Atheism is rare and on the whole unpopular in the US, however this is changing. While Richard Dawkins and others have promoted atheism, a major factor is the behaviour of organised religion. Christianity contains less of Christ and more focus on itself, it’s structures and traditions rather than its mission. This feeds increasing disillusionment in and out of the church. As will be seen in Psalm 53 and Psalm 10, this is akin to a denial of the power and presence of God – atheism in practice if not name. Going through the motions, maintaining ethical habits is not true religion a form of rebellion and stubbornness – idolatry to use the biblical term. Believers need to know and live Jesus Christ and him crucified, nothing more, nothing less.
During the 1988 US presidential election campaign, the Republican candidate George Herbert Walker Bush was quoted as saying, “I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.” Antipathy towards atheism is hardly rare or uncommon in America. A recent University of Minnesota poll stated that Americans distrust atheists more than any other minority, while a 2007 Gallop poll revealed that 53% of US voters would not vote for a suitably qualified candidate for the presidency if that person was an atheist.
Despite this entrenched disregard for atheists in America, there does appear to be the barest flickering of change. In March 2007 a US congressman, Pete Stark became the first member of Congress to profess his or her atheism for the record. Given the large role religion has played in US history, this is hardly trivial. This after all is a country where at least three states – South Carolina, Texas and Tennessee – have constitutional articles excluding atheists from holding civil office, even if they cannot be enforced due to the 1st amendment separating church and state.
Atheism has also had something of a public relations win with the publication of The God Delusion, the latest book from Richard Dawkins, the noted British zoologist and advocate for atheism. Since its release, it has topped the best-seller lists and has been vigorously reviewed in the media, both print and electronic. While this may not be surprising in nations where Christianity is in marked decline, the fact that it is being discussed in a country as overtly Christian as America does hint at a beginning of a sense of disillusionment with organised religion in America.
One could justifiably ask at this point why this has taken so long. Organised religion has had a long and ignoble history. The 18th century British author Jonathan Swift once said that “we have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” Observing from a decidedly non-Christian vantage point, the noted Indian pacifist Mahatma Gandhi curtly observed “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
There is of course so much evidence for this marked disparity between the teachings of Christ and the documented behaviour of the Christian church since its founding, that searching for it is a trivial exercise. If however one is one is trying to go beyond a mere cataloguing of Christians behaving badly, and attempting to see what may be inspiring even the beginnings of a cultural shift in a country like America which proudly proclaims its Christian heritage in its films, its books, and most importantly on its money, then it is more useful to look at the more recent encounters between Evangelical Christianity and contemporary society. I will quote a few selected examples.
The first is what one can call the conversion of Christianity into a commodity. The early chapters of Acts show how the early church quickly became a community that looked after its weak and vulnerable – particularly important given that those people would no longer be looked after by the old community to which they once belonged. This sense of community has remained with the church ever since to some degree, but recently it has become perverted. In some parts of the US, one can live in Christian suburbs, exercise at Christian gymnasiums, invest in Christian superannuation funds and holiday at Christian theme camps. These Christians are of the world, but not in it.
Perhaps the most obvious example of the commodification of Christianity comes from the plague of Christian trinkets one can buy, ranging from badges to tee-shirts emblazoned with such ennobling Christian theme as “Jesus Christ: the first superhero”, “Get stoned like Paul” or “Onward Christian soldiers”, the last phrase being superimposed over a bizarre picture of a cross wearing an army helmet, holding a gun, marching off to fight. If that isn’t too hideous to contemplate, it is possible to purchase a Christian fish, with the words “One Nation Under God” around its rim, with an American flag in the centre, over which the word “Bush” – a past US president – has been emblazoned. The last one cogently demonstrates everything that can go wrong with a religion: conversion to a commodity, co-option by the Government, and debasement of a spiritual message to a platitude. Eugene Peterson, a Christian scholar and author of The Message Bible, among other books noted with horror this fusion of marketing and Christianity:
The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns–how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.
Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping, to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same. The marketing strategies of the fast-food franchise occupy the waking minds of these entrepreneurs; while asleep they dream of the kind of success that will get the attention of journalists.
The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades.
