Saturday, December 20, 2008

Interesting Talk With a Pastor

Last night, my fiancee and I went to a Christmas party with members of her church. I had a most interesting conversation with the Pastor, who ws at the Christmas party. Before I share, let me give those who don't know, some background info.

I am an atheist; my fiancee is a liberal Lutheran. She sings in the church band, and I volunteer my drumming services for the band. Thus, I am an atheist who goes to church every week. I have gotten to know the church members quite well and they know me quite well. I don't make my atheism a secret but always remain respectul and careful not to needlessly offend anyone.

I have had many a conversations with the Pastor of the church, a very nice woman in her late twenties. Since we both love reading in theology and religion, our conversation was very pleasant but, unlike many other conversations we've had, this one got uncommonly deep.

The conversation started with her describing how she met her now-husband and me describing how I met my now-fiancee. The issue of religion came up, as she was curious to know how we handle the diifference in our beliefs. I responded by explaining that my fiancee and I are both very tolerant and mindful that different people will believe different things, and that neither of us have any desire to convert the other.

This got the pastor and I talking about atheism and Christianity. In particular, she expressed curiosity about my simulteneous atheism and fascination with religion. I love reading in religion and cannot fathom how one could be an atheist at all without knowing about religions (in order to be an atheist, you have to know enough about religions to reject them.) To me, religion is a human-invented belief system that cleverly "answers" all of life's major questions; how can one NOT be fascinated by such a sytem. How did we get here? Answered. What is life's purpose? Answered. Why does everything look so designed? Answered.

So how can I be, she wondered, an atheist who regards religion as having answered these questions? Quite simply by holding that religion's answers are too easy, I responded. "God did it," is an answer only insomuch as "Someone did it," is an answer to the question of how the airplane was invented. I can't help but feel that religion makes up its answers (without, of course, knowing that the answers were invented).

And here was a point of strange agreement between the Lutheran Pastor and myself: the human tendency is very much to AVOID being put in a position where one has to answer with "I don't know." To her Christian eyes, this is seen by all the people who claim knowledge of God that they couldn't possibly have. ("Why did Jesus have to die on the cross? It would be pompous to say that we can know God's motivations.") To my atheist eyes, the same thing is evident in the Christian's appeal to God as a substitution to the dreaded "We don't really know the answer."

This is why, I think, most people are not atheists. It is the more strenuous and sometimes unsatisfying option because there are many things that we do not know the answers to. To say that the Big Bang is the reason why we are here is only to push the "But what created..." question back one step. And if we answer the question of what created the big bang, we have only succeeded in pushing the question back ANOTHER step, ad infinitum. To be an atheist - at least one who takes science seriously - is to be forced to admit that there will ALWAYS be many unanswered questions. And I think that part of the reason for religion's popularity is the unwillingness of many people to handle not knowing (much less ADMITTING their lack of knowledge).

The conversation ended very interestingly, with her admitting that my presence in church has, at least occasionally, made her think about her sermons differently. (I wonder how Kevin would respond to this? I wonder if this would anger him?). Of course, I told her that this should not be a concern, as I am a 'guest' in the church, and her responsibility is to speak to members. (She objected, pointing out that the very nature of being an 'evangelical' is to evangelize., but understood my point.)

In the spirit of honesty, I told her of the one recurring message in her (and her colleage's) sermons that "gets at me." We often hear in sermons the idea of the "nonbeliever who has turned away from god," or of "those who fail to acknoweldge your presence." As a life-long atheist, I wanted to point out to her that the common idea that the atheist as one who refuses to recognize the obviousness of God, or one who turns away from a God they refuse to admit is there, is wrong. In my experience, atheists are ones who simply do not believe there is a God to turn away from. Much like a disbeliever in unicorns, a disbeliever in God is simply a person who does not see any good evidence to believe in a deity that sounds very made up.

After hearing this, she acknowledged my point, but pointed out that "the nonbeliever who has turned away from God" is generally meant to apply to the type of "believer" who doesn't believe, so much as follows certain traditions by rote without the Passion - the believer who goes to church when it is convenient and only follows God when it is easy or in their immediate interest to do so.

We ended this way: both of us have a healthy respect for the other. In this pastor, I see a woman who holds her beliefs with passion tempered by a healthy ackowledgement that others can believe differently. She has made a life where she can share her beliefs and passion with others, and obviosuly is very happy in this endeavor. I think she respects me for much the same reason; I am passionate but respectful in my beliefs whle still taking tremendous joy in the plurality that comes from different people being free to make up their own minds.

