Sunday, May 04, 2008
What If God Really Existed?
Hemant re-posted this question from another blog over at Friendly Atheist:

Atheist readers, what if you were to suddenly find out tomorrow that the God of the Christian Evangelicals was real?

I.e. that He HAD created the world, had created you, the Bible was true, Jesus had died on the cross for your sins etc etc.

What would you do?

Anger? Agreement? Kowtowing to this being? Resigned acceptance, passive aggression, active aggression, resigned damnation?

Would you fall on your face and worship him? Why or why not?
It's an interesting question (and just as interesting if you turned it around and asked evangelicals what they would do if they were suddenly convinced that atheism were true). I am especially intrigued by many of the responses on Hemant's blog (from those who actually treated it as an honest question and gave an honest answer). I think they illustrate well the reality that many people reject Christianity not just because they don't think it's true, but because they also don't think it is good. In other words, they find the depiction of God in the Bible to be petty and evil, violent and vindictive, and fear that becoming a follower of that God would make them worse individuals, not better. To put it another way, they don't want to become Christians because their morals standards are high and Christianity seems like a step down.

I think it's important for Christians to realize this, that there aren't many people who reject Christianity simply because they want to "sin more" or not be morally accountable to anyone (as the common Christian mythology about atheists often goes... though truth be told I have encountered a few people like that). Rather, many, if not most atheists reject Christianity because they want to "sin" less, and feel that their own moral standards are higher than that of most Christians they know.

Personally, I think this ought to be a wake-up call and a motivation for many Christians to honestly re-evaluate their own view of the Bible and the God of the Bible, and ask whether we ourselves really can worship the God of Joshua, Judges and Deuteronomy - a God that often acts a lot more like Hitler than like Jesus; or if we are okay following a God who condemns people to an eternity of torture for choosing the wrong religion, as an evangelical view of God requires one to believe. It has been questions like this that have motivated me to rethink many of my understandings of scripture, and moved me away from a strictly evangelical view of God (though that's not to say I have all of the answers either - there are still many things about God that unsettle me).

And I think too it ought to be an eye-opener for many Christians to realize that our atheist brothers and sisters are themselves good people who are often seeking to be just and loving individuals as best they know how, and understand that sometimes it is this precise motivation that keeps them from embracing Christianity. I'm not sure Jesus would disapprove.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 5:14 PM | Permalink |


12 Comments:


At 5/04/2008 05:52:00 PM, Blogger Andrew

I think the rise of atheism is for the very reasons you mention. For a lot of atheists, Christianity probably would be an ethical downsizing.

This is because Christianity (for many) has turned into beliefism. It has become about what we believe, rather than who we are and what we do. We have become abstract rather than practical.

 

At 5/05/2008 09:52:00 AM, Anonymous Karl

Isn't the heart of many people's rejection of God a desire to be my own final arbiter of what is true, good and beautiful, of what will bring me joy, fulfillment, happiness, peace? Isn't that the original lie - that we can be like gods, judging for ourselves what is best rather than trusting the creator, whose (supposedly) loving heart and good intentions we really can't trust? That we can do better if we carve out some space of our own and do it our way?

Yeah, religion itself can put up added barriers that make it much harder to trust the heart of God. And subjectively most people who reject faith may not experience anything other than that felt revulsion toward God and his followers. But most who cross the divide into faith, look back and say that in hindsight even if experiences with bad religion played a part, there was also some of that "I'm not bowing my knee to anyone and any God that would expect me to is a tyrant" going on as well. Like the characters in Lewis's "The Great Divorce."

I agree with Andrew's comment about the danger of Christianity turning into beliefism - well said.

"a God who condemns people to an eternity of torture for choosing the wrong religion, as an evangelical view of God requires one to believe."

That's the predominant evangelical view, but there's a substantial minority within evangelicalism that is open to an inclusivist view of salvation, along the lines of C.S. Lewis. How much you encounter it, if at all, will depend on the circles in which you walk and/or the books you read, but it's there.

 

At 5/05/2008 10:50:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

"I'm not bowing my knee to anyone and any God that would expect me to is a tyrant"

Karl, did you read the comments on that blog? I didn't get the sense that this is what most of them were saying. They don't think God is a tyrant for expecting us to bow; they think God is a tyrant because (a common reading of) the Bible portrays him as a tyrant - e.g. commanding genocide, sanctioning racism & bigotry, and condemning people to an eternity of torture for choosing the wrong religion.

