Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Christian Atheism

My blog musings from this last month with a Presbyterian pastor who has come to believe that atheism and Christianity are perfectly reconcilable have engendered some interesting conversations around the dinner table and with church folk.

The lay pastor of my church, a big-hearted Korean evangelical, shook his head in dismay, and lamented the decline of the PC(USA). My Jewish sons, upon hearing of that idea, were both totally unable to process it. "You can't be both! They're exact opposites!" One of the saints of my church, whose faith is an endearingly idiosyncratic fusion of Christianity and New Age practice, was hornswoggled. "But that totally misses the point!" My Danish brother-in-law, an agnostic steeped in classical philosophy, queried, "Doesn't that piss you off? It seems to entirely violate the integrity of what you do."

So...well...does it? Without casting any aspersions or making judgments about a particular person, can one be simultaneously Christian and atheist? I've got a reasonably flexible and open interpretation of what our faith entails, so what might be the grounds for claiming to be a Jesus-follower and rejecting the reality of God?

As I see it, those grounds might be twofold:

First, it requires the assumption that Jesus saw himself primarily as a storytelling teacher of ethical wisdom. His goal was not the salvation of humankind, but was instead to teach a new way for human beings to live in harmony with one another. This is the Jesus we might recognize from the Jefferson Bible, Mistah Jeffahson's effort to edit out every single miracle and supernatural event in the Gospels, leaving only what he called "..the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man."

Second, it asserts that the heart of the Christian walk is the Golden Rule. If the essence of what it means to be Christian is a life lived in accord with love of neighbor and...more of enemy, then to be Christian all one needs to do is to manifest those traits. If you live by that great ethic, then you can rightly call yourself a Christian, even if you overtly and expressly ditch the whole "God" thing as an unnecessary and quaint relic of a less enlightened age.

I can see some truth in both of these statements, but think that they both fall short of the mark.

In response to point number one, there is the rather pesky witness of Jesus himself. None of the the writings that the Christian community has accepted as canonical present us with a Jesus who presents himself as a straight up storyteller sage. Not a single one. His teachings are radically theocentric. In the synoptic gospels, that manifests itself in his focus on the Kingdom of God. In the Johannine Gospel, his teachings focus on himself, and his existential intermingling with both God and the Holy Spirit.

But what about those other voices? The ones that the early community rejected? The ones They Don't Want You To Hear (tm)? Maybe they give us grounds to argue that Jesus was primarily a teacher of ethics.

Nope. If we move outside of canon, and into the non-canonical witness, Jesus does not get less spiritual. In fact, those "rejected" Gospels (like the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas) are all hyperspiritual, full of mysteries and miracles and whispered secret magic.

Even Jefferson's Miracle Free Bible is not atheistic. If you retain only the teachings of Jesus, and delete every single manifestation of the supernatural, you are left with teachings and stories that invariably center on right relationship with God. Had Jefferson ditched those stories, he'd have been left with only a meaningless pastiche of sentence fragments.

One can still argue for a God-free Jesus, of course. But that argument is not based in anything other than the Albert Schweitzer debunked desire for Jesus to be a reflection of you, rather than being open to what even the Jesus-seminar bean counters will admit was probably the heart of his teachings.

But what about the moral argument? If the Golden Rule is the beating ethical heart of Christian faith, then can't you adhere to that, ditch all the superstitious claptrap, and still be following Jesus?

I'll get to that in my next post.


  1. Interesting. As an atheist who sees the value in the moral teachings of Christianity but doesn't care for the theistic aspects, even I'm confused by "Christian Atheism". Maybe the term is used to best describe one's particularly complicated religious beliefs? I'm looking forward to your next post.

  2. I agree that there is something just off about it. Partly because C.S. Lewis is right -- that claiming to be the Son of God if you are just another schmuck is (a) crazy or (b) evil, and probably some combination of both. And partly because Jesus's ethics are just not that great. We can do better. Way better.

    So it just doesn't make sense to acknowledge the overwhelming likelihood that Jesus was just a very interesting human being and still think that the stories about him represent the pinnacle of human ethics. If you want the ethics there are better places to start.

  3. Well, just for grins...

    1) Judaism provides a valid precedent. Many active Jews are also atheists. Christians, as offshoots of Judaism, are entitled to the same. That it seems difficult is a reflection of a fundamental flaw either in Christian doctrine or in Jewish tradition.

