What Can We Atheists Learn From Our Christian Neighbor?

“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.


  • April 20, 2014 - 2:29 pm | Permalink

    “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.”

    I agree that the first sentence is true.

    I disagree with the second sentence. That cannot be the reason, because our ancestors and people living today have done a hundred things to rearrange society so that it will be just, but no one has succeeded. That is because of something inside human beings. We are broken, as is the natural world.

    • Dan Linford
      April 20, 2014 - 2:54 pm | Permalink

      Prove it.

      • April 20, 2014 - 3:35 pm | Permalink

        What is “it”?

        • Dan Linford
          April 20, 2014 - 3:51 pm | Permalink

          You stated: “I disagree with the second sentence [Not because one of our ancestors disobeyed God, but because all of our ancestors, collectively, arranged society to be fundamentally unfair.]. That cannot be the reason, because our ancestors and people living today have done a hundred things to rearrange society so that it will be just, but no one has succeeded. That is because of something inside human beings. We are broken, as is the natural world.”

          I would thought that it was obvious, from context, what “it” was.

          The latter (“That is because of something inside human beings. We are broken, as is the natural world.”) doesn’t follow from the former (“…our ancestors and people living today have done a hundred things to rearrange society so that it will be just, but no one has succeeded.”). That past attempts to ameliorate society haven’t worked does not imply that there is something inside of us that is broken (some of those attempts — like ending American slavery — were successful, while others were misplaced or mistaken). And even if our past failed attempts did imply that humans have something broken inside of them, the brokenness of humans does not imply the brokenness of the “natural world”.

          So, I asked you to prove that there really was something broken inside of humans and inside of the natural world, instead of just asserting it.

  • April 20, 2014 - 4:07 pm | Permalink

    “Prove it” smacks of microaggression. I thought that was considered a sin in academia? ;)

    Here is some evidence that there is something broken inside human beings: (1) no attempt at creating a utopia has ever succeeded; (2) try to be perfectly just and eventually you will fail (and it may only take five minutes); (3) a plethora of psychological disorders exist; (4) human beings have been in a perpetual state of war since time immemorial; (5) when the oppressed have their oppression removed they can easily become oppressors.

    Evidence that the natural world is broken is natural evil. Suffering and death are not natural to us, yet practically everything in nature can harm us. It seems to me that if we were simply creatures of nature, we would be at home in it.

    • Dan Linford
      April 20, 2014 - 4:18 pm | Permalink

      Well, I apologize that I was aggressive.

      It seems to me that while (1)-(5) are true, they’re not reasons to think that something has become broken inside of humans. Instead, (1)-(5) can be explained as the result of humans having been produced by nature. When I say that human society is broken, what I mean is that problems like (1)-(5) have always been with us, but we can imagine a world where these problems with lessened, mitigated, etc, and our collective history shows that progress *is* possible.

      It seems as though you think (1)-(5) give us reason to think that humans originated through some means other than naturalistic ones. On the hypothesis that humans were produced through completely naturalistic means, why would you think that (1)-(5) wouldn’t obtain? When you say that “suffering and death” are not natural to us, I wonder what you could possibly mean; they certainly seem to be natural part of our history as a species. When you say that “everything in nature can harm us”, I wonder what alternative you have in mind. I’m not saying that a non-naturalistic explanation wouldn’t work equally well; what I am saying is that I have a hard time seeing why you’d think the existence of suffering would be a problem for the naturalist.

  • April 20, 2014 - 4:26 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you that the naturalistic explanation fits the evidence for natural evil and even explains a lot of what Catholics call original sin.

    What I have not yet seen (but I have not looked for–maybe you have an answer) is an account for the fact that we are born with maximal hope for happiness (that never goes away) and yet is never satisfied. Why are we surprised by injustice? Why do we dread death?

    Why is there such a gap between what we expect and what we get?

    • Dan Linford
      April 20, 2014 - 6:09 pm | Permalink

      –“Why do we dread death?”

      The traits which evolution produces are those which raise the probability that your genes will appear in successive generations. Avoiding death until you get to the age at which you can reproduce is one mechanism to raise the probability of your genes reappearing. What happens after you reproduce is irrelevant for evolution, so a byproduct is that we fear death for our entire lives.

      –“Why are we surprised by injustice?”

      There is an entire sub-field of evolutionary biology and anthropology which focuses on the development of prosocial behaviors. Because I’m not an expert on the evolution of human behavior and do not have the time to write an exorbitantly long comment reply, I’ll simply direct you to googling things about “reciprocal altruism”.

      –“Why is there such a gap between what we expect and what we get?”

      I’m not sure, and I’m actually skeptical that all people in all places at all times have had a gap between their expectations and what they have. But supposing that evolution has produced this mismatch in us (so that it occurs for all people), I might suggest that evolution seldom produces perfectly functional organisms. Instead, evolution more often produces organisms which only imperfectly function long enough to reproduce. Our ability to imagine things that we can never obtain might be the byproduct of other things or it might be random.

