Letter to an atheist

Dear hitherto unknown friend,

I have been invited into conversation with you by Kile Jones of the “Interview an Atheist at Church” project. My hope is that you would write a response that I could publish on my blog and we could carry on a dialogue of sorts for my readers to witness. I want to confess first of all that I’m completely unsure of how to proceed in this conversation. What I typically say to atheists is that I probably don’t believe in the god that you don’t believe in either, which I realize is probably pretty patronizing. I don’t want to be patronizing and I don’t want to presume that my words can convince you to convert to my faith, though admittedly I’m wired to have the agenda of evangelism somewhere in my head in most conversations I have with non-Christians.

One of my favorite atheists is Slavoj Zizek. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him, but Zizek makes the provocative, paradoxical claim in his recently published behemoth of a book Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism that the most faithful way to be a Christian is actually to be an atheist. In his reading of the New Testament in the light of “death of God” theology, the cross represents the death of the idea of a transcendent god. Subsequent to the cross, for Zizek, the Holy Spirit becomes the collective “spirit” of the faithful community rather than a transcendent being outside of that community. I’m not sure how one reads Christianity on its own terms and comes to this conclusion, but never mind that.

For Zizek, the problem with theism is the assumption that there is a “big Other” in the sky who is watching everything and will take care of everything. He gives the example of a woman who was sexually assaulted in broad daylight in a major city while a crowd of people went about their business around her, presumably because it was the big Other’s job to take care of it. The greatest crisis the big Other poses for humanity is the illusion that we live in a stable world that God will never allow us to destroy. To Zizek, the only way we can avoid the impending ecological catastrophe is to abandon the big Other myth and recognize that we must take responsibility into our own hands.

I’ve wrestled a lot with Zizek’s challenge. I’m not sure I could live without a big Other even if I were convinced that there were no transcendent source of the universe’s being. Part of how I am able to be a productive, compassionate human being is because of a sense that somebody holds my life in his hands in some kind of way. I’ve had seasons in my life when I was reduced to nothing by debilitating mental illness. If I had no means of narrating that as part of somebody’s “plan” for my life, I’m not sure that I could have climbed back to dignity.

The greatest concern I have with abandoning the big Other is that there seems to be nothing more pernicious in our culture than the American virtue of self-reliance, which seems like the natural product of thinking I am on my own and there’s no creator watching and shaping me with love. Self-reliance causes people to be stingy, judgmental, jealous, and impatient with the shortcomings of others. It’s what has created a society in the recent hyper-libertarian Reagan era in which there is no concept of the common good.

[UPDATE: 1) What I mean by “self-reliance” is not taking responsibility for yourself, but the delusion that whatever success you have is entirely to your credit (as opposed to luck, God’s blessing, others helping you, etc). 2) I did not mean to insinuate that atheism makes people have this attitude but rather that I wouldn’t know how to address it ethically if I were an atheist.]

The irony of course is that more of my fellow evangelical Christians exemplify this attitude than the average population. I’ve often said that Jesus needs to save the world from us more than we need to be saved from the world.

In any case, I believe that becoming a compassionate person requires my liberation from the need to justify myself. As long as the purpose of everything I do is continually to prove myself right, then even the good I do will lack good-naturedness. Within my Christian paradigm, Jesus’ cross is the means by which I stop having to prove myself right with my actions and become someone who lives under God’s mercy and shows mercy to others. I’m able to have integrity because my wrongness doesn’t delegitimize me. What causes me to consider the Christian church a uniquely powerful form of human community (in the rare cases when we actually do church right) is that its core is the radical vulnerability of people who don’t need to hide anything.

When Christians really do worship a crucified God (as opposed to the much more popular sadistic emperor God who poured out His wrath onto His Son), then we become the social space in which the crucified of our society are given dignity by a God without dignity who calls His people to abandon their social respectability and embrace the imaginative living that results from being unplugged from the world’s hidden scripts.

