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An Open Letter to Christians, Both Born and Reborn: An Informal Essay

ISSUE:  Summer 1996

You have been, over the centuries, quite vocal. And much of this verbalizing has been articulate, even eloquent. We atheists, on the other hand, have been relatively taciturn and deficient in eloquence. We’ve produced no parables or psalms, no cantatas, and nothing even approaching the B Minor Mass. The French revolutionary effort to write a Mass to Pure Reason was in show-biz terms a turkey. It is with considerable humility, then, that I address you. I can only hope that you will listen with the same grudging tolerance you once gave those scruffy prophets who wandered in from the wilderness with their somewhat alien messages.

If we are to talk at all, it’s important that we disassociate ourselves from some of our despicable forebears. We’ll never get anywhere if we start castigating each other for having ancestors who were beastly. The good name of atheists, for example, has been tarnished by the behavior of the late Soviet Union. Let me reassure you that although we were fellow travelers, we were never father and son. It is true that they did trumpet the cause of atheism to an embarrassing degree, but this was largely a political act. It was a handy club with which to bash a rather well established church which itself had had a distinguished record of bashing dissidents. It was not atheism that slaughtered tens of thousands and imprisoned millions; it was a passion for power.

You too have been unfairly held accountable for brutal acts. I’m sorry to remind you, but the priestly goons of the Inquisition called themselves Christian. Although we have done our best to neutralize the memory of that prolonged madness by presenting it in cartoon form (“No, no, not the rack” Road Runner cries Monty Python’s festooned Inquisition police, the fact remains that it was nasty business. There is nothing funny about stretching the human body until limbs are torn from the torso. And while I do want to be even-handed about this, I must add that the horror continued six times longer than did the USSR. But who’s counting? My point is that one can read the entire New Testament three times over and not find a single ideological justification for the sadistic treatment of men and women. Those were political, not religious acts.

This is not to say that we should ignore these nightmare portions of human history. No individual has an unblemished genealogy. Every advanced and civilized country has had its period of madness in which enslavement of others became a holy quest: Germans over Europe, Belgians over the Congo, Brits over India, the U.S. over both its native population and its African guests. But name-calling accusations don’t lead to understanding. We should agree from the outset that atheism is not a Commie plot any more than was the Inquisition inspired by the teachings of Jesus.

So much for the past. We are both also burdened by more contemporary embarrassments. Every family has its eccentrics, but none of us should be tarred for having an uncle that raves or an aunt that hears heavenly choirs day and night.

One of the more graceless characteristics of militant atheists is the way they shout. Bereft of poetic sensitivity or an ear for music, they fall back on prose; and lacking an appreciation for a simple English sentence, they resort to litigation. Some of my best friends are vociferous members of the ACLU, but. . . . There is an odd family resemblance between those who loudly insist that one minute of silent meditation at the beginning of the class day will lead to a religious takeover of our society and those who claim with equal fervor that only a traditionally phrased prayer spoken out loud (with dissenters standing mutely in the hall) will save the next generation from immorality and the fires of hell.

I’m afraid you too have your shouters. I hear them on the airways thundering about the horrors of sin and damnation, though I remember precious little about those gloomy topics in the book which they revere above all others. I cannot address them any more than I can deal with those who write books like The Bible Exposed simply because I don’t think they have the time to listen. But surely there is a moderate majority among both believers and nonbelievers who, while withholding understandable feelings of distaste, are willing to exchange views with some measure of grace.

If so, we are now ready to talk with some civility about matters of faith. Our own faith is relatively simple. We simply do not believe in God or gods. Don’t get us mixed up with those who talk about God as Love, or God as Nature, or God as “Something.” Or the “Don’t-know” folks. They’re called agnostics, and although they are widely assumed to be our cousins, they are in fact an embarrassment. Among ourselves we call them Cotton-Candy Theologians. Frankly, we feel more at home with a resolute Roman Catholic or a Baptist. Like them, we don’t hedge our bets.

