The Missing Apostates

The “New Atheism” is a phenomenon that confuses and confounds, that is both over- and underplayed, and that represents one of the most significant threats to the modern American Church aside from its own shallowness and self-absorption. As such, it fascinates me to no end when I see Christians speaking authoritatively about the New Atheist phenomenon, which is usually an occurrence that sparks as much befuddlement and unintentional hilarity as I might imagine if Richard Dawkins were to deliver a lecture on systematic theology.

That being said, one of the most cogent and authentic attempts to communicate the phenomenon of the New Atheists was recently accomplished by Drs. Doug Blount and Glenn Kreider, with assistance from Dr. Darrell Bock in a chapel discussion at Dallas Theological Seminary:

 

 

I take it as no small point of pride that I had met and spoken with Drs. Blount and Bock previously to this discussion, and hopefully provided them with some amount of personal perspective, as someone who lived through the New Atheism phenomenon as a New Atheist himself.

But there are a few criticisms I have with this discussion, as fair as I thought it was.

Firstly, New Atheism is a much broader phenomenon than just a handful of popular authors. One could convert the remaining Horsemen (Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett) to orthodox Christianity today and it would make little difference to the trajectory of the New Atheist movement. The mainstream American Church needs this clarification made as soon as possible: the Horsemen are not the cause of the New Atheism, they are themselves a product of the same influences which brought it about. Christians who attempt to rebut the Horsemen and consider their assessment of and defense against New Atheism complete are woefully under-informed.

Similarly, this discussion presented an over-emphasis on so-called “militant” atheism. While people like David Silverman and Annie Laurie Gaylor are often the most publicly recognizable (and FOX News friendly), they (and the organizations they represent) are now a fraction of the New Atheist movement. Secular social groups and congregations (like the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, the Houston Oasis, and the Community Mission Chapel in Lake Charles) are much more indicative of the direction New Atheism is going.

Of course, any time that Stalin is mentioned when Christians talk about atheism, I die a little inside. That Dr. Blount here characterized Stalin’s acts as occurring “in the name of atheism” docks a great many fairness points from the final tally. Though morally repugnant, neither Stalin nor any similarly-cited tyrants engaged in acts of wickedness “in the name of atheism.” Their philosophies may have been incidentally atheistic, but they were not crusaders of nonbelief in the same way that David Silverman is, and certainly not in the same way that Jerry DeWitt is. By contrast, it is trivially easy to identify many acts of wickedness throughout history that were committed “in the name of” many different religions, including Christianity. I’m afraid Dr. Blount makes a category error when he suggests that Stalin and the New Atheism have any kind of equivalence.

However, one of the BIGGEST gaps in the discussion is any recognition at all that the New Atheists are overwhelmingly old theists. That is to say, 4 out of 5 organized atheists (at least here in Dallas–Fort Worth) are former Christians. Most of us apostatized because we took our Christianity seriously enough to question it without a safety net. Indeed, many of us took Christianity seriously enough to pursue apologetics, lead Bible studies, and even to attend seminaries (including Dallas Theological Seminary). This is not to ignore the fact that there are many incidental atheists (and even some philosophically sophisticated explicit atheists) who convert to various forms of theism, but consider the mathematics of the phenomenon. I would venture to say that there is at least an order of magnitude of difference between the percentage of explicit atheists who have rejected Christianity (and other religions) compared to the percentage of religious people who have rejected explicit atheism. At least, that has been my experience.

In fact, I’d wager that there was most likely a current or future New Atheist in the audience during this very chapel discussion (and I’d bet $20 that he was one of the questioners as well).

So I find it to be a real pity that whenever Christians gather to discuss (and question) the New Atheism, the one person whose opinion is most relevant is missing. I call it the Problem of the Missing Apostates. With the possible exception of myself, the apostates of Christianity disappear from the pews, vanish from Bible studies, and slip out the back door of seminaries. The apostate is no longer a questioning believer, no longer a brother or sister in the body of Christ, and no longer present in the life of the Church. There is, quite simply, no room in the Church, no opportunity for fellowship within the Church, and no possibility of understanding within the Church when it comes to the Missing Apostate.

