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Last week an old friend from Bible college — one of the ones who remain Christian — commented on a tweet of mine that he found on Facebook. His response: “You sound like a new Christian. You demand that everyone follows this new found belief you’ve discovered. A missionary to the apostates and agnostics.”
I think he actually missed the point of what I was saying. It seems he thought I was insisting all Christians immediately de-convert. But he got it backwards. The post he was commenting on actually said this: “Seriously, it really is possible to be an atheist without demanding everyone else also be.” It was trying to say the exact opposite of how he took it. But either way…
My friend went on to criticize Richard Dawkins and other prominent atheists for essentially doing the same thing Christians do. Allegedly pushing their convictions upon the masses. Ridiculing anyone who doesn’t see things they same way they do. This is a common attack among defensive religionists who feel they are accused for being judgmental and religiously pushy by those that seem to be doing the same in reverse.
Now, whether or not Dawkins (or Sam Harris or the late Christopher Hitchens or whoever) is unfairly judgmental or pushy towards the religionists I will leave for another discussion. And whether the whole wide swath of religion is inherently destructive I will also leave for another time. Kind of…
But what I do want to respond to further is the idea that since I am a known atheist, I must also be one to demand that everyone else around me also become one too. Now, I suppose this inference may stem from the fact that I tend to post a fair amount of comments and images that either support atheism or reveal the flaws of Christian thought. In fact, it is true that just last week, I posted a short series of tweets where I manipulated a chapter in the Bible to advocate the uselessness of Christian faith. (You can see it here.) Now, that series of tweets was offered more in jest than condemnation, but the question may nonetheless legitimately arise: Do I demand that everyone around me become an atheist as I am? Do I view Christians as inferior or limited because of their supernatural belief? Maybe this was a fair accusation for my friend to make. Even if he did read my post backwards.
I want to tread carefully here. On the one hand, I currently stand where I stand and think what I think because, yes, I do think it is a superior and more accurate position than where I stood yesterday. Yes, I have thought through the issues, I have weighed the evidence, and yes, I am convinced that the god the Christian Bible is impossible. Yes, I am further inclined by experiential and observational evidence that supernatural beliefs or theories do not provide any greater insights into the mysteries of life than what we already have available in nature. And as I was taught in seminary, the preferred option is the one requiring the least number of assumptions. I think a fellow named Ockham also said something along those lines ;))
But those are my conclusions. This is where life’s journey has brought me thus far. And I want to extend to my neighbors the same freedom I request of them: the liberty to come to my own conclusions.
Even as a pastor, regardless of the discussion at hand, I would often preface my comments (be they Facebook posts or Sunday morning sermons) with something like this: “Now, I might be wrong, but this is where I currently stand on the issue. This is how I’m seeing things…” You see, I have always worked to maintain an atmosphere of dialogue and have truly believed that none of us, not even the most spiritual of us, sees everything perfectly. Even then, I saw life as a journey. A journey of discipleship is how I would have characterized it as a pastor, one where God was using each of our varying viewpoints to sharpen one another in the ever-unfolding endeavor to become more like Jesus. I saw church as the place of community where each person was called to serve as both teacher and learner. Anyway, one of the ways this materialized in my own life is that it developed within me a genuine appreciation for dialogue and discovery. And so even as a pastor, I always worked to welcome varying viewpoints and honestly believed that I had something to learn from every single person placed in front of me.
This kind of openness will earn you the friendship and respect of many in the community. And so I naturally had many friends extending far beyond the walls of our church building. Some of them were embattled Christians struggling to maintain some semblance of the faith they desperately longed for. Many were nominal Christians who tentatively believed a generalized Christian doctrine but who for one reason or another kept their distance from the ritual or formalities. A few were perhaps adherents to another religion. But several of my community members were either agnostics or atheists.
Now here’s the point: Regardless of who I was with, I always encouraged discussion. I would suggest to my atheist friends that we are all on a journey in pursuit of truth. We all want to know what’s real and what’s not. What can be known and what cannot. I would willingly listen to their views and ask that they also consider mine. I invited them to argue their perspectives passionately and emphatically, to present their thoughts with the best case possible. And I would simply ask that they return the favor: that they likewise sit and listen and consider as I do the same. As I share my perspectives with equal passion and emphasis.
See, to argue with passion does not necessarily imply intolerance or disrespect for the other view. Rather, it is to show respect for the pursuit of truth. Granted, such respect for truth also seems to require an openness to follow wherever the evidence leads, along with a humility and openness that allows for the possibility that others might see a tad more clearly than I do. But respect for truth indeed calls upon truth-seekers to search with gusto. And so, as a pastor, I would suggest that it is when our various views are both offered and received, both in humility and with passion, that each of our views are then sharpened in the process.
And now here’s my larger point: This is still my goal today. My view has completely outgrown the Christian, and I will argue passionately that it is better because of it. But this does not mean that I am intolerant or lack respect for those who hold Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist views. We are all on a journey in pursuit of truth. I will not only allow you to follow where your thinking leads but I will even encourage you to do so. As long as you do so humbly and openly. And I will respect you for following your thoughts. Even when they conflict with mine. Especially when they conflict with mine.
The marketplace of ideas is vast and is at its best when welcoming. We participate knowing that we do no justice by restraining our current measure of perspective. And so we do so with a good dose of both humility and vigor. We participate not because we believe we have already reached perfect understanding, but because we find ourselves engaged in understanding’s desperate pursuit. We contend for truth with the freedom of inquiry. We trust that eventually the best ideas will win the day, and that the more voices we find in the square, the better equipped we are to weigh them against each other. My current views are not what they were yesterday, and they are not likely to remain the same for tomorrow.
This is precisely why I cannot force, nor do I desire to force, my atheism on anyone else. I will passionately argue my current perspective even as I carefully listen to that of others. I will participate and share, listen and consider. I will join together in humanity’s great race for understanding and discovery. But just as I wish that none others shut me out, so I will not shut the door on them. Just as they dare not force my hand in their direction, so I will not force theirs in mine. Though I do believe the marketplace of ideas only works when we shop with a clear head and an open mind, even this I cannot force on anyone. It will do no good to try.
So now, once more for the record, no, I do not command anyone to drop their religious or supernatural belief. No, I do not want to make religious doctrines illegal. And no, it’s not child abuse to raise your children according to your best attempt at honest theological and philosophical understanding. These are not my goals. And I do not want to make you an atheist. For the record.
“Seriously, it really is possible to be an atheist without demanding that everyone else also be.”