Q & R: Hardcore Atheists
Here's the Q:
I’m a big fan from across the pond in the UK. I’ve enjoyed several of your books as well as articles and blog posts. In the past year or so I feel like I’ve been going through a major gear shift in my journey with Jesus and your ideas have been one of the key influences on me during this time.
I’m currently reading Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross The Road? (or as all the cool kids are no doubt calling it “WDJMTBAMCTR!”) Which I’m finding stimulating, challenging, moving, exciting and scary in equal measure!
I have a question about hard line Atheism and what your approach is towards it, apologies if you’ve already answered this question to another emailer.
You see I reckon my non-believer friends (and when I say non-believer, I don’t just mean “non-christian” but rather, non-adherent-to-any-major-faith) can, broadly speaking, be divided into two camps:
There are those who are spiritually openminded, they may have even had spiritual experiences in the past and therefore whilst they might not understand why I align myself with “ organised religion”, they nevertheless understand and find completely natural, my belief in a spiritual realm and my desire to follow and emulate Jesus. With this kind of “non-believer” friend, talking about my faith feels entirely natural and I have even had the amazing opportunity and privilege to pray with such friends.
Then there are those who simply don’t understand how anyone could believe in anything spiritual. They recognize that I’m an intelligent person and therefore they put my faith down to some kind of cognitive dissonance in me, like I simply haven’t joined up the dots yet because if I had I’d have realized that this Christianity stuff is just a fairy story. Any talk of the spiritual or transcendent, Christian or otherwise, is like white noise to them.
They seem, by and large, to be committed to a post-enlightenment, reductionist view of the universe (whether or not they’d express it in those terms.) They can get especially angered by talk of post-modernism and post-enlightenment etc as they see this as pseudo-intellectual guff contrived to sneak myths and fairly tails past otherwise discerning people’s bullshit radars.
Anyway, I struggle with how to relate to this worldview and it doesn’t help that the Bible is largely mute on this. The Bible, it seems to me, is not concerned at all with answering the question of whether there is a God. Rather it take’s God’s existence as a given and is far more concerned with questions like “who is God?”, “what is God doing?”, “what is God saying?” etc, etc. and simply dismisses anyone who disbelieves as a fool. (Psalm 14:1 etc.)
This is not at all surprising, we would not expect scriptures written thousands of years ago to speak directly to a cultural phenomenon which only really emerged in the 18th century.
I’m not saying I wish the Bible was different. I love the Bible, Old and New Testament and I find most arguments about God’s existence (whether for or against) tedious and circular. So in terms of my enjoyment of scripture, I’m not sorry at all that it’s more concerned with who God is and what God’s doing, those are the things I’m concerned about!
But as for my friends for whom it seems obvious and self-evident that God doesn’t exist, except in the imaginations of naive religious people, I’m not sure what the Bible or indeed I have to say to them. And I was just curious to know what you'd say to them.
Here's the R:
First, I'd say that your atheist friends are fortunate to have a friend like you who obviously respects them and seeks to understand them on their own terms. Like you, I have many thoughtful atheist friends and here are the kinds of things we've talked about together.
- While they might reject the idea of a personal God, some can talk about a direction or trajectory of evolution. (Some will not - seeing everything as random and accidental and in that sense ultimately nihilistic, period.) They might be able to use terms like Dr. King's - speaking of an arc in the universe that bends toward justice. That direction or trajectory or arc provides us common ground, I think, between God and non-God.
- If they don't want to speak of any moral grain to the universe, they may still want to work for justice, joy, and peace, as best as they understand them. Justice, joy, peace, and other values are for them a kind of beckoning vision - not written into past and present actuality - but calling from future possibility. Again, this might be some common ground where what I call God intersects with a reality they do not call God.
- If they don't want to speak about anything like that, we can at least enjoy the gifts of life together - whether it's a baseball game, a comedian, a great piece of music, or a good cup of coffee. Even savoring "goodness" points us in the direction of the Giver from whom all good gifts flow ... and I suspect that God doesn't mind being anonymous in many circumstances. In fact, anonymity may be a relief after all the ways God's name gets dragged into craziness by human beings! I must admit, on many occasions, I find letting God's presence be anonymous, unspoken, or understated enhances my joy in God, just as situations where God's presence is over-hyped and exaggerated makes me feel less and less aware of God's "still small" whisper.
In situations where believer and atheist encounter one another as friends, extending grace toward one another that transcends fundamental disagreement, it is pure friendship itself - extended and enjoyed without the static of religious or atheistic rhetoric - that makes God most real. At least, that's how I see it!