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.

What Has Not Yet Been Revealed
Do You Need a Spiritual Teacher?
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Happy St. Hildegard's Day!


  1. steven blondeau says:

    You might steer him to Sri Aurobindo’s The Life Divine. The second chapter in particular is amazing in helping someone to leap through materialism. Atheism and agnosticism are actually beneficial in coming to understand the evolution of consciousness and Divinity.

  2. Nasty religious people may be those who worship the God-idea and are still searching for transformation in the living Person of God. That is, the realization of God in their lives is imperfect or incomplete or deficient.

    From today’s RC lectionary:

    “This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked.” – 1 Jn 2

  3. Peasant, I agree. I just wish such people haven’t historically had so much power to hurt others.

  4. Religion as such, does not exist in itself. Religion does not walk, or talk. It is a quality that exists in a believer. He/she then lives it or fails to live it. Therefore ‘religion’ does not cause trouble! It does not cause the opposite of trouble!
    Individuas do virtuous or vicious acts. Christ commands us to love others AS HE LOVED US, that is the teaching of Jesus. The teaching of Jesus, if lived sincerely is good gfor the believer and others.

  5. Methinks the problem is with Christians who have enough Christ to get them out of hell and not enough to move forward from “religion”, in it’s darkest sense, what you have been talking of here. And so they stay in some kind of half-dead state and think it’s life, and everyone else around them can see that seem to be even LESS alive than they were before they joined the “system of religious obligation” as Wayne Jacobsen calls it.

    I think the most dangerous thing in the world is a lukewarm Christian. Better to be cold.

  6. I can understand your friend. Questioning is the beginning of the journey. Sometimes the human emotions get all entangled in what we want to say that it appears that we want to control what others experienced God to be. Thank God he has you as a friend that has experienced rightly Who God is. Hopefully, this soul is given the peace to continue the journey to love the God who gives us all we ask. And a friendly guide is incredibly helpful. I would wager he will not be happy with man-made terms like “nasty” because God reveals himself gradually to keep us seeking Him. I think your friend might be a blessing to us as we recall our journey. We are asked by the Spirit, who do you say I am? The spiritual cross your friend is bearing seems so incredibly heavy. I will pray for him, and I hope he prays for us. I feel he is probably closer to God’s ear because of his internal process.

  7. What a refreshing and insightful commentary! I’ve often wondered if Jesus Christ Himself would be accepted by some of the more dogmatic and hypocritical theologians if He returned to earth in this day and age! There is much to be said concerning narrowmindedness and hatred…they limit our ability to accept the lovely gifts God has for us, and limit our ability to share them with others.

  8. You become like the god you worship.

  9. There’s no doubt that there’s been nastiness on all sides, but why would someone give up God because of something His people do? Maybe we should concentrate on Spirituality instead of Religion. The individualism of spirituality seems to quell the need for the “rightness” of the group. When we deal with God on a personal level, the nastiness can bother us only as much as it bothers God. We know better, and He knows it.

  10. Here’s a relevant quote from Gentian Hill (one of my wife’s books):

    “Her lips folded themselves into a straight line, and Stella thought briefly how odd it was that thinking differently about God tended to make even the nicest people not very sympathetic towards each other.”

    I join Carl in his apology to all those whom we “people of faith” have offended by our nastiness and hatred and violence. These were not the qualities which drew me to investigate the claims of Jesus in the first place, and they are not any part of His loving and gracious character. To answer Aubri, God has humbly invested his reputation in the influence of people on each other, and because of this we have the terrible power of degrading his gracious name and turning honest seekers away from him as a possible answer for their search. He can and often does over-ride this influence, but we are still accountable for how we represent Him to those who are seeking the Reality that we claim we have found in Him.

    Thank God that we can repent of this and receive His forgiveness, and start again in our mission of pouring out love and grace into the world.

    Blessings and love to all,

  11. When you apologize 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”, you’re not apologizing for the church or for religion. You’re apologizing for an aspect of human nature which nontheists have in common with you and of which we all need to be wary.

    There’s nothing necessarily “Christian” about love and acceptance, or the social and psychological factors that produce in/outgroup dichotomies and the antagonistic behavior you describe. And there are certainly other divisive causes which can inspire hatred on both sides (the prime example being nationalism).

    Love itself, though, is rare in the world, and it certainly couldn’t hurt to encourage it. Being honest, though, I don’t think I have any idea what love is. I can’t speak about idol worship, either, but I have a feeling I know what you mean.

    I personally think we have a better chance of the arguments ending if we just stick everyone in isolation, or, barring that, at least just find a different game to play.

  12. Rev. pappahealer says:

    I personaiiy think we tend to loose a part of ourselves in religions, we loose our own
    spirit, we are so involved in the spirit off god we forget we have a spirit, that makes us whole. And when we are whole we are god, in every way in the presant moment in space and time, We continue to create the world as we can read from the comment, each one of you leave a word of creation, new way off life for a reader.
    I can plainly compair it to the bible, with one exception you are in the now.
    Rev. Andrew

  13. I can’t say I agree with his and some of your conclusions.

    There has been in many circles the past 30 years or so to sever religion from spirituality. Those that are religious are nasty as your friend says and those that are spiritual are nice. It appears to me to be a method to provide license to the individual to not join a Christian communion and be held accountable for their actions.

