This post would probably be more aptly titled “Why we ought to talk to atheists according to methods prescribed in Part 1“. But I I like parallel structure, so it’s part 2. Take this one with a grain of salt because it has considerably less biblical support than part 1 and leans heavily upon my own experience and understanding of the world. In fact, you may even read this and dismiss me as some young punk “emergent” because you’ve heard similar thoughts elsewhere and you like categories. I generally deny that label, but then again, that only enhances your suspicion. You’re tricky, you. Well, having said all that, perhaps you will need more salt that just that one grain.
A friend of mine recently told me about a spiritual conversation he had with one of his atheist friends (let’s call him Stuart). Stuart had chosen an atheist worldview upon reading what according to my friend was a poorly-written article about a tragedy that befalls an innocent little girl. The article concluded that a perfectly sovereign, loving God could not have allowed such a thing to happen. In this conversation about spirituality, Stuart entered into a theological debate of sorts with my friend, mentioning nothing of the article, but rather challenging the hypostatic union. But of course.
In a similar vein, Bart Ehrman’s wildly popular recent work Jesus, Interrupted challenges orthodox Christian faith based on what he considers biblical contradictions. Yet Ehrman provocatively ends the book with a confession that none of these issues actually caused him to leave the faith, and that many respectable biblical scholars maintain a strong personal faith in light of their knowledge of these textual difficulties. For him, like Stuart, the actual deal-breaker was the Problem of Evil.
Donald Miller comments on this tendency among atheists in his teaching “The Nature and Meaning of Love”, where he describes that the dominant religious assumption among students during his ministry at Reed College was “God doesn’t exist”, but the dominant question was “Does God love me?”. He explains that this absurd dichotomy doesn’t surprise him because when he feels unloved by someone, his first tendency is discredit that person’s authority. So if someone has reason to believe that God doesn’t love them, it would make perfect sense to retaliate by calling him evil or weak, the two accusations underlying the Problem of Evil. While I don’t think this retaliation theory explains the origins of atheism completely, I think he’s on to something. Because I have that same tendency. And the students I run into at U of M also seem to have a quiet but strong emotional underbelly to their cool reasoning on religious philosophy.
I observe this pattern of deep emotional conviction masquerading as rational argumentation in nearly every spiritual conversation I have with skeptics. I don’t think this masquerade is dishonest or even done on purpose, but nobody wants to defend a theological worldview of theirs from an emotional or experiential standpoint. That was so pre-Enlightenment. Intellectual debate, for whatever reason, is much more respectable, regardless of how dishonest to the core of the matter it is. Why else would Bart Ehrman spend 99% of his book avoiding the real issue? My personal observation in this area has led me to this conviction: Practically no one (including the Atheist) adopts their worldview primarily on intellectual grounds. A pure intellectual (think Vulcan) does not hear a sad story about an innocent girl who suffers tragedy and conclude there must not be a God. I think the perfectly rational person, for all the difficulties of the scenario, must simultaneously acknowledge the challenge of everyday goodness and beauty that seem to transcend physicality, what Chesterton called “The Problem of Good”. Much like the scenario of the little girl, questions like “Why is a sunset beautiful?”, “Why do humans experience romance?”, and “Why is music enjoyable?” are hard to dismiss with trite answers.
I believe that skeptics, like the rest of humanity, enter into their belief system because they deeply sense something is true. Like many Christians, they may justify themselves on rational grounds, but no one just sits down one day with pen and pad to establish a religious philosophy without emotional provocation. Humans just aren’t wired that way. I believe the person who reads the story about the little girl and concludes there is no God does so because in that moment he sees very clearly the evil in the world, but for whatever reason, is simultaneously incapable of deeply considering the beauty and goodness that war against it. His conclusion is not objective; he does not see in whole. He brings an emotional context to the little girl’s story that makes perfect sense of his conclusion.
This is why asking questions (#3 from part 1) is so important. Perhaps he has never experienced love in a form true enough to challenge the apparent evil of the little girl’s story (and his entire life).I’m actually having considerable trouble coming up with another option. I think that’s it. David Crowder, in his song “Rescue is Coming”, sings “There’s nothing wrong with love. I think it’s just enough to believe.” I resonate with that. I think the person who grows up deeply rooted in love has a lot of trouble seeing the girl’s story through a godless lens. There is just too much in contrast. Thus, we would do well to take the time to understand how they arrived where they are. The Gospel speaks more to their life story than our apologetic speaks to their reason.
I would hate for you to pick up and go believing that Atheists are the really confused ones, and now it’s our job to convince them of how little they see. You’re pretty confused, too. That’s why you’ve been arguing with them. I’ll leave the rest of that discussion for part 3…because you also need a whole blog post.