November 22, 2014

Re:Atheism

I received two letters this week from friends/readers asking for input and advice on relating to atheists in their workplace/families. It brought to mind a number of things I’ve been wanting to say about evangelicals and their take on atheism.

When I was growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist church, the face of atheism was Madalyn Murray O’Hair. I knew three things about O’Hair: she had taken prayer and the Bible out of our public schools, she was trying to get religious programs off of television and she was a weirdo.

For years, O’Hair provided the face of atheism to America: an angry, ranting, God-hating, bitter old woman who wanted to force her bitterness on the rest of the country. The way to defeat O’Hair was simple: Christians needed to sign a lot of petitions and vote the right way when elections came around.

It was safe to say that few people wanted to be like Mrs. O’Hair, no matter what their case against God and religion happened to be.

In my collection of videos I have another face of atheism. It’s a “debate” between Frank Zinnser, an atheist and geologist from Chicago, and Dr. William Lane Craig and his three Ph.ds. It takes place at Willow Creek Community Church in front of a massive crowd of Christians. Zinnser is awkward and amateurish, raising freshman level objections to the Bible that have nothing to do with the case for atheism. Craig, polished, erudite, prepared and pracitced, mops the floor with Zinnser’s bad toupee and worse presentation. It’s a demolition job that’s hard to watch.

At one point Zinnser notes that there’s a bigger crowd for this debate than the usual attendance at the atheist luncheon. I’m sure.

The message for evangelicals: atheists are clowns. We can defeat them in any arena. We need not fear them because our team can eat their lunch.

I have a shelf of books responding to atheism. Ravi Zacharias. William Lane Craig. Tim Keller. No one can accuse evangelicals of ignoring the subject. Many of these books are written in response to the publishing onslaught of the new atheists: Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and many others.

One way the game has changed is that when you proclaim yourself an atheist today, you aren’t signing up with O’Hair and Zinnser and the atheist luncheon in the Chihuahua Room at the Peoria Super 8. Now you are identifying with respected scientists and journalists. Whether you agree with the new atheists rantings about the threat of religion to the world or not, it’s a lot easier to be an atheist. When John Lennox debated Richard Dawkins in the Birmingham Civic Center, Dawkins was cheered like a rock star by a very young crowd.

But I’m convinced the game is not primarily about arguments any more. As grateful as I am for Tim Keller’s great book The Reason For God and his two hour presentations on You Tube, and as happy as I am that David Bentley Hart and others have convincingly demonstrated the fallacies of the new atheist arguments, the truth is that the contemporary atheist doesn’t plan to play a game of 21 with our NBA All Stars. No, he/she is going to sound more like Ricky Gravais in the video above.

Atheism is just….easier. Occam’s Razor. Theism is too much trouble. It starts to sound like someone is trying to sell you something sight unseen. Isn’t your best move just to hang up the phone and ignore the call?

Douglas Wilson may be witty and William Lane Craig may be brilliant. John Lennox may teach at Oxford and Ravi Zacharias may be able to quote a dozen philosophers, but most atheist young people today are like Brad Pitt. Pitt was a kid walking the aisles in Baptist revivals, trying to find God in that mess when he met a Methodist preacher’s daughter who told him it was OK to just say no to it all. He didn’t have to live like that. He could call the torture sessions off and just be himself.

That’s what’s going on, my friends. I’m not zeroing out the big gunners, but I think it’s time to stop running from your kid’s professor and start thinking more about his friend who recently left his youth group and stop believing anything except the joys of rock climbing.

One of my letters this week stated that a 17 year old raised in an evangelical family was now an avid atheist, with many of the hijinks of evangelicalism as evidence of manipulation and control. He couldn’t mean take off your shoes and spin your socks over your head while singing “Jesus mess me up?” Why would that bother anyone?

Write this down: When the coming evangelical collapse happens, and especially when thousands of our young people bolt for non-believer status, a lot of it will be COMPLETELY DESERVED.