I am perhaps one of the exceptions to this phenomenon. Though I went missing not long after my own apostasy, I’ve returned to the Church often, motivated in part by a hunger to realize Acts 13:15. I’ve since been invited to speak to Sunday School classes, Wednesday night meetings, and even entire congregations, all of which I thoroughly enjoy. Of course, I fully recognize that allowing an atheist into the sanctuary can be troublesome, especially for those at the top levels. But the Church is losing ground in popular culture, and it quite simply can’t compete. Much like the invention of the printing press gave the Protestant Reformation an informational edge against the traditions of the Catholic Church, the writings and activism of the New Atheism are spreading at the speed of the Internet beyond what the modern American Church can hope to contain.

In order to meet these challenges, the Church needs to seek first to understand the New Atheism, even better than was represented here in this discussion, and I submit that the key to this understanding remains in the experiences and perspectives of the Missing Apostates.

Apologetics Now, Redux

Two outstanding Texas treasures.

Two outstanding Texas treasures.

As I mentioned last year when I visited an apologetics conference at Watermark Church in Dallas, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s report on the rise of the “Nones” in America was just another in a long series of warnings to the American Christian Church. Society, the Church has said for decades, is slouching into secularity; now the data suggest that more and more people are not even interested in the pretense of a religious label.

This pronounced rejection of religious affiliation has a strikingly demographic bent. While 90% of those 65 and older still consider themselves affiliated with a religious organization, only two-thirds of those younger than 30 are similarly labeled. And trends in the data over the past decade indicate that this disparity is only going to grow wider.

Among American Christendom, the hardest hit are Protestant denominations, both evangelical and otherwise. Since the 1970’s, the percentage of American Protestants has declined from almost two-thirds of the population to now just barely half, while the percentage of Catholics has remained the same (presumably due to immigration) and the percentage of “Nones” has more than doubled.

In response to this inevitable sociologic trend, Dallas Theological Seminary has expanded the scope of their Hendricks Center for Christian Leadership which since 1986 has existed to support pastoral leadership development. In December of 2012, DTS announced that Dr. Darrell Bock, a world-class New Testament scholar and expert in the theology of Luke-Acts and the Historical Jesus Quests, would be appointed the new Executive Director of Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center alongside Dr. Andy Seidel.

In this new role, Bock has sought to reach out beyond the ivory tower to connect with the public through a series of podcasts. The literally-named “The Table Podcast” features Bock with a rotating selection of Christian guests discussing issues seated around a bare table, adorned only with state-of-the-art recording equipment. Available in both studio quality video and audio versions, the goal of these podcasts is to “help Christians think biblically and theologically about issues and how to engage them in a gracious and forthright manner.”

In this, they succeed amazingly well. Podcasts produced thus far are clear, respectful discussions among people who have interesting things to say about how Christians can interact with homosexuality, the media and the arts, and other religious traditions in the context of a changing American culture. Unfortunately, these discussions have been manifested thus far as mutual confirmation sessions (i.e., Christians agreeing with Christians), designed apparently to provide questions for answers, and not the other way around.

Dr. Bock in his element.

Dr. Bock in his element.

I saw the same phenomenon repeated at the first “Table Conference,” held on a warm spring weekend in Dallas and given the theme, “Presenting God to Those Who See Christianity Differently.” As one of the rapidly growing number of people in Dallas who does, in fact, “see Christianity differently,” I couldn’t keep myself away. Bock, the architect of the conference, had assembled a small number of highly-respected New Testament scholars for the event. These included Dr. Daniel Wallace, a fellow DTS faculty member, one of two worldwide masters of New Testament textual criticism and most likely the world’s foremost expert on Biblical Greek; Dr. Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary, an expert in parables and Historical Jesus studies; Dr. Charles Hill of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, who is an expert in John’s Gospel and the early canon; and finally Dr. Michael Svigel also of DTS, a junior faculty member there who specializes in study of the history and theology of the early Christian Church. To open the conference, Bock had invited Lee Strobel to speak, the bestselling author of several pop-apologetics books cast in the same mold as his original “The Case for Christ.”

Though the conference was obviously Bock’s baby, that Strobel had been chosen to set the tone for the weekend spoke volumes; this was not to be an event where Christians could grapple with real-world issues and criticisms, be asked to think critically about their faith, or even to seriously consider a different point of view. Rather than actually “engage” with the perspective of the “Nones,” much less that of the explicit apostates that are also captured in that designation, the only atheism on display were Bock’s recollections of being a (somewhat boring) middle-school agnostic, and Strobel’s dramatic testimony where his life as an atheist included routine inebriation, domestic violence, and self-loathing. Such a caricature is painfully unfamiliar to me in my travels among atheists, and I know of far too many instances of troubled Christians for this emotional appeal to resonate with me. But I can see the value of having Strobel’s participation, aside from his celebrity in the pop-Christian circuit; in addition to his loudly trumpeted intellectual bona fides as a legal journalist, he really does seem to reflect the earnestness that apologetic-minded American Christians routinely demonstrate.

