God, We Need Atheists

January 19, 2011

Today’s guest post, by my friend Frank Fredericks (Co-Founder of Religious Freedom USA and Founder of World Faith), addresses the gaping cultural divide between Christians and atheists. Like Amber Hacker’s NonProphet Status guest post, “A Committed Christian’s Atheist Heroes,” Frank writes as a dedicated Christian interested in finding ways to work with and better understand his atheist friends and neighbors. As someone who knows Frank and respects his work, I’m delighted to share his thought-provoking reflection here. Take it away, Frank:

bizarrojerkThe discourse between evangelical Christians and atheists has been antipodal at best. Whether it is Richard Dawkins calling faith “the great cop-out,” or countless professed Christians using “godless” like an offensive epithet, we’ve reached new lows. In fact, generally the discussion quickly descends into a volley of talking points and apologetics. I abhor those conversations with the same disdain I reserve for being stuck in the crossfire between a toe-the-line Republican and slogan-happy Democrat, rehashing last week’s pundit talking points.

I believe we need to revolutionize the way we interact. As an evangelical Christian, I recognize that my community equates atheism with pedophilia, like some dark spiritual vacuum that sucks out any trace of compassion or morality. Even in interfaith circles, where peace and tolerance (and soft kittens) rule the day, the atheists are often eyed with suspicion in the corner — if they’re even invited.

I thank God for atheists. During my college years at New York University, I had the superb opportunity to have powerful conversations with atheists who challenged me to have an honest conversation about faith. I appreciate and a value how atheist friends of mine encouraged inquiry. Remarkably, while this may not have been their intent, it only strengthened my faith. While I was able to begin weeding out the empty talking points from the substantive discourse, I hope they also got a glimpse of the love of Christ from an evangelical who wasn’t preaching damnation or waiting to find the next available segway into a three-fold pamphlet about how they need Jesus in their life. The point is, Christians need to stop seeing their atheist neighbors, co-workers, and even family members as morally lost, eternally damned, or a possible convert.

What lies at the bottom of this is the assumption, as pushed by many Christian leaders, is that religious people have the monopoly on morality and values. That, in a sense, you can’t be good without God. This is troubling on several levels. While at first glance this seems theologically sound to assume the traditional concept of salvation, most haven’t grappled with the problematic idea that Hitler could be in heaven and Gandhi could be in hell. That should be troubling for us. Also, the cultural and social ramifications of this leads to an antagonizing relationship. The Bible is littered with examples of non-religious, non-Christian, or non-Jewish people who do good in the eyes of God. It shouldn’t be shocking to see atheists teach their children integrity, or volunteer in a soup kitchen.

While I reserve the bulk of my frustration for those misusing my own faith, atheists aren’t blameless in this tectonic paradigm. Rather than taking the inclusive road of respectful disagreement, many of the largest voices for atheism find it more enjoyable to belittle faith, mock religion, and disregard their cultural and sociological value. In fact, many consider it their duty to evangelize their beliefs with the same judgmental fervor they fled from their religious past. Knowing that many came to define themselves as atheists against rigid religious upbringing, I don’t judge their disdain and frustration. However, like venom in veins, it keeps them from moving forward to having a more productive discourse. So often, when the religious and non-religious traditions grapple with the big question, like ontological definition, theorized cosmology, or the inherent nature of man, these discussion happen separately, without an engagement that is both fruitful and intriguing. I know many of those atheists have something wonderful to bring to that discussion, if they would stop throwing rocks at the window and come sit at the table.

So this is what I propose to my Christian and atheist friends: If we Christians challenge ourselves, our communities and congregations, to treat our atheist brothers and sisters as equitable members of our communities, nation, and in the pursuit of truth, will atheists recognize the value of faith to those who believe, even while they may respectfully disagree? As atheism quickly becomes the second largest philosophical tradition in America, the two communities will only have a greater need of a Memorandum of Understanding to frame how we can collectively work together to challenge the greater issues that face us, which starts by recognizing that it’s not each other.

