Toward a Better Understanding of Atheism (III): From Atheism to Belief

In the August 6, 2013 edition of the scholarly journal, Personality and Social Psychology Review, Zuckerman, Silberman and Hall published a meta-analysis of 63 studies that demonstrates what a lot of atheists would like to believe: atheists are more intelligent than religious people.  Celebrated atheist writers like Richard Dawkins have reveled in that pronouncement, and wondered, smugly, why the intellectual superiority of atheists should ever be doubted.   Zuckerman, et al, proposed three hypotheses to explain the disparity:  “First, intelligent people are less likely to conform and, thus, are more likely to resist religious dogma. Second, intelligent people tend to adopt an analytic (as opposed to intuitive) thinking style, which has been shown to undermine religious beliefs. Third, several functions of religiosity, including compensatory control, self-regulation, self-enhancement, and secure attachment, are also conferred by intelligence. Intelligent people may therefore have less need for religious beliefs and practices.”  

Writing in The Independent, Frank Furedi, himself an atheist, cast doubt on the motive as well as the methods for arriving at these conclusions.  What motivation would there be to try and make such a claim?  Obvious problems among such studies include issues such as selecting subjects from academic settings which may provide a biased and skewed sample.

As the atheist world cackles with delight over such self-validating reports, there are numerous examples of intelligent, even brilliant people who through extensive research, reflection and introspection concluded that there is indeed a God who cares about humans.  And while their journeys toward faith may have led them to different denominational affiliations, their stories are intriguing.  To demonstrate that it is possible to be both intelligent and a believer, I offer three examples of brilliant men who left atheism for belief.  First, and among my personal heroes, is the Oxford professor, author, and Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis.  Second, Russian dissident and Nobel laureate, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  And last, but certainly not the intellectual least, Dr. Francis Collins, chemist, physician, former head of the Human Genome Project, and currently Director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

C.S. Lewis was born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1898 into an affluent family.  About the age of 10, his mother died of cancer.  Although he was raised in a home where religion was practiced, by the age of 15, he had rejected faith and become an atheist.  He was educated in good schools, and of that period he wrote in his book, Surprised by Joy, “I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.”  He felt religious observance to be a demanding chore, and upon reading the classics, embraced as an atheistic motto, the lines from Lucretius, “Had God designed the world, it would not be a world so frail and faulty as we see.”  The imperfection of nature became in counterpoint to Aquinas, “The Argument from Undesign.”

Lewis went on to serve in the Army in the First World War, and was wounded in France by a British artillery shell that fell short of its target.  He returned to Oxford to complete his studies, and became a lecturer in Magdalen College.  While there, he became friends with a number of academics who also espoused a Christian faith.  Among them was the great master of “sub-creation”, J.R.R. Tolkien.  Through discussion with him and others, Lewis experienced a return to theism in 1929, followed by an embrace of Christianity in 1931.  Of the event of 1929, Lewis wrote, “You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.  I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?”

His movement toward a more distinctly Christian faith continued.  “I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste. And yet the very matter which they set down in their artless, historical fashion— those narrow, unattractive Jews, too blind to the mythical wealth of the Pagan world around them— was precisely the matter of the great myths. If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. And nothing else in all literature was just like this. Myths were like it in one way. Histories were like it in another. But nothing was simply like it. And no person was like the Person it depicted; as real, as recognizable, through all that depth of time, as Plato’s Socrates or Boswell’s Johnson (ten times more so than Ecker-mann’s Goethe or Lockhart’s Scott), yet also numinous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god. But if a god— we are no longer polytheists— then not a god, but God. Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man. This is not “a religion,” nor “a philosophy.” It is the summing up and actuality of them all.”

Lewis recalled the day when he finally believed in the Incarnation.  “To accept the Incarnation was a further step in the same direction. It brings God nearer, or near in a new way. And this, I found, was something I had not wanted. But to recognize the ground for my evasion was of course to recognize both its shame and its futility. I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. “Emotional” is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.”

