Category Archives: Atheist and Agnostics

My reflections on atheism and agnosticism

I’ve Decided I’m an Atheist

No GodSomething has been brewing within me for several years now that I have been too ashamed, too embarrassed, and very afraid to admit.

I’m an atheist.

After a long journey of thoughtful introspection through a continuous strain of disillusionments, disappointments, but also eye-opening clarity, I’ve concluded that there can’t possibly be a supernatural deity who somehow controls and influences things.

Interestingly enough, I learned this lesson in the church through my work as an ordained pastor.

On Sunday mornings, I have preached wonderful sermons about God and Jesus. I learned that I could tell all these stories with great conviction without really having to anchor my life to any of it. I tried this, just for kicks- preaching powerful, passionate sermons about things I had struggled to believe. I found I could put on a great show. The people would walk away inspired. “That was a beautiful sermon, Pastor!” But then nothing changes. Everyone goes back to life as usual. I did this for weeks on end and realized that I didn’t need a god to do any of it. Great, emotional shows. Happy people. Same people. Week after week. Where is the divine in that?

Then I noticed that there was no need for deity in any of the church’s activities. People talked about God. I talked about God. We said nice little prayers to God. But I looked around and realized that it was just decent religious people doing good people things. This went on for month after month, and then I concluded that if there really was a deity, there should be more than this- a lot more. But there isn’t. I could have started a wonderful charity group or a recreational club, made no mention of deity and have done the exact same things.

I looked at the way we learn. I have taught lots of Bible studies. I do love to teach, and for many years, I walked away stimulated by the deep discussions we were having. People get jazzed about discussing things, often in painstaking detail, bringing history and the writings of scholars into our learning. We eat it up! People walk out thanking me for a thought-provoking, powerful study. Those same people would come back, week after week, but I began to notice over time that nothing would change. We’d end up talking about the same things. The same kinds of speculative questions would be asked. It was all superficial. People spoke in generalities about God, people and the world. Still, nothing new happened. I didn’t see any real changes of heart that led to improved behavior or priorities.  There were no grand ideas generated that would lead to anything positive or constructive. Thus, there was no deity needed or involved in any of it! Once again- no god doing anything supernatural.

And then I looked at they way we pray. Prayer time in worship is more of a support group and story-telling time than what I would imagine prayer to be– getting on our faces before God in submission, fully relying on the strength, power, mercy, and love of God. No, we turn in prayer cards for this hurt, that surgery, this and that struggle, and say nice little prayers with tears, hugs, and tissues to go around. And there is never any evidence of supernatural intervention, other than what a doctor could do. After a while, I thought our time might be better spent creating a doctor and patient support group for mutual encouragement. Meanwhile, there was no real evidence of a god or deity; anything people described as “God’s intervention” I could find a natural cause for. I could see that! Why couldn’t these people see it?? No god, no deity… just religion wrapped up in emotion and speculation.

But what really led me to conclude that there is no god is the suffering of the poor all around us. We read and study in our Bibles that Jesus loves the poor and fills their mouths with good things. But there is not a smidgen of evidence for that anywhere. I looked at the priorities of my church and other churches in our neighborhood. Sure, we all do canned food drives, fill poor kids’ backpacks once a year, and maybe even serve a meal in a homeless shelter. But anyone can see– an atheist like me can see!– that these are token gestures. Lives aren’t changed. No one is removed from poverty and suffering because of a canned food drive. I had always heard that love, relational love, changes lives. I had heard that communities bound together in a common cause for the kingdom of God changes lives.

That would take no less than the work of a deity through people who claim this deity as their god. But it doesn’t happen. The poor still suffer while we religious people sit in our church buildings. Why say we believe in a god and carry on about religion when our neighbors still go without a home, without good food and water, struggling in addictions, alienated, and alone. If there is indeed a god whom people claim works through them, then this “god” has failed.

So, it’s very simple. If I can be a Christian and have no real need for God other than self-help– and I can get a therapist or read a good book for that– then there is no need to bother with the notion of a sky-god who controls and influences things. Leave that to nice ancient story books like the Bible.

Oh by the way, Bible discussion group will be held after Sunday morning story time and mutual support group… A creative, able-minded, talented atheist like me can lead all of that!
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April Fools! But… my point is far from a joke.