If only every conversation could be as enriching, enjoyable, and fruitful as the one between a Lutheran pastor and an atheist.


  1. Thoughts on Kevin’s Brand of Atheism

    Atheist = one who does not believe in the supernatural (e.g., “God”).

    “To me, religion is a human-invented belief system that cleverly ‘answers’ all of life’s major questions[.]”

    I think this is a commonly held view of many atheists. Is that all religion is, or is something missing from this description? I find that many, if not most atheists think so. For example, I reside in Johnson County, Iowa. For those who don’t know, Johnson County is the county in which one can find Iowa City, one of the most modern-liberal (distinguished from classical liberal) towns in the Midwest. In Johnson County, the only thing worse than a “believer” is a “Republican.” And I’m not kidding (although plenty of Democrats in Johnson County are religious).

    In any case, I don’t believe I’ve had a single conversation with one of our many non-Christian residents who don’t, at some point of the conversation, state simply that the notion of Jesus Christ’s divinity, and in particular the proposition that he died and was resurrected on the third day, ridiculous. Well, I’m here to tell you that I find it ridiculous as well. Hence the critical question: must one believe in “magic” to see any value in religion in general, or Christianity in particular?

    For me, the answer is obviously not. But this, in my view obvious, fact doesn’t deter many from caricaturing one of the great religions of the world and then criticizing the caricature as ridiculous. I’ve never been impressed by anyone who can beat the stuffing out of a straw man.

    The fact is that science has obliterated the notion of any literalist interpretation of any religion. So the questions is, is there any place for religion in this modern day and age? I think so, simply because the biggest questions we have as human beings aren’t answered – or answerable – by science. Therefore, religion.

    The funny thing is, though, is that Kevin and I agree completely about one thing: and that is that humans DO avoid being put in positions where they have to say “I don’t know.” People have a natural tendency to want to answer questions affirmatively when the fact of the matter is that they have no idea at all. Relatedly, people (inquisitive ones, anyway) seem to have an innate or inculcated desire to know. Is this why people are or become religious, namely, when they brush up against the unknowable? Or is it, as Kevin appears to imply, a matter of knowledge?

    In my view, pace Wittgenstein (, knowledge has nothing at all to do with religion. In one sense, of course, one can be knowledgeable about religion. This is what distinguishes Kevin from the “typical” atheist, who generally doesn’t know the first thing about religion aside from the caricature they like to mock at parties with like-minded friends to demonstrate to one another their enlightenment. What I mean is that the root concept of faith implies that there is no evidence, or at least no scientific evidence, for a particular belief system. Thus, in a sense, Kevin is correct to say that there is no evidence for religion. But that is the point.

    Perhaps that is why figures such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and – yes – Albert Einstein believed that atheism was folly. See ("[Einstein's] close friend Max Born once remarked, 'he had no belief in the Church, but did not think that religious faith was a sign of stupidity, nor unbelief a sign of intelligence.'").

  2. Ben. Good comments, all. I agree with all of them. And this is why I don't quite feel 'at home' with atheists or with religionists.

    I particularly enjoyed your comment: "What I mean is that the root concept of faith implies that there is no evidence, or at least no scientific evidence, for a particular belief system."

    And this is part of what the pastor and I talked about. My only addition to this is that I am not ready to susbcribe to a system that makes existential claims (Jesus was the son of god, God exists and is the creator, etc.) based on faith. Existential claims, to me, require at least reason and at most proof. If religion were simply a collection of tales that one can live their lives by, I might subscribe to it, but only in the way that one can subscribe to the worldview of a philosopher.

    "[T]he biggest questions we have as human beings aren’t answered – or answerable – by science. Therefore, religion."

    True. There will always be a larger 'why' or 'how' or 'what made...' question than those we've answered. "X made Y? But what made X? A made X? But what made A?" Etc. Etc.

    But I must also suggest that another reason why I am an atheist is that I don't believe that religion truly answers any question, unless by answer we mean, "answer with an invented question-stopper."

    I cannot help but see religion as a clevery-invented (though not consciously so) 'answer' to the question, much in the way that "someone must ahve done it," is an answer to the question of any "who made..." question.

    "God did it," and the various mythologies filing in tkhe 'details' are to me no better than the story of the stork as a way to explain to quesitoning children how babies get from 'there' to 'here.'

    I fully understand that many feel very differently, and that the pastor probably feels pity for me as, to her, I am blind to the obvious truth of god. But I cannot help but see religion as not much "answer" at all (an invention rather than a discovery).