The Atheist Encounter with Christianity: A Failure to Disbelieve?

As I write, the Council for Secular Humanism is wrapping up its Los Angeles conference entitled Setting the Agenda: Secular Humanisms Next 30 Years. On the conference’s second day, Lauri Lebo reported in these pages that the program included a discussion about how best to deal with religious belief and its relationship to science. The session was named “Science and Religion: Confrontation or Accommodation?” Or, to be abundantly clear, the question was: How should atheists and secular people deal with religious people? Should they be accommodated or confronted?

My answer is: Neither one. Perhaps those atheists who want to advance their cause should consider—just for a moment, and as a very live option—disbelieving.

To explain myself, I would like to refer to several comments that were made in response to Lebo’s post. Here is an excerpt from one of them:

In addition to making it clear just how overwhelming the evidence for evolution is, science has also demonstrated just how dishonest the creationists are. This might be a vicious fight, but the outcome is already decided. The battle is over the American soul. That outcome is probably also decided, but religion still seems determined to take as many casualties as possible on the way out.

Yes, the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. Yes, creationists are wrong and they can be quite dishonest. But what outcome is this that is probably already decided? That “science will win” and “religion will lose”? Unless I am wildly mistaken, that is the subtext of the remark. I suspect the war, to employ the writer’s hawkish language, will not work out that simply. I think the science and religion will come to coexist peacefully, just as they do in the minds of so many. Christianity, like other great faith traditions, is not easily done away with. It is at once strong and flexible. In centuries past it has adapted itself thousands of times to thousands of different contexts. It has withstood challenges far more severe than evolution or the emboldened atheism of the 21st century. It will do so again.

Christianity is Not Just about Jesus Dying for Our Sins

A second excerpt is taken from further along in the comment, in a section that deals with questions of human uniqueness:

Perhaps some religions can be compatible with evolution and the closing of the gulf between humans and other animals, but Christianity can’t. Christianity is based on the concept of Jesus dying for the sins of man, and acceptance of his name granting eternal life in heaven. That argument makes no sense if humans and other animals are ultimately the same.

This calls for at least three comments. First, Christianity is in fact compatible with evolution and the “closing of the gulf between humans and other animals.” There are many extraordinarily intelligent Christians who have freely admitted that evolution poses challenges to Christian theology and have freely chosen to not ignore them or sweep them under the rug. They have a deep knowledge of Christian history and theology as well as evolutionary theory. And they have reconciled the two and find joy living and working on the boundary between them. These people are not uncommon. Many of them are parishoners in Catholic and mainline churches, many are teachers and professors, and many of them are ordained ministers. What is evidenced in this comment is a failure to pay attention to the fact that Christianity is a complex and intellectually grown-up tradition.

Second, Christianity is not “based on the concept of Jesus dying for the sins of man, and acceptance of his name granting eternal life in heaven.” Being a Christian is not about believing six ridiculous things before breakfast. You may think this is true if all you have been exposed to is the 700 Club or other forms of popular or extremely conservative Christianity. I suspect that all Christians have some idea of the atonement—the reconciling of humanity to God—but there are many different ideas held about Christ’s work on the cross, and only some of them have anything to do with Christ dying for the “sins” of humanity.

Third, I know a number of practicing Christians who give very little thought to the afterlife. I am one of them. I will even go so far as to say that heaven may not exist. I just don’t have a lot of stake in that idea. Now my view on this topic may change as I grow older and (hopefully) wiser, but today I think that the kingdom of God is about the here and now, which is all we really ever have, and not about the hereafter. This is not the orthodox view, of course, and many Christians disagree with me, and I take their disagreements seriously. But my overall point remains: Christianity is not formulizable and it is not about the checking off of belief boxes. These caricatures may be convenient for those who wish to see Christianity die, but they’re just not true. Christianity is a far more variegated thing than many atheists seem to understand.

Finally, and parenthetically, it seems that we’re are a long way from showing that humans and other animals are “ultimately the same.” But, backing up a bit, I am not sure what these words even mean. It seems they could mean two things. If they mean that we are all biologically related, that we belong to this Earth just as do all other species, and that we therefore have a responsibility to care for the world, then I can get on board. But if the writer means instead that we are qualitatively the same at the levels of morality and language and intellect, and should therefore see ourselves as “just another species,” I am much more skeptical. But to be fair, who knows? Maybe we are not qualitatively different, maybe we are. The hypothesis—we are ultimately the same—has not been convincingly demonstrated. One thing is for sure, though: We’re the only species that spends time debating whether or not we’re unique.

Myths can be True or False

A third and last excerpt:

The accommodation path seemed like a civilized approach, but then Christianity became conservative. Science was caught flat-footed, and hard pressed to understand how the majority of Americans in the 20th century could just ignore the clear-cut evidence, and wrap themselves tighter in the mythology.

There is something right about these words. “Accommodation” is a civilized approach, at least when compared to “confrontation.” And I too, along with many other Christians, am hard pressed to understand how so many Americans can simply ignore the evidence for evolution. But saying “Christianity became conservative” is to mistake the tip of the iceberg for the iceberg. In the 1980s, conservative Christianity became extremely political and addressed the trigger issues of the culture in an unprecedented way (that is, loudly and visibly) in its ridiculous calls for banning “devil music” and the emergence onto the national stage of people like James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson. But these people are not “Christianity.”

