Thursday, November 30, 2006

Is Belief in God Bad for the World?

[This is the latest of my columns, written for the Community Press newspapers here in the Cincinnati area. Some of the items I mention here I've discussed on the blog before. I nonetheless hope people find the column helpful.]

This may surprise some people, but I have a deep respect for what I call “the authentic atheist.”

As a former atheist myself, I’ve seen that most people who don’t believe in God are caring sorts horrified by the suffering of the human race, especially the suffering caused by humanity’s inhumanity. They’re unable to square these realities with notions of an all-powerful and loving God.

I believe that our horror at human pain and injustice point us to a God Who planted in us notions about love and neighborliness. But I do respect atheists and agnostics who hang their beliefs on their horror at suffering. Whatever deficiencies I may see in their arguments against God, I understand the love of neighbor that so often informs them.

More difficult for me to understand is another sort of atheist, the angry kind. They claim that all of the world’s ills have been caused by faith in God.

To some extent, I suppose, this diagnosis makes sense. Islamists hijack one religion to wreak terror in much of the world and some so-called Christians use Jesus to force their political agendas down others’ throats.

But even when I was an atheist, I knew that Christians who adopt an attitude of domineering moral superiority don’t really represent faith, at least not Christian faith.

What I’ve learned is that most Christians admit their faults, but, grateful for the love of God they believe comes to the world through Jesus Christ, commit themselves to serving others. As Christians serve their neighbor, they help solve the world’s problems, not create them.

I have a feeling that the story of the modestly-sized congregation I serve as pastor, Friendship Lutheran Church near Amelia, is representative of the stories of most Christian churches in the world. We’ve adopted serving others in the Name of Jesus as a central component of our life together.

Here are some of the service projects in which we’ve been involved over the last several months: volunteering more than 500-hours in various social service agencies and community projects outside of our congregation; collecting coats for the homeless; gathering food and toiletries for the needy; providing healthy snacks for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Clermont County; collecting items for and then assembling duffel bags for children taken into foster care and distributed by CASA for Clermont Kids!; providing care packages for the elderly in our local nursing homes; sending Christmas shoe boxes filled with toys, toiletries, and practical gifts to impoverished children in far-off countries; enabling World Vision to provide clean drinking water, milk cows, farming help, education, and Biblical instruction to the village of Sinankosi Moyo, the Zimbabwean girl we sponsor; sending money to the victims of disasters from New Orleans to Indonesia; collecting and sending money for use by Lutheran World Relief to feed hungry people; helping to secure funding for a new Habitat for Humanity project happening in New Richmond after the first of the year, a project for which we’ll also provide volunteers; and making our building facilities available to all sorts of community groups and agencies.

We don’t do these things because we’re morally superior people. We believe Jesus is right: only God is good. We do them because we’re forgiven people who want to love and serve others as Christ has loved and served us. We do them because we’re grateful to God. And we do them because we want to be authentic Christians, imperfect but forgiven people who roll up our sleeves and love the world God loves.

Maybe if some of today’s angry atheists spent one month in the worship services and service activities of the average Christian church around the corner, they might not change their minds about God, but at least they’d see that faith in God isn’t a bad thing.

[THANKS TO: Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit for linking to this post.]

[THANKS TO: READER_IAM for linking to this post and for making a whole lot of sense in a great piece titled, "On My Oath, This is Nonsense."]

[MY TAKE ON the Keith Ellison-swearing-on-the-Koran dust-up is here.]

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Among the founders of this country there are counted several who were Freemasons, who, of necessity, affirm a belief in diety. Who or what that diety is, is determined only by the belief of the that Freemason as is the choice of holy book for that oath.

The first President of this country, George Washington, was also a Freemason and took his oath of office on a Christian Holy Bible, which has become an accepted standard, but not a requirement. Apparently, Rep. Ellison's God is Allah, thus his choice of book to take an oath would necessarily be the Koran.

There is no real debate here.

Mark Daniels said...

Libertexian:
I'm going to write about Dennis Prager's assertion that Representative-elect Ellison should be forced to swear the oath of office using a Bible. This post really doesn't deal with that issue at all.

Mark

Svolich said...

I've closely followed Mr. Ellison during this election, and I've read every word he's publically written. I've talked with people who've worked closely with him in the past.

He could swear an oath on a sheep's bladder for all I care. The symbolism is trivial. We are at war. He is on the other side.

