Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about "man's search for God." To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse's search for the cat. C.S. Lewis
Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster
Fifteen years ago, I began to question my faith and set out on a journey that profoundly changed me. I studied the difficult passages of Scripture as well as various belief systems and atheism from the perspective of both believer and nonbeliever. I also read countless books written by theologians, apologists, and expositors of religion and philosophy.
I developed friendships with atheists, agnostics, Hindus, Zen Buddhist, Catholics, mainstream Protestants, Muslims, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. I rarely turned away anyone who knocked on my door or approached me on the street. I give a shout out to those who post on Ex Christians.Net. This site was developed by, and for, those who have walked away from Christianity. They challenged my assumptions about ex-believers.
Much to the dismay of many, I have grown stronger and deeper in my evangelical beliefs. At the same time, I think I am far more understanding of those who think differently than I. Today I hope to share a few things that I have learned and, hopefully, challenge assumptions on both sides of the atheist/evangelical divide.
Our atheist commenter, Karl, sent an interesting comment on definitions and we can learn some subtleties from his explanation. I got yesterday's definition for atheism and agnosticism from the dictionary. It seems that these definitions are in the process of evolving. Thanks, Karl
“If you wouldn’t mind, the definitions of atheist and agnostic are commonly understood the way you printed them, but in fact they are inaccurate.
Atheism – refers to a belief, or lack thereof, it does not address our ability to “know” one way or the other.
Agnosticism – refers to our knowledge but not what we believe. In other words do I claim to know for certain that God exists (gnostic) or am I uncertain of His existence (agnostic). Agnosticism is not a lower rung on the ladder of certainty between theism and atheism, they are unrelated.
For example, I may be a Christian (theist) and “believe” in God, but if someone were to ask me if I was absolutely certain that He exists, I might, conceivably say “no, I’m not positive, but I choose to believe just in case” which would make me an agnostic/theist.
An atheist on the other hand, chooses not to believe in God, maybe because he doesn’t consider there to be sufficient evidence to command his belief, but again, when questioned about “does he know for certain there is no God”, he may very well reply “No, I’m not certain, maybe he could exist” He is therefore an agnostic/atheist
Of course the other two possibilities would be gnostic/theist and strangely a gnostic/atheist (someone who claims to know for certain that God exists but refuses to believe in Him anyways, maybe for perceived moral issues)
Sometimes you will also find references to weak atheism vs. strong atheism; in this case weak & strong are simply being substituted for gnostic/agnostic.
One more note, we are talking about gnosticism with a little “g” not the religious movement of Gnosticism.”
Lessons for Christians:
- It is sometimes claimed that atheists have no morals or ethics. In fact, there is a whole body of works that define a humanist based value system. While we may not agree with all of their premises, we cannot ignore that they do function with guidelines.
- It is sometimes thought that if atheists would read a few good apologetic books, they would “get saved.” In fact, we reported on a study that showed that the average atheist is better versed in religion than many Christians. Warning to all: they have read Lee Strobel and CS Lewis and have developed cogent arguments to these apologists.
- Some might claim that these former Christians were not Christians in the first place. I do not wish to engage in a theological debate on this issue. Many of these folks were involved in Christians groups, prayed, felt what they thought was the presence of the Lord, went to Bible studies and were active members in Bible expositing churches. Many went to Christian schools and colleges and married fellow believers. Do not insult or question their experience no matter your theological position.
- Do not be a hit and run Christian. Sometimes it is easier to suggest a book or a video and run, hoping that the “author” will win them over.They want to hear from you, not some impersonal book.
- There are very, very difficult passages in the Bible. Many Christians ignore these verses because it is time consuming to study and understand them. Our atheist friends will throw these verses in our faces. Read books and blogs on these passages. There are answers out there.
- Overlook strong retorts. In the beginning of my discussion with some at ExChristians, I was called some pretty strong names. Do we really believe in turning the other cheek and persevering with the hope of gaining understanding? Do not take offense.
- Do not treat an atheist or, for that matter, anyone who believes differently than us as a project. In fact, get to know them with no agenda on your part. Mutual friendship and trust should be the goal. There is one atheist in my life who is a family member. He does not wish to discuss beliefs, so we don’t. Instead I choose to enjoy his life and friendship with no expectations.
- Seek first to understand. Do you really know what the other person actually espouses? Everyone is an individual and has unique and interesting way of looking at life. Enjoy the discovery.
- Get to know the Flying Spaghetti Monster argument. Here is a link.This is a most clever rebuttal to the Christian tendency to use ambiguous arguments to “prove” the existence of God. It was developed in response to the intelligent design movement. Here is the premise: Since the intelligent design movement uses ambiguous references to a designer, any conceivable entity may fulfill that role, including a Flying Spaghetti Monster. This argument is gaining strength and you may occasionally see this mythical creature making an appearance at certain atheist rallies.
- Read at least one book on the new atheism. Two good ones are The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and Letters to A Christians Nation by Sam Harris. Harris’ book is short and well written.Here is a link to the latter at Amazon
- Don't be condescending. One man, irritated that he could not respond to an atheist's question, said "I don't throw pearls before swine." This is not a Christian response and shows a lack of Biblical understanding and self introspection.
Lessons for Atheists:
My guess is that most atheists would like people to listen carefully to their point of view. Atheists have much to say that is challenging but sometimes lose ground by inserting specious arguments and condescending accusations, just like the dreaded Christians.
- Intelligence, logic and reason are not the sole purview of the humanists. My guess is that there are as many logical and intelligent people on both sides of this argument. For example, Francis Collins is no slouch and is highly respected by Christopher Hitchens, a leading atheist.
- Stop with the imaginary friend stuff. 65% of children develop imaginary friends between the ages of 3 and 5. It is a cop-out to dismiss Christians as tiny children instead of engaging them in dialog.
- Not everyone who claims to be a Christian is a Christian. I have a Norwegian friend and have visited Norway but I cannot claim to be a Norwegian citizen.
- Corollary: Adolph Hitler was not a practicing Catholic, despite Richard Dawkins' protestations to the contrary. Most people know the difference. You hurt the logic of your argument and will lose support with silliness.
- Corollary: Pedophiles, perverts, and charlatans use the church to carry out their nefarious schemes. Their presence does not mean that the church is evil. There are hypocrites in the church. I am one because I fail to live up to many of the things that I espouse. That is why we believe we need a Savior. My guess is there are some hypocrites in atheism, as well.
- Teaching children about faith is not tantamount to child abuse. I was a public health nurse for a few years and 50% of my caseload was real child abuse.This sort of argument could make atheists appear out of touch with true horror in the world.
I leave you with a video created by an atheist in order to explain the reason he is a nonbeliever. It is well produced. There is a bit of strong language but nothing you wouldn’t hear in one of Mark Driscoll’s sermons. Karlton Kemerait, an atheist commenter on this blog, posted this on his site called Maine Reason. He has some interesting and informative posts.So join us in seeking first to understand with How Science Saved My Soul.