Dear Atheist Church Planter Charley, Thank You for Your Kind Response

And it was kind.  Have a read of it here.  Anyone whose blog is called the RAD Love Project is at least trying to be radical about the right thing.  It was certainly no rant, and that is why I approved the comment and linked the blog post.  It was certainly less of a rant than many of the Christian responses I have allowed through.

Charley, who writes the blog, responded to each of my five points in the original blog post, and he made some pertinent points in a “non-impertinent” manner. So far so good.  He did comment that many atheists were not angry – a point I readily take, but the fact that even many atheists are embarrassed by the global success of the angry atheist books shows that anger is often not far below the surface.  Perhaps “anger” is not the right word – more like “scornful” or “derisory”, as if theists are not worthy of a discussion because its so obvious that what they believe is ridiculous. For what it is worth Charley, I don’t believe being an atheist is ridiculous. There are massive sociological, cultural and psychological reasons why atheism in late modernity presents as a strong and satisfying plausibility structure, not to mention the theological reason that the Bible presents as primary to rejection of God – sin.

 Charley you were neither scornful nor derisive, and for that I am grateful to the image of God in you that enables you to relate to me with dignity, value and worth. I hope I can return as much and more to you.

I do, however, believe that, whilst Atheist Church may have lofty goals and ideals, it is, an idealist movement that is based upon both shaky premises AND a worldview that owes itself to the Christian worldview, but which, of course, would never admit it.  So let me pick over the key points in your responses to my letter.

1. In response to my query about how could they garner any interest in such a movement, given it offers nothing that different to what the average person believes anyway, who has no interest in church.  Charley, you made the following comment:

SA’s target audience is all open-minded people who wish to celebrate this one life that we all know we have. We’ve been surprisingly popular in London, New York, and Los Angeles to name only three locations with growing SA’s. Many atheists do feel isolated in the mass theism of our society, and SA offers them a place where they do not have censor their convictions to avoid being attacked by theists. In fact, most of us do have several experiences of being so attacked, so perhaps it is theists who have a problem with abhorrence and anger towards OUR viewpoint?

First up, there is no surprise in being popular in London, New York or Los Angeles. I would be surprised if there was no interest in these cities.   That is what one would expect in the age of late modern secularism.  But the teeming masses of the cities of China, India, South America, Central Asia? The cities that dwarf our Western cities in population, well if you garner crowds there that would be a surprise.  The youngest, most populous cities in the world are by and large also the most religious places.  I guess we will wait to see if it grows in popularity there, but it seems that at the tale end of the Western world as the centre of power, atheism might get a gig.

I would say to you Charley that I am truly sorry if several of you have experienced attacks.  I cannot speak for other theists, but as a follower of Jesus, this is profoundly disturbing if Christians have been involved.  It is something that Christians should have no brook with, given our founder’s rejection of violence and the long history of persecution that Christians have experienced themselves.  Christians are currently undergoing the largest, fiercest persecution since the 1st century. I did say in response to you elsewhere that theism in general, and Christianity in particular, has always been a small minority in Australia where I live, and even many who would “tick the box”, so to speak, are practical atheists in how they live life.  I guess the USA is a different beast!

2. The most disturbing aspect of your response was perhaps intended by you to the most attractive.  In response to my comment about grace versus guilt as motivators, you stated:

Our motivator is summarized as “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.” We don’t guilt people about anything, just invite them to a participatory community that is just getting started, but through which we intend to provide a positive environment for the growth of human contentment.

Come again?  “We don’t guilt people about anything.”  What?  Not about anything?  So the sexual predator, child abuser, murderer should not be guilted? Courts pronounced “guilty” every day all over the world, so are they wrong to do so? This perspective seems incredibly naive when it comes to a person’s propensity to destroy themselves, and others along with them.  And if you do not “guilt” anyone, then what happens when the truly guilty get among you if they do?  How do the guilty get involved in what you term a “participatory” community?  How can they participate in any meaningful way if they have to hide their guilt? The beauty of the gospel is not that it guilts anyone about anything, but that it acknowledges that ALTHOUGH we are all guilty before a holy God, forgiveness is openly available to everyone – including ME – the guilty one! It is liberating! It is also truly participatory. I have “done” church with people who have done many terrible things, have been to prison, have wrecked other peoples’ lives, yet who , even having paid for their crimes, still felt guilty. Only with the costly forgiveness available in the gospel have they been liberated from that!