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Pastor Appreciation from Atheists

The month of October was “Pastor Appreciation Month”. As the title suggests, it’s a month designated to thank and honor pastors and clergy who have had an impact on our lives. Some years, I’ve received touching notes and cards from parishioners. Other times, the church would put on a potluck supper in my honor. Then there were some years in which October came and went with very little. That never bothered me, really. I don’t anxiously sit around waiting to be accoladed and thanked.

This year, however, I received two notes of appreciation from some friends of mine. They are not my parishioners. In fact, they are no one’s parishioners. That’s because they are atheists. Here’s what they wrote:

I understand that October is Pastor/Clergy Appreciation Month. To be honest, I don’t particularly appreciate clergy in general, since I’m essentially opposed to organized religion. However, I want to make exceptions for clergy members who make an effort to help people here on Earth and not just in a supposed afterlife, and who try to lead by example rather than just mouthing the words. Shout-out to our friend Chris Owens–we may not always agree, but I appreciate his honest efforts to see the other side’s perspective.

I also got this one from another atheist friend:

Dear Chris,

Thank you for being my friend and my internet pastor. Knowing you and talking with you has meant a great deal to me – even when we disagree, I always feel I learn something from you, and for all those times we turn out to agree (which is delightfully more often than I feared) it gives me a wonderful sense of perspective about the Christian community today which I find is lacking among many atheists, and broadens my world view greatly.

You are, indeed, an individual very worthy to hold the title of “pastor” and you bear the mantle of responsibility, authority, and vulnerability well – better than many I know who hold that title.

Wow… I was deeply touched and humbled by these words. It’s one thing for a church member to say these things. But for people who are not members of my faith community- folks who do not believe in God and reject organized religion!- to affirm my ministry and me that way, it resulted in one of those rare moments of beautiful pause.

Now some Christians may scoff at any pastor who gets a warm response from atheists. Perhaps I’m compromising myself. After all, I should be preaching the truth boldly, without compromise or apology, especially to unbelievers. Of course, this thinking assumes that part of my job is to offend and alienate people who don’t agree with me. Whatever… There are enough Christian jerks out there who spout off their truths and slam people who don’t see God and the world like they do. I refuse to be one of them, even as I have my differences with people who think and see differently than me.
BridgesMaturing as a Christian has led me to the great value of connecting with people who aren’t like me. It’s a wonderful gift in my life, actually. I learn a lot. I see whole other perspectives which help me to understand how people think and why they think that way. After all, I can’t be a good pastor who effectively shepherds and teaches the good news of Jesus without that. More importantly, I’ve found the gift of loving and being loved by people who would most likely never be my church congregants. Those human to human contacts in which I see the face of God in people, especially those don’t acknowledge God’s existence, is a priceless treasure which draws me closer to Jesus and closer to them. That alone is a precious gift.

So to my friends, Ed and Sophie and the many others I have friendships with who are not Christians or even theists, thank you for being a hallowed treasure in my life. Thank you for the things you teach me, for challenging me, for helping me to think more critically, carefully, and with increased sensitivity and awareness. And thank you for loving and at times forgiving me. You’ve made me a better person, disciple of Jesus, and pastor. You are also much, much appreciated.

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How I Sent an Atheist to Church

And in all fairness to my atheist friend, this could also be titled, “How an Atheist Influenced a Church to Action”, but since I’m the author… well, you know. Now for the story!

Over the last couple of years, through blogging and Facebook, I’ve been enjoying a friendship with an atheist who lives in California. It’s been one of the most unexpected kinds of friendships, one that’s had its fair share of hot debates, as you can imagine. But also we’ve been able to nurture and respect one another, too.

Let’s be honest. Believers and atheists can get along… except when it comes to religion. It stems from the fact that each looks at the belief system of the other with sheer incredulity. It’s like this. The believer asks, “How can you be so blind to not see all the evidence of God? Are you that hard-hearted?” And the atheist asks, “How can you be so blind to all the evidence that crushes your fairy tale myths? Are you that dim-witted?” And on it goes.

I don’t know what my atheist friend might have garnered from me over these last couple of years, but speaking for myself, I have learned so many valuable things from him. If you listen to atheists and agnostics, they often level heavy critiques of religion and religious organizations that quite frankly ought to be just as alarming to religious people. If there’s an inconsistency, hypocrisy, a theological disparity, insincerity, or a failure to live up to what we say, they’re going to spot it a mile off and make some noise about it.

In that way, atheists and agnostics provide a healthy mirror for me. It’s challenging. I don’t always like or agree with what they point out. But I’d be a fool, and an arrogant fool at that, not to listen without being defensive.

