The topic of loneliness came up at a breakfast meeting this morning. This is the devastating norm for Western cultures these days. Anxiety, depression, addiction, bitter cynicism, yes, all these things are rampant. But loneliness and social isolation seem to be the common thread that runs through the despair of our cultural moment. I see this nearly every day in my work as a pastor and as a prison chaplain. Read more
Freddie deBoer is, I gather, known as something of a “nice atheist.” He’s not explicitly hostile toward religious belief. His atheism represents more of a surrender than a decision. He believes an atheism that doesn’t come out of a process of loss and pain isn’t worth a whole lot. He’s not going to try to convert you to his unbelief. He has no evident interest in a world where people suddenly cease to believe in God. He would, however, like for you to take it a bit more seriously if this is in fact what you claim to believe. Or, at the very least, for you to be a bit more consistent. If God is the point of the whole show, then you should at least have the courtesy to act like you believed it. Read more
I’ve long held a fascination with doubt and unbelief. As a child, I wondered why some people believed in God and some didn’t. It was unsettling to me that it was possible to “read” existence in such radically different ways and with, at least so I thought at the time, with such dire consequences for getting one’s reading wrong. Read more
I sat in on an attempted proselytism the other day. It was in the chapel at the jail. One of the young women had been pontificating about how she didn’t really believe in God, but she figured there was probably a higher power that was orchestrating things down here. Life was mostly about merging with the energy of the universe and nature and discovering how everything’s connected and all religions basically say the same thing and that it’s all about love and peace (she said this after introducing the word “perping” to my lexicon and talking about how sometimes it’s just so much fun!). She was, in other words, a well-tutored member of the burgeoning SBNR (spiritual but not religious) category of the post-Christian West. Read more
Just sweeping out the corners and gathering up a few scraps of my reading and reflecting over the past little while…
I’ve been reading about dirty words and dirty secrets. Julia Scheeres writes in the New York Times about raising her daughter without the concept of sin. She was raised by fundamentalists and the cloud of sin and the threat of its punishment hovered menacingly over her formative years. There will be none of that for her girl. Moral performance will not be tied to the threat of punishment. She will be taught to resist injustice and inequality because this is the right thing to do, not because some angry imaginary God in the sky demands it. She will go on marches with her parents because of their collective desire to make the world a better place. Scheeres’ is certainly a common enough “I once was blind but now I (and my kids) see” narrative. All well and good, as far as it goes. But how far does it actually go? Read more
Holy Week is upon us, and with it the usual wearisome parade of articles and blog posts and podcasts offering more palatable understandings of Christian faith and crosses and empty tombs than dreary orthodox fare. Rational people can obviously no longer be expected to believe the outdated and unbelievable story of miracles and dying for sins and actual coming-back-from-the-dead. But the narrative of Holy Week is still deemed to have a few residual nuggets of potential worth mining for our personal spiritual journeys. You’ll be relieved to know. Read more
The most boring question you can ask of any religion is whether it is true.
So says Alain de Botton, philosopher, writer, and founder of an organization called “The School of Life,” a kind of church for atheists. de Botton started the school out of a conviction that religions have a few useful traditions, rituals, and practices that are worth borrowing and adapting in the ongoing project of becoming kind and fulfilled and generally decent human beings. The truth of the matter doesn’t really matter. What does matter is whether there might be some useful things to salvage from these historical traditions as we continue the steady march of secular progress. Read more
Gretta Vosper has been making headlines for a while now. She’s the pastor of West Hill United Church in Toronto. She also claims to be an atheist. According to a recent article at Vice News, Vosper realized back in 2001 that the idea of a supernatural being who intervened in the affairs of the world was a very silly thing to believe. She has, nevertheless, been soldiering on in her church for the last decade and a half in the service of the more worthy and “progressive” concerns that she feels the church ought to be about. Read more
I have always been interested in the reasons people have for accepting or rejecting the existence of God. It’s even more interesting to look at how people frame their own reasons for these decisions. So often, things are framed in stark terms of darkness and light, good and evil, obvious willful stupidity and luminous intellectual clarity, callous depravity and laudable moral sensitivity. This is true on both sides, of course. There are no shortage of eager atheists and Christians who understand and explain themselves and their decisions in these terms. As if no thinking, moral person could possibly come to any other conclusions about massive existential questions of God, meaning, truth, goodness, and beauty than the ones they happen to have arrived at!
