Superstitious Atheists, Superficial Believers

debaptismxI 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.

6 replies

  1. “What are atheists so afraid of?”

    Generally, when I don’t understand people, I start by assuming that their actions and beliefs are motivated by fear or hatred. This generally turns out to be false.

    “Why is it necessary to participate in a symbolic ritual to prove you don’t believe in symbolic rituals?”

    Atheists are fully aware of the power of symbolic rituals, at least on the minds of the participants and observers. What they do not believe in is the Christian doctrine underlying Christian symbolic rituals.

    “If baptism is irrelevant and meaningless, why take any steps to ‘remove’ it?”

    To get a sense of freedom from superstition; to make a public declaration of freedom from superstition; to encourage others to become free from superstition. Suppose that, when you were a young child, your parents had enrolled you in the Ku Klux Klan. Would you see the value of a public declaration that you were no longer connected with the Klan?

    “Why the defensiveness?”

    Because they live in a society that assumes that traditional Abrahamic monotheism is true and anything else is false, dangerous, and to be suppressed by any means necessary.

    “Why the sarcasm and invective?”

    Because they learned it from us.

    “Generally, people confident of their beliefs and mature in their behavior don’t feel the need to bully those with whom they disagree.”

    Some atheists are confident and mature, and some are not. This tells us exactly nothing about whether or not they are right.

    “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.”

    Absolutely. If I decide one day to leave the church (or join the Unitarians, which is essentially the same thing) it won’t be because of Dawkins or Dennett or Myers, but because of what I experience (or don’t) every Sunday morning. The church has far more power to push me away than the atheists have to pull.

    • Some of what you say provides reasons, some just excuses. There is a similar spectrum for believers and non-believers: from one end pursuing an almost frantic desire to be seen, heard, understood, and recognized to the other end where none of this is necessary. To me, it seems that the insecure in both camps keep “doing” things to validate themselves, and I find this sad. I lament anyone who can not find comfort in their own skin. I’m not my parents and I don’t have to undo anything they did on my behalf. I am not a puppet of culture, so stereotypes don’t have power over me because they are meaningless. The symbols that have power in my life do so because I accept and embrace them. Your answers point out to me how sad it is for anyone when their validation and sense of self is dependent on external factors. Can these folks ever find peace?

    • Because they live in a society that assumes that traditional Abrahamic monotheism is true and anything else is false, dangerous, and to be suppressed by any means necessary.

      This is a overstatement of the facts and of the opinion of most adherents to the Abrahamic religions. That may be the way some atheists view the religions, but “suppressed by any means necessary” is not consistent with the teaching of Jesus Christ.

  2. As a beliver in God the Father, God the Son, and the living Holy Spirit, atheists are not my main concern for our church. It is the shell of protectionism that we as belivers have allowed ourselves to be drawn into that concerns me. We say that we are a denomination that professes to being a church of OPEN HEARTS, OPEN MINDS, AND OPEN DOORS, but many of our churches locked and can only be worshiped in at given times. We are not sure about some of the people who would enter our SACTUARY’S. In our hearts, we still have doubt’s. When we as a congregation of believers can sell ourselves on our church’s vision, we will then be able to reach out, and that is the most important MISSION that we as a church face, REACH OUT.

    Nonbelievers and unchurched of our commuity’s do not receive the love our LORD JESUS CHRIST because of the way we choose to live our lives. We do not have to SHOUT out our FAITH, but we must live it. When our neighbors look at us and ask themselves what does he or she have that i don’t, then we will be serving our LORD.

    When we can knock down oue own fences, and only then, will we have an influence on the atheist, and more so on the people who are not church members because no one has shown them the wat yo GOD the FATHER.

    GOD gave his son our LORD JESUS CHRIST the vision to call his disciples to go out, GO OUT into the woeld and spread his WORD and LOVE to ALL NATIONS. This will not get done if FAITH is left behind us as we exit the church on Sunday morning. WE as the body of CHRIST
    are RESPONSIBLE to LIVE, GIVE, and LOVE, BEYOUND EXPECTATION, and with ENTHUSIASM as Bishp Lee has called us to do if we are going to be able to reach the people who are not getting GOD’S message.

    We can no longer says that it is the church’s problem, because we are the church. Change will only come about when we change. PRAY for all members of our FAITH family that they will be given the strength of GOD to reach out in the way they llive so that they may become examples how GOD wants us ALL to LIVE and LOVE as a WORLD of believers. Praise be to GOD.

    God invisioned HIS SON to tell us to go out and LIVE our lives and in everythig we do to be filled with the WORD and the LOVE of GOD. If we as United Methodist can convince our own to live by these simple rules, we as Methodists will be fulfilling JESUS’S call to discipleship.

  3. And we must use CAPITAL LETTERS whenever WE write for EMPHASIS.

    Joking, really. Actually, I like what you wrote Dan. Good theology.

    Now, as for deconversion, when I left (the ministry, the UMC, and Christianity), I tore up my baptismal certificate. Yeah, I guess that having rituals to demonstrate that you don’t believe in rituals is weird, but I suspect that these people are trying to heal from wounds that they have suffered, and the symbolism served in that capacity. That, at any rate, was why I tore up the certificate.

    • Yeah I suspect you’re RIGHT! In my kinder, gentler moments my real wish is that the absolutely sure on both sides could quiet down for awhile so that — apart from specific doctrines and beliefs — we could talk about what we need, believe, and what gives life meaning. So many people I know who have left/walked away from/run away from/rejected Christianity because the don’t want to believe in something, but because what they have believed in has hurt, betrayed, disappointed, or simply lost meaning for them. Nothing makes me angrier at the church — or at the lunatic fringe of disbelievers — than when they characterize atheists and non-believers as evil or bad people. The one’s I know personally are rational, reasonable, kind, generous and decent people.

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