So, in my recent conversations with my atheist friend, we got to talking about the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shootings. He was deeply upset that Christians only appeared to be praying and encouraging people to pray instead of getting up to do something about this tragedy. That’s a fair critique. I have seen believers get way too stuck in piety while avoiding the call to step up and serve in Christ’s name. As the biblical prophet Micah reminds us:

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:7-8)

My friend and I went back and forth on this for a bit, as we always do, and that’s when things got interesting. It was the Saturday after the shootings.

My friend put a challenge to me. He told me that if I would motivate my congregation to do something for the Sandy Hook school community, more than just pray, he would do some kind of religious practice of my choice: read a religious book, say prayers, or go to church. I told him, you’re on.

I scrambled, but on that Sunday morning, we did indeed pray for the Newtown community. And then, at my friend’s strong encouragement, we distributed consolation and Christmas cards, encouraging my congregation to write a note of sympathy to someone from the Newtown community. All in all, we collected 108 cards and have since then shipped them off to Sandy Hook Elementary School. This was due in large part to the healthy challenge my atheist friend gave my church and me.

He was right. We needed to do more than just pray. We needed to embody the mercy, healing, and presence of God that we prayed for, allowing for God to work through us to become part of the answer to our own prayers. (It goes without saying that the theological import of that last phrase is mine, not his. My atheist friend would probably just say, “Get off your holy butts and do something!” Fair enough.)
Glide Memorial Church

Well, a bargain is a bargain, so I asked my friend to choose a church of his choice and visit there on a Sunday. Afterwards, I’m looking forward to a reflection from him on his experience. I have no idea what God will do with this in his life. That’s up to God and up to my friend. I’m trusting in God’s goodness and loving faithfulness to make the difference, but again, that’s between them.

I’d like to think that believers and atheists can actually help each other. I know that atheists can help believers be more “gospel”, more true to who and what we say we are and believe. Can believers help atheists to see the reality of God? I’d like to hope so. Jesus has some practical instruction on that:

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

Notice that it’s good deeds, not good words that bring praise to God. It’s an authentic life well-lived that shines, not religiosity. Perhaps that’s what will bring believers and atheists together into one peaceable kingdom.

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Dear Professor Hawking: You Stick to Science and I’ll Stick to Theology

An open letter to Professor Stephen Hawking in response to his latest comments on the existence of heaven…

Dear. Professor Hawking-
In light of your recent comments that “heaven or afterlife” is  “a fairy story for people afraid of the dark” I would like to a make a wonderful deal with you. This deal will add integrity both of our fields, science and theology. Truth be told, it’s a deal that needed to be struck back in 1632. But I digress…

Here is my deal proposal: You stick to science and I’ll stick to theology. So from now on, if you promise to keep your work focused on science and steer your scientific observations clear from faith and theology, then I promise I’ll keep my work focused on theology and keep my theological observations clear from scientific knowledge, discovery, and inquiry while encouraging others to do the same. (As a token of good faith, Kirk Cameron, this also applies to you.)

Science and theology could carry on side by side quite civilly, don’t you think? After all, theological discussion has no business making or evaluating scientific theories of physics, biology, geology, and cosmology. By the same token, science has no business informing theology, specifically the existence of God, heaven, and philosophical questions of existentialism, i.e. Why are we here? What is our purpose? What is our role? What happens when we die?

Professor Hawking, I have always had a deep degree of respect for you and your work, and I still do. Your theories in physics and cosmology have been an invaluable gift not just to science but to all of humanity. And your courage to face and live through the painful ordeal of ALS has encouraged and inspired generations of people, especially those with disabilities and their families. All told, your life’s work will reverberate through the annals of scientific research and knowledge for many years to come.

However, just as it surely irks you to no end when religion meddles with science, people of faith become equally irked when science meddles with religious belief. I neither need or desire a scientist to tell me whether or not God or heaven exists. Yet this kind of thing happens when the roles of science and religion get mixed up and cross over into answering questions that neither is properly tasked or equipped to answer.

We each have our separate but complementary fields of inquiry, Professor Hawking.

Science best answers the empirical questions of “what”, “where” and “how.” I look to you and others within the field of science to explain the physical make up and mechanics of the world and the universe. According to all we know of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology, how did our world and the universe come to be as it is? What is it made of? What does it do and how does it do it? According to what we know of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology, what will it become in the future?