Not sure where to start?  Let’s feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and protect human dignity.  While community service can be utterly rational, I am also pretty sure Jesus would be down for that, too.

frankFrank Fredericks is the founder of World Faith and Çöñár Records; in his career in music management, he has worked with such artists as Lady Gaga, Honey Larochelle, and Element57. Frank has been interviewed in New York Magazine, Tikkun and on Good Morning America, NPR, and other news outlets internationally. He also contributes to the interView series on the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He currently resides in Astoria, New York, leading World Faith and working as an Online Marketing Consultant.

6 Responses to “God, We Need Atheists”

  1. PirateX said

    Thank you. We need more people out there thinking along these lines. I’m an Atheist, and have become one after thoroughly evaluating many religious systems. I personally just did not find anything I wanted to believe in. For someone with a hard science background, religion just offered too many unanswered questions. For others, that may not be the case.

    I have no problem with religious people – that’s the wonderful thing about America, everyone’s free to believe whatever they wish. I only wish more people did ask questions about their faith. It’s like that old joke, most people treat the bible like a software license agreement – scroll to the end and click ‘I Agree’. I wish people would not just regurgitate what they’ve been told to believe and think critically – why do we believe this, is this relevant in my life, is this relevant today? And most of all I just wish they’d stop taking everything in the bible so literal. 😛

  2. This was a wonderfully written entry. As a person who was raised in a very conservative environment, I understand the ostracization that can be felt by merely questioning one’s religion. This should not be the case! Should one really be considered the moral equivalent of a leper for merely questioning one’s beliefs? I think not. For this reason, I truly appreciate this post.

  3. Hammill said

    Excellent piece. Speaking specifically to the following comment:

    “Rather than taking the inclusive road of respectful disagreement, many of the largest voices for atheism find it more enjoyable to belittle faith, mock religion, and disregard their cultural and sociological value…I know many of those atheists have something wonderful to bring to that discussion, if they would stop throwing rocks at the window and come sit at the table..”

    I believe that the first step in moving away from a shouting match and towards a discussion is – for both sides, theist and atheists – dispensing with the caricatures, stereotypes, and broad, sweeping assertions of character. I don’t know how many times I see theists referred to as “liars,” “immune to reason,” etc. Of course, the flipside occurs also, in the form of atheists being referred to as amoral, emotionless, evil, etc. I’m a nonbeliever myself, but I get put off by both angles: the comments by theists because they falsely portray me as something I’m not, and the comments by fellow nonbelievers because they serve, in part, to support those negative stereotypes. If both sides could begin to respectfully acknowledge the variability in beliefs and cease viewing those they disagree with as moral enemies, I argue we could move towards much more progress.

    But how do we do that? I don’t know. The current climate in this discussion is one where inflammatory rhetoric and character attacks gets rewarded. Things are highly clannish, self-congratulatory, and hesitant to make any attempt at selfanalysis. The immediate focus to me, then, is moving past that.

  4. Greg Tingey said

    Can’t work.
    Religious believers have the “authority” of “god” behind them – based on nothing at all, of course.
    Atheists are not “throwing rocks at the window”, they are pointing out the absence of any solid grounds for religious belief – which is instantly rejected by the believers.
    When religious believers start by basing their actions on evidence and facts, rather than myths handed down through the generations, then perhaps, useful work can be done.

  5. Julian said

    To be perfectly frank I can no more respect the inclusive religion advocated by the poster then I can fundamentalist Islam. Mind you that doesn’t mean I can’t respect a theist, it just means he better recognize I view his whole world outlook as self indulgent fantasy (Which I guess can be healthy at times but ultimately you want to move away from that.) at best. For example, I respect several of my fellow Marines and admit several are much better educated than me. And the fact they’ve been able to work alongside me without trying to convert mee (usually it’s the CoC that does that) is very much appreciated. But if religion comes up I can no more shut up and smile politely at being told sin is the reason for human diseas then I could when one of snco’s called Obama a muslim. Sorry not gonna happen.

  6. Julian said

    The more I read your post the more it doesn’t sit right with me. You mention human dignity as one of the common goals we can strive towards. But who’s definition of human dignity are we going off and just how is it supposed to be preserved? Group X believes preserving human dignity means forbiding the process of blood transfusion because it taints the person’s soul. Group S believes casual sex diminishes human dignity because it degrades love to a mere physical connection. How do you even go about confirming which group has the true grasp on what human dignity is?

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