There Aren’t Just Six Types of Atheists

CNN had a story yesterday entitled, “Behold, the Six Types of Atheists.”images

Where do I start?

I think it’s fine to have a story on atheism. It’s good, even. I do think it’s telling that, by and large, their atheist choices come predictably from Hollywood, academia, or the loud cast of militant atheism characters (with a notable exception being the Humanist chaplain who has a really wonderful book; I highly recommend it).  God forbid (a little pun there) we pull from atheist business owners, politicians, world leaders, or even regular every day people.

I think that, whether intentionally done or not, touting the usual atheist bastions of Hollywood and academia just reinforces this idea of liberalism going hand-in-hand with atheism.

And it doesn’t.  What about the thinking Christians out there? Or Hollywood theists? There are some, you know.  And they’re not all anti-intellectual and annoying (looking at you Stephen Baldwin and the faculty of Liberty University).

And I’m not saying that we now need a “Behold, the Six Types of Believers” or anything like that, but the closest thing I found on CNN to that story was a similar story pertaining to pics of “born again” celebrities who were either a) annoying about their beliefs or b) hyper fundamentalists.

What about folks like me?  I had a good long while of unbelief.  I came back to the faith quietly, without a lot of fanfare.  I practice my faith with, what I hope is, some humility and thought and a healthy dose of consideration.

What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that there aren’t just six types of atheism.  There are probably 600,000 types.  Because it’s not just enough to say you don’t believe in the reality of a God…we add all sorts of asterisks and appendices to the things we trust all the time.

Likewise, there aren’t just six types of theism or deism or any belief system you might want to name.  There are 6 million types.  Maybe 6 billion…as many as there are people who ascribe to faith in the world.

We don’t configure our worlds the same way.  I’m not talking about relativism here, I’m talking about reality.  If given a survey, I doubt we’d all come up with the same checked boxes within any camp: Christian, Buddhist, Atheist, or Zoroastrian.

And I guess I don’t like CNN trying to play as if there are six types of atheism, whether they’re just “painting with a wide brush” or actually trying to do some reporting (a first).

Because painting with such a wide brush allows authors like Hitchens and Dawkins to paint me into the canvas with people who claim to “believe” and claim the name “Christian” but look nothing like me.  Wide-brush painting might help us say something, but as Richard Yates sagely points out, “Never say anything that doesn’t improve on silence.”

And perhaps our world would be better without half the words in it.  My own words, included.

So, I’m a reluctant Christian; this is true.  But for all my atheist readers, I would encourage you to also be a reluctant atheist in light of CNN’s stereotyping of you yesterday.  After-all, do you want to be pigeonholed somewhere between Keira Knightley and Richard Branson, or would you rather land somewhere between Richard Dawkins and Kurt Vonnegut?

To be fair, I find those characters much less annoying and much more insightful than Kirk Cameron or Joel Osteen…

But I still wouldn’t feel good just being stuck on their continuum.

And as long as we keep imagining that everyone fits in a nice little box, it makes it a lot easier to just dismiss people who don’t think and behave and love and believe like us…and then we can all just make our little camps and never have meaningful interaction again.


Christianity Doesn’t Work

It doesn't work

It doesn’t work

No, it doesn’t.

And no matter how much those smiley mega-church pastors, or those trendy pastors, or those evangelists with their little bottles of snake oil  want you to believe it does, it doesn’t.

Christianity does not work the way your hammer works.  And you may want to hammer in the morning, or in the evening all over this land, but it still won’t work.

It doesn’t do that.

I read a recent article online about a church that was welcoming in their new pastor.  They lauded the pastor as being “energetic and enthusiastic,” claiming that he “grew his previous congregation into one of the fastest growing churches in the denomination.”

No doubt that is an article that tries to get you to think that it works.  It creates energy and enthusiasm, growing and multiplying and expanding.

Expanding influence.  Expanding pocketbooks.

We’re talking about success here.