Faith and theology, on the other hand, best answer the philosophical questions of “who” and “why” and the non-empirical, metaphysical questions of “what” and “how”.  Who are we? What is the purpose of the world and universe? Of what value are we and to whom? Is there a Reality (God, heaven) beyond the world I can empirically see, touch, hear, and taste? What is that Reality? How and where does that Reality intersect the physical/empirical world? What is the end? What happens when I reach my end?

So as you can see, professor Hawking, we both operate together, side by side, responding to vastly different questions and inquiries which together provide a full-color lens through which we can begin to understand the make-up and nature of us human beings, our world, and the whole cosmos. Since the days of Galileo up until now, we’ve had a hard time learning to mutually respect and accept one another. We’ve made some steps towards peacefully co-existing as separate sides of the same human ontological coin. Obviously we still have a long way to go.

Yet, you as a scientist and I as a pastor can make a deal today. We can sign a pact with which we can encourage others within our respective fields. You and your colleagues can agree to stick to science. And religious teachers, preachers, leaders, and I can agree to stick to faith and theology. I can teach and preach that ” The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1) and you can write and teach the theoretical cosmology and quantum gravitational properties of that same universe. Together, we paint one gloriously beautiful picture on the same canvas. How about if we agree to paint from our own pallets?

Respectfully Yours,

Rev. Christopher D. Owens

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How Atheists Have Helped Me Become a More Authentic Christian

Needless to say, in the world of “religion” there is no greater philosophical oil-water or perhaps gasoline-fire combination than atheists and believers. Sadly, there are indeed often violent conflicts between one faith tradition and another (to which my atheist friends would rightly question, “And you say religious belief is a force for good?” Good point.) But, if all we believers in God would get our heads together and wake up, we’d see that in fact we all do have something incredibly great in common: God! I think God would pass as a greatest common denominator on any scale, don’t you think?

But I digress… just slightly.

In my little world of experience, atheists and in particular Christians tend to stand at strong odds with one another. Their conversation goes something like this:

Christian: I believe in God.

Atheist: There is no such thing.

Christian: How can you possibly believe there is no God? Have you no heart? Have you no eyes to see all the evidences of God in nature and in everyday life?

Atheist: How can you possibly say there is a god? There’s no ontological proof for the existence of a deity. I see nothing but chaos and disorder within nature and in the world, certainly nothing that suggests a supreme omnipotence. Use your brain! Use reason! Then you’d see there’s nothing supernatural out there at all.

Christian: Oh yeah? Well, you’re a hard-hearted sinner who has simply blinded yourself to the truth. If you’d only open your heart and mind, you’d see there is a God.

Atheist: Oh yeah? Well you’re a delusional simpleton for believing in all these fairy-tale stories and myths that the best of science, history and reason has already debunked.

Christian: (with an angry glint and gnashed teeth) Sinner! Reprobate! One day you’ll find out in the fires of hell that there is a God, but it will be too late!!

Atheist: (with long sigh, and a gentle pat on the Christian’s head) There now, you just keep on taking that la-la land opiate if if makes you feel better. Some people still believe in Santa, you know?

Feel free to add your own variations on the theme, but I think you catch my drift. In all their differences, there tends to be at least one thing that Christians and atheists typically have in common: they both view the other with intellectual and moral condescension flavored by a strong degree of incredulity that cannot understand the mere existence of the other.

I have to say that I’ve had my negative encounters with atheists that have led me down this same path. There was even a period of time in which I declined to discuss faith or philosophy with atheists because of their belief that my dearest, deepest held convictions are based in some kind of God-delusion. That angered me to no end. Admittedly, at times I still get irritated by this, but as you can see by this post’s title, much has changed in my attitude.

What greatly helped me have been encounters I’ve had this past year with a few atheists who have been refreshingly open and humble and who also exercised an uncanny level of patience with me and the dumb things I tend to say from time to time. Dare I say– especially to them!– that they have been gifts from God? Why not! As the old doxology says, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” (emphasis mine).

In my ongoing conversations with these new found atheist friends, I have seen something I was not able to appreciate before: often the things that propel atheists away from religion and religious institutions are the attitudes, values, inconsistencies, hypocrisy, and often the hateful things said and done towards other people in the name of a loving God. For example:

  • How can we say we love and embrace all people while excluding and belittling other people groups, especially our gay and lesbian neighbors?
  • How can we claim to be intellectuals when many Christians thumb a nose at science, textual and historical criticism?
  • How can we claim to be good stewards of the earth when our lifestyles and voting tendencies further our planet’s corruption?
  • How can we claim to be humble and loving when we’re quick to become closed and condescending towards those who disagree with us?
  • How can we claim there is a God when our lives more closely resemble a functional atheism?

