. . . but I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one.
You can replace “atheists” with any of a number of groups, and that’s a saying that underlines a manipulative approach to human relationships. There’s exploitation on the one hand because such friendships are often solely for the purpose of getting something out of the “friend.” On the other side there is exploitation because the person is using the claim of friendship with members of the group to get social points with someone else.
Ed Brayton has picked up a column by John Allen Paulos (Who’s Counting: Distrusting Atheists), where Paulos notes, in part:
Atheists are seen by many Americans (especially conservative Christians) as alien and are, in the words of sociologist Penny Edgell, the study’s lead researcher, “a glaring exception to the rule of increasing tolerance over the last 30 years.”
There isn’t a shred of evidence to suggest that atheists are any different from theists in terms of unethical or anti-social behavior . . .
And of course Ed is quite right about this.
But for many Christians, it is necessary to conclude that atheists are immoral and generally reprehensible because they reject the very core belief of our faith, and do so, as many of us see it, contrary to overwhelming evidence. How could it be possible that someone has been presented with overwhelming evidence for the existence and sovereignty of God and still rejects God absolutely? Is it possible that such a person could be anything but morally depraved?
In case you think I’m making this attitude up, let me first refer to the common Bible texts: “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good” (Psalm 14:1, NRSV). That one pretty much covers it. Then there’s Paul’s statement, “20Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened” (Romans 1:20-21, NRSV). So there it is! They reject the overwhelming evidence and therefore become totally depraved morally, and thus one really oughtn’t to want one’s daughter to marry one.
Based on these scriptures some Christians have justified despising those who do not believe, and basing their relationships with them solely on the desire to convert and reform them. Before I respond to that, let me take a moment to discuss the background of those scriptures.
In the case of Psalm 14:1, the passage comes form a time when a philosophical atheism was hardly an option. Everybody believed in some god or another, and the idea of believing in no gods at all, simply because one couldn’t find evidence for the gods was not a live option. I would guess there might have been some folks who abandoned a belief in any real sense, but they were not so numerous as to occasion much comment. The basic charge of atheism, in the ancient world, normally meant that one was rejecting the gods of a culture, and the consequent moral system that the culture lived by. Early Christians were called atheists. Why? Not because they had formed a philosophical conclusion that there was no deity, but because they rejected the deities that undergirded the Roman system of government. (As an aside, let me note that use of this text as an argument for the existence of God is quite useless. You use the fact that a book that your opponent does not accept calls him a fool. That would only matter if he already accepted the book as authoritative.)
It’s very hard for some people to transfer Christian ethical principles into a secular society, because so much of the Biblical literature was written in a culture that assumed one religious and cultural framework. In a secular society, we generally agree to follow a set of laws and principles that we can agree upon irrespective of our particular religious viewpoint, and we allow the spiritual decisions and thus sometimes the reasons for adhering to those principles, to be an individual matter. Christian reconstructionists run hard against this tradition in America, trying to restore something like the Old Testament covenant, only with the United States as “God’s country” inhabited by “God’s people” and blessed as we obey “God’s laws.” They are a group that should frighten Americans from all across the spectrum. That’s not how we do it.
And that’s not how Jesus advocated doing it. His commands were clearly designed to allow his followers to exist peacefully in a world that did not accept their value system. In fact, it was their goal to stand contrary to the surrounding value system, but to do so peacefully, and not as political revolutionaries. The Christian mode of revolution was individual, that is, the conversion or changing of people one at a time through living as the “salt of the earth.” “Christian” reconstructionism thus is not Christian at all, at least assuming that part of Christianity is following Jesus of Nazereth. But some of those attitudes have crept through into the daily activities of Christians who don’t accept Christian reconstructionism. These include the idea that our nation is cursed because of toleration of homosexuality. This is an insidious invasion into our general thinking of the idea of Christian reconstructionism. It results from belief, conscious or unconscious, that blessing or curse is a national thing, and is upheld by behavior according to the covenant with God. But there is no evidence that God has made any kind of covenant with the United States of America, or that God wanted to make any such covenant.
In Paul’s case in Romans, we need to be aware of the flow of Paul’s argument. Romans 1 is so commonly taught alone that often Christians are not aware of the overall flow of the argument. Paul is building his case that all of humanity is in need of salvation. In Romans 1 he says that the gentiles have fallen into sin. In Romans 2 he adds to this that the Jews have also fallen into sin. Each has enough revelation, according to him, to understand who God is, but neither has successfully lived it out. Note thus that Paul’s intention here is not to single out those who don’t believe from those who do; rather, it’s to point out that believers and unbelievers have both fallen short. Romans 3 then continues by saying that thus we are all in need of the grace of Jesus. One should be careful using a small portion of an argument that Paul uses to place believers and unbelievers on common ground in order to demonstrate that unbelievers are, in fact, more reprehensible. For those who will point out that Paul is talking about Jewish believers, let me simply note that Paul does not argue that those who believe in Jesus are morally superior, but rather than those who believe in Jesus receive grace in spite of the fact that they do fail. But that’s a whole other topic.
So neither of these common texts really point to what some modern Christians use them for. But now let me step out on the ice a bit, because some of my best friends are atheists, and I’ve had some interesting conversations about that fact. There are really two groups that have produced conversations of this nature. First, atheists and agnostics, and second, the local Unitarian-Universalist congregation. I feel free to mention these conversations because I’ve discussed them with members of both groups.
First, there is surprise that I get along with such people. Just reverse the statement, and add a good bit of shock in the tone: “Some of your best friends are atheists!” That’s about got it. The point being that it is very surprising to them that I can enjoy myself in the company of such unbelievers. But the second reaction is one of great sympathy in that I am called to witness to atheists and agnostics. Now I believe that a Chrsitian is always witnessing. It’s just unfortunate that so many of us feel that we must witness by talking when shutting up would be so much better. So yes, I am a witness of one person, myself, who is a Christian. That witness will be either good or bad. But nonetheless, I note the tones of sympathy that I get, the offers of special prayers, and the desire that I report back when I’m “finished.” There is a hidden assumption here that my interaction with atheist, agnostic, or Unitarian-Universalist friends is a episode that needs to be completed and then reported on.
There’s the hidden assumption as well that my purpose must be to change these people into something else, and thus my friendships are strategic. Now my friendship with members of the Unitarian-Universalist church has resulted in numerous opportunities to speak there (see my sermon Fences: Mending or Rending, from September 11, 2005), but the question of my motivation remains. You see, for me, this is simply another group of people, wonderful people in fact, with whom I can share some thoughts that I hope will help them on their journey. I’m not there to convert them. I do appreciate prayers, but I would ask people to pray that I will be a good example of a follower of Jesus Christ, not that I will change some other group of people. Change in them is their personal choice.
I have found, however, that this attitude is very hard to convey to other Christians. That’s the problem. Do we, as Christians, make such an assumption that it is our job to fix other people that we have difficulty entering into non-manipulative relationships with those not of our faith? I know many Christians who do think as I do, and many who are less conscious of it than I am. I’m made very conscious of it because every time I go speak anywhere there are people praying for me. I want them to pray for me. I ask them to pray for me. But the atmosphere is a bit different when I’m going to speak to a group that is not Christians.
Jesus was known for associating with those that the religious folks didn’t approve of. He was criticized for it. It didn’t seem to stop him. If you asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” do you think he would include atheists? Could you retell the story of the good Samaritan and have an atheist be the one who rendered aid? Whether you can do that or not will tell a great deal about how much of the “Jesus attitude” you’ve absorbed.