In any case, even if God weren’t in the picture, it would still seem dishonest to consider myself to be the foundation of all my gifts and accomplishments. I have had dozens of teachers and mentors in my life and thousands of influences large and small that have all made me who I am. Perhaps “God” is shorthand for the movement of these influences throughout a society that make our existence always something that comes from beyond us. That’s probably what Hegel and Zizek would both say.

I’m actually on my way to a funeral as I write this, the mother of my wife’s sister-in-law. I really do believe that somehow I will see her again. It gets ludicrous of course when I start to think about the implications of bodily resurrection given the surface area of the Earth and what the aggregate global population would be if all the dead people were alive. And of course the way that death has always been an integral part of bodily life; many creatures can’t live without the death of other creatures. Immortality and physicality seem to be constitutively oxymoronic terms. But I cling to the hope of resurrection anyway. Maybe that’s my big Other pacifier that enables me to cope. I don’t know, but I’ve had powerful spiritual encounters that will not let me reduce it all to a helpful delusion.

I hope that I’ve written something you can respond to. I realize that I didn’t pose particular questions. I guess my question would be whether you see the problem of the human condition similarly or differently than I do, and accordingly how you deal with the issues I’ve named in a framework that doesn’t involve God. I look forward to learning from you. Be blessed by whatever or whomever you consider to be a blessing.

28 thoughts on “Letter to an atheist

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  4. With your worldview, your beliefs make a lot of sense. I think the only thing that needs to be said here is that not everyone has the same worldview, and that doesn’t make them wrong.

    For instance, when you say this: “Self-reliance causes people to be stingy, judgmental, jealous, and impatient with the shortcomings of others.” I absolutely, whole-heartedly disagree. Self-reliance is one of the things I aspire most to in the world. But I also hold compassion in equally high esteem, and I believe the two things feed each other; they are not the opposite of the other. To me, self-reliance is a force for good. It cultivates love, a desire for truth, a global perspective of the world, and compassion and love for other human beings. Clearly, we both have different experiences when it comes to self-reliance. And probably, neither of us are wrong. But there’s nothing we can change about our own experiences, so unless I am confronted with a negative experience regarding it, I will always feel that I should trust myself and my own values over the value system of a religion.

    I don’t want to try to change your mind about what self-reliance means and implies, but I do want to convey that such variance in the way we view the world is likely responsible for the dramatic difference in our belief systems. I can see that for me to try and change your ideas about religion and the world would be to attempt to completely change your perception of *everything* about the world. It would be the same if you were to try to change my mind. But underneath all that, I think we’re both good-hearted, earnest people, looking for purpose in our lives and trying to make the world a better place. I feel that if more people can look at each other and see that in common, then we’ll have a lot more peace between us.

    • Thanks very much for your friendly, gracious reply. I’m probably using language imprecisely. What you term self-reliance, I would call faithfulness since I define my identity in relation to God. My beef is not with taking responsibility for yourself; it’s with acting as though nobody else has ever given you a leg up. What’s problematic to me is when people think that working hard and staying out of trouble earns them the right to judge others. Also when people do good not out of genuine generosity and compassion but in order to prove that they’re better than others. We all do that to some degree, but some people can really have their souls poisoned by it. Within Christianity, we have a basis for calling out self-righteousness because I can tell somebody you didn’t do any of that on your own, God gave you every gift you used to achieve your goals. So how do you deal with arrogance and stinginess and snobbiness in your paradigm?

      • Well, to be honest, I usually don’t. If someone has an inflated sense of superiority (which, by the way, is not usually motivated by real self-reliance or self-confidence), there’s very little anyone other than that person can do to change it. I think what really matters is treating that person well (or just decently) even if you don’t like them or find their viewpoint appalling. None of us know anyone else’s heart. I often find that people who are self-righteous or act superior do so because they suffer from deep pain and insecurity, and they mask it under that irritating bravado. I don’t let people like that into my life, but I try to remain conscious that they likely need to heal before they are capable of changing their behavior.

