Wait But Why?: Maybe Atheists Have Something to Say

I tend to like atheist blog posts.  I tend to like atheists.  This might seem strange, as I happen to hold to a pretty traditional set of beliefs in a trinitarian God:  FatherSonandHolyGhost.  You may find it unusual that I would embrace the thoughts of someone with a completely contrary view of the universe.  You may even ask “Wait, but why?”, which would be hilarious, because that is the title of a very good atheist blog post, waitbutwhy.com.

Fair question.  Why would a person who has sold out his life to follow a Jewish messiah he’s never (physically) met think atheists have anything to say to him?

In a completely unfair generalization (but it’s my blog, so I can get away with it), there are two kinds of atheists: angry atheists, and humble atheists.  First, and most uncomfortably, are the angry atheists.  They’ve been seriously hurt or damaged by the church, or by god, or by their parents, or by society.  One of my best friends in Bend was in this camp.  Angry to the core, and deservedly so.  These atheists follow their guru, Richard Dawkins, and their mantra is “I don’t believe in God, and I’m really, really angry at Him.”

These types of atheists are like wasabi, the really hot mustardy stuff that comes with sushi.  Mix a tiny bit of wasabi with your soy sauce, lightly dip in the delicious sushi, and the flavors explode.  But make the mistake of thinking the wasabi is part of the main course, take too big a bite, and your brain catches on fire and you won’t be able to taste anything for weeks.  Angry atheists are to be loved, but can be toxic to take in entree-sized portions.  And these types of atheists tend to be fiercely evangelical.  If I’m angry at a god I don’t believe in, everybody else should be angry at him too.  As I said, I have a good friend in this camp, but that kind of anger is hard to sustain over long periods of time, and it is really destructive.

The second type of atheist, the waitbutwhy.com-type atheists, are humble truth-seekers.  Many have been raised  in religious homes, but at some point started seeing contradictions in what they had been taught.  Hmm, God is all-loving and all-powerful, but refugee children drown, people starve, hearts are broken…..wait, but why?  I was taught that the only path to salvation was ‘abc’, but those Christians are taught that the only path is xyz…wait, but why?  I was taught that Jews…I was taught that Muslims…I was taught that Catholics….  But then I see atrocities committed by “Christians” and acts of grace performed by Muslims….wait but why?

An honest soul, and one courageous enough to step outside the little-d dogma in which s/he was raised, starts to explore these contradictions.  And one route, the one to humble atheism, goes like this:  I see errors in some of the things I was taught in the church.  I see contradictions in the Bible, which is supposed to be the foundation of these beliefs.  I see those in church authority abusing their power in the most terrible ways.  Hmm, maybe these contradictions go all the way to the core, maybe the foundational premise, the existence of an almighty, supernatural creator, needs to be looked at.

Maybe this is all human-breathed, a psychological and sociological reaction to the too-terrible-to-face reality that we are alone, that we are random, that our lives are brief and meaningless and followed by eternal oblivion.

And on that happy note, isn’t it obvious why I find these people so interesting?  But I really do, because these are people with the courage to look at creation without blinking.  They are people who would rather ask “Wait, but why?” than to stumble on through the fog of their inherited Religion.

And so humble atheists tend to have an incredibly fresh and powerful view of the universe.  Rather than processing everything through a tiny world-view, they are unconstrained to accept what is before them.  They can look at the cosmos, at the human condition, even at God, through child-like eyes.

So I think, in some way, the humble atheist can see God more clearly than those inside Religion.  If God is represented in His creation, the humble atheist can see this creation unfiltered by centuries of cultural clutter.

So I am not offended by the humble atheist, and I embrace her/his intellectual courage and honesty.  But I don’t come to the same conclusions.  “Wait, but why?,” you may ask.

The humble atheist tends to accept what s/he can experience and verify through her/his intellect and senses, through reason.  If s/he has been betrayed by second hand knowledge, by taught “Truths” which turn out to be not-so-true, then direct experience seems a more reliable belief system.  And here’s where I differ from the humble atheist.

