The Death of God

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When the sixth hour came, darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour. At the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they began saying, “Behold, He is calling for Elijah.” Someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink, saying, “Let us see whether Elijah will come to take Him down.” And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed His last. And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. When the centurion, who was standing right in front of Him, saw the way He breathed His last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

-Mark, Chapter 15

For a religion that purports to bring joy to the world, Christianity seems preternaturally focused on death. Indeed, without the death of Jesus as God, atonement within Christian theology would be impossible. So great is this event, that Christians around the world commemorate it as “Good Friday.”

On this point, we can hopefully find no small level of agreement.

The death of God is of incredible significance for those who have moved beyond traditional religious beliefs and practices, and seek now to advance a humanistic ethic in a world where we have no benevolent deities to beg for blessings, nor tyrant gods to blame for miseries.

Humans have been commemorating the deaths of gods as far back as the Mesopotamian culture, in which the goddess Ishtar dies and ventures into the underworld, only to return days later in triumph. In the ancient Greek and Roman cultures, the goddess Persephone goes below and her return marks the beginning of Spring, as celebrated by the Eleusinian mystery cult during the time of Jesus. Among the Old English tribes, the goddess Ëastre (also called Ôstara by the Germans) represented rebirth and new life; the Christian scholar Bede noted that her name had been appropriated by Christians to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the latest god to seek death for the benefit of humans.

Is_God_DeadThomas J. J. Altizer, writing in The Gospel of Christian Atheism, acknowledges that “the death of God is a Christian confession of faith.” However, unlike traditional Christian orthodox views of atonement, Altizer suggests that “through the events that faith knows as the Incarnation and the Crucifixion, God empties himself of his sovereignty and transcendence, and not only does this kenotic sacrifice effect the dissolution of the opposition between Father and Son in the new epiphany of God as universal Spirit, but so likewise vanishes the opposition between God and the world.” In other words, God (as Christ) actually died on Good Friday, emptying Himself into the world and collapsing any division between them. Thus, rather than viewing the world as a dark place still in rebellion against God, Altizer sees the world as filled with God, following the self-negation of His transcendence.

Though the theology of Christian atheism is not resonant for me, I appreciate its directional tack. The America we live in is increasingly hostile to God – not only explicitly, through the rise of the New Atheist movement and encroaching secularism in government, but also implicitly, through the rise of the Nones and diminishing interest in religious institutions. To be an evangelical Christian in 21st-century America is to be always on the defensive, but to be a Christian atheist in the Altizer mold is to revel in the many permutations of divine manifestations in our art, literature, and scientific achievements. The Humanist in me recognizes that, whether we realize it or not, we have become the Gods of our own overlapping Universes, and that it is incumbent on us to rise to the responsibilities we face with such a title.

In Mark 16, the followers of Christ seek his dead body, but it is gone. In the original version of the story, there is nothing more to tell; confronted by supernatural visitors, the earliest Christians disobey their directives and flee from the truth. I wonder at times if the Easter season doesn’t suffer from the typical fast-forward from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. Although trumpeting the resurrection of the god does put the Spring back in one’s step, it also resets the clock for the next iteration of the cycle, another repetition of the death and rebirth of the deity next year. Perhaps if Good Friday were punctuated, at least with a comma, but hopefully with a semicolon, Christians might reflect on the significance of the death of God in their lives, and in the lives of their Humanist friends and neighbors.

Regardless, it is my sincere hope that we all can celebrate together during this season of death and rebirth; while my Christian brothers and sisters are able to find joy in the sacrifice of the figure of Christ Jesus, my Humanist siblings are likewise jubilant at the death of God, and we embrace the necessity of sacrifice from one for each other, in the interest of advancing a human-centered ethic that benefits us all.

A very Good Friday to you, and a very happy Easter to all your friends and family that celebrate it.

The Good Atheist

I can remember it like it was yesterday.

Standing at a microphone in the back room of his large Southern Baptist church, a young guy with an short but athletic build and close-cropped red hair stared blankly at the three atheists who were being interviewed for an adult Sunday School class. One of their number, a thin middle-aged man with glasses and a limp brown ponytail, had just asked the redhead what he would do if he discovered that God, in fact, did not exist.

“I suppose,” he began with some trepidation, “I’d go out and rape and steal and murder.”

The atheist replied, “Then I think we’ve all learned something about your character, no matter whether or not there’s a God.”

That moment stuck with me, hard. The entire experience did, in fact. I spent the next couple years with feet in both worlds; on most Sundays, I could be found right back at that Southern Baptist church, listening and discussing issues of theology and apologetics with the others in that Sunday School class. And once a month, I made my home with the atheists who’d come out that day, learning with them and discussing issues of philosophy, ethics, and the human experience.

I was attracted to both groups for a number of reasons. For one, I had only recently apostatized from orthodox Christianity, and I was exploring the idea of retaining my Christian identity while realigning my beliefs as a freethinker. For another, I was frankly disturbed to read about the terrible experiences my fellow apostates posted with relentless regularity online; I had grown up with only good experiences in churches, and with fellow believers, and I was hoping to reassure myself that houses of worship were still home to many, many good people. And finally, although spending time with the freethinking atheists was a tremendous joy for me intellectually, it did little to exercise my charitable impulses.

For that, I had to spend time with the Christians.

My favorite activity was something the church called their “Evening Stars” program. One Friday a month, members and other volunteers show up at the church’s children’s center at 6:00PM where families can drop off their special-needs children (and siblings) for an evening of respite. For my wife and I, it was a bit out of our comfort zone (having no children of our own, and precious little experience with them either), but at only a few hours a month it was an easy thing to do. And not, unfortunately, an activity that we could find among our local atheist organizations.

But that began to change. As our band of heathens began to expand and mature, those of us with experience in community outreach began to suggest activities that were less cerebral, and more charitable. Soon, I found myself doing as much good in my neighborhood in the company of infidels as I had previously with the faithful. And then when I heard that Dale McGowan, already considered by many to be the man who beat the humanist heart of the New Atheist movement, was starting a new foundation to encourage and empower charitable expression among the growing demographic of nonbelievers, I latched on immediately.

The Foundation Beyond Belief started in 2010 with little more than Dale’s good intentions and hard work, entering a landscape already dominated with some of secular humanism’s heaviest hitters. Both the American Humanist Association and the Center For Inquiry had charitable initiatives that had been in place for several years, and the Richard Dawkins Foundation had also recently started its very own. However, these existing charities all focused primarily on disaster relief, whereas the Foundation Beyond Belief sought to encourage regular giving patterns among atheists and humanists. As if that wasn’t enough of an uphill battle, Dale also felt strongly that the Foundation Beyond Belief should be able to work together with non-proselytizing religious charities who share our humanist values, despite their deep and profound theological disagreements with the atheists he hoped to recruit as members.

And yet, somehow it worked.

Today, the Foundation Beyond Belief has announced that their effort to herd the cats of the atheist community around the banner of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society has resulted in a total donation of $430,000, the largest-ever amount raised by a non-corporate team for the Society’s “Light the Night Walk.” Co-sponsored by the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, who matched every individual donation dollar for dollar, this achievement brought together 150 teams of atheists all over the country, all over North America even, with contributions and support by local and national groups like American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, Atheist Alliance of America, Camp Quest, the Center for Inquiry, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Secular Student Alliance, and the United Coalition of Reason.

