As I was doing research for Addressing Atheism, I connected with Hemant Mehta. He runs the Friendly Atheist blogsite. He’s also the author of several books, one of which is the delightful I Sold My Soul on Ebay.
Hemant reviewed a rough draft of my book from the atheistic perspective. He was generous with his time and insightful with his comments. It was such a positive connection that I invited him to the church I was serving for a conversation regarding faith and atheism; you can find the video here.
One of the cautions Hemant gave me was not to stereotype atheists. Just as people within a faith tradition are different, so are atheists. Some are respectful of people of faith and easily dialogue with them. Others have an anger-edge to them, and you get an exasperated, sometimes insulting vibe when you bring up the subject of belief.
It strikes me that the stereotype thing cuts both ways. It’s so easy to caricature people who believe in God, especially Christians, as anti-reason and overly judgmental. In short, it’s easy to mistake the fundamentalist part for the Christian whole.
I want to caution against such caricaturing with a couple of simple, short observations.
Our quest for meaning, from which our search for God comes, is ingrained in our DNA. Reza Aslan, in his God: A Human History, presents an excellent overview of this. What was going on behind those human hands painted on cave walls 40,000 BCE? The desire to connect with invisible spirits, and also to cajole their favor, seemed to be the key.
Well, we’ve grown up since then. Much of what they attributed to the gods and fate have been debunked and illuminated by science and reason.
However, just how far can the pendulum of science and reason swing?
I’m the most comfortable seeking to understand things. Questioning, and doubting, are second nature. Yet if I’m honest with myself, there are things I’ve encountered that simply defy a scientific, materialistic explanation. For me to not honor the limits of the empirical is itself an intellectual injustice. It also enables a puffed up estimation of my own intellect: “Just give me enough time and I’ll figure it out.”
Honesty and humility push me to acknowledge a mysterious side of life that can’t be ignored without consequences to spirit and character. I believe acknowledging that mysterious side breaks open life just enough that we can start down a path that can lead to a faith in God.
It’s not faith without science and reason. Rather, it’s a faith that includes science and reason, just with a big dose of honesty and humility.
Of course for Christians you can’t talk about God without getting into the Bible.
Again, the stereotype is that Christians believe it’s the literal, infallible word of God. It has to be taken as a whole. It can’t be questioned. “The Bible said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
In reality, the Christians I know don’t abdicate their mind as they read Scripture. They don’t believe the earth was created in a week and that women are subservient to men.
The Bible was written by a bunch of people over the course of several centuries. God didn’t have control of their writing hand. Rather, these men did their best to describe God based on their devotion, understanding, and culture. You get many amazing, inspiring things. But that’s also why you occasionally get bizarre, nationalistic, and cultural things mixed in.
To me, one of the proofs of the Bible’s inspiration is that it has some predominant, consistent themes. God’s desire is unity of humanity, not divisiveness. Compassion linked with justice is the glue for that unity. Sin is asserting your own agenda, with unexamined prejudices and assumptions, into the scene. Jesus is the one who brings all this into crystal clear focus.
I am not concerned about the inconsistencies and archaic, culture-bound ideas found in Scripture because I believe what New Testament scholar Marcus Borg suggested. The lens through which we should judge the whole of Scripture is the life and message of Jesus.
The more I read the Bible from the perspective of Jesus being the Rosetta Stone, the more I’m amazed by what’s found in those pages. The Bible can breathe a little more.
Where We Come Together
Regardless of whether or not we agree about God, there can be one huge overlap between sincere skeptic and sincere believer: the intrinsic value of human life. The absolute importance of promoting that value whenever such life is devalued is the cause we share. That common cause may have concrete expressions through advocating for good schools, addressing homelessness, seeking affordable health care, and eliminating discrimination in any form.
The Christian community, when done right, is already organized to be a power base for such good. It’s much too easy, too stereotypical, to point out where the church has historically failed in this. I believe, given our current time, that someday the church will be stereotyped as the resource for progressive good and not regressive bad. In short, religious doctrine should never stand in the way of people doing such good. (Jesus said as much in Matthew 25:31-46).
After my dialogue with Hemant that evening in church, a couple approached me. “We’re more agnostic in our faith, but can we still become involved in your church?” The implication was that even though they had trouble believing in God, they had no trouble believing in the good that can result when people come together to make life better for all.
That couple said it beautifully. In the grand scheme of things, what we can join together in doing is much more important than spending time in silly arguing.