We Christians get charged with believing things uncritically, not showing sufficient curiosity about other beliefs, or about how ours could be true. I’ve got the same sort of question for atheists.*
Thinking Christian commenter Benjamin Cain supposes that the God Christians worship is a “human-like,” “monstrous,” “psychopathic,” “jealous, irrational, sadistic tyrant,” waving the equivalent of a “magic wand.” That’s all found in just one single tour de force of a comment. He’s not alone; Richard Dawkins led the way in it in The God Delusion, and I’m sure others beat him to it, though not so famously.
Now, this isn’t merely a statement about God; it’s a statement about Christians. Either we are content to follow a God of that character, or perhaps we don’t realize our God is like that. Is there any other option? I can’t think of one. This is our god, if Cain is right, and we choose to follow him. Could there be any explanation for our behavior, other than we want a god like this, or else we don’t realize that’s the god we worship?
(I’m using the lower case for “god” here, since this really isn’t the God in whom we believe.)
Atheists often say that Christians would reject the Bible if we ever got around to reading it. That fits with the latter option, that we don’t know who our god really is. The former view shows up, perhaps, in the idea that we’re theocratic homophobic moral idiots.
Not Defending Christianity Here; Wondering About Atheists Instead
Neither of those viewpoints feels like much of an attack on Christianity, requiring some kind of defense. They’re so wide of the mark, there’s nothing to defend. It would be like medieval soldiers in Paris raising their shields when British archers were raising their bows toward Scotland.
Cain’s comments say almost nothing about Christianity, in other words. If there’s any message in there at all, it’s that we’ve done a horrible job of teaching the history of Christianity. I am quite sure many young people grow up in church, never knowing that ideas like Cain’s aren’t just theologically false, they’re historically impossible. I mean that in the strongest possible sense of “impossible;” and in terms anyone should be able to recognize, regardless of their beliefs about God. For (as I said) this isn’t just a theological error, it’s a historical one. In view of that, and in order to make a point an atheist should be able to assent to, my explanation here will have nothing to do with theology, and everything to do with history.
Have Christians Missed This “Truth” About God All These Years?
Let’s start with the latter idea first: That Christians follow this horrific god because we don’t realize that’s the kind of god he is. Atheists have it figured out; somehow we’ve missed it. If so, then we’ve missed it for centuries. We’ve missed it in all the hundreds of libraries’ worth of debate, dialogue, and discussion we’ve carried out on the Bible; for the history of Christian doctrine is a history of dispute over the texts and their meanings. We’ve missed it in the hundreds of commentaries we’ve written in every language. We missed it in the Marcionite dispute over including the Old Testament in our biblical canon. We’ve missed it in millions, no doubt, of sermons and homilies on the entire Bible.
Seems unlikely to me. Maybe Cain is right; but if so, then I have to wonder how he came to such a confident understanding of the truth, without displaying even a shred of visible curiosity how this could be so. How could Jerome have missed it when he translated the Bible into Latin? How could Augustine have missed it? Was he too intellectually dense? How about Aquinas? Galileo, who held to his belief in Scripture even when disputing a very small segment of its meaning? Kepler? Brahe? Berkeley? Newton? Faraday? Locke? … all the way to von Braun, Collins, Lennox, and more? Were none of these men smart enough to see what was there?
Are Christians Content With a God Like This?
No, that couldn’t possibly be the answer. Too many men and women, from ordinary thinkers to those who are widely recognized as geniuses for all the ages, have had too much opportunity to see it. Surely they didn’t all miss it. So it’s certain that Christians knew it was there (if indeed it was) long before Dawkins and Cain. So if this is the kind of god we follow, and if we know it is so, and if we’re following this god voluntarily, then apparently we’re content with following such a hugely despicable character.
Now, perhaps Cain doesn’t know this, but for Christians down through the centuries, to “follow” our God has meant to imitate his character. That was Mother Theresa’s stated life intention. It was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s too. Same with Joan of Arc. Florence Nightingale. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Clara Barton. William Booth. The converted John Newton. William Wilberforce. Francis of Assisi. St. Patrick. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. Maybe they missed the memo about what kind of god they followed? (Maybe they were idiots, in other words?)
Christians following this awful god were world leaders in expanding education, literacy, and medicine. Even before Julian’s famous complaint that the “impious Galileans” were caring for pagans during the plague, better than pagans were caring for their own, Christians have led the way in going outside their own cultural groups and helping others. Every Doctor Without Borders, every UNESCO program, is essentially following a trail first blazed by Christian missionaries. Still today, Christian humanitarian giving outstrips non-Christians’ giving, at least in the U.S.
Apparently we’re all doing a perfectly horrible job of following the petty, mean, horrific god we think we’re following.
Decency, Not Perfection
Now, I don’t mean to imply that Christians are perfect in following a way of self-sacrificial love. My point here isn’t that we’re perfect followers of the God we’ve been teaching all these centuries. My point is that if we’re supposedly following this other god Cain finds in the Bible, we’re doing it very, very badly.
I gather that many atheists dislike Christians’ standards on marriage and morality, and they fear we’re just in it for the theocracy. Even that, though, isn’t bad enough to qualify us as following this god Cain thinks we follow. We’re not perfect, but we’re not (on the whole) monstrous sadistic psychopathic tyrants.
Again, here’s what I find odd about Cain’s position (and Dawkins’): They don’t display the slightest curiosity as to how Christians could knowingly follow such an unremittingly terrible, awful god, yet still do some reasonably decent things in the world. Maybe Cain asks such questions somewhere in his oeuvre. Dawkins doesn’t.
Maybe There’s a Third Answer
If they had any curiosity at all, they’d approach the question differently. They’d say something like this: *“You Christians don’t seem to be a totally idiotic group, down through history at least. You haven’t been perfectly monstrous for all time, either. Even if you’ve held to some positions I find distasteful, still, you’ve done some real good in the world. I find that hard to understand, given what I see of this God you claim to worship in your Bible. Have you done any serious thinking on that? What have you concluded?”
Of course we’ve done serious thinking on it. Of course we’ve reached some serious conclusions. How is it, then, that atheists can think they can make such strong, final pronouncements about our God — so firmly convinced, it appears as if they’re sure no one has any contrary answer — based on their own quick, off-the-cuff or (frequently) cut-and-paste assessments? How can they possibly be so uninterested in so much of the world’s history? How can they be so content with knowing (or at least acting as if they know) so little?
There’s much in today’s cultural disputes that I understand, and much that I do not. This is the oddest mystery of them all. I’d be glad if someone could clear it up for me. And if any atheist actually wanted to know what Christians have thought on these matters, he or she would be most welcome to ask.
*Pardon the generalization “atheists.” I’m raising questions here about atheists I’ve encountered online and in print. Not all atheists would provoke these kinds of questions in the way Cain and Dawkins have done. I don’t claim to know how Cain would answer. When pressed on questions similar to these, Dawkins has resorted to “The Courtier’s Reply,” which is no better than not answering at all.