But that’s only part of the story. The Foundation Beyond Belief also has over 1300 members who in just a few short years have donated enough to bring the grand total of humanist giving through the Foundation to nearly $900,000. And the Foundation Beyond Belief isn’t just all about the money. There is a network of grassroots organizations, just like my own in Dallas, which participates in volunteer outreach activities like bringing meals to lonely veterans, spending time with animals in shelters, and donating gallons of blood to patients in desperate need. Nearly three thousand atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists participate in the Volunteers Beyond Belief program, each of whom give of themselves, give of their time, give of their talents, not because a book tells them to, not because a god tells them to, but because their conscience, their empathy, their basic human decency propels them into it.

I’m not worried about how I would respond to a world without gods. I have no inclination to rape, murder, and steal; my previous beliefs did not bind my worst instincts, but neither did they give flight to the better angels of my nature. As my fellow freethinkers begin to experience the thrill of secular charity, or the humanist compassion that is embodied by organizations like the Foundation Beyond Belief, then I think that people like my redheaded friend will find that life’s most perplexing questions have answers they didn’t quite expect.

The Spectrum of Atheism

prism-and-refraction-of-light-into-rainbow-AJHDThere’s a story we tell ourselves as atheists. It goes a little something like this: “I used to believe silly things, but now I’m different. I’m smarter than what I was, than what the people that I was like still are, and I don’t fall for the things that they still do. All I need is a good set of books, some friends to discuss ideas with, and I can solve any problem.”

This story is a lie.

The truth is that we’ve given up our previous beliefs for any number of reasons. The truth is that we’re not all that different from people who still believe. And the truth is that we can’t just rely on ourselves to think our way out of every problem.

We have made great strides in little more than a decade. Long the domain of esoteric philosophers and apologists, the intellectual force of atheism is stronger now than ever, and a cultural tide is already building underneath the waves. We have much to be proud of, many successes, many victories. But in many neighborhoods, those triumphs ring hollow. Because although we have done reasonably well welcoming women and sexual minorities into our movement, when it comes to engaging with and connecting to other communities, we have failed.

We have FAILED.

We have failed the young Black woman who showed up years ago at an atheist group I attended, who had one simple question that none of us could answer: “Do you know any other Black atheists?”

We have failed when hundreds queue for hours for the chance to get an autograph from an old white guy at a national atheist convention, yet only one person appears at the hour-long signing scheduled for the only Black woman who spoke at the event.

We have failed the two young Black guys who traveled to a skeptic convention to learn and sharpen their debating skills, but returned back home without a community to benefit from their knowledge, and without an audience to encourage them.

We have failed as long as our conventions and grassroots organizations’ speakers and attendees consistently under-represent background demographics. Many, many of us have thought long and hard about how to solve this problem. And yet still we gather together, a sea of white faces barely peppered with color, unable to transform our movement into the inclusive, diverse tapestry that we hope (I hope!) for.

These failures pass silently by White suburbia; they aren’t felt in the Apple Store. They cross into other neighborhoods where they fester in the sun, slowly eating away at communities that friendly, open-minded, White folks like me never see except on the evening news. These failures are easy to ignore when we’re surrounded by schools that are well-funded, our public spaces are immaculately landscaped, and we eat cheap fried food as a sinful indulgence, not as economic necessity.

The stench of failure is hard to bear, and no less so for me. My parents went to great lengths to teach me to love and respect people of all colors – taught by showing, and by doing. I was transferred to a predominantly Black school that had a tremendous yet unsung academic reputation. There, for the first time I was in an environment where Black was the norm, where most of my teachers and friends didn’t look like me. And so I didn’t hesitate when I crushed hard on the cute girl who wore blue ribbons to hold back her kinky black hair, who was the only other person in class to beat me in multiplication drills, and who kissed me in gratitude after I beat up the boy calling her names on the playground one day.

But look, I’m no Freedom Rider. I was just a kid relating naturally to the people around me, doing the best I could. Years later, I was asked to help organize an aging atheist group in North Texas. The people were intelligent, interesting, and in severe demographic deficiency. So overwhelmingly monochromatic was its collection of old White men, that it heightened my own label-awareness even more than being a token White kid in a Black grade school. I don’t like thinking about myself that way, even though Louis C.K. is right, it is pretty awesome to be what I am. To have the labels I have. The opportunities I’ve been given. But there’s a darker side as well.

How much of who I am comes from me, and how much comes from the advantages I had, the privileges I enjoy? Did my parents and my teachers, even my Black teachers, encourage me more than other students because even subconsciously they thought the little White boy should be smarter than the rest? Did I get considered for jobs over other candidates because someone thought, “now there’s a White guy I can trust?” Why is it I’ve never seen a single store security officer watching me? Never been stopped ‘randomly’ by the police? Petty anxieties, I know, but what’s most troubling is this: do I really know what’s going through the head of someone of a different color, someone who is treated so differently by our culture than me?

The answer, I think, is NO.

For me to feel the queasiness of demographic insignificance, I have to work especially hard. I have to cross those railroad tracks, I have to walk into a Black Baptist church, I have to wrench my assumptions free of the White Supremacist culture that nestles and comforts primarily those who look like me. But for some among us, the weight of ethnic identity begins to crush as soon as they walk out their front doors. And no matter how hard I try, no matter how rational I try to be, no matter how successful I am at looking past my significant cultural privilege, I just can’t share that experience. And neither can any of my White brothers and sisters in the atheist movement. The moment a new person of color walks in the door of our Freethinking and Humanist organizations, no matter how inclusive and understanding we want to be, there is a cultural divide that we simply cannot fathom.

And the only way to cross that divide is to acknowledge, first and foremost, that we can’t navigate it ourselves. That we can’t think our way past this problem. That we are not qualified to be ambassadors to members of a population that has been systematically beaten down by the same culture which raises us up. Don’t get me wrong, being nice White folks is necessary. Being open to conversations about diversity and cultural privilege is necessary. Being willing to cross those tracks and feel uncomfortable and experience minority is necessary.

But it is NOT sufficient.

We have been exceptionally fortunate. The atheist community has been lucky enough to attract a first wave of Black activists who have been willing to step into a community that privileges intellectualism and academia over the real-world concerns of their communities of origin. They have crossed our thresholds sometimes leaving one foot outside, waiting for that sinking-stomach feeling of ethnic isolation yet again, and perhaps only staying because their biological family is on the other side of a smoking bridge, or because their kids need friends to play with, or because they lucked into a personal connection. We have been wise enough to recognize some few of them as pioneers, invite them to our gatherings, and offer them our podiums. But we have not listened to them. We have not listened to the criticisms of the atheist community as a function of the overarching White culture, we have not listened to stories of personal struggle that are fundamentally different from our own, and we have not listened to the urgent pleas that ask our movement to increase its focus on social justice and diversity outreach. We have been presented with clear directions, clear guidance, and clear leaders, but we do not take them seriously.

That is why it has become necessary to create a new paradigm to serve our atheist brothers and sisters of color. Not because we don’t want to be inclusive (of course we do), not because we have given up on promoting diversity (though we can still do much better), and not because Black and Latino atheists are just sick of waiting for us to get our collective act together (though they could hardly be faulted for feeling that way). It’s because, despite our best intentions and efforts, the atheist community as it exists today, as an overwhelmingly White culture, simply cannot provide a home that is welcoming enough, nor supportive enough, for people whose experiences so profoundly transcend our own that we cannot even properly empathize with them.

But we CAN help.