As to THIS post (I don't know why Glenn chose to link it as he did) I am an athiest, though I saw a spark of the divine in the evacuation of New Orleans that may convince me yet. I believe in doing good not because I expect a reward in heaven, but simply because it is good. I try to teach my children the same thing. I don't expect them to behave well because there is a treat. Well is just the way they are to behave.

Belief in God is powerful, and like all power can be used for good or ill.

Mark Daniels said...

Svolich:
Thanks for your interesting comments.

I wanted to respond to one thing you said: "I believe in doing good not because I expect a reward in heaven, but simply because it is good."

No Christian believes in doing good because they expect a reward in heaven either. We believe that we do good because the God Who already has given heaven as a free gift empowers us to do good...even when "it doesn't make sense" for us to do so.

Thanks again for dropping by and for your comments.

Mark

Achillea said...

In court, non-Christians are free to affirm that they will tell 'the whole truth,' etc., rather than being required to swear on an object that has no meaning to them. I see no reason why Mr. Ellison should not be able to do that, or to swear on a book that does have meaning to him.

Anonymous said...

Mark,
first of all thanks for the original posting, I am going to save it..

I do take issue though with your comment you just made..
Look at Hebrews 11:24-26
Hebrews 11:35
I Corinthians 3:12
3:10-15

I do good in part because
I love Christ. (I am a CHristian BTW - came to faith as an adult).
As these passages make clear, we WILL be judged and correspondingly rewarded by our deeds. Even MOSES took the long term view - reward later instead of gratification now.
As scripture makes clear, eternal life is a GIFT.. ABSOLUTELY free..
DISCIPLESHIP is costly.. and has its rewards..

thanks again for the original post.
it is a keeper and I will be checking your blog regularly now.
God bless you.
steve

Anonymous said...

Mark,
first of all thanks for the original posting, I am going to save it..

I do take issue though with your comment you just made..
Look at Hebrews 11:24-26
Hebrews 11:35
I Corinthians 3:12
3:10-15

I do good in part because
I love Christ. (I am a CHristian BTW - came to faith as an adult).
As these passages make clear, we WILL be judged and correspondingly rewarded by our deeds. Even MOSES took the long term view - reward later instead of gratification now.
As scripture makes clear, eternal life is a GIFT.. ABSOLUTELY free..
DISCIPLESHIP is costly.. and has its rewards..

thanks again for the original post.
it is a keeper and I will be checking your blog regularly now.
God bless you.
steve

Anonymous said...

Mark,
first of all thanks for the original posting, I am going to save it..

I do take issue though with your comment you just made..
Look at Hebrews 11:24-26
Hebrews 11:35
I Corinthians 3:12
3:10-15

I do good in part because
I love Christ. (I am a CHristian BTW - came to faith as an adult).
As these passages make clear, we WILL be judged and correspondingly rewarded by our deeds. Even MOSES took the long term view - reward later instead of gratification now.
As scripture makes clear, eternal life is a GIFT.. ABSOLUTELY free..
DISCIPLESHIP is costly.. and has its rewards..

thanks again for the original post.
it is a keeper and I will be checking your blog regularly now.
God bless you.
steve

Hunter McDaniel said...

No, I think Mark had it right.

Good works flow from our acceptance of God's grace, not the other way around.

An absence of good works on our part may result from our failure to accept His grace (which is a problem), but we can never hide that lack of acceptance from God no matter how many hours we spend at Habitat for Humanity.

Gabriel Hanna said...

My perspective, as an atheist, is that religion is like anything else, and can be used for good or for evil. Philosophy, for example, has been used to justify totalitarianism, and science has a long history of abuse.

I have never been convinced that religion makes people good who otherwise would not be. I have discussed this with some religious people, and they are sure they would be even worse without their faith, but of course they offered nothing to convince me of that.

One thought experiment I offer, to Christians anyway, suppose a new, unquestionably authentic book of the Bible spoke approvingly of, say, child molestation, the way some ancient Greek texts do. The answer is nearly always invariably that such a thing could not exist. But then I point out that neither Old nor New Testament has one word to say in criticism of slavery. They prescribe how slavery ought to be practiced, but the idea of slavery is never considered something inherently bad. Most people I have brought this up to instantly see what I'm getting at: that your sense of what is right and wrong informs how you interpret Scripture or any other religious authority. You will find very few Christians today willing to say that a Christian can keep slaves and still be a Christian--whatever the attitude toward may have been in Biblical times.

Knemon said...

"I have never been convinced that religion makes people good who otherwise would not be."

Not good. Maybe *better*. (Not better than others - better than they would be without their faith. And not always. But it's not a binary good/bad person situation - we're all bad people).