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Losing My Religion: Dialogue with an Ex-Christian [Podcast]

Picture: Steve Rhodes. Neon sculpture: Joe Rees

In my previous post I shared some thoughts on how to converse across the Christian-atheist divide, following my dialogue with ex-Christian Rebekah Bennetch on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? program. You can now listen to and download the full interview below.

The conversation between me, Rebekah and Unbelievable? host Justin Brierley covered a range of subjects – from Rebekah’s reasons for de-converting, to hope, meaning, altruism and the aforementioned issue of civil discussion. Like all good conversations, I walked away with much to ponder. Here are a few of the reflections I scribbled down after recording the interview.

1. Reciprocity and Love

Any conversation on theism-verses-atheism inevitably touches on the topic of morality. Why be good? Why do good to others? If there is no God, why live a righteous and just life? Each side can tend to throw simple accusations at the other (ie. Atheists: ‘Christians do good only to avoid hell’; Christians: ‘Atheists can’t do anything good without God’), so I raise the flag again for respectful dialogue on the issue.

As you’ll hear in the interview, Rebekah gives her reason for doing good: reciprocity. Basically put, reciprocity is the notion of mutual exchange or fair return. It is the basis of many social interactions:

  • Business: where a fair exchange of goods and services is made between parties.
  • Politics: where, for instance, one country helps another to maintain positive relations, alliances or other benefits.
  • Justice: where a person or group gets what they deserve, either in negative terms (ie. perpetrators of crime) or positive (restitution for the victims of crime).
  • Friendship: anyone who has been in a relationship where one member only took while the other always gave knows how important mutuality is to a flourishing friendship.
  • Gratitude: where the good and right thing to do upon receiving a gift is to offer thanks in return.

Reciprocity is a good thing. We couldn’t function without it. It is, however, limited.

Simply put, what happens when there is no return, no payment, no mutual benefit? What happens when the flame has died in the marriage? When the friend, for whatever reason, simply can’t reciprocate? When a poor country will never have anything to offer a superpower? What do we do with those who can give little back to us or society – the poor, the intellectually disabled, the mentally ill? Reciprocity may be ‘fair’ but fairness is not always liberating. Reciprocity is also the basis of capital punishment and the payback rituals of some indigenous communities. The eastern idea of karma takes the idea of reciprocity to a cosmic level, saying that past sins will have consequences for one’s reincarnated life. How many of us have thought we were receiving a gift only to discover we had to ‘pay’ for it somehow later (even if just in terms of forever remembering the gift was given)? How many parents expect their adult children to obey their wishes out of a sense of ‘repayment’ for having reared them?

So, reciprocity has its place, but it’s not enough. The Bible teaches reciprocity (in, for example, the Old Testament guidelines for doing business, or the ‘reap what you sow’ principle). But it teaches more. Reciprocity must be tempered with mercy (Micah 6:8). Sometimes we must be released from debts we can’t pay.

The Christian faith goes a step further, though. Beyond justice (getting what we deserve), mercy (not getting the negative consequences we deserve), it teaches agapé. This is the Greek word used to describe undeserved, sacrificial, no-strings-attached, self-giving love.

  • ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). The word ‘agapé’ is used here in the Greek biblical texts. In his very nature, God is self-giving.
  • God gives good things to both the deserving and the ‘undeserving’ (Matthew 5:44-45)
  • The Good Samaritan story talks about giving without expecting a return (Luke 10:25-37)
  • Jesus described real love as laying down one’s life for others (John 15:12-13), and what can we gain after such an act?

Jesus followed through on his teaching. He died a cruel death at humanity’s hands, loving even his persecutors to the end (Luke 23:34). His love went beyond any reciprocity:

Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. (Romans 5:7-8)

Reciprocity has its place. But I need agapé. With his strength, I want to give it too. Beyond business deals and mutual friendship, I want to give without requiring anything in return. 