But Christianity doesn’t do that.  It is not a magic pill that you swallow to become successful.  It does not, as I recently read on the cover of a free evangelical e-book, help you “conquer life.”

In fact, it helps you lose your life.  Christopher Hitchens hated that part about Christianity.  He said it was cruel to expect people to give up their lives in deference to others, especially enemies and those they never met.  This point is about the only point about Christianity that Hitchens ever understood: self-sacrifice and self-giving love is at the heart of the Christian.

And it encourages you to adopt tactics that don’t work.  Forgiveness, for instance, doesn’t work.  It doesn’t automatically repair relationships.  It doesn’t automatically make you feel better or heal your insides.  It doesn’t do any of those things, as a recent New York Times article points out.  Sometimes revenge satisfies more than forgiveness.

And yet, the Christian is called to forgive.  It is but one example of how Christianity doesn’t work in the way the world wants things to work.

Christianity doesn’t work. And that’s going to upset some people to hear it, but it’s true. And I’m a reluctant Christian because so much of our church culture today is about success and numbers and winning and…and about it all working.

The Christianity I practice doesn’t work.  It hasn’t made me successful.  It hasn’t made me wealthy.  It hasn’t made my marriage perfect or my parenting perfect or my manners perfect or my morals perfect.  It certainly hasn’t given me all the answers.  I have more questions then ever.

It has given me a lens, though, to view my work and any successes I might claim.  It’s given me a lens to view my pocketbook and my marriage and my parenting and my manners and my morals.  It has given me a lens to view questions and has encouraged me to ask more questions.

But it doesn’t work.

And quick growth in faith communities, or enthusiastic pastors, or wealthy congregations, or any of these business markers for success are smoke and mirrors covering this truth: Christianity doesn’t work.

Thank God.  So much of what supposedly works in this life is killing us.

And so much of Christianity is about self-sacrifice.  And somehow, it gives life.

I Wonder if this Elephant is an Atheist…

I love it when people use the phrase, “elephant in the room” to describe that taboo topic that needs addressing in public.  Everytime I hear it I visualize that elephant and just where she might be standing.  I usually imagine her in the middle eating peanuts.

Here’s an elephant in the religious room: there are Biblical inconsistencies.

Not an elephant for you?  Not for me either.  But it is for some people, apparently.  Or at least, was.

Take Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at UNC, Chapel Hill (go Tarheels!) for example.  He was trained in a conservative tradition where the Bible is viewed as inerrant.  Going from Moody to Wheaton to Princeton, that view evolved much to his sadness, and he’s written about it.

A lot.

Misquoting Jesus, God’s Problem, Jesus, Interrupted, these are all books which pull back the curtain, as it were, on what he believes people think or have thought about all things Christian, from the words of Jesus to the compilation, contents, and meaning of Scripture.

I was introduced to Jesus, Interrupted by a congregation member. He was reading it, so I figured I should read it.

I found it to be well written, but not particularly instructive.  The congregant, on the other hand, found it to be totally disruptive.  In short: it was faith-shattering.

Ehrman, too, lost faith after studying at Princeton and finding out much of what he has recorded in Jesus, Interrupted.  Apparently finding out that Moses didn’t write the first five books of the Old Testament (surprise surprise, especially considering that if the historical Moses were based off of a real individual he was probably illiterate…and would probably not write in meta-Moses form about his own death) was faith destroying.  Or if not that, perhaps it was learning that the end of the Gospel of Mark was added at a later date because it was just too much to have the “women say nothing to anyone” after the resurrection.  Or perhaps finding out that in the Gospel of John Jesus dies on a Thursday, whereas the synoptics have him dying on a Friday.

Perhaps it was all of these that caused Ehrman to lose faith;  perhaps something else.

My point, though, is that I learned all of this at university, and was taught much of this in seminary.

And here I am, a Christian (reluctantly).

And learning it didn’t destroy my faith at all, it just reconfigured it.

I lost faith in the words, but grew in faith to the story the words pointed to.  I lost faith in the empirical thinking that we for some reason believe must rule our lives, and fostered faith in the storied thinking that truly moves mountains and inspires action.