Except things are a bit more ambiguous than that in the real world. Read more
I often hear some version or other of the well-worn argument that faith in God is for the weak, the intellectually deficient, the cowardly, the lonely, the marginalized and disenfranchised, or those staring down the prospect of death and grasping at something—anything!—to make their pain more bearable. The healthy, the strong, the educated and influential, the sane—these are imagined to have no need for such supernatural aids. Religion is a crutch for those who can’t (or won’t) face life as it really is, in all of its starkness. Read more
Over the last few months, I’ve been following a blog by former Seventh Day Adventist pastor Ryan Bell. The blog is called Year Without God, and chronicles Bell’s decision to take a break from God, walk away from the church, and try living like an atheist for a year. I have more than a few reservations about the project itself (I’ve written about them here), but it has been very interesting to ride along with Bell in the post-church, post-God landscape. Read more
I notice her standing in line at the café. She’s young, attractive, and has an easy smile. Everything about her appearance screams confidence and self-assurance. She’s dressed stylishly, I suppose, a little bit provocative or edgy or something (as if I knew a thing about style). She turns toward me and I notice her shirt. It’s tight and black and it has what looks like a Jack Daniels logo on the front. But it doesn’t say “Jack Daniels.” It says, rather, in bold, bracing white letters, “100% PURE ATHEIST.” Underneath, in smaller letters, “Two hands at work for good in the world are more useful than a thousand folded in prayer.” I sigh, almost audibly. I would have preferred Jack Daniels. Read more
It’s Ash Wednesday, a day for sober reflection on, among other things, what it is to be a human being. And what better person to usher us into a conversation on this weighty and important matter than… Richard Dawkins. Wait, what? Richard Dawkins? As in the crusading evangelist for atheism? As in that famous biologist who holds any and all religious beliefs in utter contempt and never allows an opportunity to heap scorn upon supernatural belief to pass him by? As in the self-proclaimed champion of all things rational and scientific? That Richard Dawkins. Yes, that one. Read more
So, this one is generating a bit of discussion online today. Apparently Ryan Bell, an American pastor (or former pastor), is going to give atheism a try for a year. He has found himself, over the last number of years, following the well-worn ecclesial trail from orthodoxy to heterodoxy and has arrived at the point where he’s just not sure he can do the whole God thing any longer. He’s not sure what he believes any more, so he’s going to play the field.
Starting with atheism: Read more
Reading David Bentley Hart makes me happy to be a Christian. The closing few pages of The Experience of God are simply a joy to read. Hart’s diagnosis of our present cultural moment with all of its lightly informed and category-confusing debates about atheism and religious belief is penetrating and razor-sharp (not to mention more than a little unsettling!). More importantly, though, his call to return to wonder at the very heart of existence and gratitude toward its source, is welcome and necessary.
It’s easy to gloss over long-ish quotes, I know. But resist the urge in this case. Hart has much to say that is worth thinking about. And he says it, as usual, in truly arresting ways. Read more
A meeting cancellation last night left me with the delightful predicament of how to fill a few an unexpected few free hours. Option A was parking myself on the couch and watching a hockey game, but that space was, lamentably, already occupied by my wife and daughter who were engrossed in a movie. So, naturally, I decided to pick up a book by David Bentley Hart 🙂 (I’ve written before about the delights and challenges of reading Hart before here). The Experience of God is not quite the test of one’s vocabulary (and the blow to one’s pride) as some of Hart’s other works, but it’s still not exactly the shallow end of the pool. Read more
“There are no atheists in foxholes,” goes the famous aphorism. It’s meant, I suppose, to get at the idea that when you’re face to face with darkness and death and horror and suffering, atheism suddenly becomes a less credible option. The reality of death makes believers, or at least desperate hopers out of us all. When our lives are under threat, God seems more palatable. That’s the idea, as I understand it at least. Read more
A few reflections on unrelated themes for a Wednesday morning…
I was having a conversation with a person this morning who has been navigating the murky waters of trying to discern the best treatment options for a health concern. One doctor recommends this, one recommends that, one tries to push pills, one recommends “natural” treatments, one article says this, another article says that. Often, the opinions are wildly contradictory. How do you make a good decision in the face of such divergent viewpoints—especially when the purveyors of this or that position almost invariably stand to profit, directly or indirectly, from your agreeing with them?
Who do you trust when everyone has a vested interest in convincing you that they are right? Read more