Lewis went on to become the greatest apologist for the Christian faith in the 20th century.  In the introduction to his collected essays published under the title, Mere Christianity, he explicitly notes that it was not his purpose to evangelize for a specific denomination, but rather focus on the unifying truths of the Christian faith.  Judging from the phenomenal appeal of that one book and its effect of persuading so many seekers, Lewis was a success.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk, Russia 1918, not long after the Bolshevik Revolution.  Raised in the Russian Orthodox faith, Solzhenitsyn eventually accepted Marxism as a guiding philosophy, serving as a twice-decorated unit commander in the Red Army during World War II.  After government watchers discovered he had in a letter to a friend privately criticized the prosecution of the War by Stalin, he was sentenced to several years of hard labor in work camps, or gulags.  During his incarceration, he witnessed the effects of atheistic, totalitarian Communism.  He changed his views away from the atheistic precepts of Marxism and returned to Russian Orthodoxy.  He wrote extensive histories of the Russian Revolution as well as works relating to his experiences as a political prisoner of the Soviet state.   

In May of 1983, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.  In his acceptance address, he said, “I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”

“Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”

In an interview with a Catholic reporter, Solzhenitsyn mused over the state of man and his need for religious faith.  “Man has set for himself the goal of conquering the world but in the processes loses his soul. That which is called humanism, but what would be more correctly called irreligious anthropocentrism, cannot yield answers to the most essential questions of our life. We have arrived at an intellectual chaos.”      

Francis Collins’ early life was unconventional to say the least, and matters of faith had little importance in is family.  While he was home-schooled for the first part of his education, his family moved into town and he entered public schools.  He fell in love with chemistry in high school, and then studied it at the University of Virginia and Yale.  He rather fashionably accepted the intellectuals’ position of agnosticism that began with what he describes as a more honest claim that “I don’t know if there is a God,” and developed into a more willful ignorance embodied by, “I don’t want to know.”  During his graduate studies, he became interested in human genetics, and entered medical school at the University of North Carolina. 

Although he was firmly rooted in academic atheism by that time, he was struck by the deep spirituality of mountain people who faced serious illness and disease.  In his third year of medical school, he was speaking with a woman who suffered constant pain from an incurable heart condition.  As she related how her Christian faith kept her going, she asked what Collins believed.  He responded that he didn’t really know.  She was somewhat shocked by that, and he went away haunted by the encounter.  Of this experience he wrote in The Language of God: a Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief,

“That moment haunted me for several days. Did I not consider myself a scientist? Does a scientist draw conclusions without considering the data? Could there be a more important question in all of human existence than “Is there a God?” And yet there I found myself, with a combination of willful blindness and something that could only be properly described as arrogance, having avoided any serious consideration that God might be a real possibility. Suddenly all my arguments seemed very thin, and I had the sensation that the ice under my feet was cracking.

“This realization was a thoroughly terrifying experience. After all, if I could no longer rely on the robustness of my atheistic position, would I have to take responsibility for actions that I would prefer to keep unscrutinized? Was I answerable to someone other than myself? The question was now too pressing to avoid.”

He began a frenzied search for answers, looking for information in Cliff’s Notes summaries of major world religions.  He remarked, “I found reading the actual sacred texts much too difficult.”  When he reached a point where he questioned whether any religious faith made sense, he made a visit to a nearby minister. “I went to visit a Methodist minister who lived down the street to ask him whether faith made any logical sense. He listened patiently to my confused (and probably blasphemous) ramblings, and then took a small book off his shelf and suggested I read it.

“The book was Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis. In the next few days, as I turned its pages, struggling to absorb the breadth and depth of the intellectual arguments laid down by this legendary Oxford scholar, I realized that all of my own constructs against the plausibility of faith were those of a schoolboy. Clearly I would need to start with a clean slate to consider this most important of all human questions. Lewis seemed to know all of my objections, sometimes even before I had quite formulated them. He invariably addressed them within a page or two. When I learned subsequently that Lewis had himself been an atheist, who had set out to disprove faith on the basis of logical argument, I recognized how he could be so insightful about my path. It had been his path as well.

“The argument that most caught my attention, and most rocked my ideas about science and spirit down to their foundation, was right there in the title of Book One: “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe.” While in many ways the “Moral Law” that Lewis described was a universal feature of human existence, in other ways it was as if I was recognizing it for the first time.”

Another deciding factor that tipped the scale in favor of faith is the issue of altruism and human nature.  Inextricably connected with the concept of selfless love, or agape, sacrifice for the good of another just does not make sense, or only faintly so, as it may related to increasing probability of the transmission of shared genes into future generations.

