This is the third post in a series of three, aimed at making evangelicals in the field more successful in their ministry to atheists. The previous post was Get the Good News Right. (Getting the Good News right is really the crux of the issue.)
The only difference between theists and atheists, is that we speak different languages.
This post proved much more difficult to write than I had hoped. The draft I wrote nine days ago, when I sketched out my schedule, was completely inadequate. In fact, there really is a lot of ground-work and foundations that should have been laid before I tackled this post. As such, this post became a long one…
The Search for God
Humanity as a whole, has been “searching for God” possibly for longer than the age of the earth according to creationists. This search has been a journey that has passed along many potential “destinations” en-route. Still the journey does not end, understanding develops more, our “relationship with God” continues to change and grow.
A long time ago, the polytheistic understanding of “God” was common. “God” consisted of a whole pantheon of gods, and humanity was at the mercy of the soap-opera playing out on Mount Olympus (or equivalent). As the power shifted amongst the gods, the humans’ loyalties also shifted, to whichever god then supposedly had the upper hand.
(Dealing with middle-eastern religion now:) A contrasting, revolutionary perspective of “God”, is that there aren’t many different gods that need to be worshipped. “God” became understood to be a “single entity”. Monotheism revolutionised human culture, and removed a lot of insecurity. Humans were no longer at the mercy of the big soap-opera in the sky.
I feel this really is less a case of humans being “atheistic” about all the other gods, than it is an understanding that consolidates all the gods into one God. A development, an improvement, in our understanding of the abstract notion of “God”, that thing “beyond human comprehension”. This is why that clichĂ© popularised by Richard Dawkins irks me so much: “We are all atheistic about all those other gods, some of us just go one god further.” If I hear that many more times, it might start to irritate me as much as some creationism seminars do…
What is the difference between Islam, Judaism and Christianity? All three are monotheistic, all three worship “the only God there is”. Defined that way, they all have to be worshipping the same God (the only God there is…) The difference then, is merely in their understanding of that one God. Each of the three think they have a better understanding of that God than the other two. Possibly all three claim “God is beyond our comprehension”.
The (controversial?) question then becomes: might each not learn something about God from the other?
My discussion here is the difference between “atheism” and “theistic belief as a whole”, rather than between “atheism” and any particular form of Christianity. There is already great diversity within the Christian tradition. If I recall correctly, there may be something like 33000 different denominations? Many of these denominations probably think they have a monopoly on The Truth. Denominations with such monopolies on truth, should not bother trying to reach atheists, in my opinion. This post is addressed to the more humble denominations.
Humble denominations recognise that there will necessarily be diverse understandings of something that is “beyond human comprehension”, and recognise that inter-denominational conversation would be valuable to understand “God” more accurately. Each group can learn from every other, and in the process each group can also teach.
Christians that are humble enough, will be able to recognise there is value to be found in Islam and Judaism as well, that Christianity does not have a monopoly on “God”, and that each religion can learn from every other. In the process, again, each religion can teach. Only once the Christian has learned from the Jew what they believe and what they do not believe, can they open up a conversation which is mutually beneficial, where the Christian can maybe teach the Jew of other aspects of “God” which they might have missed, and vice versa of course. Amongst others, Brian McLaren has opened up such inter-faith conversations. He goes so far as to say:
“I don’t believe making disciples must equal making adherents to the Christian religion. It may be advisable in many (not all!) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu, or Jewish contexts.” –A Generous Orthodoxy (found on Theopedia.)
I have yet to read A Generous Orthodoxy. Many more conservative Christians do not like Brian McLaren’s earlier works much. Do not let that frighten you away from The Secret Message of Jesus though, I have seen reviews saying something along the lines of: “no matter what your perspectives were of Brian McLaren’s previous works, you should give The Secret Message of Jesus a chance”. (amazon, kalahari)
To get back to the point, then, Christianity is very diverse. Monotheism is even more diverse than that. Pull in Polytheism, Deism and Pantheism, and in-betweens such as Panentheism, Pandeism and Panendeism… and you realise how broad and diverse humanity’s understanding of “God” is. And each tradition surely has at least some fragments of “The Truth”.