Dr. Ehrman: in what was your faith?  Was it in the words, or was it in the promise the words pointed to?

In seminary I had a classmate who said boldly, “Even if tomorrow they find the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, I still hold fast to the promise…that is the nature of faith.”

Indeed, it is.

Religion does no good in espousing the inerrancy of its documents, creeds, doctrines, dogmas…whatever.  I have no doubt that people are leaving churches in flocks because they find that their faith in the inerrancy of Scripture cannot stand up to the fact that Paul probably did not write all the letters ascribed to him.

I should also mention that, the early church probably knew this and it didn’t seem to challenge their faith any…

But I do empathize with faith-destruction.  It’s tough.  Even Christopher Hitchens has a touching moment in God is Not Great where he speaks of his disollusionment with Marxism, and likens this to the religious individual losing faith.  He writes,

“Thus, dear reader, if you have come this far and found your own faith undermined-as I hope-I am willing to say that to some extent I know what you are going through.  There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb.  But in general I feel better, and no less radical, and you will feel better too, I guarantee, once you leave hold of the doctrinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking.” (God is Not Great, 153)

The rub?  Hitchens and Ehrman point to the same evidence in both of these books.  Sure, Ehrman is less flippant and less inflammatory, but the gist of their arguments are the same.

And their purpose, I think, is probably the same.

And where is the defense of faith?  Usually found in the voice-box of a literalist…and thus the elephant enters back into the room.  Spong and Borg are attempting, Craig and McGrath are making some good noise, but the fact of the matter is this: if we are to defend faith as a life-giving concept, we have to stop teaching ridiculous notions like Biblical inerrancy, which are nothing but death knells waiting to ring.

Where is the emphasis on stories and how story shapes our reality?  Where is the emphasis on promise, beauty, love that defies description?

I read Hitchens and Ehrman, and find myself nodding a lot.  A lot of what the atheist and agnostic says makes sense to me, a reluctant Christian.  But none of it destroys my faith.  So either I’m deceiving myself (the Truth is not in me, I assure you), or my faith is in something other than words on a page or empirical proof.

So now, what are we to do?

Perhaps we can start by ushering the elephant out of the room, and then tell a story.  That’s what this a/theist does.

Credibile est, quia ineptum est

I’m a terrible shaman.

Despite people’s requests, I have yet to be able to heal a wound without the aid of ointments.  I haven’t been able to call down water from heaven like Elijah (and I question if Elijah literally did as well…that’s not the point of that story anyway).

Nor have I been able to exorcise supposed demons or even provide the “right answer” to life questions such as “Why did he have to die?” Oh, if there were an answer to that question!  Theologians can’t even agree on the significance of Jesus’ death, let alone the tragic death of Congressional staff workers, children, judges, or plumbers at a Safeway in Tucson.

And yet people come to their pastors expecting miracles only to find out that we’re poor miracle workers.  Oh, sure, I don’t deny that miracles happen…just not because of me.  Miracles are un-explainable, by definition.

Priests and pastors have become shaman for the religious in many ways, and its not like organized religion has done much to dispel this notion.  We preside over communion because of “good order,” and yet the magic words and the magic hands are the impression we give off…sometimes willfully.  That’s shameful.

Ordination is done for good order.  But a pastor is not ontologically different.  Any attempt to say they are is, I think, wishful thinking at its most benign and demagoguery at its worst.  The “change” of ordination is simply in title and training; I do not converse with God in a different way than you do.

And what is the change of ordination, really?

Cynically it is the certificate from the church body that declares you as having filled the requirements of an organized religion to teach and lead a branch of the organization.  A letter of call, a funny collar, the blessing from the head of the church.

Speaking from a place of hope, the piece of paper says reliably that an individual is competent in worship and counseling arts and that a community wishes them to lead them.

It says nothing about my ontological status apart from what any certificate says of any individual: “You exist enough to receive this piece of paper for which you have worked.”

