Answering Your Letters: Atheism

"αθεοι" (atheoi), Greek for "th...
“αθεοι” (atheoi), Greek for “those without god”, as it appears in the Epistle to the Ephesians on the third-century papyrus known as “Papyrus 46” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I received this in the other day from a reader and thought I’d share…


I saw the recent dust up between the doctors Cargill and West. You seemed to be okay with Cargill who West has outed as an agnostic. You’ve also said New Atheists and other atheists are something like prophets. Why, as a Christian, do you treat atheists and agnostics so good? Shouldn’t you try to shame them into conversion? Can’t we just burn them at the stake like the bloody heretics they are?

– Harry Z.

Thanks, Harry. Yes, I do see value in atheism and agnosticism even to the Christian perspective. I guess as a Methodist I believe everyone is on an equal journey where God will lead and thus use them. I also find that as my faith grows in the unknowable it also requires more knowledge, so how can I dispense with this who prefer absolute knowledge or even the modern descendants to Dionysius?

I believe facts are facts regardless of generation. After all, Scripture testifies to the demons who understood the fact of the One God. If they told us of One God would we deny them that fact? Or would we not find a way to use that admission to benefit our own view?

You might ask “shouldn’t we prefer our Christian brothers to outsiders?” Why yes, I believe so. Of course, if we allow that the parable of the Good Samaritan may still teach us something more applicable we might consider all of those whom we despise to be our neighbors. Perhaps that is the first sign of who our neighbor is — do we despise them enough? I’m not saying I despise atheists by any means, but I believe I could argue in favor of the fact that many Christians do. So, if we are to prefer our brothers, and neighbors are everyone, can we separate too easily neighbors and brothers?

I guess the question we must ask is whether or not to consider others is whether or not their mission is to destroy — obliterate — Christianity. Unlike trolls from South Korea who clearly has made it his mission to obliterate Christianity, I do not believe Cargill is out to destroy Christianity. He does call attention to the reality that often times, Christians are engaged in cognitive dissonance. What do I mean, you may ask. Rightly so, let me suggest the message of the Pat Robertson meme is not that Christianity is deluded, but that it has a double standard. For instance, we chalk it up to fantastical faith evolution and other scientific discoveries and yet suggest that our faith in a Risen Lord is beyond testing, even on a historical ground (Look for the book by ]]. This is a logical fallacy. We should endeavor to be honest, and unlike Ham and TT, Cargill calls us to be honest with ourselves in exploring Christianity.

For me, I would submit, faith is part of the Logos. In John, we read of the Spirit of Truth that is to come and guide us into all truth. For Christians, this has given us the canon of the New Testament — including books not written by the purported authors — as well as developed doctrines. But, equally so, it has given us science and the need to further our knowledge of exactly what truth is. If God is the God of Truth (and Deutero-Isaiah declares him to be), then Truth like God is not limited to a certain time and place, but must be experienced until the fullness is reached. Where we find truth, we will find the divine. That is, if we allow certain frictions with classical theology to wear-off. This is a new world, but it is nevertheless a world that values truth. If we are those who value truth as well, then regardless of where that truth originates, we as Christians will seek it out and not limit it to a specific time and place. Like God, we know that truth goes ahead of us. Once we find it, we will cherish it, not suffocate it under a superstitious poison.

This is where atheists and agnostics come in at. I have faith in God, but I have a greater faith in the Christian Tradition. As far as the theology of the Living God, I must concur with the apophatic theologians, who I would suggest, would be more favorable to agnostics — who are humble enough in their humanity to suggest that simply, they don’t know (and maybe do not care) — than we are. I would rather doubt God than prove him. After all, the God you can prove is only the god of your Creation. This is why I would give quarter to all facts, regardless of generation — because all truth is God’s truth. This is why I would prefer agnosticism than fundamentalism.

So, Harry, I hope that answers some of your questions. Please feel free to email me with any more.

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28 Replies to “Answering Your Letters: Atheism”

  1. On reflection, when the dust finally settles, the current debate of agnosticism/atheism will probably be seen as a rehash of the God Is Dead movement of the 1960s as well as Nietzsche’s famous dictum. It is simply a reaction to a sanctimonious cohort of zealots taking their version of God a little too seriously.