    2) Jesus was in fact more concerned with ortho-praxis rather than in orthodoxy. That some branches of Christianity are obsessed with what you believe rather than what you do is the influence of Greek philosophy - basically a pagan movement that at its climax was also atheistic.

    Jesus himself is said to have said that not everyone who calls him Lord Lord will enter the Kingdom, but those who DO the will of his Father.

    So it's not really about what you believe.

    3) If you ask most atheists to tell you about the god they do not believe in, at least in my case, I find that I do not believe in that god either. And I certainly do not believe in the god of the Fundamentalists (I find a lot of similarities there).

    Truth be told, God, as we imagine God, is a creation of our own minds. Who or what is God that we might believe in Him? Jesus said, of himself as a man, that anybody who knew him knew God. A dusty crusty robe wearing homeless middle eastern man. Not what most Christians imagine as God.

    4) Atheist Christians are a paradoxical product of the Holy Spirit. Paradoxes are learning opportunities. What is the Holy Spirit trying to teach the Church?

    I could go on...

  4. @ Browning: You agreeing with C.S. Lewis? Dang. Yet another sign the end times are upon us.

    Obviously, we're going to radically disagree about the ethics...but there, you'll have to wait until the next post to tell me the many, many ways I'm not thinking rationally. ;)

  5. @ Jodie: You're totally right about Judaism. My father-in-law (and grandfather-in-law) would both consider themselves simultaneously Jewish and atheists.

    But Judaism is partially about faith, and partially about blood and culture. It is both a tradition and an ethnicity, so that you can be Jewish ethnically but utterly reject the underlying theology. Christianity is not such a thing. It is contingent on faith.

    With you, I don't recognize the clumsy caricature of the Creator that most atheists and fundamentalists seem to share. Such a strange concurrence of opinion, that one.

    I think atheist christianity is a paradox, although I see it less as a work of the Spirit and more like a Zen koan. And as with a koan, there is much to learn from the contemplation of an inherently meaningless statement.

  6. I was reminded of Jewish atheism while reading this, too, Jodie. Beloved Spear's reply to your thoughts got me thinking about Christian culture but not in a religious perspective. I think a lot of people still celebrate Christian cultural traditions without the religious perspective. I know I still sometimes celebrate Christmas although they don't carry the same meaning for me as for most people. And I'm not talking about just presents. I'm thinking more about the peace on Earth, goodwill towards people sort of thing. So maybe in that respect there is some culture that people grew up with and can still appreciate as atheists. Granted, Christianity doesn't have the blood and kin in the same respect as Judaism. But considering that, do Christian atheists focus more on culture than...whatever it is they focus on?

  7. To be a "Jew" may mean many things nowadays, and is not necessarily incomptible with atheism. That part isn't difficult.

    "But what about the moral argument? If the Golden Rule is the beating ethical heart of Christian faith, then can't you adhere to that, ditch all the superstitious claptrap, and still be following Jesus?"

    I'd argue that there's MUCH more to Christianity than that.
    But for the sake of argment, let's accept the proposition.
    Trouble is, even then, none of us can really do it without the indwelling Holy Spirit. You may try, but your ability to actually live up to the Golden Rule will go only so far (usually trivially, not to mention self-righteously) on your own steam.
    Without a supernaturally-altered heart, NONE of us can follow the Golden Rule perfectly.

  8. I don't know that we disagree very much about ethics. From what I can tell, you just adjust your picture of Jesus by rejecting any scriptures that do not conform with your modern ethical intuitions that we both share. Which is a good thing. It's why I prefer you to the fundamentalist -- but, to my mind, not quite good enough. I think you would better off not having to try to reconcile ethics with dubious old legends at all.

    For what it's worth, guys like me (and Richard Dawkins) are atheist Christians in the same sense as there are atheist Jews. But I don't think atheist Jews typically say things like, "I don't believe in Yahweh, but I still try to live my life according to his teachings." Because you couldn't, not without putting the tradition of Yahweh on the same Procrustean bed that you put the tradition of Jesus on.

  9. Oh, and Lewis's trilemma is completely compatible with atheism. Lewis just draws the wrong conclusion from it.

    "A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. [...] Let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to." -C.S.Lewis

    Very well said.