We can help by refracting our communities. The general atheist and skeptic community at large is not going away, and it will remain overwhelmingly White for years to come. But we can adjust the optics if we set at least one room aside, specifically for our Black brothers and sisters to come together to be able to share their experiences with each other and empathize with their own unique struggles. We can dedicate a percentage of our resources every day, not just once a year, to advancing an agenda on behalf of minority populations who otherwise would not have a sufficiently loud voice in our forum. We can do this, and we should do this, for our brothers and sisters in the Black community, the Latino community, all our atheist sisters and people of non-privileged sexual identities. We should create these areas of specialization, these safe ports of entry, and then purposely and considerately support them within the context of the general secular community. Doing so will not diminish our goal of inclusiveness, but it will maximize the impact of our full spectrum.

There are many ways this can be done. Outreach projects can be spearheaded by those who have ties within the culture they serve, but be promoted and supported by the wider community at large. Social connections can be forged first at the level of shared experience, serving a special minority population, and then integrated into the larger calendar of events for each community. Large gatherings are the perfect opportunity to bring those from several different populations and demographics together to learn and share with each other. Nothing we do should happen in a vacuum. Every major city in America now has a robust grassroots secular community, overwhelmingly White, heterosexual, and male – now is the time to refract them, to build specialized areas within those communities to reach out to and welcome atheists of color, women, those with marginalized sexual identities, and any other non-privileged groups that exist. This is a call for diversity, not homogenization. Diversity brings new flavors and new experiences to the forefront, but homogenization blends everything together into a milky mess. Diversity also breeds strength and flexibility – what the general secular community cannot do on it’s own, our Black brothers and sisters can find a way to achieve. Or the Black and Latino communities working together, or the Latino and Women’s communities, or the Women’s and GLBT communities, or any possible permutation of these, each with the weight of the general secular community behind them in support.

That is my vision for the future of the atheist community. We do not need color-blind atheists, we need our community to be color-aware. By celebrating our differences and respecting our boundaries, we have the potential to go beyond the best efforts of our religious friends and neighbors, to create a Humanist kaleidoscope view of the world which is able to understand, empathize, and work with any community of people anywhere in the world.

We have failed, yes. But the lessons our failures teach are usually the most important of all. We are now on the cusp of a new chapter in our community’s history. Will we continue to insist on viewing our world monochromatically, as we have always done? Or will we take the step that admits our limitations, acknowledges our privilege, and creates the brilliant rainbow that I think we’re all desperately searching for?

The Truce on Christmas

Oh I’m a Christian holiday; I’m a symbol of original sin.
I’ve a pagan tree and a magical wreath and bow-tie on my chin!
Oh I’m a pagan heresy; I’m a tragical Catholic shrine
I’m a little bit shy, with a lazy eye, and a penchant for sublime.
Oh I’m a mystical apostasy; I’m a horse with a fantasy twist
Though I play all night with my magical kite, people say I don’t exist.
For I make no full apology; for the category I reside
I’m a mythical mess with a treasury chest; I’m a construct of your mind.

-Sufjan Stevens, “Christmas Unicorn

Though an atheist, I still enjoy putting up Christmas decorations, and I’m not alone in that regard.

On my fireplace, a long plastic evergreen bough snakes between an Irish Santa Claus, a Polish Angel, and a sitting Buddha. To the right is my childhood Christmas teddy bear, wearing a red sleeping cap trimmed with white fur, and to the left are Christmas cards from friends and family. In my refrigerator, a turkey from some Muslim friends waits patiently for the tandoori treatment, while homemade peppermint ice cream slowly freezes below. On my Christmas tree, fragile glass ornaments from my wife’s family intermingle with clunky ceramic trinkets from my youth as well as those I’ve collected from my various skeptical and atheist organizations. Hanging behind it are stockings for our son, our two cats, and one that reminds children to fear the wrath of Krampus. Opposite the tannenbaum are a family of snowmen surrounding a menorah, driedel, and gelt. All are framed by glittering white lights that wash the entrance to my house with a warm glow, echoed by seasonal candles in every window.

I think Tertullian would approve:

“Let, therefore, them who have no light, light their lamps daily; let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts, laurels doomed presently to burn: to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable. You are a light of the world, and a tree ever green. If you have renounced temples, make not your own gate a temple.”

-Tertullian of Carthage, “On Idolatry”

No surprise then, to find out that this patristic Grinch didn’t celebrate Christmas. Indeed, it wasn’t even until the end of the Fourth Century that St. John Chrysostom in Antioch sought to make the 25th of December the official day to recognize Christ’s birth. A day which, as it happened, also celebrated the birth of the Unconquered Sun (Natalis Solis Invictus), though Chrysostom dismissed the coincidence: “But they call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered.’ Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord…? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice.”

Thus the early Christian fathers snubbed the original “reason for the season,” namely axial tilt.

Cultures the world over, and throughout human history, have celebrated the annual death and rebirth of the sun, typically with feasting, lights, decorations, and singing. These serve a practical purpose as well as symbolic; the solstice is the darkest of the dark days of winter, when good cheer is at a premium; also heralding the beginning of the coldest months of the year, during which extra livestock become a liability. At this time, the beasts are slaughtered, the new wine is drunk, and the candles are lit while all engage in revelry.

“The delusion you’re trying to cure is called ‘Christmas,’ Duncan. It’s the crazy notion that the longest, darkest nights can be the warmest and brightest. And when we all agree to support each other in that insanity, something even crazier happens. It becomes true. Works every year, like clockwork.”

-Community, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas

In many ways, the history of Christmas is the history of Christianity itself. As the Western and Eastern churches solidified their power and influence over Eurasia, Christmas adapted itself to the particular cultural mores of each society. The Catholic bishop of a minor Turkish town, whose only notable career achievement was being present during the routing of Arianism during the Council of Nicaea, inexplicably spawned a tradition of gift-giving among the children of Germanic people who lived a thousand miles away. Though the precise origins of this practice are lost to the mists of history, the myth has clearly eclipsed the man.

Saint Nicholas, usually with an unsavory helper (such as the demonic Krampus in Austria, Knecht Ruprecht in Germany, or Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands), settled into the well-worn route first used by the perennial visits of Odin during the midwinter festival of Yule. With Nick and friends were blended other traditions, such as the blood-sacrificing Wrenboys among the Celts, the harvest-celebrating Wassailers among the British, and the life-affirming Mistletoe throughout Northern Europe. Thus did Holy Mother Church pacify the newly-baptized heathens, by recontextualizing their idiosyncrasies within the ever-expanding boundaries of orthodoxy.

Undoubtedly, it was this Catholic indulgence of paganism that gave the Reformers absolute fits about the holiday. Martin Luther evicted the papish Nicholas and conscripted the Christ-Child himself to distribute holiday presents, and John Calvin (though he personally found moderate Christmas celebrations acceptable) through his theology influenced the Calvinist Reformers to abolish the holiday in Geneva in the 16th century, as well as in the Scottish Presbyterian Church.

“…holy days of certain saints commanded by man, such as be all those that the Papists have invented, as the feasts (as they term them) of apostles, martyrs, virgins, of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Purification, and other fond feasts of our lady. Which things, because in God’s scriptures they neither have commandment nor assurance, we judge them utterly to be abolished from this realm; affirming further, that the obstinate maintainers and teachers of such abominations ought not to escape the punishment of the civil magistrate.”

