I’ve devoted the second full month of my “God Project” to exploring atheism. My main sources are the Reasonable Doubts podcast, Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion, and Atheism for Lent. Skeptics have many important things to add to the conversation about God, and I’ve already written about their most and least persuasive arguments against belief in God. But skeptics also have quite a lot of constructive criticism for religious people if we have ears to hear them. Sometimes it’s easier to see the problems if you’re on the outside looking in.
Blindness to Oppression
Karl Marx seems to have thought that religion is an illusion that helps oppressed people shoulder their burdens. If you’re a slave, treated as a piece of property and ordered around like an animal, then believing in some glorious post-mortem reward might help you endure your daily hardships. But in the meantime, if heaven is eternal and coming soon, why would you take the risk of rebelling against your master? Religion can both cover up our suffering and prevent us from addressing its root cause.
Marx’s solution was to give up on religion altogether. Later on, I’ll read James Cone’s God of the Oppressed, which deals with similar themes from the perspective of a black Christian liberation theologian. Faith must be careful to locate and resist systems of oppression in the material world, lest it fall into the easy, blind passivity that Marx identified.
Nietzsche seemed to have thought that Christianity ruins the lives of its adherents. By telling people that they’re sinful, praising weakness, shaming sexual desire, and prioritizing an immaterial afterlife over the here-and-now, Christian leaders essentially sentence the faithful to lives of guilt and misery. A life spent feeling guilty about essential human nature does not seem appealing, let alone healthy.
This is perhaps more relevant now than ever. As fewer and fewer of our non-Christian neighbors seem to think that they’re inherently depraved, the “Christian message” of get-out-of-hell-free cards becomes increasingly irrelevant. Praise God! Maybe we can move on to affirming life and learning to be who we truly are, as presumably both Nietzsche and the God who made us would want us to do. A threatening message of a vengeful God could never quite live up to its claim to be “good news,” anyway. Christians without perpetual guilt-complexes are freed up to participate with God in bringing the Kingdom of God into our personal lives and our world at large.
As far as I can tell, the most common atheist critique of religion has to do with social issues. Especially in America, religious people have always been, and continue to be, at the forefront of efforts to deny equal rights to people of color, women, and LGBTQ folks. The role of white Evangelicals in electing Donald Trump makes this painfully obvious. “Obedience to God” can so easily become an excuse to ignore the cries of our wounded neighbors, especially when we bunch up with other privileged believers and read ancient texts which are filled, as atheists are quick to point out, with patriarchy, homophobia, violence, and other dangerous ideas.
For Christians, I think the solution is to take Jesus seriously as we discern the will of God. Our track record would be much different if we really believed that God was revealed through a homeless enemy of the state who associated with the people on the margins. If we care about Jesus, then we must look for him in the vulnerable members of our society, because Jesus is continually present among us as “the least of these” (see Matthew 25:31 – 46). A truly Christian approach to social issues must include serious interaction with the people on the margins. Atheists are absolutely right: Christians must not only change our stance on social issues; we must also change how we form our opinions. Until we do so, Christians of social/political privilege will continue to get social issues wrong and thereby deny and crucify Jesus along with our neighbors.