  10. @ Browning: But...and we've had this discussion before...I'm not "rejecting scriptures that do not conform to my modern moral intuitions." I'm interpreting my tradition through the lens of what Jesus says is most important. Having been a church-going lad most of my days, Christianity forms my personal moral intuition in ways that are significant.

    Can you meaningfully call yourself an atheist Christian? A secular humanist? Sure. A good dad and basically decent guy? You seem to fit that bill. But if you think that even the ethics taught by Jesus of Nazareth are "not that great," then I'm not quite sure applying the Christian label to yourself in any way makes a whole heck of a lot of sense. I don't say that by way of invective. It just seems a bit of a stretch.

  11. As a practical matter, I wouldn't actually call myself a Christian atheist. I'm just agreeing that if you can be a "Jewish atheist" because you come from a Jewish culture, and you cheerfully observe certain Jewish rituals because you enjoy it, without any actual belief in the stories behind them, then I (and Dawkins) are good examples of the Christian version of the same thing. But that's a completely different thing from claiming to disbelieve in God while still revering the teachings of Jesus. I suppose you could call one a culturally Christian atheist and the other an ethically Christian atheist. I belong to the former category, but I find the latter category just as odd as you do, and even for similar reasons. Lewis's trilemma, etc. If Jesus, as he is traditionally described, was not actually God, then he was one sick puppy.

    As for the matter that we've discussed before: Yeah, I think I get it, but you are a slippery character, so I can never be too sure. "Interpreting my tradition through the lens of what Jesus says is most important" seems to me to be a euphemistic way to saying the same thing that I said. It sounds less reject-y on the surface, but I think it's a distinction without a difference.

    What do you do with Jesus' obvious sins of omission (e.g., no comment on slavery) and commission ("By all means, encourage any random stranger claiming to cast out demons in my name -- there's no such thing as bad publicity!")? You say they are apocryphal or irrelevant to the "core narrative." Rejectable, or ignorable, in other words. Or as you once put it, you "set them aside."

  12. "By all means, encourage any random stranger claiming to cast out demons in my name -- there's no such thing as bad publicity!"

    Yikes. Was that supposed to be a quote from the Bible?

    I don't know about C.S. Lewis' apologia. It is important to remember that the Gospels were written by and for people who already believed that Jesus was alive and well, forty, fifty, and sixty years after his resurrection.

    It is also important to remember that none of his disciples expected his resurrection. When he died, they thought it was over.

    So what did Jesus the Rabbi really teach and claim about himself? And what did people think of him beyond being a political/religious teacher who stood a chance of re-establishing a Davidic kingdom that would kick out the Romans?

    It was only looking back through his death and his >>follower's<< insane assertion of his resurrection, and the inexplicable growth of the Christian movement, that the "craziness" began.

    People did not believe in resurrecting sons of God back then anymore than they do today. It was common to call an emperor a god, or a son of god, but when you stuck a knife in them, they died and stayed dead.

    As they do even to this day.

    So C.S Lewis' apologia applies not so much to Jesus of Nazareth, but to his followers. We are either insane, or something really wild has been happening even now as we speak.

    The whole thing is made even more complicated by the fact that there really are some certifiably insane people in positions of leadership in the Church.

    I think it takes an unusually strong psyche to not loose a grip on reality as a consequence of a direct encounter with God. The ancients used to say that a human could not even survive such an encounter. It meant certain death.

    Where this leaves me is in a very forgiving mood towards Christian Atheists. They are sane and normal people.

    And if there is a judgment day, good and righteous Atheist will be welcomed into the Kingdom with open arms, and the expression on their faces will be the photo op God has been waiting for all these billions of years.

  13. @Jodie. Well, to be fair, "there's no such thing as bad publicity" is not the most accurate paraphrase. But it's not that far off either.

    "Teacher," said John, "we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us."
    "Do not stop him," Jesus said. "No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us."
    Mark 9:38-40

    The passage seems to imply that Jesus was indifferent to the authenticity of the exorcist because anyone using is name in this fashion, (say, Oral Roberts) could not later condemn him. So chill out. It's all good.

    I find this to be a morally reprehensible attitude for the man to take. It's irresponsible. It's a tacit endorsement of all kinds of evil chicanery. It reeks of a guy who is just pleased to be famous. I don't think you can believe that this story is true and still think that Jesus was a wise moral leader. To me, it is self-evidently wrong-headed.