We addressed atheism with the wrong arguments. We didn’t ask ourselves how it looks to a young atheist. We never stopped to notice that if you are a 17 year old with serious questions about evil, miracles, prayer and the Bible you’ve got small chances of getting any help from most of evangelicalism. We’re having too much fun squalling at the President and feeling good about ourselves . By the time you find that book, talk, ministry, etc. that might help, you’re already beginning to suspect that this is the emergency room where doubters are taken for emergency injections of how powerful anti-atheism drugs and then sent back to the “Bless Us Real Good” Game.

Even traditions with deep and serious reflection on the issues that erode faith often keep those resources tucked safely away in a closet on the fourth floor of the house of faith where you have to ask permission to see them. Senior Youth Group: Visit atheists for a conversation or play Goofy Golf? Duh.

Our team looks good to us. Trust me, they don’t look that good to atheists. If you applaud the point-scoring at debates, you’re missing the point entirely. The fact that someone like Dan Barker (and there are dozens more) is out there at all, making it plain that the Christian journey has brought a crowd of people just like YOU to the point where atheism looked far, far better than what you were hearing in church and trying to live is all the ammunition that’s needed for thousands of people.

You see, evangelicals have made such outrageous assumptions and promises about happiness, healing, everything working out, knowing God, answered prayer, loving one another and so on that proving us to be liars isn’t even a real job. It’s just a matter of tuning in to an increasing number of voices who say “It’s OK to not believe. Give yourself a break. Stop tormenting yourself trying to believe. Stop propping up your belief with more and more complex arguments. Just let go of God.”

You can send an army against an army. What do you send against a group saying “None of this has any point. Give it up and go have a coke.”

Don’t think I am avoiding the case the new atheists are making. I take it very seriously. My students learn the Dawkins and Hitchens arguments by heart. They are deserving of the best responses we can put forward and we need to know what they are saying.

But I don’t believe the new atheists are making converts because they have a better argument. I think they are making converts because the fruit is ripe to fall from the tree, and we have little or no idea it’s happening. We’re setting up for the great ideological debate and the kids have found that it’s just more fun to have a drink with the non-religious crew.

Keller is still great. C.S.Lewis is still helpful. Craig is still impressive. But I’m not sure their arguments are on the right channel. Vast numbers of people aren’t asking for philosophy. They are asking what will let them live a life uncomplicated by lies, manipulation and constant calls to prefer ignorance to what seems obvious.

What we’ve said and written is fine. What we’ve lived in our homes, private lives, churches, workplaces and friendships has spoken louder.

We are the ones who appear to not believe in the God we say is real. We are the ones who seem to be forcing ourselves to believe with bigger shows, bigger celebrities and bigger methods of manipulation.

You can’t understand why some people just say atheism has about it the beauty of simplicity? You don’t see why Occam’s Razor is so powerful, even among students who have no idea what it means?

Pay closer attention. The game has changed.

Comments

  1. I want to thank everyone for their participation. I think we’ve heard plenty of points of view. I’m shutting down comments for a while.

    Again, thanks.

    ms

  2. ^^ Atheism is just….easier. Occam’s Razor. Theism is too much trouble. ^^

    I couldn’t disagree more. Theism is easier. Trust in God. Atheism requires one to believe in people and ones self. It would be easy to accept bad things happening to good people as “God’s will.” It’s much harder to admit that events are somewhat random, affecting believer and non-believer with equal probability. It’s very a very sober thought the evil men do does not necessarily come back to them, ever.

    ^^ He could call the torture sessions off ^^

    Are you talking about God (capital H?). That’s one thing about believing. You have to accept that the things you wish weren’t happening are willed upon you by the almighty. If not, and God does will your suffering, then he must be ignorant of it or powerless to stop it. That’s a tough god to worship.

    ^^ start thinking more about his friend who recently left his youth group and stop believing anything except the joys of rock climbing ^^

    That is a HUGE fallacy. Atheist BELIEVE very strongly; just not in your gods. For example I believe we are imbued by millions of years of evolution with the instinct to leave the world better, more habitable place for future generations. This is really the source of what you might call moral behavior. A world of cheats, liars, and thieves does not have the peace and stability to be the better habitat for future humans, so it hurts emotionally to misbehave.