-Church of Scotland, “First Book of Discipline (1560)

This theology emigrated to the United States with the British Puritans, and though they could not always ban festivities, made it reasonably clear that European-style revelry was not welcome in the New World. As Cotton Mather suggested (when speaking of not celebrating Christmas), “Good Men may love one another, and may treat one another with a most Candid Charity, while he that Regardeth a Day, Regardeth it unto the Lord, and he that Regardeth not the Day, also shows his Regard unto the Lord, in his not Regarding of it…” Indeed, the traditional American Christmas was in danger of being stillborn, were it not for the “Knickerbockers,” a literary circle that included Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Clement Clarke Moore. The former was the author of much of America’s early mythology, and reimagined the rowdy English customs of yore as quaint, cozy, and centered on the family. The latter is best known as the poet responsible for the 1822 verse “A Visit From Saint Nicholas,” (also known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), which reoriented the European figure for an American audience.

It was just this gift-giving character that thrilled Yankee merchants eager to sell toys and other trinkets to parents who were increasingly becoming softer in their child-rearing. Thus this refocus on the commercial aspects of the holiday season also depended on the emphasis of familial connection, both of which persist to modern day. Between Thomas Nast and the Coca-Cola Company, the standardization of the Santa Claus imagery and costume by the beginning of the 20th century had become an internationally-recognized signal of the season. From there, it was really only a matter of time before Kris Kringle replaced the Kristkindle as the primary representative of the holiday, along with the department store endorsements, coruscating displays of excess, and pink aluminum Christmas trees that lead many to recoil from the season’s consumerism (though Libanius noted similar excess regarding Saturnalia/Kalends in the fourth century).

“I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.”

-Charlie Brown, “A Charlie Brown Christmas

As a boy, one of my earliest memories of the holiday is of the Ku Klux Klan seeking to and succeeding in placing a cross on Cincinnati’s Fountain Square, in competition with a menorah that had been erected to recognize the Jewish solstice festival of Hanukkah. Although the specific ramifications of the First Amendment to the Constitution were beyond my grasp at the time, I do recall understanding that, at least within a public space, even if one doesn’t like the message being presented, fair is fair.

Which is a concept seemingly inaccessible to the likes of Bill O’Reilly and his co-combatants in the War on Christmas:

Though his protestations and presumptions are likely to send atheists and Christians alike into apoplexy, O’Reilly voices the oft-irrational concerns of the common American: in this case, that the godless heathens are coming to take our Christmas trees away. And yet that couldn’t be further from the truth. What the long-suffering President of American Atheists (and, I daresay, most of the infidel contingent he represents) would like to see is for the holiday to resign from its government position, and instead to spend its time exclusively in the private sector. And certainly, when it comes to overtly religious displays (like a nativity scene or an angel or a cross) on public property, I think Silverman is justified in his push for state neutrality.

But I’m willing to consider a truce at this point.

In part because I love Christmas so much, in part because squabbling over the public square diminishes my enjoyment of the season, and in part because I think the holiday has already outgrown its religious heritage, especially here in America. Here’s what I propose: Christmas shall henceforth be treated as a secular holiday open to the interpretation and enjoyment of all. Christians are welcome to revel in the theological implications of the day’s symbolism, while atheists and others may pick and choose those aspects of the day which resonate with their own particular values. The Christmas tree in the square will be a malleable and inclusive symbol, able to support the weight of Magi, Menorahs, and Mohammed, as well as any other marginalized culture that would appreciate a little bit of cheer in the darkness of winter (including we joyless atheists).

Black night behind the tamarisks—the owls begin their chorus—
As the conches from the temple scream and bray.
With the fruitless years behind us, and the hopeless years before us,
Let us honor, O my brother, Christmas Day!
Call a truce, then, to our labors—let us feast with friends and neighbors,
And be merry as the custom of our caste;
For if “faint and forced the laughter,” and if sadness follow after,
We are richer by one mocking Christmas past.

-Rudyard Kipling, “Christmas in India

Is such a truce possible? Would it hold? I think so, and I think that many of us have already negotiated something similar with our own consciences. After all, if anything has been demonstrated over the past couple centuries in America, it’s that Christmas is a major part of our culture, and it has been able to adjust to the demands of a changing history. I think it can handle a few atheist decorations on the branch.

The Generosity Gap

Why should we give?

Ask a group of atheists, and you’ll most likely hear answers such as, “because it helps people in need,” or “because it makes society better,” or “because we might need people to help us someday.”

What you don’t hear very often is, “because God tells us to.”

Which is something that you might be likely to hear if you ask a group of Christians the same thing. And rightly so, because you can find gorgeous gems of generosity throughout the Christian scriptures, like “God loves a cheerful giver,” “Give, and it will be given to you,” and of course the classic, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” These are verses so profound that many people quote them blithely, not realizing their sacred provenance.

To say nothing of the magnificent story told by Jesus of the “Good Samaritan,” which comes to us uniquely from the Lukan Evangelist, quite possibly the most poignant example of a secular humanist parable within the canon. As the tale is told, a certain man was waylaid while traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, beaten, robbed, and left for dead. Two religious men passed by and did nothing to help, presumably to avoid complicating their important errands of piety. Yet a third man, a Samaritan in fact (read: religiously unorthodox and socially despised, sound familiar atheists?), sets aside his travels to tend to the man’s wounds and make arrangements for his care. If ever the champions of humanism needed an icon to revere, it would surely be this Samaritan.

Though they may be scripturally fortified with compassion, we can yet be skeptical that Christians reflect this same kind of generosity to practical effect. But the Barna Group is eager to point out that within the general public, only one out of every three individuals gave at least $1000 to non-profit charities, whereas four out of every five Evangelical Christians met this minimal charitable level. And when compared to atheists, the differences are even more striking: Evangelicals gave an average of $4260 to non-profits, while atheists gave an average of only $467. That’s a order of magnitude difference. And that’s embarrassing.

One might be temped to hold these Barna data at arms’ length, especially given the fact that George Barna himself is an Evangelical Christian. And yet as it happens, I’ve conducted my own research here in Dallas-Fort Worth, and in an unpublished survey I helped run in 2011, when the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason was compared to a local Methodist church, there was a similar order of magnitude difference in giving between the two groups. But perhaps we just coincidentally sent the survey to one of the wealthiest congregations in town, right? Well, we also compared the annual household incomes between the two groups, which turned out to be virtually indistinguishable. That is to say (not accounting for secular student organizations), both our local atheists and their Christian counterparts had the same relative ability to donate money.

So, why then is there a generosity gap?

I frankly don’t know. It’s certainly likely that if you subjected one group of people to regular inspirational talks that appealed to the highest ethical standards of their worldview, and then asked them to donate in front of their peers, you would probably see more systematic generosity than a comparable group that was told to simply give individually whenever the mood happened to strike. And yet there are some atheist organizations that do the former, without generating the same level of generosity that we typically see from churches.

That’s not to say there aren’t atheist organizations that are trying. At the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, there are regular cocktail party benefits, they adopt roads and lakeshores, they conduct food, blood, clothing, and virtually all other kinds of drives for all kinds of needy people, they cook dinner for HIV patients, volunteer at food banks, and help out with LGBT charities. They also regularly partner with other organizations in the DFWCoR, and encourage their members to join the Foundation Beyond Belief.

But as wonderful as those activities are, they’re still miles behind the average church. Most atheist organizations can’t even afford a building, to say nothing of professional staff, or the ability to sponsor outreach projects such as sending volunteers on emergency relief trips, building houses for the needy, running a soup kitchen, or any other kind of medium-to-large-scale charitable activity that churchgoers take for granted.