Disillusionment is easier to detect if one goes where it normally has been absent, which means within the church. On a more obvious level, it can be seen in the rise of the evangelical liberal – a clear reaction to the mindset which produced the “One Nation Under God” fish badge mentioned earlier. It does however go deeper than a reaction against the tendency of right-wing political parties to colonise Christianity for their own ends, and reflects a belief among some that the very structure of denominational Christianity is moribund. One former pastor who maintains a weblog entitled somewhat amusingly “Stupid Church People” noted: It is my belief that there is a completion of sorts occurring within the American church today. There is a discontentment, disillusionment and dissatisfaction with the current course of our churches. The cycle of “church growth seminars”, meeting “felt needs”, marketing the church and “supermarket” church programs is coming to a close.
The disillusionment among some Christians extends even further than with a seemingly out of date church structure and organisation. On a number of weblogs on which the various authors have posted entries on faith and doubt have been a number of letters from Christians who admit that they no longer believe in God, but because of family, or the need to belong to the church community continues to turn up, teach Sunday school and perform volunteer work for the church. It is a grim inversion of the story of Naaman, the captain of the Syrian army, who after being cured from leprosy, sought the advice of Elisha, because even though he now believed in the God of Israel, he would still be required to go with his king and worship in the house of the idol Rimmon.
We began by looking at the long-standing American hostility towards atheism, but noted that even in the most overtly Christian country on Earth there is some sense of unease about aspects of Christianity. This can be seen as a reaction to the mindless assault by fundamentalists on mainstream science, the trend over the past few decades for the Evangelical churches to become little more than the Republican party at prayer, as well as the trend to turn faith into a commodity that is marketed, branded and sold at franchised mega-churches. The irony here is that while the Evangelical church rails against a perceived atheist onslaught against Christianity, the behaviour of a not inconsiderable part of the church demonstrates that it is effectively atheistic in its behaviour.
One of course needs to explain what on the surface appears to be an absurdity, that is claiming the church is atheistic. In Psalm 53, the author begins with his famous remark, “The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” That this could be a reference to unbelief is doubtful, since atheism as we know it dates back 2500 years to ancient Greece. It has been argued that the phrase should actually read, “There is no Yahweh,” implying the fool does not believe that the God of Israel is supreme, rather than unbelief as we call it today. This may be so, but a more likely explanation can be found a little earlier in Psalm 10:4-6,11:
4In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, “God will not seek it out”; all their thoughts are, “There is no God.” 5Their ways prosper at all times; your judgments are on high, out of their sight; as for their foes, they scoff at them. 6 They think in their heart, “We shall not be moved; throughout all generations we shall not meet adversity.” 11They think in their heart, “God has forgotten, he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”
The marginal reference in v4 reads, “in his heart, he says there is no God,” which neatly answers to Psalm 53:1. Verse 11 shows what this form of atheism really means – the wicked acts as if there is no God. Rather than actively disbelieving in his existence, the wicked simply ignores God, and acts as if he is unable or unwilling to punish evil.
Of course no one would accuse even the most commercialised variant of Christianity of being synonymous with the wicked condemned in Psalm 10 (among other places). Where the parallels come is in observing how one can act and behave as if there is no God. One way in which this can be done is if the God – or belief system arising from such a God – owes more to human construction than to divine revelation. In short, one can become an effective atheist by worshipping a man-made religion or belief.
No less an authority than Jesus has pointed out the danger of turning the worship of God into a form of idolatry – not matter how unintentionally. Matthew 7:21-23 warns
21 Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ 23Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’
Herein is the danger: Christianity rages against atheism, yet in presiding over a church that venerates tacky commercialised excuses for faith, vaunts the prosperity gospel which puts a Christian spin on the 1980’s ethos “greed is good”, and actively drives out people who seek to reform ossified church power structures, it fails to realise that it has become like Sardis – it has a name, but it is dead.
If we define atheism not so much disbelief in God, but acting as if he will not intervene, or is of no consequence to daily life, then we can see two areas in which it is possible for Christians to become effectively no more than atheists, or at best Christian idolators. The first, as Psalms intimates is to act or live as if there is no God, while the second is to make the focus of one’s spiritual energies the preservation and maintenance of traditions, power structures instead of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The first one – living and acting as if there is no God – does not mean living like the archetypical evil-doer condemned in Psalms. The danger is far more subtle. Apart from a few hours each Sunday at the meeting, how God-centred are our lives? This has been the theme of not a few exhortations over the years, and I do not intend to stress it, for the point is clear. Unless God motivates our lives in every detail, then we are no better than the average modern unbeliever. After all, just about everyone lives a more or less morally upright life, which is no surprise given that across all religious traditions, including those like Buddhism which have no concept of a creator God and are effectively atheistic. Moral living does not make one a believer. It simply reflects an ethical core common to all people.