  14. Well, the story doesn't say "a man was pretending to cast out demons in your name". It says he WAS casting out demons.

    You need to keep the story in its given context. The conversation assumes the casting out of demons and the doing of miracles was actually taking place. If that's the case, then it is not about publicity.

    It's about measuring a person's authenticity by their fruits.

    (which puts Oral Roberts in a very bad light)

    Of course you can still say that miracles were not taking place and no demons were actually being cast out, but if you do you loose your ability to interpret the story. You can't draw valid conclusions from the story after changing its premise.

  15. Well, naturally I do not believe anyone was actually casting out demons. Do you? And if you do think the guy was doing it for reals, what makes you think that Oral Roberts wasn't? (Also, I don't think Oral Roberts was pretending either. I'm just guessing of course, but I think most people who claim to cast out demons are not so much charlatans as authentically deluded, both in modern and Biblical times. I think people can delude themselves about almost anything.)

    But I don't know that I completely disagree with you, Jodie. My point is this: the Jesus in the story can only be considered moral if he can miraculously know that the stranger is performing authentic exorcisms. (Even then, his answer is sort of strange. You'd think he would say something more like "Don't worry. I know about him already, and he's on the team." The way he puts it implies that it's good enough that they guy is using his name because it means that he can't be all bad, regardless of his authenticity.)

    But if Jesus is just a guy who preaches a radical love without any messianic superpowers, then he's an irresponsible moral moron to answer the way he does. You can only revere his ethics if you believe he is really divine, or if you claim the episode is apocryphal.

    But if you take the story as being true, then you must by necessity believe that Jesus approves of anyone's setting up shop and making a sincere attempt to perform exorcisms "in his name." And I think from my previous conversations with David, and from some of his other posts, that he doesn't think that. That's one of the parts of the tradition that modern liberal Christians "set aside."

  16. "Of course you can still say that miracles were not taking place and no demons were actually being cast out, but if you do you loose your ability to interpret the story. You can't draw valid conclusions from the story after changing its premise."

    I have to disagree with this statement though. We interpret stories and come to valid conclusions about them while denying their premises all the time. It's part of what it means to be intelligent.

    If my daughter says, "There is a monster in my closet," I can interpret her story in a number of ways, and I can guarantee you that all the valid ones will deny the premises -- that is, that there are real monsters, and that my daughter's reports of there whereabouts are reliable. I might judge from the way she expresses herself that she really thinks she saw a monster (which can happen quite easily even to adults), and so she is in need of some reassurance. Or I might judge that she merely wants me to believe that she saw one because the only thing that will make her feel better is a cookie, and so perhaps she is in need of some correction to her ethics. (I might predict that if I fetch her a cookie, I can expect her to see the monster again the following night.)

    It's always remotely, vanishingly possible that she is telling me the truth about a real monster, I suppose. Anything is possible. But I hope you'll agree that I would be very foolish to take her story at face value. And my ability to make my own sense of her report is not only permitted in spite of my disbelief of the premises of her story, but it depends on it.

    The same goes for stories that are thousands of years old.

  17. @Browning,

    "We interpret stories and come to valid conclusions about them while denying their premises all the time. "

    Mostly no.

    What I mean is that you have to respect the integrity of the story in order to properly interpret it.

    You have to decide whether you think the story is "fiction" or "non-fiction", but once you do, you still have to respect the integrity of the story. Your daughter telling you there is a monster under her bed is not a story. Her telling you how she obtained the aid of all her stuffed animals in the closet and had an epic battle during the night against the monster and beat it back into the bathroom drain, THAT would be a story.

    Would you conclude she is schizophrenic, or that something important happened and the story she told you tells you what really happened?

  18. @ Browning: To which one might ask: what gives a story that exists to establish a particular ethic or worldview it's integrity?

  19. @Jodie. Well, I feel like you've repeated your assertion and denied mine "mostly", but I can't see how you've advanced your argument in any way. You say, "Your daughter telling you there is a monster under her bed is not a story." That seems like a semantic red herring. You seem to want to draw a distinction between "stories" and other reports that are less elaborately plotted, but I don't think you've demonstrated that such a distinction adds anything useful to conversation.