    ^^ brought a crowd of people just like YOU to the point where atheism looked far, far better than what you were hearing in church ^^

    Oh, it’s so silly to think there is a choice; this or that. It is NOT about rejecting the church for something better. It’s about lack of evidence to support every single thing the church puts forth. If you read scripture carefully like I have you will find the lack of evidence.

    ^^ Stop propping up your belief with more and more complex arguments. Just let go of God. ^^

    OK, now you’re making sense.

    ^^ We are the ones who appear to not believe in the God we say is real. We are the ones who seem to be forcing ourselves to believe with bigger shows, bigger celebrities and bigger methods of manipulation. ^^

    Well said.

  3. Atheists:

    I’ve really enjoyed the many kind notes, but there is one thing I keep hearing over and over that I’d suggest you take a second look at.

    I keep getting atheists carping at me for various things I am saying about THEM when I am describing a DECONVERTED EVANGELICAL TEEN….Not an atheist.

    You continually keep saying I’m wrong about x and y as it pertains to you as an atheist, but I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about the evangelical kid going from belief to professing atheism.

    I would NEVER try to describe who you are and what you think. I have more respect for you than that. But I know evangelical teenagers.

    peace

    ms

    • Peace be unto you also,

      I suspect some are reacting because they are or were evangelical teens who are now atheists. Though admittedly when people become atheists varies (I know one person who switched from Presbyterian to atheist at the age of 70, he is now 90+ and still sharp and active in the Humanist community). Admittedly I was never an evangelical teen or even officially a Christian though I flirted with the faith.

  4. So a great portion of evangelicals have a faith they themselves do not understand and cannot explain, and deal with that by not thinking about it, and not trying to teach it. As a substitute, they offer refreshments and raucous entertainment.

    Therefore, youth get a finely cultivated course of instruction where they learn little to nothing about the faith, since few know it, and even fewer can explain it. Instead, the youth get an exhaustive list of rules they are supposed to follow. Also they get lots of even more raucous entertainment and refreshments, and fun activities so they won’t want to go do things that might break the rules. If they don’t follow the rules, supposedly, bad things will happen to them. And while the bad things may not appear actually to be happening, don’t worry, evangelicals are working hard to get laws passed so that bad things do happen to people who break the rules.

    And if rule-breakers manage to live their whole lives without bad things happening to them, don’t worry, God will send them to hell. And people who follow the rules will go to heaven. Except that it’s not really about rules but faith. So if you break all the rules but have faith, you go to heaven. Unless you break too many rules.

    Oh, and sometimes people follow all the rules, but bad things still happen to them. This is because God is testing them. There probably is a rule they were forgetting to follow, or maybe a rule they aren’t following hard enough, or maybe they don’t have enough faith. Because having faith is kind of like a rule.

    If this doesn’t make any sense to you, you just don’t have enough faith apparently.

  5. Dear imonk:
    Your arguments should be heralded as a wake-up call to the American church. I was raised in the evangelical church (my mom was saved when I was 11). As a grew older, I became disillusioned by several examples of hypocrisy in the movement: the articulation of “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” by those who not only hated the sinner, but actively capaigned against his rights; endless sermons on tithing to God, but few sermons on charity; three new pastors in a row who started a ‘special collection’ for the “new building fund’ which needed to start from scratch every time; the hour-long planning of the song service to ensure that the music program followed the emotional arc that would bring the congregation to a joyous and relaxed frame of mind to receive the sermon; being told to reject historical facts which did not match up with the pastor’s understanding of the bible; and the condescending sense of self-congratulatory “righteousness” which accompanied every deed. The modern evangelical movement is based purely upon how the God makes the congregation feel as opposed to trying to make sense.
    I have become a much kinder person since I have left the church, and a more compassionate person who is more willing to forgive the sins of others. I have found it is much easier to forgive others their faults when accepting them as flawed human beings, not obsessed with thier potential as future converts. I would suggest that any church which would like to retain its young membership should -perhaps- try to reflect the actions of Jesus (compassion, mercy, charity, kindness) in order to get people to listen to the teachings of Jesus (faith, hope, love).