A few years ago I was associated with a group of “progressive christians” – the labelling was entirely theirs. They were an intelligent, passionate mob, keen on Jack Spong, Karen Armstrong, Gretta Vosper, and other thinkers of like mind. But here’s the thing: these folk were not only “progressive christians”; they were actually “fundamentalist progressive christians”. That is, they sincerely believed that if everyone else believed what they believed then all would be well with the world. The world’s problems would be solved “if everyone else was just like us”. Of course they never said that in exactly those words, but it was nevertheless the underlying message in all their conversations.
I’ve also mixed with “fundamentalist conservative Christians” who think exactly the same thing: “if everyone else thought just like us, the world’s problems would disappear.” And, just to round things out nicely, I have some “fundamentalist atheist” friends, atheists who don’t just not believe in god, but who are evangelical in their zeal to convert all theists to their way of thinking. They actually go beyond simply co-existing alongside people of faith; they burn with zeal because “if everyone thought like us then the world’s problems would be fixed”.
To quote from Urban Dictionary:
An evangelical atheist is one who not only believes there is no god or other supreme being, but is obsessed with convincing everyone around them to become an atheist too, usually through hard-line intolerance (the kind they accuse other religions of). When cornered they usually try to put down their opponent’s religion and bash them for ‘blind faith’, not realizing that their belief that there is no god is no more or less valid or provable than the other guy’s belief that there is one.
This quote on evangelical atheism is from Reza Aslan (and yes, that’s his surname, and no, he’s not the world’s greatest scholar; nevertheless… ):
The parallels with religious fundamentalism are obvious and startling: the conviction that they are in sole possession of truth (scientific or otherwise), the troubling lack of tolerance for the views of their critics (Dawkins has compared creationists to Holocaust deniers), the insistence on a literalist reading of scripture (more literalist, in fact, than one finds among most religious fundamentalists), the simplistic reductionism of the religious phenomenon, and, perhaps most bizarrely, their overwhelming sense of siege: the belief that they have been oppressed and marginalized by Western societies and are just not going to take it anymore.
One of the scarier moments of my life was being attacked by a fundamentalist atheist who absolutely insisted that I take everything in the bible literally. When I declared that I was not a creationist, that I believe in evolution, I was met with the same contempt as I might have expected from a creationist! She (this particular atheist was of the female persuasion) also displayed that quirk pointed to by Aslan: the conviction that the world is out to get atheists, “we are persecuted for our lack of faith”.
And this is where I part company from hardline atheists. From time to time I agree with their criticism of the nuttiness of much religious belief, but when I read lines like, “My concern is with ongoing bias and discrimination against non believers”… Seriously? I have no problem accepting that fundamentalist christians are dismissive of atheists, but I’d love to know just how people of faith discriminate against atheists. Perhaps if an atheist applied for a job teaching in a seminary?
I’m also affronted when atheists cry, “No. You’re absolutely and unequivocally wrong.” And then continue their argument in capital letters. I have been under the impression for some time now that all caps is the equivalent of shouting. Much against my will, I find myself wondering why atheists in arguments with christians just won’t let it go; are we seeing troubling signs of fundamentalism here?
On the other hand, christians do need to be willing to listen to and consider the arguments of those who offer a different viewpoint. Why not acknowledge that “the method of science is evidence-based decision-making”? What’s so scary about that? Why not agree that “When a faith-based claim is contrary to and in conflict with [an] evidence-based understanding, it must be considered as an unjustified belief”? Is this not so? If I believe that I can fly but the evidence suggests otherwise, then isn’t it an unjustified belief?
Of course, for some christians there are much more important things to defend than my aerial delusions: this is about Truth with a capital T. For some, the bible is the ultimate repository of truth, even when the evidence concludes otherwise. I’m sorry, folks, but Adam and Eve were not real people. God didn’t wander around in a garden with them, nor did a talking serpent cause the fall of humankind. It’s a story. That’s it, that’s all. It may be a useful story, but it’s not history.
Which, after much rambling, brings us back to an important question. A friend asked just recently, “Are we bound by the Old Testament or not? Which bits of the bible are binding?” To which my answer is, “No, we are most definitely not bound by the OT. Nor are we bound by the New Testament either.” Being a christian is not about being bound by anything. It’s about accepting that there is wisdom (perhaps even capital-T Truth) in loving our neighbour as much as we love ourselves. And then trying to live a life which embodies that principle (“incarnates” that principle?).
What about loving god? Well, the bible tells us (this is one of those bits I quite consciously cherry-pick) that you can’t love god if you don’t love your neighbour. The two are not just inseparable; they are the same thing.
Any bit in the bible which encourages loving is to be embraced; any bit which don’t is to be rejected. OT or NT, if it’s exclusionary and violent, flick it. If it’s challenging us to love, consume it.
Well, that’s my answer. And if everyone else thought like me, the world’s problems would simply disappear.