    The truth about moral good, as that truth is declared in the law of reason, is practically and concretely recognized by the judgment of conscience, which leads one to take responsibility for the good or the evil one has done. If man does evil, the just judgment of his conscience remains within him as a witness to the universal truth of the good, as well as to the malice of his particular choice.

    When one discovers something is True, they then have the obligation to act on that Truth. This is true(no bun intended) liberty [as opposed to license]. However with todays relativism most individuals prefer the latter over the former against their conscience. The conscience isn’t infallible and that’s were (at least from my communion) the church comes in to guide the individual.

    Your friend likely has experienced this from the result of individuals recognizing truth and being called to act on it. The nasty part comes into play in how the Christian choses to act on that truth.

    The crusades were mostly defensive not offensive causes, indeed Islam invaded all the way to Vienna in the east and close to Beligum in the west before they were stopped. Certainly the political leaders went beyond the standards of combat by todays rules of ingagement, but span of control is vastly different today.

    Galileo the darling of science didn’t prove that the Earth, it was an educated guess and had he submitted to teaching his idea as a theory instead of fact, and claim to be an expert in a field he wasn’t qualified in a.ka. theologian he could have avoid that problem.

    As far as atheist go, Catholics were killed at the forum in Rome for being atheist, because they denied their was more then one god. Context depends on who has the power to kill. In the 20th century & 21st century in USSR and in Red China it’s the atheist who provide the context and deem the Christian as the threat to the state, just as the heretic was a threat to the state in Christdom in the middle ages.

  14. I haven’t read all the comments so this is in response to the main post.

    David Ferenc (Francis David), an early Unitarian, said “We need not think alike to love alike”.

    Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (340–402) said, in defending Paganism from the persecutions of Christians: “We ask, then, for peace for the gods of our fathers and of our country. It is just that all worship should be considered as one. We look on the same stars, the sky is common, the same world surrounds us. What difference does it make by what pains each seeks the truth? We cannot attain to so great a secret by one road.”

    If only Christianity were not so obsessed with creeds (though I understand the historical reasons for this). If only it had taken Rammhoun Roy’s book “The Precepts of Jesus” to heart. It’s Jesus’ values that are important, not what you believe about him. If only Christians would read the whole of John ch. 14 and not just the verse that says “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, and there is no way to the Father except through me”. If only all Christians would sign up to the Phoenix Affirmations.

    Happy New Year and well done for being a lovely non-exclusivist mystical Christian :)

  15. Grant Lynn Ford says:

    Thank you for putting the thoughts of my heart into wonderful words. I have walked the Way with Jesus so long that he and I have become good friends. Some of my other friends walk a different Way, and they have different friendships. But altogether we are able to form a circle of love, and no one wants me to leave my Friend outside our circle.

    Why must Christians think they are the only ones with the only Right Way? Solid Christian theology tells us we can’t base Truth on one isolated scripture, but must interpret it in the light of the whole story. So “no way to the Father except through me” must have another translatable possibility. How about: “No one really comes to the realization of Abba until they do what I have done.” That would take us back to asking: “Could I too be ‘Way’, ‘Truth’, and ‘Life’?” Is Jesus my Great Example, not my Great Exception? If true, then I would want to love those who find another Way, not insist that they follow in my identical footsteps…especially when we read the rest of the Teachings of the Master.

  16. Carl, I’m reminded of Sri Aurobindo’s words here: “Atheism is a necessary protest against the wickedness of the Churches and the narrowness of creeds. God uses it as a stone to smash these soiled card-houses.”

    I think it’s very sad that human egoism has turned religion into an affair that is exactly the opposite of the true nature of the Divine. Our egos just can’t grasp things like endless Grace or infinite Mercy.

  17. “it seems to me that the atheist/agnostic critique of religion can be succinctly stated in four words: “Religious people are nasty.””

    0h, no. I’m an atheist/agnostic, and that would not at all be my critique of religion. I generally liked the people I was in church with. The problem for me is simply that it isn’t true. I don’t really buy into Christianity for the same reason I don’t buy into all the other religions – not only is there no evidence when there should be, God doesn’t behave the way God “should”, and there actually seems to be evidence against them being true. They all seem to be pretty clueless. I’m sure all religions have plenty of nice people, though.

  18. Thanks, tinyfrog. I would assume that “clueless” is a subset of “nasty” even if it doesn’t necessarily involve unpleasant behavior.

    Incidentally, are you familiar with the work of Ken WIlber, particularly Sex, Ecology, Spirituality or The Marriage of Sense and Soul? I think he’s done the best job yet for explaining why religious people accept criteria other than the scientific method for determining the validity of spiritual truth. Not trying to make a believer out of you :-) but I thought that, in the spirit of intellectual inquiry, you’d enjoy learning more about what makes us people of faith ‘tick.’



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