A couple of weekends ago, I attended what was perhaps the Christian non-event of the year, the Christian Book Expo in Dallas. Organizers had expected 15,000 to walk the aisles, meeting authors and buying books. Only 1,500 showed up. One thing people did show up for, though, was to hear the atheist.
In this case, it was Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. He sat on a panel discussion ("Does the God of Christianity Exist, and What Difference Does It Make?'') littered with Christian apologists: Lee Strobel, Jim Denison, Douglas Wilson, and William Lane Craig. It was the atheist facing the Christian lions.
I think the lions won, and not because they outnumbered the atheist. Hitchens doesn't have any trouble slipping in his arguments — uh, statements. The truth is that they are not arguments. I could make better arguments against Christianity, I'm afraid. But Hitchens is certainly entertaining, which was one reason for the draw.
In fact, atheism in general is entertaining. Thus, the national attention given to atheist books that, by any standard, are wretchedly argued. Thus, entertainment media noting that Family Guy character Brian came out as an atheist on the show this week. Thus, the coverage given this week even in a very local newspaper announcing, "Tulare County Atheists Organize … ". (To get a headline, you would think the initial meeting had attracted hundreds. Nope, only ten showed up.)
Some Christians are threatened by atheism's rise on the pop charts. Some say atheists "hate God." But of course, a philosophical atheist cannot hate something he does not believe exists. Many atheists, though, do hate religion. Hitchens calls it a poison. Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, calls it a "mind virus." This is not nice. If Christians used the same rhetoric, we would be called narrow-minded fundamentalists who don't know how to have a civil conversation.
Then again, who said life would be fair?
* * *
Speaking of being fair, let's. I wonder if our fascination with atheism is well-focused. If Lent, the season we are currently slogging through, reminds us of anything, it reminds us that Christians are often practicing atheists. As I said, philosophical atheists cannot hate God. Christians, on the other hand, know God exists and therefore can and do hate him. One thing you do with persons you hate is pretend like they don't exist.
We dutifully say our prayers in the morning, but then go about the day hardly giving God a thought, making decisions and engaging the day as if we had left him at home. At the end of a whirlwind day, we fall exhausted into bed, and, if we are particularly devout, we offer up another prayer. But the picture at the center of this prayer-framed life is often blank.
Take simple moral choices. Jesus tells us not to lust. But that doesn't stop the occasional peek at porn. We are told to speak the truth in love, and yet we tell so many white lies, we need an Excel sheet to keep track. We know we should turn the other cheek, but we delight in imagining rituals of revenge.
There are unconscious sins — the thoughtless word or angry gesture that comes out of nowhere. But then there are the deliberate sins: we have a moment to ponder our duty, which lies clearly before us. No question what God is calling us to do. And we do the opposite.
If this isn't a form of atheism, even of hating God, I don't know what is. No wonder Jesus uses stark language to describe faith: We either hate Jesus (John 15:23-24) or we hate ourselves (John 12:25). That's what it comes down to. And we often know who "our first hate" is.
During Lent, faith becomes stark and simple for a while. We make a small vow — let's say, not to eat sweets for the season. It's a silly vow, which is why many eschew it, thinking it not serious enough. But I have found that the sillier the vow, the more difficult it is to keep. It is the very silliness of the vow that tempts one to cheat: What difference does it make to the cosmic order if I have a piece of candy before Easter? What's at stake, of course, is not the piece of candy, but the vow supposedly made in love and devotion.
It turns out that I apparently don't have that much love or devotion, because I violate most vows within hours. Lent reminds me that, for all my prayers and church attendance and devotion to Jesus and SoulWork pontifications, I'm a practical atheist. I let God into my life when it feels good. And when it doesn't — which is most of the time — I pretend he doesn't exist.
This would be a horrifying reality to face up to if we didn't know another piece of news — that the One who died for us on Good Friday died knowing he was giving his life for a bunch of atheists. Atheists who would populate his church, and take his name in vain. No wonder the church has such a bad reputation. No wonder philosophical atheists hate religion.
As I said, many Christians are upset with the New Atheists, but I wonder if we should be more riled about the old atheists, the ones found in the pews, who proclaim their theism while living like the average pagan. Instead of shaking our heads at the inability of some to believe in God, we would do well to fall on our knees in fear and trembling, recalling that there is a God who, in word and deed, at least believes in us.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is the author of A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God (Baker). He also interacts with readers on his blog.
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