    In all scenarios, yours and mine, I can interpret what she's saying and probably come to valid conclusions about her veracity, her judgment, her ethics, her mood, her sanity, the actual state of her closet -- all without necessarily taking at face value her claims. I can take seriously parts of her story, but not others. I can form my own judgments as to whether she thinks she really saw a monster while she was wide awake, or that she merely dreamed that she saw a monster, or that she is lying to me in an attempt to manipulate me into giving her something she wants, or that she is lying to me just for the fun of it, or she just telling me the story as a form of play and she does not expect me to believe it but to play along as if I do, or to feign outrage at the craziness of her tale, or, as you say, I might suspect that she's developed a mental illness, or maybe that there is something actually in her closet that shouldn't be there -- a Halloween mask, the family cat, a stray raccoon, a burglar -- and even, most unlikely of all, that there is an actual monster in her closet.

    In fact, that's what I have to do to be an intelligent, rational, responsible adult. That's just common sense, isn't it? Under no circumstances does it make any sense to say that I can only make these judgments if I "respect the integrity" of her monster story, that my choices are limited to a binary decision as to whether her story is true or false. I just don't see any basis for that assertion at all, and adding more events or characters to her report doesn't get you any closer to making that point.

    The same is true with the Bible story. In order to interpret it, or make valid judgments about it, I am under no obligation to treat it as fundamentalist would, that is to take it as literally true, any more than I am under similar obligations to my daughter's claims. In fact, guys like David routinely criticize guys like me for talking that way, and draw false equivalencies between us and the fundamentalists. They do because the scriptures are often obviously incompatible with modern science or morality when they are treated this way. And so the same is true here.

    If the story is true on its face in the version of it that you describe, then that means that Jesus had explicitly given the green light to any sincere attempts for people to exorcise demons in his name. My understanding is that this is not a comfortable conclusion for David or most other modern Christians. It seems to give the Benny Hinns of the world an explicit endorsement from the Man Himself, and that is inconvenient and embarrassing.

    It seems to me to still be ethically problematic -- perhaps not as obviously as the massacre of the Amalekites -- but still. Look at what it leads to. An omniscient Jesus should have known better, should have weighed the consequences of his words more carefully. In other words, it is self-evident to me that Jesus made the wrong decision in the moment, and that's even IF I believe it's all true, just as you say.

    But of course I don't, any more than I believe in my daughter's monster, either in Original Closet Style, or now available in New Epic Battle to the Bathtub Flavor.

  20. @David. I don't think I exactly use stories that way, David. I don't expect my stories to have that kind of integrity. I expect them to be messy and organic and fractally imperfect. What's interesting is that you do as well, I think, but you seek integrity in your story in spite of that. Please correct me if I'm wrong. But here's how I think you see it.

    It's integrity comes from your ability to view it through the lens of the core narrative, which is radical love of God and the Other, a fact that you know because it's rationally self-evident to you, or it's illuminated for you by your subjective communications with the Holy Spirit. Using this lens then allows you "set aside" anything in he story that doesn't fit the core narrative. And so the story's integrity is something you have to work to find in the text, which is messy and filled with errors and tricky literary devices. Essentially, you get to it by "accentuating the positive" (which I suck at, apparently), and which means whittling away all the yucky parts, or sort of softening them up where necessary by interpreting them in a way that best fits the core.

    Is that pretty close?

  21. @ Browning: It's as close as I can reasonably expect you to get. ;)

    One of the elements that I find most true about the broader narrative of Christian faith is, as you note, that very messiness. There's misinterpretation, spin, and factual error...just as one would expect in any collection of documents written over thousands of years. It feels real, authentic, and unfabricated. Messy and complex, but in a human way, not a fractal way.

    Yet in the face of that, there is a clear ethical narrative arc, one that has more significance than the mess. That's the purpose of normative storytelling. Yeah, there might be digressions and complexities and sub-plots, but the tale is told for a reason and towards a particular end.

    Within the framework of Christian tradition, it doesn't require much work to discover that ethical end. It's just sittin' right there, plain as the hat on your head.

    To my understanding, you don't perceive that narrative as defining. It's hard for me to grasp quite why, particularly given my own perspective. But observer bias can be a potent thing. If you're looking for blood and chaos and horror, you can certainly find that. If you're looking for a cohesive, radical and transformative ethos, one that establishes a value set that could liberate humankind from it's propensity to self-destruction...well...that's there too.

    Depends what you want, I guess.