I haven’t put up any posts on atheism in a while, so it’s been some time since I’ve gotten into a wrangle with an atheist (for some reason, though, that always does seem to happen when I post on atheism; there always seems to be an atheist blogger or two who finds it and drops in to complain); there have been a couple things I’ve intended to post on, but neither was available online when I went looking for them. The last go-round that way was on my post on “The atheism of presumption and the case for God,” which was last July; that one was primarily with a chap going by the handle FVThinker (who also seems to be, inter alia, someone else who’s bought the phony media narrative about Sarah Palin). I looked back at that thread for something else and noticed he’d made a comment which I failed to register at the time, and also that I had planned a follow-up post which, in the business of last summer, I never finished. I need to put up a post soon to address those lapses on my part.
This, however, is not that post. Rather, I want to comment on another approach he took which I didn’t address at all in that comment thread. : In that conversation, FVThinker tried to frame his argument against Christianity by comparing God to the ancient Greek and Norse gods. That comparison doesn’t really hold water (as I tried to point out to another interlocutor in an earlier comment thread), because Christianity operates in a fundamentally different way, on a profoundly different basis, than the old pagan religions.
In the ancient world, people believed in religion about the way they believed in magic: you do the ritual the god requires, and you get the results you want. Worship was essentially a form of manipulation; its purpose, as the Old Testament scholar John Oswalt puts it, was “to appease the gods and satisfy any claims they may have on us so that we may use the power of the gods to achieve our own goals.” That’s not the worship God wants. The rituals he had commanded were essentially symbolic; what mattered was the spirit in which they were performed. What he wanted was for his people to give him their lives and hearts so that he could have a true friendship with them.
The problem is, they were taking their cues from the nations around them, and they thought all they needed to do was to do the ritual correctly, and they were fine. That didn’t work because it wasn’t the point at all, and so they complained that God was wearing them out with all his pointless demands. To that, God says, “No, I’m not burdening you, you’re burdening me, because you aren’t really doing this for me at all! You’re doing this for yourself. All you’re giving me is your sins and offenses—and I’m sick to death of them.”
Israel didn’t get it because they’d bought into the idea that worship is just a way to manipulate God—you do the thing, you pull the lever, and you get the treat. They’d bought the idea that our worship is all about us, and what we want, and what we can get out of it. They didn’t understand that worship begins with submission—with laying aside our pride, and our independence, and our own desires, and our own ideas of what we need and what we deserve. They’re not alone; too often, we don’t get it either. This is a universal human problem, because it’s a universal human tendency; it’s just another reflection of the desire to be in control of our own lives that drove our first ancestors into sin to begin with. This is the primal human error, that declares in the smuggest tones Frank Sinatra could possibly manage, “I did it my way.”
This is the reason, I think, that so many atheists really don’t understand Christianity; there are exceptions, of course, but most of the atheists I know or have had dialogues with have an essentially pagan understanding of religion, and don’t get that Christianity doesn’t fit that (or isn’t supposed to, anyway). I don’t blame them for that; all too often, the church in this country doesn’t give them any reason to think otherwise. Having people like Joel Osteen out there on the airwaves certainly doesn’t help. This is fundamentally not a problem with atheism, or with the arguments for atheism, but with Christianity and Christians: we can’t expect atheists to be open to believing in God if we only show them a version of God that isn’t worth believing in.
(Partly excerpted from “No Other Redeemer”)