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.

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.