2. Atheism and Worldview

In the radio discussion Rebekah makes an interesting point – that atheism itself is not a worldview. While there is some debate about this, I do understand her point. Atheism answers one question only – Is there a God? To find answers to the purpose of our lives or how we should live, we need to search elsewhere. In the interview Rebekah mentions feminism and humanism as being sources of identity and meaning for her. On her blog she has mentioned Buddhism and (somewhat surprisingly, which she acknowledges) the writings of New Age author Eckhart Tolle as inspiration too.

A worldview is a basic collection of beliefs about the world and how to live in it. It addresses questions like origins (Where did we come from?), meaning (Why are we here?), identity (Who am I?), morality (How should we live?) and destiny (Where will we end up?). These are basic religious questions, common to all. In fact, I agree with various sociologists of religion who say that in a secularised society worldviews act as religions. Humanism, naturalism, pantheism, postmodernism and other worldviews are used to help us understand life’s meaning (or, in the case of nihilism, the lack of it), find a set of beliefs to live by, and even have some rituals to enact (like cinema going – but more on that in a future post).

Taking this a step further, with the demise of explicit religious faith in the western world, social researchers have noted that we are now attempting to make religions out of all manner of things.

In his fascinating book Modes of Faith, Princeton scholar Theodore Ziolkowski surveys the demise of faith in prominent artists and writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, noting how they then turned to five things as ‘surrogates’ for God: art, Indian pilgrimages, socialism/Marxism, national myths (like Nazism) and the dream of a future utopia. Ziolkowski concludes that all such surrogates failed.

In Love: A History, British philosopher Simon May traces the idea of love through the centuries, noting how it was transformed by Christianity (ie. agapé), then concludes that the modern world has replaced the biblical phrase ‘God is love’ with ‘love is God’. May, who is no fan of Christianity, suggests this has led us into problematic, overly-romantic and unrealistic waters.

In What Makes Us Tick, Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay says ‘Whether it’s a supernatural being, a mysterious life-force… science, money, wisdom, information, ritual, power or love, most of us assign the status of ‘god’ to something in our lives.’

These are all thoughts from secular writers.

So:

  1. We all need a worldview to help us live.
  2. Religious questions lie at the heart of all human beings.
  3. Humans assign the status of ‘god’ to something in their lives.

My question to all this is, Why?

This leads to my conviction that humans have a God-void deep within them – an inner chamber in the soul meant to be occupied by him. We were meant to live in relationship to God and have our longings for meaning, destiny and identity fulfilled through him. Can I ‘prove’ this God-void within us exists? Of course not (although this inner ’emptiness’ has been noted by poets and thinkers throughout history). But it fits, especially when we note the capacity Christian faith has to change a person when they open their heart to this God (Nicky Cruz is a good example). I’ll be exploring all this further in More Than This. 

3. The Character of Jesus

As Rebekah was once a Christian, I was interested to know her thoughts on Jesus. In particular, I wanted to know what faults she’d found in him or how he’d ‘disappointed’ her. Her answer is intriguing. Rebekah says that when she really looked into Jesus’ life she wasn’t convinced his motives were always altruistic or that he was a worthy person to imitate. She cites Jesus’ teaching on hell as problematic for her, plus his teaching his followers to ‘hate’ their families and his calling a Canaanite woman a ‘dog’.

I was quite surprised at this answer. I’ll leave the topic of hell aside for the moment as it would need a post of its own to do it justice (and my particular concern here is Jesus’ character. He was either right or wrong about hell’s existence, so I’m not sure his teaching on it can directly equate to bad character. One could question his character if he lied about hell, but how one could prove that I’m not sure). The two other references Rebekah mentions are worth clarifying.

Jesus often used hyperbole to make a serious point. He talked about ‘gouging out’ one’s eye and ‘cutting off’ one’s hand if it caused one to sin (Matthew 5:29-30). As a blind man or maimed woman can still sin, clearly he wasn’t speaking literally but figuratively, teaching, in effect, to radically deal with sin in our lives.