Following his testimony, Strobel was interviewed by Bock onstage at the eponymous table. He relayed a story which I found quite fascinating: although his wife’s conversion precipitated his own, neither of them were able to make any headway towards converting her father to Christianity. A lifelong skeptic (presented as a bit of a curmudgeon by Strobel), he was tolerant of their religious revolution but didn’t want any part of it for himself. That is, until the end of his life when, afflicted by multiple strokes, he was virtually on his deathbed, watched over by his son-in-law. Strobel recounted how he hounded and harassed the man to consider converting, a process that took several of his father-in-law’s final hours. At long last, he agreed to accept Jesus as Savior, and the family celebrated until that evening when another stroke occurred, and his wife’s father was whisked away by ambulance to the hospital where he finally passed. His last words to Strobel were given indirectly through his wife, “Tell Lee I said ‘thank you’.”

For Strobel, this was a triumphant vindication of several decades worth of prayer and evangelism. Mere moments from Death’s grasp, he was able to save his father-in-law from eternal torment.

But I wonder.

Told from Strobel’s perspective, to a Christian audience, that’s no doubt the most plausible explanation, but I heard a story about a long-suffering atheist who was able to tolerate and love a son-in-law who went from being a rational thinker to a faith-driven evangelist and apologist, and who spent an entire afternoon pleading with him to accept his worldview under the approaching specter of death. Perhaps Strobel’s father-in-law felt sorry for him and his daughter, knew the pain that they would feel if they thought that he died without Christ. Perhaps he chose to show one more kindness to a man who would soon need it much more than him, and simply pretended to assent. I don’t know. It’s possible, and there are several atheists I know who would do the same in that kind of situation.

Including atheists who’ve been exposed to so-called “faithbuster” classes, as Bock mentioned several times during his tenure at the podium. The unstated thesis of the weekend seemed to be that there is bad information being presented to our culture about religion in general and Christianity specifically, and if Christians simply became better educated with good information (as taught by DTS, natch), they’d be better able to resist the faithbusting influences in their lives, and potentially be able to win over their skeptical family and friends to Christ. This promise was tempting, and as someone whose faith had been “busted” about a decade earlier, in no small measure due to textual and critical analysis of the Bible, I was hopeful that there would be a plethora of new information that would prompt me to rethink at least some of my previous conclusions.

Although the weekend was enjoyable and informational, it was not as educational as I had hoped, at least not for me. Though the gathered scholars were clearly able to expound with much more sophistication and subtlety in other company, the introductory-level material they shared with the lay audience was known already to me. Oddly enough, an ongoing theme became apparent as Bock and his colleagues repeatedly dragged out the still-living ghost of Bart Ehrman, who through archived video clips savaged the worldview of the gathered Christian attendees. Indeed, so often was the straw beaten out of Ehrman over the course of the conference that I wondered eventually whether it should rather have been titled “The Bend Bart Ehrman Over A Table Conference.” I suppose it makes sense to target so much of their criticism towards Ehrman; the books he’s written for a popular audience are seeming to have as much of a cultural impact as Bock’s own. And as a highly-respected New Testament scholar with a deconversion testimony from Christian to agnostic, Ehrman is something of a mirror-image of the scholar archetype that DTS seeks to elevate. An “Antibock,” if you will.

I was of two minds during the lectures: on the one hand, these were the highest-level Bible scholars with which one could hope to spend time, but on the other hand, their presentations were awash with warmed-over apologetic tropes the likes of which had been hammered to death within the first year of my apostasy. Things like Lewis’ Trilemma, the analogy of multiple witnesses at a car wreck, implicit trust of Eusebius, heavy-handed harmonizations, defining early alternative Christianities as deviations, and interpreting possibilities as strong probabilities. In this last instance, Wallace, also Executive Director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (which itself had held its first conference a few weeks earlier and a few miles away, with Bock as a speaker), argued that since there is insufficient evidence to show that Greek was spoken in the region of Galilee during the first century C.E., there is thus insufficient evidence to show that it wasn’t spoken, therefore it probably was! And thus of course we can assume that Jesus himself spoke Greek, and thus of course we can assume that his disciples did as well, and thus of course we can assume that fully half of them could write Greek, and thus of course we can assume they wrote the autographs of the Gospels.