And, Oh my! If only Christians would wrap themselves tighter in the mythology! That would be a good and even glorious thing, so long as we all understand what is meant by “mythology.” To say something is a myth is not to say it is false. Myth tells truths that are not expressible in discursive language. Myths can be true or false. A false myth, like a bad scientific idea, is quickly discarded because it does not speak the truth about the world. A true myth survives because it resonates deeply with lived human experience. A true myth brings one face-to-face with reality and has nothing to do with literalism or the ignoring of scientific evidence.

To get to my point: There is found in each of these excerpts, a disconnect between the author’s idea of Christianity and what Christianity actually is. Admittedly, these comments may have been written off-the-cuff and perhaps there was not time or space to elaborate fully, but one needs to think—to question oneself—before making such remarks. I have encountered many similar comments all over the Internet and in face-to-face conversations with nonbelievers, and there always seems to be a great interest on the part of the author/speaker in holding up rather juvenile models of Christianity; models which are subsequently dismantled with the greatest of ease.

I would like to ask a favor of the atheists and secular humanists who wonder how to approach us religious people. Please do not “accommodate” us. Please do not “confront” us. Instead, get to know us. Please do not presume to know us already. Get to know what Christianity really is, today, on the ground, in churches, in shelters, in food banks, in the slums and streets of our cities. And in so doing get to know some Christians. Not the ones of us whose theology you can tear apart in ten seconds, but the ones who make you think, who challenge you, who respect your point of view. Get to know some of us. And then, at some point, do the unthinkable: Take the risk of disbelieving—just for a moment and as a truly live option—the ideas you think hold you and your world together. Disbelieving is one of the most vitally important things people can do. Without disbelief there is no growth. To disbelieve is to live.

To illustrate, take the average six-year-old child of Christian parents. This child probably thinks of God in highly anthropomorphic ways: God walks through Eden, God’s back turns to Moses, God sits on a throne in heaven, “up there.” Also the stories of scripture (the flood, the tower of Babel, the burning of Elijah’s water-soaked offering, the nativity story, etc.) are understood as purely literal, historical events. These beliefs provide a strong skeleton on which to hang the child’s understanding of the divine. They give shape to her theology. Yet these beliefs do not, in general, remain in place for a lifetime. The foundational beliefs that once protected and gave form to the spiritual life of the child will eventually become confining and prevent growth. At this point the shedding of beliefs becomes necessary, because they don’t match up to the difficulties and pressures and losses of actual life. My point is, our beliefs protect us, they help define our boundaries, and they are necessary for getting through the day. But beliefs come and beliefs go.

I remember the exact moment that I realized Adam and Eve had not been actual people. It was a real breakthrough for me. I was 13 or 14. What caused my revelation? It was natural history. For some weeks I had been struggling with a timeline of the geologic past my dad had shown me. Adam and Eve were not to be found anywhere on it. And, as a pastor friend once told me: One’s theology is basically a question of what holes one can live with. So as I pondered the Adam & Eve question a kind of hole opened up in my theology until I could no longer live with it. Then, one day while I was talking on the phone in a dark room, just like that, I shed my belief in a literal “first couple.”

Strangely, I don’t remember who I was talking to or what the conversation was about, but all at once I understood and it felt great. Yet my childhood belief had provided protection for me and had given shape to my understanding of God and even of myself, and what did I have to replace it with? Nothing at first, and that was a little disorienting and scary. But I got through it and have since passed through many more sloughings-off of closely-held ideas.

Take Your time. Build Some Trust.

It is not only religious ideas that should be periodically shed, but philosophical beliefs and ideas about other people and ideas about ourselves. For example, one may believe that religion is merely a naked emperor, that it is foolishness and self-deception all the way through. One may believe that Christianity is a simple fear-based superstition that will eventually be outgrown and tossed out, that it is about nothing but ignorance and make-believe. But maybe these beliefs about religion are just temporary and protective. Maybe they help one maintain one’s self-identity and get one through the day, but how well do these ideas correlate with reality?

To find out, I say again: Get to know a number of highly intelligent, thoughtful Christians. Don’t go to the ones who talk a lot about hell or insist on converting you. The thoughtful ones are out there, I promise. With the Internet they’re not too hard to find and they live in every city and town in America. Ask as many questions of them as possible, and encourage them to ask as many questions as possible. Take your time. Build some trust. Do not jump to conclusions. Skepticism is a wonderful thing, even (especially?) in the life of faith. And skepticism means, among other things, having the courage to suspend one’s set of beliefs long enough to take another set of beliefs really seriously. That is, real skepticism means disbelieving. So be as skeptical as possible but as open as possible, and remember that if one refuses to investigate religion in this way, then that is known as contempt prior to investigation and is the death of the life of the mind.

Please don’t think that I am making this proposal in order to convert atheists to Christianity. What I am offering is merely an alternative to the false dilemma of “accommodation” or “confrontation.” And what I am aiming for is much more modest: For at least one person to think twice before making a caricature of Christianity. Doing so is sloppy thinking and, more often than not, doing so has no effect beyond making serious people write you off. People should criticize Christianity all they want, but they should do so in knowledge—knowledge won by the act of disbelief—and not in ignorance of the thing criticized.