Collins summarized his journey to faith,

“I had started this journey of intellectual exploration to confirm my atheism. That now lay in ruins as the argument from the Moral Law (and many other issues) forced me to admit the plausibility of the God hypothesis. Agnosticism, which had seemed like a safe second-place haven, now loomed like the great cop-out it often is. Faith in God now seemed more rational than disbelief.”

The road to faith for people who have none is never easy.  Collins soon determined that his skills in scientific investigation would not serve him in his search for God.  He wrote, “It also became clear to me that science, despite its unquestioned powers in unraveling the mysteries of the natural world, would get me no further in resolving the question of God. If God exists, then He must be outside the natural world, and therefore the tools of science are not the right ones to learn about Him. Instead, as I was beginning to understand from looking into my own heart, the evidence of God’s existence would have to come from other directions, and the ultimate decision would be based on faith, not proof. Still beset by roiling uncertainties of what path I had started down, I had to admit that I had reached the threshold of accepting the possibility of a spiritual worldview, including the existence of God.”

Collins went on to become the Director of the Human Genome Project, which undertook the monumental task of decoding all of the genetic information in human cells.  He viewed this project with reverence, as if reading God’s own handwriting.  When he was named Director of the National Institutes of Health, some vocal atheists denounced the choice, thinking that he would use his faith to stifle controversial research.  That concern was laid to rest by Former NIH Director and Nobel laureate, Harold Varmus, who said, “[Collins] is a terrific scientist, and very well organized and a great spokesperson for the N.I.H., has terrific connections in Congress, and is a delightful person to work with”. Collins told the New York Times, “I have made it clear that I have no religious agenda for the N.I.H., and I think the vast majority of scientists have been reassured by that and have moved on.”  That does not mean that faith does not inform him, or at least in part, guide his actions. 

These three intelligent, accomplished, and respected figures actively pursued atheism as young men.  Through trauma, tragedy, and confrontation, they were forced to look closely at their deepest, most closely held beliefs.  When they weighed the evidence, they each came to the conclusion that God exists.  They each moved toward the expression of a Christian faith.  They each went on to influence countless others in their practice and experience of faith.

You can be intelligent and a believer.  Scoffers abound, obstacles are everywhere.  But you only need to look and listen and think to find arguments and real evidence for faith in God.  He fills a void in the heart, not just gaps in our knowledge.  He offers a shoulder to lean on, not a crutch to rely on.  He offers peace, not problems.

In the views of many of its foremost proponents, atheism has much to commend it: freedom from imposed morality, the elevation of humanity to an exalted place, the virtues of self-determination and actualization.  But at its core, atheism seems to be largely about selfish pursuit.  While we may think we know what is best for us, God knows better.   Jesus’ life and example were diametrically opposed to such selfishness.  He calls for selfless service so that others may not suffer.  He calls for moral purity so that we may not suffer.  I like this idea of a God who is interested in me, cares about me, even loves me.  For believers, it’s the only thing that makes sense.   



Toward a Better Understanding of Atheism (II): a Tale of Two Leaders

Outspoken American atheist activist, Madalyn Murray O’Hair once said, “An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church.  An atheist believes that deed must be done instead of prayer said.  An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death.  He wants disease conquered, poverty vanished, war eliminated.”

That’s interesting, because many Christians hold the same views, and not surprisingly, work tirelessly toward those goals.  Mrs. O’Hair’s comments, I believe, demonstrate a deep and willful misunderstanding of what it means to be Christian.  In 1963, while she was pleading her case against school prayer to the Supreme Court, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—a Baptist minister—was leading one of the most significant movements in history, the American Civil Rights Movement.  It was in that year that he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream Speech” that I believe confirms my assertion relative to involvement in life and deeds being done.  He called people, both black and white, to demolish the ill-contrived walls that separate us and to work together in a spirit of non-violence and brotherhood to achieve peacefully what many would attempt to thwart by force.

In 1965, Dr. King began openly criticizing American involvement in the Vietnam conflict.  Combining this with his strong association with the non-violence championed by Mahatma Gandhi (who was influenced by the teaching of Jesus), it is obvious that he wanted to see an end to war and violence.  

