How to Make Atheists
Posted November 21, 2009on:
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?