7 Oct 12 // Religion for Atheists

When the “End of God” movement started up again a few years ago, I was one of the rare people of faith who supported atheists, encouraging them to deconstruct and disassemble the faith.

At the time, many thought I was nutters. A turncoat, reprobate, anathema or, put flatly, apostate. I was supporting “the enemy” and this was unforgivable. Perhaps, in hindsight, these people were right. I readily confess that I “lose” myself when it comes to religion, doing things that seem wild and uncanny and it is possible that I made mistakes. Many of them. My hope is that others will see these mistakes for what they were: the passionate behavior of a mentorless youth with good intentions. Still, I sided with these atheists and welcome them in good cheer because I felt the faith could do with some good ribbing and that, in the final analysis, people of faith are prone to paint themselves as victims instead of allowing criticism to build us up.

Of course this is all very abstract, you know. Strictly academic and all. No bearing on the daily at all for the avid philosopher.

Except where it does.

Earlier this week, I was at a local bookstore in the religion section as I almost always am. The Book Alley is one of those excellent bookstores with revolving stock, making each visit a scrambling  adventure in familiar sections, checking what is new and what has been discounted (if at all). All the same, there I was minding my own business and lazily fawning over Barth or Pantanjali, I forget who, when a man came up to me and made small talk (this happens frequently. apparently something about my hunched posture invites people to talk to me?). Once he found out I went to Fuller, he began pelting me with a variety of questions to make me defend on-the-spot what I, my school, various professors, scripture, denominations, and reason put forward as belief and doctrine.

Le sigh.

These conversations I try to avoid. Since Nov. ’10 I have realized I speak for no one – not even myself. It took great effort, but I wired my jaw shut in this way. I speak for no one. Still, this man was undeterred and continued to question me despite the monosyllabic answers I offered and the periodic distracted gaze back at the shelves. Finally, I simply pulled a chair over and sat down saying I was “too tired to continue this much longer.” He continued for another half hour – and I know this because the cashier told us we had a half hour until closing and he was still steadily going at closing.

Don’t misunderstand, I enjoy conversations with atheists. In many ways, I prefer them because they are not as quick to judge. That is, once we agree to the fact that Yes, I believe in God and No, you do not as well as the converse, we are then free to simply be human beings with one another and judgement more-often-than-not goes out the window. Further, I have found that non-religious people are often just as moral as their religious neighbors – if not more so. They raise their children ethically, care for the environment, and are a far cry from the rapid chaos-bringers that Sunday School depicts them as. Rational and less prone to judgement, the non-religious are often curious about my faith, respectful in disagreement (or able to joke about our differences in a good natured way), and better educated not only academically but in the ways of life.

Here’s the problem: When it comes to atheists, the religious end of the wading pool sees good, well-meaning, ethical, polite people as a “threat” or “challenge.” Their sheer existence is an “affront to the goodness of God” rather than civil disagreement. The first and only line of “defense” in “overcoming” these “evil” threats, challenges and affronts to God is a branch of religion called apologetics. Of course, the other end of this would be radical religion, which we see in the headlines too often – bombings, protests, hate crimes, slurs, even Internet “flame wars.”

Again – both sides are well-intentioned. There must always be room to see the other side and we must never demonize our “opponent” so far as to dehumanize them. In reality, they love their children just like we do and we would be well served to remember that we are all God’s children as much as co-inhabitants of the third planet in this solar system.

Coming back to apologetics, I have been spending my free moments (i.e. “late nights”) in the library, rapidly taking in as much as possible before my brain shuts down for the night. Which is too often, too early, and not enough. While I may appreciate apologetics and dogmatics more than some, and while I may intentionally be steeping myself in my work and education to compensate for a dismal social life at present, I am never able to forget the names and faces of my friends who are, again, every bit as wonderful as their religious counterparts – if not more so. Can’t seem to stress this enough. When we fail to create space for questions, for genuine dialogue and not dictation, we have failed our respective traditions.

Case in point: One of the great lies about Muhammad (pbuhn) is that he was an agent of hate, spreading Islam by the sword. This simply is not true. One of his acolytes did this, and any attempt to pin the Crusades on the “Moslems” is entirely unfounded and even ahistorical as the Catholic Church was the provocateur of the first through fourth wars. Further, while it is true that certain groups within Islam have a tendency to make an explosive demonstration, I think there is something to be said when the rest of the Islamic world, including those living within Europe and America, publicly decry such brutality. One might be persuaded to argue that religion brings more sin into the world than atheism.

Still, what is happening in the world right now is collective disgust towards religion, whatever its form, for this very reason – we speak of peace even as we draw the sword. Is it any wonder than rational, grounded, articulate, ethically-minded people choose to opt out and live their lives peacefully? After all, putting rhetoric aside, when was the last time religion embodied peace in an informed way?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Luthern pastor during World War II and (it should be said) involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler, once proposed “religionless Christianity.” Scholars are unsure of what this means precisely as Bonhoeffer was executed by his Nazi jailers shortly after circulating his initial proposal. Before this past summer, I began devouring Bonhoeffer’s works seeking a metronomic pattern leading to this proposal. What might he have been getting at? A religionless religion? Is such an oxymoron even possible? Many assume that Bonhoeffer was proposing a new language for “ethics” (esp. since he penned a book under this title) and meant nothing beyond this. And yet, I would disagree. Well acquainted with the ways in which Christianity colonized what befitted them, then switched names to “adopt” new ways, means and practices, Bonhoeffer would surely have categorically rejected such an action. I don’t think he was proposing ethics-called-religion or religion-called-ethics but something else entirely. I think, and I may be wrong, but I think he was speaking quite frankly about his desire to see a stripped-down, rational and fair Christianity. This is one of those rare occasions in history when “a thing is a thing” and can be taken at face value.

What kind of “religionless” faith is possible, Reader?

Moreover, though we may share different conclusions of the data, at the end of the discussion we must agree that science (a god of sorts, as science is seen as the definitive) and faith share many pathways. Alvin Plantinga’s latest work, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion & Naturalism puts forward that science too operates within the framework of accepted theories that have to find ways to maintain themselves in the face of counter-evidence. Or, as Scott Plaeth, prof. of Religious Studies at DePaul Univ. in Chicago writes,

To me the deep connection between science and religion isn’t that they ultimately confirm or must support the same picture of reality, but that they are in many ways analogous approaches to thinking about how we know and what we know about the world, which run on parallel tracks with one another. They may view the same phenomena, and come to different conclusions, but they both operate with the context of human attempts to reason about and make sense of the world within which we dwell. And in that regard both are valuable and necessary.

And so I ask again, Reader… what kind of religionless religion might we find? Together? And share in? What kind of science allows for faith and what kind of faith allows for science – and are we willing to concede the need for one another in pursuit of something better than our respective kingdoms?

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