A dialog with atheism

By Martin L. Smith

What kind of conversation should there be between Christians and atheists? One way of looking at that question is to consider this to be an invitation to a kind of interfaith dialogue, and one that serious Christians should equip themselves to conduct.

Today interfaith dialogue is literally coming home. It isn’t something to be reserved for experts on official commissions. Our daughter might return from college having adopted Tibetan Buddhism. Our brother might marry a keen and eloquent Muslim wife. Hindu neighbors might move in next door. We might become close friends with a new co-worker who is deeply observant Jew. But the chances are just as high we will be spiritually face to face with a humanist agnostic or committed atheist. I am not talking about someone who is merely tone-deaf when it comes to religion. I mean atheism chosen as a moral commitment—and that kind of atheism can be understood as a type of (non-religious) faith, and therefore a world-view and commitment that invites our conversation.

Think of serious agnosticism and atheism as a stance of faith. Its adherents believe human beings can and must create for themselves lives that are worth living, that we must forge values that work now without the claims of a supernatural source. It believes that though human beings enjoy only a few decades of existence and our species is destined for extinction, yet the adventure of human existence is sufficiently glorious to be lived well.

Now, as the late Bishop Krister Stendhal has reminded us, the only kind of interfaith dialogue worthy of the name is a conversation between equals that puts both parties at risk of being drawn to adopt the other person’s belief; so we must mean business and take that risk. If the outcome is that someone comes to know God through our conversation that is great. But even if she doesn’t, it will do us good to discover that atheists have something important to contribute to our religious faith. They can keep us more rigorously honest. Their challenges can have a purging effect and jolt us into more mature belief.

Take ethics and morals. Unfortunately, Christians bear some responsibility for the popular caricature of religion in which choosing good and avoiding evil seems to be governed by fear of divine punishment or expectation of divine favor. Go deep in conversation with our humanist neighbor and we might discover a commitment to justice, decency, compassion, even to virtue, for their own sake. The idea that atheists are intrinsically likely to believe that anything goes morally is a slander. So in dialogue with humanists, Christians may find themselves more in agreement than they imagine. When I talk with an avowed humanist committed to social justice and strong personal ethics of compassion and fidelity, I find myself in hearty agreement that goodness is to be chosen from the heart because it is good, as our mystics have always held. Making a choice from fear of punishment is spiritually infantile.

And what about superstition and religious illusion? In a sense, much of the critique that atheists direct at religion is an offshoot of the biblical critique. If we knew how to read the Bible properly, we would find that a great deal of it is devoted to exposing the elements of illusion and self-deception in so much human religiosity. It isn’t that the prophets merely attacked pagan idolatries as superstitious and toxic. They directed their most devastating analyses to the religion of their own people, all in the name of a very mysterious God who refused to be represented by any image, and who inspired his messengers to vigorously disassociate him from a host of practices performed supposedly in his name. It is out of this prophetic critique that the Jewish saying arose, “The next best thing to believing in the Lord is not to believe in God!”

Another incentive for American Christians to enter into dialogue with atheists, not just intellectual counter-attack, is that they can remind us that God is not obvious. Most Americans claim to believe in God and our cultural climate favors the idea that the existence of God is somehow obvious. But God is far from obvious, and our atheist friends can recall us to that truth. Faith is faith, not taking something for granted. There are millions of intelligent people who aren’t prejudiced against spirituality but who see no signs of the existence of God when they look hard at the same world we live in as people of faith. It is very healthy for Christians to realize how mysteriously hidden God is. We believe that God is hidden intentionally. If God were obvious, our devotion would be coerced. It is because we can say No to the being of God that when we do say Yes we are acting in real freedom.

Martin Smith is well-known in the Episcopal Church and beyond as a priest, writer, preacher and leader of retreats. Through such popular works as A Season for the Spirit and The Word is Very Near You and in numerous workshops, lectures and retreats, he continues to explore a contemporary spirituality that encourages a lively conversation between new knowledge and the riches of tradition.

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