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!
A few weeks ago, the boys from Homebrewed Christianity had my friend Steve Knight on to talk about some important things. I already responded to what I thought was a misunderstanding of what Atheism For Lent actually is – or is trying to be. But, I also caught wind of something else I found interesting…
Steve mentioned Skeptimergent. I can’t remember how he worded it – something to the effect of “the most important thing in the history of the universe.” Something like that. Thanks, Steve.
But, the response from Tripp and Bo was what was fascinating to me: it was entirely dismissive, and they moved on. I’ve heard this kind of reaction from at least a few other people. So, I thought I would try to highlight what Skeptimergent isn’t, and then what it is (or is trying to be):
Skeptimergent is not an attempt by atheists, humanists, and so on to hijack the Emergent movement and make it its own. It is not just another trendy thing that is going to disappear.
But, what we have sensed is that there are a lot of people in the Emergent movement who are skeptically-inclined. And, there are those in the movement who would call themselves, in some sense, atheists.
Recently I was hanging out with Doug Hammack and he said he thinks the only possible Christian approach is a “Christian agnosticism.” Tony Jones has also recently described himself as an agnostic. The more people I talk to, the more this seems to actually be the norm in Emergent circles. I think most of us fit along a spectrum of agnosticism.
So, one thing that we’re trying to bring to the surface is that “skepticism,” broadly defined, is an integral part of the Emergent ethos. We are everywhere. I’m honestly surprised when I run into people claiming the Emergent brand while uncritically embracing orthodox Christianity.
Also, there are a number of people who seem to be “on the way out” of any organized spiritual anything altogether. But, they have found a “home” in a sense in this movement. I think Emergent should find ways to love these people out – as a sort of “transitional space.”
With all of that said, I think there needs to be an ongoing conversation about these realities and ideas within the Emergent movement. I think we need to find ways to get people together to talk about how to encourage critical thinking, to avoid the pitfalls of toxic, cult-like religion (which are what the “new atheists” are reacting against), and to acknowledge the presence of people along these spectrums.
I hope that Tripp and Bo were being dismissive of Steve’s comment due to a misunderstanding of what Skeptimergent is trying to accomplish. But, hopefully, through ongoing dialogue with those of us who have a really hard time signing on to even the most “progressive” set of Christian beliefs, all of us within the Emergent movement can see its enduring importance.
While I am an atheist, I think it is an open question what role religion plays in society and whether religious people or atheists think more clearly. These are empirical questions.
I think the New Atheists do a very bad job of reviewing that evidence. Their argument style is polemical. It is that of a lawyer making a case and they make the most negative case possible for religion. In my book, I show that they are simply wrong. They are simply incorrect in many of their statements about religion.
Furthermore, a basic principle of my book is morality binds and blinds. If you are an atheist who treats science as sacred and you call yourself an apostle of science, then you are replicating many of the thinking patterns that you accuse religious people of having, namely, closed-mindedness, blindness to evidence, black and white thinking and attributing the worst motives to your enemies. I think all of these are clearly visible in the writings of the New Atheists.
I am a scientist and an atheist, but I don’t treat science as sacred. I think the empirical facts about religion in America are generally quite positive, and I say that in my book. I’m hoping that my book will give secular people an alternative vision of religion than that offered by the New Atheists.
If the New Atheists were correct, there could be no compromise and we would be in a battle to the death between religion and atheism. But I think they’re not correct and religion and atheism can coexist quite peacefully in this country.
I’m a social scientist. I’m an empiricist, meaning I’m interested in what the evidence says, and the evidence, as collected in particular by Robert Putnam [and David Campbell] in his new book American Grace, the evidence is very consistent and very positive.
Had it turned out that religious people were more violent, racist and selfish, then I would agree with the New Atheists that we should try to reduce the role of religion. But, in fact, that is not the case. Religious people are more generous, more public spirited and happier. So I followed the evidence and the evidence said that religion contributes a great deal to people’s lives and to our nation.
First, an atheist:
Religion is not the only force for group-cohesion, even if it has the advantage of having sacred spaces, authority, and thus loyalty (what Haidt identifies as primarily conservative values). I believe that care, a concern for fairness/ justice, and a sense of liberty (what Haidt identifies as what liberals tend to prioritize) are means to creating community as well. We do not need to give up a concern for what is true (a value Haidt does not list, interestingly, especially because it is a high value for many new atheists, including myself) in order to create shared group identities.