We're not just talking about letting God decide what is right and wrong when our own selfish motives are involved. We're talking about God sanctioning the systematic extermination of entire races. We're talking about God inflicting eternal conscious torment as a punishment for intellectual disbelief and calling that "just". I can understand that there are times when God's definition of "good" might be somewhat different than my own, but I refuse to believe the hyper-Calvinist view that I am so totally depraved that what appears incurably evil to me is somehow actually a Divine good. If genocide is actually good, then I don't want to be good.

"there's a substantial minority within evangelicalism that is open to an inclusivist view of salvation, along the lines of C.S. Lewis."

I think a lot of evangelicals would argue that to the degree a person holds such a view, that person is no longer an evangelical. C.S. Lewis is a perfect case in point since he was not, by most standards, an evangelical, and most evangelicals I know got really nervous when you started bringing up those parts of his writings.

There are a lot of areas where you can stretch the boundaries of evangelical theology, but when you start suggesting that not every single non-Christian will burn forever in hell, that's when the accusations of being a heretic begin to fly in my personal experience.

 

At 5/05/2008 11:26:00 AM, Anonymous Karl

Mike, I didn't read the comments in that particular thread but I've read enough atheist discussion threads and had enough lengthy discussions with atheist friends to be comfortable posting what I did. My comments don't really hinge on subjectively reported reasons for disbelief, as telling and important as those may be.

Just as you or I might suggest that a conservative evangelical's stated (or even subjectively felt) reasons for rejecting something they don't like about emergent is different from (or secondary to) what's *really* driving their core response on that issue, my experience has been that those objections to a mean and petty sounding OT God aren't the deepest thing about most people's rejection of God. Are they involved? Yes. Might they be what brought about a tipping point? Yes. Do those images of God create a barrier to belief? Yes, often, and they are often at the top of the consciously, subjectively felt-and-cited reasons for rejecting God. But are they the deepest thing about most human beings saying "no thanks" to God? Would removing them automatically make most people immediately change their mind and submit their will and ways to God's? I don't think so. It seeps out here and there, in discussions and life experiences and testimonies of those who have been there, and then crossed over to belief. But no, you aren't likely to find it in an online discussion thread.

Regarding inclusivism, I have a good friend who is an evangelical who wrote a book in which he alluded to his inclusivist position, among other things. He was invited to sign the evangelical manifesto of belief that appeared in CT back in the late 90's, but refused to do so because it was explicitly exclusivist and he (along with several other prominent evangelical thinkers) refused to sign because of their inclusivist beliefs - along the lines of Lewis's. CT printed their letter to the drafters of the document outlining their reasons for not signing. My friend was a finalist for a position at our alma mater a while back and was told by the interview committee that while they believed his position was orthodox (i.e. they accepted him as an evangelical), it would definitely create controversy among their constituencey and within the department.

So yes, you're right - those views make a lot of evangelicals nervous and can get you called a heretic in many evangelical circles. But there's a minority of evangelicals who don't fit that description and I've been a member of at least 2 evangelical churches where it was ok to have that discussion. Just like there are streams within emergent that don't fit the description of other streams within emergent, YMMV depending on where you are, who you are reading and interacting with.

 

At 5/05/2008 11:58:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Karl, these days I'm more interested in listening to what people tell me about their own reasons for belief or non-belief; not in attempting to psychologize them based on what my theology tells me their reasons must "really" be. To do the latter seems disrespectful, and it bugs me when people to it to me too, so why would it do it to my atheist friends?

Besides which, I can relate to this reason very much. I've long said that if there was anything that was going to drive me away from my faith in God it would be the books of Joshua and Judges. If I couldn't somehow reconcile those parts of the Bible in my own mind, I would be an atheist too. So yes, I believe other atheists when they say that is a big part of why they would reject God if he existed.

 

At 5/05/2008 12:54:00 PM, Anonymous Karl

That sounds nice but are you consistent in that, Mike? When a complementarian says he'd love to let women preach and teach but sadly just thinks the Bible won't permit it, do you accept that at face value as being the sum total of what's motivating him, or do you write/post about the fear and prejudice that drives many complmentarians' views? Is our position on anything ever really as simple as what we'd articulate with a first, subjective response - even if there is truth in that response?

