The atheist, the believer and the matter of faith


“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith”.

                                                                                        2 Timothy4:7

  Faith is believing the truth, trusting in the source of all truth and accepting the truth when we see it. Faith is rejoicing in the truth when we grasp hold of it and spreading the truth when and where we can no matter the cost and make no mistake the cost can be dear.  Faith is active, never passive. Faith relies upon discernment and discernment demands wisdom. To be in truth is to be immersed in a faith that is itself a inward expression of what we perceive of nature both outer nature and our own inner natures through the faculties God has given us and like any faculty if not used often and healthily can diminish and decay. To be fully in faith and truth is to be what the ancients called righteousness.  Today we may say we have faith but do we really see the truth? When we see the truth do we really trust what we see through faith? Can you or I right now claim that we are walking in the way of the righteous? If salt that has lost it’s flavor is, as the gospel of Matthew says, no longer good for anything but to be trampled underfoot then what of a faith that has lost, or never had its center rooted firmly in the truth? A better translation of Matthew is salt that lost it’s saltiness, or salt that is no longer true to it’s nature. So what then of faith that lost its faithfulness to the truth? Such faith is indeed blind, as blind as a man with a light hidden under a bowl giving light to no one. Such faithless faith is a dim echo of a much greater outer darkness that begins in our own hearts.      – Candlewycke

  The question of faith is a bridge that unites and divides the atheist and the believer in ways they may never fully understand. Neither give it as much thought as they should, and both, when thinking about it think of it in flawed, awkward and mistaken terms because faith has become so easily taken for granted that most never bother to look to the Bible to see what it actually means. It has become too easy to blindly or ignorantly accept doctrinal creeds or to reject those of faith as foolish rustics, quaint in their reliance on belief in the invisible supernatural. On the other hand to believers faith is so perfectly natural, even when flawed that they fail to see how weak their own faith might be or for that matter what they put their faith in to begin with. The term Christian itself is often confused as being synonymous with faith. But being of a faith is not the same thing as having faith. Trust is the key…

  The atheist claims they would believe if only God offered some proof, something visible they could see or touch or directly experience. This is mistaken on many levels. First of all one can never directly experience in physical terms what a relationship means.  The proof of any relationship is seen only in the impact to those involved, how they are changed and how they use that change within themselves.  So the atheist who seeks proof is in reality only reasoning away their own disbelief.

  For the rare atheist who might actually come to a place of belief if only there were to be some tangible evidence offered up we have but to look at the world around us. I do not mean some metaphysical idea about the world, but the world we live in right here, right now.

  If a stranger were to approach and warn you that that a fire is burning hotly just over the hill, just beyond the range of your eyesight you may or may not believe him. Perhaps he is crazy, or mistaken. You refuse to believe if you do not see for yourself so you walk forward. Soon someone else approaches and gives the same warning, this time it is a person you work with and trust enough to share in the success of your company. Still you are free to disbelieve their warning. And so you continue forward. You have no way of knowing if your decision is grounded in the strength of your disbelief, or as you might call it your logic, or if your decision is one of ignorance born of your refusal to believe. As you walk onward someone else approaches. This time it is a park ranger, surely you can trust him. The same warning is given so what does the disbeliever do? Many atheists will continue on, refusing to believe even someone who could be called an expert all because they refuse to accept even the possibility of what they do not see for themselves. Soon others come and go, strangers and friends, people of high education and people of simple wisdom, people you trust in other areas of your life, people who do your taxes and who work for you, and with you and for whom you work, police officers and professors. And they all give the same warning. Of course other’s come and go as well, other atheists who will say there is no fire because they have not seen it. Have they been over that hill for themselves? They will admit they have not, but then again they have never felt a reason to go over the hill.

  By the early 20th century logic was quickly replacing morality as a cardinal virtue to such a degree that anything that did not squarely fit in what was said to be secular logic or scientific logic was relegated to the nursery. The Bible stories at best were accused of being harmless fairy tale and at worst the delusions of religious insanity that had no role in civic discourse.  Beginning with the end of WW1* new Atheism gained an air of respectability unknown before in American history. The new vogue in intellectual circles was atheism that manifested in two ways. First was the ambivalent atheist or what is better termed the agnostic?  These are the people who simply don’t give religion much thought but when they do they resort to pure logic and deny the spiritual realm. The second are those who actively find ways to subvert religion, who operate from a position of animosity concealed behind a veil of false intellectual honesty. Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins are two of the most prominent modern names, but the modern front for the militant atheist is the internet where brief sound bites, tweets, and the ability to spend a great deal of time immersing oneself in self-confirming facts without actually being confronted with meaningful intellectual dialogue.  The rise of atheism of the latter part of the 20th century owes itself to the internet chat room.  Here we find tired arguments that have been oft refuted regurgitated over and over again so that it becomes easy to not believe despite evidence that lends credence to belief. It is easy to support your own beliefs when your facts come from the echo chamber. But this is not itself a new phenomenon. In Evelyn Waugh’s masterwork “Brideshead Revisited” the theme of religion is front and center, but it is handled in ways that are unique. In it two men, lifelong friend’s agnostic Charles and troubled Christian Sebastian provide vehicles for the exploration of religion and faith. One passage is especially interesting.

“Sebastian’s faith was an enigma to me at that time, but not one which I felt particularly concerned to solve. The view implicit in my education was that the basic narrative of Christianity had long been exposed as a myth, and that opinion was now divided as to whether its ethical teaching was of any present value, a division in which the main weight went against it; religion was a hobby which some people professed and others not at the best it was slightly ornamental, at the worst it was the province of “complexes” and “inhibitions” – catchwords of the decade- and of intolerance, hypocrisy, and sheer stupidity attributed to it for centuries. No one had ever suggested to me that these quaint observances expressed a coherent philosophic system, and intransigent historical claims; nor, had they done so, would I have been much interested.

