Religion for Atheists?

Dinner with Christians in New Zealand

The world has lost its bearings. Not that ideologies are lacking, to give directions: only that they lead nowhere. People are going round in circles in the cage of their planet, because they have forgotten that they can look up to the sky… Because all we want is to live, it has become impossible for us to live. Just look around you!

-Eugene Ionesco, founder of the theater of the absurd, 1972

I recently read Alain de Botton WSJ op-ed article entitled “Religion for Everyone.”

In it he suggests importing the Christian love (agape) feast into secular society to remedy the threatened and waning sense of community apparent in postmodern life.

This raises two questions: How did religion once enhance the spirit of community? More practically, can secular society ever recover that spirit without returning to the theological principles that were entwined with it? I, for one, believe that it is possible to reclaim our sense of community—and that we can do so, moreover, without having to build upon a religious foundation.

-Alain de Botton

But IS it possible to untwine the theological principles from a true spirit of community?

Is it possible to dissect the community of faith, remove the theological principles, and then expect the pulse to remain? Is not this community the expression of an inner, animating reality?

The condition of the gatherings of the community of believers does not merely derive from a common belief, interest, or cause but from their nature. The church is the household of the faith (Gal 6:10). God has called us into the fellowship of His Son (1 Cor 1:9). This fellowship can not be borrowed or reproduced, not even with express permission.

As David Ho rightly points out, there is no lack of community today in the world. But in a sense these are pseudo-communities, pointers to the true community which all men seek, the church, where community and reality converge.

Besides, haven’t more ambitious ideas been postulated and carried out, ideas which either marginalized or outright suppressed the religious needs of men, that collapsed in utter failure?

What is needed is not new systems or suggestions, but an intrinsic change in man himself. Hence, two near ubiquitous Greek words in the New Testament- zoe and agape.

These two words provide an entirely new horizon to humanity. But they derive from God alone.

An agape feast is a mutual sharing, relishing, and consuming of the life of God expressed as the love of God. It’s not simple camaraderie or moving past our differences. And it’s certainly not agreeing to disagree. You just can’t replicate this without God.

Without God, atheism leads to nihilism. This isn’t to say that atheists are categorically unmoral, but that they have no ultimate support, reason, value, or meaning to the reality they are experiencing. To true atheism, reality itself, not just community, is threatened.

Most atheists are simply living off the “leftovers” from the West’s theistic cultural tradition and that if an atheist decided to live solely for himself or herself at the expense of others there is nothing in his or her worldview that would forbid or even discourage it.

- Roger E. Olson

All this is true of course only if atheism is quite serious and not an intellectual pose, snobbish caprice or thoughtless superficiality.

-Hans Kung

An agape restaurant without God is a farce and an impossibility.

The Christian experience that is exemplified in love feasts transcends social experience. It is of another class. I’m reminded of what someone once said, “The Bible is not one book of many on a shelf. It is deserving of its own shelf.”

Without the reality within, any attempt at replicating this peculiar (Exo. 19:5, KJV) community will be ineffectual.

It’s like dogs discussing amongst themselves how to incorporate flight into their community based on spotting a bird in the sky. It may sound convincing and elicit hearty yapping but it just won’t work.

They need a different life.

Even if the dogs could manage to fly, they are still dogs. God doesn’t ask dogs to fly. He asks dogs to become birds.

12 thoughts on “Religion for Atheists?

  1. Obviously, you and I are approaching this issue from very different angles, but it was cool to see this post articulating precisely what I imagined would be the response of a consistently Christian reader to de Botton’s argument: that he’s missing the whole point. Although I’m an atheist myself, I have to say I agree. He is only a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal.

    That said, I would point out that the sense of an endangered community, in the United States at least, is much stronger within evangelical communities than it is for secular ones.

    • I think it depends on how you measure sense of community and to which evangelical communities you’re referring. Obviously, the condition of churches can change for various reasons, but the Body of Christ is larger than individual churches. On a personal note, the churches I have met with have thrived in this area. I have also noticed several denominational groups reconsidering the book of Acts for patterns on how to meet and live together. I think this is a factor of vitality in those groups.

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  3. As a biologist, I’d like to contribute (forgive me for the detailed response, but I feel that it is necessary to chronicle the logic involved in such a topic.)

    The sense of community may be found a many species on the earth (ex. dolphins, dogs, birds, etc). Within these communities there is outwardly a grouping or ‘oneness’ among the members, yet there is always a struggle or competition for power. Whether it is the alpha male or alpha female, the ANIMAL INSTINCT is to gain power or rank within the community to increase survival.

    So what makes human beings biologically and psychologically different than these animals?