All of these are excellent questions which call fellow Christians and myself to serious account. In other words, most of the strong objections that non-believers have to our current manifestation of Christianity are things, which if taken seriously, would make all of us, myself included, more authentic disciples of Jesus.
Now my atheist friends have had enough courtesy and everyday respect to avoid opening up both barrels on me with these questions. (That’s a far cry from many a Christian who lick their chops over any opportunity to blast a non-believer into holy submission.) But the gist of their faith-roadblocks have steadily come up in our conversations, well enough to get my attention and challenge me to become a more authentic Christian.
And I saw something else that I might have ordinarily missed. My atheist friends are truly beautiful people who strive hard to be moral, good, and giving. (I would say this is the grace and goodness of God working in and through them. They might reply, “Whatever!”)

But nevertheless, rarely have I found gifts from God as precious and surprising that I would end up thanking God for the gift of atheists in my life, for the way they challenge me to reason more clearly, to think and rethink some unquestioned assumptions, for the purely intrinsic ways they have encouraged, supported, and befriended me, and for showing me yet another way God’s graceful presence does indeed inhabit the most unlikely people and places, acknowledged or not.

One concluding question: Do I desire for my atheist friends to become fellow disciples of Jesus with me? Absolutely I do! I want anyone to share the greatest, life-giving blessing of Jesus I have ever known. But let’s be clear: inviting an atheist (or anyone else, for that matter) to become a fellow believer and disciple is never ever motivated by adding another name and number to the convert list or claiming a prize scalp to put under my belt. I don’t work for a Christian Borg.

I will, however, always try to open up my life as far as I can in hopes of having something there of Christ worth giving, sharing and having by another human being, no matter what they believe or don’t believe. At the very least (and most!), I will attempt to love and serve like Jesus. And yes, I can always count on my atheist friends to tell me how I’m progressing…

Lord, bless them and keep them always for that!

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Post-Christian Agnostics: Understanding the Spirituality of Most Americans

These days I spend an increasing amount of time listening to the thoughts and feelings of people outside of the Church. I do this for two reasons. First, it’s refreshing for me, a pastor, to get outside of the church world long enough to listen to and attempt to understand different spiritual perspectives. As I learn about other people’s souls, inevitably those conversations become a mirror for me to better understand myself and my own soul, too. But the second reason I have conversations with non-Church people is to better understand the Church’s mission field. My church and I can’t form new connections and new community with people we don’t respect and understand. So often, Church and Church leaders do all the talking, trying to get a  message out there without noticing if people are at all getting what we’re saying or if they even care!

I have a confession to make before I go on. It’s taken me a while to get to this place of truly listening to people of other faith persuasions.

A little bit of autobiography: I was not raised in the Church. Up until my conversion to Jesus Christ when I was 18-years-old, I would describe myself as a pre-Christian Theist. In other words, I believed in God but had no beliefs regarding Jesus. As a matter of fact, it took me a while once I got involved with my church to really wrap my head around the whole Jesus thing. I mean, the only ways I had ever heard the name of Jesus invoked was in swearing or by some wide-eyed TV evangelist carrying on at the top of his lungs about “Jeeeeyzus.” But once I came to enough understanding and appreciation for Jesus to call him my Lord and Savior, I attempted with every effort to try to conform myself to church culture and thinking. And that led me down the road of being so church and Christianity-centered that I began to forget and even despise my unchurched, pre-Christian heritage. I closed myself to anything but Christianity and became pretty obnoxious about it, too.

Well, after many years of trying to unsuccessfully conform myself to church culture and to the religiousity of Christianity, I then began to accept myself for who I am. I am and always will be a disciple of Christ and a part of his Church. But I will never fit nor conform to the norms and expectations of church culture as it’s come to be. I understand its religious rules, norms, traditions, and attitudes, but they’re not really mine. I live and operate within a church system that has become a religious club, living for itself and its own survival, all but abandoning its call to infuse itself into the world around it to love it and to teach and model the good news of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. I live rather uncomfortably within this culture in order to reform it. But it’s not me, and increasingly becomes less and less of who I am.

