A Year of Atheism: “Lord, I believe, but I’ll give up my belief”

Following a tried-and-true marketing formula, one former professor and pastor is attempting a year of atheism. He’s going to give up praying, reading the Bible for wisdom and encouragement, hoping that God will intervene in his life, and giving credit to God for day-to-day events.

Ryan Bell (no relation to Rob Bell, as far as I know) makes a few claims in his “coming out” post. Among many things, he says:

Christian educational institutions are not serving their students by eliminating professors that are on an honest intellectual and spiritual journey, just because it doesn’t line up with the official statement of faith.

The category of those who are on an “honest intellectual and spiritual journey” is a little larger than just those who are seeking atheism for a year. The push lately for those who are living “honest” journeys is a bit bewildering in its implications: if “living honestly” means that we abandon Christianity, does that mean Christianity is dishonest? If the educational institutions that Bell is referring to fire those who are living “honest…journey[s]”, what does that say for the professors who are still employed? While he “guess[es]” that many professors are in the same place that he is spiritually, he suggests that they live dishonestly in fear of termination.

If you are doubting and want to be honest about it, great. I’m absolutely okay with people who profess their struggles, even from the pulpit. It’s okay to say something is hard, it’s okay to say something is difficult to understand.

But if you’re teaching students or shepherding a flock and you’re to the point where you’re closer to atheism than Christianity, perhaps it is time you step back from leadership. Don’t be surprised when employers agree with the sentiment.

Christianity as a worldview is hardly filled with absolute certainty; sometimes faith is extremely challenging. That’s the reality we live in. We groan for a better understanding of the mysterious ways of God, we cry out in despair, and sometimes we get angry with our Creator. That’s acceptable. Even Jesus begs that the Father take the cup from him, before ultimately submitting himself.

If we don’t want to compare ourselves to Jesus, lest we be accused of arrogance, perhaps we can compare ourselves to the father of the spirit-possessed boy who confesses “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” Or David when he cries out in the Psalms, often in ways that make us uncomfortable. Or even Job, who lived righteously and asked God some brutal questions.

The assumption that the Church cannot handle doubt is misplaced, but somewhat understandable. We’ve all experienced the ridicule of doubters, even if the mockery was subtle. Whether that was from the slam-dunk answers youth pastors gave honestly struggling kids or senior pastors who just didn’t take us seriously, it’s hard not to empathize with Bell’s frustrations.

But most of us also have experiences on the other end of the spectrum, where we sit with pastors or mentors, pour out our struggles and our frustrations, and are met with empathy and grace. We’ve all felt like Peter, ready to give up on Christ because the pressures are great. And to suggest that Christian institutions have, by and large, missed the grace offered to Peter is dishonest. At the very least, it’s incredibly sad.

There’s a difference between those whom God calls to lead and those we might term “laymen.” While it is appropriate for doubts to be a part of the Christian life at times, they ought not to characterize our leaders. Sure, frustration and doubt can creep up. We expect that, even in church leadership. But living a public year of atheism is a few steps beyond that. Doubt has manifested itself in a far more public and declarative way.

Jesus is willing and eager to save us from our doubts. He kept Peter from drowning when he walked on water. Our doubts do not damn us.

But our doubts are distinct from those who hear the teachings of God and proclaim them too difficult. Those who cannot even fathom following are distinct from those who follow and doubt.

May God grant us the strength to believe, even in our unbelief.

Saint Nietzsche: The Last True Atheist

There have been few men as great as the late Friedrich Nietzsche, and the longer he is gone, the more that I miss him. He was great in the same way a hurricane is great, or the Cambodian Genocide was great; he is great in that he lashed out viciously and consistently. No man, method, or morality was spared his worldview.

