Hitting a religious nerve

In a recent column written for the Washington Post, I commented on religious displays in public spaces.  As is the case with articles of that kind, the Post went for a title that would match other contributions to the symposium that they were featuring.  Their title for the article was “The Scandal of Atheist Campaigns against Christmas” and, predictably, it attracted a different audience.

The change in title was a bit unfortunate, because I’m not sure that there is a campaign against Christmas.  That’s not what I argued.  And, even if there is a campaign of sorts, I am not the least bit worried about it.  The bigger challenge facing the church is not atheism or agnosticism, it’s the church’s own failure to believe deeply what it teaches at Christmas — and a fair bit of sloppy thinking about what that teaching even is.

But the visceral, vicious, and — at times — vulgar remarks made by some (not all) of the people who identified themselves as atheists did surprise me.  So, I learned a few things about the American spiritual landscape.

One, conversations about atheism hits a religious nerve with some atheists and agnostics.

Two, some atheists and agnostics are just as religious about being agnostic or atheist as religious people can be.

Three, for all their protests that religion is a purveyor of animosity, evidently, atheists and agnostics can be just as rude and dismissive as religious people can be.

A colleague of mine noted that it reminded him of a bumper sticker he saw once: “Militant Agnostic on Board: I don’t know AND YOU DON’T KNOW EITHER!”)

So, what’s going on in the American spiritual landscape that includes militant atheists and agnostics?

A few observations:

One, there is a religious narrative of sorts imbedded in the atheist and agnostic position:  There is no God.  Science will eventually not only describe what goes on around us, but will explain it all.  This journey will yield a rational world free of the violence and prejudice that plague our planet thanks to religious superstition.  Christianity is the most evil religion that ever existed.  And, although we are here by accident, we can live a meaningful, moral existence before we expire and our consciousness evaporates.

Two, people do not necessarily become atheists or agnostics for entirely rational reasons.  Some do, perhaps, but as the word “atheist” implies — some arrive at their position in large part out of a reaction against religion.  So, you can hit a religious nerve trying to talk to an atheist or agnostic — because they are evangelists for a point of view.  In fact, one of the things that I discovered is that at least a few of them consider themselves the vanguard of a loose coalition devoted to the destruction of religion.

So here are questions to consider:

Can we really believe that violence and prejudice are traceable almost solely to religious belief?

Can we really believe that atheism and agnosticism are positions that are singularly more rational than the positions taken by people who are religious?  Isn’t the assertion that we will know that there isn’t anything beyond our descriptive powers — in other words, proof of a negative — as much a faith-statement as is the assertion that there is a god?

Can we really believe that atheists and agnostics are less prone to narrow-mindedness, bigotry, arrogance, or the violence than are religious people?

Can science really free us?  Is it free of ideology, agendas, and the potential for abuse?  Can science really be explanatory as well as descriptive?

What is a meaningful existence?  If we are here by accident and we are all bound for extinction, what are the limits to a meaningful existence in a world without God?  What’s more, why should anyone feel bound by those limits?

Can we really be as confident (as some atheists and agnostics seem to be) that we would be better off in a world without Jesus, St. Francis, Buddha, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Elie Wiesel, Confucius, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rumi, The Right Reverend Oscar Romero, Krishna, Moses, Ghandi, and countless others who have attributed the shape of their lives and the contributions they have made to a belief in God?

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.


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