And that’s why I’ve come full circle, embracing my pre-Christian roots and how they’ve shaped me to be who I am. Those roots have given me enough love and humility to get outside of myself to really embrace other people for who they are. In that discovery, I think I’ve stumbled upon a fairly accurate description of the spiritual state of most people.

Spiritually, I would describe most people as post-Christian Agnostic.

What does what mean?? It’s really not as heady a term as you might think. It’s not meant to be cute and clever. It’s certainly not meant to spur contempt for other people… at all! But this terminology just might help us begin to appreciate the spiritual world of most people and then shape how we share the good news of Jesus Christ with them.

Post-Christian Agnostics share four common traits, each to varying degrees and shapes.

Post-Christian Agnostics have had some previous experience with Church and Christianity and have walked away from it. From having spent significant time in the Church, being raised in it, or having considerable exposure to cultural Christianity, post-Christian Agnostics are already familiar with Christianity and Church. Yet they have found the religion of Christianity and the Church to be irrelevant, deeply disappointing, or damaging. Post-Christian Agnostics will often say, “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.” That’s their way of saying that they hold spiritual beliefs without obligating them to any one religious system, especially Christianity.

Post-Christian Agnostics are agnostic (undefined) about who God is. They are not atheists. In a general sense they believe in a higher power or a greater spiritual being. Or, they believe in a quasi-Christian form of personal deity called God. But because their beliefs are not tied into any religious system, they generally hold no defined sense of God’s characteristics beyond what the person has come to individually experience and accept.

Post-Christian Agnostics hold a scrapbook of experimentally obtained spiritual beliefs. This is the one aspect of postChristian Agnostics that can be the trickiest for Christians to grasp. Most people do not conscientiously systematize their spiritual beliefs. They pick up beliefs like trinkets or snapshots to put into a scrapbook. They’re picked up through life experiences. Most people believe something because its intriguing, feels right, or because it makes sense to them.  So, it wouldn’t be at all uncommon or surprising to find a post-Christian Agnostic who reads her horoscope, finds a neat Hindu mantra to chant during yoga, believes in a guardian angel, wonders what she was in a previous life (reincarnation), has a St. Joseph pendant, gets her palm read, and really thought that Joel Osteen clip on the radio was inspirational!

Post-Christian Agnostics are highly skeptical of any kind of organized religion, most especially the Church. I wish more church-going Christians understood this reality more clearly when thinking about planning ministry for new people. Perception is almost everything. Post-Christian Agnostics perceive the Church to be overly institutional, hypocritical, cliques, out of touch, judgmental, cold, and a whole host of other horrors. Church people don’t think these things about themselves because… well… they like themselves! That makes it hard for church people to grasp many peoples’ reservations about church and why church isn’t even on most peoples’ radar screens on a Sunday morning or on any other day of the week.

Another growing phenomenon related to my last point that really deserves its own blog post is something I call post-church Christians. These are folks who profess Jesus Christ as their Lord, hold a biblical world view, engage in the practices of prayer and Bible reading, and have a clear Christian theology. But, they have abandoned church for the same reasons post-Christian Agnostics have.  Often, they have been a part of many churches and for some reason found them either lacking or painful. In my work with post-Church Christians, I often encourage them to explore alternative, non-traditional ways to be the Church, perhaps by forming small groups or creating a new faith community.

Obviously, I’ve painted some very wide brush strokes in defining post-Christian Agnostics. The spiritual landscape of America is an ever-evolving phenomena which to me can be best represented by throwing random cans of paint against a wall. There’s almost to rhyme or reason to adequately categorizing the spiritual views of Americans. The closest approximation I can come up with has been the description I’ve offered here. Again, I’ll say that post-Christian Agnostics fit in varying degrees to the descriptions I’ve offered above. It truly takes time and love to substantially grasp another person’s spiritual place, and so no one should be arbitrarily characterized.

But, if the church as we know it today has any chance of engaging and including new people, than we must make every effort to understand our mission field. We’re not trying to create new religious people, and believe me, the last thing a post-Christian Agnostic wants is to be converted into a religious person. But, after reaching an understanding our mission field, we can offer people vital relationships– relationships with us and a relationship with the Jesus who died and was raised to life again for every person in our world and for them. It’s all about connecting people, not converting them. The Holy Spirit changes people; we don’t. All we do is offer our lives to other people in love and service and hope, even in spite of ourselves, that they encounter the living Christ within.

