Authenticity, Christianity and Atheism

imagesCAX5FCAVChris Stedman, a “former Christian” and now an atheist and Chaplain at the Harvard humanist community wrote the following in an article posted on Q, Ideas for the Common Good. [Click here to read the full article]

“Recently, I participated in an interfaith dialogue with someone who responded to my bristling at evangelizing by saying:
But, Chris, it strikes me that the problem there is with the definition of evangelization. If we think of that word as a synonym of hectoring and finger wagging and a holier than thou attitude, I completely agree with you. But what if evangelization is itself a mutually enriching dialogue in which the promises of the Church (that is, of Christ) are put forward as proposals, as encounters, not as edicts? Then we are taking about the manner, not the fact, of evangelization, aren’t we?

He is absolutely right. This is a distinction that I am hearing articulated more and more often by members of religious communities that see evangelizing as central to their faith—and it is one I welcome with gratitude. Maintaining a general orientation toward encountering diversity with inquiry and empathy, rather than lecturing at it, can facilitate a more productive dialogue. That will require listening from both sides and recognizing  we have much to learn from one another. For starters, perhaps we can learn how to talk to, and listen to, one another in a more constructive and friendly manner.

The divide between Christians and atheists is deep. As an atheist, I’m dedicated to bridging that divide—to working with other atheists, Christians, and people of all different beliefs and backgrounds on building a more cooperative world. We have a lot of work to do. I’m excited by the growth of the interfaith movement—but still, in many ways, we have our work cut out for us. My hope is that these tips can help foster better dialogue between Christians and atheists and that, together, we can work to see a world in which people are able to have honest, challenging, and loving conversations across lines of difference.”

Facing one’s opponent

Let me preface my comments by saying that I believe in conversation and not convincing when it comes to discussions between Christians and non-Christians, including atheists. That is one of Chris Stedman’s 6 major points: “Don’t try to “win” the argument.” But, as a matter of fact, there is a chasm between Christian and Atheist beliefs that cannot be bridged. Every person ultimately chooses to be on one one side of the chasm or the other; there is no middle ground. For a Christian, the conversation with an atheist is a matter of life or death. For the Atheist, it’s a matter of getting along and finding common ground so that together we can advance human good. I’m not opposed to that goal; in fact if you read my blog, you’ll know I support finding ways to work with everyone of good will for the common good of humanity.  But I also feel that many Christians don’t make clear distinctions about the consequences of belief and non-belief.

Be clear about this: Christians and Atheists (and atheistic humanists for that matter) are opponents in the realm of belief. If we say that God came to save us from our fate, atheists say that there is no fate to be saved from. They say that we humans are the creators and masters of our fate and that’s that. Of course, that quickly leads to the question of what happens after death. Atheists say nothing happens after death; we say eternal life happens after death. That’s why Christians see conversations with Atheists as a matter of life and death. God gave every person complete freedom to determine their personal eternal future. So, if a brother or sister says that nothing exists after death, that is the future that they may be creating for themself. [I say ‘may’ because we can’t understand the extent of God’s mercy.] Atheists need to understand that if we Christians become excited and argue it’s because we fear for their future. Not a pretty sight in many cases but certainly an honest concern.

To me the question boils down to authenticity. At our deepest level of awareness, we know whether we are being authentic or not. Both Charles Taylor and Bernard Lonergan have written about this, and see authenticity as a fundamental drive of being human. “Authenticity for Taylor and Lonergan is the experience of a profound transfiguration in one’s being and doing. ‘It is a transformation of our stance towards the world and self, rather than simply the registering of external reality.’” [1] Seen in this way, Atheists take the position that any transformation we might experience in life will be solely our own doing, and will arise out of human understanding of external reality, period. But they have put a boundary around reality and excluded God! The question is, are they making an authentic choice? Whether they are or not is beyond any other person’s knowledge — or power to change. “As for inauthenticity, no amount of dialogue can change those who are irresponsible, unreasonable, inattentive, and obtuse.” [2] So, I can agree with Chris Stedman when he says “Don’t try to “win” the argument.”

So, what can we Christians do? Only this. Understand that when we pray “Thy kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer, we are petitioning God to send the power of his kingdom, which is the Holy Spirit, into the situations of our life — including conversations with Atheists or other non-believers. We are literally helpless until God does that. We can train ourselves, pray for people and do everything we might imagine would ‘convert’ some person — but we must let God be God. In the depths of the human soul is where God encounters each person and each person, if they pay attention, knows authentically when something is moving or stirring inside them. That ‘still small voice’ is what we all respond to, believers and non-believers alike. As Chris Stedman also points out in his article, Christians must not get in God’s way.  “For starters, perhaps we can learn how to talk to, and listen to, one another in a more constructive and friendly manner.”

Read my next post “Authenticity and Transformation”

[1]Braman, Brian J. (2012-05-23). Meaning and Authenticity: Bernard Lonergan and Charles Taylor on the Drama of Authentic Human Existence (Lonergan Studies) (Kindle Locations 2233-2235). University of Toronto Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Braham, Ibid.



2 Replies to “Authenticity, Christianity and Atheism”

  1. There’s 2 points I wanted to comment on: atheism as a belief and authenticity. Atheism is not a belief, it is a non-belief. Its very premise is the support of there not being a God. Which leads me to the second point, which is the support of atheism, or my point, the non-support. Atheism is not authentic. It has no support structure, no history of actions that support a value proposition for being an atheist, except in the non-belief of a God. The whole notion of religion is centered on the morality of man in relationship with a Supreme Being as its fundamental idea. Atheism is the antithesis of this. Yet they now wish to believe there is a morality to being an atheist that has nothing to do with any value proposition set up by a Christ or other religious beliefs. All religions support a moral compass as a central point. Atheism has no such history of a moral compass. Yet they wish to make themselves today an entity that has as its central core value moral goodness.

    i continue to believe that the very arguments Atheists set up have nothing to do with moral goodness, but only trying to promote their opportunity to become a recognizable political entity, only to bring in those who have weak minds and are easily re-directed.

    Sorry, I’m not one of those. I’ll continue to believe in people like Pope Francis and his moral values.

    1. Let me make a distinction between Atheism and Atheists when it comes to authenticity. My understanding of the term authenticity is that it applies to a deep sense inside an individual that what they believe is true. Therefore, you wouldn’t say Atheism (or Christianity for that matter) is authentic. A particular Atheist or Christian might sense and believe that they are being authentic when they claim their belief is true.

      My other point in the blog is that no one knows whether another person is being authentic except that person and God. Therefore we Christians can’t judge the authenticity of individual Atheists (even though we might disagree profoundly with what they hold as true). Furthermore, in order to approach them and converse with them — and perhaps open their minds to the reality of God — we shouldn’t judge them at all. Just as they ought not judge us.

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