“I now know enough about all religions to know that I would always be an infidel at all times and in all places, but my particular atheism is a Protestant atheism.” — Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great, chapter 1
Three years ago, I attended a large worship service on my campus. The adult leader of that organisation talked with me afterwards and our discussion became heated. I didn’t particularly want it to become heated, but I had yet to learn how to talk to people who did not share my view of the world (this remains a struggle, but I am better at it now than I was then).
Our quarrel was over our respective interpretations of the Bible. Looking back on it now, it seems so odd to me that we fought over something so relatively trivial. Even though there are many details of the Bible which I find grossly immoral — God ordering the mass deaths of nearly everyone, including children, in the Great Flood or two bears slaughtering 42 children that merely mocked a prophet because he was bald — the man I was speaking to does not condone genocide or the killing of children. It may be a cost of living inside a particular community that he assent to particular beliefs which are sometimes difficult to maintain. It may be true that he identifies with, and interprets his life through, the framework provided to him by that community. It may also be true that he holds as sacrosanct propositions concerning gender and sexuality that I would find abhorrent. Yet I had not stopped to understand why he accepted the cost of assenting to beliefs that many would find difficult to maintain. I had not taken the time to understand the experiences which he interpreted through his framework. Our debate did not center on those of his views which I might find harmful nor did it center on those views and experiences we shared as humans. There would have been plenty of reasons for righteous indignation, but they were only tangentially related to what we were discussing.
The irony is that our discussion was predicated on shared assumptions owed to the common origins of our respective cultural outlooks. In the West, the history of Christianity and atheism are intimately tied to each other. One cannot understand the history of Western atheism without understanding the history of Western Christianity.
The protestant reformation represented a move towards a more individualized and privatized religion and away from a public, institutionalized religion. While atheists may use their private, individual reason to answer the question of whether or not God exists, protestants tend to emphasize their private, individual experiences as “proof” of God. Some Christians may accuse atheists of putting their own reason before God, but Catholics could easily accuse contemporary evangelicals of putting their personal experience before God’s authority. Evangelicals may say that they experience the Holy Spirit when they are Born Again, but other Christians will see that as the individual and subjective usurping the Ultimate and the Absolute.
While some protestants have (and still do) provided arguments for god’s existence, it was the Roman Catholics who first declared the doctrine of preambulae fidei: before one can have faith, one must prove by reason that God exists. Early modern atheists accepted this doctrine, but rejected the Catholics’s arguments for God’s existence.
Even the term ‘Freethinker’ originates in a protestant theological context.
At times, this has allowed for religious communities and Freethinkers to learn from each other. At other times, it has laid the foundations for brutal conflict and political disagreement. I fear that today we live more in the latter than in the former. Although our contemporary cultural situation is far more complex than other periods of Western history — and we desperately need for our cultural discourse on religion to be inclusive of Muslims, Jews, wiccans, Shintoists, Buddhists, Native American spiritualities, etc — I would like to call for a re-evaluation and a deconstruction of our present situation.
I have already seen some, from both sides, who I think are more than capable of moving this situation forward. Christopher McHugh and his followers, at New Apologetics, are Catholics who are leading a new kind of church life: they are working hard to both understand and respectfully respond to atheists. Pastor-turned-nonbeliever Ryan Bell (who blogs at Year Without God) often sounds as though he wishes for a belief space to be created that rejects the theism/atheism binary. James Croft is eager to create religious spaces for atheists, but in a way that I find serious and rigorous. The Reasonable Doubts podcast is prides itself on the high level of knowledge of its hosts and the professionalism with which they carry themselves.
Too often we essentialize, demonize, and ignore our common history. Seldom do we stop to think: what is the broader story that has brought us to this impasse? What are the social and cultural forces which produced both of us and set us at odds? Are we really engaged in a debate over God’s existence, or are we actually debating how to make society? I’m not saying that we should stop condemning religious institutions, beliefs, or practices when they cause harm (unequivocally, we should condemn such things). Nor am I saying that we should stop having a public dialogue over the truth or falsehood of Christianity or its doctrinal claims. What I am saying is that we need a discourse that is predicated on an understanding of the social scientific and historical study of religion. We need original thought and creative new strategies. And we should watch ourselves in what we do to ensure that we do not exasperate an already difficult situation.
I will end this post with an Easter-appropriate metaphor that I believe we can take from our Christian neighbors. Traditionally, Christians have believed in Original Sin: that since the moment Eve disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit, Sin has been in the world. We are born into a fundamentally broken world. For Christians, the brokenness of that world is the reason we require the salvation of Jesus Christ, whose blood sacrifice took on the sins of the world. There are many reasons I find fault with this idea, but I also see within it the potential for a powerful metaphor for social justice.
We are born into a broken world. Not because one of our ancestors disobeyed God, but because all of our ancestors, collectively, arranged society to be fundamentally unfair. Neil DeGraase Tyson recently summarized the issue when asked about why there were so few women in science:
I’ve never been female, but I’ve been black all my life and so let me perhaps offer some insight from that perspective. I got to see how the world around me reacted to my expressions of these ambitions. All I can say that is the fact that I wanted to be a scientist, an astrophysicist was, hands-down, the path of most resistance through the forces of society. … Now here I am, I think, one of the most visible scientists in the land. And I look behind me and I say, ‘Where are the others who might have been this?’ And they’re not there. And I wonder: Where is the blood on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not simply because of the forces of society that prevent it at every turn?
We are born into a world that has been fractured and broken by the Sins of racism, homophobia, cis-sexism, transphobia, and the list goes on. Like the invisible metaphysical force Christians believe to have been released from the moment Eve bit into that piece of fruit, these structures overhang and organize society.
None of us made these social structures, nor are most of us aware of their existence, but we all participate in them. Many of us (including myself) alternatively benefit and are hurt by them. Unlike Christians, I do not believe that our salvation comes from blood sacrifice. I do believe that empowerment, consciousness raising, and dialogue are salvific. Unlike the imperialistic attitude that certain versions of this metaphor might suggest — such as an outside force appearing to “liberate” a group from their oppression — I believe that salvation arises from within communities and that allies may help by recognizing the social structures they participate in.
Let us re-make our world.