John Bennison Words and Ways | 2013 | August

“Christian” A-theism, Part I: The God I Don’t Believe In

  [You can print and/or read a pdf copy of this commentary here.]

Hand of God Giving Life to Adam - Michelangelo’s fanciful imagination at work in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, 1508-1512

“Hand of God Giving Life to Adam” – Michelangelo’s fanciful imagination at work in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, 1508-1512

“God is a direction …” – Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke

 

Preface

A federal judge in Evansville, Indiana, has heard oral arguments in a case involving the city allowing local churches to display 30 crosses decorated by Bible school children on public land stretching alongside the Ohio River. A ruling is expected shortly.

But wait, I think I’ve heard this story before, or one like it. It was December though, and the same ACLU was trying to get the life-size nativity scene removed from amidst the giant candy canes and Santa’s sleigh on display in Bronson Park in downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan. But the year was 1955. And in my boyhood naiveté, I failed to appreciate what all the fuss was about.

Meanwhile this last month in Starke, Florida, a group of atheists — having failed to force government officials to remove a 6-ton statue of the Ten Commandments on a public site –have unveiled the nation’s first public monument to secularism outside the same county courthouse. It’s a 1,500-pound gray granite bench engraved with quotations about separation of church and state.  The group vows to erect 50 more such monuments around the country where the Ten Commandments now stand alone. Fight fire with fire, right? And, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

That’s exactly what a former Pentecostal preacher has done. Touting his new church start-up as “the first godless congregation in Louisiana,” Jerry DeWitt is using the standard playbook how to attract a church following.  After he was outed when he was caught in a photograph with the famous atheist Richard Dawkins, DeWitt, who was then for awhile the former executive director of the organization Recovering from Religion now gathers a following in a hotel ballroom, preaching the good news to be found in now believing that all those old beliefs aren’t worth believing anymore.

Billboard invitation to DeWitt’s Community Mission Chapel in Lake Charles, LA

Billboard invitation to DeWitt’s Community Mission Chapel in Lake Charles, LA

 After each gathering, Jerry is also available to sign copies of his new book, “Hope After Faith: An ex-Pastor’s Journey from Belief to Atheism.”  It may be the newest creed in Louisiana, but never mind. At least the java brewed up at the Hilton in Baton Rouge has got to be better than the tin can coffee found at the typical fellowship hour in the church basement.

Jerry DeWitt may be a novelty in the South, where neighbors and relatives in his hometown of DeWidder, Louisiana won’t even speak to him anymore. But by no means is he the first to brave that atheist frontier that is a growing religious force in America. Each Sunday at the Humanist Community at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a rapt congregation in a third floor walk-up listens to a preacher wax eloquently about compassion and community, music is played, announcements are made, and an offering plate is passed around. The only thing missing from an otherwise typical church service is any mention or acknowledgment of that three-letter word, “god.”

Not to be outdone, the growing phenomenon has not gone unnoticed by the more traditional purveyors of religion in America.  In a recent radio address, Pope Francis reached out to include the non-believers in our midst.  ““The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ,” he said, “all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone!  … Even the atheists. Everyone! …”  While he would still presume to wash everyone in the blood of the lamb of God, he then went on to add,

  “And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, (someone may say) I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

 

It was helpful for the Holy Father to concede doing good is not a proprietary virtue, reserved only for those commonly regarded as “religious.” Nor is any kind of religious affiliation necessary to maintain a moral conscience. Recall the example in a previous commentary of the senior citizen from Great Britain applying for U.S. citizenship, who refused the required oath to bear arms in defense of our country, because she was both a pacifist who just happened to also be an atheist.  U.S. customs was requiring her to provide proof of a recognized religious affiliation in order to be granted conscientious objector status.

But what the government failed to understand is that when it comes to religion, atheism is as good as any, of course; since any form of religion is simply about how you put some order in your otherwise chaotic world, and come up with a list of things you believe or disbelieve.

The atheist and the theist both want to ask the same basic question: Do you believe in God or not? But often it seems they are not interested in going much deeper than that. The oft-repeated response a famous preacher once gave to a religious skeptic went, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. Chances are I don’t believe in that kind of God either.” Here’s the dilemma:

When it comes to a notion of “God,” or “gods,” that may be the single most elusive idea the human imagination has ever concocted or tried to fathom. Lord knows we try! The Bible claims we are created in God’s image, and the post-modern rationalist suggests just the reverse. That is, God is conveniently created in our own idea of what kind of god is either believable or unbelievable, take your pick.

We fashion the idea of “God” in anthropomorphic terms so can more easily relate to the idea; and then ascribe to such a being all kinds of desirable characteristics that might comprise this composite character. The Muslim has 99 names for God, or at least attributes of the One they call God. And the Hebrew scriptures — without mentioning “Him” by name — have probably come up with just as many; including the irascible “I am who I am” (Ex. 3:14).  No wonder the avowed atheist and comic Eddie Izzard likes to talk about the full pantheon of gods we seem to invent at will.  There’s the “God of Jeff,” he imagines, or the “God of Biscuits!” for example.

Yet beyond all our human ideas about what we may believe or not believe, is there anything else, anything more, anything other thanwhat religious types may claim without proof, or rational types may poo-poo as having no reasonable basis in fact?

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