        • That makes sense to me. I guess being in a position of a spiritual leader, I’m in the position not so much to go after people individually but to go after bad attitudes in my general community through my preaching so that people can reflect on whether they are behaving arrogantly or whatever else and repent and change.

  5. Morgan wrote: “The greatest crisis the big Other poses for humanity is the illusion that we live in a stable world that God will never allow us to destroy. To Zizek, the only way we can avoid the impending ecological catastrophe is to abandon the big Other myth and recognize that we must take responsibility into our own hands.” The big problem with this is that it is in no way any reasonable interpretation of “God.” Diluting the Christian message this way is a wily attempt, but when you muddle the meaning this far, the whole thing becomes meaningless. You might as well call God a “doorknob.”

    • I agree with you that it’s not a reasonable interpretation of God, but I do think that Zizek has a valid point that believing in God gives us a false sense of security that we can dump whatever we want to in the environment because God won’t let our planet become uninhabitable. Plenty of climate change deniers have actually made statements to this effect.

    • I resonate with Michael Dorian’s frustration with the fancy dancing around the word God, but what is more troubling to me in Guyton’s blog is the comparison of atheism and a “pernicious self-reliance” despite acknowledging a similar self-reliance within the Christian community. Indeed, I would warrant there are more self-reliant (by which I think Guyton really means selfish and I certainly do) Christians in the Tea Party than there are atheists! By reinforcing the perception that atheists perpetuate a selfish world, Guyton can comfortably protect his own worldview and so, too, the big Other which is crucial to his well-being.
      I am not particularly invested in destroying the illusions of others although I recognize, of course, that it is sometimes a traumatic side effect of my work. There are those for whom the Christian story is important and central to their well-being and the loving work they undertake. As Roger Scruton noted, “Consolation from an imaginary source is not imaginary consolation. I believe, in fact, that it is perhaps crucial for people to create narratives that help them cope in times of despair similar to Guyton’s experiences of mental illness. But recognizing that they are narratives is essential to dismantling the barriers (read prejudice) that mar and scar the human family. Those of us in leadership in the church must learn how to do this. So far, we’ve obfuscated our way around the topic in order to preserve our own illusions of importance and centrality in a dying narrative.

      • Yeah it sounds like I wasn’t cautious enough in how I wrote this. Of course God is way more than just a big Other to me. I just saw Zizek as a bridge for conversation. I don’t think that atheists are inherently Ayn Randian self-worshipers. I just think that Christianity gives me a resource for calling out that attitude in me and I wondered how you push back against the toxicity of self-idolatry if there’s no concept of idolatry because there’s no God.

  6. The idea that all of human suffering is somehow part of someone’s “perfect plan” is absolutely horrifying to me. I cannot fathom why anyone would find comfort in that. I actually find comfort in the fact that when bad things happen to good people, it’s because no one was in control. Tragedy is a mistake, not a plan. Any plan that includes suffering is, by definition, not perfect.

    This is a moot point though, because the appeal to consequences is still a fallacy. It would sure be nice if there were a caring god watching over us, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

      • Appeal to consequences is the fallacy that if something were true, it would be a good thing, and therefore it must be true. It’s closely related to wishful thinking, and goes something like this:

        If P is true, then Q will occur.
        Q is desirable.
        Therefore, P is true.

        • Okay. The only thing is I’m not making a logical claim here. I’m talking about why I believe as I do. Any kind of faith is always going to exhibit the fallacy of consequence because it always involve living as if something is true that you don’t know to be true.

          • Thanks for clarifying that. It sounds to me like you’re “taking the blue pill,” or in other words, choosing a comforting lie over the harsh truth. If that’s your choice, I respect it, but I choose to live here in reality, which I can only hope to understand through logic and evidence.