For that, Christianity owes this pillar of Atheism a great debt—perhaps one that cannot truly be repaid. For in a world of lukewarm ideals and smarmy podcasts built around cute little quips, Friedrich Nietzsche glows like a white-hot iron—and should that iron be heated by the very fires of Hell, at least it glows. When placed before God, there will be no question where Nietzsche stood, and that is more than can be said for many folks. Nietzsche may have descended into the very gut of the Inferno, but he never descended as low as modern intellectualism. At the Judgment Seat, there will be at least one man that God need not worry about being lukewarm.

Many have died dull deaths with dull ideas—whether because they are easy, or fashionable, or simple. Nietzsche was not one of them.

Nietzsche brings to the philosophical table a rare consistent idea (and it is wonderful that this atheist/academic is willing to approach the table at all). His argument is as smooth as glass and as round as a perfect sphere. This is notable for two reasons: (1) he is willing to talk about Truth as something that actually exists and (2) he is unswerving in applying his ideas to the cosmos around him. You can take Nietzsche worldview and philosophical ideas and spin them, flip them on their head, twist and kick and roll them, and they will always be the same, with the same logical application. It would do every Christian a favor (and every person who holds even the slightest concept of a Higher Power) to familiarize themselves with some of Nietzsche more well-known works. It will either destroy your faith or make it unshakeable, but either way, it will allow you to hear an honest man speaking honestly.

When Nietzsche said that religion is a means of the weak enslaving the strong to stop their own torment, he really meant it. Therefore, if you were strong, you should not allow the weak to enslave you with their petty morality. When Nietzsche said that there is no God watching over our lives, and that the best thing that humanity could do for itself was to have every creature be as strong and vibrant and powerful as it could be (which is the basis for Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged), he really meant that man should be overpowering other men; after all, it would make humanity better. There was no room for limp-wristed justifications of “love your neighbor as yourself” after God was dead. Why should there be? It would make as much sense for an anarchist to say that all government is evil, but that we should keep an active military and police force; either the anarchist isn’t really an anarchist, or he is a coward, afraid of what his ideals will bring. If God is dead, there is no reason to keep the world dressed in His clothes.

Furthermore, Nietzsche ideas have been more or less applied in certain circumstances throughout history. When a rabid, National Socialist Germany held up the banner of the Übermensch[1] in the days preceding World War II, they were adopting Nietzsche’s idea’s, although they were grossly misapplied; after all, every man can be a Superman—he only need to be stronger than his neighbor. And why not? There is no God, there is no Judgment. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we disappear.

Of course, man does not do this. Even Nietzsche himself expressed repeated frustration with his inability to shed the shackles of his socially and religiously imposed conscience. But where Nietzsche was unique is that he did not stop trying. Modern atheism condemns religion for being a vehicle for men to do evil to other men (a claim that is not without credibility), but they allow evil, which means there is some good, which means there is some ideal that humanity is subject to, and has always been subject to, which means something established that ideal—at the very least, it exists outside of men and culture. It is always amusing to hear Christianity condemned for being so unlike Christ—as this is the silver bullet that will slay the concept of a divine Being. Look at all these people who believe in God—they don’t act like there’s a God, there must not be a God. Anger with God is understandable, but trying to keep the Second Commandment (“love your neighbor”) while discarding the First (“love your God”) is trying to hold up the roof without the walls.

Nietzsche understood this—if anything, he praised those who would abuse religion for being scheming and cunning. Where the chic intellectualism of our day would damn the Church for their abuse of power, Nietzsche would praise it, if only because it was clever enough to impose itself on the rest of the weak little lambs seeking shelter from the hawks. Nietzsche viewed religious authority as one hawk would view another—with the respect that comes from competition. After all, if he was anything, he was consistent. Honest, vicious, possibly insane, almost certainly evil (if not extremely misguided), and consistent. Why does it matter if people are “evil”? It doesn’t. If there is no Truth, than any social or religious institution that would restrict a man from being a Superman should be ignored.

The only problem with Nietzsche is that he is wrong. When he made his worldview, he shaped it into his image, with his knowledge, and while it is consistent, as with any created thing that is perfectly consistent, it is small-minded. Nietzsche was a man so focused on his crystal ball he couldn’t see the crystal sky above him or the crystal sea around him. He committed intellectual blasphemy, and should be regarded as such.

