Guest: Getting Along with Atheists

[Since I am a theist writing a series of posts about atheism, I thought I’d give an opportunity to hear from another side of the issue. Dan Wall is an atheist and fellow blogger, at northierthanthou.com. He pulls no punches, but does have a heart for people and for the truth. I asked him to write about how theists (Christians in particular) can get along harmoniously with atheists. He and I don’t agree on a lot of things, but I appreciate his willingness to converse with me about getting along with our neighbors. —Mark]

When Mark first asked me to write this essay, he had one request, that I not use a certain word. I laughed. I think he did too at the thought of mentioning it, and I knew I had my starting point. It seems a little strange to think he had to ask me not to use profanity, but then again the Devil is always in the details.

. . . no it wasn’t “Devil.”

Praying for atheists?

I’m reminded of a Christian who once asked me if she could pray for me. She was quite surprised to find that I appreciated the gesture and told me that atheists are often angry when Christians pray for us. I expect I know a few unbelievers who are always touchy about it, but I take my goodwill where I can find it, at least when it seems sincere. On the other hand, I am often at pains to explain to believers that “I will pray for you” in the wake of a heated exchange is pretty much a slap in the face, and yes I do take offense at that.

But there it is! The little things that keep us apart.

Frustration all around

As I get older I am less surprised at the anger and frustration people feel in confronting those who believe differently. I say this because I have long since lost my belief in a couple of other things besides God. Belief itself is one of them (or at least any Belief one might be tempted to spell with a capital letter). Another is the notion that there is a natural respect due to other beliefs and the people who possess them. In truth, respect is always on the table, always up for renegotiation, just as our beliefs are always on the table (or at least I think they should be). I’m not down with the notion that people carry beliefs around with them like it was some character trait, nor am I down with the notion that we must respect all beliefs. One ought to accord any human being a certain modicum of respect, adding or subtracting to that as they prove themselves helpful or mean, intelligent or foolish, honest or deceitful. I don’t think I’m stingy with my respect, but it isn’t a blank check either, nor do I expect others to grant me open-ended license when they assess my own character.

Our ideas about the larger nature of the world inevitably shape our ideas about how to treat one another and where to draw the line in dealing with folks who don’t think as we do. So, it should come as no surprise that someone sitting at home with a book has a certain notion about what constitutes pushing religion on her and the missionary approaching her door might well turn out to have quite another notion. Likewise, it should be no surprise if a student has one idea about how his beliefs should be treated and his instructor and a dozen other students with radically different views have rather different ideas on the subject.

It’s bad enough that our stance on the existence of God and other things may shade our notions of just when we are stepping on someone else’s toes, but other factors complicate this as well. Some us like to talk it out. Some of don’t. Some of us are really talky on Mondays and Thursdays, and darned touchy on Fridays and Sundays. . . . You take your chances on other days of the week. Some people are polite to a fault, and some toss out and take insults with such ease it’s hard to tell when you should get riled and when you should laugh. Most of us are in between.

There just isn’t any magic formula for getting along.

And that is precisely why something as simple as appropriate vocabulary could be an issue. It is why a perfectly sincere expression of good will could make someone red with anger, and it is why someone articulating a perfectly reasonable argument might as well be launching a personal attack if it is addressed to the wrong person. There is no universally appropriate standard for handling disagreement with another person. We have to work it out every time.

A starting point for dialogue

There is however something of a starting point. It begins with caring enough about that other person to try. As Mark himself has suggested in some of his essays here, we do have some things in common, even when we have a lot on which we differ, and if one really wishes to get along, it is at least possible to fashion some accord, some basic understanding as to how we will treat one another. It takes a bit of listening, yes, and some talking to, and frankly it takes a bit of compromise. My point is that this is a kind of political process , and that that process is not helped if people are too certain as to where the boundaries are. Time and again, folks will tell you about that rude heathen or the pushy bible-thumper. Often when I listen to such stories I can’t help thinking there wasn’t much chance the other party was ever going to escape with a different label. And yes, I think moderates of all stripes play this game too, but it really boils down to a very simple question: Do you want to get along.

If the answer to that question is yes, then perhaps we can find a way.