      How ever it was that we developed the capacity to imagine that which we do not have, I am glad that we did. Often, this serves as a motivation for improving ourselves or our conditions.

      • April 20, 2014 - 6:28 pm | Permalink

        If what you say is true, in my case, evolution has created a person who completely rejects evolution, because I don’t give a rat’s @ss about existing so I can pass on my genes (even though I have done so seven times).

        Again, if evolution has fashioned me in such a way as to make me long for things I can never have, screw evolution (this idea, by the way, is evidence that I am broken, not society).

        Given the ultimately meaninglessness of life (passing on your genes), why should I care about improving things? What is the value of justice?

        Indeed, what is the point of “remaking our world”? So, from the naturalist point of view of the author, why is homophilia better than mishomosexuality? How do you even evaluate homosexuality if life is just a blind game of passing on our genes?

        • Dan Linford
          April 20, 2014 - 6:48 pm | Permalink

          You’ve made a gross error with regards to the functioning of evolutionary explanation. Evolution may describe how various things came to be in the world, but that doesn’t mean that we should understand morality or meaning in virtue of evolution (and I never said that we should).

          And you seem to have fallen victim to the most common of misunderstandings among theists. You seem to think that without God, there can be no objective morality (or, indeed, no morality at all — theists often conflate relativism, subjectivism, and constructivism). There have been secular views of morality since ancient Greece. And since the 18th century, philosophers have been developing new secular metaethical theories. These include plenty of views in which moral facts are objective and absolute. If you’d like to explore that topic, you might read Russ Shafer-Landau’s What Ever Happened To Good and Evil?. But as you can probably imagine, explicating the various views on secular moral realism is not a short task, so I will leave it to you to explore that on your own.

          So instead of asking how can someone have a metaethical view without God?, I tend to ask which metaethical view is the right one? That’s an ongoing area of investigation. I think it’s clear, however, that wrongness has something or other to do with harming sentient agents and rightness has something or other to do with the prospering of sentient agents.

          As for how I evaluate moral questions, I tend to think in terms of consequentialism: what are the actions that harm people? What are the actions which hurt others? What can we do to improve the situations which people find themselves in?

          “If what you say is true, in my case, evolution has created a person who completely rejects evolution, because I don’t give a rat’s @ss about existing so I can pass on my genes (even though I have done so seven times).”

          Evolution is a mindless process. At no point did I say that animals, which have originate in evolutionary processes, do — or even should — care about passing on their genes. What I said was that the process of evolution tends to produce animals with a higher probability of having their genes reappear in the next generation (and, really, that’s quite independent of whatever you do or don’t care about; consider that most animals don’t care about reproducing because they don’t have the cognitive power to even think about it).

          Incidentally, evolution produces tons of people who reject evolution. We call them “Creationists”.

          “Given the ultimately meaninglessness of life (passing on your genes), why should I care about improving things? What is the value of justice?”

          You seem to have an implicit premise that whatever brought about life is what is responsible for giving meaning to life. I reject this notion, so I don’t see what evolution has to do with whether life is meaningful or not.

          I also reject the notion that the meaning of life has much to do with justice.

          “How do you even evaluate homosexuality if life is just a blind game of passing on our genes?”

          I never said that “life is just a blind game of passing on our genes”. It’s very clearly not. What I said was that evolution is a blind game of passing on our genes.

          • April 20, 2014 - 7:43 pm | Permalink

            I don’t think I have fallen into error about morality. I have defended the view many times that morality is rooted in human nature and that belief in God is not necessary for morality.

            I’m not ascribing any of the things I said above to Dan Liford, but I see them as the existential implications of a naturalistic view of the universe.

            That said, the OP above is essentially about justice and injustice. Clearly the author thinks justice is pretty important when it comes to the meaning of life.

    • Jaime Wise
      April 20, 2014 - 7:02 pm | Permalink

      If we were fundamentally broken, wouldn’t we accept “broken” behavior or situations as normal or acceptable, instead of easily identifying the problem? Doesn’t our continued capacity to imagine a more just world suggest that our collective nature is healthy?

      Can you provide an objective definition of Utopia?

  • April 21, 2014 - 3:39 am | Permalink

    Dan and Kevin,

    Kevin, you may possibly have already read this, but I pulled some quotes from NewApologetics.com which briefly describe the Catholic view of Original sin and its effect on the human condition. It came to my mind while reading your exchange. Strikingly, it explains a lot of what the evolutionary model seeks to explain regarding the state of our relationships and psychology – at least that was my (biased) impression. Note that I am not asserting the world is 6000 years old, but rather, quite the contrary: that there is not much disconnect between the the evolutionary model and what we would expect the world to look like if the Catholic view of original sin is correct.


    “Original sin has nothing to do with being blamed or punished by God for the sins of another. It simply means that we are *injured* by their sin. Because we are all interconnected, the disorder of an individual sin ripples out to affect everyone.