But the next time you get wrapped up in a debate where you are challenged that your faith in Christ is a vehicle for weakness and evil, think back upon Saint Nietzsche—the last true Atheist—and realize that there may have been bad Christians, but there is little more terrifying than a good Atheist.


[1] Over-man, or Superman

Weekly Roundup (Shutdown Edition)

If the cover image worried you for a moment, fear not, faithful readers.  The Evangelical Outpost did not shut down this week.  We’re an essential service!

Politico takes us on a photo tour of the previous 17 federal government shutdowns.  (What might be most surprising to many people, given the current level of rhetoric in the media, is just how many times the government shut down during the Reagan administration with a Democrat-controlled House).

***

Matt Welch writes at CNN that, while the shutdown is bad politics (especially for Republicans), it’s ultimately nothing to worry about.

***

In the midst of all the budget battles raging these days, with frequent calls from Republicans to lower taxes and cut entitlement spending, Andrew Quinn argues that it’s time for conservatives to make explicit what is already implicit in their economic goals: championing the poor.

***

Not only is the world still spinning during the federal government shutdown, but worlds beyond our solar system are too.  Here’s the first cloud map of one such exoplanet.

***

Warning: This article is graphic and not for those with sensitive consciences, but it is a must read (especially for those with children):  Experiment that convinced me online porn is the most pernicious threat facing children today.

***

From r/atheism to the Richard Dawkins Foundation’s Facebook page, online atheists love their memes, especially the ones that are “devastating” to religon as well as being humorous.  Here are few such Devastating Arguments Against Christianity (Courtesy of the Internet).  As it turns out, the arguments are indeed devastating…just not to religion.

***

Stanford Team Sheds Light on the Medieval Foundations of Modern Science.

***

Desiring God’s 2013 National Conference was all about C. S. Lewis, with some fascinating topics and a stellar speaker lineup (including Phil Ryken and Kevin Vanhoozer).  The free video and audio is availabe here.

***

When creativity and love meets technology, magic happens:  Creative Dad Takes Crazy Photos Of Daughters.

***

Essayist and programmer Paul Graham has written a brief and helpful article on How to Disagree.  For the visually inclined, here is a an image based on his essay ranking the 7 types of disagreement.

***

33 Of The Most Hilariously Terrible First Sentences In Literature History:

Betty had eyes that said come here, lips that said kiss me, arms and torso that said hold me all night long, but the rest of her body said, “Fillet me, cover me in cornmeal, and fry me in peanut oil”; romance wasn’t easy for a mermaid.

***

Part two of the Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug, is going to be a massive hit at the box office, despite the underwhelming first installment.  How do I know?  Two words:  The ‘Batch (just listen to the final moments of the new trailer):

Weekly Roundup (Or: How Sherlock Survived His Deadly Fall)

A young writer has some advice for church leaders trying desperately to attract and retain young people: change carefully and wisely. What young people say they want in their 20s is not necessarily what they want 10 years later.

***

Keeping up with the times: Pope Francis to Offer Plenary Indulgences via Twitter.

***

Just because: This Is What It Would Look Like If You Dropped Manhattan Into the Grand Canyon.

***

Behold, The Six Types of Atheists (or, how Social Scientists make obvious observations and try to pass it off as actual work).

***

Matthew Tuininga asks, What if our Grandmothers were actually right?:

There is a story that plays itself out over and over in American culture. Progressive activists proclaim that a particular element of traditional wisdom about the family and parenting is the residue of old-fashioned religious convictions, with little relation to reality or to human flourishing. Invariably, social scientists lend their voices and expertise to the cause, insisting that there is no scientific evidence for the legitimacy of the older norms; surely, it is assumed, research will show that liberty and tolerance is the appropriate way forward. Eventually the activists and the academics find the support of the media and other cultural elites, who call for an end to the stigmatization of those who violate the old norms and mores.

