I like reading blogs that challenge rather than reinforce my views (not that I don’t also like someone to agree with me, at least from time to time). One such blog is Debunking Christianity. Atheists like to challenge Christians by pointing out that they are atheists about almost all gods, and atheists just go one god further. That challenge could be reversed. I agree with atheists about a great many things, even in most cases rejecting many of the same idolatrous views of God that are prevalent in the popular religiosity of my own tradition. But I think atheists have gone one God-concept too far in their rejection, and in many instances have thrown the baby out with the bathwater – while I admit completely that the bathwater was in desperate need of changing.
When I disagree with atheists, it is usually because they accept premises and assumptions of religious fundamentalists that I think need to be critically examined and challenged. As cases in point, I wish to draw attention to a few posts that appeared on Debunking Christianity today. First there is a post by Jason Long on the Clergy Letter Project, spearheaded by Michael Zimmerman currently of Butler University, where I also teach. Long says,
I agree with fundamentalist Jefferson Reed that the signers of the petition are Apostates who deviate from the plain reading of the Bible.
Whenever you find yourself agreeing with a fundamentalist, it really ought to raise alarm bells. In this case, I’m willing to bet that Jefferson Reed does not accept the plain reading of Genesis 1 when it says that God places the sun, moon and stars in a solid dome that holds up the waters above. Moreover, Paul the apostle clearly had updated his cosmology, since he mentions a journey to the “third heaven”, which reflects the Ptolemaic view of multiple heavens around the Earth, and thus involves a departure from the cosmology of Genesis 1, in which all the celestial objects are placed in a single “firmament”. And so apparently even the apostle Paul did not accept the plain meaning of Genesis 1, and was (by Reed and Long’s standard) an apostate from rather than an apostle of Christianity. This is one major problem with fundamentalism. Even the original Christians usually were not “really” Christians by their standards. But neither are they themselves, and if there is a major problem in a lot of current discussions about fundamentalism, it is that too many uncritically accept fundamentalists’ claims to believe the whole Bible, and to consistently accept the plain meaning of the Bible where its plain meaning is not poetic or hyperbolic.
In another post, John Loftus praises my doctoral supervisor James Dunn for honestly admitting that Jesus was wrong about the imminent end of the world. Loftus then adds
What I don’t get is how these critically honest scholars could come to these correct conclusions and still profess to be followers of Christ (i.e. Christians). I think anyone with intellectual honesty should jump ship like I have.
The answer is that we’ve come to realize that, if even Jesus could be wrong, then how much more likely is it that I will be seen with the benefit of hindsight to have been wrong, most likely about a far greater number of things? We’ve thus found ourselves challenged to let go of yet another fundamentalist assumption we once shared, namely that being a Christian is about Jesus having been right all the time, and following him in the hope that we can be (or at least believe ourselves to be) right all the time. In other words, we understand Christianity to be more about a process, one that involves humbly admitting that we are wrong, rather than about confident claims to certainty.
Interestingly enough, today in church my pastor quoted something I wrote (he’s been reading my book The Burial of Jesus), something relevant to this topic and the question of what it means to be a Christian. The bit he quoted was from p.137, where I wrote “resurrection faith…does not mean believing without evidence in the resurrection as something that has happened and will happen, but rather means trusting in the God who is capable of rescuing even from death. This should be the heart of resurrection faith: trust and hope in God rather than arrogant self-assuredness”. Of course, I also said in the book that Christianity might be better off without its typically unbalanced overemphasis on afterlife. But that’s a discussion for another time.
In another post at Debunking Christianity today, John Loftus asks why all Biblical scholars should not be critical scholars. The answer is that indeed we should be, and to the extent that we are uncritical we are also failing to be scholars. But one danger of abandoning faith without abandoning the presuppositions of fundamentalist religion is that one simply adopts another viewpoint that one is confident is right, without a deeper and more fundamental (if you’ll excuse the pun) change in worldview, one that is sufficiently critical, including self-critical, that it can follow the evidence wherever it leads, and fully respect those who have shown themselves to be equally critical and yet who find themselves led somewhere else by the same evidence.
The one other post today is the first Debunking Christianity Carnival, inspired by other carnivals around the blogosphere, not least the Biblical Studies Carnival. When it comes down to it, a main reason I read Debunking Christianity is that they often ask painfully blunt questions about the Bible, and that is valuable. Scholars, at our best, try to do the same thing. Those of us who happen to be not only scholars but participants in faith communities are seeking to not just debunk various forms of Christianity that make claims that cry out for debunking, but also to explore what if anything it can mean to live honestly as part of a community of faith in light of that debunking. I suspect that many atheists, even if they no longer have any desire to be part of a Christian community (and in view of the way conservative Christians sometimes treat those who ask certain sorts of questions, I can scarcely blame them), are trying in their own way to do just that, i.e. to figure out what it means to live a meaningful life after many of various older “certainties” one used to look to for meaning have proven to be anything but.