Charley, how do you tell someone who has train wrecked their life and perhaps the lives of others in the process that they should “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More”? How do you tell them that what they did is not something they should feel guilty about?  What do you have to offer them to salve their guilt? Your response simply has no place for people who actually know they are guilty of something, feel that guilt, but have nowhere to bring it and are being crushed by it, who feel that unless they can be forgiven of their guilt they have to hide it.  Would a person guilty of something be able to belong to a participatory community such as yours?  Could they participate with any sense of freedom and transparency?

3. Charley, your response to our gathering around Jesus indicates, naturally, that atheists believe that even if Jesus did exist, he is dead. But despite this, you do have the same desire that we do for a world that is better than it is now. You state:

We don’t look backwards to any great figure, but forward towards the possibility of an abundant prosperous future for all of humanity and the other species with which we share this planet.

Charley I have to say that you and I are on the same page when it comes to hoping for a better world. Christians call that forward looking aspect of our faith “eschatology”.  We don’t simply believe that Jesus lived and died, but that he rose, rules the universe and will one day return to usher in the type of world we all long for – theists – in my case “Christian”-  and atheists alike.  So we can share that hope.  So if you read the New Testament it is not a document that hankers for the old days, but does, in hope, look forward to a future like you describe.  The disciples of Jesus didn’t sit around talking about the good ol’ days, they looked forward constantly in what we call a “certain” hope.  I guess I would like to explore with you the foundation of your hope. I get the impression that you believe that if we all pull together we can do what we plainly have not been able to do up to this point. It seems slightly utopian and hopelessly idealistic. And what makes atheism such a good option anyway, given that in the few places on the planet that it was universalised it proved to be a complete disaster, and awash with blood?

4. In regards to conflict resolution, and the way Jesus helps us do that, Charley, you are on firmer ground when you ask:

I guess the fact that Christians are divided into thousands of sects proves that Jesus can reconcile sinners into unity? That’s a sarcastic question, of course, meant with a bit of levity, but also serious. How can Christians preach to atheists conflict resolution? Even the most peaceful Christians like the Quakers have recently gotten into huge fights over same-sex marriage ( I think SA will have to look elsewhere for guidance, thank you very much.

Well Charley, last week my church in Midland, Perth in the year 2013 recited the Apostles’ Creed, a creed composed in 390AD that has been the central spine of Christianity through time and space and across denominations.  For all of the disunity among Christians the central spine has remained the same for two millennia. It is amazing how much unity there is. And whilst we are on definitions, what you are proposing that Christians should display is less unity and more uniformity.  To be honest, I think you would be more suspicious of Christianity  if it were completely uniform because it would indicate an external coercion by a centralised system that simply doesn’t exist in Christianity today, not even in the Catholic church.  If you want uniformity go to a closed state that enforces its views at the point of a gun, something that we have seen in the middle of the twentieth century among strongly atheist nations that no doubt horrify you.  Uniformity is forced upon people, while unity springs from within them. In actual fact I have many friends who are Christian who believe very different things than I on a wide number of issues, and come from different traditions, ethnicities and family backgrounds,  but who all seem to believe that central spine of the Apostles’ Creed.

5. On my last point – about the attempt to ape middle class, contemporary worship service Christianity from the mid-nineties – I think I went over your head Charley with an in-joke. For that I can only apologise!  I guess I was saying that imitation is the highest form of flattery, but if you are going to imitate us there are better ways to do it than come up with a 1995 worship service style that dated pretty quickly even for us!