As the decades pass however, a host of new problems arise, problems that society has never had to face. The abandonment of older assumptions about the family, it turns out, has a tremendous social cost after all. Research in the social sciences begins to suggest that even if the older ideals were rooted in religion and tradition, they make a whole lot of sense scientifically as well. We’re not sure why, but it turns out that our grandmothers really did have some wisdom.

***

Doug Wilson offers some clear-headed advice for social conservatives frustrated by the tactics of the opposition and their allies in the Media Industrial Complex.

***

In the wake of the Texas abortion bill and the nausiating attempts at a “Stand with Wendy” campaign,  Democrats for Life are asking us to Stand with Kirsten Powers instead.

***

The perception among non-Calvinists is often that Reformed folk are arrogant, argumentative, and downright rude.  Scott Clark of Westminster Seminary California points out that every individual is unique; there are rude Arminians and grumpy Baptists, just as there are kindly Calvinists.  Still, he admits, the perception is not without foundation, and so he attempts to offer some reasons why (some) Reformed people are such jerks.

Some, when they first discover “the doctrines of grace” (code for unconditional predestination and justification by grace alone, through faith alone) can actually become angry that they’ve been denied these truths for so long. It’s as if one grew up in England (pay attention Carl) and suddenly discovers that food can be pleasant, that just a few miles to the southeast there is a people of strange tongues and marvelous food beyond one’s wildest dreams! Gaining this knowledge can produce genuine frustration. Having tasted French food, our Englishman is beside himself. It’s all he can talk about. It’s all he wants to read about. It’s all he cooks. The first time his Mum brings out the usual Thursday night dinner, he rages at her, but she doesn’t know any better. She’s never been to France and wouldn’t know pain au chocolate if it hit her on the head.

***

Speaking of raucous Reformed folk, many young evangelicals are breaking from their fundamentalist roots and embracing “Christian liberty” when it comes to alcoholic beverages.  I for one enjoy craft beer immensely, even dabbling in a bit of home brewing.  But is this liberty, fueled as it so often is by a reaction to legalism, becoming its own kind of legalism?  Brett McCracken at Mere Orthodoxy probes: Are you free to NOT drink?

***

The New Theist himself (William Lane Craig) debates Sam Harris on the possibility of objective morality without God:

***

Jon Negroni has discovered a grand secret hidden in plain sight, what he calls “The Pixar Theory”:  Every single Pixar film is directly connected to all the others, creating the biggest and most complex narrative in film history.  (Well…maybe).

***

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for.  Last year, in the final moments of series 2 of BBC’s Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch’s titular character plummeted off a rooftop to his death…only he somehow survived.  Fans have been baffled, to say the least.  Finally, Cumberbatch himself has decided to break the silence and explain how Sherlock survived.  Using stuffed animals.

“Who Sez?” The Place of God in Moral Philosophy

On Tuesday, Dennis Prager made a comment on his radio program that without dogma (specifically religious dogma) there can be no rational argument against selfishness and cruelty.

A young man called into the program, describing himself as a Libertarian and an agnostic, to say that you don’t need dogma to be moral.  “I never said that”, responded Prager.  He then asked the young man a simple question, “What would you say to a rich slave owner?”  The young man answered that it causes him intense discomfort to see other human beings suffering.  Prager responded that it doesn’t cause the slaver owner any discomfort.  Continue reading “Who Sez?” The Place of God in Moral Philosophy

A Strange Prayer

For a long time now, a close friend of mine has been content to call himself agnostic. We don’t talk about it often, but we did a couple weeks ago. I had a long conversation with him via Facebook, going back and forth on various things. Nothing seemed to sink in: It seemed as though we ended the conversation in roughly the exact same place we had started it: firmly planted in agnosticism.

“That’s a dangerous valley you’re in, dude,” I told him.

“Well, that depends on who’s right,” he said. “But I understand what you mean.”

