Sunday, July 22, 2018

What can Christians learn from atheists?


Years ago, at a Christian college, I took a course in Christian Philosophy. I don’t remember much from the textbook but I do recall the title of another book, Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell. Looking back, I wondered why the professor chose such a text for a course in a highly conservative college. Was he trying to prepare us to challenge the author? Was he struggling with his own faith?


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Arguably, the leading atheist of recent decades is the biologist Richard Dawkins. Following the 911 attacks on America, Dawkins and his atheist friends published several challenges to religion. A best seller, The God Delusion, caught my attention. After all, as a psychologist, I know something about delusions. And as one who studies and writes about the psychology of religion, I wondered what might be new in this arena—new since Russell, that is.

Five Things Christians Can Learn From Atheists


I’ve written an academic review of the book, The God Delusion, which you can download at no charge (see references below). In this post, I want to see if Dawkins says anything of value to enhance Christian living.

1. The God Delusion can strengthen faith.

It may seem odd to think an atheist’s attack on faith could end up strengthening faith. So, I should explain how this might work. On the one hand, philosophically minded Christians might respond to the arguments in The God Delusion, identify their weaknesses, and offer a reasoned response. On the other hand, and more in my line of work, terror management theor (TMT) suggests that when attacked, people respond by becoming more conservative. The anxiety that comes from considering death stimulates efforts to bolster self-esteem, which is often supported by faith that make sense of life. Christianity teaches that life is meaningful and all have an important part to play in furthering the Kingdom of God. Under attack, religious people turn to their faith. As they more strongly identify with their faith group, they tend to think their group is superior to other groups within their broad faith group (e.g., worldwide Christianity) and surely against outgroups like atheists.

2. The God Delusion may help thinking Christians adopt a more mature faith.

Many of the challenges in The God Delusion make sense because they are aimed at literal interpretations of scripture, which sometimes fly in the face of extant evidence. Fundamentalists take the Bible seriously as a guide for life. They also tend to avoid metaphorical interpretations of famous stories like Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, and the Apocalypse. The atheistic attacks grab low hanging fruit in some presentations of these ancient stories, which embarrass Christian scholars. By referring to scientific evidence, thinking Christians are enticed to discover how faith and science might be integrated. The quintessential example is the conflict between creationism and evolution. Of course, atheists will consider the nonliteral explanations as lacking integrity, but one must consider that even fundamentalists view some texts as metaphors. The onus is on Christian scholars to help fundamentalists appreciate more nuance in the texts than they may have otherwise considered. One scholar with a knack for this kind of scholarship is Craig Keener.

3. The God Delusion can help Christians confront violence.

The 911 attacks are vivid memories in the minds of people old enough to remember the horror of falling towers in America’s iconic city. The religiosity of the attackers is also well-known.  But Christians know that people of their own faith have been violent toward those of other faiths or other Christian groups with different beliefs.  Christians need to deal honestly with the horrid stories in the Bible where children and adults are the targets of destruction. It does no good to preach that God is Love when a normal understanding of love does not include God ordained slaughter.  Atheist attacks on religiously motivated violence are common themes hurled at na├»ve Christians. Such attacks can encourage Christian thinkers to offer a thoughtful response. For some, Swinburne has an answer. Other may be more inclined to take a psychological view that stories of power from centuries past might embolden a nation's troops and evoke fear of a powerful God in one's enemies.

4. The God Delusion can help Christians think more clearly.

As a college student I became aware of the faulty thinking in the so-called proofs for the existence of God. Atheists, like Dawkins, are quite adept at highlighting the illogic in the common arguments. Unfortunately, despite the logical problems, many young Christians continue to learn the arguments as if they would be helpful. To be sure, many thinkers are quite satisfied that intelligent design is a sufficient argument. Others know God apart from reason and testify to their living faith based on experience. If thinking Christians can control their defensive posture, they can be more willing to agree that various arguments are indeed faulty. As many have admitted, proving or disproving the existence of God using reason does not work well. Such arguments won’t lead to the kind of faith that nurtures well-being and an impetus to love one’s neighbor.

5. The God Delusion can help Christians develop a deeply rooted moral response.

As Dawkins points out, some Christians wonder how atheists can be moral. Indeed, some Christians think atheists are immoral.  Thoughtful Christians are certainly aware that the moral response is common amongst people of many religions and those with no religion at all (See A House Divided below). As Haidt and his colleagues have shown, virtues like care, fairness, respect for authority, loyalty, and respect for the sacred are common in many societies.  The challenge to Christians can be to consider biblical teaching and stories in the light of moral principles rather than a superficial endorsement of some law or teaching that seemingly contradicts another.  For example, Christians used to quote biblical texts to justify slavery, disallow abused women to divorce, keep women out of certain jobs, and dictate styles of clothing and appearance.

     There are surely more lessons we can learn from a consideration of Dawkins’s attacks on religion, which is mostly about Christianity because that is the religion he knows best.  Of course, Dawkins is an evangelist for atheism thus, we would not expect him to appreciate how his arguments could enliven anyone’s faith rather than persuade them to give up faith altogether.

References (APA style)

Dawkins, R. (2006). The God delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Sutton, G. W. (2016). A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures. Eugene, OR: Pickwick.

Sutton, G. W. (2009). [Review of the book The god delusion by R. Dawkins]. Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health11, 235-239. Download from  Academia Link    Researchgate


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