What will it take for atheists to approach the same level of generosity that our religious friends and neighbors manage with regularity? Again, I’m at a loss on this point, but I suspect that too many of the former group are needlessly skittish about systematic giving behaviors that remind them of the religious influences and patterns from which they’ve attempted to distance themselves. And it’s true that atheists may be able to rally every once in a while to make a big generous splash, but the real impact is made by the constant drip over a long period of time.

Look, the question of whether or not gods exist is interesting, and within a culture where theists enjoy the majority (for now), perhaps it’s costly enough to criticize those ideas which one finds problematic. But at some point we need to look hard at ourselves and the world around us, and ask ourselves the question of why, in a world without gods to make things better, aren’t we taking on the burden ourselves to build Heaven here on Earth?

At that point, perhaps the generosity gap will go away. I’m looking forward to it.

In the Lambs’ Den

One of the things I most enjoy doing is going to church. Even when I was younger and religious, and the pressure of familial attendance had diminished, there were few things that I would have preferred on a Sunday morning more than planting myself in a pew.

And I still find myself doing so even today, though I’m more of an explorer these days than a pilgrim. So when I received an invitation from a friend of John’s to attend their church, and even to be interviewed for their adult Sunday School class, I jumped on it. Going “inside the Lambs’ Den” in this way has always been a distinct pleasure, and I’m looking forward to more opportunities like this.

If you would be interested in a similar exchange at your DFW-area church, please contact me here.

The Atheist Con

If you wanted to find diversity, community, and humanism at Skepticon 5, you had to walk next door.

I love atheist and skeptic conferences. I really do. There’s something exhilarating about pulling into a hotel parking lot and seeing regiments of marching fish, stepping into a hotel lobby and noticing heretical trinkets dangling from seemingly everyone, and sitting down to eat in a nearby restaurant where the faithful are an obvious minority. Especially for those who live South of the Mason-Dixon line, such occurrences are rare enough that the novelty alone is usually worth the price of admission.

Which is why I was surprised to return from Skepticon 5 (the “fifth-most Skepticon yet”) weighed down by profound disappointment.

Not because the organizers did a bad job – far from it. In fact, the event itself was a fantastic gathering, a testament to their Herculean efforts and organizational proficiency. In fact, I would daresay that this year’s convention was damn near equivalent to other atheist and skeptical events with longer and more professional pedigrees.

Which is precisely the problem.

I’ve gradually grown weary of the popular edutainment and personality-driven nature of these conventions. I suppose that for the newly-unchristened, the novelty of attendance is sufficient to sustain interest, in much the same way that one’s first discovery of manual-genital congress is stimulating enough to attenuate the desire for more meaningful interactions. Unfortunately, the two most meaningful talks of Skepticon 5 were consigned to the literal margins – James Croft‘s excellent discourse on the value of secular communities, and Tony Pinn‘s crucial explanation of the challenges in reaching out to ethnically non-privileged communities. The former was placed at the earliest position on Sunday (while most attendees and other speakers were still nursing the effects of the previous evening’s debauchery), and the latter was given the final position of that day (after the vast majority of attendees had evacuated Springfield out of logistical necessity).

Croft’s talk represented the humanist soul (for lack of a better word) of the atheist and skeptical movement. It’s easy enough (relatively speaking) to stroke one’s rationality and reargue the nonexistence of gods, the silliness of creationism, and even the value of feminism. But it takes a good deal more intellectual and ethical rigor to hash out the particulars of building real value-driven communities. Particularly for atheists and skeptics, who have a poor track record of creating proactive and harmonious groups online, to say nothing of their capacity for contention in meatspace. Without community, the best we have to offer is either the intellectual one-night-stand of conventions like Skepticon or a passport to the Great Online Troll Sanctuary, where clashing tribes band together around the glow of their iPad screens and cast virtual spears at anyone who speaks differently. What we need, Croft says, are real places where people can look each other in the eye, forge long-term friendships, and celebrate life’s milestones. Or, as my friend Alix put it slightly more pragmatically, “people I can invite to my daughter’s first birthday party.”

Pinn’s presentation, delivered to a fraction of the weekend’s attendees, was particularly poignant to me. Most atheist and skeptical conventions have done a reasonable job of increasing the visibility of women within the movement, but for those from ethnically non-privileged communities, it’s been another story. Surveying this year’s larger conventions, I note with particular disappointment that non-white speakers comprise an average of 12% of each event, while African-Americans make up only about 7% (with Dr. Pinn’s appearances contributing close to half of that amount). This is, in a word, UNACCEPTABLE. These numbers should be at least twice what they are now, or higher. Pinn pointed out that the atheist and skeptical movement has not attracted minority participants because it doesn’t proactively include them, and also because it doesn’t proactively engage with the interests of non-privileged communities. And this isn’t the first time a Skepticon audience heard this message – Debbie Goddard said essentially the same thing two years ago, but the organizers apparently didn’t listen. No wonder, then, that less than 1% of the attendees this year, as in years past, were from ethnically non-privileged communities.

And most distressing to me was the breathtaking dichotomy I witnessed on Friday and Saturday as Skepticon organized on one side of the Springfield Expo Center, while the local organization Friends Against Hunger held their first “Meals a Million” event to pack low-cost, nutritious meals for needy families around the world. There had been an offhand mention ahead of time by the Skepticon organizers that this event would be coinciding with their convention, and the suggestion was made that those who weren’t attending the Friday workshops or film festival might possibly consider volunteering, but there was no official partnership or significant promotion.

Standing outside the convention center Saturday morning while chatting with some Christian “protesters,” I noticed ever-growing groups of people entering the doors behind me while wearing shirts marked with their church’s logo. At first, I was impressed that there were church members, apparently in large numbers, coming to Skepticon. After walking inside, I was disappointed to find that the Christians were walking downstairs with the atheists, but then turning to walk the opposite direction. When I realized that the Christians were there to pack meals for the needy, while the atheists were there to purchase snarky T-shirts and congratulate themselves on their intellectual acuity, I was disappointed again. Disappointed in us. As I stood at the bottom of the convention staircase, Christians and atheists walking in opposite ethical directions, I knew that I couldn’t in good conscience join those selling “humanist” buttons without first acting like one.

And so, irony be damned, I stepped in line behind a group of middle-aged Lutheran women, because I wanted to spend some time with real humanists at Skepticon.

I don’t share this to brag (I only had time to work a couple hours before I had to meet back with my family), or to unreasonably condemn the Skepticon organizers and attendees. I understand, people traveled from far and wide to attend and speak and meet other atheists and skeptics. I did too. But the lack of practical and positive expressions of humanistic values within the Skepticon crowd should be addressed by this time next year. For example, the convention organizers could partner officially with Friends Against Hunger, or a local blood bank, or some other worthy cause. But there needs to be SOMETHING, otherwise the labels we pin on ourselves are as superficial and meaningless as the aluminum and plastic from which they’re made.

Which brings me back to Croft and Pinn, both (like Friends Against Hunger) kept to the periphery of the Skepticon experience (intentionally or otherwise). At his website, Croft says that he seeks to create communities that inspire people to “build a better future for humankind.” So do I, and so do (I presume) most of the Skepticon attendees, organizers, and speakers. Pinn said about his frustration with the ministry, that “what [he] was saying and preaching was not translating into ethical action.” How much more do those words also convict those of us who attended Skepticon primarily to go drinking and take pictures with our favorite bloggers?