  2. Thanks for posting this. It gives me hope that there are others out there who aren’t intimidated by the recent surge in atheism and general non-belief.

    I don’t talk about this a lot (I try not to think about it too hard, because I get depressed by it), but I have a disappointingly frail faith. As a student and “scholar-in-training,” a lot of people come to me looking for big answers, and I’ve found that I am constantly unable to provide them. That’s probably why I don’t have much of a desire to ever be a pastor—it’s a lot safer to objectively study a text and even provide what other people might consider “faithful readings” of it, without having to commit to believing one way or another about it. My sincere interest in NT scholarship began in a time when I considered myself pretty much all but faithless (which was sometimes awkward, considering I’ve spent the last several years of my education at a confessional institution).

    The bottom line is that I’m still not convinced of the “truth” of much of the Bible, even though I am absolutely convinced of its beauty. Is it possible to appreciate the depth, power, and intrinsic hope of Paul’s language of “New Creation” and John the Revelator’s “Lamb-who-was-Slain” while remaining uncommitted to them as factual interpretations of the present reality? I don’t know.

    Perhaps that makes me more apophatic than what I’ve previously considered.

    1. The frequently overlooked lesson behind the crucifixion of Jesus is that is possible to kill God. While he will rise again, a generation of religious zealotry and secular hubris in high places can have the same effect on God as Kryptonite does on Superman. God dwells in the heart and in quiet places of life. His presence is there as a reminder to love the neighbor, forgive the enemy, and to get beyond one’s self.

      Much of pastoring is politics. It involves placating the church’s sugar daddy, appeasing church’s busybody, and knowing just what to say to the pew-sitters in the Sunday sermon. Yet, this is not what Jesus did. He hung out with the wrong crowd, disturbed the comfortable, cared little for the things of this world, and chose death over conformity.

      1. I totally agree—in theory. I’ve read Moltmann’s brilliant “The Crucified God.” But isn’t it a poor argument, considering that it starts with the assumption of God’s existence?

        1. That assumption is the ontological argument found in the Bible. It presumes that God’s existence need not be proved. Kant went through this and finally concluded that the existence of God must be predicated on faith.

          1. Even this is too much for my apophatic self.

            What is God’s existence? If God has an existence, he must have a non-existence as well. And if God has a non-existence, then… well, he’s not God.

  3. What about issues like the resurrection, which historical and biological inquiry leads one to say it can’t happen. I

      1. Agreed. I am more inclined to believe in the resurrection than to believe in God—which is kind of crazy and backwards, if you ask me.

        The whole point of the resurrection is “Of COURSE people don’t come back from the dead—history, reason, and experience tell us as much. THAT’s what makes the resurrection such an ordeal!”

        But I have a hard time with the ontological assumption of God’s existence being based on the Bible.

          1. Somewhat oversimplified: Science consists of evidence in search of questions while scripture claims to be answers with no need of questions.

          2. I would argue that Scripture doesn’t claim anything, especially to be an answer. It comes down to how we use Scripture. Do we use it as an answer book or as a record of divine guidance, or the such?

            Much like science. Do we use it as the answer for tomorrow or the record of today and yesterday? Misuse shouldn’t prevent looking for the proper use!

    1. My problem with using the Bible as the a priori argument for the existence of God is that it was assembled by those with human authority. Why do we grant divine inspiration to John’s Apocalypse, but do not consider, say, Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Revelation” as direct evidence of a deity?

      I’m more of a reason/experience kind of guy than a tradition/scripture kind of guy. I guess that makes me an red-headed stepchild of the Enlightenment, unfortunately. (I really don’t want to be—I want to tell Kant, Hume, etc., “You’re not my real father!”)

