What can Christians learn from atheists? Amber Bowen tackled this question in a recent interview with Steve Noble about the history of ideas.
Follow this link to listen to the interview, or you can read highlights from the conversation below:
What can we learn from the atheists’ perspective about us?
“Sometimes it’s good for us to actually listen to the atheists…. We hear, ‘You’re atheist, I’m going to plug my ears and I’m going to attack.’ So we’re always on the defensive, and we’re never on the listening side.
“One of the big problems we have — especially in this day and age — [is that] we’re really, really obsessed with forming our opinions about things. (‘Am I on this side, or am I on this side? Do I have this view, or do I have this view?’) And we’re really, really set on figuring out the rightness of the issues that we don’t ever take time to stop and examine our own hearts. We’re busier forming our opinions than we are at looking at our hearts.
“So… I’m going to throw out some big names: Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, Camus, Derrida — you guys should be shivering right now. These are hardcore atheists. These are the bad guys, right, in terms of Christian worldview… But in reality, I think that these guys function for us like the prophets of the Old Testament, or even like Jesus to the Pharisees, or like Paul saying to the churches, ‘Your works are dead. Why are you having Jesus plus all your works?’ or like James who criticizes cheap grace or the practice of favoritism in the church. These people are calling out things, and they can see things that we can’t because we’re within it. So we benefit from actually stopping our defense, listening to them and examining our hearts.
“Not all atheists are the same. There are really two big types of atheists. One is the evidentialist atheist, like a Bertrand Russell, who says there is not enough evidence for [him] to believe in God. [They come] very much from a place of skepticism.
“The more modern guys, like Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Camus… are more in the line of suspicion. They’re not skeptics, they’re suspicious. They look at religion (and society and man in general) and they say, ‘We’re messed up. We’re really messed up. We’ve got mommy issues. We’ve got power issues. We’ve got structural issues. We’re messed up.’ Nobody has a stronger understanding of original sin than these guys do. Then they say, ‘Look at our religious structures. That is just covering up all of our messed-upness.’
“When Marx says ‘religion is the opium of the masses,’ what he means by that is we’re popping Tylenol to get down our fever and we’re not actually dealing with the fact that we have the flu. We’re treating our symptoms and we’re not looking at the disease. What looks like piety on the outside is just masking, covering up self-interest. It’s covering up the desire for fame and glory.
“And don’t we see that in the church today? You could write the best books with the strongest content and be the most orthodox and most theologically correct — and do it from a position of a desire for fame, glory and power. And they would blow the whistle on that.
“You could have perfect… views on ethics, and how Christians should live their lives, and how they should dialogue to combat the false beliefs in society — and yet you’re doing it from a sense of deceptive devotion. They’re going to call that out. They’re going to say, ‘You’re just spraying the masses with opium and not actually allowing them to get to what’s at the root,’ which we would maybe put a theological terminology on that, the root being sin….
“Freud is going to look at the way that we look at nature versus nurture and these desires that we actually have that we’re… suppressing up in the name of looking good for society. (How often do we do that in church? Let’s be honest.)
“Marx has a very good point. He says, ‘Do you want to know the health of a structure — whether it’s a church, an institution, a political system? In order for you to understand the health of that, you need to look at the little guy, you don’t need to look at the big guy.’ You need to look at the proletariat, not the bourgeoisie. So you don’t want to ask the big guy how the structure is — if it’s good, or if she thinks it’s healthy, whatever it might be. You want to go the little guy and say, ‘What’s your experience?’ And then you can actually know the system.
“So these [atheists] are essentially saying our orthodoxy is great, but our orthopraxy is what validates it…. It’s the same thing that Jesus says to the Pharisees who have really great categories and boxes [about] issues of righteousness…. And he says, ‘You guys have missed the point entirely.’
“So we [should] stop combatting when we hear those big bad atheistic names and allow them to actually talk to us.
“Now that doesn’t mean that we believe everything they say. It doesn’t even mean we believe half of what they say. But in order to enter into dialogue with somebody, you actually have to listen…. And there has to be the ability to self-examine before we speak.”