I read with some amusement the article in USA Today about “de-baptism” yesterday, and it raised for me the same question such stories always do: “What are atheists so afraid of?” In the past year, disgruntled and former believers have gathered in Ohio, Texas, Florida, and Georgia have gathered before a “priest” to have their baptism removed with a blow-dryer labeled “reason” (or some other cute gimmick). On the surface, this seems merely silly and immature (or fun-loving if you swing that way…), but at a deeper level some questions emerge:
- why is it necessary to participate in a symbolic ritual to prove you don’t believe in symbolic rituals?
- if baptism is irrelevant and meaningless, why take any steps to “remove” it? (it’s like saying we need to kill Santa Claus to prove he doesn’t exist…)
- what is the benefit of “debaptism” to the quality of life of the “debaptized”? (Yes, I realize many critics could ask the same question of the baptized and not receive a satisfactory answer…)
- why the defensiveness, sarcasm, and invective? Generally, people confident of their beliefs and mature in their behavior don’t feel the need to bully those with whom they disagree. If atheism is truly superior to the childish and irrational beliefs of the religious, shouldn’t unbelievers seek to take the high road? Many atheists, indignant with the “in-your-face” behavior of immature Christians respond in kind, feeling superior by calling Christians “doo doo heads” and “nut jobs.” Ultimately, immaturity is what both sides have in common, and it isn’t very pretty.
There is deep concern in some Christian circles that atheism is on the rise and threatens the very foundations of the Christian faith in the United States. I have two observations to make about this. First, the number of atheists has less to do with personal choices and more to do with cultural definitions. For example, in the 1960s, Pagans, New Agers, and various and sundry cults and sects were categorized as “Other” in surveys. Today, as the USA Today article suggests, celebrants at solstices are now considered atheists — as are a whole host of people who believe in many things except a personal God or an individuated deity. A subtle, but significant shift is the fact that agnostics used to be considered “potential” believers rather than non-believers. Today, that is no longer so — they generally get lumped in with atheists. Tracking responses on a survey conducted at Vanderbilt University about the beliefs of students, it was interesting to note that the following responses to this question — “Do you believe in the Judeo-Christian concept of God?” — were counted as “atheist/non-believer”:
- “God isn’t just a concept”
- “If there is a God, he’s bigger than anything we can conceive”
- “Which Judeo-Christian God? I don’t believe in a spiteful, angry God”
- “I don’t like the question”
- “I’m not sure I understand ‘concept’ of God. What does that mean?”
In the popular culture, uncertainty is the same as rejection. If you don’t know, you must not believe.
Second, and most important, the contemporary threat to Christianity in the United States doesn’t come from non-believers, but from lazy believers. If the church of Jesus Christ in America fails, it will be the fault of believers, not un-believers. Atheists look at our faith and our forms of organized religion and they see nothing they want any part of. Whose fault is that? Within our congregations there are an inordinate number of “believers” who want absolutely nothing to do with “discipleship.” A comfy, consumeristic Christian with no inclination to give, to serve, to lead, or to learn is a much greater danger than someone who denounces the faith. Sample the seven letters to the churches in Revelation chapters 2 & 3. The threat to the faith doesn’t reside outside the church, but within. It is still true to day. The lack of “first love” and passion, motivation by fear rather than faith, compromising Christian values in order to accommodate popular culture, tolerating toxic behavior that undermines the community, simply going through the motions, being lukewarm, pandering to the spiritually immature, and babysitting the malcontents — these are the forces poised to destroy our church. I have yet to meet an atheist that had any real power or influence over the gospel of Jesus Christ or the mission of the church. All they can do is stand outside throwing stones and shouting insults. While we waste our time trying to shoo them away, the inmates are wrecking the place.
As I have been organizing my files while setting up my new office (I absolutely LOVE it here in Wisconsin!) I came across a folder of letters and emails I’ve received from United Methodist clergy leaving the ministry. Not just the church, but the ministry. These are epistles of heartbreak, devastation, loss of faith, loss of meaning, desperation, and grief. I do not judge even one with anything but compassion. The system — our United Methodist Church — failed them in ways both big and small. One man seeking to launch a resettlement ministry for those released from prison told by his superiors to “stop stirring up trouble.” A young woman recounting the hateful behaviors of three church people who didn’t want a “woman preacher” resulting in the destruction of her marriage. A district superintendent confessing to me his growing dependence on alcohol and his need to get away from all the “evil in the church.” These are just three of dozens of people who report that the church destroyed their faith. In each case, and in most others, these people faced their torments alone — isolated and feeling cut off and unsupported by the system. Are they weak? Do they lack “real faith?” Are they to blame? I can’t answer that, but my feeling is “no.” The system is designed for the results it gets. If the system chews people up and spits them out, then the system is bad and needs to change.
It is too easy to dismiss atheists and hostile critics of religion. Certainly, we don’t like hearing what they say about us. But what if they’re right — at least, to some small degree? If we want the church to survive and grow strong, to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” perhaps we need first to transform ourselves. We won’t change the minds of atheists and non-believers by talking them out of their unbelief. The only hope we have to change their hearts and minds is to live with such solid integrity and unequivocal grace that their position lacks credibility and validity. The ball is in our court. If we want the world to know that what we believe is valid and true, we need to start acting like we believe it ourselves.