Dr. King rejected conventional western capitalism because of its social and economic inequities.  He was often accused of being a Communist, but he soundly rejected that system due to its anti-religious platform based on its “materialistic interpretation of history,” its “ethical relativism” that undermines moral authority, and its “political totalitarianism” that leads to oppression.  Mrs. O’Hair, on the other hand, attempted to immigrate to the Soviet Union back in 1960 by seeking asylum in the Soviet Embassy in Paris, in large part for the USSR’s state support of institutional atheism.  She and her sons were denied entry.

In 1968, Dr. King was embarking on The Poor People’s Campaign as a means to address the thorny issue of economic justice.  He was slain in Memphis, TN, as he prepared to show solidarity with the largely African-American sanitation workers who had gone on strike for better pay and better treatment.  Thus, it is obvious that Dr. King wanted to see poverty eliminated. 

Mrs. O’Hair took the opportunity in 1968 to file suit against NASA for allowing the Apollo 8 astronauts to publicly read from the book of Genesis as they orbited the moon on Christmas Eve, in awe of the view of the Earth as no men before them had seen it in its fragile beauty from a quarter million miles away.

Dr. King wrote and spoke passionately of his faith.  Mrs. O’Hair, upon learning that one of her sons had converted to Christianity, declared him a “post-natal abortion.”  Of his conversion, she said, “I repudiate him entirely and completely for now and all times …he is beyond human forgiveness.”

While history does attest that Dr. King had his weaknesses and imperfections, Mrs. O’Hair was accused of financial fraud in her acquisition and overtaking of several atheist organizations, probably in merging them with her American Atheists organization.    

Dr. King is remembered for his vision, leadership and sacrifice.  Streets and schools are named for him in countless cities and towns across America.  A national monument has been built in his honor.  A national holiday was declared in his memory.  Mrs. O’Hair was kidnapped by an angry former employee in 1995 who forced her to provide several hundred thousand dollars-worth of gold coins before murdering her and dismembering her body.  She is buried in an undisclosed location in Texas.

It is interesting that while Mrs. O’Hair made that impassioned description of the altruistic, philanthropic characteristics of a good atheist, I found absolutely no record of any such benevolent activity on her part.  Certainly, my brief search may not have been sufficient to reveal any such benevolence.  However, I find it rather interesting that her life and legacy apparently did not correspond with her rhetoric.

As a college professor, I work with people every day who describe themselves as atheists.  I know that many of them are good and moral people on whom I can depend professionally and with whom I am friends, socially.  Madalyn Murray O’Hair was not the mold from which most of these people are made.  Similarly, I know many purported Christians who are that designation maybe only as they give religious preference on hospital admission forms or check boxes in a survey.  People will be what they will be, whether committed Christian or hypocrite, altruistic atheist or mocking cynic.

I began this essay not knowing exactly where it would go.  The comparison of two larger than life figures of 20th Century America provided a canvas to explore philosophies.  While O’Hair spoke of action, she primarily spoke, and occasionally litigated.  When King spoke of action, he not only spoke but acted, and lived his convictions.  O’Hair’s implication that Christians pay only lip service to philanthropy and altruism is built of straw.  Examples of Christians living their faith can be seen throughout history, from the martyrs of the early church through leaders like Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the resistance against Nazism.  But if people like Madalyn Murray O’Hair refuse to see the sincerity and passion of those with higher profile, they would certainly never see the “little” people who live and work and sacrifice and serve and die without notice or fanfare–people like my mother.  These are real Christians.  These are people with commitment and faith.  They make the world a better place, one life touched, one small deed at a time. 

Many of these unknown Christians do such things not out of a sense of obligation or under threat of penalty or punishment, but because it is the right thing to do.  Consider the two greatest commandments as commended by Jesus, and read the 13th chapter of I Corinthians.  This is Christianity.  Unless a better atheist comes along than Madalyn Murray O’Hair with teachings that are not hollow preachments of negativity, I’ll stay with Jesus.  The selfless love that he taught and lived far outstrip any of the teachings of the most vocal atheists like O’Hair, Russell, Rand or Dawkins.  Many of these people confuse conventional interpretations of Christ with the reality of Christ.  Listen to him.  Get to know him before you reject all that he stands for.  He is the greatest example and pattern for a good life and a life of goodness.  That should be enough for at least a passing consideration.  I know it got my attention.            