The same is true of Jesus’ teaching on ‘hating’ one’s family (Luke 14:25-27). Jesus called for total allegiance to his teaching (rabbis of the day made similar demands of their disciples). In effect he was saying, ‘I come first – even before your family.’ If he really was Israel’s awaited Messiah such a request would make sense, even for the Jews’ own well-being (in following the Anointed One they would be led out of captivity). And the claim was certainly justified if he was God incarnate. Besides all this, Jesus taught love for God, neighbor and even enemy (Matthew 22:37-40; 5:44); he loved children (Mark 10:13-16) and made sure his own mother was cared for (John 19:26,27). If he was a teacher of hate, he wasn’t very good at it.

And what about Jesus calling the Canaanite woman a ‘dog’ (Matthew 15:21-28)? (Rebekah and I incorrectly call her a ‘Samaritan’ in the interview.) She asks him for help and it sounds like he directs a racial slur towards her. And he probably does! Again, all is revealed in the context (I’ve written on this passage here). The Jews of the day often called Canaanites and other non-Jews ‘dogs’. Jesus was most likely throwing the taunt back at this Canaanite woman with a wink, saying, ‘You do know that I, as a Jew, shouldn’t help you, a “dog”, don’t you?’ To interpret Jesus here as being nasty misses the fact that he praised the woman and granted her request (verse 28), and did so for many other non-Jews (ie. Matthew 8:5-10; Luke 17:11-19). Jesus’ crossing of ethnic barriers was one of the reasons the religious authorities condemned him.

These can be tricky passages, for sure. But reading them in context, perhaps with the aid of a Bible commentary, can clear them up. What surprised me was that someone like Rebekah could go through two Bible Colleges and numerous churches and have concerns about Jesus’ character from such passages. This could reflect the quality of teaching she received within the faith, or it could reflect other books and teachers she’s consulted outside of it. Either way, I’d be interested to know where the ideas have come from.

Perhaps they’ve come from Dan Barker. Once a pentecostal pastor, Dan is today an atheist evangelist and founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Amongst other things, he has written a series of ‘nontracts’ (mimicking the little evangelistic pamphlets Christians have used in the past) denouncing Christianity. Dan has written one nontract called Why Jesus? in which he takes every difficult saying of Christ, removes it from its biblical, literary, cultural and historical context, collects all the eye-gouging, hand-lopping and family-hating statements together and says, ‘What a horrible person this Jesus was!’ Such teaching is anything but fair to the biblical record and resembles nothing of respectable scholarship.

There is a general consensus in the mainstream historical community about Jesus. As historian John Dickson puts it, that consensus is this: that a Galilean teacher named Jesus gained a reputation as a healer, showed scandalous openness to ‘sinners’, clashed with the elite in Jerusalem and was crucified by Pontius Pilate before being hailed by his first followers as the risen Messiah. Claims by some of the atheist writers (Dan Barker included) that Jesus may have never even existed draw on fringe voices outside of mainstream scholarship. Historians may debate the miraculous aspects of Jesus’ life and work, but his portrait as a radically inclusive healer hardly raises eyebrows over his character.

In fact, the more people truly imitate him the better characters they become. Doesn’t this say something about the man himself?

These are just a few of my thoughts after the ‘Losing My Religion’ discussion. If time allowed it I’d love to have explored other issues like fundamentalism (both Christian and atheist), the conflation of US conservative politics and Christianity (plenty to explore here!), the Holy Spirit (the Christian faith is not just about rational answers, which I believe it can offer, but empowerment), atheism’s historical contribution to society, and more. It was a good thing the show was only an hour!

Again, I thank Rebekah for being a respectful and interesting dialogue partner. I know she’s spurred me on to deeper thinking. I hope the same can be said of me.

Download the Unbelievable? interview here or listen below.

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Q: Your general thoughts are welcome. If you listened to the interview, what did you think?

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