My direct experiences:

My wife loves me, even though she knows me.  Wait, but why?

My mother prayed for me, even when I was completely lost.  Wait, but why?

A single electron charge on a single molecule in a cell membrane changes the 3-dimensional shape of the molecule, enabling it to fit perfectly into another 3-dimensional molecule, triggering a biochemical reaction which leads to a smile. Wait, but why?

An atheist Jewish surgeon and I struggled together in a sweltering operating room in Haiti to put people back together after the earthquake.  Wait, but why?

Kijabe Hospital has survived violence, poverty, apathy, and missionaries like me, providing incredible care to the most vulnerable in Kenya, for a hundred years, despite all odds.  Wait, but why?

If you are open to them, day to day reality provides glimpses of the divine.  Our difficult life in this difficult time provides direct experience of the way things were meant to be.  Almost always through individual acts of grace, or sometimes through the complex beauty of nature, we can see through the fog to the divine truth that we are not alone, that we are not random, that life is not meaningless, that we are loved beyond reason.

To quote Tim Urban, the atheist author of the Wait but Why? blog:

“A true Whoa moment is hard to come by and even harder to maintain for very long… Thinking about this level of reality is like looking at an amazing photo of the Grand Canyon; a Whoa moment is like being at the Grand Canyon—the two experiences are similar but somehow vastly different. Facts can be fascinating, but only in a Whoa moment does your brain actually wrap itself around true reality. In a Whoa moment, your brain for a second transcends what it’s been built to do and offers you a brief glimpse into the astonishing truth of our existence…

I love Whoa moments. They make me feel some intense combination of awe, elation, sadness, and wonder. More than anything, they make me feel ridiculously, profoundly humble—and that level of humility does weird things to a person. In those moments, all those words religious people use—awe, worship, miracle, eternal connection—make perfect sense. I want to get on my knees and surrender…”

So the difference between me and the humble atheist, is that I get down on my knees and surrender.  If everything around me says “awe, worship, surrender”, why would I resist? Why would I not hunger for more “Whoa moments”?  If my direct experience tells me that an impossibly, unimaginably loving creator wants to be in relationship with me, why would I disregard my experience?

I’m not a theologian, I can’t keep a lot of dogma in my head.  A faith that has two main commandments seems to fit:  Love God, and Love the Person In Front Of You.  I’m not very good at it sometimes, but at least I can remember the rules.  And those two rules come from ancient Jewish books, and those two rules were declared the summation of all religion by Jesus. So I guess that makes me a Christian.

My direct experience has shown me a God of love.  And that Love is the answer to the question “Wait, but why?”.  Why is the universe so amazing, why am I here, why is there good in the world?  Because there is a force of Love, of Order, of Logos, of anti-chaos, permeating existence.  My direct experience makes me pretty sure that something strange happened when that Jewish messiah lived and died.  Pretty sure that something changed in the fabric of the cosmos, irreversibly “tearing the temple curtain”, tearing down the separation between the natural and the Supernatural, the created and the Creator, the beloved and the Lover.

So as Christians, maybe we have something to hear from the humble atheist.  Maybe a naked awe at the raw grandeur of creation holds truths about the Creator.  Maybe science serves as a light to illuminate our foggy perception of Creation.

And maybe we are called to love those whose beliefs differ from ours:

If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”  For you atheists out there, that’s Jesus talking, from the sermon on the mount in Matthew’s Gospel.

Maybe He has something to say, too.  

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Categories: Uncategorized | 15 Comments

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15 thoughts on “Wait But Why?: Maybe Atheists Have Something to Say

  1. Colleen

    WOW! Very well written, Mike. I had this exact conversation last night w my eldest in a much shorter version. Perfect timing – she will read this today. Thanks for taking the time to put your thoughts into words. The kids’ other big question is “why does God allow horrible things to happen?” Care to address that one next? Hugs to you, Ann and the sweeties

  2. Oh, great, The Problem of Suffering. Yeah, I’ll get right on that! Hope T likes the blog, cool that you’re having these conversations with her.