Toward a Better Understanding of Atheism

I’ve been thinking a lot about atheism lately.  Why is it that some people become atheists?  Well, do a web search and you’ll find a plethora of sites where people discuss their own journey into atheism.   Some apparently had issues with authority as children.  Some had bad experiences with religion early in life.  Some experienced a cognitive dissonance between what they see in scripture and what they see in the hard facts of science.  The reasons for atheism are probably as many as there are those who deny the existence of deity.  

Back in the early part of the first decade of the 21st century, in those thrilling days of yesteryear, geneticist Dean Hamer of the US Cancer Institute, claimed to have identified a gene, the VMAT2 gene, that has an effect on one’s ability to experience the spiritual or transcendent.  This gene was called the “God gene”, and the hypothesis was attacked by atheists and believers alike.  Theologian John Polkinghorne said, “”The idea of a God gene goes against all my personal theological convictions. You can’t cut faith down to the lowest common denominator of genetic survival.  It shows the poverty of reductionist thinking.”  Hamer responded to such criticism with, “Religious believers can point to the existence of God genes as one more sign of the creator’s ingenuity—a clever way to help humans acknowledge and embrace a divine presence.”  Hamer also reiterates that the work and the hypothesis stress the existence and function of a God gene, not the existence of God.

The biological basis of openness to spirituality is intriguing.  At the most fundamental level, VMAT2 may make people more optimistic in outlook, which affects general health, and therefore improves survival and the likelihood of reproduction.  It would also give a concrete reason why some people can so readily believe in the supernatural, and why some can’t.  Consider the implications of a God gene:  If the VMAT2 gene, which affects the movement of certain neurotransmitters in the brain allows some people to believe in God and a defect or mutation prevents the same in others, then God would become somewhat of a respecter of persons (violating specific references in the book of Acts).  On the other hand, it would support the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, assuming that only those who are believers (let’s call them VMAT2+) would be saved, and those who are not (let’s call them VMAT2 -) would be lost.

I am not here to debate the points of Calvinism.  I am more interested in understanding about atheism. 

CNN’s Dan Merica summarized the 6 categories of atheism as proposed by University of Tennessee-Chattanooga student researchers, Christopher Silver and Thomas Coleman.

“1) Intellectual atheist/agnostic:  This type of nonbeliever seeks information and intellectual stimulation about atheism.  They like debating and arguing, particularly on popular Internet sites…They’re also well-versed in books and articles about religion and atheism, and prone to citing those works frequently.

2) Activist:  These kinds of atheists and agnostics are not content with just disbelieving in God; they want to tell others why they reject religion and why society would be better off if we all did likewise.  They tend to be vocal about political causes like gay rights, feminism, the environment and the care of animals.

3) Seeker-agnostic:  This group is made up of people who are unsure about the existence of a God but keep an open mind and recognize the limits of human knowledge and experience.  Silver and Coleman describe this group as people who regularly question their own beliefs and “do not hold a firm ideological position.”  That doesn’t mean this group is confused, the researchers say. They just embrace uncertainty.

4) Anti-theist:  This group regularly speaks out against religion and religious beliefs, usually by positioning themselves as “diametrically opposed to religious ideology,” Silver and Coleman wrote.  “Anti-theists view religion as ignorance and see any individual or institution associated with it as backward and socially detrimental,” the researchers wrote. “The Anti-Theist has a clear and – in their view, superior – understanding of the limitations and danger of religions.”  Anti-theists are outspoken, devoted and – at times – confrontational about their disbelief. They believe that “obvious fallacies in religion and belief should be aggressively addressed in some form or another.”

5) Non-theist:  The smallest group among the six are the non-theists, people who do not involve themselves with either religion or anti-religion.  In many cases, this comes across as apathy or disinterest.  “A Non-Theist simply does not concern him or herself with religion,” Silver and Coleman wrote. “Religion plays no role or issue in one’s consciousness or worldview; nor does a Non- Theist have concern for the atheist or agnostic movement.”  They continue: “They simply do not believe, and in the same right, their absence of faith means the absence of anything religion in any form from their mental space.”