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Atheism in Believers

Believers and church folk in particular are notorious for looking down their long noses in disgust at anything that falls outside their standards of acceptability. We’ve been called judgmental, bigoted, holier-than-thou, Monday morning quarterbacks, and a whole host of other things. If we’re even slightly honest, we’ve deserved much the criticism. We also fail to see that many of the same people we chastise are those who have left the Church over the same kind of nastiness that now is directed at them! As someone who did not grow up in the church, I’ve seen it and even now check my own attitudes for this arrogance and pride.

My rant on atheism might seem like much of the same. Here is the pastor, standing up high and holy on his God soapbox, condemning non-belief and even non-believers. But I want to be clear that my comments were directed at a school of thought (atheism), not atheists, themselves. Out of my concern for them, I mourn the effects of atheism within the people who prescribe to it, but it’s not for me or anyone else to castigate atheists as people.
question markBut to further distance myself from finger-pointing at atheists– to borrow an overly used cliche– I want to “look at the fingers pointing back” at us believers.

From my experience as a disciple of Jesus and as a pastor, I see an alarming level of atheism at work in the church and in individual believers, myself included at times. We often talk a good game about God, God’s power, God’s faithfulness, and God’s mercy, but if you look at our actions and attitudes, you’re not apt to find a faithful reflection of our words. We sing about God’s mercy and forgiveness, but we often live a life of works righteousness, striving to prove our goodness to God while beating up ourselves and carelessly judging others. We “amen” God’s amazing and abundant gifts and blessings, but then we limit ourselves to the human constraints of budgets and circumstances, only accomplishing what we ourselves think we’re capable of doing. We revel in God’s sovereignty and mastery over all things, but choose and live as if everything is still up to us, our strength, our wisdom, our creativity. In other words, we live as if there is no God.

Someone, and I’m not sure who, once brilliantly called this kind of disbelief “functional atheism.” Simply put, it’s functioning as if there is no God, living in practice as an atheist. 2 Timothy 3:5 calls this “holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power” (NRSV). Or as the Lord laments in the book of Isaiah, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13, NIV). Either way, our failure to live in faith and practice what we profess makes us no better than atheists. In fact, we could argue that atheists have more integrity than some believers do!

Our functional atheism, however, is far more significant than a topic of conversation (or a blog!). It has badly damaged the soul of the Church, stunting our power, effectiveness, and sincerity. Just as ancient Israel turned to idols when they lost hope in God, we turn to our own idols of rugged individualism, self-sufficiency, power over others, empiricism, hunger for wealth, and more. In none of these things will we find God, and yet we cling to them just as a non-believing world does. In an effort to be relevant, the Church embraced the principles of modernity only to find ourselves exiled into irrelevance in a post-modern world. No wonder the church in North America finds itself in steep decline. Among other root causes, our functional atheism lies within the heart of it.

We need a new generation of disciples who will live unswervingly according to the teachings of Jesus. Within him and his followers has been a life-giving, world-changing, God-glorifying powerful grace that could easily transform cynicism towards what the world calls “organized religion.” Otherwise, we will continue to see a rise of atheism and another phenomenon I call post-Christian agnosticism (a topic for another blog, I suppose.) In the mean time, I leave you with this thought as a challenge for all of us believers:

It could very well be that most of the atheism we find in our post-Christian world traces its origins back to the functional atheism of God’s own people.

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A Conversation with an Atheist

Grand Canyon 23Some of the things that infuse more meaning and joy into life are the unexpected connections and conversations I have with other people. My life has been made dazzlingly rich by the sheer diversity of people I know and talk to on a regular basis. If someone was trying to figure out where I stand, what convictions I hold, or which values are dearest to me by analyzing my family and friends, the only one thing that might be deduced is my love for people of all kinds.

On Saturday night, my circle was widened by a conversation with a man who lives on my street. I had seen him around here and there, and I think I had said “hello” to him a few times, but just as I was about to get into the car and run down to the grocery store, he said, “Hey, Chris!” So, I stopped to talk to him a bit, asked him typical chit-chat questions about his family, his work, etc., etc.

From there– and admittedly I’m horrible at recalling conversations line by line– somehow I got to mentioning something about how I’ve learned many different life lessons from God.

After that, he said something like, “Well, as far as God and heaven go, I like to think that we’re living in heaven right now, that heaven is now.”

