and belonging in Quaker community: a First Monday lecture at Pendle Hill, available in person and online on November 6. Thanks to Chris Stern for the link.

Many Friends are grieving the death of Mariellen Gilpin this past summer. For twenty years she devoted herself to helping Friends share their mystical experiences through the What Canst Thou Say newsletter and Web site. The site will be republishing many of her contributions in upcoming months, including this powerful essay on prayer.

Becky Ankeny on God's Repair Shop. "Imagine God asking us, what do you want me to do with you?"

The original 2008 post included this clip of Jr. Walker and the All Stars. (Another artist whose recordings I cherished as a teenager, but kept hidden from my family.) I'm surprised this clip remains online fifteen years after I first posted it.

Junior Walker and the All Stars, Shake and... by johanpdx

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