Evangelical Atheism

In reading blog commentaries posted by “evangelical atheists”- those that feel the need to attack faith, rather than just disavow themselves of it- I seem to always come away saddened and sometimes a bit infuriated. It amazes me how these folks, often so fond of touting their own intellect, repeatedly rely on the same stale “religion is divisive and responsible for all the world’s ills” sawhorse as the crux of their argumentation.

What they fail to realize, probably because “failing to realize” is frequently their stock in trade, is that so much of what is good in our society has been accomplished precisely because of faith. The abolition of slavery in Britain and later in the US; the children’s rights movement of the 19th century; women’s suffrage; the civil rights movement under Dr. King- all motivated at some fundamental level by courageous, committed (and yes, sane) Christians who desired to see God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

People of faith feed the poor, they clothe children, they organize relief from flood and famine. With all due respect, I’ve never seen an “Atheist Children’s Fund” or witnessed teams of atheists flooding a tornado-ravaged town with supplies, medical care and compassion. Yes, religion has been used as an excuse to mask self-serving and often vile behavior over the centuries; and even into modern society. Then again religion, even Christianity, is a man-made device and what convention of mankind hasn’t been exploited to these ends? Such exploitation was what my father, a United Methodist minister, frequently called “downstream” behavior because it does not taint the source. When infinite reality is left to be interpreted by finite minds, troubles will arise. However, this does not, in any way, diminish the greatness of the infinite. As C.S. Lewis says-

“A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.”

God has called us to something more than ourselves and something completely contrary to our own base natures. Faith in this calling has sustained soldiers in distant wars; it has awarded dignity and purpose to the disenfranchised; it has provided comfort to a grieving parent; it has given hope to the dying. To be an atheist is to live without these things and, some would believe, to live without grace. I pass no judgment on atheism or atheists; I’ve been there. However, I so often encounter those among that group who feel the need to consistently berate God as a fairy tale, brand faith as something silly and who consistently complain, aggressively and with arrogance, at having other people’s “close-minded beliefs” imposed upon them. This in turn compels me to ponder how it is that, in all their self-proclaimed wisdom, these evangelical atheists fail to see that particular irony in their own words.

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Throughout my life I have often said, arrogantly, that while I am not necessarily a Christian I am “a spiritual person”.  I’ve never really devoted much thought to what I meant by “spiritual”; only that the title allowed me to lay an easy claim to piety without having to bother with the pesky accountability that accompanies true faith.

I have flitted back and forth between a number of belief systems in my life- atheism, agnosticism, Buddhism, free floating monotheism, universalism and a very loose rendering of protestant Christianity; all ultimately culminating in the spiritual equivalent of jogging in place for the last 25 years. If faith is a metaphorical mountain to be climbed- and I believe it is as wise an analogy as any- I have spent my entire adult life poking around base camp. I have never truly placed my foot upon that daunting route to the summit.

That said, in acknowledging all this time that I am “spiritual” I have, however unconsciously, drawn a line between myself and the atheists and agnostics and inadvertently joined the ranks of those who believe in something outside of themselves.

Of course, I now know I have a spirit. This revelation has not come from any wisdom I have accumulated over the years. I simply know it in the same way that I know I have a stomach when I am hungry. I know because I have felt a consistent sense of emptiness and longing which has permeated and ultimately affected every aspect of my life; even when all else was going so well.

However that same longing, while painful, also offers some sense of peace because the emptiness itself confirms that there should be something more; something spiritually nourishing and fulfilling and real and attainable- something that, while I have played around at faith my entire life, has always been there; simply waiting for me to come and discover it.

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The Mountain

“Faith is not a flower to be plucked; it is a mountain to be climbed.”

This is actually a variation on an old Buddhist saying about wisdom, but it could truly be said about anything worth having.

True faith requires devotion, discipline and, above all else, application. One may, at some pivotal moment in their life, come to fully accept a system of beliefs, be they Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. and from that point forward endeavor to live their life in response to those beliefs. However, true faith lies not in that initial moment of embarking but rather within one’s continued refinement of his/her understanding of those beliefs through study, practice and reflection.

A wedding is a golden moment in a couple’s lives, but within the context of a lifelong partnership, it lays at the bottom- not the top- of the hill. When the honeymoon is over, as most of us know, the real work truly begins. So it is with faith. Once you have decided, at least at some fundamental level, what you truly believe; the climb, the real work, begins in earnest.

For Christians, this means progressing beyond the bible stories we learned in Sunday School as children, and allowing our faith to mature through self-scholarship, experience and consistent reflection on the world around us; a world that each of us views through the variegated filters of our own understanding and experience.  Most importantly, it requires regular and intimate conversations with God.

I am completely aware of where I began. As faith journeys go, I truly started from the deepest of valleys.  That said, I also feel a strange sense of exhilaration as if there is some momentum either pushing me from behind or pulling me forward toward the unseen paths ahead.  I have given my way over to God, and I now look forward, in great anticipation, to the climb.

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