It is time for atheist and skeptical conventions to aspire to more than this. It is no longer enough to trot out some well-known names, hand out trophies, and show everyone to the nearest bar. The time for self-congratulation is over. Until we take seriously the need for practical humanism, until we set aside our privilege to listen to our non-privileged brothers and sisters, we don’t deserve the warm and fuzzy feelings that we get on our way out of Springfield. It’s time to stop the circlejerk, and get our hands dirty planting real seeds of humanism.

Apologetics Now

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released a new report confirming the trends we’ve been seeing for several years. Although Catholic adherence is pretty much unchanged at about a fifth of the population, the religiously unaffiliated, known as the Nones, are growing like crazy, apparently at the expense of Christian Protestants. In fact, the Protestants have just lost their majority in America, and in a couple years, there will be more Nones than there are Catholics. And this is a trend with a sharp demographic edge to it: among younger Millennials, one in three are Nones. For my son’s generation, if this trend continues, easily half of his friends and neighbors will be Nones.

This report, as with others that have concluded similar trends over the past decade, is widely heralded as good news for atheists and bad news for Christians. But some attenuation is necessary: although atheists (and agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, etc.) are included in the “Nones” designation, the former are a subset of the latter. Thus, many of the nones still retain some supernatural beliefs, including affinity for “spiritual” concepts, various forms of theism and deism, and even credulity in garden variety psychics, mediums, and newspaper astrology columns. However, in my opinion they’re much less disposed towards animosity against those who don’t believe in God at all. That is to say, I suspect that the Nones as an inclusive group will have much less of a problem with their son or daughter marrying an atheist, and even voting for an atheist for President.

As for the religious (read: Christian) organizations in this country, this trend does carry some concerning implications, at least inasmuch as they want to keep their adherence up and maintain the kind of cultural influence that they’ve enjoyed for, well, for a long-ass time. In response to the “New Atheism,” I’ve seen the rise of a “New Christianity,” which is just as new and homogenous as the godless socio-cultural movement that has brought us Four Horsemen, provocative advertising, and a robust grassroots community. In particular, there has been an increased theological polarization, typified by the widely different Mars Hill Churches in Grand Rapids (liberal) and Seattle (conservative), especially in regards to the doctrine of Hell. In addition, I’ve noted the rise of massive de-theologized churches, particularly the major megachurches like Prestonwood here in Dallas and Lakewood in Houston.

But another response, which is more popular among the religious denizens of the Internet than it is among the average “pew potato” (a term I borrow with gusto from Robert Price), is an embrace of Christian apologetics. As a Christian, I found such activities pointless – of course Christianity was true, why waste time defending it – but after my apostasy I encountered this realm anew and found unexpectedly kindred spirits on the other side of the theological divide. As such, I find myself perennially attracted to convergences of Christian apologetics, and when I heard several months ago that a Christian apologetics conference was to be held in Dallas, I registered almost immediately.

The scheduled speakers were the best of the best. The keynote speaker was to be William Lane Craig, who is currently the most widely-regarded living Christian apologist, as well as Greg Koukl, Frank Turek, and Ravi Zacharias. In addition to these, were local New Testament scholar Dan Wallace, John Stonestreet, and of course the head pastor of the host church, Todd Wagner.

I walked into Watermark Community Church on a dreary and rainy Saturday morning in Dallas. What took my breath away was the sheer enormity of the facility – the primary worship room holds about three thousand people I’ve been told, and there was overflow space on two different floors, both in a secondary auditorium upstairs that held several hundred, as well as a luxuriously well-appointed coffee shop (leather sofas as far as the eye could see), as well as outside on the patio scattered with wooden Adirondack furniture.

The place was frankly packed. Thousands of Christians (and at least one or two of the opposition) had assembled for the day, for a conference that was run more smoothly than just about any atheist conference I’ve attended, with more attendees, and no doubt half the effort. The megachurch model may not be your cup of tea, but it certainly has mass organization down to art form.

The event was billed as “Contending with Christianity’s Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other Objectors.” I noted with some disappointment that, for a conference dedicated to the “New Atheists,” there were none on the speaking roster, nor even any atheist or nonbeliever. Right off the bat, I found to be the a significant and egregious failure of the organizers: that it purported to give Christian attendees an accurate picture of atheist arguments, but without consulting any actual atheists. It would be just as unfortunate as if an atheist organization held a conference on Christian theology, headlined only by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and other atheists. At least, according to the agenda, Zacharias’ talk (The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists) and Craig’s presentation (Richard Dawkins on Arguments for God’s Existence) promised some degree of focus on the stated purpose of the event.

Todd Wagner began the day with a call to action, arguing that Christianity is the cultural antithesis of modern America. As is typical of many apologetics events I’ve attended, Wagner’s target was not atheism but postmodernism, which demonstrated to me his profound and pitiable ignorance of the modern atheist and skeptical movement. He used his time to encourage the attendees to become active apologists, responding to cultural critics of Christianity with aggressive arguments rather than passive silence. “Don’t avoid having that conversation at the coffee shop,” he urged. “Don’t wish that you had Dr. Craig at the table with you, engage with Christianity’s critics on your own.” And yet I couldn’t help but wonder if teaching people to argue with postmodern strawmen was really going to be an effective strategy.

Greg Koukl, of the apologetic ministry “Stand to Reason,” and author of the book “Tactics,” was no stranger to me, and indeed I’ve taken him to task directly for the errors he’s made when talking about stem cell research (since ignored). Koukl continued Wagner’s theme of Christianity being “under assault” by the culture at large, and downplayed the wide variety of criticisms as coming from people who may be gifted with intelligence, but who are spiritually stupid. In his available time, Koukl engaged with more atheist strawmen, under the guise of presenting the “worst” arguments against Christianity. I, for one, really wished that he had spent his time contending with the best arguments, but such was the case. Koukl brought out the postmodern horse for another enthusiastic drubbing, declared that Christians should no longer use the word “faith” to describe their worldview, and took shelter from ad hominem attacks on Christian “stupidity.” Now, although these kinds of attacks may be common (and ancient, going back at least as far to the second century with Celsus), these certainly don’t qualify as arguments in my mind, bad or otherwise. But there is a fair point to be made when Christian adherence and atheism can be predicted, at least in aggregate, by educational attainment. Rather than engaging with this point, Koukl danced behind accusations of name-calling, another in a growing series of lost opportunities during the conference.

Dan Wallace was the next speaker, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary and Executive Director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. As a New Testament Greek scholar, Wallace is beyond comparison, and has been involved with several recent Bible translations, as well as several debates with Bart Ehrman on the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. Through rehashing his debate with Ehrman last year at SMU, Wallace argued that the manuscript evidence of the New Testament is better than any other ancient document, and provides sufficient reliability to support current orthodox doctrine. Although interesting, as one side of a debate it didn’t really help the audience evaluate the evidence critically, nor did it hold my attention to any significant degree. Instead, I met up with an atheist friend of mine who’d come to the conference as well, and we headed out to the spacious patio with box lunches to make some Christian friends.