            Of course, you realize that other people have faith in different things. And some faiths are quite dangerous. For example, someone might have faith that they don’t need to take their child to the doctor. Or someone else’s faith might tell them to fly a plane into a building. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t think you’re any danger; you seem like a good person. But I think faith is sort of random, like a loose cannon untethered from reality. And once someone says “I believe this because I have faith,” then there’s no way to challenge them, unless we challenge the underlying epistemology, faith. So I challenge faith, lest it become a trump card used to justify evil deeds.

            Not only is there no reason to believe by faith, but it can actually be disproven (by logic, of course) as follows:

            A Christian believes by faith that Yahweh is the one true god.
            A Muslim believes by faith that Allah is the one true god.
            These beliefs contradict each other, so at least one of them must be wrong.
            Therefore, at least one person has faith in something that is wrong.
            If it’s possible to have faith in something that’s wrong, then faith is not a reliable way to know anything.

          • From my perspective you’re missing out on a deeper reality that isn’t just comforting, but makes for a much more poetic, imaginative existence. Regarding Allah vs Yahweh, your illustration is a good depiction of the inadequacy of oversimplified abstract logic games. Allah and Yahweh are two different names for the same reality. It’s like two people who argue about what one of their mutual friends is like because they’ve seen completely different sides of him since one person knows him from Boy Scouts and the other knows him from the football team.

          • I don’t know what “deeper reality” is, but it sure sounds like fantasy. And if you think Yahweh and Allah are the same god, then you’re implying that the fundamentalist Christian and Muslim are both wrong, even though they have faith. That only further illustrates my point, debunking faith. Logic isn’t a game; it’s the only reliable method we have for figuring stuff out. Whether you realize it or not, you use logic every day. For example, when you drive a car, you use logic; you wouldn’t just close your eyes and let faith guide you. You only apply this whimsical thinking when the results are unverifiable. You are very careful to make sure that the things you believe by faith are things that can never be proven or disproven. And that tells me you’re not being honest with yourself.

          • Just because I’m a Christian doesn’t mean I own the perspectives of fundamentalist Christians. I’m interested in understanding you better and helping you to understand me better. Your ridicule doesn’t do much for your credibility with me.

  7. Self-reliance is a vice and the Reagan era was (is?) hyper-libertarian? Oh my. I know this is an ancillary point, but I fixated on that only because it was grossly oversimplified on the first count, and wildly inaccurate on the other. The first claim is oversimplified because the idea of self-reliance does not mean not caring for others or living in a community, but rather not using the force of the state to satisfy your own needs. Libertarianism is the idea that cooperation and community are things that function best without coercion, not that these things are evils. The second charge is inaccurate because the last 30 years of American politics have been anything but libertarian, much less hyper-libertarian.

    I do not expect a reply, since I know this was an off-topic remark in some ways. I just came across this from a mutual friend who posted it. Do not hold me against him.

    • The general ethos of the populace at least among white people is a lot more libertarian in its premises than it would have been in the 1950’s. What Clinton proposed for health care in the 90’s would be considered radically socialist now. Obama borrowed a Republican concept and he gets called a socialists. The goal posts have shifted dramatically. There is no concept of the common good or public space anymore.

  8. I feel that I’m in a similar conversation with Buddhists, who don’t acknowledge a god as such, but whose ethical viewpoint is often very similar to what you’ve described here. At times in my anti-oppression work, I wonder if Buddhism and Taoism are closer to the truth than Christianity, and they do seem to be perceived in post-modern Western culture as having less historical and cultural baggage than Christendom. However, on exploring Buddhism I find that Siddharta Gautama sought nirvana out of an inescapable sense of self-loathing, something that Christianity at its best can help us as fallen and broken human beings to overcome.

    Having said that, I’m not sure which of Christianity, Buddhism and Taoism is right, but it is worth noting that there are significant differences between them.

