CNN’s Belief Blog posted a short article yesterday by Rachel Held Evans calling for atheists to avoid using the worst of Christian extremism in their critiques against Christianity, offering to return the favor by not doing the same in reverse against atheists. Evans is a favorite Christian writer of mine for the simple reason that she speaks prophetically to the Christian church as an insider. By speaking “prophetically” I mean that she openly speaks up when she sees her friends and fellow Christians saying and doing things which she feels are contrary to the faith, no matter how important or influential those people may be. She holds the professors of her faith accountable to the ideals she feels are central; and those ideals are, in my opinion, some of the better tenets of the Christian faith. Incidentally, those elements which I find praiseworthy are the same principles which can be found in many world religions, as well as within the various forms of humanism (both secular and religious). Like me, she wants to make a way for constructive conversation between people on opposite sides of the believer/non-believer divide. For that reason, I would say she’s a kindred soul (that is, if I believed in souls), and I support her efforts.
My main reaction to her post this weekend is that I agree with her sentiment, and I feel the same way. We would all do better to highlight the more constructive voices on both sides of the divide because they seek real dialogue (as opposed to dueling monologues, which go nowhere). I’ve said before that I would describe myself as more of an anti-fundamentalist than an anti-theist (even if my next blog post may make me look more like the latter). I am interested in finding common ground with the people around me in hopes that we can work together for some common good. Honestly, where I live, I would consider it a major victory if I could just get people to not see me as an evil pawn of Satan. But Evans doesn’t run with that crowd. In fact, I think it would be fair to call her an anti-fundamentalist as well. This is the girl from Dayton, TN (home of the infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial“) who took it upon herself to spend an entire year living in literal compliance with as many of the biblical commandments for women she could find in order to write about what she learned. This alone makes her worth your attention. She probably found the most cunningly clever way to deliver an internal critique to the evangelical and fundamentalist mindset anybody could imagine.
But I also feel compelled to disagree with a couple of points she made. My first disagreement is with her equating the political incorrectness of Richard Dawkins with the overt and extreme bigotry of people like Pat Robertson. As she pointed out, over the last couple of years many in the atheist community have criticized Dawkins for making comments which they felt were either insensitive or at least poorly worded and too easily taken out of the context in which they were spoken. Evans says that Christians are just as vocal in their censure of people like Robertson (for what it’s worth, that’s news to me…but maybe each of us is less likely to hear those voices because we don’t read the same stuff). But they’re not symmetrical. Not even close, in my opinion. I’ve heard and read the kinds of things that Robertson has said and I must say that context offers no improvement to his statements. Incidentally, the list could be longer than just one name; I would want to include other names like Mark Driscoll, Al Mohler, and even the blessed John Piper, all of whom Evans herself has laudably corrected in very public ways.I also find it interesting that the dismissiveness which Dawkins displays towards the pederastic behavior of his boarding school masters sounds remarkably like the dismissiveness with which the much-revered C.S. Lewis approached the same subject. I remember being bewildered by the way he shrugged off this recurring element of his boarding school days in his autobiography. He simply looked back on those things as if they were “just how it was.” Like Dawkins, Lewis went so far as to say that he didn’t feel what went on there should be grouped with the more overt kinds of violent rape which lead the headlines today. For Lewis, as with Dawkins, that’s just how things were in the British boarding schools of their youth. I can’t imagine, frankly, and to my modern ears this is a jarring perspective. But I’ve heard it now from two very different sources and I haven’t heard the same outcry against Lewis which has been levied on Dawkins. I sense a double standard there.
But here’s the real kicker: Robertson is just talking like the people in the Bible talk. The crazy talk we keep hearing from preachers like him is coming from the very book to which Evans wants to be faithful. This presents a major problem…for both of us. Those of us wanting to criticize the more extreme fundamentalist nonsense must necessarily critique the source material for their beliefs, and as a result, we undermine the very same foundation upon which the more modernized, open-minded, emergent Christian faith is built. There’s really not any way around it. Evans so often has to do this herself, but her task is even harder than ours because she is actually fighting against her own religion. She would undoubtedly say that she feels she is being truer to the ethos of Jesus than her fundamentalist counterparts. Leaving aside that debate (that’s her battle to fight, not mine), I will simply point out that Robertson is verbalizing a framework which millions of people in my country consider an authoritative representation of their faith, while Dawkins is merely voicing (at times) a personal bias on a number of issues which are his own opinion and represent no authoritative atheist position whatsoever. In fact, while the “atheist movement” has many celebrities and public mouthpieces, it has no authority figures in the sense that the Christian faith has. When people like Robertson spew their open bigotry, millions of Americans nod and say “Amen!” When Dawkins makes politically insensitive statements (again, they’re not symmetrical), the atheist community becomes livid and some begin calling for boycotts of his conferences. There’s a reason people in this subculture call themselves “freethinkers.”
Evans seeks to forge a kinder, more loving Christian faith than the one she inherited—one less wed to a literalistic adherence to a single ancient book. I applaud her efforts and I hope her tribe increases. Whether that re-envisioning of the faith is a novel reworking or simply a return to the original intent of its authors is, as I said, not my concern. But I hope people like her are successful in encouraging their fellow believers to seek out those voices across the aisle which seem the most committed to constructive dialogue. We can do much better than we’ve done thus far.