The second – mistaking the defence of church traditions for true religion – is by far the more dangerous way in which one can effectively cease to believe in the God of Israel, and worship a God of one’s own creation. Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopalian priest and critic of Christian excess noted in A Deadly Mix:
Jesus was not killed by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religion, which is always a deadly mix. Beware those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware those who cannot tell God’s will from their own. Temple police are always a bad sign.
There is a remark – possibly apocryphal – made by a Christian, who in response to trends in his denomination towards loosening church traditions exclaimed, “We cannot let the good ship Christianity go down.” Such a remark is telling, insofar as it shows one of the biggest Christian sins – confusing a denominational structure for the church, or mistaking the bricks and mortar for the bride of Christ.
One of the main themes of the OT is in exhorting the chosen race to turn from false gods, to put aside idols and worship the God of the covenant. This goes right back to Genesis, which was written not to tell Israel how God created the world, but to tell them that it was He who created it and more importantly sent the rain to grow food, not the Baals after which they constantly went a whoring. As we all know, eventually God’s patience ran out, and he sent his people into exile.
Outwardly at least, this cured some of the sin of idolatry. The tendency towards false worship however became more subtle. This is well noted in the book of Ezekiel, particularly the early chapters. Remember, at the time these chapters were written, Nebuchadnezzar had sent part of the land into captivity, and installed a puppet king on the throne of David. Idolatry still persisted in the nation, as Ezekiel 8 graphically indicates, despite this unambiguous sign of God’s displeasure and the consistent prophetic witness from others such as Jeremiah. Among those in captivity however would be those more inclined towards the God of Abraham.
It is debatable whether anyone in captivity actively worshipped idols. What is not in doubt is that a significant number of exiles did not trust God. In Ezekiel 14 one notes:
1Certain elders of Israel came to me and sat down before me. 2 And the word of the LORD came to me: 3 Mortal, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and placed their iniquity as a stumbling block before them; shall I let myself be consulted by them? 4 Therefore speak to them, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Any of those of the house of Israel who take their idols into their hearts and place their iniquity as a stumbling block before them, and yet come to the prophet—I the LORD will answer those who come with the multitude of their idols, 5 in order that I may take hold of the hearts of the house of Israel, all of whom are estranged from me through their idols.
It is probable that these elders outwardly were not idolaters, as chapters 8, 14 and 20 note they actively sought out Ezekiel’s counsel. If anything, that made their inward idolatry even worse – the unapologetic worshipper of false gods was at least consistent in his worship. Ezek 33:30-33 gives us valuable insight into what motivated this hypocritical behaviour by the elders:
30As for you, mortal, your people who talk together about you by the walls, and at the doors of the houses, say to one another, each to a neighbor, “Come and hear what the word is that comes from the LORD.” 31They come to you as people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear your words, but they will not obey them. For flattery is on their lips, but their heart is set on their gain. 32To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it. 33When this comes—and come it will!—then they shall know that a prophet has been among them.
In short, their religion was a species of entertainment, which resonates strongly with some of the excesses of Christianity today previously noted.
Even though the exile cured Israel of the disease of active idolatry, Ezekiel shows that it never truly went away, but became entrenched in the heart. Even though Ezek 8:12 describes the mindset of apostate Judah, utterly devoted to a veritable zoo of idols, it also shows another motivation for the idolatry of the heart practised by those in exile who seemed devout but thought “the LORD does not see us, the LORD has forsaken the land.” This behaviour, in a more fully developed form is seen in the behaviour of the Jewish hierarchy during the time of Jesus’ ministry. Arguably, they no longer worshipped God, but a religion of their own invention, underpinned by the oral law which had evolved over the centuries since the exile. Their reaction to the challenge posed to them by Jesus is telling, particularly their response to the resurrection of Lazarus. Objectively, this feat alone should have dispersed all doubt that this man was from God. The fact that as John 11:47-50 points out they called an emergency session to debate the issue strongly shouts that they knew this fact:
47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” 49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”
Here is an ancient parallel to the modern desire to not let the good ship Christianity go down. Their religion of Judaism was being shaken to the core. Unfortunately, they had confused the God of Israel with their own belief system, and were utterly dedicated to protecting this human institution. In short, we have idolatry.
