Atheism and Christianity


Atheism and Christianity

An article by Mark Pointdexter.

Several surveys and studies I have come across recently have stated that the fastest growing segment of religious affiliation in America is among those who check “no preference.”  Over the past decade that number has apparently doubled and now represents about 15% of the country’s population.  Though 85% of Americans still claim some religious affiliation, which still makes it one of the most religious nations – that percentage is getting smaller and the trend will likely continue.

The 15% of Americans who claim no religious affiliation are not a monolithic group – they are apparently quite diverse.  Many still claim belief in God or they claim to be spiritual but not religious.  Others claim that it was the hypocrisy they encountered in organized religion that drove them away.  And there are also a growing number of atheists.

Bolstered by the literary work of The New Atheism (Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris) atheists have decided to come out of the closet and make themselves known.  In my small Midwestern town that sits between a large state university (Indiana University) and a major metropolitan area (Indianapolis) a billboard supported by the local Free Thinkers Society proclaimed “You Don’t Need God to be good.  You can love, laugh, and hope on your own.”  The words were set against a light blue background and some happy, smiling faces.

Just this morning (September 7, 2012) there were two stories that highlighted atheists on cnn.com.  One was about the disenfranchisement atheists felt at the recent political conventions since both political platforms mention God.  The other was about Dawkins and his travels into the Bible belt to spread his message that “there is nothing good that religion can teach us.”

Over the past several years I have spent a lot of time becoming acquainted with the New Atheism and the critical responses to it.  My bookshelves, and more recently my Kindle’s memory, are full of books about this matter.   A topic closely related to it, the relationship between faith and science, also occupies a good amount of space.    I believe for the church to move faithfully into the future the matter of the relationship between science and faith, and the growing number of those who claim no faith or belief in God, is something we must try to fully understand and engage.

Atheism has become a matter in my congregational ministry.  A young couple who I have felt very close to over the past several years had not been at worship for a while.  This is a couple who has been very engaged in several different areas of our congregation’s ministry.  I told them several times that they were missed and I hoped to see them soon.

Then one day I just asked, “How come you all haven’t been coming to church?”  The response was that they found themselves no longer believing as they once did and that they were closer to “agnosticism or atheism.”  We talked for a while and we made a commitment to each other to continue our conversation.

In addition to this young couple we have lost from our community, at least for the time being, there is a man who attends our congregation, is as regular in attendance as anyone – even helps to lead singing, who identifies as an atheist. I know that he is engaged in the hour in that he loves to sing, he occasionally comes up after worship and talks with me about the sermon – even the parts of it that touched him or his wife.  He generally seems grateful to be there and part of a caring community.  In a similar vein, the young couple mentioned that the one thing they missed was the sense of community that they enjoyed in our congregation.

And it is reported in some of the studies I mentioned earlier that up to half of those who claim to have no religious affiliation long for a sense of community.  Which leads me to the question, can our church communities become places that welcome such people?  Can we live our faith in such a way that people who claim no faith in God can participate in community with us?  I know it is a provocative question, but I think it is an important one for the church to consider in the upcoming years.

I won’t take the space to critique the new atheism, or present any of the critical responses to it. ( To clarify, I do believe in God and have some philosophical troubles with atheism.)  It is simply true that more and more people in the Western world are identifying as non-believers, With such people, if they want, is it even possible for them to have a place in the church.  I guess I am asking, can someone who doesn’t believe in God find room to live among the people of God?

Twenty years ago, I would have firmly answered, “No.  It is not possible.” But over the past two decades, because of my studies and my life experiences, my own understanding of God has changed a good bit and I have become more grace-filled and understanding toward those who don’t believe like I do and toward those who don’t believe at all.  I have also been deeply affected through my involvement with Habitat for Humanity.

A Millard Fuller statement has become critical for me.  Millard said “Habitat for Humanity is unashamedly a Christian ministry.  And it is because we are a Christian ministry that we partner with people of all faith and no faith.  Because that is what we believe Jesus would have us do.”

Some of the greatest expressions of community I have ever experienced are through my involvement with Habitat and I am glad we make room for both believers and non-believers. Finally, just as my understanding of God has change through my lifetime, so has my understanding of the Christian faith.  I used to believe that being a Christian meant having a certain belief system involving specific understandings about the Trinity, Jesus’ divinity, the purpose of the cross, etc.