6) Ritual atheist:  They don’t believe in God, they don’t associate with religion, and they tend to believe there is no afterlife, but the sixth type of nonbeliever still finds useful the teachings of some religious traditions.  “They see these as more or less philosophical teachings of how to live life and achieve happiness than a path to transcendental liberation,” Silver and Coleman wrote. “For example, these individuals may participate in specific rituals, ceremonies, musical opportunities, meditation, yoga classes, or holiday traditions.”  For many of these nonbelievers, their adherence to ritual may stem from family traditions. For others, it’s a personal connection to, or respect for, the “profound symbolism” inherent within religious rituals, beliefs and ceremonies, according the researchers.”

The doctoral student serving as principle investigator of this study, Christopher Silver, probably knows whereof he speaks:  he has served as a board member of the Chattanooga Free Thought Association, which according to their website, “welcome all freethinkers, atheists, brights, agnostics, and skeptics who wish to get together for fun and interesting conversation and the promotion of positive atheism through community service as well as peaceful activism.”

People of faith usually associate all atheists with types 2 and 4, the activists and anti-theists, who tend to be the most vocal.  Reading discussions and accounts of Christian “de-conversion,” it is easy to categorize many of these people into the mentioned categories.  However, a particular atheist may be a blend of types—for example, a type 1 intellectual who is also a type 4 anti-theist or type 2 activist.  This sort of blend is often encountered by freshmen in college, leading to the first real test of their nascent faith, leading to a cognitive dissonance that may result in either rejection of faith or a redoubling of it, depending on the individual, the popularity of the authority figure and the specific circumstance.  I have known people who are probably type 6 ritual atheists, who consider themselves to be “CEO Christians”, or “Christmas and Easter Only”.  They may enjoy the pageantry of religious celebrations, but do not really have a belief in the object of the celebration.       

So who are atheists?  Well, anyone may be.  But according to George Yancey, writing in a column in Christianity Today, “… data shows they are more likely to be white, male, educated and possibly wealthy than the general population, indicating they also tend to have more social power than others in society.  Additionally, in venues such as academia, atheists clearly have an advantage, while conservative Protestants are the minority.”  Yancey goes on to discuss a common theme among many atheists of feelings of logic (which is obviously tied to educational attainment and visibility in academia) and mistreatment.  “Atheists have good reason to feel this way. Surveys indicate that they are trusted less than most other social groups, and my earlier research indicates they experience more relative hostility than any religious group.”

Based on my own anecdotal observations, the world is comprised of a whole spectrum of positions on belief, from radical in-you-face fundamentalist Christians to radical back-at-you evangelical atheists.  Those on either extreme are objects of mistrust and derision from their polar opposites and perhaps some annoyance from those with cooler heads that may find themselves somewhere in between. 

But back to my original question regarding why people become atheists, it is interesting to examine a few of the pros and cons, which actually work equally well for either side.  If atheists suggest that belief in God is wishful thinking, that a higher power is somehow in charge of life and destiny, the same can be said in reverse, i.e., some may become atheist because they wish to be free from imposed moral constraints.  But the universality of specific moral codes across time and cultures contrary to the obvious benefits of selfish behaviors suggests to believers that such laws were instilled, not evolved.  If atheists say that believers are looking for a father figure in a benevolent God, or in a more sinister, co-dependent sense,  an angry God, a similar observation can be made in reverse: an atheist may be looking to run away from a bad experience with an authority figure, thus reject any possibility of deity.  Some atheists may have been abused, either emotionally or physically, at the hands of some religious figure, and they flee from all association with that sort of violence.

Atheists may see God as a crutch, an easy way to explain gaps in our knowledge.  But on the other hand, God helps us to find comfort in the unknown, and by demonstrating a willingness to know more of God’s mind, we may actually be driven to learn more and unravel more of the mysteries of nature and life itself.

I am familiar with other arguments against God, such as the argument from suffering, and indeed some people do cite their inability to comprehend a benevolent God’s willingness to allow illness and suffering of their loved ones or violence against the innocent.  But I am also familiar with Thomas Aquinas’ Quinque Viae, the five proofs of God in his magnum opus, Summa Theologica.  His arguments of first cause, the argument of the unmoved mover, and the argument from contingency are hard to refute, especially in light of cosmological arguments involving the birth of the universe in the primordial Big Bang, or the universality of movement or change requiring an initial unmoved mover to set the movement or change in motion.            