And we ordain to retain good order, to have someone to lead, to match gifts and abilities with callings.  We do not ordain to make demi-gods…but I still get:

“Pastor, your prayers worked!” or “Pastor, will you bless us for protection?”

I will pray for you, of course.  I will ask for protection, much as my greatest desire for you is protection, safety, and wholeness.  But I do not have a Divine ATM with a secret code that was placed in my pocket upon ordination.  I do not have Divine influence for good or for ill.

Insight? Yes. Training? Yes. Gifts for communication, for listening, for instruction? Yes.  These I admit that I have, that have been identified as gifts of mine.

But magic hands?  No.

I’m sorry.  I’m no shaman.

I’m just a pastor…for what that means.

And what does that mean?

Well, if we’re sticking with the ancient vocations, I’d say that I’m most like a bard, a traveling storyteller.  I tell the story of God’s work through Jesus, and this seems to change things for people, for situations, for the world.

Does it work like magic? No.  But can I explain how or why it works?  No.  It’s beautifully empty, if you will; empty of definition.  Empty by definition.  And when we try to define it too tightly we end up with magic.

But even though I can’t explain how it works, it does work.

And I travel telling this story, and learning new ones, or pointing out new ones that I see in the people around me.  And then I tell those stories, too.  And it changes things.

But, dear people, it is not magic, it is not shamanism, it is not conjuring up a secret portal of connection with the Divine by which I and I alone (or others who hold similar degrees from human institutions that laughably claim we’ve “Mastered Divinity”) can traverse; a perverted Jacob’s ladder.

And that sort of thinking is indeed what drives people to abandon that search for God altogether, because we so easily let each other down and ourselves down.  Believing in magic gets you far enough to the curtain, until you pull it back and realize that the hands moving the puppets look like your own.

Suffer through another Hitchens reference.  He speaks of traveling through Sri Lanka and coming into a tight scrape between two warring tribes, one of which he was traveling with.  Using his English heritage and shining clothes, Hitchens is able to talk his way out of a tight situation saving him and his companions.  It is at this point that his companions surmise that he is, in fact, Sai Baba in temporary form.  Sai Baba, a psuedo-god of sorts who could perform miracles and raise the dead, had come back to make a visit in the eyes of the Sri Lankans.

Hitchens laughs at the concept.

I don’t blame him, though.  He laughs as a person who, upon looking at his hands, sees merely hands.  He cannot see that even those hands can be, from someone else’s perspective or from a teleological perspective, just what is needed in a hopeless situation.

Is this not the definition of salvos?

In telling the story he is attempting to squash the concept of religion.  Unfortunately for him, he propogates it.

Because, you see, he is not the point…and no one should mistake him for it: his hands, his clothes, his English heritage, or his witty speech.

I am not the point, either, even if I’ve mastered divinity…on paper.

It is absurd, yes, to believe that even these hands could be bringing about Divine telos.  But I have to believe it, not in a magical way, but in the way that I know traveling around and telling how Jesus’ hands, and yours, too, is doing the same thing.

Freud made his living off of pointing out transference.  In a way, so do I.  I firmly believe God is transfering Godself onto humanity daily, moment to moment, and I try to keep my ears and eyes attuned to it.

In that I’m a good bard.

But I can’t make it happen…which is why I’m a bad Shaman.

I’m OK with that.

The Beauty of Empty


Peter Rollins is changing my life; changing my faith.  His short work How (Not) to Speak of God, has caused me to yell both “Yes!” and “No!”…and I love him for it.

In this work he presents an interesting insight which has since caused me hours of meditation.

He notes that in Albert Camus’ ingenious work The Stranger (published as The Outsider in Britain), we are presented with Meursault, a character who indeed lacks what most theologians, thinkers about God, advocates for faith call “a God-shaped hole” (yes, I hate this phrase as well).  When confronted by a prison chaplain, hours before his impending death, with the subject of why Meursault refused to entertain a visit by the chaplain, Meursault says:

“I replied that I didin’t believe in God.  He wanted to know whether I was quite sure about that and I said I had no reason for asking myself that question: it didn’t seem to matter…I may not have been sure what really interested me, but I was absolutely sure what didn’t interest me.  And what he was talking about was one of the very things that didn’t interest me.”

