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.