I know I said I’d be done on Wednesday, but no discussion of atheism would be complete without at least mentioning the likes of Richard Dawkins, Charles Hitchens and Susan Jacoby. You’ve probably heard of at least one of these outspoken advocates for atheism. A lot of the arguments against God use science, many want to say we can be good without God and eventually, most of them point to the violence religion has brought to the human species. Ironically, many of today’s current outspoken atheist’s are described with words like “crusdader,” “attacker of science,” “viciously opposed to religion.” And we’ve already talked about how religion does not have a monopoly on violence.
But, rather than attempt to argue with the atheists, I actually think that on some things, I actually agree with them. Richard’s Dawkins writes, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” I just finished an introduction to the Old Testament course and honestly, it’s kind of difficult to disagree with Dawkins here – even when he indicts the Old Testament for being fiction, I sometimes wish it was.
Really. God readily admits to being jealous, stating over and over that the Israelites need to remember that God is the only true God; God explicitly says multiple times that God “will not clear the guilty.” God forbids intermarriage, commands genocide and sends plagues on a nation that, because God has God’s self sometimes hardened the heart of its leader personally, will not release God’s people. One of these “plagues” involves the death of a lot of babies. When God issues a command to commit violence, it is sometimes accompanied by a threat that, should God’s people not follow through, God will carry out the violence God commanded on God’s own people. Leviticus 18:22 in particular has been used by the Church to perpetrate immense hatred, exclusion, damage and suffering on a huge population of people. The list goes on.
And it continues in the present. The meaningless and senseless violence in the world today, the gratuitous suffering of children especially, the inability for millions to find meaning and hope, let alone work and food, the specter of catastrophic climate change and/or war, the hoarding of the rich while more and more people plunge deeper into grinding, dehumanizing poverty, not to mention the horrible ways those who purport to be followers of Christ treat each other and others, the modern-day heresies like certain ideas of hell, the prosperity doctrine and the rapture, which serve pretty much only to increase selfishness, division and fear. This is all enough to throw your hands up at the idea of God and walk away. It took me 20 years to stop rejecting God because of those very things.
Don’t get me wrong: I still reject the way the Church in the west relates to wealth. I still reject the popular notions of hell and how they’re used to scare people “into” the kingdom (when really, it’s probably more like this). I still reject the hate-filled vitriol spewing out of churches upon the GLBTQ community (especially when Jesus said nothing directly about homosexuality but had harsh words for divorce. There I said it). I still reject violence as a go-to solution, divine or human. But I also reject humanity’s ability to answer for God. What I would love to say to Mr. Dawkins is, “I hear you. If God so loved the world, why is God letting people destroy it? Not only that, but why does God seem to participate in it with as much frenetic violence as humanity? If God were really coming back, what could God possibly be waiting for?” But I would also say, “These are questions for God. So far as I know, there is no answer to this violence that does not do more violence to the victims and those already suffering.” He might say that a lack of answers is sufficient reason for him to reject the faith. Fair enough. Not for me.
Ultimately, people are not going to be argued into the kingdom, at least not for real. This sounds like a cop-out but please hear me: Christians are called to give a reason for the hope that they have, which, from my standpoint, is looking more and more radical each day. Christians should study and think about huge questions and challenges so they can have intelligent, rather than dogmatic, conversations and stop giving Christ a bad name. But the best thing Christians can do, in the face of the overwhelming despair and violence that is our world today, is love. Indeed, they should, for the Church is the only people specifically called to love the least, the last and the lost.
Jesus did not say, “They will know you are my disciples by your arguments.” Jesus did not say, “They will know you are my disciples by how well you persecute others.” Jesus did not say, “They will know you are my disciples by your staunch refusal to consider evidence and reject anything that does not line up exactly with your interpretation of the Bible.” No. “They will know you are my disciples by the love you have for one another.” Evangelism, proselytization, sharing the faith…it’s an inside job in that it starts on the inside. As N.T. Wright puts it in Surprised by Hope, “If you don’t know that the gospel will change you, how do you know it will change anything else?” It’s easy to argue facts, to dismiss the personhood of the other because you disagree with them. And yes, atheists can be just as off-putting as Christians. But shouting matches dig trenches of division and really, we were all built with the same need – and capacity – for love and healing. The God I believe in, the same One in the Old and New Testaments, is longing for unity – not by assimilation or annihilation, but fierce, abiding love.