Thursday, March 01, 2007

In Defense of (Christian) Atheism

If there is a topic to make the blood of a believer boil, it tends to be atheism (or the liturgy, but that's a post for another day!). In light of a conversation I had with my friend Jane , I have been thinking a great deal about the topic of atheism and its importance in the life of faith.

To my mind, the intolerance and derisive way I have watched believers talk about "The Atheists" is deplorable. It is as though moral righteousness is de facto for one who avers belief in and denied to one who questions the existence of God. CNN carried on Sunday a story about a family that has been ostracized by their small town for demanding that their children not be subjected to Bible Study and Prayer at their public school.

I have always taken comfort in Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner's quote "I am a man who has been sorely tempted by atheism...but there is nothing more self-evident to me than the existence of God." For I, too, have long been wracked with doubts and questions and it has been only in prayer that I have been able to nestle my restless questioning into the heart of God's Mysteriousness and find peace. In a country that is so God-fearing as ours, the fact that Anna Nicole-Smith has occupied the headlines for over two weeks when there is a war being waged in Iraq and there are homeless people freezing to death in the US inspires me to pray: "I do believe, Lord. Help my unbelief."

As a believer, I cannot say that I "understand" atheism. With Rahner, I will attest that God's existence is self-evident - "I believe because I pray." But I do know the doubt that always threatens to swallow me whole is also present to the atheist. Joseph Ratzinger, then a young professor of theology, wrote in his Introduction to Christianity that no less than doubt unites the believer and unbeliever.

Lent, I would suggest, is a period of Christian atheism. How quickly we have become complacent and at-ease with God! And now Jesus begins his journey toward Calvary, ending with the heart-churning cry from the cross "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?"

The response to this cry? Silence. Doubt-filled silence.

Christian atheism demands that we break ourselves free of the self-securing idols that we erect in the place of the holy and living and mysterious God of Jesus who leads all who claim discipleship toward the cross. This is not meant to say that we must but that doubt is very much a part of our faith lives. Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane is a prayer of doubt and fear, of sheer terror at the realization of where his Abba had led him.

My opening salvo concerning "atheists" intends only to call our attention to the fact that we are all looking. The doubt that has often threatened my own faith is, nevertheless, outstripped by my belief in God. This does not make me morally better or more worthy than the person for whom doubt is the horizon that greets the eyes. Both journey, led by nagging questions doubts, with hopes for fulfillment. The true crime is the out-of-hand dismissal of one side or the other, a refusal to gather to dialogue that both parties might find unity-in-doubt and come to respect one another as genuine seekers of Truth.


Karen said...

Here's an almost relevant story...

I was out of town and after much begging on her part, I had left my 17 year-old daughter alone for a few days. She immediately came down with strep throat and was very ill. I called a (Christian) friend and asked if she could go by and take my daughter some soup or something. She was too busy.

I then called our atheist handyman, who went and got my daughter, took her to the doctor, picked up her prescriptions, bought her groceries and made chicken soup for her. He came back the next morning and woke her up at 8:30 with a bowl of Cream of Wheat. (She was NOT happy about that, but that's not the point.)

I was telling my mother the story, and she said "You need more Christian friends." I said, "Mom, apparently I need more ATHEIST friends."

Now that I think of it, that story reminds me of a parable I read somewhere...

Stephen M. Bauer said...

Although I agree wholeheartedly with your reasoning, one shouldn’t have to go to such convoluted lengths to explain that we should respect the atheist in our midst. We Christians believe that all people are made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, we must treat them that way. I agree with you that the bashing of atheists is self-righteousness, a direct parallel to the Pharisees bashing of “sinners” Keep writing.

Anonymous said...

Even as a child in Mexico, my atheism was there to put me at odds with my grandparents, my schoolmates and those people pure at heart when they're at church. The Mexican school system is very adamant about keeping education free of religious insolence and arrogance, therefore my education was never threatened. It is just not in me, whatever you want to call it: faith, fear of your God, etc. When I moved to the US, I was appalled to realize how backwards your perception of the world is, you link your superstitious belief to being a moral person, or a patriot, or a person of respect. I have been active in helping people back in Mexico, I even donated some of my lottery earnings to a catholic retirement home, because apparently catholics don't have the time and resources to maintain it properly. I do things like this because it's the right thing to do, unlike you I don't go down there to handout diapers or used clothes in the name of your particular christian flavor. When I help I remain anonymous, I don't glorify myself by patronizing poor Mexicans with my "superior christian morals".

Kiwi Nomad said...

I know this post has been here for a while and I am a bit of a latecomer.... I am not quite an atheist, but neither am I a believer. I have been stuck somewhere on the fringes for years. In the past year I met a priest who didn't 'judge' me for not being much of a catholic. Indeed, in two long conversations I would say he brought me into the presence of God. I don't have any urge to go back to church, but I know this priest holds a door open for me. If I had felt judged and belittled for my lack of faith, it would have been the end of any conversation. But instead, I know there is a person who respects me on my journey. And who knows where that might lead.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure where many Christians get the notion that atheists are devoid of morality. Christianity itself teaches that all men know the difference between good and evil. It is not something that you need a book or a revelation to understand. Even from a purely Christian perspective, atheists therefore get morality from the same source as Christians: their innate knowledge of right and wrong.

But consider this. When an atheist performs a good deed, you know that there is no motivation other than the deed itself. When a Christian performs a good deed, you really don't know what his reasons were: did he do it it because of his moral convictions, or did he do it because he was afraid of divine punishment or looking for a divine reward?

That is the trouble with Christianity and morality: any apparently good act that a Christian may perform is always suspect as being motivated by a hidden religious agenda; atheists have no hidden religious agenda--when they do good deeds (which, statistically, they do at least as often as Christians), you know it's genuine.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Fuck you.