Am I Afraid of Atheism?

Am I Afraid of Atheism? November 14, 2014

Revolution Church — which was founded by Jay Bakker and has followed him from Phoenix to Atlanta to New York City to its present home in Minneapolis — is a unique faith community. Yes, it’s small (at least in person; its online footprint, via the podcast, is much larger). But the people who attend are there for something that very few churches offer, and that’s brutal, unadulterated honesty. That’s what Jay brings each week, and that’s what those who attend are hoping for.

I cannot claim to be as honest or humble as Jay, but when he asks me to guest preach, I try to get in touch with my Inner Jay. That’s what I did last Sunday, in a talk entitled, “Should We Be Afraid of Atheism.”

Jay talks openly about his doubts. Several times, I’ve heard him admit at Revolution that he doubts daily whether God exists. At many churches, this would be disconcerting (see, for example, where the Archbishop of Canterbury admits his own doubts), but at Revolution, that’s the very thing that people come to hear.

I, too, doubt God’s existence — though less today than I used to. But that’s not what I talked about last Sunday. Instead, I talked about the doubts of others, and whether atheism is part of the legacy of the emerging church movement.

I’ve blogged recently about new research that shows the emerging church movement is more robust than many have thought, which is great news. I am quite sure that’s true, and that many people and churches who identify with the ECM are robustly theistic.

But there’s also a notable contingent of people who were once deeply embedded in the ECM — planting churches, attending conferences, writing books, running Emergent Village cohorts — who are now atheists, and vocally so. Some are generous atheists, following the lead of Allain de Botton. Others, particularly some in the blogosphere, are angrier. Yes, there are angry Christians, and there are angry atheists. Why did these people leave Christianity, and was the emerging church to blame?

Maybe the ECM was the last stop for people who were leaving Christianity anyway. Or maybe communities of faith that are premised on doubt and deconstruction ultimately undermine belief. 

Critics of the ECM will surely jump on that last sentence. It’s not the case for me. I want to truck in communities that are open to — even embracing of — doubt. In fact, I cannot imagine joining a church that did not openly and constantly talk about doubt. But I do want to acknowledge the possibility that others do not have the same experience as me.

(Also noteworthy is the small subset of ECM participants who have gone the exact other way and joined the Orthodox Church, a communion based on an ancient epistemology of certainty.)

I know why evangelical churches are thriving, though less than they used to: In the face of pluralism and cultural change, they preach certainty, and they do so in confident tones of voice. All progressive Protestantism, be it mainline or emergent, is open to doubt as part and parcel of being post-Enlightenment, educated, and middle or upper-middle class. An aspect of the privileged class is doubt, but, as I say, maybe that is undermining belief for many. Surely doubt acts as a disincentive to participation.

One interesting aspect of last Sunday’s time at Revolution was the experience of Star Foster, who was making her first visit. Star used to edit the Pagan Channel here at Patheos, and she has recently been attending a United Methodist Church. In her comments during my talk and her follow-up blog post, she admitted something you might not expect: she is a theist. And she’s felt herself marginalized in the pagan community — and even at the Methodist church — for her belief in God(s).

Part of my journey right now is to look to thoughtful, doubting believers for inspiration. One example is a widely shared essay by James Carroll in the New York Times Sunday Review, “Jesus and the Modern Man“:

So what can a modern person believe about Jesus? There are intellectual obstacles to faith. The church has always shaped what it believes in terms drawn from the prevailing worldview, but history is the record of one worldview yielding to the next — from Ptolemy and Aquinas to Copernicus and Darwin to Einstein and Hubble.

More than a century ago, the church was thrown for a loop by the mind of modernity, and even now struggles to assimilate the established ideas that change is essential to the human condition; that truth is always seen from a particular point of view; that all language about God falls short of God.

Another is a book I’m reading now, the amazing spiritual biography of Richard Rodriguez, Darling. Put that book on your Wish List and hope that someone gives it to you for the holidays.

I don’t think I’ll doubt my way out of the Christian faith. And with my future books, including the one coming in March, I hope to add to an emerging theology that takes the idea of God seriously without falling into fideism. But I will admit that the atheism I see in some of my former compatriots gives me pause.


You can find all of Tony’s books HERE, and you can sign up to be the first to know about his next book, Did God Kill Jesus? HERE.

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