So, what about atheism then?
Godly versus Godless
I lack the right words, unfortunately. “Godly” and “godless” are not perfect, but they will have to do for now. Consider this Dutch quote:
“Ateis: zonder God,
maar niet goddeloos.”
Filosofie Magazine (hat tip to Auke at Psychohistorian).
Translated: “Atheist: without God, but not godless”. This defines the essence of what I mean by “godly” and “godless”. I am suggesting we could talk about two kinds of atheists, the godly kind, and the godless kind.
Atheism has been stereotyped, stigmatised or demonised in certain circles. The impression the word “atheism” gives in such circles, is someone without appreciation, without a sense wonder, someone who lacks humility or has no appreciation for mystery, someone who is not at all thankful or appreciative of his or her existence (because they supposedly show no thanks to “God”), someone that lacks a sense of morality, an immoral person.
What such theists are effectively doing, is projecting their worldview onto the atheist, and then adding an anti-God sentiment. In the theist’s worldview, the concept of “God” encompasses all of the aspects mentioned in the previous paragraph – claim you have no belief in “God”, and they think you are throwing out all of the above. They think you are a “godless” atheist. There may be “godless” atheists, but I have yet to meet one… on the other hand, I know many “godly” atheists.
What is a “godly” atheist, then? “Godly” atheists do have an incredible sense of wonder and awe at the majesty of the universe, sometimes much more so than the theist. Sometimes the atheist is much more aware of the incredible mystery that is out there. Often atheists have an incredible sense of thankfulness and appreciation for their existence. This may be hard for the theist to believe, as the theist directs his or her thankfulness and appreciation towards a personified God. (Humans understand how to be thankful much better, when dealing with a “person”, or a “personified” entity. “Personifying” things is a very human thing to do.) The atheist’s thankfulness and appreciation is more abstract, directed at “an unknown god” if you will. The lack of a clear notion of a personified God to whom the thankfulness can be directed, can even lead to a more overwhelming experience of appreciation and “majesty”.
Some atheists have an incredibly strong sense of morality as well. Some details may differ, they likely think fundamentalist religions’ homophobia is an example of immorality, or that discouraging contraceptive use or HPV vaccinations are some of the most immoral things done in the name of religion. Atheists are often shocked to hear that some Christians would not think twice about cheating on their spouse if it were not for the seventh commandment.
CS Lewis argues for the existence of God based on the existence of morality. Effectively, he defines the source of morality as “God”. The atheists have morality, they have a source of morality, why not call that “God” then? There has long been a tradition of attributing things we do not understand, to “God”. What’s wrong then with an atheist calling the mystery in the universe, the “original cause”, that which is beyond our comprehension, “God”? Can we personify the abstract thing to which atheists express their thankfulness and appreciation, and call that “God”? Some call any sense of a “higher power”, even our community or interconnectedness, “God”.
The only difference, therefore, is that atheists have a different understanding of “God”. I personally don’t feel this difference is greater than the diversity already found within theism and religion, which is why I state “the only difference between theists and atheists, is that we speak different languages”. In the language of the theists, “God” has a rather specific meaning. Because of this, the atheist does not use the word “God” to describe his or her notion of “God”, as it could be too misleading.
In “3001: The Final Odyssey”, Arthur C. Clarke had a thousand years of history to play with. He used this freedom to remove religion, and even ban the word “God”. (If the notion of banning the word “God” frightens you, what do you think about the notion of banning the word “Allah”?) However, they still needed a word with which to refer to “God”, abstract notion or not, so they created a new word…
Understand the language differences, and honestly and humbly investigate what you can learn about God from an atheist. (After all, if God can talk to you through the mouth of a donkey, surely God can talk to you through the mouth of an atheist?) Learn what the Gospel is, go find out what Jesus taught. Then, we can have us a conversation.