. . . at least on Thursdays.

Can atheists be spiritual?

Mark also asked me if atheists can be spiritual. It’s an interesting question, but one that always sends me down a whole bunch of different alley-ways. The short answer is ‘yes’. That yes, has a couple different angles to it.

Being atheist means little more than that one doesn’t believe in any gods. While some variant of metaphysical naturalism usually goes with this lack of belief, there is no obvious contradiction in believing any number of supernatural notions while rejecting gods. This isn’t a particularly interesting option, but there it is.

A slightly more interesting option would be to think of spirituality in terms a bit like the German word Geist, or to speak of ‘the spirit of the age’, a ‘spirited defense’, or even ‘a spirited dog.’ These uses of the term don’t really implicate us in any real magic or talk of souls. The spirituality of such language is a vague quality of relationships, moods, and feelings. The temptation to embrace such language could come at a quiet moment on a mountain top, …a beautiful mountain-top on a really nice day.

Ultimately, I think these uses of the term fall short for me, simply because they are too vague, and because some people will always want to link the term to some sort of supernatural implications. So, I prefer not to use the word at all. Better to find some other way to capture the ineffable qualities of wonder and love. I realize that’s kind of a kill-joy response, but yeah, I’m a lot of fun at parties too.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Daniel Wall is Assistant Professor of Social Sciences at Iḷisaġvik College in Barrow, Alaska—the northern most settlement in the United States. He earned a B.A. in Philosophy and Linguistics and later received an M.A. in United States History from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He also studied anthropology at the University of Chicago, worked in public relations for a local Humane Association, and spent 10 years teaching social sciences at Diné College on the Navajo Nation. He also taught at the Robert M. Beren Academy in Houston, Texas. You may follow him on Twitter @brimshack and read his blog at northierthanthou.com

Why Christians Hate Science

Organic chemistry class in college helped me change my major to English. I totally loved my science classes. Organic chemistry was amazing as I watched the class study more an more complicated compounds that ended just short of living organisms. The next semester was biochemistry, but I had sold my soul to Shakespeare by then and didn’t need biochemistry ruining my GPA more than Organic had already done.

So I’ve always been surprised by the animosity that some project between theism and science. Or, stated better: even though there are notable exceptions, why do some atheists and theists feel science and faith are incompatible?

I’m a believer who loves science stuff. So the tension between the camps baffles me. Here’s how I think they coexist.

Science and Theism

(As I wrote in this earlier post, I differentiate between theism and religion. One can believe in a transcendent being and still reject religious and spiritual expressions of that transcendent being. Separating theism from religion and spirituality is the key. What’s I’m discussing here is theism, not the Bible, Christianity, or any other expression of theism.)

Science observes and measures. It then postulates logical conclusions from what is observed and measured, but subjects those postulations to more observation and measurement.

By definition, science studies only that which is material, only that which can be observed and measured.

On the other hand, theism asserts that there is something more to existence than that which is material. Theism affirms the transcendent, that which is beyond the physical world. So I can believe science’s investigation of the physical world and still believe in a transcendent being that is different from the stuff science studies.

In my understanding God cannot be observed or measured, so is separate from that which science can study.

So as I sat in Organic learning about the complexity of molecules, I sat amazed. This was wonderful and amazing stuff. And God is beyond this. It never struck me that understanding benzene rings would show God doesn’t exist.

Science’s Gifts of Freedom

Science has removed the need for humans to understand the working of the universe from a theistic standpoint. It might sound strange for a Christian to phrase it like this, but it’s true. Here are three ways science has blessed theism:

First, in a pre-scientific mindset, I could have believed that thunder was the gods fighting and that my crops failed because I didn’t give the rain god enough attention.

Science has freed us from this. We can understand weather patterns and know that thunder and lightning are discharges of electricity. No angry gods wrestling and (frighteningly) threatening to damage our world. We don’t have to sacrifice children to the rain god so our crops succeed. These understandings are a blessing to theist and atheist alike.

Second, science has also given us another option in our theism: non-theism. A mechanical (or quantum) universe that is nothing more than the stuff of the physical world makes my pre-scientific mindset unnecessary, or even absurd. In a scientific world, we are free to not believe in the divine and still have a functional life.

