I usually try not to get dragged into Web-based theological discussions, because they don’t seem to accomplish much and take time away from more enjoyable (and more productive) pursuits, but this week I slipped. I found myself embroiled in a thread on The Ornery American which linked to a video of Richard Dawkins on Bill Maher’s television show. I don’t have QuickTime on my computer, so I haven’t watched the video, but someone posted an excerpt from Dawkins’ book that I found interesting.
In his book, Dawkins printed a letter sent to Albert Einstein by the president of a New Jersey-based historical society. Dawkins wrote that the letter “damningly exposes the weakness of the religious mind,” and that, “Every sentence drips with intellectual and moral cowardice.” (Note that you can find all this on the thread on The Ornery American site. But keep in mind that while this post itself is longer than usual, since I quote so much of the thread, the entire thread spans 3 web pages now.)
I quoted that intellectual cowardice bit and wrote, “I reckon I’m not intellectual enough to understand this…”, and the fun began. A couple of people tried to explain it, but frankly I didn’t find their explanations illuminating. So I wrote back,
I think for many of the faithful it’s easier to understand our own struggles with the truth as we know it — through which we continue to believe despite the doubts that may nag us — than to understand the choice to utterly reject it.
We … would do well to remember that “many are called, but few are chosen.” Flannery O’Connor* summed up why: in many cases, “it’s harder to believe than not to.”
I’m only familiar with the Flannery O’Connor quote because it became a Steve Taylor song, but oh, did I get a response:
“Many are called but few are chosen”? If that don’t sound elitist I don’t know what does. I didn’t even get a call much less chosen.
And not just “harder” to believe, but “impossible” to believe. I’ve tried, and how anybody with a brain can “believe” is beyond me. And I know a lot of people that I consider to be very intelligent that claim to believe.
(And in a subsequent post, the same person wrote,)
It’s crazy but people think better of you for having blind unquestioning belief in a being that nobody has ever seen and for which there is not one shred of evidence exists!
Here’s my reply (“KE” and “OR” are shorthand for the handles of two Ornery members):
KE wrote, “for which there is not one shred of evidence.” I disagree. But just as two eyewitnesses can see the same event and report it differently, I do not expect KE or anyone else to draw the same conclusions I have. As for “many are called, but few are chosen” being elitist, I suppose it can be seen that way … though in practice it usually works out as “many are called, but few answer the call,” which seems to be shown in KE’s own experience: he may not feel as if he was called, but from my perspective if he wasn’t called he wouldn’t have tried to believe in anything, at anytime.
OR is right that the excellent observation that “The real test of atheism is ‘do you alter the way you live your life because you think a god exists'” applies equally as a test of whether those of us who profess to be Christians are indeed living the life. For some people, this lies at the root of why they choose not to believe: because believing would require altering the way they live their lives.
This raised the ire of yet another forum member, TomD, who wrote (emphasis in original), “You think so? Can you provide me an example of such a person — someone who would believe, but who doesn’t want to change his lifestyle and thus chooses not to?”
I wrote back,
… I think one example might be the rich young ruler with whom Jesus talked (q.v. Gospel of Mark, chapter 10). He asked Jesus what he had to do, Jesus told him, and he went away sad. Jesus asked him to make a drastic change to his lifestyle, and he wasn’t prepared to do so. (This may not be the best example since he ostensibly believed, but was not willing to put his belief into action.)
Jesus said it was hard to enter the kingdom of God. In many ways I think we make it harder than it has to be.
TomD then wrote, “I should have clarified: can you provide me examples of non-allegorical people?” So I replied,
… I disagree that the rich young ruler is allegorical.
That being said, I’ll offer a more contemporary example: me. When I was young, I rejected everything about the church. I agreed completely with an older friend who, in his first year of college, was asked, “Are you saved?” and responded, “No, I’ve got better things to do with my time.” Accepting what the church taught would have required me to moderate my behavior, and that wasn’t something I was willing to do. (For reference, I took my first drink at 13 and was well into weekend binges by 16.) For me, claiming to be an atheist (which I did, to my mom) was not an intellectual exercise — I don’t have that much intellect to exercise — but outright rebellion.
I am a different person now than I was then. Not perfect, but I think quite a bit better.
TomD wrote in again (emphasis in original), “I’m curious what your response to that question would have been.” So I answered,
My answer to, “Are you saved?” was, “No.” If pressed, I usually followed up with some variant of “And I don’t want to be” or “Leave me alone.”
If you are asking whether I would have said at the time that I was rejecting salvation because I refused to moderate my behavior, I probably wouldn’t have admitted it. I don’t recall ever being asked that question. But if pressed on the point, I imagine I would’ve tried to present any number of arguments to avoid admitting any personal moral shortcomings. Like a criminal faced with the consequences of his crimes, I would have pleaded not guilty even though I was.
Later, I pleaded guilty and threw myself on the mercy of the court. And as I said: I am a different person now than I was then.
That’s where I last left things. I suppose the conversation will continue, but we’ll see.
* Spelling corrected in this quote.