I have this recurring problem, and I wonder if any of you can relate. I interact with people “in real life” every day and the feedback I get is usually quite positive. I mean people generally seem to like me, you know? I’m a fairly articulate guy, plenty well-groomed, and I dress professionally (most of the time). I’m kind to people, endlessly patient, and generally resourceful at each task I’m given. Sound pretty okay, right? Sure, and bear with me a minute; there’s a point to this. I’m also quite self-sacrificial, I work pretty hard (I have three jobs currently, not counting writing), I seldom rest, and I have pretty high standards for both my professional and my personal lives. People who know me generally give glowing reports for most of what I do.
Until they find out I’m an atheist.
Once that happens, their perception of me heads south, plunging to the depths of disapproval so fast it makes my head spin. It’s disorienting, truly. Also, it’s angering, and rightly so, I think. People I’ve known for years will reverse their opinion of me the instant they find out I don’t believe the same things they believe. How is that possible? And is that really fair? It’s not that I haven’t made my share of mistakes because lemme tell you, I have. But my flaws are no more egregious than those of most of the others I know, and like any ethically-driven person I’m always working on mine. I’m keenly aware of my own weaknesses and am always striving to improve on them to the best of my ability. But that doesn’t seem to matter. Once people learn this about me, it seems to overrule everything else they’ve known about me. For them, belief trumps character every time. But why?
A Hard Couple of Weeks
Within a span of two weeks recently I had two highly discouraging conversations with people very close to me. The first conversation was with someone who had known me for about two years and had demonstrated nothing but warmth, acceptance, and approval toward me. He had observed my behavior even under highly stressful and challenging situations which tested my patience beyond what most could handle. By all appearances he had approved of my handling of all of it. But he also believed at the time that I was a Christian. That was a reasonable assumption to make since he knew I had something of a ministry background and since nothing in my behavior toward him or toward the people in my care indicated that my personal values were any different from his own.
[Interesting question to ponder: Which values are truly Christian values? What makes a person’s behavior distinctively Christian? Which character traits and ethical commitments top the list of priorities? We’ll come back to that in a minute. First, back to my story…]
I won’t go into details about what he said because I promised him I wouldn’t, but the bottom line was that when he found out I am an atheist he felt betrayed. He felt lied to. He felt it was deceptive for me to allow him to believe all this time that I am a Christian when in reality I am not. To some degree, I don’t blame him for being upset. But I also wonder what about me he felt I misrepresented? My character? Or just my beliefs? Do people value the latter so much more than the former that my conduct is irrelevant?
It is my observation that two people with the same beliefs can have wildly different character; by the same token, two people from very different belief systems can have virtually identical values. For this reason, I would argue that for most issues pertaining to daily life, common values rather than common beliefs should form the basis of our closest relationships.
The second conversation was with another person very close to me who expressed concern that I am “on a path” toward something bad. I asked if she meant Hell but she assured me that wasn’t it. Not all Christians take the notion of Hell seriously, and even those who do tend to find a way to dismiss it whenever it comes to someone they love. By the way, I find that highly preferable to those who use Hell to beat their loved ones over the head, hoping to scare them into compliance. I’m thankful that only one of my family members has pulled that on me. That particular tactic has become a deal breaker for me and I will no longer entertain a conversation that goes there for one very practical reason: It signals an inability to choose reason over madness, for in my opinion that’s what the idea of eternal torture entails. If someone wants to use threats of posthumous torture, I reserve the right to dissect the idea’s absurdity and they don’t get to be offended in return. If you’re going to use an idea as a weapon against me, at that point the subject becomes fair game for critical analysis. But I digress…
She balked at the idea of Hell in my case but still indicated that she remains fearful on my behalf. “Fearful of what?” I asked. Vague non-answer in reply. I asked what specifically I am doing that inspires her worry, but no specifics were forthcoming. I find this curious. Somehow I am “on a path” and “headed in a direction” but certainly not Hell, and yet she could come up with no concrete behavioral examples of anything I’m doing that endangers me. What’s going on here?
The Evangelical Obsession with Belief
I think I know what’s happening here in both cases. Evangelical theology values belief over character by a large margin, and there are obvious historical reasons for that. At its very beginning, the leaders of the Protestant Reformation distinguished themselves from their Catholic forbears by driving a wedge between “faith” and “works.” Martin Luther in particular evaluated all biblical writings on a graduated scale according to how consistently he felt they teach salvation by grace through faith, so that a book like James which focuses on good works he called “an epistle of straw.” For Luther as well as for his Evangelical descendants, how you think about certain topics like salvation is far more important than how you live. In an effort to separate faith from works, character and personal values took a back seat to theological orthodoxy. I can illustrate the outcome with a story a preacher friend of mine loves to tell:
A man dies and meets St. Peter at the pearly gates. St. Pete tells him in order to get in he has to have earned 300 points.
