The other day I took a walk with a friend of mine, about my age, who is going through a spiritual transition. He was at one point a very devout Christian, going to seminary with the hope of becoming a missionary. But a crisis of faith cut that journey short, and launched him on an unexpected trajectory of criticism toward organized religion that has finally resulted in his declaring to me, just the other night, that he has begun to wonder if perhaps he is an atheist. It became clear from our conversation that for him atheism involved two problems, the problem of God and the problem of religion. He dealt with the problem of God by deciding that “God” is a psycholinguistic symbol that people use to signify ultimate concern or power. Meanwhile, religion was the real enemy, for while he acknowledged that much good has been done in the name of religion, he felt that a final balancing of the books suggested that religion, overall, does more harm than good.
I think my friend may be rather typical of persons who choose agnosticism or atheism over religious faith. He’s given me a lot to think about. Indeed, while chatting with Fran this morning, I had this thought: If you look at all the various arguments put forth by agnostics and atheists against God and religion, and you simply boiled them down, down to their essence, it seems to me that the atheist/agnostic critique of religion can be succinctly stated in four words:
“Religious people are nasty.”
From the crusades to the witch burnings to the arrest of Galileo to Pius X’s condemnation of modernism to the church-fueled hostility to gay and lesbian persons, atheists have plenty of fuel for their anti-religious fires. But whether they are taking aim at religion’s hatred of science, hatred of sexuality, hatred of free thought, or hatred of cultural diversity, the common element in all of this is that religious people hate. No wonder atheists find us so disgusting.
I know that we could circle the wagons in a smug dismissal of how hateful atheists themselves can be. But I’m not an atheist so I’d rather be going after the beam in my own eye than the mote in theirs. I think the reason atheists hate religious people so much is because they’re just aping the hateful behavior we’ve modeled for them over the years.
What would the world look like if Christians stopped hating so much? If we just became vulnerable when relating to those who reject our way of seeing things (or who don’t reject it simply because they have never accepted it in the first place)? I’m not saying Christians have to surrender our point of view. We can have opinions about the nature of truth, the “rules” of thinking and inquiry, the necessary principles of living a good life. All of that is fair game. What I’m arguing about here is the emotional fuel that powers how we relate to the world. Are we going to be like Christ and love those who are different from us, who ignore us, or even who actively oppose us, or will we remain as worldly as the church has always been, and continue to hate, attack, and even seek to hurt if not kill those who are not members of our “tribe”?
When atheists say “there is no God,” I think they are being just as dogmatic as the most basic of fundamentalists. When they say “there is not enough proof for me to accept that God exists,” I begin to think that much of what divides us is a different way of interpreting experience. After all, mysticism has a deep tradition of acknowledging God’s mystery, unknowability, unprovability, even the sheer absurdity of trying to capture God in mental categories such as “being” or “non-being.” A mystic understands that the statements “God exists” and “God does not exist” are equally absurd, because they represent attempts to mentally capture what is beyond the mind’s capacity to comprehend. Meanwhile, the religious dogmatists and the atheists become more and more entrenched in their particular position, each fueled by sheer opposition to the other. It’s like two children arguing over some insignificant proposition: “It is so!” “It is not!” “Is SO!” “Is NOT!”
So I can’t help but think that atheism is really little more than the shadow (in the Jungian sense) of dogmatic religion. In other words, statements like “God does not exist” or “We do not have enough proof that God exists” only make sense in a world where for so long statements like “God exists” or “God is rationally apprehensible” have been matters of widespread dogmatic certainty. In other words, if over the last two thousand years Christians could have been more humble about God’s mystery, perhaps atheists would have much less fuel for their fire. What I mean is this: it’s a short jump from “God exists and of this we are certain” to “If you don’t accept this as true, we are going to kill you.” Religious nastiness is perhaps an unavoidable consequence of dogmatic thinking. We would never have burned a single witch had we not been “certain” that she was consorting with the devil.
Such certainty, whether used to attack witches or Muslims or scientists or gays or the Rainbow family or whatever, is clearly idolatrous. It is an idol because it is an attempt to reduce God to a “graven image,” in other words the engraving of a rigidly held ideological image/concept of God, within a level of human consciousness that is more concerned about who is or is not a member of the tribe than with how to expansively and expressively give away the lavish love of the Divine unleashed by Christ.
To any atheist or agnostic or freethinker reading this, I want to go on record as one follower of Christ who is truly sorry for all the nastiness and hatred and violence perpetrated by Christians in the name of Christ, or by religious people in general in the name of God or the gods. I am sorry that so many people feel that they must armor their minds and ideas against the mystery that we religious people call “God.” But I recognize that, on a very real level, this is a problem that we religionists have created. And until we learn to relate to the world in terms of love and acceptance and forgiveness instead of judgment and condemnation and attacking, it is a problem that unfortunately will persist.