Must I at this point enumerate once again my reasons for believing absolutely in a universe without God? I am periodically asked to do this by my Christian friends, but as I get older I tire of reciting my catechism. I find I am less energized by debate as blood sport than I was in my 20’s. I prefer a shared exploration to the elusive goal of winning. But to assure you that an atheist’s convictions need not be either mindless or heartless, let me at least introduce you our trinity of arguments: First, logically, there is the First-Cause argument: “If God exists, who created Him or Her?” Collaterally, if He or She has existed forever, isn’t it more likely that the universe has? Second, there is the Chosen-people argument: “If God truly loves those who are faithful and obedient, why has He or She refused over the centuries to identify which is the true course?” If the object is to let us learn on our own, a quick look at history might suggest even to a mortal that this pedagogical approach has proved to be less than perfect, and surely divine imperfection is an oxymoron. Finally and most devastatingly, there is the Apparent Indifference argument: “What kind of God could possibly watch His or Her own son being tortured for hours without intervening, and how could this same creature passively witness century after century the mutilation of children in time of war?” How, indeed, would we judge a human father or mother who acted in this manner? We find it simply beyond belief.

These are harsh questions, but they are not intended to startle or unsettle. They are not presented with a smirk. Indeed, I have used capital letters for your deity with the same sense of decorum with which I remove my hat in your church. I am also quite aware that each assertion of belief has its counter ploy. These arguments and their counters are so old they have taken on the form of chessmen to be moved across an ancient board.

It’s a game without winners, and if one plays long enough, one will eventually offend. I have done my share of giving offense and am not proud of it. It is with embarrassment that I recall suggesting that there is no sharp line between the man who believes his mind is being controlled by someone in the apartment upstairs and the individual who is convinced that there is a God up yonder who actually listens to prayer. Conversely, a devout and dear Christian friend shocked me as deeply by defending the apparently God-sanctioned Holocaust with the astonishing assertion, “Well, they had to die some time, didn’t they?” That’s what I mean when I describe arguments of faith as blood sports.

If we can set aside the question of why as risky to friendships and ultimately futile, we can turn to the more profitable question of how. For some reason many Christians tend to think that life without God must be lonely at best and morally anarchistic at worst. Others are drawn to denial: “Oh but deep down you must believe”—as if living without God must be as miraculous as walking on water.

If you are one of these doubters, let me assure you that there are millions of atheists in this world living decent lives, raising children, contributing to their community, and doing their best to make human existence more humane, more rewarding than it tends to be when left to predators. These atheists celebrate the wonder of birth and the beauty of purity on Christmas just as many Jews do, they ritualize their marriages in a variety of ways, and they honor their dead with ceremonies that give dignity to the human experience. Other than the fact that they may mow their lawns on Sunday morning, they are almost indistinguishable from God-fearing Christians.

Indeed, it is the very invisibility of atheists that sometimes makes Christians nervous. Perhaps it seems strange to some that we don’t gather on some prescribed unholy day, don’t sing hymns to reason, and wouldn’t dream of filling a football stadium to preach nonbelief to fellow nonbelievers. Some view us as a potential threat akin to freemasonry and homosexuality. It is perhaps for this reason that Christians spend a great deal of time and money trying to convince us that we are wrong. This strikes many of us as puzzling. One might imagine that deep faith would be its own reward and would eliminate altogether what to some of us seems like a rather frenzied effort to swell the ranks. Though we are sometimes tempted to go into the undeveloped areas of Africa and South America with the cry, “For God’s sake go back to believing what you used to,” this remains only a fantasy. We do not send our children out with cups, soliciting funds for the reestablishment of indigenous beliefs. We share with Jews the notion that truth is an absolute and cannot be made more true by the addition of converts.

Similarly, we are not altogether clear why Christians spend so much energy trying to undo the work of their fellow believers. Roman Catholics seem bent on saving Bible-reading folks from the perils of Protestantism, and Protestants seem to think that paganism would be a notch better than bowing to Rome. This is, of course, none of our business, but it does illustrate how difficult it is to understand each other even in this enlightened century.

To be fair, I should point out that the life of a committed Atheist is not without its challenges. Like Jews, we are not entirely at ease with the national preoccupation with Christmas. We buy presents, decorate trees, even sing carols. But we are also aware that buried down under the unseemly orgy of commercialism there is a religious significance for some that is not at all ours. There is a slight sense of trespassing. We may tell our children the Christ story, but it is with the same spirit that we read stories about Zeus, Hera, and Thor. What makes Greek and Norse mythology less troublesome is that there are no ancient Greek or Norse neighbors next door. Our children don’t come home to report that Suzie’s family has a shrine to Athena and why don’t we? It would be far easier if all myths were on the same footing, but this, we realize, is too much to ask—at least in this century.