    • Like you, I am first struck by the dissimilarity of Zizek’s non-intervening, impersonal, ground-of-being type god and the God of the earliest Christians (pick anywhere in the New Testament, pre- or post-crucifixion, or any of the early Church fathers). I suppose as long as you’re cool with so fundamentally disassociating yourself from the confessions of the first Christians, you can leave them behind; although one then wonders why you would reference that tradition at all. It’s a philosophically profound (and very continental, I might add) concept, but it bears little or no resemblance to the views of anyone who actually claimed to have known Jesus.

      The second thing I am struck with is a mischaracterization of atheism as pure self-reliance. Most atheists I know tend to view the human species as one of many very social species for whom living and working together bring all sorts of benefits. For a social species, complete selfishness is self-defeating because being in community with others is fundamental to our well-being. I guess I’m saying it seems you have a false dichotomy going on, and it should be noted. Just as you said, “I probably don’t believe in the [atheism] that you don’t believe in either.” 🙂

      Finally, you said you “consider the Christian church a uniquely powerful form of human community (in the rare cases when we actually do church right).” What I’m hearing is that most of the time you feel the Christian church gets it wrong, which seems to undercut your support for that institution a bit. It also sounds like you would understand quite well why many atheists find Christian confession and practice unpersuasive. On top of that, if most of the other Christians would find your version of their faith unrecognizable, it would seem more that you (along with a handful of others so philosophically inclined) have invented a new religion which is not really Christianity at all.

      But hey, that’s cool. Seriously. Ultimately as an atheist what matters to me is that we can get along and work together on things like making the world a better place. The fact that you still believe in…something…somewhere…or maybe nowhere and everywhere simultaneously, and that you believe in resurrection despite the admitted illogicality of life after life has run out, doesn’t necessarily make you unable to grasp the significance of world problems here and now. It doesn’t automatically prevent you from becoming a part of finding real-world, here-and-now solutions to those problems.

      So in answer to your question at the end, it sounds like in practice the way you would approach these challenges would not vary greatly from how people like me would approach them, even if we come at it with a different vocabulary. It sounds like we would both question the narratives of power and empire, we would both be reluctant to believe promises of politicians and preachers, we would both see great value in caring for our environment, for our fellow man (regardless of nation or creed), and we would both call for social justice, equity, and compassion wherever we find it lacking.


      • Thanks so much for your reply. One thing that I need to clarify is that I didn’t at all mean that atheism implies self-reliance; I’m concerned that atheism doesn’t have the resources to prevent a worship of self that makes us judge and envy each other. It seems to me that the most powerful social glue that can pull communities together is worship. Even if we’re united by a common interest or enemy, it’s not as powerful as when we worship together. I’m using the word generically. I would consider a group of scientists who delight in their discoveries and the beauty that they witness as a worship community. I think we have a need to worship with others and gain a sense that something greater than us is the source of our identity. Do you see a place for worship defined in this way as an atheist?

        • Why does worship work better than anything else? And since the commonality of worship usually coincides with so many other ideological agreements, how are you able to single that out from all the other things which a worshiping community shares?

          As for your second question, I would agree that a common wonder and love for the natural world does indeed happen for many of the skeptics/atheists I know (just ask one if they’re excited about the upcoming reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos). But I still wonder how or why you think this single connection is more powerful. Is it because of the emotional bonding that occurs while singing songs together?

          If worshiping together bonded well, it would seem there would be fewer church splits.

          • It just seems like a common love creates deeper bonds than common opinions, or maybe it’s sharing the sense that I’m part of the same story with a group of people. I’m not able to articulate what I’m talking about with precision. The same thing happens on a smaller scale at something like Burning Man or even an all-night rave. It’s a shared encounter with beauty. I’ve never had the same level of bonding in my years in the activist community unless there was something like worship that took place (like a drum circle, a music festival, etc). Regarding your last point, I absolutely agree with you. Christianity gets nasty when it’s overly rationalistic and ideological.

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