Recently I was listening to a debate between Dinesh D’Souza and Dan Barker on whether or not religion is the problem with the world. Barker made several comments that I wanted to respond to, not because they were profound or compelling to answer the main question of the debate, but because they so clearly epitomized the problem with many of the New Atheists and their acolytes. While listening to Barker’s comments I had somewhat of an epiphany. Like the person who finally sees the 3-D image within the autostereogram after staring at it for hours, I finally noticed something that had been right there in front of me all along. I know that I had stumbled over it in the past and possibly had even commented on it but for some reason it never stuck as a unified idea until now. To many of you this may just be old news but for me it was revelatory. So what was it?
It is that the New Atheists, at their core, can only imagine religion as paganism. The New Atheists who converted from Christianity to this particular expression of atheism with its overt scientism, disdain for religion and evangelical need to “convert” the heathen believer and bring them into the fold of the Brights, were only loosely Christian but were very much pagans in their beliefs.
I began asking a while back about what denominations the more vocal atheistic apostates had deconverted from. The answer was somewhat unanimous. It was almost always from very fundamentalistic, anti-intellectual, woodenly literal, far right wing extremist, legalistic and often pentecostal churches or denominations. I’m sure there are some out there who are the exception to the rule, but I actually never had someone say that they came from a mainline church or a reformed church. I am not saying that this is because those churches do not have their share of problems or that they never create atheists. But I was never given the PCA, PCUSA, OPC, or the Missouri Synod as a for instance.
While I was astute enough to know to ask about the kind of church that they deconverted from and I knew the theological and Biblical problems with such legalistic and fundamentalistic churchs, I still never seemed to put two and two together. That is, until I heard Dan Barker. In the debate with D’Souza, Barker made many problematic statements from the garden variety bald assertions with no substantive argument as support or the assumption of moral realism to historical errors about the history of science and religion, even to obvious philosophical errors regarding what he called the “dead horse” of the Ontological Argument (an argument having quite a field day since Plantinga’s revival of it). Yet two comments stood out to me the most because they shone the spot light on what Barker thinks Christianity is. The first has to do with why Christians do good deeds, and the other has to do with the self-righteousness of so called Christians.
Barker says, “Millions of good people in this planet, on this continent live happy, moral, productive, meaningful, purposeful lives without believing in this God. They do good things not because they’re afraid of hell or want to get into heaven, but because they care for humanity.”
Normally on a point like this I would go for the problem of trying to ground moral, meaning or purpose in a universe without God and that Barker equivocates between the existence of God and our subjective belief in God. However what surprised me was more that Barker seems to think that Christians only do good things out of fear of hell or a desire to go to heaven. That is, that Christians are only good out of self-interest. This is, however, not Christianity but Paganism. It is the belief that we only do good things to placate the fickle gods – to keep use from falling under their ire and to acquire rain for our crops. We do good deeds and avoid evil to earn blessing and avoid curses from the capricious divine.
Paul says in Romans 5:6-11:
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Notice that Paul does not say that we earned our salvation by doing good things or that we avoid God’s wrath by avoiding evil. In fact, we are scarcely even mentioned in this passage outside of the fact that we are the utter recipient of everything Christ had done for us. It was while we are sinners that we are saved. It is because of the blood of Jesus that we avoid the wrath to come.
Paul says elsewhere in Ephesians 2:8-10, “8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Why do we do good works? It is patently not to earn our salvation. Paul expressly says that it is “not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” I wonder if Barker ever preached on this during his tenure as a pastor. How did he preach it to his congregation? Did he tell them that they must work very, very hard to avoid hell and earn heaven?
This leads us then to the second statement that Barker made. He said,
The Bible… is not a book that any self respecting individual should dare to be seen carrying under their arm. And I used to preach that…an in-group of the “true believers” vs. those that are outside. Those of you who are true believers probably feel that don’t you? When you’re in your church or your congregation you feel this specialness don’t you? This warmth? You know loving each other, but there are the outsiders out there, there’s those secular humanists, ooooooo. They’re threatening our country, and you have this feeling that we are called and special in some way and we have a truth and I used to preach that and I used to feel that.
Paganism through and through. If that is the kind of religion that Barker is objecting to, the kind of self-righteous, judgmental, us vs. them religion, then Barker is not alone. Jesus’ only condemning remarks were not toward the prostitutes, the tax collectors – the group classically defined as “the sinners.” His scorn was directed toward the self-righteousness of the religious elites, the ones who saw the sinners as the untouchables, who would walk on the other side of the street to avoid contact with them, who thought that they had it all figured out and had kept the whole law and that that somehow made them better, more righteous, or more worthy of God.
Yet this is what Barker admits he used to preach. This is what he used to feel - superior because of his “righteousness.” He thought that being called by God meant that he was better. That it divides humanity between the superior and inferior. I can imagine the kind of church he built. Fundamentalistic based on a wooden literal reading of the Bible, chalk full of self-righteous “believers” who would scoff when a “real” sinner walked through those doors. Sure they would sing hymns and shed big crocodile tears about how they got angry at someone at work and plead for God to forgive them. But see a prostitute, or a heavily addicted drug addict, or a “secular humanist” haunt the church sanctuary and it would be all leers for the rest of the service; people muttering “what is he doing here. Doesn’t he know that this is a church?”
The great irony of this is that, as the old cliché goes, the church is not to be a resort for the saved but a hospital for the sinners! If you are at a church where sinners are not welcomed and God is not praised for bringing them to hear about how Jesus loves them regardless of their past and that no sin is so grotesque as to make them “unworthy” to believe and be saved, then you are at a pagan church – your church is showing you how to placate the angry sky deity and work to earn its favor.
It seems that the New Atheists are railing against paganism. And should it surprise us? The Bible resoundingly rejects paganism as well. It denies works based salvation. It condemns self-righteousness along with murder and theft. Do Barker and his ilk realize that he is not rejecting Christ but Zeus? Not Christianity but Zoroastrianism?