He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Thank God for Atheists (Again)

From about 2006 until 2011, I had a blog on Xanga that was a bit unusual.  My philosophical training was, to put it mildly, exceedingly rare among their user base.  I tended to be controversial at times because I took positions that were, to put it mildly, provocative to those who shared my religious views.  This was a good thing in my view; orthodoxy is a far better thing than a simplistic Christian faux orthodoxy people so often use to keep themselves in possession of reductive understandings of God and the moral life.

When I submitted this piece to a Christian subsite, I was expecting some pushback.  I was not expecting quite the tidal wave of rebukes I received, though I probably should have been.  Admittedly, it wasn't very nuanced, and it could have been written more effectively.  That said, I still think it's an argument worth considering.  The full text is as follows:

"I'm sure many people, both theists and atheists, will find the very notion of being grateful to God for those who profess disbelief in God's existence to be odd or even outrageous.

For those of you who are of the Christian persuasion, consider the following:
Ephesians 5:19-20 "Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." (NIV)
1 Thessalonians 5:18 "Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Jesus Christ."
1 Timothy 4:4 "For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving..."

The first two verses I listed are general admonitions to early Christian communities, and are not instructions that are purely dependent on cultural customs or technology contemporary to the author, nor was the author using a metaphor, so as far as I can determine they are quite applicable to us today.  The third verse I listed is, in its context, talking about the acceptance of marriage practices and the eating of certain foods.  But the principle I'd like to enumerate from it is that everything that God has created is good.  Everything.  And we're supposed to be thankful for everything.  It's an absolute, no exceptions allowed.

I don't see any particular reason to disbelieve that atheists exist (oh, the irony), so I can't help but include them in the class of all things, which means that as a Christian, I should be thankful for them as well.  And I am thankful for atheists.  I'm thankful for my co-workers who are atheists and do a great job of helping us reach our goals as a center.  I'm thankful for my friends who happen to be atheists; their support and companionship are valuable to me.  I'm thankful for atheists in general, because their challenges to our faith can keep us from stagnating and can often help us see how much more Christ-like we need to be through their observations on Christianity.  I'm thankful for the atheists who pull people out of burning buildings, who are willing to fight to defend freedom, and do the science and engineering to make things better.

If you're a Christian, are you thankful for atheists?  Why or why not?

If you're an atheist, do think that it would be consistent with Christian belief to be thankful for atheists?  How would you view Christians who were thankful for atheists?"

I'm not a fan of simplistic proof-texting from the Bible.  Nonetheless, many of the people I was trying to reach with this post were fans of it, which is why I used that approach.  Unsurprisingly, they tended to really, really not like it.

One of the better reasons for not liking it was that it never made an explicit distinction between being grateful for atheists and being grateful for atheism per se.  It's certainly the case that one can make an important distinction between the two, just as an atheist might make an important distinction between being grateful for his Christian neighbor who shows great love to us and Christianity as a set of beliefs which he finds untenable.

That said, I don't think it's entirely unreasonable to be grateful for atheism per se.  Atheism is often a rejection of a poor understanding of God, and to that extent we might be grateful that it shows us that God is even greater than we thought Him to be.

I sincerely strive to be an atheist with regard to any conception of God that isn't worthy of the truth of His inscrutability, while acknowledging that due to our cognitive limitations we can probably never quite understand Him correctly on an intellectual level.  Bishop Robert Barron explains this very well in the first part of his "Mystery of God" video series.

As it turns out, I'm still thankful for atheists.

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