Then he said he had to go and thanked me for the talk. I told him I’d pray for him, and he said he appreciated it.

But I’m not so sure he would still appreciate it, if he knew what I had prayed for. Continue reading A Strange Prayer

Against All Gods: An Open Invitation to ‘The New Atheism’

Anyone seeking a witticized slam of ‘The New Atheism’ should stay away from Against All Gods.  The new release by Dr. Phillip Johnson and Dr. John Mark Reynolds refuses to wade into mind-numbingly circular surface arguments with writers of the new atheism. Instead, Johnson and Reynolds focus on “breaking down…communication barriers” between the new atheists and those of religious faith, particularly within the university.

Johnson and Reynolds are not setting out to grind new atheism into dust, but to establish space for rigorous, candid conversation. Johnson writes:

We will make certain critical points about what the atheists are writing. However, our desire is not to shut down the discussion with a resounding rebuttal but rather to encourage careful examination of the issues both inside the university classroom and outside. We believe that the truth can only benefit from…uninhibited discussion… For this reason we welcome the surge that the new atheism represents…

Both Reynolds and Johnson are clear that they ‘welcome’ the new atheism for one main reason: they ask the right questions. Despite “ill-founded” conclusions, declarations such as ‘God does not exist’ or “humans are primates, [and their] mind is the activity of an organ that runs by physiological processes” necessarily raise important questions. Does God exist? Are humans more than animals with physiological capacities? The 21st century Western world, chock full of superficial distractions, can only benefit from reminders that these questions exist and should be taken seriously.

The new atheism, which depends upon ‘scientific naturalism’, asserts that science—Darwinism in particular—is both absolutely indubitable and absolutely atheistic. Because of the sharp division between ‘faith’ and ‘reason’, the new atheists conclude that religion is an anti-scholastic delusion, and religious studies don’t belong in general education curricula.

In the first half of Against All Gods, Johnson focuses on responding to this dichotomy of faith and reason. New atheists like Steven Pinker define faith as a “euphemism for religious belief and as meaning believing something (such as that God exists) without good reasons to do so.” Johnson rejects this equating of ‘faith’ and ‘religion’ and offers his own definition of faith as “retaining confidence in what you have good reason to believe when you are in danger of being confused and losing your bearings.” Faith is the grounding for reason, Johnson writes, not the lack of it.

Johnson’s next point naturally rises from his re-definition: every individual has a faith. New atheists’ faith in science is as much faith as religious faith. What’s more, Johnson presses, faith in science is less reasonable than religious faith, as it cannot satisfy certain physical phenomena (e.g. ‘Where did the first cell come from?’) as adequately as religious, metaphysical hypotheses.

Perhaps Johnson presses the topic a little too far in this section when he equates ‘religion’ with ‘metaphysics’. There are intelligent Christian philosophers, such as non-reductive physicalists, who avoid being metaphysical reductionists. Still, the meat of Johnson’s point remains: religious alternatives are as-or-more reasonable than Darwinism, especially Darwinism as interpreted by scientific naturalism. The case is not closed, Johnson says to the atheists, so stop trying to shut the door.

The finals chapters, written by Dr. John Mark Reynolds, are largely a response to the new atheists’ conclusion that religious studies, particularly in the university, are delusional and anti-scholastic. Reynolds begins at the source—traditional texts. He does not object to the new atheists disliking, or even loathing the Bible, but Reynolds does take issue with poor reading of Biblical texts, especially because the resulting misunderstandings destroy open communication.

In his chapter “The Obstacle of Old Books,” Reynolds connects how new atheists are reading Scripture to their hasty conclusions about Christianity. After outlining what I would term a useful and enlightening ‘idiot’s guide to hermeneutics’, Reynolds contends that new atheists refuse—or don’t know how—to employ the basic guidelines of charitable reading. For example, when atheist scholars (Dawkins in particular) ignore historical information like early Israel’s tribal and warlike world, it leads to unfair judgments about the brutality seen in the Old Testament.

