Evangelical Atheist?

Upon coming to the conclusion that I could no longer call myself a Christian, perhaps the most important question I asked myself was, “What now?” As a Christian, I had a very clear purpose in life. The Great Commandment (Matthew 22) and the Great Commission (Matthew 28) were the guiding forces in my life (in theory, if not always in action). As an atheist, I have no such mandate to change the world. But inaction isn’t in my nature. Being idle isn’t an option.

And so I took time to re-evaluate my values. Once I know where my values lie, I can act on them. I can’t deny that my time as a Christian has profoundly shaped how I perceive the world around me. Christianity, like all of the world’s religions, is a murky mix of good and bad. I have done my best to not throw out the baby with the bath water. And so it is no surprise to me that my values still heavily derive from my former faith.

I place a high value on humanity. One of my few atheist friends at school is incredibly misanthropic. He loves learning and hates people. To me, this seems like a sad existence. While humanity is neither basically good nor basically evil (I would deny that these concepts exist as they are understood in the popular sense, anyway), there is something wonderful about people. Life is sacred, if not eternally. Humanity is capable of causing great pain, but it is also capable of causing great pleasure (in a philosophical rather than popular understanding). As a Christian, I wanted to make my corner of the world a better place for my fellow man. This drive has remained as an atheist.

I place a high value on progress. Thomas Hobbes describes a world without government as a world of “war against all,” in which people are in a state of “perpetual fear.” There came a point that families decided to form clans to make their lives easier. Clans gave way to tribes. Tribes gave way to city-states. City-states gave way to nation-states. Monarchies gave way to republics and democracies. When Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams for the presidency of America in 1800, power was passed from one political faction to another without bloodshed. Suffrage has extended to much of the world’s population. People have built automobiles, hospitals and parks. Humans have written pieces of literature and created artistic masterpieces. Europeans sailed to the new world, Russians sent a man into space and Americans sent a man to the moon. The world has become smaller with the computer revolution. Wow! What a beautiful thing progress is. I can only hope that my life can contribute to that progress in some small way.

I place a high value on people. In addition to an abstract value of humanity as a whole, I highly value people. People. As I prepared for ministry, I learned to take notice of people. The cashier at Wal-Mart, the kid sitting alone at lunch, the acquaintance with shared interests. There is an infinite combination of personality traits to find in people. It is often easy to become disillusioned with the people you know. People lie, steal and cheat. They are shallow and selfish. But there is something good about all the people I have had the honor of knowing in my life.

I place a high value on truth. There’s the age-old question: would you rather be happy and ignorant or depressed and knowledgeable? I think I would take the latter regardless of the circumstances. In fact, it is this yearning for truth that drove me away from my faith. There was an incredibly strong psychological desire for there to be a transcendent, omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent being who cared deeply about my past, present and future. Yet, there is no evidence for such a being. I would rather be content to live without an invisible best friend than to follow a fairy tale.

So what is a humanity-affirming, progress-craving, people-loving, truth-yearning atheist to do?

At first, I reacted in much the same way as I did when I converted to Christianity. Evangelism. I found the “truth,” after all. I wanted to shout it from the mountains. And in my fervor, I have alienated several friends. But you’re wrong, there is no god, I would think to myself as I talked with them. Poor fools. Little do they know that they will live their entire lives to please a God who doesn’t exist. They’ll never even know they were wrong. They will die and cease to exist.

And yet this atheistic evangelism proved to be ineffective, and perhaps in poor form. “My faith is enough for me,” one said. “Faith is trans-rational,” another said. “You can’t put God in a reason-box,” I was told. What to do with people who are so devoted to a belief that they surrender reason in order to hold it. They’re not hurting anyone, are they? If my seventy year-old grandmother, with few years ahead of her, takes comfort from belief in God, who am I to take that from her?

But there are consequences, aren’t there? Any student of American politics understands the stranglehold that the Religious Right holds over the Republican Party. As if the Women’s Suffrage and Civil Rights movements were not enough, we have a president who would favor an amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America restricting homosexuals from receiving equal benefits to their heterosexual counterparts. Radical Islam has taken countless lives. Jews and Palestinians are willing to kill each other over a so-called Holy Land.

So what is a young, idealistic atheist to do? It seems that this question, like most questions that matter, is shrouded in darkness. On the one hand religion can be used for great amounts of good. Individuals inspired by their faith create homeless shelters and soup kitchens. On the other hand, religion has caused great pain. Radical Muslims are willing to martyr themselves in order to achieve paradise. What to do with religion?

My temporary solution is what I would consider to be passive evangelism, for lack of better word. Not a day goes by that I am not asked about my shift from religious affiliation. And I share. As openly as I can. I can only hope that I can be helpful for those who are genuinely questioning their faith. At the same time, I hope to be a positive face for atheism. As a Christian, I strove to be accepting and kind, compassionate and generous. And as an atheist, I hope to do the same.

If anyone has advice, suggestions or comments, please share.

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4 Responses to “Evangelical Atheist?”

  1. You seem like a very intelligent person.

    How about an evangelist for intellectually sound discussions about religion?

    Or maybe an evangelist for tolerance?…

    With tolerance you could really stand out since most atheist are intolerant of theist. Not to mention all of the atrocities committed in the name of religion and totalitarian atrocities have been done because of the lack of tolerance of others beliefs.

  2. “Or maybe an evangelist for tolerance?…

    With tolerance you could really stand out since most atheist are intolerant of theist.”

    Kerrin, I appreciate your suggestion. I would be interested in how you define tolerance, though.

    I would consider myself to be a tolerant individual. I think it is truly sad that people find that they cannot disagree without hating one another (i.e. As a Democrat, I find it sad that Democrats feel they must hate Republicans instead of voicing opposition.). I am; however, intrigued by the idea of ‘conversational intolerance.’ I steal the term from Sam Harris. Though I have not read his books, I have listened to him speak and think he is perhaps on the right track in that there comes a point in which we are too tolerant. When we refuse to voice opposition firmly, or at all, our tolerance causes us to miss opportunities to transform society.

    I don’t know if that makes sense. But I do agree that it is sad that atheists are often intolerant of theists. Many of my closest friends are evangelical Christians, and I would shudder to demean their sincerity or good natures.

  3. I suspect you are a tolerant person… your posts thus far have notably left “religion bashing” alone.

    I like Sam Harris’ idea of ‘conversational intolerance’… it keeps things at an intellectual level and promotes change. I do think though that people should be allowed to believe what they want to believe, even if it is intellectually unsound, illogical, etc., as long as they don’t impose it on others and their beliefs don’t cause intolerant actions against others.

    I think tolerance of others starts with respect for both religion & science in their separate places and what people choose to believe about either. Not necessarily agreeing with everything they claim. Philosophically I think the strong-agnostic has the best logical position and if applied can be used to promote tolerance of the beliefs of others.

    I was thinking along the lines of Steven Jay Gould’s NOMA principle:
    “science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). …religion [& philosophy] extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.”

    But you could also be an evangelist for philosophical meaning and moral values. Since it seems allot of atheist’s struggle with finding meaning of life & ethics. It would appear like you are not struggling with meaning or ethics… you could possible help others with that.

    You are right about the political climate. So much of the conversation revolves around emotional arguments and less honest intellectually debate. By way of full disclosure (since you told me you were a Democrat) I personally agree with most of the Libertarian party principles… currently I think both major political parties are causing more harm then good to the political climate.

  4. People remember us more for our actions and ethics than for our beliefs.

    Live a good life. Even the Buddha and early teachers knew that how we acted was more important than the beliefs that we hold. We could believe one thing, but act in a completely different manner, whether we know it or not.

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