Although it is a bit uncharitable, some Christians take satisfaction in the fact that occasionally our children lose the faith of their upbringing and convert. It can happen at any stage, but adolescence seems to be the most dangerous period. If an atheist couple has three children, the chances are that one will rebel by finding God. He is, after all, in the air, and one cannot protect one’s children from everything that’s going about. I am familiar with this because I myself was one of those who rejected the teaching of my childhood and became a dedicated Christian for a period of three years. I did, however, make a perfect recovery, and perhaps it provided me with certain beneficial antibodies. It certainly prepared me for parenthood in which predictably one of my three did the same.

As loving parents, we try to stay in touch with our wayward children, keeping lines of communication open, being nonjudgmental. But of course one always hopes that it is just a stage as it was for me. To some degree, rebellion is a natural part of leaving the nest. But before Christians see this as an inherent weakness of atheism, they should check their own batting average. I don’t have statistical evidence, but my guess is that we are fairly close. What we as parents share is that quiet sense of disappointment and loss.

In spite of similarities, there are fundamental differences. Christians really do believe in God. There’s no getting around it. They believe that He or She is a guiding force and not just a metaphor. They believe that this superior being is fundamentally good, not cruel, and encourages prayer, occasionally responding in some positive way. The litmus paper test for Christians is this simple question: if humans in their blind stupidity manage to annihilate themselves, will your God still exist? Christians of faith say “Yes” without hesitation. For them, that’s the bottom line. The God-is-love folks and low Unitarians, on the other hand, start clearing their throats, talking evasively about the value of metaphors, the wonder of symbols. This is their choice, but they recline in a morally squishy dell between Christian faith on the one hand and atheism on the other. Dante knew what to do with them. What helps to define both Christians and atheists is that they know what they are about when it comes to matters of faith.

I address this epistle, then, to that large group of Christians who believe that God is fact, not fancy, that compassion is of a higher order than hatred, and that identification with fellow humans is superior to disdain. Dogma and ritual among the faithful vary, but these three items surely constitute the bottom line for Christians. Atheists like myself agree on two out of three. We share with believers the knowledge that achieving these goals is not always easy for us mortals, but that when we do, we enter what is best described as a state of grace.

Many Christians will find my concern for a state of grace at least perplexing and possibly presumptuous. It may seem to some like a brazen theft from that great storehouse of Christian terms. Such fears are understandable in view of recent pilfering. All Saints’ Day, for example, was once a meaningful tribute to those models of righteous behavior, both real and fictional. But the whole concept was purloined, inaccurately renamed Halloween, and turned over to the makers of candy and plastic masks. Or take redemption, for centuries an integral portion of religious faith and universally accepted as the province of the church. Yet with brazen disregard to sanctity, supermarkets stole it in the name of ecology. Salvation is now as close as the local redemption center. Standards have slipped so far that there may be some for whom grace is nothing more than the extension of deadlines offered by gracious bill collectors. No wonder the beleaguered faithful guard their remaining verbal treasures fearfully like Irish monks threatened by wave after wave of pagans.

First, to calm troubled spirits, let me remind the faithful that the three graces preceded Christ’s birth by centuries. The term was in the public domain even then. Second, our adoption of ecclesiastical terms is surely no sin if we use them reverently. I too am offended by the collectors of filthy cans and bottles calling themselves “redemption centers,” but when a well-meaning atheist describes what a state of grace means to him or her, the borrowing is more like those Christian architects who recycled portions of mosques to construct their own temples.

For those few Christians whose memory may be vague on this point, grace from a religious point of view is the spirit of God operating vividly in humans. It is a state of existing at least for a short time in God’s favor. It is a sense of decency, of propriety, of harmony with the spirit of God. I know this from my own short period of Christian faith. I know when I have achieved it, and I know equally well when I have failed.

How does a Christian know when she or he has achieved a state of grace? For Roman Catholics, it is closely tied to confession. For most Protestant sects, it is aided by intense prayer. But those who have not at least stepped into Christian fellowship as short-term guests often misunderstand these two traditions. Contrary to the cynical assumptions of many non-Catholics, a priest’s words of admonition are not in themselves a free ticket to absolution and a state of grace. Nor are believing Protestants morally cleansed simply by dropping to their knees and muttering obsequious phrases about Jesus. These ritual acts may help in the process, but spiritual purity is never achieved simply by some mechanical act. The insincere parishioner ends up just as spiritually polluted as before. Perhaps worse. Only the individual knows for sure whether he or she has achieved harmony with God.