 

   The last line is of great importance. “nor, had they done so, would I have been much interested.” This shows the blind reliance of logic that leads so many even today to reject even the truth because such a truth is of in interest to what they already claim to believe. And where does this reliance on logic come from? As Charles said above, “The view implicit in my education”. The question then becomes simply what is such an education? I profess an equally simple answer.  It is the education founded upon antagonism against anything that restricts radical autonomy. To put it another way it is the indoctrination into a system of belief that posits the self, the individual represents the only that of any real value and that anything that does not elevate the self is to be categorically rejected. This of course includes religion, but also all forms of morality, the widespread prevalence of divorce, and the contorted logic that allows for abortion to be argued as a woman’s exercising her absolute autonomy at the expense of a life she took part in creating willing.

   At a certain point it becomes illogical to blindly disregard even unbelievable claims because you choose not to believe. At some point the only logical thing to do is have faith in what you do not see.  Sometimes this means having faith in what others tell you even when it goes against what you want to believe.  It is true there is always a danger in allowing faith to lead you to disaster, but true faith is never blind faith.  True faith demands to be tested, indeed for faith to be true it must be born out of someplace real, real experiences, real troubles, real needs. Faith is born when prayer is answered, when we are called to step out of our comfort zone and find that despite our weakness and inability to meet the task we succeed because something outside of us, greater than us took control. This is why Christians never believe in God, we know God. This is why we need no evidence of the historical Jesus, as if his private letters could be found, or his tomb or photographs. We need none of this because we know Jesus Christ personally. This is not to say our faith is never tested or in doubt. Quite the contrary. Those things that mean the most are always the things that we question most often.  Doubt is always a companion to faith. It only becomes a problem when we allow doubt to define us.

   Faith and belief are intertwined in ways that cannot be separated. Faith without belief is blind and belief without faith is disingenuous. And here is where the atheist and the Christian alike get mired down or led down the wrong paths. For the atheist the danger is always the obstacle of belief, and the commensurate inability to see with insight and discernment. For the believer the danger is always allowing faith to become blind, and fanaticism to become their defining aspect.

   But what does it mean to believe? It is far to easy to claim belief is a child’s way of looking at the world, this confuses belief in Santa Clause, which is never more than an enjoyable venture into make believe for believing in something through informed trust. Faith then is not believing in God; faith is trusting in God so the real question the honest atheist need ask is not what would it take for them to believe, but what would it take for them to trust. And we Christians are not off the hook… We need to ask ourselves two questions; Do we believe but have no faith and has our faith become blind so that we are only going through the motions and have lost the relationship with our creator and savior, a relationship that like all requires trust. Unless the believer answers correctly then we make ourselves a model of the faith that can never be trusted because we do not ourselves trust in what we claim to have faith in.

   As I said faith and belief are intertwined and cannot be separated but we must not stop here. Faith and belief must lead us closer to a real relationship that is renewed every day.

*WW1 saw such widespread slaughter for so little reason that people were left questioning everything related to the spiritual. All sides in this great conflict were Christian after all and yet each killed with the same hungry determination, inventing not only new ways to mangle the human body and twist he human soul, but also new justifications for the ever increasing slaughter house of blood soaked battlefields.  Spiritualism and its reliance on ghost communication that had emerged as a religion of note in the early19th century, dramatically increased after the Civil War in America and saw another surge at the close of WW1, before it slowly died out, leaving behind as a legacy a keen interest in all things supernatural. But while the world of the spirit was given new scrutiny, it too was forced into pure scientific confines. Logic would solve spiritual riddles, not any spiritual sensibilities.  We see these fruits today in the popular ghost hunting programs and ever popular true haunting books.

The end of WW1 also saw a dramatic increase in Christian commitment on one hand and the slow, steady advance of militant atheism on the other. Christians tended to embrace a sort of secular, patriotic religiosity that recast Christ in terms that were civic minded. He became the Christ of Main Street, of apple pie and the desperate desire for a return to American innocence. Though mainly visible in America there were similar unfolding in Britain and to a lesser degree in continental Europe. At the other end of this was the emergence of new atheism, that grew increasingly militant, seeing religion and especially Christianity not as competing philosophical ideal but as a threat to pure, self-centered radical autonomy. To the new atheist American liberty was an absolute promise of unfettered liberty or liberty that was freed from any moral obligation. In a curious, chance way a particular speech given by Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the new atheist a new vocabulary with which to carry out the attack. In his famous speech titled the four freedoms, Roosevelt outlines a vision of war era America that was at once connected to our founding freedoms and curiously altering the promise of freedom to include freedom from want and freedom from fear. Here more than ever before we see the erosion of the US constitution and its promises of freedom by the inclusion of freedoms from certain things, in this case want and fear. It would not be long before American liberals began to define freedom not in terms of what you are entitled to possess, the right to vote, the right to assemble peacefully, etc. but what you are entitled to be free from experiencing. In the case of the new atheist and this has proven to be a lasting legacy, this came to include the freedom from religion that has been interpreted as the right not to experience any sort of public religious display or expression. Of course the only way this can be accomplished is by restricting those freedoms which are the hallmarks of American constitutional liberty. This is also the reason we see restriction on public prayer, public professions of faith, and public displays of anything apparently religious in nature.

**Dallas Willard, author of “The Divine Conspiracy” uses this same quote to illustrate the secular ages. I have adopted his idea and am here using it to illustrate how the secular age impacts the way we define faith and logic.

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