Thank God for Atheists?

Last week Rev. Michael Down spoke at three Oklahoma City churches. Scripture readings for the day included:

Exodus 21:17: “Anyone who curses his mother or father must be put to death.”

Psalms 137:8-9: “Oh daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the man who seizesyour babies and smashes their heads against the rocks.”

His talk “Thank God for the New Atheists (PDF) proposes that the criticisms raised by Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and others, (specifically, that the Bible contains far too much ugliness and violence for contemporary readers to seriously use it as an authoritative source for spirituality) is exactly the impetus to the evolution of Christianity 2.0:

In a way, the New Atheists have come to our rescue. They are shouting at us to collectively awaken to the dangers of revering texts and doctrines on no sounder basis than tradition and authority. Because the New Atheists put their faith, their confidence, in an evidentially formed and continuously tested view of the world, these critics of religion are well positioned to see what’s real and what’s important today. Its thus time for religious people to listen to the New Atheists—and to listen as if they were speaking with God’s voice, because in my view they are!

Pointing to theologians such as Bultmann and Tillich, Down reminds believers that “God” is a personification of reality, not reality itself. The New Atheists’ are “prophets,” he says, calling on humans to “grow up.” The self proclaimed “evangelist for evolution” calls evolution our “common human creation story,” he looks to a time when religious leaders get their guidance and inspiration from humanity’s common creation story and teach and preach the discoveries of science as God’s word. When that day comes, our faith traditions will thrive and many of us will look back and exclaim, “Thank God for the New Atheists!”

Dr. Al Mohler, President of Southern Seminary responded Down’s Christianity 2.0 by arguing that it is not Christianity at all, but a perfect illustration of the “theological and biblical costs of embracing the evolutionary worldview.”

In some ways the positions by both of these Christian leaders are rather predictable exemplars in the fundamentalist modernist divide in American religion. Yet they bring into focus something else that is interesting and much less frequently commented upon: the two sides’ respective positions on human origins is about much more than where we came from. In each case the commitment to a specific view of origins undergirds the entire framework for meaning; its not just where we came from but where we’re going, why we’re here and what all of it means.

This is the reason that conservative Christians fight so hard over the teaching of their version of creationism. As one of them once told me in an interview: “if Genesis isn’t literal, then the Fall isn’t literal. If the Fall isn’t literal then there is no reason for a literal Jesus.”

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