How does an atheist achieve a state of grace? -For some it may require acts of penance—random acts of kindness and generosity. For others it may require meditation—periods of withdrawal from the madding crowd, a time for healing and redirection. Others may need to rectify their life style in some significant way. As with the practicing Christian, cynical acts won’t cut the ice. The drug dealer who finances school lunches is still a destroyer of fellow humans and far from a state of grace. The financier who has lived off the backs of the poor does not buy grace by establishing a nationally recognized art museum.

What is the test? The astonishing fact is that the test is the same for the believer and the nonbeliever. The Catholic cannot run to his or her priest and ask, “Have I achieved a state of grace?” Nor can Protestants receive meaningful confirmation from their ministers. Nor can the atheist knock on his neighbor’s door and ask “How am I doing?” The test in each case is inner, secret, and profoundly personal.

What does it feel like? I am no expert, being no saint, but the word that comes to mind first is harmony. Whether this is described as harmony with one’s God or with nature or with fellow humans, it feels the same. You know it when you feel it. Equally important, you know for sure when you have fallen from grace. You feel ugly, unlovable, coarse, mean spirited. Worse, you may be plagued with feelings of jealousy and hatred. The furies include fantasies of revenge. Sadly, some people spend their entire lives without experiencing so much as a moment in a state of grace. They often do terrible damage to others, and in the absence of divine justice, they may never be punished. One is too easily tempted to wish them agony and pain here or in an afterlife, but such negative longings are spiritual pollutants. They are so permeated with hatred that they become impediments to one’s own chance of achieving a state of grace. Lord knows such feelings are tempting, however. If we weren’t attracted to the thrill of hatred almost as much as to the pleasure of compassion, we’d never be able to conduct a decent war.

No one, religious or otherwise, believes that the good are consistently rewarded in this life or that the bad will be tormented before they die. And the belief in heaven and hell as literal bits of real estate, gated retirement communities without exits, is fading even among the faithful. Those pictures of eternal flames and streets of gold that were seared into the imaginations of our ancestors have now reached the level of cartoons and jokes. Most Christians will agree with atheists that unfairness in life will probably not be rectified after death. As Job found out the hard way, it really doesn’t matter whether the cards we receive are dealt by an inexplicable God or by cold-blooded chance; the best any of us can do is play the game with grace.

Where do we learn about this elusive concept of grace? There are those who argue that only through the church can such mysteries be taught. But if you read much of James Joyce or Graham Greene, you will wonder whether love of humanity springs from the dank chambers of the cathedral or the dusky confine of the confessional booth. Lord knows that dedicated priests and nuns as well as sincere ministers have worked hard to create in their flocks an inner sense of ethics, but the sad fact is that properly christened Catholics and Protestants do on occasion murder, rape, and destroy the psychic balance of children in terrible ways. The record for the baptized is probably no better than it is for those who have never been touched by holy water.

By and large, loving and supportive humans spring from loving and supportive families. For these fortunate individuals, a state of grace is achieved on and off in the course of their lives whether they can recite the ten commandments in proper sequence or not. For these fortunate individuals, yearning for a state of-grace becomes built in, as fundamental as the need for food and fresh air; conversely, falling from grace is associated with shame, guilt, and chagrin whether they go to confession or not.

Those not introduced to the notion of compassion become exclusionary. The world is seen in tribal terms. “We” are the only ones with acceptable values. “We” are the only ones who use God’s English correctly. “We” deserve a tax break because “they” lack a work ethic. “They” are destroying the neighborhood. “They” are having kids out of wedlock. “They” are killing each other and threatening our little compound. “They” are howling at the gates, so for God’s sake build higher fences.

Fortunately, there are compassionate people in every culture who are formed by their upbringing and identified in adulthood by their actions. They are the ones who in the course of their infancy and childhood have received the gift of caring. As adults they bond not just with their family or tribe or race or cast or sex or nation but with humans generally. Such individuals exist as minorities among Catholics, Protestants, Jews, atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and every other form of belief and nonbelief. For them, a death in Bosnia is the death of a cousin; brutality in Nazi Germany was performed not by “them” but “us”—humans. A rapist in the evening news is not “that other element” but a portion of our graceless selves grown monstrously.

I have been careful to avoid the phrase “family of man.” The term is not just sexist, it is a too-easy cliche of politicians, preachers, and, yes, even essayists in their careless moments. But when one is truly in a state of grace, the sense of blood kinship with humanity is almost devastatingly beautiful.

What counts is the degree to which one honors the human race, rejoicing in acts of compassion and agonizing over acts of cruelty. This fellowship is catholic in its original sense. There are, to paraphrase an enduring metaphor, many rooms in this mansion.


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