I'm all for listening to people, seeking to learn things from them that I may not have previously known, seeing through their eyes rather than just my own, honoring their statements about what motivates them and treating them the way I'd like to be treated. But I don't think you really lay all of your critical thinking skills aside when reflecting afterward on those conversations any more than I do. There's a decent amount of middle ground between the extremes of "psychologizing them based on what my theology tells me their reasons must really be" and just uncritically accepting everything they say at face value and not thinking further about what light reason and experience (and even humbly held theology) can shed on the topic.

 

At 5/05/2008 03:19:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

"When a complementarian says he'd love to let women preach and teach but sadly just thinks the Bible won't permit it, do you accept that at face value as being the sum total of what's motivating him, or do you write/post about the fear and prejudice that drives many complmentarians' views?"

I don't know. I don't think I've ever heard an honest complementarian say anything like that to me. Most that I know are much more strident in their defense of strict gender roles both in church and in the rest of life. I suppose if a complementarian told me that then I would believe them. At any rate, I don't recall writing anything about their motivations recently anyway, so I really couldn't say for sure whether I've been consistent on this. Perhaps you're thinking of my wife.

As for my atheist friends' motivations, I've just recently come to realize how offensive and condescending and just plain false it feels to them when Christians try to tell them why they "really" don't believe in God, rather than listening to and believing their own reasons. This is a common complaint that I hear from them, especially the ones who used to be Christians and who can't seem to get their family and friends to actually believe their reasons are genuine when they explain why they no longer are. At any rate, how can I expect atheists to listen to me and take my own statements about my beliefs at face value if I won't do the same for them?

So yes, unless I have good reason to think otherwise, I tend to believe what people tell me about their own beliefs and motivations. And that is especially true in an online forum where I don't really know most of the people in person. What right do I have to start telling them that somehow I know better than they do about their own motivations? Without some other kind of context for who they are, I really have no basis to disbelieve what they're telling me.

 

At 5/05/2008 04:29:00 PM, Anonymous Karl

I'm surprised you never encountered that from a complementarian, Mike. I know quite a few well meaning, caring people who fit that description. That was part of my dilemma as I wrestled through the issue myself. Even though I didn't come down on the complementarians' side of the question, it wasn't as simple as stupid dishonest strident misogynists on one side, nice smart caring people on the other.

I agree there's no question that abusive Christianity and some Christian theologies have been reasons for people ceasing or refusing to believe in God.

I think what you say about respecting your friends' statements about their own motivations is right, and the best way to interact with people. Especially on the internet and even in face to face conversation, yes. Good point. Upon later reflection you may or may not conclude that the story you heard from them was the whole story, even if it was a true story. But your private conclusions on the matter had better be shared with care, if at all.

 

At 5/05/2008 05:20:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

"it wasn't as simple as stupid dishonest strident misogynists on one side, nice smart caring people on the other"

I didn't say that. You brought this entirely hypothetical analogy up in the first place. Please don't put words in my mouth.

 

At 5/05/2008 08:53:00 PM, Anonymous Adam Moore

I've recently been thinking about a similar question: "How would you change the way you live if you suddenly stopped believing in God? And this could certainly go both ways - for an atheist - "How would you change the way you live if you suddenly started believing in God."

I've asked a few people the first questions recently and have been somewhat surprised, but more just intrigued, that most people don't seem to think they would change significantly. I think this is worth thinking about...

 

At 5/08/2008 08:55:00 PM, Blogger Barbara(aka Layla)

I just re-found your blog via Adam's but have no idea how I found his.

I find your question interesting but have to process before I answer it. I am currently "in transition". I've been a "Christian" for 18 years and am stepping closer to atheism, or at least agnosticism, daily.

 

At 5/08/2008 11:47:00 PM, Blogger D

What a great question, particularly your point Mike, to flip it around and ask evangelicals this. This is something I have thought about often.

I think this would get to the heart of what motivates so many evangelicals. (I speak from experience as a hardcore evangelical for many, many years.)

If God doesn't exist would we still follow Jesus? If we answer yes, I would argue that would make us true followers. If we answer no, I would argue that the underlying motivation of such faith is fear of hell, not love of God and neighbor. Do you do something because it works or do you do something because it is the best way you know to live?

Thanks for sharing and excellent question and post.

 

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