Sometimes I feel like a man without a country.
For a couple years I’ve been having an intellectual battle with atheists. Not all of them, but the people I refer to as “evangelical atheists.” They are angry and passionate and just as religiously cocksure as the fundamentalist believers they despise.
Or maybe it’s all believers they despise. To them we are all weak-minded and superstitious and pathetically out of touch. If only we’d grow up. If only we’d get an education. If only we had a fraction of their intellectual depth, we would give up our tribal, backwoodsy notions of “God.”
As you can tell, I’m a little passionate about this.
I’m not so much offended by their insulting condescension — though it wouldn’t hurt them to be a little nicer — if only for tactical purposes. As we say in the South, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
More to the point, I’m disappointed by their argument against God. While purporting to be so intellectually superior, too many atheists take on only the worst of religion. If I positioned an argument against only 5th-grade science or against those scientists who had used their knowledge to master the atomic bomb or build Internet viruses or promote biological warfare, I could make a pretty good argument against the inanity and wickedness of science, too.
So it is either disingenuous to argue only against religious fundamentalism, or it’s embarrassing for such smart people to be so uninformed about the true variety and richness of religion. Too often atheists ignore the traditions of vigorous intellectual pursuit which can be found in the theological explorations of all of the world’s religions.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t believe in the same god many atheists don’t believe in!
Since I have a few skeptics in my own congregation, including some whose intellectual pursuit of the questions has left them tempted to throw the baby of faith out with the theological bathwater, I’ve spent some pastoral effort as a kind of liberal apologist. Yes, you actually can affirm evolution and faith. Yes, you can be postmodern without being post-God. Yes, you can love science and believe materialism isn’t enough. And there is still room for a little mystery and myth in your worldview.
So, I’m continually engaged in an ongoing debate (mostly inside my own head) about whether reason and faith are mutually exclusive, and whether religion is the enemy of our future. Then I get a whiff of some of the religion around me and … oh my. Just — oh my. In some cases, it’s almost enough to make me agree with the atheists!
I don’t get many opportunities to experience other people’s religion, but an occasional glimpse at some of the Christianity that is out there makes me feel like I’ve just wandered into a completely different religion. It’s not the same God. He’s not the same Jesus. The church has a different mission, faith a different purpose, altogether. And the hard-core, either/or justifications based on a Bible taken so literally that it cannot be understood seriously leads many “true believers” into an either/or battle against culture — it’s facts versus faith, fake news versus good news.
Fortunately, I do have a home for my faith. There are faithful Christians and Muslims and Jews and Unitarians, that whole spiritual-but-not-religious crowd, even a few Baptists who share the ground of a faith that is intellectually curious and culturally sensitive, inclusively compassionate and humbly honest. (We don’t have all the answers, but at least we have each other.)
And we need each other. As our culture becomes increasingly secular, and at least implicitly hostile to religion, religious expressions that sound like tribal superstition will only crescendo. Fundamentalism is dying, but it will not go out with only a whimper.
Between these two disheartening poles, angry atheists on one hand and fundamentalist Christians on the other, it’s not the muddled mush of some middle ground I’m seeking — which makes staking a claim to “free and faithful” even more difficult.
And all the more important.