          1. Think of Christianity as a funnel laid horizontally. The big end is the relative diversity of the new religion that followed the death of Jesus. There were a myriad of questions swirling about. All of them needed answers if the religion was to have any cohesion. For example:
            Who was Jesus?
            What were the origins of Jesus?
            What had Jesus really said?
            Was this new religion Jewish or was it something altogether different?
            What should be the role of women in this new religion?
            Should believers always turn the other cheek?
            In addition to Jesus, whose words should be trusted?
            While some of these questions, and more, would resolved before Constantine became Emperor, the Christianity that followed his assent to power was much more standardized than the version that preceded him. A standardized Bible was just one example.
            If it holds together, the simplified diagram of a horizontal funnel below illustrates my point. The influence of Constantine is the neck of the funnel through which Christianity passes. The resulting conformity then spreads throughout the sphere of Roman influence through the empire’s roads and shipping routes.
            D –
            I —
            V —
            E —–
            R —– Constantine — STANDARDIZATION
            S —-
            I —
            T —
            Y –
            Whether Constantine was doing God’s will or whether he simply used Christianity does not alter the fact that the Roman Emperor exerted more influence on the shape of Christianity than is generally conceded in most churches these days.
            I would further argue that, from Constantine’s point of view, the law and order writings of Paul were absolutely necessary as a counterbalance to the sometimes radical ideas of Jesus. After all, Jesus had referred to the religious leaders of his day as a bunch of snakes. This simply was simply not acceptable in the Roman scheme of things. There must be leaders and their must be followers!
            Moreover, in an empire largely sustained by slave labor, it was also quite helpful that Paul had written his letter fo Philemon. It could be used to pacify both masters and slaves. Masters got the cheap labor now. Slaves got the promise of eteral reward for their obedience here and now.

  4. I think I see what you’re getting at. The difficulty here (at least for me) is that while I can acknowledge that *something* obviously happened to spark the initial faith in Jesus in the first century (which, as you mention, was later expanded and solidified in Constantinian doctrine), and that whatever it was may very well have been supernatural in origin, this still does not necessitate god. C.S. Lewis famously claimed that one has to accept Jesus as either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. I think he left out another word: “mistaken” (although that does ruin the good bit of alliteration he had going for him).

    As a side note, I always wondered why more people don’t read Philemon as Paul pleading with Philemon to release Onesimus, or at least treat him “no longer as a slave, but as…a beloved brother” (v.16). Just curious.

    1. in regards to Philemon, it’s because people are generally conditioned to read Scripture straight forward, this plain sense nonsense. Paul is nothing if not rhetorical.

      We are all atheists on some level, aren’t we? I mean, I do not believe in the fundamentalist angry god, nor the gods of the tribal religions. Further, I do not believe in God. What does this mean anyway? I accept the fact of the divine, God, as well as the fact that I need not act for this God to “be real” or not to “be real.” I acknowledge that any notion of God I can even eloquently articulate would still be an unreal paradigm, because the God we can naturalize in human speech is hardly a god at all. Instead, I turn to apophatic theology and to panentheism to acknowledge God. And I turn to Christian tradition to believe that Jesus is the way to God.

      1. First, thank you both for this good conversation. It is rare that I get to chat like this with such highly informed individuals (and I attend a seminary—yikes!).

        I’m not sure that my atheist friends (whom I try to think like when having these discussions, so as to better understand where they are coming from) would agree that we are all atheists in some way. There are gods that I certainly don’t believe in, and you’ve even listed a few of them above. But to say that one is an atheist is to inherently suggest that there are NO gods at all.

        Additionally, isn’t it difficult to say on the one hand that any notion of God we could articulate would still be an unreal paradigm, while on the other hand accepting as Christians that Jesus is “god with skin on” and was “sent” to show us what god is “like”? Is it possible to conceive of a god who both transcends the boundaries we place on him, her, or it, while also claiming that this deity “loves” humanity and is a force for “good” in the world? Doesn’t the mere use of terms like love and goodness already begin to place qualifiers on the Deity?

        By the way—I love apophatic theology and panentheism.