I have come to understand the Christian faith no longer as adherence to a certain belief system, but primarily as way of  life rooted in the teachings of Jesus, a way of  life rooted in love, grace and the struggle for peace and justice.

Understanding the Christian faith in this way, allows us to partner with any and all people, who wish to pursue the same kind of world.  I may call it the realm of God, they may call it something else, but together we call it hope.

 

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14 thoughts on “Atheism and Christianity

  1. Ernest Bloch once said, “Only an atheist can be a good Christian; only an Christian can be a good atheist.” Creating place where Christians enter into conversation with neighbors who unabashedly question God provides space for authentic community. I look forward to your taking the space to critically reflect on the new atheism.

    • I loved old Bloch!

      I first identified myself as Christian during my 15th and 16th years. Even then, I was agnostic. At 69, I still am, even though I did undergraduate work in religious studies as preparation for what I though would be a career in ministry. I briefly attended a good Protestant seminary after undergraduate studies. For most of my life, I thought whatever work I did as related to ministry.

      I was alternately active and inactive in congregational life. I have a large personal library; much of it concerns religion. I once liked process theology; I still respect it. The books on religion by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens are a mixed lot. I think Sam Harris is the best of the lot. Still, what intrigues me are the concerns of some of the so-called death of God writes, particularly the late Gabriel Vahanian who dealt less with metaphysical or analytical philosophy than with out trivialization of theism.

      I am a member but a deliberately inactive member of congregation within a liberal Protestant denomination, but what happens in that congregation sickens me. I do not think one has to be theistic to be Christian, though a materialistic take on Christianity present certain problems or obstacles, I suppose. One certainly can be agnostic and still be Christian.

      From my experience, most churches seem dominated by fundamentalists indirectly or indirectly. The rubric seems to be to avoid upsetting fundamentalists or, even worse, simply letting them control the pervasive tone of the congregation.

  2. There are times when I describe myself as vacillating between being filled with the “Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ my risen Savior” and being an “Atheist for Christ.” The love for mankind that I feel doesn’t change as this vacillation takes place. Nick

  3. If you’re interested, this is largely what my new book addresses: how to imagine and rethink preaching within communities comprised of folks who believe in God some of the time, or none of the time, or all of the time. (Preaching After God: Derrida, Caputo and the Language of Postmodern Homiletics http://bit.ly/OWJo4Q)

    • Already read it Phil – it is a very good book! I even made a Facebook post about it, . . not many that I read get that. Mark Poindexter

  4. Mr. Poindexter, I’m an atheist. I have some observations. Your one comment “growing number of those who claim no faith or belief in God”. Your choice of words makes it sound like so many other theist claims that atheists simply can’t “really” have no faith or belief in their god. You may not have meant it that way but let me assure you, I do not simply claim to have no faith or belief in your god at all; I have none. I was a Presbyterian for decades; I’ve read the bible as believer and as not. I’ve looked closely at other religions and realized that atheism is the only thing that made sense with the evidence and lack thereof (I’d like to know these “philosophical troubles” you have with atheism). I am an atheist, not a “new” one or an old one. The only difference in atheists today and yesterday is the comfort they have in rejecting the baseless claims of religion. Robert Ingersoll would probably be called a “new atheist” today because of his outspokenness, but he was giving speeches back more than 100 years ago.

    I also wonder about your claims to have changed your “understanding” of your god and your claim that this new understanding is more “grace-filled”, e.g. a more “true” understanding. I’m guessing that you would have claimed the same thing about your beliefs before your change of heart. Also, your opinion of what Jesus “really meant” is also full of the usual cherry picking I’ve seen. Christians of all types have vastly different opinions on what Jesus would have them do, and unfortunately I have not seen any of you have any better evidence of this than the next, be it you or Fred Phelps. Christianity *is* a belief system and a decision that there is one “right” way.

    Atheists and theists can and do work together on many things, but at the base of it all is the claim by Christianity that anyone who does not believe is damned to eternal torture. Such belief isn’t exactly the best basis for understanding and friendship. I do have a wordpress blog of my own so I do invite there or anywhere to discuss the issues I’ve noted.

