Friday, December 2, 2011

How Atheism Can Help Christians Avoid False Idols: A Retort

Recently, I made a comment about HuffPo blog posts being low hanging fruit. They most certainly are, but people still read them including myself I’m afraid. They do a good job of sucking you in with their titles. For instance, how am I not supposed to read the following article when it comes across my Twitter feed: How Atheism Can Help Christians Avoid False Idols. C’mon...that’s entrapment. Anyway, it’s not a wholly offensive article or anything like that. In all fairness, Paul Wallace is writing this article in support of the “We Are Atheism” campaign and atheist rights. I just find that sometimes these articles spark decent reflections and conversations. If you want to read it go on ahead and come back or just check out the sections I excerpt and comment on.

...I don't think atheism is a convincing position. In particular I find its most recent manifestation to be naive, overly optimistic, and poorly-matched to life as I know it.

My problem with the above statement is probably obvious. Unsurprisingly, since he is a Christian, he doesn’t think atheism is a convincing position. I disagree (obviously), but whatever. Such is his right. No, my problem is that his opinion of atheism is that it is “naive, overly optimistic, and poorly-matched to life as I know it.” Differing truth claims aside, I cannot understand this sentence. How is the lack of belief in a god(s) naive, overly optimistic or poorly-matched to life as he, or anyone, knows it?

I guess this basically annoys me—personally—because you can strip away all the education I have had; all the science, philosophy, history and yes theology that I have read;  my having contemplated the various religions and god concepts for years; the existence of this blog; all of my life experience, etc. until you come back to my early teenage self and the best, simplest question I asked myself was: “Is the concept of God and the belief in that God even remotely...not...absurd?” It seemed absurd to me then. It took awhile to hash all that out, but the basic problem I have always had is that it seemed so apparently an unsophisticated view of our world, how people operate, and the universe on a grand scale. There are multitudes of claims in religious scripture that are provably false.  People, for all their religions that are supposed to improve them, are just as shitty to each other as ever. Maybe more so. If any of the religions were true—any one of them—it would be obvious. The adherents of that religion and it’s God(s) would stand out. Religious people have the same problems that non-believers have.

Really? Naive?

I am not sure what he means by overly optimistic. I hope he doesn’t mean that it is too optimistic to believe that humanity can overcome its simple differences and get past the awful state we are now due largely to ignorance, greed and a subconscious sense of apocalyptic pessimism. I won’t lay all of this at the feet of religion, but only the most blind person wouldn’t admit that a lot of it is due to religion.

Even worse, I hope he isn’t implying that atheism is naive because people need religion in order to be good, moral, happy people. Because that is complete bullshit.

Atheists do us religious types a service by reminding us that "God" is, as a concept, a non-starter.


In particular, and to put it theologically, atheists are hard at work cleansing our temple of idols. We should thank them.

You’re welcome.

He then cites some theology to come to this thesis:

So the God-concept is idolatrous. Where does that leave us Christians? It leaves us at the exact center of our faith, which is not primarily conceptual, but incarnational.

Insert anecdote which I excised and then conclusion:

God is incarnational and not conceptual. That's what we Christians say. But in truth we prefer God as a concept, because then we're in charge. It's not easy to let go of the steering wheel, because then we have stop talking and thinking and be a certain way and do certain things. We Christians call God "good" and "loving" and "wise." Which is fine, but insofar as these remain mere concepts, we are idolaters. Insofar as these concepts are incarnated in our actions and attitudes, however, we are being true to our calling.

I am convinced that atheists -- at least the ones I have read and the ones I know -- are working largely with conceptual idols when it comes to their rejection of God. They are not rejecting God; they are rejecting ideas. What is more, they are rejecting idols of Christians' making: a God who deals in rewards and punishments, a God who created the world in six days about 6,000 years ago, a God who shames their sexual desire and shuts down their intellect, imagination, and curiosity. It is easy for Christians to lament the fact that that atheists never seem to go after real theology, but we can hardly criticize them for not looking beyond our own idols.

It's a good thing for atheists to clear out our conceptual idols. We surely don't need them. Such idols are precisely what Christians also must reject. This does not mean a loss of the divine. On the contrary, without a little deconstruction the divine remains gray, flat, and thoroughly boring.

Atheists, rightly understood, are doing nothing less than prying the husk of our misunderstanding from the brilliant, living actuality of the divine. They're helping us recover God. It's hard work and we've been putting it off for a long time. We should just let them do it.  (emphasis added)

OK. First, I need to sneak in a quick dig at the statement that “atheists never seem to go after real theology.” What is “real” theology?

Overall, what is he talking about? An “incarnational God” is a theological concept that attempts to abandon much of what people find offensive about the Christian God. The “offense of the cross”, scriptures that are clearly immoral and not acceptable in the modern, secular culture, etc. It’s more of that liberal theology that I have criticized in the past. They attempt to evolve their God and religion beyond the offenses of the past and its clear inconsistencies. To use his analogy, they “shuck the husk off” of their clearly incorrect concepts of God off to reveal their new God which is free from its own “Original Sin”, if you will. Wallace, via the theology he cites, attempts to remove the (mutually agreed) upon concept of the Christian God entirely to free it from the criticisms atheists level at it. The problem is threefold. The trinity of liberal theology...

1) it’s intellectually dishonest,

2) this leaves them with what? They have nothing to anchor their religion which is supposed to be a universal truth claim. God becomes an impotent, indefinable whiff of ephemera that had a son. It is pantheism +1,

3) You can’t actually ”un-conceptualize” God. What is it without a concept? If God is not all-knowing, all-loving, etc....what IS he?


But we already knew that.