I Would Rather You Be an Atheist . . .
Some use the text to figure out what love means. Others use love to figure out what the text means. Totally different outcomes. ~ David Hayward aka nakedpastor
Last week, someone left a very long, very angry comment on one of my posts railing at what they saw as God’s cruelty, complete with many scripture quotes. I’m not entirely sure if he was an atheist or an angry believer. He probably thought I was going to argue with him. And I could have – the things he was pointing out are all issues I’ve dealt with and have my own understanding of. But instead, I told him that despite his clear fury at and disdain for the God he saw in those verses, I recognized him as a fellow traveler.
This was someone who refuses to accept cruelty and unforgiveness just because it’s been labeled “godly” and instead raises the cry, “not good enough!” Someone who wasn’t willing to sit in the squalor of the world as it is, waiting for some Santa Clause god to swoop down and make it all OK . . . one day. This was someone who recognized that any god who is cruel and heartless is not worthy of devotion.
I saw a fellow traveler because at different points in my life, I too rejected those aspects of Christianity as it is commonly taught as unworthy, unhelpful and generally “not good enough”. Because of my intense, personal experiences with God, I didn’t lose my faith on the way. But I certainly can’t and won’t condemn someone like my commenter for not doing likewise. If a person sees their choice as being either believing in cruel and heartless God who demands fielty and being an atheist, I’d rather they be an atheist.
No one who reads my blog could possibly accuse me of not being full-on, 100% committed to God and Christianity, so perhaps it is surprising to hear me say that I’d rather someone be an atheist. But the truth is that in the face of what many people are taught about God, inhumane theology and damaging, harmful churches, it can be the height of Godly faithfulness to reject the whole thing and walk away.
Of course, I would rather that people sought out a different understanding of God, theology that gives life and churches oriented around love. Yet, for some people escaping from the wreck that Christianity is for them is necessary for their survival and well being. I hope that people who take this path will one day heal and come to a place of being able to claim the name of Jesus. In their meantime, it may well be better for both them and the Kingdom that they do not.
The problem is that too often, religion has been the reason that people embrace things which are manifestly evil, cruel, harmful and damaging – to themselves and others. Those old pagans who burned their infant children to Molec? They were doing good according to their religion. The people who burnt women at the stake as witches? They thought they were doing good according to their religion. People who bring their mentally ill children to exorcists instead of doctors? They think they are doing good according to their religion. And they all called it love.
It can be very hard, once religion has labeled something as good and/or necessary, for people to see it for what it is. People who recognize cruelty and evil for what it is – even when it bears the label of “godly” and the promise of heaven – are to be commended. Even when they can’t find their own way to disentangling that cruelty and evil from the name of God. If only more religious people had such clarity of sight, the church and the world would be a much better place.
Many people have been taught that a good Christian is one who shows enormous devotion to their beliefs. But that’s just idolotry. A good Christian is one who shows enormous devotion to God. In fact, since God is love, a good human – which good Christians ought to be living, breathing models of – is one who is devoted to love. While many in the church are fixated on beliefs, others who are leaving the church – sometimes angrily – are doing so because they realize that beliefs are no substitute for love.
Now, certainly, I’m not saying that all atheists are loving. Nor am I saying that everyone who leaves the church does so because their devotion to love becomes stronger than their devotion to the beliefs they’ve been taught.
But my experience has been that some of the kindess, most gentle, generous, loving people I’ve encountered have been atheists. And if you listen to those who are leaving the church, their reasons can often be summed up in the cry of “not good enough!” The church, the God they’ve been presented and the theology they’ve been taught have all fallen short of being worthy of devotion. And they are right. Only love is worthy of any of our devotion.
Many of Christianity’s most ardent critics unwittingly understand God better and are more devoted to him than a lot of Christians. And they are willing to stand for their better vision against rejection, threats of hell and condemnation. That’s devotion.
The reality is that on the day they die, there will be atheists who meet Love face-to-face and say, “that was you? Please forgive me, I didn’t recognize you when I saw you before.” And there will be believers who meet Love for the first time and say, “who are you? What do you want with me?”
So yeah, I don’t have a problem saying to some people, “I’d rather you be an atheist.”
Love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. ~ 1 John 4:7-8