Vinoth Ramachandra

How to Make Atheists

Posted on: November 21, 2009

I spoke at a Veritas Forum event in Columbia University, New York, a couple of nights ago. My dialogue partner, a distinguished professor of philosophy at Columbia and from an Indian Muslim background, made some scathing criticisms of the media for focusing so much on Islamist and Christian “extremists” as if they were representative of their respective faith communities. He made some equally scathing remarks about the Dawkinses and Dennets of this world whose militant atheism, in contrast to the irenic atheism of this professor, undermined the respectful tolerance of a liberal democracy.

I found myself gently defending the Dawkinses and Dennets of this world. Of course their arguments are often silly, directed at “straw men”. I have criticized them in my published writings. But the more time I spend in the US, the greater my sympathy for their strident attacks on Christians. If I grew up in the US I would probably be a hard-core atheist myself. Switch on “Christian television” and you would have to conclude that evangelical preachers were all con-men and Christians were the most gullible people on earth, easily parted from their money no less than their brains.

Popular Christian books, films and music reflect a narrow-minded subculture. It seems that being a ‘Bible-believing” Christian is to be politically right-wing, anti-evolutionary, anti-feminist and pro-Zionist. Further, the US is most divided and fragmented on a Sunday morning. I spoke at the University of Texas, Austin, two weeks ago, and was shocked to discover that there were over sixty different Christian groups on the campus, divided along ethnic, denominational and para-church lines. Clearly Christians cannot get on with each other; and reconciliation is not part of the good News of Jesus Christ in this corner of the world. But it is these “gospels” that are marketed globally because this is where the money is. Where would a “seeker” go to find authentic Christianity?

I have been privileged to meet and to be befriended by authentic Christians from all walks of life in the USA. I also know that there are outstanding American Christian thinkers and scholars, but that is only because I am a voracious reader. But so much excellent theology by Americans (and Europeans) is written for their fellow theologians, neither for the general reading public nor for the secular academy.

Travelling home on the subway, I got into a conversation with a Tibetan man, a professing atheist, who had been at the Columbia talk. He asked me what the phrase “dying to the old man” meant in Paul’s writings. I explained that it was not the Buddhist extinguishing of the (illusory) self, but rather re-directing one’s life away from self-centred ambition towards the love of Christ and the pursuit of his kingdom of justice and peace. Earlier that morning, my wife and I had lunched with an Indian student, a professing Christian. He is finishing his engineering studies at a prestigious local university. He told us that he wants to work with the US military because they were doing “cutting-edge” research. I asked him if he had ever thought of using his knowledge to re-direct technology towards global justice issues and the needs of the poor back in India or elsewhere. He looked at me with incomprehension. The thought had never entered his mind. Although brought up in India, and by godly parents, he never knew that more Indians had access to cable TV than to basic sanitation.

So a long and interesting day of human encounters. And I found myself wondering as I got into bed: who of these people I had met today was closest to the kingdom of God?

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13 Responses to "How to Make Atheists"

But so much excellent theology by Americans (and Europeans) is written for their fellow theologians, neither for the general reading public nor for the secular academy.

I’m an American, so I can honestly say that American theologians don’t have a choice. The American populace has ZERO interest in reading theologians.

David Bentley Hart’s book Atheist Delusions I think summarizes the American context nicely; namely, there is some general moral sense left in American but the American culture can’t remember where or on what basis this general moral sense rests. Thus, he asks the question: How long will it last?

I am not sure I agree with you. Religious books are still bestsellers in the US. But what I had in mind were not so much books about Christianity or theology, but books that engage both popular subjects as well as sophisticated academic topics in a richly theological way. Publishing with a secular university press (as Hart’s last book was) helps get it into the hands of secular academics. In my experience the latter are rarely exposed to the best Christian writing. They think they know what Christianity is and have dismissed it as naive and irrelevant. Meeting these people where they are, in their respective disciplines, does excite their curiosity. Who is willing to do this?

Thanks for the reply.

But what I had in mind were not so much books about Christianity or theology, but books that engage both popular subjects as well as sophisticated academic topics in a richly theological way. Publishing with a secular university press (as Hart’s last book was) helps get it into the hands of secular academics. In my experience the latter are rarely exposed to the best Christian writing. They think they know what Christianity is and have dismissed it as naive and irrelevant. Meeting these people where they are, in their respective disciplines, does excite their curiosity. Who is willing to do this?

Tim Keller, I think. As you probably know, his three latest books, The Reason For God, The Prodigal God, and Counterfeit Gods, were all published by Penguin, a (so-called) secular publisher. The New York Times has written articles about him and Redeemer (his church), so obviously he is being read by a much broader audience than just the Evangelical subculture in America.

Francis Schaeffer warned against condensing Christianity into a mere subculture of the larger American culture. Unfortunately, his warning was not considered.

