Monday, December 29, 2008
An Atheist's Unintentional Message to Christians
I generally like James Taranto's column at the Wall Street Journal's on-line section. I am saddened that he describes himself as an atheist, but at least I'll give him this nod. He's not a hostile one, unlike many of his counterparts.
Below is a clip from one of his recent columns. I want you to read it carefully. Note especially the part in boldface . . .
Atheists Debate: Are Christians Evil, Insincere or Confused?
Christopher Hitchens and Heather Mac Donald, both atheists, are having an amusing debate about religion, prompted by Hitchens's outrage over President-elect Obama's choice of the Rev. Rick Warren to give the invocation at the inauguration. Hitchens argues that certain Christian beliefs are "bigoted":
"It is theoretically possible to make an apparently bigoted remark that is also factually true and morally sound. Thus, when the Rev. Bailey Smith, one of the deputies of the late Jerry Falwell, claimed that "God almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew," I was in complete agreement with him. This is because I do not believe that there is any supernatural supervisor who lends an ear to any prayer. . . .However, if the speaker says that heaven is a real place but that you will not get there if you are Jewish, . . . then you know that the bigot has spoken."
Hitchens describes Warren as "a relentless clerical businessman who raises money on the proposition that certain Americans--non-Christians, the wrong kind of Christians, homosexuals, nonbelievers--are of less worth and littler virtue than his own lovely flock of redeemed and salvaged and paid-up donors," but he does not note that has carved out a lucrative niche for himself as an antireligious provocateur. He also describes evangelical Christians as "weirdos and creeps," leaving himself vulnerable to the charge of bigotry.
But these points are tangential. Mac Donald gets to the heart of what is wrong with Hitchens's argument: "I don't think it's fair to label a theological position as bigotry simply because it does not conform to secular principles." Indeed, an atheist has no business imputing bigotry to anyone except on the basis of attitudes toward worldly matters. It is bigoted to think Jews should not be allowed to join a country club or to live in Hebron, regardless of whether that belief has a theological predicate. To a true nonbeliever, a belief about who is going to hell or whose prayers God hears is mere nonsense.
Mac Donald, however, doesn't quite see it this way either. She speculates that Christians must not really believe all that stuff:
"But here's another possibility: Do modern Christians still believe with the same fervor as in the past all those unyielding doctrines of eternal damnation for the unbaptised and unconverted? They sure don't act as if they do. If they really were convinced that their friends, co-workers, neighbors, and in-laws were going to hell because they possessed the wrong or no religious belief, I would think that the knowledge would be unbearable. Christians surely see that most of their wrong-believing personal acquaintances are just as moral and deserving as themselves. How, then, do they live with the knowledge that their friends and loved ones face an eternity of torment? I would expect a frenzy of proselytizing, by word or by sword.
In previous centuries, when religion had the upper hand, religious differences meant more. But ours is a world dominated by the secular values of tolerance and equality. Either believers live with an extraordinary degree of cognitive dissonance between the inclusive values of their society and the dictates of their religion, or they unconsciously mitigate those bloody-minded dictates as atavistic vestiges from a more primitive time."
One wonders if either Hitchens or Mac Donald has ever met an actual Christian. We know quite a few who are neither bigoted, as Hitchens insists they are, nor insincere or confused, as Mac Donald speculates they must be. Could it be that the problem lies not with religious belief itself but with Hitchens's and Mac Donald's own poverty of imagination in understanding it?
We claim no special insight into this question; like Hitchens and Mac Donald, we approach it as a nonbeliever (although unlike Hitchens, we stopped worrying about whether other people think we are going to hell when we were about 17). But it occurs to us that there are other areas of life that reason alone is inadequate to explain.
The best example is romantic love. When a man loves a woman, he experiences her as being the most important thing in the world. Would Hitchens call him a "bigot" for believing that other people are of less worth and littler virtue than his own lovely companion? If the man also professes to believe in the equality of all people, would Mac Donald claim it must be either that either his love is insincere or that he is experiencing cognitive dissonance?
Of course not. "She is the most important thing in the world" makes no sense as a logical proposition, but that does not make it false. Its truth lies elsewhere than in the realm of reason. Our conjecture is that something similar may be said of the religious beliefs that infuriate Hitchens and mystify Mac Donald.
Unbeliever though she is, Heather MacDonald makes a spot-on observation in the boldface area. If we as Christians were really convinced that our loved ones were on their way to an eternity in Hell, wouldn't that make us more concerned, eager witnesses for the Lord Jesus Christ? And even beyond our loved ones, wouldn't general, Christ-centered compassion make us more zealous to proclaim the life-changing Gospel to a lost world? Is it possible that we've either been intimidated into silence, or perhaps that we just aren't that concerned about it anymore? One correction, though. We'll leave the sword out of it, thank you. We'll leave that to radical Islam.
We're commanded to preach the Gospel. Who gets saved and when is up to God. But He has given us a role in the process, and it isn't optional. If the Lord has saved us and has done great things for us, we need to be eager and willing to share it. Of course, there is a right time and place for it, as well as inappropriate times and places. But all too often, we use that reason as an excuse not to say anything at all.
Heather, thank you for a good reminder -- albeit unintended -- to your Christian friends. I hope and pray you are drawn to saving faith, and soon. You too, James. And yes, even you, Christopher.