As I have written in previous posts, I am the son of a preacher, raised in a family where religion was at the center, where faith was at the very core of family life.  I listened to Bible teaching, but I also observed.  I heard the sermons and attended the Bible classes, but I saw the dirty underside of church life, too: the back-stabbing, the power plays among members, the preacher often the unfortunate scapegoat in some plot of ecclesiastical intrigue.  I continued to be what census takers may call “an adherent” to the faith, regular in attendance but not a committed member of any church.  Using terminology similar to that of the Silver-Coleman study, I suppose I was close to being a “ritual agnostic.”  I did not reject deity completely, but until graduate school, I couldn’t grasp many of the doctrines and practices of the church.  I could not understand issues related to the apparently contradictory nature of a God.  Science told me one thing, religion told me another.  I spent many afternoons and evenings (when I probably should have been in the lab) in the Vanderbilt Theology stacks trying to disprove various elements of Christianity, and I was not able to.  It was during graduate school that I read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, and the armor cracked a bit.  Then, later when I came to understand that the central theme of the Bible is not reward vs. punishment (contrary to revivalist Jonathan Edwards’ view of God), but rather love, I was able to commit to a religious faith.  Like National Institutes for Health director, Francis Collins, I came to accept and understand that faith in a higher power, faith in God, accounts more for the intricacies of human nature than naturalistic explanations such as sociobiology, as fascinating as that field may be.  When I was able to accept that the Bible contains truth but, as many have observed, was not meant to be a comprehensive science book or encyclopedia of world history, its value to me as a guide greatly increased.     

I recount this not looking for anyone’s approval, but to demonstrate that others may do the same thing and come out on the other side.  My personal experience of faith has been largely positive when I focus on fellowship with others.  I continue to struggle with issues of legalism among the followers in my faith tradition, the unwillingness of many of my brothers and sisters in the church to admit to the power and effectiveness of grace.  But I continue to study as much as I can and teach whatever truths that I find whether in accordance with the accepted church dogmas or in spite of them, as long as it is truth. 

It is unfortunate that the term “free thinking” has been co-opted by atheists as code for atheism itself.  I believe that as Christians, we can and must be free thinkers, willing to question our beliefs if we are to grow and to really know and truly experience our faith.  As I recently read, doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is a part of it.  But to embrace only doubt, or let it lead to a closure of the mind against the possibility of the divine is hard to understand.  Maybe the belief that this is all there is to life is comforting and liberating to some.  But to me, it must be empty.  I can’t imagine not believing in God.  I can’t imagine not learning from the marvelous teachings and example of Jesus.  These are as real to me as anything in my life, and if they were not there, I would probably feel that lonely emptiness, that craving for something more.  Are there happy atheists?  Plenty, I’m sure.  But I’ve seen a lot more happy believers.  And in the end, even if I’m wrong and the atheists are right (which I would heartily dispute), I haven’t lost anything.  God calls us to a good life of service, love and happiness, not a sad existence of privation and misery.  What more could anyone ask for?   

A Woman, a Jar, and a Memorial Forever: Just Some Thoughts on Mary’s Act of Doing What She Could

Every now and then, a line from the Bible comes to me, at odd times it seems.  I awoke this morning with one such line in mind, that being from Mark 14.  It was the final week of Jesus’ ministry.  It was so fitting that all of these things would culminate during Passover week.  Jesus and his disciples were in Bethany at the home of Simon the Leper.  Jesus, as was his custom, was reclining at table with these people of low estate and questionable reputation.  He was frequently found in the company of the likes of tax collectors—those traitorous Roman collaborators spoken of with derision by good Jews—and prostitutes and other “sinners.”  Once when he was asked why he and his disciples associated with this questionable lot, he replied, “Healthy people don’t need a physician, but sick people do. Go and learn what this means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice,’ because I did not come to call righteous people, but sinners.”  (Matt 9.12-13)

At Simon’s table, during the course of the evening, some woman (we learn it was Lazarus and Martha’s sister, Mary over in John 12), broke open the seal of a jar of very expensive oil, an ointment called nard or spikenard in different translations, and poured it on Jesus’ head.  Some of those in attendance—John says it was Judas himself—chided the woman for wasting the oil, valued at somewhere in the range of 300 denarii, or close to a year’s wages.  Ostensibly, this “conscientious” follower would have sold the oil to give the proceeds to the poor.  Realistically, he would likely have pocketed the money for himself, if the description in John 12.6 held true. 