In his book Small Gods, the fantasy author Terry Pratchett satirises organised religion, in particularly when it is in a position of political power and maintains orthodoxy through agencies such as the inquisition. His books are set on an imaginary world that is flat, and is suspended on elephants, a reference of course to primitive human notions of what the earth was. Magic plays a role in his books analogous to that of the laws of nature. There are of course many gods in his imaginary world, and what these gods physically thrive on is belief – the more true believers a god has, the more powerful it becomes.
The plot of Small Gods involves a religion called Omnianism, the state religion of a country called Omnia, whose tendencies to persecute heretics owes not a little to the techniques of the Spanish Inquisition, as depicted in popular imagination. The god of their religion – named Om – is found at the start of the book in the form of a turtle lying in a garden in one of the citadels of Omnia. This god had been experimenting with inhabiting different body shapes, and had managed to get trapped in the body of a turtle for a number of years. The plot becomes interesting when we learn that Om is now powerless and unable to return to his old form. It turns out that the belief which energises gods such as himself has vanished. People now believe, or more accurately fear the institutions of Omnianism – the church and the inquisition – created in honour of the god, rather than the god itself.
In a similar way to how the fictitious god Om was now powerless because the belief which used to sustain him had been transferred to the man-made institutions surrounding the old belief structure, orthodox Christianity has now become something effectively equivalent to idolatry. This applies both to the old church doctrines and creeds such as the Nicene Creed – opposition to which has led to countless deaths over the centuries – as well as the newer examples such as the evangelical Christianity tendency to become unhealthily linked to conservative political parties such as one sees in the US and the increasingly tacky and superficial culture it generates. The latter is well exemplified by awful Christian tee shirts, computer video games in which the purpose is to establish a Christian theocracy with military assault rifles, and a naive belief that by remaking every aspect of modern culture with a Christian tinge, and wrapping oneself in it, God’s will is being done. All this is idolatry, and the sad truth is that while the modern church has been railing against atheism, it has been doing more to destroy its own credibility and appeal to current and future believers than the most virulent tract on atheism could ever do.
Like many books of the Bible, Micah is an indictment of Judah’s idolatry, as well as a plea for the nation’s repentance. It also carries arguably the most sublime expression of ethical belief:
6 “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
While Micah does not condemn the system of offerings, he clearly is attacking the mindset that says true worship is expressed simply as a function of how many religious rituals you can perform. A similar sentiment is found earlier in 1 Sam 15. The context is well known – God commands Israel to utterly destroy the Amalekites, not even taking the customary spoil of animals as was usually done. Saul leads the assault, but spares the king and takes a spoil of the animals. Samuel’s rage is well known:
22 And Samuel said, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the LORD? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry.
Note carefully the final line, which is arguably not as well remembered as the famous condemnation of sacrifice offered as a substitute to obedience – rebellion and stubbornness are effectively witchcraft and idolatry.
As Christianity is erected on the foundation of the OT, one would expect the divine simplicity of Micah to be reflected in the NT which of course it is. The Sermon on the Mount runs for longer, but is entirely consonant with Micah’s words. Jesus himself expressed these sentiments pithily, when he states the entire foundation of the OT in two principles: unconditionally love God, and love your neighbour as yourself.
Ours is – or should be – a religion of simplicity. Paul notes that he was determined “not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ and him crucified.” The Christian world reflects a situation which is anything other than this, since long ago it deviated from the simplicity of truth, oscillating between a man-made version of Christianity that has swung from the extremes of the Inquisition to a Christian theme park version of religion. Both are equally offensive to God, and show the dangers of creating religion in our own image, and bowing down to it. Put simply, this is rebellion, and as Samuel said, this is effectively idolatry. In the theme of divine simplicity, let me conclude with the final verse of 1st John 5.
Little children, keep yourselves from idols.
- All scripture quotations from New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989)
Author: Kenneth Gilmore