The other conference speakers took similar liberties with logic at various points during the weekend. Blomberg had no trouble claiming that since Luke’s version of Jesus’ anointing is so different from the other Gospels’ it’s possible that it happened twice, therefore it must have happened that way. Svigel noted that without a historical resurrection, the Diversity and Conflict model of the early Church development is most likely, but since we all know the resurrection had to happen, it’s not a viable option. And Hill suggested that the early canon was assembled because the early Christians were able to “recognize” authentic books from inauthentic the same way that one might recognize one’s mother in a crowded room.

The best thing by far that I experienced at the conference was the suggestion by Bock that Christians should be seeking out conversations with religious skeptics, approaching these with patience and kindness, and leaving the onus of conversion to the Holy Spirit and the skeptic herself. This was underlined at the end of the conference with a short skit by some of the DTS students helping to run the event. One pretended to be a religious skeptic, while the other acted out the Christian side of the conversation that Bock had earlier recommended. It was a little silly and ham-handed (as skits tend to be), but I couldn’t help but feel the irony of being an atheist seeking conversation with Christians in the middle of a conference where the only example of that on display required a Christian to play-act at being a nonbeliever.

Interestingly enough, this conference was held across the street from the massive Prestonwood Baptist Church where Christopher Hitchens had been invited years ago to provide students there with an actual atheist to listen to and engage with. That event, whatever the motivation of the Prestonwood organizers, presented students with a fair assessment of atheist objections, with Hitchens in his own words and in real-time, able to defend himself and mount his own attacks. Perhaps next year’s Table Conference will take that much-needed step of inviting Ehrman to speak on his own behalf, rather than quoted conveniently to play counterpoint to seminary professors.

Or even better, perhaps the Executive Director for Cultural Engagement would be interested in actually engaging with the cultural force of atheism in his own community that claims more and more Christians like me each year. It’s possible that Bock and his colleagues are still under the impression that the godless among them are little more than village atheists, opposed to Christianity for no better reason than a preacher looked at them crossways. To the contrary, we are more likely to come from Christian backgrounds than ever before, we’ve done our theological homework, and we tend to be better-informed about Christianity and other religions than their own adherents. We are a new breed of atheist, and we aren’t just in need of a kind Christian to patiently talk with us.

Dr. Bock answers questions from Christian students.

Dr. Bock answers questions from Christian students.

I don’t mean to sound too critical of Bock and his inaugural Table Conference; I very much enjoyed the lectures and helping with their photo booth during the breaks. And I agree that far too few Christians are aware of the information about the Bible and the early Church that one might learn at DTS or other seminaries. The weekend was, essentially, a series of 101-level lectures that all Christians (and atheists) should climb over each other to attend. But I do find it problematic that the information is presented with the conclusion already determined. As a Christian seminary, DTS is not actually interested in exploring other religious possibilities, it’s interested in providing intellectual support to a particular set of doctrine. I’ve met several former DTS students who’ve told me that in order to matriculate there, they had to sign assent to the Core Beliefs* of the DTS Doctrinal Statement, and they had to re-sign it in order to graduate. More than one have admitted that it was difficult to sign it a second time, and one individual flat-out refused to sign it, gave up his degree, and transferred to a secular university instead. He noted the irony of having to waive assent to a list of doctrines due to the education he’d received at the very institution which taught them.

If Christians are to remain relevant in American culture, they don’t just need to get smarter about the doctrines their pastors tell them they believe in. They don’t even need to become intellectually confident about their doctrines to the point where they’re comfortable discussing them with other Christians and religious skeptics. It really doesn’t matter how many proof texts you can provide for your belief in dispensationalism or eternal security when you’re talking with an atheist in line at a coffee shop. For both Watermark’s and this conference, I didn’t leave with a sense that my fellow attendees were well-prepared to have a casual conversation with me about the real issues that matter. Nor that they had any sense of what modern religious skeptics’ actual objections are to Christianity and other faiths. Being able to critique a handful of Ehrman sound bytes is a far distance from being able to engage with an real live atheist, especially a well-educated former Christian, right in one’s own hometown.

I’m hopeful that next year’s Table Conference takes its mission to engage with “those who see Christianity differently” a bit more seriously. Otherwise, Bock and his colleagues, for all their best intentions and highest expectations, are just play-acting.

*edited to specify “Core Beliefs of”, 5/8/2013