    We are all victims of the disorder which has entered the world because of the sin of others. All accidents and disasters come from the fact that the harmony of creation has been altered by events which are contrary to the order of justice which God has ordained. A personal and private act of sin causes a ripple-effect of disorder to afflict the whole world because all things in nature are causally interconnected. The accidents and disasters which cause so much pain are not from God, but are the amplified consequences of disorder introduced into the world at the level of the *individual* person. These disasters make no sense because they originate in evil, which is the violation of order and reason. Their impact has no respect for justice or human dignity. This situation is infinitely offensive to God. If he *could* stop it without hurting us in a far worse way, he would. He is not watching indifferently. Rather, he endures this infinite offense as one who is being *crucified*. We can talk about this at length if you like, but for now we will move on so that we can address the topic at hand.

    Unless we receive the *rescue* of God to restore to us what has been lost because of the injury we experience through this ripple effect of sin, then we will necessarily experience radical failure of the purpose for which we were created. We are very far removed from what God intended for us. The “rescue” needed is called the redemption.”


    “Going further on the problem of original sin, this eternal loss (which can only be reversed through the incarnation) is not the only consequence. Numerous other consequences harm us as well. The following is a very brief sketch of just some of them:

    1) Compulsive selfishness
    On the original order, all of our needs would be met, and each of our actions would be integral to meeting the needs of others. Because of the disorder caused by original sin, in order for one to meet his needs he must contradict others who are also trying to meet their needs. We are not made for suffering and so we are compelled towards selfishness no matter how hard we fight against ourselves. In the *new* order, the spirit of God possesses us and acts within us to enable us to have the freedom to act sacrificially for the good of others without thought of ourselves. Being one with God, we cannot be threatened by loss. In him we possess everything.

    2) Resistance to self knowledge and to God
    On the original order, we were not made to have the experience of inner ugliness or sinfulness. Because of the disorder caused by original sin, we are in radical need of God’s intervention to save us. But because we were not created to see ugliness within ourselves, we are compelled to *resist* seeing it regardless of how much we want to know ourselves. Only God can supernaturally reveal our need for his rescue, and any glimpse of it will seem to us like *death* because we are not made to see it. He reveals only a small part at a time and gives us what we need to allow him to heal and restore us.

    3) Compulsive clinging to disordered attachments
    On the original order, the world was a gift to us, and we are made to receive, not renounce the gift. Because of the disorder caused by original sin, we are now in a world which is passing away. Everything is afflicted by disorder and doomed to failure. However, because our nature was created to hold on to what is good (not to let go of it), we cling to whatever goods we find here for dear life. God’s grace works to separate us from these attachments which are guaranteed to fail us. But this feels like death to us because it is contrary to the good desires of our created nature. God doesn’t want it to be this hard, but it is because of the terrible situation.

    4) Inability to fully accept love from others
    On the original order we would be perfect in righteousness, and would never have any reason to accept any imperfection within ourselves. Original sin has driven us to act in ways contrary to what we really know is right. Because of our faults, and because we are made in the image of God which accepts only that which is truly righteous, we are compelled to reject ourselves *and* to fiercely defend ourselves. Both of these contrary compulsions come from the fact that we are made for *justice*. It is not that we are crazy, but that we are driven to seek justice, and apart from the perfect justice which God gives through the redemption, we cannot *allow* ourselves to be loved, and we cannot stop *demanding* that others love us.

    5) Shattering of community
    On the original order, we would be members of a total communion of persons where the actions of one are integral to the happiness of all. The disorder created by original sin has turned our influence on every other person into the means of distribution of disaster and chaos. Only through the redemption can God cause all things to work together for the good such as to reintegrate the community into the perfect unity it was intended to have.

    6) Compulsive self glorification contrary to the dignity of others
    On the original order, we would have received glory which fulfilled our need for glory. All would know of our importance to their happiness and would rejoice in our role. Because of original sin, we (struggling to survive) are at odds with all others in some degree, and we cannot find our rightful glory. We are therefore driven to see others as beneath us and to glorify ourselves since nobody else is willing to do it to our satisfaction. Through the redemption, God has given us a greater glory than what we lost. When we come to know this glory, we can say “I do not seek to glorify myself. There is one who seeks my glory and he is the judge.”

    7) Compulsive misunderstanding of the character of God
    On the original order, the world would have been a gift from God mediated through creatures. Because of original sin, it is a horror show of events which are infinitely offensive to God. Because our nature expects everything to be a gift of God, we see God as responsible for the evil that befalls us. Our flesh cannot understand that the world has gone off the rails, and wrongly sees the evil as coming from God. Through the grace of God, we are able to know the truth that God is love, and that love has nothing in common with evil. In the redemption, we are united to Christ such that our sufferings are transformed so that the evils that happen to us become the means of God’s gift of glory coming to us and the whole world.

    8 ) Subjection to disorder with no authority to subdue and overcome it
    On the original order, evil (demonic influences and disorder in the animal world) would be ours to conquer with the authority God had given us to subdue the earth. Because of original sin, we have come under the same disorder which we would have defeated. In the redemption, through union with Christ, we are given a holy vengeance against all which harms justice and innocence. Every good thing that God accomplishes in the destruction of the power of evil is accomplished through us in union with Christ.”

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