We ended up settling on a large table that was occupied by a young pregnant woman named Tricia, who was pleasantly shooing other people away from the other seats she was trying to save for her husband, Daniel, and their friends. When they arrived, I munched on turkey and wheat while making superficial pleasantries. Eventually, Daniel asked if I was a member at Watermark, or if I’d come from a different church. “None,” I replied, “I’m an atheist, here to soak in all the apologetics that I can.” To his credit, this didn’t seem to faze Daniel at all, and he was curious to know more. His first concern was about whether or not I was an actual atheist or just an agnostic (because, obviously, one would have to know everything to be an atheist). I gently corrected him on that point, and explained the basic differences in terminology, from atheist to agnostic, as well as freethought and humanism. It pained me terribly to find someone at a conference focusing on atheism who was so overtly ignorant on the basics of that definition, as well as its surrounding philosophy. I was able to share a bit more about my religious background, and the arguments that I found particularly compelling against Christianity, but the lunch hour swiftly drew to a close.

Next up was Frank Turek, who is the co-author with Norman Geisler of the uncontroversially-named book “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist.” Turek has a dynamic stage presence to be sure, but also seems… uninterested in inheriting the earth, so to speak (someone with a less charitable assessment would simply write him off as an insufferable jerk). His assigned topic was the Problem of Evil, which is my personal favorite, and indeed is really the only problem worth talking about. His first move was in disproving the idea that the existence of evil disproves the existence of God. I’m right there with him generally, but he made a rather obtuse argument along the way, claiming that in fact the existence of evil is proof that there is a God. For if there is evil, there must be good. And if there is good, there must be a God. QED. He then went on to challenge the idea that God should protect Christians from evil and suffering, by pointing out first that God didn’t promise to do so, and that suffering is a good thing anyway. After all, Jesus suffered, and we want to be like Jesus, right?

He then addressed the question of why God doesn’t just stop evil in general by countering with the Free Will defense. That is, if God stopped me from murdering a million people he’d be interfering with my free will, so it’s just better for everyone that I go ahead with my genocidal plans. This argument of course does nothing to address natural evil, and further I find it to be invalidated by the concept of Heaven, in which free will ostensibly exists coincident with a sinless environment. Finally, Turek claimed that there is a purpose for evil in the world, because the ultimate purpose is for everyone to know Christ, and evil and suffering are motivations to bring us closer to Him. So it all works out in the end, and we don’t need to worry about six year old kids getting cancer because God needs more converts. All in all, a pretty disappointing presentation, at least on my assessment.

Then, suddenly in his last few minutes Turek took a bizarre turn into political issues, urging all the attendees to read the Manhattan Declaration (which had been signed by Todd Wagner) and get involved politically to support Christian values (read: the Republican Party) during this year’s general election. It was a strange departure from his assigned topic, but it did admittedly segue into the next talk by John Stonestreet, a Fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and host of “The Point” radio show and podcast. Stonestreet’s presentation was a focus on our American culture, and how far removed it has become from Christian values. This was another one that I largely skipped, although I noted with some interest how little he referred to the New Atheist movement, and preferred to rail against the acceptance of homosexuality and religious critics in general.

The penultimate presentation was from Ravi Zacharias. I was really looking forward to seeing Zacharias speak, as he was the only notable apologist that I hadn’t yet seen in person. His talk at least claimed to address the New Atheists, but I didn’t see any of that in the performance I witnessed that day. Rather than a coherent defense of Christianity, Zacharias rambled and mumbled from one topic to then next, first criticizing secularism in very general terms, then pluralism, and then skepticism. Connections between these concepts were tenuous, aside from the fact that each were bad, and that each were causing the degradation of society by distancing it from Christian values. Somehow, with these three concepts loose in our culture, we have lost any sense of shame, any capacity for reason, and any sense of meaning. I’m sure it made sense to Zacharias, and I hope that it resonated with the other attendees, because to me (sad to say) it appeared to be someone just on the cusp of senility.

While disappointing, even Zacharias couldn’t quite compare to my utter disgust with the conference’s finale. William Lane Craig, who along with Todd Wagner was the architect of this conference, brought us a debate with an actual New Atheist, no less than Richard Dawkins. Or, maybe not an actual New Atheist. More like a virtual New Atheist. Or, well, a non-existent one. Because William Lane Craig debated an empty chair that was supposed to stand in for Richard Dawkins. Just like Clint Eastwood did to Obama at the Republican National Convention. In fact, that’s where he got the idea. An idea that was, in Craig’s mind, somehow a good idea to repeat. And then he proceeded to lecture an imaginary Dawkins about the Kalaam Cosmological Argument or some other such nonsense, I don’t really know, because I really wasn’t paying attention at that point. I was watching, dumbfounded, while Bill Craig, the most highly-respected Christian apologist in all the land, debated an empty chair in a conference that he himself had organized.

Now, before I get too carried away, what were the positives of this conference? Well, it brought the issues of apologetics to the forefront of the membership of a large and somewhat influential church here in Dallas, even if it was a bit poorly executed in terms of content. But I’d also say that given the tremendous response in terms of attendance, there’s a substantial audience for these topics in mainstream American churches, even nondenominational megachurches, which may not be populated exclusively by pew potatoes. And that, if nothing else, is encouraging because it presents me, the DFW Coalition of Reason, and anyone else who is interested with the conflict between faith and reason with a fertile population of Christians who are hungry for something more than just repetitive worship music and cherry-picked scriptural platitudes.

In the end, however, nothing else really captures my assessment of the conference better than Craig debating an imaginary Dawkins. Craig, Todd Wagner, and the folks at Watermark had an excellent opportunity to really help their members engage with the New Atheism, if only they’d thought to invite some, you know, actual atheists to the party. And Dallas is the perfect place for it – we have an incredibly active Coalition of Reason here, with as many as three thousand nonbelievers in our ranks, the vast majority of whom are former Christians. If Craig and Wagner had really wanted to learn about atheism, we’d have been more than happy to help. And I really do think they need the help: after absorbing this conference, if the Christian attendees think they’re prepared to engage with the atheists that I know in town, they are woefully misinformed.

Indeed, an atheist friend of mine who regularly attends the Watermark “Great Questions” class asked his Christian classmates (all of whom had attended the conference) the next Monday if they even knew what a “New Atheist” was. None of them had any clue. One wonders if the same could be said of Todd Wagner and Bill Craig.

If anything, this conference provided them with just enough information about apologetics to give them the confidence to go out and get exposed to more persuasive arguments on the atheist side. I suppose I should thank Watermark for the long-term boost in our local atheist contingent, but that’s really not what I’m after. What I would be most appreciative of is being taken seriously enough by local religious leaders that they recognize that most of the the people active in the local atheist movement are people who’ve left the very pews that these leaders preach at every Sunday. Until religious doubt is given a fair assessment and sufficient respect by apologists and other religious leaders, I’m afraid that megachurches like Watermark are fighting a losing battle. Because as the next generation comes up through the ranks, as the Pew Research indicates, the number of people who think religious organizations like Watermark have the answers is going to dwindle into insignificance.

Podcast cross-posted from Apologia

Revisiting the Problem of Evil…Again

The problem of evil constantly occupies my thoughts. So much of theological reflection takes place within the emotional effects of reality; its practical import never escapes me and I fail to understand how so many Christians draw such a sharp distinction between theology and practice. These thoughts about evil have a direct impact on how we see things, how we treat people, how we handle the troubling things that happen to us and the rest of the world. Theological appropriation for the religious person is paramount.

While vacuuming my house today, I dwelled on the thought that if evil is the strongest argument against God’s existence, then God’s existence must be the strongest argument against the problem of evil. Maybe. If this life is not the whole story, if justice comes, if somehow all of the suffering proves to have been worth it, then that means evil does not ultimately prevail. Believe me: I tend to side with Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov and say that I would give that ticket back—the kind of suffering humanity has experienced can’t possibly be worth any compensation, can it? I suppose on certain levels the idea seems reasonable enough. Nasal congestion, pets dying, minor surgeries, bumps and bruises, even death at the end of a long life. But we all can think of myriad events and situations that offer an insurmountable case against any metaphysical compensation.