I immediately thought to myself that if this life right now is heaven, we’ve been royally had by a cosmic sadist. Sure, life is wonderful, but far, far from perfect. It’s certainly nothing I’d call “heaven.”

So, I think I said something to him like, “Maybe God will lead us to something far better than this.”

To that he replied, “Well, that’s assuming that there is a God.”

That was when I knew our conversation was going to get far more complex and perhaps thornier than either of us had imagined. Here we were, a theist speaking to an atheist. From there we conversed back and forth on the question of God’s existence from the point of view of nature, the origins of the cosmos, and everyday human experience. For every idea I proposed to demonstrate the reality of God, he countered it with some kind of non-theistic scientific explanation. We were obviously getting nowhere fast with one another.

I then tried to shift our conversation to the person of Jesus and his resurrection. We talked about the historicity of Jesus’ life and resurrection with multiple and varied attestations to both things, sources like the gospel accounts, Josephus, and other ancient Roman histories. He questioned the validly of the sources, and honestly I wasn’t sure how familiar he was with them. So, I borrowed one more tried and true question which C. S. Lewis used on skeptics. Lewis said that Jesus claimed himself to be Lord and God. There’s no question about that from the gospel accounts. So, either he was a delusional lunatic, a liar, or indeed who he said he was. And if you look at all the things Jesus did and said with any kind of objectivity, you’d be hard pressed to conclude that he was crazy or a liar.

My new friend thought for a second, and then said, “Maybe Jesus told a good lie. Religion is the sum total of human creativity and imagination, designed to make human beings feel good and do the right thing, so maybe Jesus told a good lie in order to get people simply to do good. It’s like Santa Claus. Santa Claus is a good lie; it’s harmless, and yet it brings people enjoyment.”

“So,” I countered, “what you’re saying is that people like me and millions and millions of others are living in a delusive lie– albeit a good one!– that people have designed in order to help us be good people and do the right thing?”

“Basically, yes,” he replied.

“So, you’re saying, that my career, everything I believe, my livelihood, and what I’m prepared to preach to my congregation tomorrow, is a good lie on par with something like Santa Claus?”

“Yes,” he said. “But that’s not bad! If it’s what you believe…”

Hmm… after we wound down the conversation and said goodbye to one another, I began to taste a new found bitterness towards atheism. I’m not at all bitter towards atheists as people. In fact, I really like my new friend and hope to get to know him better. I’ve known and loved other atheists, too.

But this conversation helped me to see that atheism exercises a philosophical bravado, if not a degree of arrogance, to assume that the commonly held spiritual conviction of the other 90% of us who believe in some form of deity is nothing but a fanciful human creation which we’ve unwittingly convinced ourselves to call “God.” It escapes all reason to argue that  intelligent, sophisticated, sane, self-aware, highly educated people would be snared into a delusion as large as God. Have we been duped by the greatest and oldest conspiracy of humanity? An atheist would have to conclude, “Yes.” In that case, my passionate convictions of Jesus Christ are no more substantive than a child’s belief in Santa Claus.

Yet there’s also another heartbreaking problem with atheism: it robs people of their full humanity. We humans, as creatures who strive towards greatness and mastery, all have a basic need to fetter that power with humility by awing something or someone greater than ourselves. In other words, human beings have the need to worship. When we hear a stirring piece of music or stare wide-eyed at a classic painting, it’s not long before we start to revere the artist as the creator. Likewise, when we look up into the sky to see the immeasurable vastness and power of the cosmos, gaze out at the grand canyon, marvel at the intricate balance of our environment, caress a newborn baby, dive through a coral reef, or take in the symphony of birds and insects in a forest– all these things far, far greater in intricacy, beauty, and force than a piece of music or a painting– how can we fail, without losing an essential part ourselves, to acknowledge and worship their Creator? If there is no no one to thank, praise, and worship, then we have fallen into a sub-human cesspool of narcissism, nihilism, and cynicism. Those of us who believe in a deity can fall into these same forms of dehumanization when we fail to fall humbly on our faces in worship. From time to time I’ve seen dehumanization in myself from my lack of worship.

Thinking again of my new friend, I realize that clever arguments won’t curb his atheism. Any condemnation or condescension he senses from me will only repel him. I believe he will come around by the influence of two things: the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit in his life and by my loving him, accepting him, and serving him as an authentic witness and image of Jesus himself. In the end, love, which comes from God, and is indeed God, will be the victor over any shred of unbelief.

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