        1. As a follow-up on the subject of atheism, it might be worth pointing out that reincarnation of God Is Dead probably has something in common with the reason cohabitation has become a popular alternative to marriage and why having children is no longer fashionable. In order to attract adherents/customers/followers in the early 21st century, one must be able to persuade the masses that whatever one is peddling will improve their life. To get repeat business, the product or service must subsequently prove satisfying to the purchaser.
          At the present time, Christianity has more in common with a post-OPEC oil embargo Chevrolet than it does with a Honda or Toyota of the era. Truth be told, the old rust-bucket Chevys were built to make GM stockholders money. Advertising them to a gullible public and bribing the unions to go along were merely means to that end. The strategy worked so long as times were good. Then when money got tight, people began buying more fuel efficient and reliable imports. Public transportation also began to rise from the dead.
          As with GM, the Christian brand is meeting the needs of a few individuals. Meanwhile, the masses are increasingly disenchanted with the commodity. Merely dressing up the basic product with more gadgets, such as rock-n-roll band on Sunday morning, is not solving the underlying perception problem any more than putting more plastic on the console.
          The various scandals in the church have taken their toll. While folks might laugh off an occasional minister absconding with the church organist, preachers 69ing choir boys seems far less funny. Much the same thing is true of the financial scandals that have put seemingly respectable clergy behind bars.
          Heavy involvement in politics hasn’t helped either the Republican Party or the Christianity. Both are increasingly seen as irrelevant and out of touch with the mainstream. There is too much God and guns on the menu and not enough butter to suit the younger generation.
          For the church to become relevant again may take more than a few high class funerals to clear out the dead wood littering the pews, pulpits, and governing boards. The church will also have to stop refighting the same old battles that it has already lost and replace them with new venues of service. It’s going to have to more like the giving Samaritan and less like the judgmental Pharisee. Any sanctimonious fool can tell the down and out that they’re going to hell. It takes commitment to a higher calling to walk in their shoes and help them with their burden of life. Yet, that’s why the story of David Wilkerson and Nicky Cruz got translated into 30 languages!

        2. atheist is applied differently, of course. In the end, though, logical atheists must admit they cannot disprove God and further, the god they generally intend NOT to believe in is some version of the Christian God or other cultural god in their context.

          As far as the difficulty, not really, I would argue. Can we fully know God even if we know Jesus? Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is pictured as not always knowing God, God’s plan, and the reasoning. (I’m not a fan of Chalcedon, btw). Further, the theology of Mark, I would argue, pictures a God too far distant and thus, we have Jesus who loves. By the time we get to John, we… sure, God loves the world in such a way as to send Jesus, but God loved Israel to send Moses, and the such. We can qualify some aspects of the divine without qualifying the whole or quantifying it. I wouldn’t want to use the phrase “force for good” however

    2. You could argue that an accident of time (during the Roman Empire) and place (within borders of that empire) allowed an obviously charismatic and pacifist personality from an obscure province to become worshiped on a worldwide scale.

      1. Well, I’m not saying it was accidental. I’m just suggesting the possibility that Jesus—a product of his time and place—felt a sense of “calling” that could or could not have been mistaken. So Jesus bases his ministry on the personal belief that God is working in him and through him for some giant purpose. He could have been mistaken about the divine origin of that mission, and it wouldn’t have changed history—he would still have gone to the cross believing that he was ordained by the Deity for this purpose (I think Moltmann plays with this idea a little bit in The Crucified God). Then, “something” could have happened (again, with the possibility of a mistake) to make his followers adamantly believe that Jesus had in fact been raised from the dead—and perhaps he was; who knows? When people are passionate about an idea, they spread it.

        So perhaps “accident” isn’t the best word. I prefer “serendipity.” 🙂

    3. In a word: Hubris. Far too many people in this world have a need to feel superior to someone else. Slavery is perhaps the ultimate proof of superiority. Christian slave owners didn’t “read Philemon as Paul pleading with Philemon to release Onesimus” for the much the same reason that church-going fat-cat business owners feel blessed by God while paying their hired help minimum wages. It follows then, being blessed by God in this world (because of accumulated wealth) and the next (being among the chosen to go to heaven) is further proof of superiority. In turn, this attitude has been exploited by Protestant clergy such as William Lawrence (the Bankers’ Bishop), Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking), and Billy Graham (the Presidents’ Preacher). The Catholic Church has also engaged in the much the same practices – howbeit, much less flamboyantly.

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