Christians speak of a hope that we can scarcely imagine: living on the new earth that God will create, in His presence, without evil or trial. We will have the “benefit” of having endured all the suffering, which indeed shapes us, yet living freely without fear or anxiety. Therein lies the appeal of universal salvation, at least for me. I have already done away with any notion that infants, the mentally handicapped, or any other person incapable of “making a decision for Christ” will undergo any kind of judgment. If God is all-loving and all-just then what possible reason would we have to think He could find an infant deserving of the same condemnation as Hitler? I’m familiar with the possible answers and, frankly, they all suck. They don’t actually answer the question. If you find yourself in a hospital with a mother who has just lost her child, you’re a monster if you give her anything less than hope that her baby is snuggled up with Jesus and waiting for her mommy to join her “soon and very soon.”

I followed Jesus for years before I became aware of the problem of evil. My most basic response then, as it is now, was “But that’s not the whole story.” The last twelve years have realized a persistent revisitation of the problem. Because of my insistence that theology directly impacts my life and ought to do the same for any Christian, I don’t find theological answers to this problem proving themselves utterly useless; indeed, the hope that my beautiful baby boy is loved by the God who created him supports my own weak love. When daddy fails him, when it seems like daddy doesn’t love him, he is loved on the deepest level with the unfailing love of the God who lovingly knit him for His own glory. Imperfections and all, babies belong to the Lord and I believe He is faithful to restore them.

I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what that looks like. I don’t know if every parent is reunited. I don’t know how the future will make up for the past and for now. Many days I don’t care how or why and I don’t believe anything can be compensated for. But I won’t hang up my hat. The irony presented by the problem of evil lies in the fact that it asks me to sacrifice what I now know for what is not a reality for me. When we shake our fists at the sky over what happens to others, we don’t abandon our families over it. Other evil is not my evil to endure in the same way, (and I think both sides of this debate do an awful disservice to those who have and are suffering by making them object lessons.) I don’t live less thankfully for my own child when someone is devastated by the tragic loss of theirs. Please understand, I’m weeping as I write this because I’ve seen what it looks like for a family to lose their child. I hate it with every fiber of my being. It utterly baffles me why God would allow such a thing in silence (which is perhaps a lesson to us theologians and to the apologists who venture “the answer” when even God won’t reach down in the darkest times and offer a whisper for a crushed family.) But whether religious or not, the response of every witness who has their own child is to squeeze that child even tighter and sigh grateful sighs that they still have their child. I just can’t hug my boy and not be grateful.

The suffering of others has set up camp in the center of my mind. I beg for an answer. I pray angrily sometimes and ask, “What are you doing?!” I’ve nearly abandoned my faith because of it on several occasions. But intellectual honesty and integrity don’t allow me to abandon the reality of the fact that I have been spared, and that the hope I have was given to me as a gift that I did not originally want, and that it circulates throughout my being with the same blood and along the same pathways as the hope I have for others. I don’t abandon that hope for others because as badly as I want their suffering to end, I want to give them hope. I want to comfort the dying child in his hospital bed. Russell may not have been able to believe in God after seeing that child, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to punt when that child asks me if she is going to heaven.

The Trouble With Women

“The church is a terrible engine of oppression, especially as concerns women.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Last year, I had the opportunity to visit a local megachurch’s men’s conference, and report back about the goings-on there. One of the things that I noticed was the servile-and-separate role that was played by the women in the congregation, who cooked and cleaned and hand-delivered ice cream sandwiches to guys watching other guys punch each other in the mouth.

(Yes, this happened in a church. It’s also, not coincidentally, the same church where the pastor bedded his wife on the roof and tried to arrange a zoo for Easter this year. So, you know, it’s that kind of church.)

To me, the way that these gender roles were accepted and presumably defined by the organizers was icky at best, and downright insulting at worst. But more importantly, I was probably the only person out of the thousand-or-so attendees who thought so. And just over a decade ago, I would most likely not have noticed them at all. As a young Christian, I happily accepted the typical gender dynamics of the religious culture (Man as the “head,” Woman as the “helpmeet”), and was particularly proud of myself for writing an opinion piece for my college paper that lauded women as precious “gifts from God.”

After my apostasy those views changed dramatically, to say the least. My dating patterns changed as well, and I began to seek out women whose courage and strength mirrored and transcended my own. I even married the best of the bunch. As I became involved in the atheist community, two things were clear: there were similar women to be found, but few had a voice. One of the first things that I did was to take an organization led by two men, and create a directing board populated by equal numbers of men and women. When founding the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, the original board was overwhelmingly female. In fact, I was the only male director until the first official election, when a more equivalent balance resumed.

This was not something that was particularly orchestrated, or a long-running conspiracy to tinker with the gender balance of a local organization. Rather, it was an instinctive desire (shared by many in addition to myself) to make the local secular community welcoming to both sexes. And the easiest way to do that, in my own humble opinion, is to find female leaders, put them in charge, and get the fuck out of their way.

This strategy has paid massive dividends. Across the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason, the gender distribution is 60% male, 40% female. This remains consistent in both of the largest member organizations, the Metroplex Atheists and the aforementioned FoFDallas. Not coincidentally, both of those organizations also have leadership boards that are at least 40% female. (We’re still working on racial and ethnic diversity.)

That’s why it’s so disappointing to hear about sexism in the atheist community at large, which has been an unfortunately recurring theme over the past few years. Last year’s “Elevatorgate” incident boiled over the atheist blogosphere like nothing I’d ever seen before (although the FoFDallas did an excellent job analyzing and contextualizing the issues locally). This year, it appears to be another minor comment in the wake of the Women in Secularism conference (a landmark event which will hopefully not be overshadowed by the brewing controversy). Instead of the intrepid Rebecca Watson advising potential suitors to avoid late-night elevator propositions, this time around it’s Jen McCreight who let slip some inside baseball about icky male speakers.

Yes, it’s disappointing. But it’s important. And here’s why.

To my own great discredit, I’ve been privy to some of the same advice that Jen received (although couched in a different context), and it didn’t occur to me that this would be a concern to women. Not even once. Oh, sure, I thought “ew, gross” to myself a few times, and made a mental checklist of which speakers I did and did not want to associate with, but that’s as far as my concern went. I suppose that’s about what would be expected from someone with my level of societal privilege, but frankly that’s not good enough.

I should be held to a higher standard. We all should. And I offer my gratitude to Jen for (unknowingly) raising my consciousness about this issue. I’ll never look at it the same way again.

If organizations within the secular movement want to represent men and women equally, then they’ll need to stand as strongly on that principle as they do on any other issue. Don’t talk about advancing humanism if you can’t provide an environment where women feel safe. I suspect that conferences and conventions are more at risk than local organizations; people tend to act with less social restraint when they’re on the road, I’ve observed. So if it’s the case that you know what I know and Jen knows (and presumably other insiders know), please make a point to disinvite those individuals to your next event. I know I will, attendance be damned – the secular community does not exist for the purpose of organizing conventions, and we don’t need conventions to exist as a community.

If we in the secular community are truly serious about providing a counterpoint to the perceived oppression of women by religious institutions, then we’d damned sure better act like it. The next secular event I attend or organize will have a clear anti-harassment policy or it won’t happen. Simple as that.