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.