Contra Marx, he seems to see religion as a healthy prescription for all human culture. Flattering as this may seem at first, religious individuals will do well to note—and emphasize—that it is the truth of religious claims, not their social utility, that makes religion valuable. Religion starts with a divine being’s claim about himself; humans then relate to that divine being, to each other, and to nature based on the nature of this claim. Humans do not relate to each other in certain ways, and then make up a religion to explain their behaviour.
…It’s possible to build a community that welcomes those who believe in God some of the time, or none of the time, or all of the time — and that it is love, not doctrine, that holds us together…
Another interesting part of my conversation with Steve Knight and friends yesterday was about the increasing number of people who refuse to self-identify with any religious label. Steve’s question was what they (we) think about Jesus.
Over the past three years, I’ve spent a lot of time reading, listening to and talking with atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and “ex-church” people of all sorts. And, despite the common perception that atheists hate religion and think religious people are stupid and evil, this does not actually seem to be the case. Studies have also shown that many of the people who could be described as “nones” actually “believe in” a pretty traditional God. I’ve met many people who would still call themselves Christians and still use very traditional language about God and Jesus and so on, but do not want to be identified with the institution known as Christianity or “the church.” As usual, things are not as simple as we might assume or even want them to be. Who knew, people are complex?
But, one thing I have also picked up on is that when you actually ask most of the people who have rejected some institutional form of religion about Jesus, they like him. I can’t find it, but one example was an interview I listened to with Bad Religion. They are pretty well known as atheists and seem to get off on mocking religion. But, in the interview they were asked about Jesus, and they said they really respect Jesus and try to live their lives in line with his teaching.
Umm, what is going on here?
Many people see a lot of problems with an approach to spirituality that wants Jesus without the church. They’ve come up with witty phrases like “solo Christians” or describe us as entirely self-absorbed, individualistic, and so on. I think much of this is because of their own insecurities and jealousy due to investing so much time and energy in losing themselves for the greater good of a group (while claiming they’re “defending the truth”), but that’s besides my point.
As Diana Butler Bass has suggested recently, there is something sacred about a person owning his or her own spirituality. Rather than simply regurgitating the freeze-dried theology handed to us by our parents, we have gone through the difficult process of questioning and examining those ideas, and have decided for ourselves what we will think and do. Rather than being a form of weakness or selfishness, we have grown up, matured (as any good parent knows, if you don’t let your children make their own decisions, they will never become adults). Of course, returning to what our parents have taught us is not necessarily a bad thing (depending on what they taught us). But, I think it’s a much better state of existence to have gone through “the abyss” than to spend your life avoiding it.
So, what do “the nones” think of Jesus? I’m sure there are a lot of different opinions about who Jesus was (or is), and what that means. But, I don’t think we have rejected Jesus. We might not be comfortable with a lot of Christian language, but what if we’re actually “following Jesus” and just don’t know it? What if many of those who have rejected the Christian institution are actually embodying the Kingdom more so than those who have never questioned their faith? How can we who are more inclined to think and talk specifically about Jesus welcome and create space for those who aren’t? What if many of those who claim to be Christians have completely missed the point, and those who don’t are who God (if he/she/it exists) might be speaking to us through?
I could be wrong. But, this is the sense I am getting more and more every day. Are we listening?
This was reposted from my personal blog.
From an article last year in the LA Times by Philip Clayton:
Although a recent bumper crop of pundits likes to proclaim that we’d all be better off with no religion, I suspect that the majority of us believe that religion, in spite of its flaws, offers individuals the inspiration to be better people and to create a better nation…
I advocate a radically different solution: the Emerging Church. It’s a movement based on understanding the reasons for mainstream religion’s dramatic decline: improved scientific understanding, changing social norms, an increasingly pluralistic religious culture and more freedom to doubt and question — a freedom that until the last three centuries was mostly absent or suppressed and that is still resisted, sometimes violently, in much of the world today.
In my experience, the nones are not rejecting God. They are rejecting doctrinal requirements that they no longer find believable, along with the rigid structures of many organized religions. For that reason, the rise of the nones may well be a new kind of spiritual awakening, one in which doubters are welcome.
In the Christian tradition, for example, the Emerging Church invites participation from all who find themselves attracted to the teachings, actions and person of Jesus. It isn’t crucial that members call themselves Christians, or that they believe Bible stories literally (rather than metaphorically), or even that they are believers rather than agnostics and atheists. As long as people want to sincerely engage with the teachings of Jesus and with the communities that seek to live by those values — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” “Love your neighbor,” “Blessed are the peacemakers” — they are welcome…
(via Tony Jones)