I had a conversation with a friend last night — the same friend I’ve written about before — who is undergoing a crisis of faith. He told me last night that reading the “new atheists” — folks like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens — makes him so angry. “I came to see that I have been duped by the church, and that the church is in the business of duping people.”
My friend is a good and honest man, sincere in his zeal to find truth. Perhaps a bit too zealous, for I fear that he is trapped in modernist assumptions about truth (assumptions that go back to Plato). But as we talked, we looked at how the many atheists seem to have two messages:
- Religion is flawed;
- We should be really, really angry about this!
The first message strikes me as good and valuable. Even though religion is notoriously resistant to criticism, any perspective that shines light on its failings can only help to further the cause of truth (not to mention goodness and beauty). While I may not share all of atheism’s critique of Christianity, as a Christian who sincerely endeavors to love God with all my heart, mind and strength, I owe it to myself to have as accurate an understanding of my faith as possible — including an understanding of how others see (and disagree) with it.
But it’s the second part of the message that leaves me cold. There’s a level on which choosing to react to religion with anger, rage, hatred, or any other strong passion is simply to give religion power over our lives. And since the main beef of the atheists seems to be that religion seeks to expand its power over people, allowing it to trigger strong passion is, ironically, to play into its hands. The atheist who is consumed with anger and hatred toward faith is, in a very real sense, in hell. Not a hell of divine punishment so much as a hell of his own making. And that, it seems to me, is pretty much useless.
I’m certainly not saying that all atheists are trapped in such powerful negative passion. I can’t even say that the authors I’ve mentioned suffer in such a way, not knowing any of them personally. But I have met my share of pissed off nonbelievers over the years, and I see my friend on the brink of becoming one himself. If it’s his path to be a nonbeliever, so be it. I just hope he can embrace that path with joy and love, not bitterness and fury. After all, if you believe religion is an oppressive force from which you need to be liberated, then take responsibility for going all the way. As Bob Marley said, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.”
Meanwhile, speaking as a believer, those of us who choose to stay in the church need to take a similar responsibility for ourselves. It’s all too easy to fall prey to self-righteousness, xenophobia, chauvinism, or various other shades of spiritual pride. Such perspectives are the first cousin to the rage and fuming of religion’s fiercest critics. If you want to be in the church, do it with fearlessness, love and joy. And if you’re not there yet, make that your goal (after all, Christianity — and I suppose most other ethical religions — is meant to be a force for healing). There’s only one way to be a person of faith: and that is to be grounded in joy (or at the least, actively seeking to get there). Anything else seems to me to be missing the mark.