Poor readers refuse to imagine the world of a text, and so close themselves off to the mere possibility of its truth. “Imagination,” Reynolds writes, “is a wonderful tool that allows me to consider the possibility that any religious, philosophical or scientific idea might be true.”

According to Reynolds, such critical consideration is based in wonder, not cynical, unrestrained doubt, and as such, it has every place in the university. Whereas unleashed cycnicism paralyzes academic discovery, belief in truth grants motivation and purpose to intellectual study.

Religion, says Reynolds, sustains the university. Learning is a journey that includes discovery of truth and cultivation of virtue via personal and artistic mentors. Without religion, education becomes vacuous intellectual hedonism. Contrary to what new atheists say, education is not “constricted” by exposure to religion; it is fueled by it. Reynolds concludes Against All Gods with a historical defense of orthodoxy in light of this assertion: new atheists claim that, historically, religion has been the oppressor of academic pursuits, but Reynolds argues that it has been the impetus of intellectual progress.

The existence of Johnson and Reynolds’s book demonstrates Reynolds’s final point. It is a piece of well-crafted analysis filled with sound arguments that sticks its foot in the door new atheism is trying to slam shut. This dialogue is far from over, Johnson and Reynolds protest. New atheism and religion have much to discuss, and both sides have every reason to embrace the conversation and see where it leads. ‘

What’s So Great About Christianity?

Atheists have it far too easy.  While Christians usually know what they believe, they don’t always know why they believe it.  This leaves the market wide open for the success of provocative books like The God Delusion and The End of Faith. Books like these sell well when no one challenges them, and then sell ever better when Christians challenge them poorly.

In What’s so Great about Christianity, Dinesh D’Souza tries to answer these and other popular secular works with an accurate and objective description of Christianity, its history, its role in Western culture, and its relevance to modern readers.  His book isn’t perfect – one simply cannot do all this well in only three hundred pages – but it is nonetheless a useful tool for both Christians and secularists.

D’Souza, a former White House domestic policy analyst and author of five New York Times bestsellers, presents a detailed and easy-to-read description of the ways in which Christianity has been and will continue to be integral to the development of the West.  He aims to describe Christianity in a way that is accessible to even the most secular audience, and he largely succeeds.  His descriptions of Christian traditions and beliefs are easily accessible and mostly accurate.  He doesn’t take Christianity for granted, but tries to examine its claims objectively.  If atheists don’t feel like they’ve been treated fairly when they read this book, they can’t blame D’Souza.

D’Souza’s work is useful not only for curious atheists but also for Christians who want to brush up on their apologetics skills.  Of particularly interest are the sections in which he debunks popular historical myths that cast Christianity in a negative light.

D’Souza offers a very hopeful view of the future of Christianity, arguing that secularism is quickly waning, and that Christianity will eventually enjoy a wide-spread societal triumph. The United States, he argues, is at the forefront of modernity, and should thus be the most secular nation in the Western world.  Instead, he says, it is the most religious Western nation, and traditional churches are growing as liberal denominations shrink.  Since Europe generally mimics the US over time, even the most secular European nations will eventually follow our lead.  While not everyone will agree with the details of his optimistic analysis, he is right to assert that the Church will never die out.

The book, as I said, is not perfect.  It is only a little over three hundred pages long, so it is understandably simplistic in parts and all-to-brief in others.  This is inevitable; however, it is regrettable that the author did not take more time to explain certain points of view that differ from his own.  This is particularly true in the science sections of the book, where his own pro-evolution views dominate the discussion more than in any other place in the text.  The Church is a big place, and Christians are a varied lot.  We disagree with each other on many issues, and science is no exception.  D’Souza is entitled to his own views, but in this book there is some danger that readers will mistakenly think his views represent those of the Church at large.

While no one book (besides the Bible!) can adequately bridge the gap between Christians and atheists, D’Souza’s book is a useful starting place for productive dialogue – the sort of dialogue in which neither side has it too easy. ‘