Man: Okay, so how do I know how many points I have?Peter: Well, tell me what you did with your life?
Man: Let’s see, I taught Sunday School and served as a deacon in my church for 50 years. I brought food to the widows and visited the homebound for many years.
Peter: Wow, that’s great! That’s one point.
Man: One point?! Uh, okay. Well, let’s see. I obeyed all the traffic laws, never stole anything in my life, always told the truth, and stayed faithful to my wife our entire marriage. I raised our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and they’re all happily married and have good kids of their own now.
Peter: That’s wonderful! That’s another point. Now you have two.
Man: (Gulp) Okay. Um. Well, I also tithed 10% of every dollar I made, I led several clothing drives, I paid my taxes on time, and prayed every day of my adult life. I read the Bible every day. I witnessed to hundreds of people and led several people to the Lord.
Peter: Awesome! That’s three points. Only 297 left to go.
Man: Shoot, there’s no way then! It’s only by the grace of God anybody will get in there!
Peter: That’s 297 points. Come on in.
That’s Evangelical theology in a nutshell. And what goes for the initial moment of salvation usually goes for the rest of a person’s Christian “walk” as well. Put into Evangelical speak, the means of sanctification are the same as the means of justification. Since the initial act of “getting saved” is determined by thinking correctly about the means of salvation itself, a person’s maturing and growth in character are seen as outgrowths of correct theology as well. In other words, Evangelical theology teaches that a person’s character and personal values flow out of his beliefs, particularly about whichever pet topics the church deems most important for life and eternity.
So where does that leave an atheist like me? It puts me outside the camp with the swindlers and murderers and criminals of the world, that’s what it does. The Bible teaches them that “there is no one who does good, not even one.” Even Jesus seems to have indicated that all men are fundamentally wicked (“If you then, being evil…”). So without correct theology to straighten me out, nothing else I do really matters. I can be the most moral, ethically upright person in the world and it wouldn’t matter. Evangelicals are taught that “Hell is full of good people” who nevertheless failed to believe in the correct deity. Sucks to be us, right? In the end, moral rectitude matters little in this kind of framework. If I think incorrectly about a handful of metaphysical questions, then everything I do is damned no matter how outwardly “good” I appear. This is the dysfunctional product of centuries of anti-human theology, and I’d love to see it budge just a little toward reasonable dialogue for very personal reasons. Attempting to build bridges between belief and non-belief may very well be a fool’s errand, but it’s also a practical necessity for anyone whose entire social context is dominated by Evangelical faith and culture.
Finding Common Ground
I would love to see a productive “interfaith” conversation between Evangelicals and humanists like myself. But if that’s ever going to happen, something’s gotta give on this matter of moral reasoning. I contend that most day-to-day ethical decisions don’t require religious doctrine to determine what’s right and wrong. Excluding one or two pet topics about which Christianity has been historically obsessed (chief among them being sex), I think there’s much common ground to be claimed between these two very different camps. Whether or not they can pull it off is another question. I’m not at all convinced productive dialogue can be had as long as non-belief remains so fundamentally threatening to Evangelical culture.
Maybe cooperation isn’t possible. I dunno. But the circumstances of my life persuade me to look for bridge-building opportunities despite my own learned pessimism.
So what do you think? Is cooperative dialogue possible? Can common ground be found between humanists and Evangelicals once you remove the metaphysical questions from the table? Are there not enough common values which Christians claim as their own that could also be agreed upon by non-believers for the sake of mutually beneficial goal making? Because the thing is: We’re on this planet together. And in my country, political power is wielded by both groups (I would argue it’s not a fair fight in places like the Deep South, but still). That means we need to try to find a way to agree on as many things as possible. Perhaps we can settle on a few things as “good” despite our differences? What do you think? Can we get a productive conversation started?
The apostle Paul said:
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.
I can think of a great many values and traits upon which my Evangelical friends and I could agree if only they would learn to value how we live as much as what we believe. I’m not saying it’s realistic to expect Evangelicals to jettison their belief in Heaven and Hell, but I do think it’s fair to ask that, since we won’t be agreeing on the metaphysical questions, perhaps we can seek common ground on the ethical ones. The one thing we can both agree on is that we occupy the same living space for an ever-so-brief time, and it doesn’t speak well of either side when we won’t play nice. We could at least try to get along. But we’ll have to first find things on which we agree.