On hearing this, Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing for me, because you will always have the destitute with you and can help them whenever you want, but you will not always have me.  She has done what she could. She poured perfume on my body in preparation for my burial. I tell you with certainty, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told as a memorial to her.”  (Mark 14.6-9)

How could Jesus have said it was fine for the woman to have “wasted” this fine oil when it could have been used to alleviate suffering?  On the one hand, what was done was done, and there was no use chiding her over something that would be trivial in the greater scheme of things.  It was only oil.  But that had little to do with the situation.

But wasn’t it insensitive of Jesus to say what he said in John 12.8 and Mark 14.7, that they would always have the destitute with them, but they would not always have him?  It is never insensitive to face reality.  How it is done and how it is received may vary, but truth must be addressed and facts must be faced.

In saying that the poor or destitute would always be with them, Jesus was not making an excuse for Mary’s actions.  He was stating a fact.  And just because the opportunity for good (if it can be so characterized) that Judas pointed out was not taken does not mean that they would be forever absolved of their responsibility to the poor in the future.  Jesus said, “…and you can help them whenever you want.”

That line, “She has done what she could,” often comes to my mind.  Mary had done what she could to show her love and respect for this great man.  Jesus had raised her brother from the dead.  Now soon, he would be taking his place in the unknown.  In John 11, we are told Martha believed in the resurrection, and it would be likely that her sister shared that view.  She would believe that Jesus would live again. 

But to live again, one must first die.  And funeral practices in that time involved burial preparation, a crude embalming not nearly as elaborate or effective as Egyptian mummification, but necessary according to tradition.  Mary consciously or sub-consciously, intentionally or not, was preparing Jesus’ body for what would soon come to pass.   Jesus used the situation to underscore the nearness of his death, and the fact that these people that he had held so dear would be separated from him.  The prophetic act of anointing emphasized that what he had been saying was about to happen. 

Jesus stood up for Mary against her accusers and detractors, saying, “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing for me….”  From this, I perceive an assurance that Jesus knows and appreciates those who genuinely appreciate and honor him.  The self-righteousness of the accusers was dismissed for the hypocritical superficiality that it was.  Mary’s act of selfless adoration was accepted and cherished. 

This sacrifice of so costly a gift assured Mary of a place in history.  “I tell you with certainty, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told as a memorial to her.”  Her gift was given not out of fear or some misplaced sense of responsibility.  She traded Jesus this precious object of transient value for his gratitude and reflected, even amplified love—an outcome of infinitely greater worth than a jar of spikenard.  Her gift was offered in love for his temporal glorification.  This attitude, not the monetary value of the gift, got Jesus’ attention and won his eternal approval and respect.

Had she planned this before the dinner at Simon’s house?  Was it a spontaneous act?  We can’t possibly know her heart.  But Jesus did just as he knows ours.  Mary did on Earth what Heaven had already done and was about to do again: she poured precious oil on Jesus’ head even as Heaven had broken the seal of its most precious gift, the Son of God, when he came to Earth, taught us all how to live and love like God, and showed us that the way to glory is through humility and sacrifice. 

That attitude is what Jesus wants in his disciples even today.  He accepts those who are not afraid to honor him.  He exalts those who humble themselves.  He intercedes for those whose lives testify to his transformative presence.  Words are cheap.  Actions are dear.  Mary’s “sacrifice” of so precious a possession was no real sacrifice at all. She invested her precious oil in the glorification of her Lord. She extended to him a mercy to comfort him in his coming trial and suffering.  When we do that to even the least of Jesus’ brethren, we will have done the same to him.  I have no costly oil to give.  But I have a heart full of mercy that I can share. 

So thank you, Mary of Bethany, for doing what you could, and for honoring Jesus with a pure and unfeigned heart. What an example of faith, devotion, mercy and love.