Science gives us the atheistic option, but it is just an option. Just as science freed us from being afraid of gods, so it has empowered us to legitimately reject theism. How is this a blessing to theism? I believe rejecting theism can now be an informed choice, not a culturally imposed belief. Because I am free to reject the divine, I own my belief in the divine. We are free to make an informed choice.

Third, science has freed theology to relate to a larger universe. As a theist who basically trusts science, I’m pumped about the possibility of human knowledge and exploration. I don’t live in fear that I will offend a god by sending probes to Mars. And if life is found on anther planet, my understanding of life will change, but my theism does not have to. Every biological discovery and mathematical theorem shows how expansive God is. As humans are freed to explore ourselves and our environs, I am freed to discover just how expansive a god is who transcends even that.

I accept that science can accurately describe the universe that it studies, and I believe that there is something transcending science.

Science tells me about my world. Theism is my trust that more exists than just my world.

For me, science only expands my awe of the One who I believe created all that is.

Christians Sound Foolish to Atheists

One flaw in argumentation screws us up: combining theism, religion, and spirituality. #atheism Read the rest of this entry »

Don’t Be an Idiot

Sermon preached at Grand Central Church of Christ, January 4, 2015.

The sermon opens with this video clip from the NBC television show The Office featuring Dwight Schrute.

click left edge of audio bar above to listen

Speaking Like an Atheist

I’m a minister, and I have friends who don’t believe in God. By “friend” I don’t mean “people I’m trying to convert.” I mean real people whom I value and whom I respect.

As I was reading the book of Ecclesiastes this morning, I realized how similar the issues raised by the author (called Qoheleth) are to some of the issues that concern my atheist friends. Here’s an informal compilation of some points of similarity:

The meaning of life

  • Atheists assert that the world has no overarching story, purpose, force, or being acting upon it. “The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.” D.P. Barash
  • Ecclesiastes opens with what looks like a similar claim about the amorality of human existence: “Meaningless!” (1:1) This word is the mantra of the book and the more Qoheleth looked for meaning in his life, the less he found. The Hebrew word is hevel, and it can can mean “empty,” “vanity,” or suggest a fading vapor.

Ways toward fulfillment

  • If there is no creator, no moral code built into the fabric of the world, then humans shape meaning, getting fulfillment from loved ones, art, work, etc.
  • Qoheleth also knows that people strive for meanings that don’t exist, meanings that must be found in the immediate context: “I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil.” (3:12-13).

The need for community

  • Atheists understand the world in the collective. The goal of evolution (to use an anthropomorphism) is survival of the species, that is, the entire group. Evolutionarily speaking, no one is ever alone.
  • Qoheleth also notes the need for community survival: “Twho are better than one . . . if one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the one who falls and has no one to help him up” (4:9-10).

Desire for justice

  • Despite the wording that the natural order is “amoral,” I don’t know any atheists lacking a sense of morality or justice. Atheist and theist alike can point to injustices, and often these injustices are connected to religion. (I heard the story of a noted atheist traveling in Northern Ireland when the IRA was active. He was stopped by armed men without insignia. A man pointed a gun at him and asked if he was Catholic or Protestant. He had never been happier to have no faith at all and gladly exclaimed, “I’m an atheist!” The gunman paused and then asked, “Are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant one?”) Atheists may well be the first to see injustice when it is done in the guise of faith.
  • Qoheleth also knows about injustice: “In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness” (7:15). Qoheleth knows that life is unfair and does not turn a blind eye to injustice.

These similarities are not to say that Qoheleth was an atheist. On the contrary, Qoheleth writes Ecclesiastes to wrestle with the realities of life within a framework of faith.

And I don’t mean by these similarities that atheists are somehow closet theists. I hope I have characterized the thinking of my atheist friends well enough for a blog post; I’ve no intention of being patronizing.

Yet I do find in Ecclesiastes points of contact between my faith and my atheist friends. The book confronts the difficulties of life without saccharine platitudes. The book asks the tough questions—even questions that seem to question his faith—and yet still finds God.