    Within every man this is a desire to be a part of something bigger than himself. Every man comes to a decision at some point in his life where he decides to continue to participate in a certain community, join another community, or just live without a community. Psychologically speaking, one may find many cases showing that solitary confinement or extreme anti-social behavior (i.e. choosing to live with no community) can be detrimental to the psyche of a man. How can one explain the feeling of loneliness? This sense is deeper than merely being around people or not. As Alexis de Tocqueville said concerning his trip to America in the 1700’s:
    “The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. AS FOR THE REST OF HIS FELLOW CITIZENS, HE IS CLOSE TO THEM, BUT HE DOES NOT SEE THEM; HE TOUCHES THEM, BUT HE DOES NOT FEEL THEM; HE EXISTS ONLY IN HIMSELF AND FOR HIMSELF ALONE; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.”

    We see that it is possible to be physically around people yet be as far away from them as to not even recognizing their existence (ex. the cashier at the grocery store- IF you even talk to them, have you ever genuinely asked and cared how they are doing?). There is a desire to live for oneself and the only reason that one would participate in a community is to gain some kind of benefit to increase one’s chances of survival.

    So if humans were just mere animals seeking out the survival of his own genetic code, why does he bother with the question WHY do I exist? And to take this a step further, WHY do others exist? This awareness or self-actualization of not only ourselves, but of others, makes us unique. But WHY?

    The Bible gives the answer. The Bible answers the question WHY. I am not here to discuss whether it was really written by God or by man, but rather I am merely presenting to what the function of the Bible is. Many of my colleagues unfortunately like to use science to counter the Bible’s contents to “utterly refute” the existence of God. Unfortunately, many of them fail to realize that science only addresses the question of HOW ‘things’ exist (the mechanism of how ‘things’ exist and the functions of which issues in a particular result). I am not saying that macro-evolution is real or not, but I am saying even if it was the mechanism through which God created us, it still does not address the question WHY He created us? From the side of ‘WHY’ we look at the origin and purpose of the goal, not necessarily at the mechanism to reach it. (This begins to show us the beautiful harmony between science and the Bible).

    The Bible shows us that this “agape” love and this “zoe” life (not “bios” life= physical, nor “psuche” life= psychological) are of a different source all together with a particular goal. “Zoe” life, or the spiritual eternal life of God, and “agape” love are originated in God. To try to separate God from His own life and love are mathematically impossible considering these are two of the very components that make up His existence. So what God did was pass through a process to make this life and love accessible to mankind, but this was not without a purpose. Using this life and love He created, and is creating, a “community” of people that not only have an outward oneness (physical), nor merely similar thoughts/beliefs (psychological), but they also have the same life (spiritual). This is life instinctively moves to take a man out of his own preoccupations, own motivations, and long to be “built up” into a “community” in a way that is more real, more genuine, and deeper than any human organization or social agreement.

    So to address the nature of this blog, I agree that it is logically impossible (according to the Bible and some basic scientific education) to separate the agape love found in the Christian faith, from its source, God, and to apply it in an environment where God is rejected or absent.

    • Thanks Matt for the extended comment. Interesting comparison between animal and human communities.

      Two passages in the Bible contrast the sense of community in the world and in the church:

      “The heart knows its own bitterness, and a stranger does not share in its joy.” ~Prov. 14:10

      “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” ~Rom. 12:15

      I am reminded of the poignant recent examples of Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson. Who knew their bitterness or shared in their joy? Why do so many people at the top of their career seem so alone? On the other hand, what is experienced in the Body of Christ transcends any social experience. The love, peace, joy, and fellowship among people with radically different backgrounds and life experiences is astounding to me.

  4. I live in a small town and it has a very strong sense of community, even though not many of the people in the town are Christians.

    But I think the strength of Christian community is that it is all pervasive – the Christian community is present all over the world.

    Friends of ours dropped in on their way home from a five week long road trip and told a story of a couple they’d met house-boating on the Murray River here in Australia. They got to talking and were invited to lunch at their place. It turns out these people were Christians like my friends, and immediately there were common interests, and a common set of shared life experiences which they could share. Each felt almost instantly at ease with the other and that they ‘belonged’.

    God has provided an instant family, an instant place where we belong, in the community of Christian believers. It means that when Christians travel or move to new places in the world it is easy to become part of the new community they find themselves in – all they have to do is get involved in a local church.

    • That’s awesome to hear Peter. I have experienced this so many times!

      In the Body of Christ, four dividing distinctions among humanity are transcended- race, religion, culture, and social class. “Where there cannont be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all and in all.” ~ Col. 3:11

  5. A strong standing that challenges the ultimate pursuit of atheism. I think it’s true that without the spirit of something, that thing is not that something anymore.

    The challenge is to acknowledge our innermost longing for the true agape feast-community. On one hand, agape is God as love. On the other hand, we as human beings crave for agape – the selfless, unconditional, consuming love that can actually preserve and nourish humanity itself.

    The symptoms of craving after such brightening, enlivening, preserving, nourishing, protecting, healing, liberating community should prompt us to be true to ourselves that “It’s human to need God.”

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