[...] The brilliant Vinoth Ramachandra makes this point in his latest blog post, How to Make Atheists. [...]

Hi Vinoth

you said….what I had in mind were not so much books about Christianity or theology, but books that engage both popular subjects as well as sophisticated academic topics in a richly theological way….

I can see the same need for this kind of Christian literature, or Christian mind in Latin America. We are so happy with our church growth, we end up missing very important aspects of our calling.

Big hug
Ziel

[...] Ramachandra offers a characteristically challenging and provocative reflection on some encounters he’s had in the [...]

Yes, the thought torments, sometimes – where do people go for authentic Christianity? The Christian world (I am included) often falls so short.

The deepest sadness of evangelical Indian Christians – our own disconnect from our own world. May God help us.

Hi, Dr. Vinoth,

I’m one of your driver in your last visit to Indonesia :), and continue reading your blog ever since :)

I could say that I’m agree with you … I could say that often we disappoint with our fellow Christians (as I’m also often disappoint with myself). We often wonder how can Christianity be so far of true Christianity while we tried to be one. And also wonder how we could reach that true Christianity.

But having said that, I also feel a lot of symphathy and pity with many of fellow Christians who I know struggle to be a true Christian but fail due to many many many many many reasons (reasons that sometimes they don’t even realize/understand*). Our Lord God teach a truly very beautiful wonderful and redeeming values … and it’s really not easy to put them into reality (we failed and we failed and we failed and sometimes we don’t know how to change that*).

So, aside of only feeling disappoint, I also took another point of view/approach:

1) a truly thankful and admiration to the grace of our God that still love us and give His grace despite how poor we are, how disappointing we are, how far we fall short of what God want us to be … amazing God, amazing grace.

2) taking a path where I try to find out the core/the root/the deepest causes of our problems/what stop us in building life as taught by our God … and then help myself and my fellow Christians with that finding*.

*one of the finding I have of what hinder us or make us difficult to build life as taught by our God is because we don’t view life as taught by God. Our view of life (worldview) is often more mirroring worldly/secular worldview than christian worldview, even among those who have been a leader in Christian groups. That’s what make us sometimes choose stupid, worldly, ungodly approach to many “spiritual/religious” things we think is reflecting christianity. That’s also often makes us use worldly/secular indicator (popularity, money, success, etc) to value/evaluate our life (subconsciously). That’s one cause aside many others and really not easy to align our worldview with God worldview.

Thank you for the writing. I now convinced more that spending our energy to build life that demonstrate godly life is of number one importance compared to any other agenda in Christianity.

Some quotations I collected on this issue:

“The single greatest obstacle to the impact of the gospel has not been its inability to provide answers, but the failure on our part to live it out.”
~ Ravi Zacharias

“We are far too concerned about proclamation of the Gospel when we haven’t even figured out the demonstration of the Gospel.
When we read or hear the words of Christ, they should do something to us. They should change our very core being.”
~ David, http://www.redletterbelievers.blogspot.com:

“The greatest source of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips but deny Him by their lifestyles. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”
~ DC Talk

“If Christians would really live according to the teachings of Christ, as found in the Bible, all of India would be Christian today.”
~ Mahatma Gandhi, 1869-1948, Indian Political, Spiritual Leader

For many people, they focus on others. The faith of others, the actions of others, the hypicrosy of others. I have a son who wont go into a church or pray to God because of a wrong by a believer. I tell him, “what does that single injustice have to do with YOUR faith.”

We all need to stand tall and take responsiblity for our own relationship and quit making excuses.

David
http://www.redletterbelievers.com

I often hear the phrase “this book touched me” or “His sermon touched me” and so I guess if a preacher becoming popular or a book becoming popular is directly proportional to the level of ones theological framework, and for the majority it’s – God took care of my problem for the day or my immediate problems He solved. So when my immediate problems are taken care off, why bother about Theology and all that stuff!! That’s mind-boggling. So dear Good theologians don’t lose heart. Wide is the way …….

I like your Last Statement ” Who is nearest to the Kingdom of God ?” . It is sad to think that in such an affluent society , more and more people are ” Not Thinking Spiritually ” . There are more and more churches , concerts, books , programs , yet they are getting further and further from The Truth in Christ ” , having lest power to bring about change . This brings me to a sad chapter in the book of Rev 3:vs 20. Jesus said ” Behold I stand at the Door and Knock” and The Holy Spirit cries ” He that hath an Ear ,Let him Hear what the Spirit says to the Churches.

Love this blog and totally agree with you. The same issues are in New Zealand too where faith is often more emotional than intellectual (and I believe both are important) and where I often understand my atheist friends when I hear self-help preaching, self serving theology and sensationalist claims and actions. I long for a day where our faith is as deep as it is wide and would challenge those that choose to look at what churches do.

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