    • This post was snide and obviously so. questioning intent every sentence with quotations and comparing author to fred phelps is ill-intent in purpose, and the tone is hostile.

      You would be a reason not be able to have groups that have members co-existing and I believe you would be much the same level of destructive in relationships else…if not have so already.

  5. As the above post indicates, there is more than one kind of atheist, as there is more than one kind of Christian. My friend Jerry is a former member of a congregation I used to pastor. Today he is what I call a fundamentalist atheist, by which I mean his atheism is rooted as much in hurt and anger at Christianity as it is rooted in his very rational, scientific brain. I don’t think Jerry can get past what he sees as his war against Christianity, nor can he get past his conviction that Christianity persecutes him, though he and I remain good friends and conversation partners. Is there room for Jerry in our community? Well, yes and no. His atheism does not automatically exclude him from being with people who follow the way of Jesus. I think it would be great to have him, or other atheists as part of our conversation. But we do follow the way of Jesus. Hard to imagine how he could feel himself to be part of our particular community if he sees himself as at war with Jesus.

    • Steve, yes there are many reasons to be an atheist. Has your friend said he feels hurt and angry at Christianity? Can you imagine why he might feel that way? I’d suggest that you actually ask him how he feels since it has been my experience that theists assume that atheists feel hurt and angry when many of us don’t. It allows a theist to disregard our reasons by making them to be only emotional reactions. I would also ask you what you think the “way of Jesus” really is? How is it that your version is any more right than a Christian who follows the Jesus that said he would bring a sword, that those who do not accept him should be killed (Luke 19, a rarely mention parable called the ten minas), that says *all* of his father’s laws are to be followed, and that is evidently responsible for hell? I do appreciate the more humane versions of Christianity, indeed my parents are this type of Christian, and I’m sure you could not pick me out of a crowd as being an atheist from my actions; but history shows that Christianity changes with humans, not the other way around. Your “way of Jesus” is quite different from the “way of Jesus” a hundred years ago or even a few hours ago comparing it to Christians who disagree with you that we can see every day on the television, web, etc. Can you answer me, how do we know which version is the “right” one, not only the one we prefer due to being humans raised with a western Englightenment based education that decries slavery, sexism, etc? That is often what atheists find offensive about Christianity and religion, those older viewpoints that have not been decryed by all those who follow Jesus Christ.

  6. I grew up in a small town in Ohio about 90 miles east of Indianapolis. I had a religious upbringing. I would imagine that our childhoods were not that different. I moved away from religion in my teens and have identified as an atheist for 30+ years. It is important to remember that atheism is not just rejection of the Christian God. Christians and atheists reject Zeus, Apollo, Odin, Ra, Shiva, and all the other 5,000 + Major and Minor Deities that humanity has worshipped and feared over the centuries. Atheists just reject one more God than you. I also largely agree about the teachings of Jesus. I have a lot in common with the followers of Christianity who have moved away from the Old Testament God and embraced the ideas of love, fellowship, and forgiveness embodied in Jesus. If, however, you strip the teachings of Jesus away from it’s biblical roots, then you have left religion and embraced secular humanism. You are almost there my friend. You just need to take that final step. Welcome to the enlightenment!

  7. Hi folks,
    The God cell, atom or galaxy is what God wants. Through prayer and meditation on the word i find a disconnect with idolatry. When i muster my wits between 4:30 and feet on the floor coffee in hand time I know what waits daily. There is space hanging in the air here that i know must be filled with thanksgiving, supplication and confession.
    How in the world did God get a start? I have grown up deep in church. Ankles, knees, torso, head, under water and resurfaced. GOD starts willingly. Of my most uppermost decision about faith is that I am exclusive and my faith fights that for me. Mirrors of faith shine in my children and the harried, hapless, sheveled, disheveled and elated/sorrowful lives they choosel They have always been God’s. That was my conception of our fortunate pregnancies.
    None of them or their partners shelve easily…. Thank goodness. They are not easy to fit with their legacies of faith. lovable heirs that they all are. Thank you Holy God, Creator, Sustainer and Comforter. God blesses the children. Hold them from harm.
    Thank you for your seed article.

  8. Pingback: Not So Polite Dinner Conversation – A brief tour of theist/atheist interaction | Club Schadenfreude

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