However many years anyone may live, let them enjoy them all. But let them remember the days of darkness, for there will be many. Everything to come is meaningless. Ecclesiastes 11:8

In the end, Qoheleth remains a theist, calling us to “respect God.” It is in his relationship with the creator that Qoheleth seeks answers to life’s futility.

Perhaps Qoheleth gives us tools for meaningful, respectful conversations about our faith and our lack thereof.

Hopeful Doubt

Christians give each other a lot of grief about doubting different aspects of their faith. Being unquestioningly confident is not only a virtue but a measure of faithfulness. But Jesus paints a very different picture. Read the rest of this entry »

Your God is too Big. And too Small.

God is bigger than we can imagine. And closer than we can understand. It is both of these realities that must inform our worship. Read the rest of this entry »

A Glimpse Back to the Future

My sermon from October 12, 2014
based on John 13:31-38.

A Glimpse Back to the Future

Preached at the Grand Central Church of Christ,
Vienna, West Virginia

A Song of Forgiveness

There is a point at which sin so entangles us that we cannot even pray for forgiveness. The wrong feels so good; and the good feels so distant. We know God is there, but we have no clue how he can be. Or how he can be there for us.

I’ve been there. You’ve likely been there. The Psalmist was there with us.

It’s at this dead end point—embraced by death and terror—that the psalmist looks back in Psalm 116. Nothing but sorrow. Nothing but trouble.

He cannot even confess. He cannot give voice to the need of his heart. He simply feels dead, trapped, helpless. So his cry to God is simple: “Please, Lord, save me!”

It’s is good that we confess our sins, that we totally come clean to God and appropriate others. But we can’t always do that. We’re too far gone to name our sin, to utter a confession.

All we can say is: Please help me.

God hears. And he saves. “He hears my voice. He bends down to listen.”

When I cannot stand up in the mire of my own bad choices, God bends down to hear me. When I cannot express what I think and feel, God hears anyways.

“I was facing death and he saved me.” All because of one whispered sentence.

“Please help me!”

God does save even those who don’t know how they can be saved. Those at the end of their ropes. Those so deep it seems hopeless. To those so hardened that they crave the very things that ensnare them. One prayer opens us to God’s salvation.

“Please help . . . ”

No matter where you are, no matter how dark it seems, not matter how confused you may be, no matter how tired you feel. You are not beyond God hearing the smallest prayer.

“Please . . . ”

Someday—I hope very soon—you and I can join the psalmist in declaring: “I will . . . praise the Lord’s name for saving me.”

“Get Fat Church, and Let’s Go Home!”

We seldom talk about gluttony. Gluttony—a vulgar word signifying a vulgar want for more, well beyond what is appropriate.

We seldom talk about gluttony because gluttony is one of our favorite American pastimes.

You don’t have to go far to see gluttony in various manifestations.

Sugary breakfast cereals and fatty chips get extra display space at the grocery store. The only virtue those products have is that they taste good. So we eat more than what is good for us—way more! It’s cheap and tastes good. So we eat.

Our homes over the past 100 years have grown from “Home Sweet Home” include the amenities found in health clubs, theaters and parks. Home not big enough? There are plenty out there, no matter how big your appetite.

We want our bodies to stronger and faster and better. They’re never attractive enough or tall enough or shaped just right. We lust to remake our bodies, not for health or fitness, but because we want more approval, self confidence.

We want more channels, more options, more colors, more styles, more selection. More RAM and wider bandwidth Internet so we can get more of what we don’t need.

It is counter-cultural to say: Stop! Enough is enough. Gluttony is so much a part of our lives that the simple phrase, “You don’t really need that” is like a slap in the face.

“Who are you to tell me I can’t have my cake and eat it too?”

Jesus gave us one line of his brief prayer to stop us. To veer us away from gluttony. To stop us dead in our designer-shoed tracks:

“Give us this day our daily bread.”

Not bread with butter. Not foodie-approved bread from designer bakeries. No jam and certainly not Pop-Tarts. Just bread. Just enough. Just for today.

As we come together today, may we be honest about our food, property, good, and desires.

And may God grant us simply all that we need.