Rollins identifies Meursault’s response as a “quiescent anti-theism in the sense that it pays not attention to theism or atheism.”  In essence, the religious answer (broadly stroked) is ridiculous because the question that orthodox religion seeks to answer is ridiculous.  God is unnecessary.

But the apathy implied here is misleading, I think, and although I don’t believe Rollins intends to imply that the modern response to religion is one of apathy, I think that is a conclusion (a wrong one) that can be drawn here.  Meursault is not apathetic; rather, he’s gravely concerned…just not concerned with the question that orthodox religion seeks to answer.  He’s not concerned with a “God-shaped hole” being filled.

I’m not either.

Indeed, I haven’t found many people apathetic about God or religion.  Christopher Hitchens, one of the foremost authors of the New Atheism (wrongly named…the ideas are not new, just the vehemence), writes in the first chapter of his oft-cited work God is Not Great that, “I would not prohibit (religion) even if I thought I could,”…and then goes on to write a 296 page book, with eight pages of references, an index, and a study guide explaining why humanity should do away with religion.

It seems that either Hitchens is lying, or is mistaken.  Either way, perhaps Paul was correct in his assessment of humanity, and himself: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15)

Indeed, the passion with which Hitchens writes is evidence that, far from apathetic, Hitchens is ultimately concerned with the “God-shaped hole” question…and he thinks he has an answer: the hole is imagined. And more than that, the ways that orthodox Christianity (and other faiths, Hitchens would say) have devised to fill it are destructive.

I find him to be both right and wrong.

Right in that supposed people of faith have filled the vacuum, however phrased, with destructive devices such as “dogma” and “correct belief,” however defined, and continue to at the detriment of the Jesus movement.  I also find him mistaken, however. Hitchens is delusional if he thinks that he has not done the same act of fulfillment with his atheistic beliefs…to a mirror detriment for his own belief system’s movement.

More on Hitchens in other posts.

But Rollins takes a different approach.

He calls himself an “a/theist”.

I like that. It’s not simple.  Not as simple as “Jesus loves me,” nor as simple as “God is not great.”

It is a phrase that breathes, requires dissection, causes the eye and the brain to pause…everything that breathes is complex.

Rollins embraces the questions surrounding the revelation of God.  That is, God is revealed as hidden.  This should be familiar to you Lutherans out there: Deus absconditus, Exodus 33, Holy Saturday.

For those of you scratching your heads, that’s ok.  It’s not meant to be gotten.  God is revealed as hidden.  Beautiful emptiness.  The phrase can’t be made logical…it makes Logic.

To the “God-shaped vacuum” query, Rollins poses the following question, which I think resonates deep within me…somewhere:

“Far from being something that exists until being filled, the God-shaped hole can be understood as precisely that which is left in the aftermath of God.”

That is, a transformational experience with Divine love sometimes leaves us…me…empty.

If I am seeking to fill that void, I will no doubt fill it with another god, with cynicism, pessimism, naive optimism, with the security that comes in believing that I am “correct” in my beliefs, whether they involve God or not, whether you are Billy Graham or Christopher Hitchens…

The alternative? To sit with the aftermath for a while. Like sitting on a plain after a great thunderstorm, or sitting at the base of a mountain after a spectacular avalanche. Like sitting on the ocean after the waves have died down.

Part of the reason that I’m a reluctant Christian is that so much of the popular Christian movement has tried to fill humanity with things: dogmas, supposed orthodoxy, subscriptions.  It has failed to see mystery as Divine, and has fallen into the same rabbit hole that it’s atheist counterparts have: enlightened, empirical, evidential thinking.  The Enlightenment again.

We must regain the beauty of  empty.