  3. Mike, thank you so much for sharing. Beautifully written. One of our closest friends is also a staunch atheist, although probably not in the super angry camp, just somewhere outside of it. But it’s been quite a journey to see from his perspective and allow our differences to form a relationship anyways. I think I have learned more from him than I have sitting in church for years, as I’ve had to study and read and completely seek out the shaky parts of my own faith. It’s kind of terrifying sometimes, but probably for the best. I think this friendship has torn down some of my own walls and ill-gotten beliefs, refining my faith into something more pure, and teaching me some new aspects of what it means to love the person in front of me. (Of course having a husband who went from believer to darn-near agnostic and back again on his own faith journey is helpful, as he has helped guide me to resources and books that have helped illuminate so much truth.) Anyhow, all of that to say I think it would be beneficial if we could all put down our carefully-crafted arguments and become friends with an atheist or two, just to listen and commune; I think God could work some miracles in our midst.

  4. Why does God allow sunsets and puppies, for that matter? 😉

  5. Seriously, Coll (although the last comment was serious and meant to be thought-provoking), this looks like it could be a cool resource for T. http://rootedministry.com/articles/god-evil-suffering-and-teens-part-1-reframing-conversation

  6. David Smullin

    Yes but I am stuck on his characterization that there are 2 types of atheists. I am not either one and then I think he misses something big about why someone may be an atheist or really the thought process involved,

    But I am still pondering

    David

    “Of course I enjoy this life! It’s wonderful! Especially when I have no choice” (Tukten Sherpa from the Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen, 1978)

    >

    • Definitely guilty as charged. That classification was just convenient, not thorough. And if you figure out why anyone believes what they believe, let me know!!!

  7. Daniel Allan

    Love this! I too tend to get along well with many atheists, and I have had a lot of discussions about these topics with some of my atheist/agnostic friends.
    I totally agree with what you said about the “Whoa moments” and how you don’t resist, but surrender to God.

  8. Mike…I think you might have writing in your future! I loved this “blog” this morning! It gave me lots to ponder! Hello to Ann and the kids! Carry on…

  9. Mario

    I loved this Mike. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Your friend, Mario

    Sent from Samsung tablet

  10. Patti Devencenzi

    Hey Mike! Great blog entry. I needed to read it today as I have been struggling for the past couple of years. Both my husband and I were diagnosed with cancer last year. He has CLL-(Truly the chronic type) and I had lymphoma ( I am currently cancer free). So much happened during this time where we both cried out to God without being able to see, hear, feel a response. It has been a difficult time and I have found myself asking all sorts of new questions even though I am totally sold on Jesus! That direct experience of God or His people, the church, can be devastating and challenging to faith. At times I feel like I have not been able to guard my heart.(Proverbs 4:23) so that my experiences do not jade my outlook. I find myself looking for “Whoa moments” like a sign that my faith is still strong. I have asked, “Wait, but why?” an awful lot lately trying to make sense of the chaos and messiness of life. Maybe I should just be still and know God is God!
    Take care!

    • Thanks Patti, I’m so sorry about what both you and your husband are going through, both physically and spiritually. But He is there and He does love you. There’s nothing more you need to do, no trying harder, he already loves you. I pray that you both have the whoa! moment your hearts are thirsting for.

      Mike

  11. Cynthia

    As always I am left with much to think on after reading what you and Ann write. Thank you for taking the time to write. Both of you. It has helped me in my walk and I am a better person because of your choice to share your lives.

  12. George

    “…and their mantra is ‘I don’t believe in God, and I’m really, really angry at Him.'”
    If atheists don’t believe in God, how would they be angry at him?

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