So, as many people have noted, the Pope has set a pretty high bar for giving things up for Lent this year. I was planning on just cutting back on chocolates, but, seeing as I hate to be outdone, I have decided that I am going to try to give up God for Lent. That’s right, you heard me: I’m giving up God. Your move, your Holiness.
Ok, so in all honesty I’m not exactly giving up God. I’ve been a Christian for as long as I can remember and I doubt I could just drop the faith like that. And I’m not really kicking the Christian habits of praying, reading Scripture, going to church, and so on. Nor am I planning to go on a forty day bender or anything like that.
So what, then, am I doing?
You might consider it a form of intellectual and religious self-flagellation: Over the next seven weeks, rather than reading a little C.S. Lewis or Karl Barth or N.T. Wright with my morning coffee as I usually do, I will instead be reading through a few of the writings of some of Christianity’s sharpest and most militant critics: Voltaire, David Hume, Bertrand Russell, J.L. Mackie, Mark Twain, and Richard Dawkins to name a few.
Why? Why on earth would I do this?
That’s a great question. First off, let me just say that it’s not because I’m having a crisis of faith or anything like that. Quite the opposite, really. There have been few seasons in my life when I have felt more sure of the truth of the gospel and of God’s being at work in my life for my ultimate good. My faith is about as strong as it’s ever been. But, as Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and I would submit that–at least for someone in my line of work–the same must be said, mutatis mutandis, for the unexamined life of faith.
Immediately following His baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the howling wilderness for forty days to be “tested by Satan.” As we read in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, during that period Jesus wrestled with questions about whether He really was the Son of God and about what exactly that was supposed to mean. As people who have been called to follow this Jesus in mission to this pluralistic and increasingly secular world, I believe that it’s probably healthy, right, and important to intentionally subject ourselves to such harsh (indeed, in Jesus’ case, diabolical) interrogation every now and then. It’s part of trying to keep ourselves honest–not least, honest with ourselves.
The great 18th century Scottish philosopher and atheist David Hume gets at some of what I’m after here. In his book Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion Hume narrates a fictional debate over questions about the nature and existence of God. In Part I two interlocutors, Cleanthes and Philo, debate the character of religious knowledge. Philo is a religious skeptic, meaning not that he is skeptical about religion but rather that he is a religious person who is skeptical about practically everything else. The intrinsic limitations of human reason, the vast quantity of things we simply do not and perhaps cannot know, the manifest mysteriousness of even the natural world–to say nothing of the supernatural–he argues, all disqualify us from taking ourselves too seriously and should spur us to bow reverently before the God who knows and comprehends all mysteries.
Cleanthes disagrees and doubts both the sincerity and consistency of Philo’s skepticism. He notes that Philo’s doubts about human reasoning do not extend to, say, our mundane reasonings about the effects of gravity, as evidenced by the fact that Philo exits the conversation through the door and not through the third story window. Cleanthes notes, too, that Philo and others seem to have little problem accepting most of the assured results of the natural sciences such as the theories of Newton, Galileo and Copernicus (provided, of course, that said theories do not impinge upon their religious preconceptions). And finally Cleanthes notes that while such skeptics will, on the one hand, be sharply critical of any thesis that threatens their religion, they will also, on the other hand, “give often their assent, not only to the great truths of theism, and natural theology, but even to the most absurd tenets, which a traditional superstition has recommended to them.” In other words, they use their critical capacities to defend their religion, but not to honestly examine it. Cleanthes concludes,
These skeptics, therefore, are obliged, in every question, to consider each particular evidence apart, and proportion their assent to the precise degree of evidence, which occurs. This is their practice in all natural, mathematical, moral, and political science. And why not the same, I ask, in the theological and religious? Why must conclusions of this nature be alone rejected on the general presumption of the insufficiency of human reason, without any particular discussion of the evidence? Is not such an unequal conduct a plain proof of prejudice and passion? (my italics)
What Cleanthes has put his finger on is the phenomenon which modern psychologists call “confirmation bias”–our general tendency to favor claims and information that confirm our preconceptions. We all do it. There’s nothing particularly religious about confirmation bias. In fact, a lot of the most interesting research I’ve heard about confirmation bias has to do with our political, rather than our religious, predispositions (e.g., if you’re a liberal, you’re more likely to believe nasty things about conservatives and if you’re a conservative, you’re more likely to believe nasty things about liberals). And, of course, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: atheists have confirmation biases too.
But the fact that everyone displays such biases to some extent is not really an excuse to acquiesce in our own. Reading Hume on this point is a helpful reminder that, if I would love my atheist neighbor, I need to be honest with myself and with him or her. I need to be “quick to hear, slow to speak.”–to really try to hear the criticisms, sit with them, and, so far as I’m able, do my due diligence in responding to them. My atheist neighbor is not served by my knee-jerk reactionary apologetics, by my cavalier dismissals of their questions, or by my being easy on my own beliefs while being unfairly tough on theirs. Nor is God well served by a “faith” that is held in bad faith. Part of loving the one who is the Truth is disciplining oneself to be as evenhanded as one can.
And that’s why I am reading atheists for Lent: To learn to love God and neighbor better by learning the discipline of evenhandedness.
So over the next few weeks I will be posting reflections on what I am learning about God as I sojourn with the godless. Prayers appreciated.